Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklyn Rail
(David Zwirner Books, 2017)
Chris Burden is an icon—a status that, like most of his work, is no mean feat. One of the most daring performance artists of the 1970s, Burden pioneered a genre now ubiquitous in contemporary art with works like “Shoot” (1971), in which he was shot in the arm at close range. He then followed his formal and conceptual interests to create large sculptures that test the literal and cultural infrastructures they inhabit, like “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum” (1986), for which he dug up the floor of L.A. MoCA. Right now, the New Museum’s five floors are filled with an ambitious 40-year survey Extreme Measures (2 October 2013–12 January 2014). The Los Angeles-based artist sat down with Jarrett Earnest on the first day of the government shutdown to discuss guns, institutional power, and the evolution of performance art.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Your work has been described as strategically difficult for institutions to handle. It seems to me that putting stress on an infrastructure is one way of expressing affection for the whole system: you test the structural integrity of the bridge because you don’t want it to collapse and kill someone. How did you approach this retrospective’s relationship to the museum?
Chris Burden: You know, it’s kind of like Johnny Carson: you need a straight man and that is what the museum becomes. “Samson” (1985) is the archetype for that. It was a 100-ton jack attached to the museum turnstile so every time a visitor entered it added more pressure to timbers pressing against the museum’s walls. You can’t do “Samson” unless you have the museum. In this case if you look through the catalog, you’ll see that I had a very different proposal for the retrospective, which was to put the whole exhibition on the exterior, leaving the inside empty. For various reasons that didn’t come to be. The towers on the roof and the boat on the façade are what remain of that original proposal.
Rail: There is a book that was famous in the mid-20th century called Space, Time and Architecture (Harvard University Press, 1941) by Sigfried Giedion which spends a lot of time discussing bridges as the most technically and aesthetically innovative structures of the late-19th century. They are foremost about the aesthetics of solving problems, and I wondered how you came to the bridge as an image or a structure.
Burden: The first bridge I made was called “1/4 Ton Bridge” (1997) and it was just to see if I could build an arch out of Meccano and Erector sets that could support my own weight. It only weighs about five pounds. My friend Paul Schimmel came over and he hopped on it with me, and then his son hopped on and I thought “there must be 500 pounds on this bridge,” which is how it got its name. There is a photo of it in the catalog with 500-pound bags stacked on top. The “1/4 Ton Bridge” was a warm-up for the “Mexican Bridge” (1998).
I have a book on early Mexican railroads which includes an etching of a bridge designed by a British engineer in the 1860s that was planned to span a gorge in Mexico, but was never built. I looked at that image for years and I wondered if I could build that Mexican bridge out of Meccano and Erector sets. After the “1/4 Ton Bridge” and the “Mexican Bridge,” I went on to build a whole series of bridges. The thing I like about bridges is that they’re architecturally very pure. In general, their function is pretty clear; you can’t change them into something else. Unlike a church, which can become a disco, or restaurant, or a hospital.
Rail: There is a similar type of precision to your early performances that were very clear in their gesture and structure, which you have talked about as coming out of Minimalism.
Burden: Well, there are pretty bridges and ugly bridges so there is an aesthetic to it. There is a bridge in Scotland called Firth of Forth Bridge—a huge cantilevered bridge designed by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker. It was built at the end of the 19th century and it was harshly criticized in the press because there was no ornamentation. Early British industrial machines and structures all had fluted columns and other architectural details in the Greco-Roman style in order to aesthetically legitimize them.
Rail: Which is exactly why these metal bridges were so influential for Modernist architecture—they preformed an austere functionalism. The bridge also seems like it’s fighting its own materiality: it’s pushing its own limits and physics.
Burden: Also, bridges are great symbols of peace.
Rail: People often talk about your work as being about aggression, but there seems to be a lot of humor in it. I think the “Tower of Power” (1985) is really funny because of the matchstick people. You get in the line and check your bag and walk up the stairs. Once you get to the sculpture the guard leans over and says, “that is four million dollars worth of gold.” And then you see these little goofball men made of matchsticks, fighting around it.
