Monday, 25 June 2012

On Militant Art: Part 3 - Chris Burden

Chris Burden

Chris Burden is an American artist working in installation and sculpture but he is best known for his performances. Burden is a useful example as, although he might be recognised as violent, he is not immediately thought of as “militant”.  By way of example he allows us to question what Militant Art is.  He is also a useful example of the aesthetic ancestry of Militant Art. 

1970s Performances

Shoot (1971)
Transfixed (1974)
747 (1973)
During the early to mid 1970s Chris Burden made a series of violent and controversial performances that helped to define the genre of performance art.  He is perhaps most famous for his 1971 performance “Shoot” in which an assistant, from 5 metres, shot him in the arm with a .22 rifle.  In “Transfixed” (1974) he was nailed to a Beetle car, as if crucified.  The car was driven out of the garage, revved for a couple of minutes and then taken back in.  For “Deadman” (1972) he lay, completely covered by a tarpaulin, on La Cienega Boulevard in LA with two fifteen minute flares placed nearby to warn cars (Burden was arrested and charged for this performance but acquitted when the jury failed to reach a verdict).  In 1973 the FBI questioned him after he fired several shots at a Boeing 747 as it took off from Los Angeles International Airport (he was out of range at the time so the FBI decided not to press charges). 

"747. January 5, 1973. Los Angeles, California. At about 8am at a beach near the Los Angeles International Airport, I fired several shots with a pistol at a Boeing 747." Chris Burden (BLOCNOTES editions, 1995).

Works such as these are violent, but what makes them militant? How is shooting at an aeroplane not an act of militancy?  Burden’s cold-blooded description (above) leads us to believe that it was a purely formalist action, not politically motivated. He later spoke of how the work was not about shooting a plane but about impotence, about the bullet never reaching its target, but this too could be read politically.  Do actions need to be politically motivated in order to be militant?  Or do Burden’s artworks, in fact, bear a message? 

White Light/White Heat (1975)
In “White Light/White Heat” (1975) Burden placed himself on a triangular platform, at about ten feet above the floor and two feet below the ceiling, in the corner of the Ronald Feldman Gallery…and there he remained for 22 days.  During the entire performance Burden did not eat, talk or come down.  He did not see anyone, and no one saw him.  The performance built on “Bed Piece”, in which Burden stayed in Bed for 22 days (but did eat and get up to go to the toilet – when the gallery was closed) and “Five Day Locker Piece” (1971) in which Burden locked himself in a college locker for 5 days.

Visitors to the “White Light/White Heat” exhibition spoke about feeling his presence, although none saw him and few heard him. As the viewer waits and listens their experience of the room and its sounds is heightened. Who would have known if he had died? 

This work can be seen as a critique on religion, with Burden playing the role of the invisible God “up above”.  One can also draw parallels with Saint Simeon Stylites, the Christian who lived on a pillar for 37 years.  Mortification of the flesh; fasting; voluntary seclusion; trial by ordeal, Burden presented the trappings of Sainthood.  Although the title of the exhibition came from a Velvet Underground song it also carried religious significance and his previous exhibition was entitled “The Church of Human Energy”. 

Burden has a longer track record of religious iconography in his work.  For “Jaizu” (1972) he was dressed in white and wore dark sunglasses while he sat, motionless, in a director’s chair for two days while viewers contemplated him while seated on cushions.  In 1974’s “Transfixed” he was literally crucified on a VW Beetle. 

By presenting a vacuum, in “White Light/White Heat” Burden was able to elicit thoughts from the audience.  Such thoughts may indeed have turned to religion, or they may have reflected on the IRA members who were on the seventh week of their hunger strike at the time, and clearly prepared to die for their cause.  If a political motive is needed to be called “militant” then perhaps Burden’s motive is to get people to think.  By evoking religious iconography such as exclusion and fasting perhaps Burden asks us if we too should reconsider our consumerist lifestyles.  If this is the case, then Burden does have a political message and the fact that he is prepared to break the law (Dead Man, 747, Cole to Newcastle); risk his personal safety (Shoot, Dead Man); and that he displays a militaristic, fanatical approach to endurance (White Light/White Heat, Locker Piece) means that at the very least his methods do indeed echo elements similar to those of a militant.  

