Chris Burden's "Shoot"

Here is a section I left out of the essay:

In the background of one post-shooting photo a woman smiles, talking with an out of frame audience member. Her face is behind and to the left of Burden’s frenzied one. She could be in any gallery opening "Who's who" slide show or tagged on Facebook in one of her friend’s party pics. The installation of actual violence inside a gallery did not structurally change the dimension of spectatorship. “Shoot” did not necessitate a new viewership, one with moral obligations to the proceedings. This should not be a surprise – how many Communications studies' cases demonstrate the point that the disinterested public rarely reacts to violence in the public sphere? Compound that with art world traditions of not touching, and the posture of ironic removal endemic in art types. Extrapolating this to international relations of violence and we see the lack of international recourse to the “pre-emptive” invasion of Iraq as unsurprising. But it is too much for individuals to stop another individual’s artwork (or another nation's war). This is something Burden obviously thought about and fit into a career of similar actions. It would be absurd to ask otherwise of a select group of intimates and acquaintances privy to Burden’s modus operandi.

So, in some sense because of audience size and make up, “Shoot” is a
failure. What does it mean to not have someone intercede when there is
no likelihood they would do so anyway? To properly make this point
“Shoot” would have had to have been a more public affair, with the
artist’s intentions broadcast widely and clearly. If still no one had
interceded that would have meaning. Depressing meaning.

after "The Jump."

             Young Men’s Games 

‘Youth is fit for war…’ - Ovid

    At the end of 1971, Chris Burden was 25 years old. Unknown, or known only to him, he sat in the intersection of two cultural streams fluxing in and out of the zeitgeist. Flower power and its attendant optimism, while by no means dead, waned in the darkness of the Hell’s Angels and Altamont; Charles Manson and the Family; and Richard Nixon and Vietnam. Not only had the counterculture, led by Burden’s age cohort, failed to levitate the Pentagon: it had failed to stop the extension of war into Cambodia. After eight years of American involvement in Indochina, it began to seem less a war one was fighting than a dreary state of being one was living - the ‘quagmire’ it is still invoked as today.
    Nixon’s incremental process of ‘Vietnamization,’ the gradual turnover of the war to the South Vietnamese, brought his administration time but never seemed to bring a conclusion. On November 12th, a week before Burden’s Shoot, Nixon announced another 45,000 soldiers would come home – next year. Over 50,000 American soldiers had died in the war, and, as Burden would later point out in a response to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Vietnamese losses were already in the millions.
    As flower power’s optimism waned, Punk, hippiedom’s spiritual negation, waxed - though fully fording the mainstream would take it years. But the vacuum in culture that punk eventually filled – that ambient disarray of boredom, confusion, and violence – that was Burden’s world. In hindsight,
Shoot seems a warning shot for what was to come: a desperate, violent iconoclasm constructed out of daring alone. This ascendant ethos was made clear when Burden crucified himself on the symbol of his generation’s idealism, the Volkswagen Beetle, a few years after this, his pièce de résistance.
    That is to say, at this intersection of ‘loss of optimism’ and ‘staved-off nihilism’ is Shoot.

            ‘In Shoot, I’m shot in the upper left-hand arm by a friend of mine with a 22 rifle.’
                                                                                                                                                 - Chris Burden