Burden: I think my work has always had humor. The matchstick men are a symbol of what we are, as opposed to gold. People are as disposable as matches.
Rail: Since you made that work in 1985, the value of that quantity of gold has shifted from one to four million dollars, but presumably its value as a work of art has also changed. What is the distinction or relationship between those two systems of value?
Burden: It is a complicated work in that sense. How much does it cost if we sell it? Is it a percentage over the cost of gold? Can you own the piece conceptually and not show it? I haven’t figured that out. What interests me is that everyone who sees it says, “It’s such a small amount of gold. I’m so disappointed.” Yes exactly! They have seen too many James Bond movies. There is real confusion about the preciousness of gold and how concentrated it is. You could fit that four million in gold bars in a briefcase but you couldn’t walk away with it, the briefcase handle would pull off because the gold weighs 220 pounds.
Rail: This is a foolish question, but why isn’t it just fake gold? If you just said it was gold no one would know otherwise.
Burden: Because I don’t fake things. I am who I say I am. I didn’t fake getting shot. In fact, I’ll tell you the inception for the gold piece. My plan was to get four bars, bigger than those bars, of real gold, and stack them. And then I’d hire a professional armed guard to sit there. I was hoping that people would come to see these bars and assume that I had hired the guard to convince them that the fakes were real. I forgot about it and seven years later Ronald Feldman called me and asked if I still wanted to do the gold piece and I said sure! I was living in a tent in Topanga Canyon with a phone line that was approximately one and a half miles from the telephone pole. Someone from the Wadsworth Atheneum called me. I was sitting in the middle of nowhere on this sketchy phone talking about gold. I got them to give me dimensions for the different shapes and sizes of the bars over the phone. I finally settled on the ziggurat design. Hartford, Connecticut has a history of large armored trucks being robbed, so the piece worked well there.
Rail: The performances and the sculptures seem to be connected through toys, because toys always imply playing. How has playing factored into the sculptures?
Burden: The bridges are actually made from toys. Even the cement bridges are based on a type of German toy called Anchor blocks, invented around 1880. Apparently the young boys, future German engineers, needed more precise blocks to work with that wouldn’t swell and change shape. I have a set of those Anchor blocks made before WWI that have a war theme and look like the fortresses built on the actual Maginot Line. These toys have a double edge. The Erector sets are obviously toys too. They were invented by A.C. Gilbert. He was studying at Yale and visited Manhattan and was so impressed with the steel buildings going up all around the city, he wanted to create something young engineers could use to better emulate construction. When I did the Rockefeller Center piece, “What My Dad Gave Me” (2008), I actually talked to his heirs because it would have been Gilbert’s dream come true: a structure in Manhattan built of Erector sets. It is ambiguous structure because it is a model of a skyscraper, built out of toys, but it is as tall as a five-story building.
Rail: The toys that you choose have social programming nested within them.
Burden: Yes, that is what all toys do.
Rail: Most of the labels in this exhibition include text descriptions written by you. In the 1970s a lot of performance artists had writing practices that were integral to their performance practices. How did you approach images and writing as triangulating the performance, structuring how it moves ahead in time?
Burden: Once I gave a lecture where I didn’t show any slides. I would read the description of the performance and then say, “Now there will be one minute of silence so you can contemplate the implications of the performance.” A slide lecture without any slides! That was the issue facing the fifth floor of this exhibition. Originally Lisa Phillips wanted to include my “Commentary Drawings” as well as my relics, which are little mementos left over from the performances. They wanted to show all of them, but I said that was overkill. Let people sit at the table like they did in 1974, at Ronald Feldman’s gallery and look at the documentation on their own in whatever way they like. Reading the texts and looking at the photographs is a solitary activity that you can immerse yourself in.
Rail: Were you thinking of the experience of people looking at the performances in book form when you did them?