Tracing Militant Art’s Aesthetic Ancestry

During his undergraduate course Burden made two giant, outdoor, tunnels – essentially like poly-tunnels.  His tutors, who were advocates of Minimalist Art, were an influence on him at the time.  Burden’s tunnels failed on two counts.  Firstly, they were vandalised; this led Burden to live in them during their exhibition, in order to protect them.  Secondly, wind cause one wall to cave in, which had the knock on effect of drawing in the opposite wall – by way of vacuum; you couldn’t walk down the tunnel as the walls collapsed in on you.  However, Burden noticed that if you ran down the tunnel you made an air pocket: the tunnel opened up in front of you and closed behind.  This led Burden to consider interactive art involving the “viewer” who would henceforth become the “participant”. 

Burden’s performances have a direct link to sculpture through minimalism and, I am claiming, Militant Art has an artistic heritage leading back to sculpture through performance art.  Militant Art groups such as Black Mask and King Mob have cited Dada, Futurism, Surrealism as influences so Militant Art should therefore be seen as expression drawing on these artistic histories.

Further Reading:

Thursday, 21 June 2012

On Militant Art: Part 2 - King Mob

King Mob 

King Mob was a radical English art collective, based in London, in the 1960s and 70s.  They sought to emphasize the cultural anarchy and disorder that they saw as being ignored in Britain at the time.


The brothers David and Stuart Wise (who had studied art in Newcastle) were the most dominant members of the group from the outset. The Wise brothers developed a combination of hard-edged politics (Russian nihilism and texts such as Pisarev’s “The Destruction of Aesthetics” fuelled notions of value, politics and the lack of a social function in art) and the disruptive potential of Dada and Surrealism

After they moved to the Notting Hill area of London, the brothers came into contact with Situationist International – two of whose members (Chris Gray and Don Smith) joined King Mob.  They also met, and worked with, John Barker who would later serve a prison sentence for his role in the Angry Brigade bombings. 


King Mob used a variety of techniques which could be placed into two categories:

  1. Writing and propaganda.  This included: Graffiti, distribution of flyers, posters and their publication The King Mob Echo.  
  2. Direct Action. 

Writing and Propaganda

Their most famous graffiti slogan appeared as a message mocking commutors on a stretch of the Hammersmith and City line.  IT stayed there for several years, surviving until the 1990s (see below).    

Same thing day after day- tube - work - dinner - work - tube - armchair - TV - sleep - tube - work -how much more can you take? - one in ten go mad, one in five cracks up

In fact, King Mob took their name from a piece of graffiti that appeared on Newgate prison during the 1780 Gordon riots.  Rioters smeared the walls of the prison with the phrase “His Majesty King Mob” after having gutted the prison itself.   King Mob planned to paint Wordsworth’s house with the slogan “Coleridge Lives” but never realised this act. 

King Mob used posters and their publication The King Mob Echo to disseminate their political beliefs.  These publications sparked controversy by applauding murderers such as Jack the Ripper, Mary Bell, and John Christie.

They even went as far as to celebrate Valerie Solanas' 1968 shooting of Andy Warhol and to include a hit-list of several celebrities: Yoko Ono, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Richard Hamilton, Mario Amaya (who was also shot by Solanas), David Hockney, Mary Quant, Twiggy, Marianne Faithfull, and IT editor Barry Miles.  Their publications were satirical and featured cartoon characters such as Andy Capp and the Bash Street Kids (from the Beano).  

Front cover graphic from a King Mob anti-art diatribe, circa 1968. Anonymous. Courtesy Tate archive. A dancing skeleton holding a burning torch captioned "anarchy" and wearing a sash captioned "communism", unfurls a scroll labeled "Mob Law", upon which is written a message from King Mob encapsulating the group’s ideas regarding culture - "the commodity which helps sell all the others".

Direct Action

Some of King Mob’s other ambitious, and unrealised, plans included blowing up a waterfall in the Lake District and hanging peacocks in a London park.  

One infamous stunt that was executed was a critique on the ownership of public and private space that saw the group, dressed as gorillas and pantomime horses, storm a private west London park and tear down its gating in order to open the park up as a children’s play ground.

A strong case can be made that King Mob's use of direct action was influenced by Black Mask.  In the 1960s King Mob spent time with Black Mask’s Ben Morea and co-signed at least one statement by Up Against the Wall Motherfucker!  In a 1967 anti-war rally the group was able to storm the Pentagon (which led to a severe beating).  Militant acts such as these distinguished King Mob and Black Mask from the intellectual French Situationists and the British Situationist support for Morea led to their expulsion from Situationist International. 