    Shoot was a performance. It happened once, on November 19th, 1971, and has not occurred since. It happened at F Space, a gallery in Santa Ana, California. An intimate group of people gave witness. The memories of that group of people have likely been superseded by Shoot’s documentation. What remains of the night, besides Burden’s scar, is documentation: six or so well-circulated photographs and a small clip mainly available through YouTube. 
    On the YouTube clip Burden gives a lengthy, clinical introduction to the piece as a black screen rolls, displaying a rudimentary identification of the performance’s title, the gallery’s name, and the film’s date. When the footage finally starts, Burden is stiff as a statue up against the wall, on display and cornered in. His body inhabits the space usually dedicated to paintings and imbues it with the stillness of an ancient piece of artwork. The white gallery walls cleanse the room, keeping out distracting facts of life by barring the surrounds so all the viewer need think about is Burden.
    And then, of course, the man with the rifle.
    The man is taking aim, through a sight. His eyes and barrel are on Burden. He is positioned where a gallery-goer would first size up a painting. Indeed, the metaphors for the violence of viewing in
Shoot are not interested in being subtle. The ground is gray and cold. The man with the rifle, referred to as Bruce in the introduction, dons bellbottoms and long hair, an unwitting parody of contemporaneous hippie fashion. In contrast, Burden is surprisingly clean-cut; wearing the white T-shirt and blue jeans indicative of 1950s youth culture he almost reads as the ‘all-American boy.’
    The palette of the film clip available online is badly leeched by its triple transfer from Super 8 mm film to video to YouTube. Yet there also seems to be an attempt to keep the coloring in the shot minimal, as if we are supposed to see the situation in stark black and white. The film quality’s lack of fidelity is harsh, mangled like something someone brought back from some great tribulation; a film reel an embedded reporter kept in his pack too long. You can’t even make out facial features for Burden - he is every man and no man, a stand-in.
    Due to their composition and the wading pool of art historical referents one slogs through as one enters a gallery, Bruce is also Napoleon’s soldiers and Burden is also the Spanish civilians in Francisco Goya’s
The Third of May 1808. Likewise, Burden takes his place among the victims in Edouard Manet’s painting The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. In perhaps the most relevant reference to Burden’s 1971 existence, he represents the member of the Viet Cong, Nguyen Van Lem, in Eddie Adams’ famous 1968 photo of the South Vietnamese Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan and his point-blank headshot. 
Shoot, for a moment, becomes a tableau vivant that poses those dramatic turns in film and literature where the protagonist stands before the firing squad. The image Burden arranges draws on all those moments in our cultural imagination where the audience knows some deus ex machina will block the shots, that the guns will jam, and their hero will escape unharmed. But Burden’s piece exists, not as the representation of violence in Goya and Manet, but as its reality. Stating, that in reality – in Vietnam, ‘This is not the case.’
Then, that sound from westerns, from hunting with father, from newsreel footage of America’s flirtations abroad.
    Now victim, Burden doesn’t cry out or scream in pain. Instead, he immediately jolts forward, hand on the wound, checking the damage for a moment before walking offstage, past the camera.
    The viewer understands the body as a burden, something that can be penetrated, broke. The clip stops. The art is over. The film cuts. You hear the shell bounce on the cement.

    The genius turn in Shoot, Burden’s use of his body, is a circumvention of the impossibility of truthfully representing violence. It is also a complaint, a thesis nailed to a door, against the impotence of those who would try to represent something as ineffable as violence through traditional art media.
In traditional art media, as in Goya’s The Third of May 1808, violence is still, forever stopped and stared at. But the violence in Shoot is immediate, as well as pre-meditated, asymmetrical, and uninterrupted. Much the same can be said for the violence of the war on Vietnam. The two words immediate and uninterrupted speak specifically to how the population of America received the war as an audience (an intimate group of people?) through the constant documentation of the war in film and photography.
    In Marshall McLuhan’s
Understanding Media, published seven years previous to Shoot to widespread acclaim in the U.S., McLuhan’s main thesis is that,

‘… the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print…’

    Following McLuhan’s logic the content of Burden’s Super 8 mm clip, as well as recorded film and photography in general, is eyesight. Eyesight, before the advent of photography, was restricted to where one’s body could take it. One couldn’t look into a different time period except in painted representations, which never fully reproduced the ‘proof’ of the moment. One could not see into other countries or onto battlefields unless one was there and legitimately experienced it. There was a clear test for the real, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’
    Before photography, when the last veteran of a war died the immediacy of the war died with them. However, the visceral reactions available through photography allow a contemporary American to mentally pull up imagery from as far in the past as Mathew Brady’s (largely staged) photographs of the Civil War. There exists substantial paper documentation of our revolutionary period, but nothing remains that we feel possesses the burden of both experiential and objective proof that we hobble photography and video with. George Washington’s diaries will never be the film from the beaches of Normandy, or Joe Rosenthal’s (staged) image of the flag from the Battle of Iwo Jima. And Washington’s diaries, or any form of writing, could never possess the ‘thereness’ of the documentation of Burden’s Shoot, which would feel like so much an art world rumor if it was left to posterity as audience diaries or written plans. Its documentation makes it real, as real as the Vietnam War for those being born today.
    Yet there is an issue of what the reliance on documentation to portray realities outside of personal experience allows for. McLuhan again,

‘What we are to consider here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.’