Burden: To tell you the truth, it is something that developed organically. I documented the performances and wrote a little sparse text about what happened, like a police report of the facts. I needed to have a way to show people. I had a loose-leaf notebook and I just typed it up. When I was doing the performances it was great because I had just gotten out of graduate school, I didn’t have any money, and I wanted to keep making art. All I needed was my grandfather’s typewriter, a camera, and a filing cabinet. One of the things about being a young sculptor is that when you make a physical object and you don’t sell it, you have to store it or throw it away. If you want to save it, it is a big pain in the neck. Performance was an efficient way to make art and not get bogged down.
There is a crucial moment when you come out of school because you can find every reason in the world not to make art. The whole school system gives you a structure: you have built-in tools, critiques, access to materials, etc. Once school is over, all that is gone, and if you are going to continue as an artist you have to find a way to move ahead.
Rail: You taught at UCLA for a long time. What do you think is useful for teaching young artists? Or, what is unproductive about the way art education is happening right now?
Burden: When I first started teaching at UCLA I was in a program called New Forms and Concepts, but to be in line with the N.E.A., the name was changed to New Genres. Teaching performance and installation was a challenge. Within the structure of the university students don’t have ultimate freedom. There are very strict rules in order to maintain a place for civilized discussions about ideas. I always tell my undergraduates that we encourage exploration but there are certain things you cannot do here because you are part of a bigger community and your actions have an effect on everyone else. If one of you wants to do a performance where you tie yourself to the railroad tracks and have your arms and legs cut off, it will be the end of this type of teaching, this type of conversation, at this university. Now, if you don’t want to be a student, if you want to leave the bosom of the university and go out into the larger world, then you do have some sort of freedom and you take the consequences of society on yourself. So when that student did that Russian roulette performance at UCLA in 2004 I had to resign. I’m not saying he needed to go to jail, I’m just saying he shouldn’t have been able to keep going to UCLA, to be part of that community.
Rail: It seems to me that the rule he broke was about making other people feel unsafe. In the catalog for your show several writers discuss the sense of danger in your work, but I don’t think that your work ever makes people feel endangered. I wonder if you believe there is an ethical relationship between the artist and the audience in that way.
Burden: I was talking about students which is a different thing. If you are a student you have a greater responsibility to the university and to other students, and I guess you could say as an artist too you have a responsibility to society, although you have more freedom. Can an artist be a murderer? Yes they could be, but they have to pay the consequences. I think art-making is in essence amoral.
Rail: What about works of art that are structured to make you feel threatened? People have written that “The Big Wheel” (1979) is about conveying a sense of danger to the body of the spectator, but I don’t think that is what is going on. You have done work where you chose to put yourself in certain dangerous situations, but the spectator is never scared for their own safety. No one present for “Shoot” (1971) was scared you were going to shoot them, and it seems like that was also the problem with the student’s roulette piece.
Burden: I have to be clear about this: I wasn’t mad with the student. Students do all kinds of stupid things. They get drunk, they climb over studio walls and repaint other students’ paintings, and all that is to be expected.
Rail: You were upset with the institution?
Burden: Yes. That was the issue. On Monday morning I spoke to the chairwoman about it. This guy was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate class and I just thought “Something is wrong here. This guy should not be allowed to teach this afternoon.” I remember that particular student was problematic too because he always wanted to do “edgy” things. I remember saying to him “Green and orange paint can be edgy too!”
Rail: The reason you explained why students cannot be on bad behavior mirrors larger dynamics. Yes, you can go out in the world and do whatever you want, but as an artist, if you want to be part of the “art world,” you have to consider certain sensitivities of other people or no one will want you around. On that note, can we talk about guns? A lot of your works include weapons: bullets, mortars, etc. There are guns in the holsters of those “L.A.P.D. Uniforms” (1993) you made—
Burden: The guns in the L.A.P.D uniforms aren’t functional. I remember going to the gun store and buying 30 Berettas. A couple weeks later I went back to the same gun store and said, “I want all these guns modified so that they can never fire again.” And it was a sacrilege. To them I was ruining 30 beautiful guns!
Rail: Why was it important that they can’t fire?
Burden: I wanted to show them and I didn’t want anyone to be able to steal and use them. When I showed them in Manhattan each gun had to be inspected—the same as when people make films, they have a special guy who certifies that it is not a working gun and there is a certificate on file that is linked to the gun’s serial number.
