Chris Burden


Foreword by David Neuman, director Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall.
A conversation with Chris Burden essay by Måns Wrange, artist and professor at Konsfack College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, (1999).
B-Car, The Bridges and The Speed of Light Machine by Chris Burden

Exhibition catalogue no 19.
48 pages, color, illustrated, exhibition supplement, soft cover. Texts in Swedish/English. Published 1987 by Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall.


Måns Wrange: I would like to start with discussing something that relates to this particular situation – that is, talking about art as opposed to experiencing it. Would it be fair to say that one aspect of your work deals with the relation between first-hand and second-hand experience?

Chris Burden: Yes, a lot of my work has been about experiencing how different things work or feel. Take Shoot for example. You see people getting shot on T.V. everyday, so I wanted to find out how it would be to receive a bullet in my body. But it wasn’t really the violence or the pain I was interested in, but the mental experience.

MW: But isn’t it ironic that some of your work that investigated first-hand experiences is only known by most people second-hand, through mass media and subsequently through art magazines and catalogues? How did you relate to this medialization of your early work?

CB: I didn’t do performances for that many years, maybe intensely just for four or five years, and then it had already started to become too much. The press was too distorting, and that was very frustrating for me. I could sit and talk to a journalist for hours, and I thought I was really communicating something. And then I would read what they had written and: My God! Who are they talking about?! That wasn’t the conversation we had at all.

MW: But haven’t you also consciously used the media in some of your pieces?

CB: Yes, I am not naive in that sense. Sometimes I have conceived works where I realize that it is through the mass media they would be seen by the general public.

MW: And would you see that as an integral part of the work?

CB: Absolutely! I’ll give you an example: The piece The Sailing Destroyer only exists as blueprints and as a model. It was never realized for several reasons. But if this old destroyer ship from the Second World War had gone out on the North Sea with sails, who would have seen it? Nobody! But my idea was that it would be on the evening news for ten seconds. So then five million people would see it and that would be the way the work would exist in a sense, through the television news.

MW: You have also done work directly for the T.V. medium, like your T.V. ad Chris Burden Promo and in T.V. Hijack.

CB: Yes, for example in T.V. Hijack I was asked by a small local cable television station in Southern California to do a piece. They rejected all my proposals, so I agreed to do an interview instead where we could discuss the reasons for their refusal of my ideas. When, during the course of the interview, I was asked about some of my ideas, I enacted a hijack where I, with a knife, pretended to threaten the interviewer’s life if the station stopped the live broadcast. T.V. Hijack was ultimately about who is in control over what’s presented through the media.

MW: Would being seen by a large audience be important for the idea of works like The Sailing Destroyer and T.V. Hijack?

CB: That was the point of departure for the works, so I don’t think that in this case you can separate the art from the audience.

MW: I mean, in the sense of the traditional Myth of the Artist, the artist only “does his own thing” and is not really interested in trying to communicate with an audience, at least not outside the inner art circle of the four “Cs” : colleagues, critics, curators and collectors. How do you see your work in relation to an audience outside the art world?

CB: Take Shoot again. It’s disturbing to people and they can dismiss it, but they do relate to it in sort of a primal way. We see people getting shot so many times, faked or real, on T.V. – everybody thinks about what it must feel like – not consciously but subconsciously. So I think that this is an entry point where people outside the art world can understand something about it.

MW: Your performances were often witnessed by very few people and now they only exist in the form of documentation. It seems to me that they have become a part of a sort of oral tradition where the story goes from one person to another. That’s at least how I got to know your work in the beginning of the ’80s.

CB: Well, I think art is like sex, in the sense that it mostly happens in our heads. A lot of my earlier performance works only existed for a very brief moment of time, but I thought about them for a very long time, and afterwards they became this myth. People still call me up and are furious about Shoot. I point out to them that they are still talking about it 25 years later, and they are still getting angry, so it must work on some level because, otherwise, why not just dismiss it? They are upset about it in the context of art. Not in the context of the real world, because people are shot every day and then it’s not an issue.

