Some weeks before Saint Genet performed Paradisiacal Rites at On the Boards, company director Ryan Mitchell and I sat down to talk about one of the more controversial elements of the weekend—a “satellite performance,” as he put it, of Chris Burden’s notorious 1971 artwork Shoot, in which he was shot in the arm with a .22 rifle.
The interview is in two parts. In the first, we talk about theater and performance art and Mitchell’s conceptual reasons for wanting to reproduce Shoot. In the second, we go through some of the predictable reactions I was guessing people might have as they learned about the piece.
The interview has been condensed in some parts. But not much.
Part One: What Are You Thinking?
The Stranger: So, tell us about your upcoming project.
Mitchell: I’ve created a large-scale opera that will premiere at On the Boards, and I’ve in turn created a series of satellite projects that exist in dialogue with the major work but then also function outside of the piece both aesthetically and performatively throughout the same performance days. One piece will take place in the alleyways behind Pioneer Square and have durative performance activities of bands and visual components of things that are in relation to images that exist in the show but are not necessarily part of the show.
They relate pretty directly to a piece that is happening about 15 miles outside of the city, which is a re-creation of Christopher Burden’s Shoot piece, in an abandoned barn.
What is Christopher Burden’s Shoot piece?
It’s one of the first pieces I ever encountered that I was really interested in—about what is the actual potential for the theater. This is coming as someone who didn’t have much experience with art, living in Reno and everyone having a really negative reaction to the arts.
Like, “that’s foppish nonsense”?
Yeah, like you are a faggot if you are interested in art, or you’re a criminal because it’s graffiti—there’s no real grey area—or you’re Thomas Kinkade. And you’re none of these things, so who are you?
So it was a piece where he [Burden] was going to participate in a Duchamp sculpture festival, and rather than doing that, he sent out a very to-the-point, two-sentence press release that said: “Instead of attending the Duchamp sculptural festival, I’m going to be shot in the arm at 7:30 in a gallery.” So he was shot at a range of 15 feet—he was grazed in his shoulder.
He ended up explaining that this was a piece of sculpture only for the second that the bullet passed through his arm. Part of the bullet ended up embedding in his shoulder.
Was there long-term damage from that?
No, he is still creating work. But it was painful, described more like a burn, like a powder burn than anything else. So this was this landmark piece of performance, but it’s only a landmark piece of performance, in my opinion, in that it was inevitable as body-based performance began to exist. He is calling it a piece of sculpture, but as we have the perspective of history, now it is very clearly a piece of performance art.
To be clear, you are proposing to re-create this by being shot?
Yes. So. We should come to it. Within the dialogue of what’s been happening in performance art in contemporary society is this question of re-creation. Is performance art something that exists outside of any other medium, and if so, what are those elements that make performance art not sculpture, or not visual art, or not dance, or not music? What makes it different? What allows it to hold water? Marina Abramovic has been doing a series of re-creations that I think begin to address that issue—is performance art its own, unique art form, separate from the rest of the art forms? This is a line of dialogue I have been thinking about for a really long time, since college. And she has begun making re-creations of her work, most obviously seen with her exhibition at MoMA—other artists re-creating the structures of her work.
What’s an example?
The doorway piece, where she and Ulay [her collaborator] were standing nude in a doorway and people had to walk through it. Actually, a friend of mine was one of the artist-participants in that re-creation at MoMA. So here’s this piece, and she’s re-creating the structure of the piece. However, what she is not doing is a total re-creation, and I mean that in the strictest term, like a Civil War re-creation or something like that.
But a lot of feedback I’ve been getting from that show is that Marina Abramovic was what was interesting about those pieces, not necessarily the pieces themselves. This is due to a lot of things, like the internet, and you talked about this at that On the Boards lecture—that performance art had an initial aspect of shock, and Christopher Burden is a real purveyor and provocateur—
Sure. Being shot, being crucified on a Volkswagen…
Buying network-television time to crawl through glass that was piped into people’s TVs… He has video pieces of him hanging upside down, I think at his high-school basketball court, and then he cuts himself down, and you just see it from his perspective. These are very seemingly self-abusive pieces.
So Marina was making these re-creations, but really she’s just re-creating structures. Two people standing, saying they’re re-creating a Marina Abramovic piece in Seattle at the Frye, is probably not as interesting as her re-creation with her there at MoMA, and that’s not as interesting as the first time she did it in the ’70s, when people didn’t know what to think and were not very comfortable brushing up against nude people—the political environment, where the women’s rights and gay rights movements were at the time, these things factor into all pieces of art.
So that gets at some of the context, but let’s talk about actual logistics.
I’ve always thought that if I was going to address what about performance art is different from anything else, if indeed it is, I would want to re-create something exactly, to the most specific detail.
You take a piece like Shoot—from what I understand, Marina also asked to re-create it and Burden did not give her permission, and I don’t think she would have been allowed to do it at MoMA anyway—but taking a piece like that, people say: “You cannot re-create that. It’s impossible to re-create it, for a bevy of reasons, not the least of which is he won’t let you. And how can you control a gunshot?”
It might be useful to talk a little bit about the difference between theater and performance art here—I think it was Marina herself who said that the difference is that theater is reproducible, where performance art is not—it only happens once. So your thinking, if I understand you correctly, is taking what was a piece of performance art and re-creating it as theater.
I don’t think she’s right—I don’t think that theater is necessarily false and performance art is real, but it happens in real time, and I think even she is beginning to question that as she begins to commodify “performance art” as a thing.
By doing the show at MoMA, for example?
Right. So really the idea of what performance art is, is what happens afterwards—what are the tangible things that happened in the performance that are the inciting action for the intangible, ephemeral moments?
So Shoot itself can be re-created, but with difficulty. I actually think it’s a really hollow piece. I don’t think it’s that strong.
It’s something that had to happen not due to creativity, but more like: “Oh, this artist had a gun in a gallery, and someone almost shot her” [a reference to another Abramovic piece]. And everyone was testing the limits of what their bodies could do, and what is the meaning of framing an event, and the difference between dramatic time and real time, and what is real life and what is sculpture…
It was only a matter of time. If he hadn’t made that piece, someone else would’ve. To me, it exists pretty blatantly as a piece that was part of an art movement and was going to happen, no matter what.
So why re-create it? Why include it in this larger series of pieces?
For me, to really investigate the potential of taking something that the artist himself will not let other people reinvestigate, for whatever personal reasons—I don’t know what his current feelings about guns and violence are or what a violent action is. They’re probably similar to mine, in that I don’t view this as a violent action.
Could you explain that? I think most people seeing it, or even hearing about it, would think: “One person is shooting another person, ergo, violence.”
I think it actually utilizes the imagery of violence and the capacity of fear, but really, the piece is about trust, and about engagement between two people. In reality, the shooter’s job is to not hurt me, or to hurt me as minimally as possible. It’s a controlled action, which is similar to what the theater is, a controlled burst that results in a change and a dramatic ascension after the action has happened.
What is the ascension?
The ascension for me—and for anyone, for Christopher’s piece as well—is what happens afterwards. Always what happens afterwards. For him, it’s the denouement or the legacy of what Shoot was, and for me it’s the recontextualization of what the meaning of that piece really is—that it’s not about being shot. It’s about being propelled into both real and dramatic time in a preparation for something larger than yourself. For you to disappear into the new piece.
So you’ve taken something you respect—I do really respect Christopher Burden, I admire him as an artist. Where does the artwork of Shoot begin? Does it begin right when the shot is taken? Does it begin in the minor amount of dialogue that happens?
What about when he first decides to do it—which is also a propulsive force? For him, for the shooter, for the people he invited, they’re all brought to this crisis moment and then scatter.
That’s where the piece feels hollow to me—or just not developed past the crisis moment. You highlight it, but then you as an artist are not responsible for what that meant.
In our country now, we’re in the middle of a really intense crisis moment—we have been for 40 years, with our relationship with violence and guns. Our entire national history has been an extremely violent and cruel one, but let’s just take the past 10 years. We’re in a really intense crisis moment of “what should we do…”
Financially, internationally, with violence both at home and abroad…
Absolutely. It rains down on us. And it rains down on us in a way that, no matter what, it glorifies violence. Even now, weird things, like these ridiculous threats from North Korea, and even liberal media responds with: “Come on. I mean, c’mon. We’ll just kill you. We’ll just kill all of you!” Even people who say we shouldn’t be super-violent all the time, when a nation threatens us, they just impose their will of violence. It’s an interesting thing.
So now, with the perspective of Shoot, I can own the piece differently.
I, for one, am going to recontextualize it as a piece of theater—the action up until the gunshot is actually a piece of theater.
Because I have directed it, I have chosen the people there, because they’re not acting in their own reactions, none of it’s real.
They’re performing—I’m performing. The only real part is that I really get shot, but even that is controlled so much that I’m getting shot in the safest possible way.
How are you controlling for that other than having someone practice a lot?
Practice a lot! Practice. Practice. Thousands of shots.
With Implied Violence and Saint Genet, you have worked with super-dangerous situations and I think that’s part of the attraction or at least reaction that people have to the work. Unlike, say, going an Ibsen play at ACT Theater, there’s a feeling in the audience that, actually, anything could happen. People see blood, they see leeches, they see nitrous oxide, they see actual people shooting actual arrows at actual performers in very close ways—someone shooting into the “v” between your thumb and the rest of your hand.
And this is the thing that is different, that changes the work—to me, those moments are obscenely controlled. They’re not even about the moment itself, it’s not about the shot itself, and I think this is where Christopher Burden and I are diverging on this piece. It’s not about the second the bullet is in my arm. It’s about the six, eight, 10 hours it’s going to take for me to walk from point A to point B with the bullet in my arm.
In your arm?
It may pass through, it may not pass through. I can work to control it—the archer could’ve shot my hand in that [other] piece, and it would have shattered every bone in my hand.
It was a compound bow, right?