Rail: You gave a famous interview about “Shoot” where you said, “Being shot is as American as apple pie”—chilling considering our recent events. So what is it with guns in this country right now?
Burden: It is the result of increasing political polarization. There is this weird split that is getting worse and worse. We shouldn’t have guns really. It’s much harder to stab someone than to shoot them.
Rail: When you stab someone you have to have a direct physical relationship with their body. In “A Tale of Two Cities” (1981) the viewer looks at this little diorama through binoculars. You are physically and visually distanced, and you are aware that you don’t have a direct relationship with that stuff. Guns and bombs are predicated on seeing cities and people like those little toys. It is a playful and ominous work.
You’ve described how you like to exhibit the documentation of your 1970s performances and it is resolutely anti-theatrical—the opposite of Marina Abramovic’s MoMA retrospective “The Artist is Present” (2010). My understanding is that you are the only artist who wouldn’t let her re-preform their work during her “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim in 2005.
Burden: She called me and asked for my permission to recreate “Trans-fixed” (1974). I just said, “Marina, you don’t need my permission to do anything, but now that you are asking, I’m going to say no. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, just that it has no meaning to me. If it has meaning to you—mazel tov, go for it.” It seems like a stupid idea to redo those performances, so we come from a different angle on that.
Rail: Well the narrative around performance art is changing. As I understand it, practices like yours and hers in the 1970s were about the artist taking their own body as a material, which is different from theater or dance which depend on being performed again by other people later. What troubles me is her authoritarian institute for teaching young performers. How did you approach teaching students to make performances?
Burden: I remember giving students guidelines as a way of creating a structure. It was up to them to fill it out. I remember one instruction I gave was to “take a structured walk.” What does that mean? Well you set up a series of criteria and then you follow them to produce results. “Take a left every time you see a blue car.” “Walk until you have a hole in your shoe.” It was infinite. L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold was an undergraduate student of mine and I remember that for his performance for that assignment he walked to every bagel store and sampled all the bagels. I’m very proud of that because he was able to parlay that experience into a career. [Laughs.]
Rail: One of the things I admire about your decision to stop making performances was that you said they were getting too much publicity, and that the work wasn’t about spectacle.
Burden: There was so much press. The lay press was just crazy. They thought I was trying to be Alice Cooper, but I wasn’t selling tickets—that was exactly what I wasn’t trying to be. I remember right before I did “Trans-fixed,” I knew it was going to be misinterpreted.
Rail: Is the high potential for misinterpretation one thing that made you write?
Burden: Yes. It was to set the record straight so that if you were interested you could hear what I had to say about it.
Rail: The spectacle aspect prefigures the very problematic ways performance has entered the market and art institutions.
Burden: I think performance has always been problematic for institutions. How do you collect a performance? You can have the documentation or the relics, but how do you actually own “Shoot,” for example? To this very day it is a problem.
Rail: Your relics are hugely influential for how younger generations approach exhibiting and commodifying performance.
Burden: The relics were left over from the performances. That wasn’t part of the game plan when I started. I just kept the things as souvenirs. It wasn’t until years later that I thought it would be interesting to show them as touchstones. I decided to display them with text—no photographs—so that maybe that relationship would be a way to understand the performance. Calling them “relics” is obviously tongue-in-cheek.
I was trained as a minimalist artist. To see sculpture you have to move around it, and I was trying to boil it down to the core. I thought, “If the core is forcing people to move, then maybe that is where the art is.” That is how I arrived at doing performances.
During my time as a graduate student at University of California, Irvine, I had been making objects that the viewer was supposed to use and interact with, similar to exercise equipment. It was the activity of the viewer that I considered art. The apparatus I built was simply a catalyst that forced the viewer to perform a certain activity. For my graduate show I was thinking of making a box to stay inside of for a week. Then I was looking at a long corridor with lockers. Bingo! Don’t make a box, use a box that exists so everyone understands it’s about me being in the box, not about the box as an object. That was the breakthrough.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.