MW: But didn’t you anticipate the shock value of works like Shoot?

CB: Shoot was interesting, because I did it for a very small invited audience, maybe ten or fifteen people, and there was no press. Two and a half years later an article in Esquire Magazine was published with a full-page picture and the headline: “The Chris Burden Shoot. The Man of the Year” or something. From that moment on the sensationalism exploded. And since all media reads other media – The New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek etc. – there was very little original reporting. I was nevertheless very careful not to invite the media when I did those performances, because I knew they would distort it. I wanted the control.

MW: Was that why you started to produce your own documentation?

CB: That’s absolutely why I did it. The documentation was made by friends, because if I had invited NBC to Shoot, I would have had no control. This reminds me of this T.V. program from which a producer called me up and said: “Chris, we will do anything for you blah, blah, blah!” I said to them: “OK, I want 30 seconds of your advertising time.” And they replied: “No! Impossible!” It was absurd. They conceived of me as Alice Cooper – a big spectacle.

MW: But isn’t that a frustrating aspect of contemporary art? You try to deal with issues that are important to you and the only time art really manages to cut through to a wider audience outside the art world is when it causes a scandal?

CB: Even though I like the fact that in a lot of my work the public can enter it outside an art context, I genuinely believe on the other hand that art is very elitist. It’s neither democratic nor demographic. In some ways it is like high level physics. Maybe there is only ten people who are really interested and who will understand it. Which is OK. To understand a lot of art you need to know something about its background and history.

MW: But would you consider your work to be political?

CB: Yes, but I remember when I started doing my earlier work people said: “He’s a madman, he’s perverted!” And now they say about the same work: “He’s a moralist, he’s political!” There has been this whole reversal of how people view it, in spite of the fact that it’s exactly the same work. It’s just that time has gone by.

MW: So the attitudes towards your early work have shifted. But your art has also changed over the years. How would you describe this development in terms of content?

CB: I think that the early work was more generalized and philosophical in the way that it was concerned with basic questions of life and how to deal with the world. It is political on a personal level to stay on a shelf in a gallery for twenty-two days . Not as a protest against anything, but as a political gesture. Because it undermines the cultural norm of what is considered to be a normal life: to get up every morning, go to work, raise the kids, etc. In short, you could say that my work has gone from dealing with personal issues of power to external issues of power.

MW: And in your later work you made this external power concrete like All the Submarines in the US5 and The Reason for the Neutron Bomb.6

CB: Yes, because there are facts that are abstractions that I think are too abstract for us to comprehend. In All the Submarines in the US it was interesting, as a fact, to see that only 625 submarines have been manufactured in the whole history of the US navy. That’s not a lot. I thought it would be thousands or ten thousands. So it’s a way of seeing information in a physical way instead of in an abstract way, which is usual through writing. Take for example the fact that the Pentagon’s reason for building a neutron bomb was that in 1979 the Soviet Union maintained 50,000 tanks along the border between Western and Eastern Europe, that is, 30,000 more tanks than the combined tank strength of the US and all Western European nations together. There is a difference between receiving this fact ink on paper and walking about in a room seeing the physical representations of all these tanks in my installation The Reason For The Neutron Bomb. Sometimes information is too abstract to comprehend when it is presented in printed form. By using a physical model you’ll get the same information but presented in a different form, which may well generate new information just because of this transformation.

MW: So from being a part of the “dematerialization of art” in the ’70s, your sculptural work from the ’80s and ’90s tend to be more about the materialization of ideas.

CB: In a sense. But the reason I got into doing performance was my background as a sculptor. I was trying to find out what sculpture was and how it was different from two-dimensional art. In two-dimensional art you stand in front of the piece and look. It is static and it is an abstraction. Sculpture in general is more physical and it forces the viewer to activity: you have to walk around it. The art becomes in a way the human activity. But compared to my early performances, I think my work now is in a sense traditional.

(Excerpt from the catalogue text by Måns Wrange, 1999. The text is a revised and expanded version of an article first published in the magazine Index, 23/98, Stockholm.)