Titles with or about Chris Burden

Documentation of Selected Works 1971-74

1971-75, 34:38 min, color and b&w, sound

Chris Burden's provocative, often shocking conceptual performance pieces of the early 1970s retain their raw and confrontational force in these dramatic visual records, shot on Super-8, 16mm film, and half-inch video. Guided by the artist's candid, explanatory comments on both the works and the documentative process, these segments reveal the major themes of Burden's work — the psychological experience of danger, pain, and physical risk, the aggressive abuse of the body as an art object, and the psychology of the artist/spectator relationship. This compilation is an historical document of one of the most extreme manifestations of 1970s conceptual performance art. Included are the infamous Shoot (1971), in which Burden allows himself to be shot in the arm; Bed Piece (1972), in which he stayed in bed in a gallery for twenty-two days; and the notorious Through the Night Softly (1973), which featured Burden, arms tied behind his naked torso, dragging himself over shards of broken glass. Also included are: 220 (1971) Deadman (1972) Fire Roll (1973) Icarus (1973) B.C. Mexico (1973) TV Ad (1973) Back to You (1974) Velvet Water (1974).

Film: Michael Brewster, Barbara Burden, Don Von Valkenburg, Phyllis Lutjeans, Paula Sweet, Charles Hill. Video: Andy Mann.


This title may not be excerpted for public exhibitions and screenings. Please call the EAI office for further information.




I would like to introduce myself. My name is Chris Burden and today on this tape I'm going to show you excerpt or visual records from eleven different pieces that I've done starting in 1971 until 1974. The pieces have either been filmed on Super 8 or 16mm, or ½ inch video, and there is one that is actually a television add that was taken off the air. As you watch this tape and listen to my explanation of some of the pieces, I want you to remember that it doesn't encompass or cover the whole body of my work. You are only seeing a sort of arbitrary selection of selected works. You are not seeing the pieces that don't lend themselves to being filmed or taped for purely technical reasons such as it is too dark, or it is too far away, or something like that. There is my bed piece which involved staying in bed for 22 days with out getting up. We will see how successful that is and whether or not it can convey some of the feelings and emotions that were going on in that piece. Another reason that I haven?t attempted to film some of the pieces is that some of the pieces involve a one to one relationship between me and the audience and having another person, or even a camera there would disturb the whole set up. So it is not possible. Even then there are some pieces that I have tried to film and haven?t been able to because there is a technical error on my part or someone else. I could not concentrate, or give enough of my attention to filming it because I was involved with the performance. What you are seeing today is very arbitrary production; almost haphazard production of work, and another thing is that I have been hesitant to release these because film and tape are taken as reality while they are being watched. So for the most part I record my pieces with still photographs because they are so old fashioned that they are abstracted and taken abstractly and symbolically, but I guess at this time there is still enough energy in the pieces that it is important to show them, and enough will filter through. But I would like you to, although I know you will forget, to remember that you are not seeing the actual experience. I guess with that we can go right into the first piece, which I have recorded in film, which is ?220?. This film that you are watching was shot by one of the participants from one of the ladders that you have just seen, the piece consisted of filling the gallery with black plastic and then flooding it with about twelve inches of water. The other people and myself waded through the water and climbed onto these wooden 14 ft stepladders after everyone was in position I dropped a 220-volt electric line into the water there-by sealing us in. If we came down off the ladders and stepped into the water we would be electrocuted. I think you can see the 220- volt line coming out of the wall here on the right. The piece is already in progress as you are watching. It began at midnight and ran until six o?clock in the morning. This is one of the participants that didn?t make it looking through the mail slot. There is supposed to be five people in the piece. The black that you see is black plastic. This piece became very ominous because of all of the black and also the situation itself, but also because of the dampness. The air became very heavy the walls were sweaty and the ceiling was dripping. The whole situation was spooky. What is happening now is that we are at the bottom of our ladders and we are looking at a problem that has developed. The ladders are wooden, they are bone dry, and they are absorbing water, so we have this vision of being on the top of our ladders at 5:30 in the morning and being electrocuted. You are just looking at the bubbles that are coming up, well you can?t actually see them, but we are speculating about what is going on. There is going to be a jump as soon as you see us step into the water there is a six hour jump that will signal the piece is over and Barbara Burden will have cut the electricity on the outside of the building. So now we are coming down off the ladders, the piece is finished, the water has dropped considerably and there is some speculation as to what is going on regarding the bubbles that I was talking about. What happened is that it leaked out of the black plastic into the unit beside mine, but luckily I didn't damage anybodies shop or equipment.

In "Shoot", I am shot in the upper left hand arm by a friend of mine with a 22 rifle. The only footage I have of this piece is a very short piece about 8 seconds long. So I am going to begin the piece with an audiotape that was made during the actual performance. In the audience some of the things to listen for are ?Do you know where you are going to stand Bruce?? Then later right before the film clip happens you will hear me say ?Are you ready?? Then you will hear the clicking of the Super 8 camera, later after the clip is over another thing to listen for is the shell dropping on the empty concrete floor. Ok so I think we could go right into the audiotape.

?Bed Piece?

Josh Young asked me to do piece for the Market Street Program from February 18 to March 10th. I told him I would need a single bed in the gallery at the noon on February 18. I took off my cloths and got into bed I hadn?t given any other instructions. On his own initiative Josh Young had to provide food, water, and toilet facilities. I think that was part of the piece that they had to deal with me as an art object and a person. I remained in bed for 22 days. I am including this piece because first, it is an example of the kind of piece I talked about on the intro. I hadn?t planned to film it. The film exists as a pure accident, which I managed to get a hold of. I?m also including it to offset the more dramatic pieces in this tape. I don?t know whether the energies of this piece can be successfully transmitted on tape, but to me this tape remains in my mind as one of the strangest, most interesting pieces that I have ever done. At first it was very hard and very painful and I realized that I wasn?t anywhere near to the end and I didn?t see how I could go on, but by the end, in the middle of the second week I had began to establish a routine. I began to enjoy it there. My days were full, very rich, and I had a peaceful feeling. And as the piece neared ending, neared closing, I started feeling regret about leaving, and I actually considered staying. But I knew that if I stayed I would be forced to leave anyway and that I would be considered crazy. I knew that they would end it for me, but the fact that I was tempted and that I was very seduced into it, for me, that is the strangest part about this piece. Some of the energy of what was going on in my head was conveyed to the other people like a bubble or repulsive magnet. Most people wouldn?t come close to me, in fact most people seemed frightened.

?Dead Man?

Because the film is unclear, or the film that you are about to see is unclear I?m going to show you a still first. In the still you can see me lying under a tarp and there are flares lying around my head. I?m actually lying in the street in Losenica Blvd. Outside Rico Marino Gallery in Los Angelos. The flares were 15 minutes each and I planned to let the flares extinguish themselves. Then I planned to get up and go home leaving the spectators sort of wondering exactly what it was about. Unfortunately someone summonsed the police and I was arrested and booked on causing a false emergency to be reported. This charge comes out of a 1968 campus upheaval and it is a fairly heavy charge it carries a maximum penalty of $1000 and one year in jail. Some of this film is being shot from across the street. You can just see the flares right through there. At the time I was very angry, about my arrest. I felt that the police had destroyed my piece. The police on their part felt that I was doing some sort of publicity stunt. You can see the police they have just arrived. The whole process of the arraignment, the pretrial, and the trial was very frightening to me. It took a long time, and I was sure that the judge was going to sort of teach this young man a lesson. It was a jury trial and it lasted three days before the case was dismissed. Now if you look I?m being escorted to the police car. I?m handcuffed and I?m being placed in the back of the police car. The police took a long time before they lifted up the tarp and when they did, they saw that my eyes where open. They asked me if I was ok, and I said yes. They asked me what I was doing and I told them I was making a piece of sculpture. That made them angry and they said, ?You had better come with us.? This is a shot of them actually driving away with me in the police car.

"Fire Roll"

I began the piece by placing an easy chair in front of a window seal, facing the window seal, and a small portable television facing the easy chair. Barbara sat down in the chair and started watching television, quickly we traded places and I started watching television, smoking dope, and drinking beer. Other people were preparing their pieces. Other people were filling the museum my activity went unnoticed, not necessarily unnoticed but it was unimportant, it was not considered art. People would stoop down and talk to me, and I would talk to them, after about 15 minutes I had to establish a distance and I did this by having Barbara and Charles Hill take still photos of me. This began to say what I was doing was important, and that probably I was one of the artists. After about five minutes I got up and turned off the television. I began walking around the room turning off lights until I finally ended up over a steel plate, which was a permanent fixture in the gallery. And it was here where I was to perform the actual fire roll. The pants that I used in the fire roll have an interesting story in themselves. They were stolen from the Museum of Conceptual Art, in San Francisco, when I did the secret hippie piece in 1971. They were taken back to Los Angels and passed around among several friends of mine. The last person who wore them ended up, drunk and beaten-up in a ditch. And now I?m going to show you the actual fire roll.


