Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Chris Burden and cinematic violence


While you can often here the cry that "it's just a movie!" when people get bored of you taking a film too seriously, people are maybe less than willing to admit at just how influential the movies are in our lives. How many people want a "happy ending"? How many want to be superheroes? How many of you really want to know what it's like to be shot?

Chris Burden, an influential artist whose maybe best known for his performances in the 1970's, was inspired by, as he calls it, the "tradition"of gun violence in America in a piece called "Shoot" (1971). In the piece, Burden has a friend shoot him with a .22 calibre rifle. Intending to just graze his arm, instead the bullet went through his arm. "Shoot" was influenced by maybe the most televised war ever, the Vietnam war, as well as cinema's love affair with guns.


While this work is still controversial nowadays (especially when you read the youtube comments), studying the piece at university for my degree really provided me appreciation of just how strong the effect cinema has on the popular imagination.

With the news back in May that Burden had passed away due to melanoma, I thought I'd post an excerpt from my dissertation, entitled "Was Chris Burden's 'Shoot' Actually Violent?", which attempts to explain the confusing "grey area" the work occupies. Read my summary after the picture.


The problem with guns is that, unfortunately, they are all too common in the US, the UK and the rest of the world. We all know the connotations that they carry and the mythology that follows them. Burden's look into how we feel about guns through exploring its "traditions" is a good way of holding a mirror up to society and questioning what we even know about violence. Slavoj Žižek displays well in his book Violence what we really know;

"We are thus all caught in a kind of ethical illusion, parallel to perceptual illusions. The ultimate cause of these illusions is that, although our power of abstract reasoning has developed immensely, our emotional-ethical responses remain conditioned by age-old instinctual relations of sympathy, to suffering and pain that is witnessed directly. This is why shooting someone point-blank is for most of us much more repulsive than pressing a button that will kill a thousand people we cannot see." (Žižek, 2008, p. 36)

Simulation, as defined by the post-modern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, is what I feel Shoot is about. Chris Burden’s talk of the American “tradition” of being shot (Searle. 1993, p. 20) is what Baudrillard calls the “hyperreal”; “… the America that surrounds it [Disneyland] are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus the saving of the reality principle.” (Baudrillard, 2008, p. 13)

Simulations, and its resultant simulacra, are used to describe the world of copies that we now live in. The real is copied in a simulation; simulacra are objects copied in that simulation. What Baudrillard laments is the death of the real through what could be called ‘over simulation’; we are so deep inside the simulated reality that we do not know what the real reality is anymore, creating a hyperreal world. I believe Burden’s American “tradition” is a simulated reality of what America wants to affirm of itself, and what many American’s think America is actually like, concluding that guns are “a permanent ingredient of the nation's style and culture” (Gun Politics in the United States, n.d.).

As I discussed in chapter three, the myth of guns is what has prevailed in America, helped along by their representations in television and films. Through a bombardment of arms related images, American’s now believe they need guns; that even if they don’t own a gun themselves, the symbol of the gun is powerful enough to make you believe that the gun is intrinsically American. “Myth, chased from the real by the violence of history, finds refuge in cinema” (Baudrillard, 2008, p. 43).

Burden, in exploring the simulated myth of being shot, actually gets someone to shoot him, just to see what it was like. Burden, it turns out, actually wants to see what its like being shot in a television-esque way. As Burden has never mentioned seeing people actually shot in real life, I have to presume that Burden’s experience of gun violence is through seeing it on TV or in cinema. So, even though Burden says that TV shooting is “fake” (Searle, 1993, p. 20), it is the only shooting he knows, and so must of expected his being shot to be similar. But being shot is not like in the movies, “Actually being shot is quite different”, said Burden (ibid.). Burden had believed the simulation that America and its relationship to its guns presents, and in return was given a nasty little bullet wound and some trouble from the police.

Burden being shot in this way presents an emptiness in the American myth; that behind the heroics of being shot are just actual wounds, injuries and death. The violence of Shoot comes not in the fact that Burden has been shot, but that the myth of being shot has been shattered. We want Shoot’s violence to be like that of TV’s, but instead there is real blood and the realisation that there was no myth in the first place.

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