Like Morea’s Motherfuckers, King Mob was more extreme than, and suspicious of, most other “radicals”.  They were often an unwelcome presence at events for example: during the famous Hornsey Art College occupation they were thrown out for mocking the level of debate.  At the LSE occupation, student leaders removed their sexually explicit posters. 

Inspired by Black Mask's "mill-in at Macy's", twenty five members of King Mob stormed London's Selfridges, with one member, dressed as Father Christmas, to distribute all of the store's toys to children. The police were called and forced the children to return the toys.  King Mob claimed they were not as radical as Father Christmas, as "he breaks into people’s houses". 

King Mob's legacy includes their influence on Malcolm McLaren, who claimed to have been at the Selfridges event, and apparently adapted their Situationist models in the promotion of the Sex Pistols. 


Further Reading:


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On Militant Art: Part 1 - Black Mask

Black Mask was a radical anarchist art collective operating in New York City in the 1960s. They cited the Futurists and Dada as their only artistic influence.
They gained notoriety for their self-titled broadsheet as well as their public actions and demonstrations. Their first act was to call for the closure of the Museum of Modern Art.  Thereafter they disrupted and sabotaged dozens of art lectures, exhibitions and happenings.  The art world fought back; a panel of experts on Futurism, Dada and Surrealism advertised, throughout the underground press, a ‘trap for Black Mask’ – in the form of a debate about the true revolutionary meaning of modern art.  Black Mask responded by printing thousands of plausible, well printed, invitations to a free party with free music, found, drink, at the same time, place and date at the ‘ambush’.  They distributed the invites to the homeless and “the hardest bastards they could find” in Harlem and the Lower Eastside shortly before the ‘ambush’ was scheduled. 

 (More Photographs from Black Mask's Wall St protest are available at 

Coming from a street and gang not middleclass art school, background the founding members were inspired by the science, elegance and violence of Futurism and stories such as Marinetti beating up Wyndham Lewis in a toilet before hanging him by his coat collar on some spiked railings.  Black Mask saw value in the looting, arson and tentative gunplay of the US Race Riots.  The French Situationists and Black Mask were the only whites who realised that the only Americans who had to do something were black Americans.  Black Mask quoted newspaper clippings from the Race Riots that could be from the London August Riots of 2011:
‘At times, amidst the scenes of riot and destruction that made parts of the city look like a battlefield, there was an almost carnival atmosphere’.
New York Times 16/7/67

‘Said Governor Hughes after a tour of the riot-blighted streets… “The thing that repelled me most was the holiday atmosphere… It’s like laughing at a funeral”.
Time 21/7/67
Another infamous stunt, The ‘mill-in’ at Macy’s involved organising large numbers of people to enter the store in small groups posing as regular shoppers or staff.  Their aim was to cause maximum disruption during the store’s peak business hours in the build up to Christmas.  Activists systematically moved stock around, stole items, broke items, gave items away and released animals, such as dogs and cats, into the food department.  Even a buzzard was seen terrorising staff in the China section.  Decoy activists identified themselves with flags and banners but made sure to stand alongside regular shoppers, who were subsequently roughed up and chucked out by security and floor staff.

Black Mask was together from 1967 to late 1968 before reforming as Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. As Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers (UATWM) they shot the poet Kenneth Koch (with blanks) and triggered militant demonstrations at police stations every time someone was arrested for possession of drugs while at the same time sending addicts and dealers on phantom searches all over town for deals that didn’t exist.  They infiltrated the most fashionable bars and cafes to spike the most expensive drinks and dishes with a variety of drugs.
They objected to the Museum of Modern Art putting on a show called “Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage’ (the heritage of Rauschenberg causing offence to the Mother Fuckers).  In response UATWMF organised 400 dropouts to storm the exhibition, on the night of the private view, screaming obscenities, hurling paint, flour and smoke bombs.  UATWM were loosely associated with the Situationist International, King Mob, and the Diggers. Their chief goal was the integration of art in to the political program of anarchist revolution. They petered out after many of their members were arrested and imprisoned for terms ranging from 10 days to 10 years.  Fleeing NYC UATWM spread across the states attempting to form their own individual, independent cells (much like Al-Qaeda).  

Further Reading: