"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 March 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Gross Anatomy


[Gunman Steps Out Of Truck]

If the first misappropriation of
technology is usually           
pornography, the second seems to
be snuff. Each genre has its    
fans, and while we'll refrain   
from moralizing about either, we
all have our opinions about what
kind of images should be readily
available to just anyone. Free  
speech absolutists that we are, 
we still wouldn't be surprised  
if blue ribbons were to be shed 
after following some of this    
piece's links. So we'll tell you
now: you won't be missing       
anything if you don't.          


Watery-eyed CyberAngels may

complain of degenerate content,

citing everything from software

piracy to bomb-making as

evidence of the Internet's

fall from grace, but sex and

violence (in that order) have

been a part of the evolution of

every popular medium. From stone

tablets to telegraphs, humanity

has been primarily concerned

with getting themselves off and

then offing other people. Sure,

it may masquerade as reporting,

but the trip from documenting

crime to celebrating it is a

short one, and the line between

hunting down a killer and making

him or her a star has always

been eye-strainingly thin.



While congressmen attempt to ride

the well-flogged horse of

tabloid culture into another

election year, it is somewhat

satisfying to look back on how

the government helped to create

the monster it now pretends to

battle. The FBI's Ten Most

Wanted List, whose hierarchical

assessment helped to promulgate

the concept of crime as a contest

for fame, grew from the fertile

ground of tabloid bloodlust,

when a reporter asked J. Edgar

Hoover for the names and

descriptions of the "toughest

guys" the FBI wanted to capture.

Over time, the list has became

institutionalized, falling from

its place as the Oscars of crime

to something more akin to the

Blockbuster Awards, a booby

prize given out to criminals who

haven't already gotten the

publicity they deserve.


[John Wayne Gacy]

Actually, true-crime prize lists

have proven to be something of

an anachronism, as independent

publishing allows almost anyone

to give out their own version of

the People's Choice.

Unfortunately, the awards show

metaphor still works when it

comes to variation - what with

almost 2 million violent crimes

committed every year, you'd

think some of the more

panegyric sites would have some

new material. But no - the

hegemony of John Wayne Gacy goes

virtually unchallenged.


[Dan's Gallery of the Grotesque]

So where does the amateur

criminologist interested in

fresh blood go? To Dan's Gallery

of the Grotesque and its latest

"exhibit," Natural Born Losers.

The site purports to document

the murder and dismemberment of

a luckless husband by his wife

and her boyfriend. The photos'

provenance is indeterminate -

Dan claims they were used as

evidence in the couple's trial,

although the details we're given

(we're told the couple is

serving 30-to-life sentences "in

some hell hole") make the

photos' origins impossible to

confirm, and probably for good



But whatever questions we may

have about the pictures'

authenticity are made moot by

the images themselves, where

the proof is in the blood

pudding. The images are

giddily graphic, horrifically

definitive, and ultimately

disturbing on so many levels it

doesn't matter if they're real

or not. They're too real,

if only for the fact that they

occupy our imaginations.


[Natural Born Losers]

And even as the images download

with the grimy pokiness of

shoppers at a skid-row

corner store, where all the food

collects dust while the liquor

racks can barely collect backstock,

even as you avert your eyes from

the HTML-in-21-days marbleized

background, even as you tell

yourself what you're looking at

is not only sick and wrong but

also almost unbearably tasteless,

even as you wonder what exact

urge keeps your finger hitting

that mouse button -

you can't help but feel

anxious, slightly sick with both

dread and anticipation. In the

formatted and antiseptic

universe of the Web, these

images still manage to preserve

an illicit stink, the flat

sleaziness of pornographic

Polaroids or crudely-drawn

caricatures passed around in the

back of class.



What makes these images troubling

is not so much the degree to

which the violence is detailed,

but the degree to which the

lifestyle is. Blood and guts are

easy to fake, but, despite what

Oliver Stone may think, the

trailer park milieu isn't. The

devil is in the details - the

blue eye shadow and sweat-shiny

face of the girlfriend, the

thrift-store couch covered in a

threadbare sheet, the dark

paneling straight out of the

Brady's rec room, and, strangely

enough, the fact that the

boyfriend is naked but for a

myriad of biker tattoos and

fully extended athletic socks.



Perhaps unconsciously, the

creators of the site have

intuited the importance of these

details; they form the unspoken

(and perhaps unspeakable) basis

for all of the assumptions about

"white trash" that fuel the

moralizing (and demoralizing)

quiz which wraps up the tour.

The quiz is educational:

6. If you opened the refrigerator  
shown in the photographs, you      
would most likely find:            

Three loaves of Wonder Bread and "bologna". Confederate flag underwear drip-drying. Jimmy Hoffa. A corroded motorcycle battery. A Christmas present from Jeffrey Dahmer.

Questions such as these leave no

doubt that the organizers of the

exhibit are taking the class - if

not the ethical - high ground, no

matter how tremulous that ground

might be.



The designers of Natural Born

Losers name their collection

"The Premier Forensics

Exhibition on the Web," and it's

true they anatomize some of the

more disgusting social diseases.

But the scabs they pick at are

as much our own as any trailer

park taxidermists'.


[Most Wanted Dot Com]

After all, what makes Natural

Born Losers so different from

the growing host of Web-based

wanted posters? Such sites,

particularly mostwanted.com, are

chilling in their ineptness,

startling in their ability to

translate into HTML the laconic

drawl of a small-town sherif

bred with the shameless grin of

his salesman brother-in-law. For,

though Dan and his kin may wear

their bad taste as a badge,

mostwanted.com proves that bad

taste also wears a badge, asking

with a nauseating deadpan that

we "follow...the smiley faces to

those states with information"

about violent crimes.


Natural Born Losers is an

atrocity exhibition. Doubtless,

the site and its makers will be

vilified for defiling both

the memory of the victim(s)

and of the viewer. But what's

ultimately noteworthy about

Natural Born Losers is that it

easily disproves the deceptively

easy truism of "nothing's

shocking." The obvious but still

vaguely inappropriate source of

the piece's title proves this:

bereft of alluring

cinematography and comforting

intellectualisms, Natural Born

Losers distinguishes itself from

its namesake by refusing to

aestheticize its violence.

Instead of Saturday morning

cartoon disfigurement or

discussion, dissection, and

analysis, we get

sixth-grade-level commentary and

the washed-out hues of faded

snapshots. It's as if we were

watching the Rodney King video

with Beavis and Butthead.



And it's just as unsettling as

that metaphor implies. But then,

just because something makes you

uncomfortable doesn't make it

art. Natural Born Losers is most

certainly not art.



Granted, it's a highly moralistic

tale. But the real morality play

takes place on the other side of

the screen, hand on mouse, eyes on

screen. There might not be a litmus

test for free speech, but if, as the

strongest believers in free speech,

we deserve the strongest test of

that principle, we should expect

the state-of-the-art to become less

artful every time.

courtesy of Ann O'Tate