At 6PM three invited spectators came to my studio in Venice, which is small but is lit by natural light. This piece was specifically designed for a small audience. You can?t see them, but they are standing, or squatting at the end of my legs about three feet from me. I started the piece by exiting the back room and lying down. My assistants put two pieces of six foot glass shelving on my shoulders. Now they are pouring gasoline down them, and as soon as they are done with that they step back, and you will see that in an instant, they will simultaneously try to light the fire. But one of them is not able to do it because the match keeps breaking. There is the match. The nice part about this piece is that right after I jumped up the sun went behind a cloud and the gasoline made a lot of smoke. All of this made the room instantly dark and this forced the viewers out almost immediately. So the piece had a nice end to it, which was very nice. We are going to look at this? of the jumping up part, again in slow motion. I thought it would be interesting. You can see the first match that fails, watch again for the match that works, and you will see a blue flame that passes down on my body, that is the vapor.

?B.C. Mexico?

The B.C. Mexico piece grew out of a utopian fantasy, in which I was to be dropped-off in a very remote section of Baja, California on the Sea of Cortez. I planned to sort of live there surviving off the ocean, to live in an isolated purity. Perhaps doing small pieces for myself. The piece was actually a show at The New Space Gallery. And a sign was put up in the gallery saying I would be dropped off in Mexico and I would live there for eleven days in isolation. Visitors in the gallery were to participate in the piece vicariously. These are some shots of me loading up my kayak. I did not take very many supplies because I thought I would be able to live off the ocean and survive kind of. In an instant you are going to see me getting into the boat and Charles Hill is loading in a five gallon bucket of Spark lets water which was very essential to surviving there. And then I start to paddle south and I paddle south until I can go no longer, and that is when I would land. The piece turned out to be sort of a surprise. It was extremely hot, almost 120 degrees. I spent most of my time under a piece of plywood just trying to stay out of the sun and conserve water. The ocean was full of sharks and crabs. It was like a jungle around my tent at night. There were animal tracks. It was windy. During my whole stay there I was petrified and I sort of felt like I was at the edge of the known world.

?Through the Night Softly?

Holding my hands behind my back I crawled through about 150ft of glass. Very few spectators saw this piece just mainly passer-bys. I saw the glass as stars. That is why I filmed it in black and white. Yes, I did get cut up, and that is another reason that the film is not in color. I guess we can just go right into the piece now.

The ?TV-Add piece? came out of a long-standing desire to be seen on television. The more I thought about it the simplest way to be, was to purchase a commercial advertising spot. Acting on that I pulled out the yellow pages and started calling up TV stations to see their rates. I could only afford to purchase a 10 second spot ID. My biggest problem was convincing the station that I was worth bothering with that I was a legitimate artist. They knew I was a small client, so did I. What you are watching is the advertisement that precedes mine? Well that was it; to me the content and length were not so important. It was about being on TV, which to me meant anything I could flip to, anything else, cable, educational, video, that is no real TV. I didn?t have any illusions that people understood this. Like they said, ?Oh that is Chris Burden and he is doing a performance.? But I knew that it stuck out like a soar thumb, and I had the satisfaction of knowing that 250,000 people saw it every night, and that it was disturbing to them. They knew something was a-miss. The add, came on five times a week for four weeks right after the eleven o?clock news.

?Back to You? is a piece that attempted to deal with my own myth, the myth of me as the aggressive artist, threatening audiences the evil-kin evil of the art world. The tape begins with the voice of Eliza Bear and the piece actually takes place inside a moving elevator. And around the elevator shaft there were several monitors placed, so that, what you see is exactly what the audience saw at the performance. "Chris Burden has requested a volunteer. Will a volunteer please step up" A volunteer had been selected to participate. The volunteer is being escorted to the elevator. A sign in the elevator is instructing the volunteer to stick push-pins into Chris Burden."

"Velvet Water" was actually a video performance, but before I show you the tapes from it I want to show you a still photograph of the installation. The actual performance took place on the left hand side of this photograph, actually outside of it. You can see one of the persons in the front row peaking. It was a live performance, but because of the clutter of cameras and lights around me, the audience could only get the real information from the monitors. The large monitor in the center showed a close up of my face, while the four small monitors that flank it on either side show a wider-angle shot, or an establishing shot. During the tape I am going to? because I can't duplicate the photograph? I am going to shift back and forth from the close up to the wider angle. "Today I'm going to breath water, which is the exact opposite of drowning because when you breath water you believe the water to be a thicker richer oxygen capable of sustaining life."