Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Part 2 - Art Since the 1960s: California Experiments

Documentation from Chris Burden's 1972 TV Hijack is presented adjacent to Wegman in the Video gallery. The politics and ethics of this piece have always fascinated me, as they point out thorny issues within contemporary art and media practice.

Burden was invited to be a guest on a public-access interview show hosted by Phyllis Lutjeans, one-time Curator of Education and Performance Art at Newport Harbor Art Museum (aka OCMA). He arrived with his own videographer, and requested that the interview be broadcast live, which it was. During the course of the interview, Lutjeans asked him what some of his ideas for future projects might be. Burden responded by pulling out a small knife and holding it to her throat. He demanded that the station continue transmitting while he held his host hostage, abusing her verbally with sexual threats. The performance culminated with Burden's destroying the only studio tape of the broadcast, an act which he recorded as the coda to his own document of the event.

Chris Burden, TV Hijack, 1972 (click for attribution)

Burden had employed violence in his works before, most famously with Shoot, 1971, in which he had an assistant shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle inside a Santa Ana gallery. The earlier action was billed as a performance, the spectators and participants relatively clear as to their roles in what would take place. The difference with TV Hijack was that Lutjeans was not a willing participant, and at the time, she genuinely believed that her life was at risk. Burden's use of another person's genuine terror as the means for his art, coupled with the nasty introduction of gender-specific power dynamics through his use of obscene threats, make this his most vicious and hostile project - more so even than Trans-fixed, 1974, in which he was nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle by the hands and feet.

Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, 1974 (click for attribution)

TV Hijack is generally less well-known than Shoot or Trans-fixed. Perhaps this is because documentation of the piece is more difficult to come by, but I think it also has to do with an unwillingness among the contemporary art illuminati to call a sexist, violent action what it is, and the fact that many art historians and critics would prefer to gloss over this ugly reality in favor of a detached, over-critiqued analysis of Burden's oeuvre that treats fear and abuse as an inside joke.

The question posed by any act of mimicry as critique is, does the action cross over into becoming what it is intended to criticize? In the case of TV Hijack, it does. The criticism of media as a site of detachment from the consequences of violent action, as played out in countless summer blockbusters, war movies and the like, is negated by the artist's willful act of violence. This callousness toward human dignity has other manifestations in contemporary art practice, most notably in the work of Santiago Sierra, the Spanish artist whose works have included hiring migrant workers to stand for hours in a gallery and paying destitute individuals to tattoo a line across their backs.

Santiago Sierra, 250 cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, 1999

Sierra argues, as does Burden, that these actions draw our attention to the violence we take for granted every day, fueled by divisions of class, race and gender. I disagree with the inherent assumption that we all take such violence for granted, regardless of where we stand in life, and argue instead that this is work directed at an affluent art world elite and justified by the same insularity it proposes to attack. I also question the validity of the artists' argument that because they mean to call attention, their exploitative acts are somehow less exploitative. Instead, it seems that the artists benefit and even profit from said exploitation, while those they take advantage of are left exactly as they were found. How is this different from the exploitation conducted by corporate interests for their own gain?

In summation, the art world is just another market economy fueled by the unremunerated contributions of nameless masses, while a very few (mostly white, mostly male) get the benefits. Artists like Burden and Sierra are important because they remind us of this reality in which they each play a complicit part.