California Institute of Abnormal Arts celebrates old circus
posters and dead French clowns who may or may not have been
terrible - and may or may not have existed.
n eclectic assemblage waits to greet you.
A serpentine space filled with dead clowns, pirates and movie screens
featuring circus sideshows leads people through a strange serenade
of freak paraphernalia.
Life is not pretty, polished or overdone. The operators of the California
Institute of Abnormal Arts, or CIA, won’t try to sell you
on that offense. Rather, they represent the truth and beauty of
accident, thanatos and underground art.
CIA is a venue for film, installation art, performance art, music
and anything else that is fucked-up enough to be banned by most
other places on the basis of its similarities to a circus freak
The entrance is dressed in dark green foliage and colored lights.
The green plants alone are enough to set it apart from its desert
landscape in North Hollywood.
The district is a small art community cleverly named NoHo. Bob Ferguson,
CIA co-owner, calls the district So So. It is a dangerous part of
town, suffering from leftover industry as well as an art community.
CIA has lost three dogs to the deadly fumes of nearby body-paint
shops. The body shops are forecasted to be moved, and CIA is part
of the city’s moratorium suit to move the noxious fume producers.
Carl Crew, CIA co-owner, and Ferguson became friends as apprentice
embalmers in a Los Angeles mortuary. It was their deviant taste
that inspired CIA. They took on third partner/producer Chris Fontanelle
of The Fontanelles, a popular LA band which recently disbursed,
to execute gritty media blitzes. Fontanelle does the Web site, band
booking, graphics and general PR.
“I am a maximist. I never subtract, I only add,” Crew
says, proud that he made up such a fitting new word. CIA is an amalgam
of many bizarre things, but the theme is never lost, even under
the broad category of strange.
Admission costs $10 (and remind yourself this is LA, which still
puts it in the Kilby Court category of not making much money).
“I love it when people get scared. It means they’re
playful,” Crew says as he stamps hands at the door. Crew believes
humor comes from the unexpected.
The cleaver hand stamp gets you into the alcohol-free CIA experience.
Patrons are typically older and CIA hopes to have its liquor license
in February. The venue’s attendance varies from two people
The setting of CIA—including some of the regular patrons—is
the blueprint for a delightfully creepy experience.
“Some people just don’t get it. They can walk through
the whole space as though they have blinders on,” Ferguson
says, gently looking around. The enchanting exhibits are not for
“People don’t know what to make of us weirdos. I have
actually been called that,” Crew says, seeming appalled.
Crew has been a filmmaker for 15 years. He wrote and produced “The
Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer” (1993). Both Crew and Ferguson
have worked in the industry in multiple roles and on various sets.
Pieces from the “Home Show” can be found next to Egyptian
heads from the “Don King Story” used as the backdrop
for giant pirates. There is something to see in every corner.
CIA was originally a recording studio built in the disco era. The
building was damaged and hadn’t been touched for years other
than as a squat for bohemian feral city cats. “There is nothing
like the wind whistling through layers of filth,” Ferguson
A lot of work was put into the “bombed-out hell hole”
and still serves as endless potential for the creative minds of
Crew and Ferguson.
The owners needed a place to hoard their artistic style. Coming
from creative backgrounds, Crew and Ferguson sympathized with the
need for artists to have a proper workspace. They first created
CIA for the strict purpose of renting it out to other artists to
film or throw fantastic private parties.
CIA was such a charmer that they saw a need in bringing such irregular
art to the community. They closed down for three years in order
to prepare it for the public. The in-house shows include the “Girly
Freak” show, which turned into a national tour, “Dead
Puppet Society,” a collective of bewitching puppeteers, and
what Crew refers to as “secret shows,” possibly hinting
at the mummified alligator boy they have made arrangement to get
from “gypsies that live in Montana.”
CIA’s allure comes from not being able to grasp all of the
meaning, not being allowed in unfinished classified projects and
not being sure how much to believe.
The rotating visual art gallery currently features human blood paintings.
Shayne Saint John—a filmmaker with a campy love for terrible
prosthetics who has had her work banned nationally—is a personal
friend of CIA. The films were not banned for being explicitly lewd,
but because they were unnaturally disturbing. Over the course of
her filmmaking, of which she is the subject, her limbs are amputated
and replaced with prosthetics. She always wears an old puppet-like
mask to hide her face. Her films are usually playing on the screens
at CIA and she makes regular appearances.
The bands featured at CIA are a mixture of oddities as well. The
hideous—in a good way—Trash Band played and messily
threw diapers and shredded books in angst through the audience while
Other prop-rock CIA regulars include The Insecto Circus, which ranges
from five to 23 members.
Newt, the band’s leader, strongly believes in this type of
performance art and is also a documentarian for the movement.
There is no sense of over-protective security. The owners are the
bouncers. Magically, even in the throws of absurdity, people tend
to be decent to each other. Crew says he rarely has to throw anyone
“There is a dance floor, but we don’t allow any dancing,”
Crew said. Responsible moshing only, he says.
“I am surprised the place isn’t just slammed,”
said Steve Johns, who prefers scary clowns but was nicely dressed
as a scandalous pirate.
There is an acute detail in every measure of the space. Ferguson
has painted clowns, masons and two-headed babies in posterized goodness.
“My attorney called up and asked, ‘You want to rent
a dead clown?’” Crew said, relating the acquisition
of Achile Chatoilleu, a terrible French clown according to some.
Terrible or no, many historians don’t believe he ever existed
The body of the clown is preserved with arsenic and mercury, Ferguson
says. “They have stopped using that as a technique,”
CIA was only supposed to be allowed to rent the body for eight months,
but “I think they just forgot to pick it back up,” Crew
“I think it is neat to have a dead clown for people to look
at,” says Haley Larsdell, a first-time patron.
There is an abundance of rotting relics caged like they have more
power than is comfortable for inanimate objects.
The little dead body of the Fairy of Conwall, England lies pleasantly
on her shrine. It’s possibly proportional, even a little bigger,
than the head of the smallest freemason, which sits in by the beverage
The arm of Lord featured on “Ripley’s Believe It or
Not” is among the priced collection of mementos.
CIA was made infamous when a contestant on “Blind Date”
took his date to his favorite place. The shocked date was not impressed.
This lead to CIA’s exposure on “Extreme Dating.”
If your date can handle and possibly embrace the experience, then
you probably have quite the catch.
“Later we will have nude wrestling,” Crew said, expressing
excited frivolity. Under his breath he discloses, “They will
be gorillas, but oh well.”
There is always more to come from the folks at CIA. They love what
they do. Not only is it an entertaining experience, it opens an
art realm appreciated by few to be relished by many.
For more information, visit www.ciabnormalarts.com.