    The change of scale photography introduced is our acceptance of a refracted view of reality through documentation as a new reality. Performance art like Burden’s depends on documentation to live, as it cannot be constantly performed for all audiences for eternity. (Unless one is willing to traffick in undead performance art a la Marina Abramovic’s recent show at MoMA.) But if video and photography changed our relation to the real from lived experience to simple viewing then the potential for the misreading of historical performance art is great. Removing our eyes from our bodily lives and allowing them to inhabit other experiences as real leaves us seeing a part for the whole.
        We do not know everyone who was at F Space that night. We do not know what the atmosphere was like, if Burden primed the audience beforehand, what the weather was like, if there were refreshments on hand, who was dating who, if Burden was sober, if there was already a car arranged to go to the hospital, if the gallery was about to close or if it just opened. We do not know if Burden even thought about Shoot in the way that it has been described in the beginning of this essay, as a circumvention of the impossibility of representing violence.
    There are so many things we do not know about
Shoot that it is dangerous. Not just theoretically, but in practice. This is the problem with depending on documentation to understand real world events. It is impossible to know what 1971 felt like if you were born in 1986.  Not incidentally, Shoot has often been processed not for its social or political meanings but for its shock and awe. This piece as well as work like Joseph Beuys's I Like America and America Likes Me has led to a certain idea of art as an excuse to do something one would otherwise never do. This idea of shock as art is so widespread that online hoaxes like ‘The Rape Tunnel,’ are believed to be real by reasonable people. ‘The Rape Tunnel’ is indicative of what the larger public considers possible due to the work of artists like Burden, Beuys, and Santiago Sierra, even when its description seems peeled from an Onion article:

‘The artist plans to place himself in a room, the only entrance or exit being a 22 ft long plywood tunnel constructed by Whitehurst himself. Then he says that for the duration of the gallery’s opening (from 7:00 p.m. to midnight) he will rape anyone who travels through the tunnel into that room.’ – Artlurker.com

    Burden, who joined the faculty of University of California, Los Angeles in 1978, resigned his position in 2004 over, in part, a graduate student playing Russian roulette in front of a class. Burden resigned since UCLA chose not to immediately suspend the student. Many felt this to be a hypocritical move on Burden’s part yet that does not seem to be the case. It is doubtful that even the artist behind Shoot would advocate for the anarchic state of affairs that would allow a gunshot without meaning and context to be considered acceptable to the art world establishment.
    Just the documentation, the eight-second clip on YouTube, does not explain that the spirit of
Shoot is different from a snuff film or a cockfight. The desire to see violence infects the piece, is constitutive of it. If one looked without a socio-historical consciousness, it would be hard to separate Shoot from the same desires and machinations that are played out virtually today in first-person shooters. It is the question: What is it like to shoot someone? The gallery in this sense gives the neutral, virtual, ‘unreal’ mental space that is available in video games. It is a dry run with no ‘real’ world impact.
    Burden does not seem to offer any way out of this by expressly stating what he felt the piece meant. In the introduction to the clip he plays the amoral narrator, stating only the facts. His hesitation to give his reasoning is almost comical.

In Shoot, I’m shot in the upper left-hand arm by a friend of mine with a 22 rifle. The only visuals I have of this piece is a very short film clip about 8 seconds long so I’m going to begin the piece with an audiotape that was made during the actual performance. In the audiotape some of the things to listen for are: ‘Do you know where you’re going to stand Bruce?’ And then later, right before the film clip happens you will hear me say ‘Are you ready?’ And then you will hear the clicking of the Super 8 camera. Later after the clip is
over another thing to listen for is the sound of the empty shell dropping on the concrete floor. Okay, so I think we can go right into the audiotape.’ – Chris Burden

    But the answer is not to be overly critical of things one has not experienced, distrust of documentation can be just as pernicious. Belligerent skepticism is endemic in the contemporary American landscape and has led to social pathologies like holocaust and AIDS denial, an anti-vaccine movement, anti-evolutionists, and birthers.

With the lack of resolution for how we are supposed to view Shoot, not only as a piece of art but as a record of experience, perhaps it is fitting that when Burden fired his next bullet in 1973’s 747 that it wasn’t about what a gun could do but what it could not.

Post Script:

An online comment on Roger Ebert’s essay about covering Burden’s Doomed.

By Brian on October 15, 2009 1:01 PM

I believe Burden also had a piece called Sleep, where he set up a bed in a gallery and slept for two weeks. Some years ago, I saw an art installation by a Chris Burden involving miniature wooden submarines, and I kept thinking is this the same guy who had himself shot?

I wonder what it was that changed his mind about performance art. Maybe it's a young man's game.

1 comment:

Marina said...

i hate you.
shes probably going to make out with this paper.