Compound bow, with a blunt tip. A training tip. There’s four months of preparation for that. He shoots 900 shots that go into the milk-carton-cap target and not the hand target, but maybe he shoots that 901st shot that goes into the hand target. And these are real things that could happen. But I feel comfortable moving forward with this because the action itself is about giving over. I have to give over myself to someone else, and I’ve set everything in place, I’ve exerted as much of my will as possible, but in the action itself, all I have to do is give over and disappear into the work.
And then it becomes about what do I do after that? What happens after the moment of giving over? A very simple piece would be: then he takes the shot, and then it hits, and we built the crisis moment, and then the lights go down, and that’s the end of the piece. And then everyone is like: “Oh my god. Oh my god!” But for me, what’s more interesting to me is the next 35 minutes, 45 minutes, hour.
Then real and dramatic time have collided. No one knows exactly what could happen next.
What do you mean that “real and dramatic time have collided”?
What I mean is that, within the narrative of a play, there’s dramatic time that is happening. And dramatic time has three layers. Some of it is, like: The play begins at dawn, and then there’s a scene change and it’s three in the afternoon, and then it’s five. But real time is what we’re engaging in right now. Performance art happens in real time. It makes people feel time. Whether it’s an eight-hour durational piece of someone in a locker, or a short piece of someone being shot in the arm, it makes you recognize time in a unique way.
However, when dramatic time hits real time, you’ve already bought into the dramatic ethos or mythos of what’s happening—this is an artwork. This is a play. And then the arrow comes out. Or the gun comes up. And you know that this is still in an image, it’s still a play, then the arrow is really shot, the gun is really shot, and all of a sudden you have to view it as not just a real gun being shot but as a moment in a dramatic arc.
After the Shoot piece, I begin a procession to On the Boards. That’s happening in real time. But it now has dramatic time layered on top of it. And I can’t layer dramatic time on top of it unless I’ve done all of the work to create a play. I have to create a piece of performance that could be re-created, that has recognizable elements of style, and aesthetic, and is operating in strict dramatic time—three minutes and 23 seconds. That’s how long we’re slicing Burden’s play out of.
That’s a really difficult thing to do. It happens rarely. Though it sometimes happens accidentally, and people love it.
Can you give me an example?
Yeah, like when you’re really young and suspension of disbelief still really works for you in the theater, real and dramatic time cross. Or when you’re a little bit older and you go to some gypsy-punk show and you don’t know that everything they’re doing is kind of a shtick. [Laughs.]
And you’re like, “Oh my god! This is incredible!”
And you chase them down the street after the show, and you don’t know that people in every city chase them down the street! That’s their trick. But it’s happening for you and is totally real.
As real as the dinner you had that night
Right. But as you get older, or more jaded and cynical, especially in the theater, it stops happening to you. The magic is lost. So to create magic, to make people or myself feel the way that I felt when I was like: “This is different from real life. This is real life that’s happening right now, but it’s different.” It changes the way real life looks after that.
You have to do a lot of work to make it not so transparent and shticky, like a gypsy-punk band.
So is that why you’ve chosen Shoot out of all the different pieces of performance art, American or otherwise, you could possibly choose? You’ve chosen this one. Is that because it has the kind of shock you think could restore that kind of magic in even the most jaded and cynical of viewers? Or even conceptualizers? Because there aren’t going to be a lot of people who see this.
A bit. But Shoot operates with the larger piece. The larger piece has dictated what the performance piece should be, and this has come up in a lot of conversations. It has to work in dialogue with the larger piece, the opera.
So how is Shoot in dialogue with the larger piece?
The larger piece, Paradisiacal Rites, is this reconstruction, how to re-create paradise. And it exists in a plane of consistent negative ascension to the saint.
And that’s why the name Genet—the negative ascension to the saint?
Yes, and it’s about the weakest becoming the most. For this particular piece, there are numerous moments that touch real time, but are always blocked, and they stop in dramatic time, and the piece slowly changes around that.
Can you give me an example?
I can’t. Or, no, I can. We have one company member who will be buried for hours, with just a breathing tube—so here’s this thing that’s really, really happening to him—then he comes out of the soil, and this changes the piece. Everything else that is happening is getting really weird and almost too violent and is stopped by the ascension that is happening in real time and changing the entire dynamic of the piece itself.
For me, it’s a really complex—a tense relationship. Having another veil of an action that has happened at dawn changes all the interactions with this person who’s coming out of the soil. Now, maybe he’ll be shot in the hand with a BB gun, a really small and simple BB gun, by someone who has been shot in the arm with a real gun.
And that changes the entire dynamic of this image. Or maybe I should hold the person while another, masked shooter shoots him.
So then what is the dynamic of injury? And what does it mean? And what does it mean for him to continue to move through the piece?
As opposed to the injured doing the injuring.
Right. It has the potential for the piece, the opera, to no longer have to—you don’t have to shoot someone with an arrow onstage anymore, because the dynamic and injury have already entered the theater.
We’ve talked about this before—if something happens somewhere that is esoteric in the sense that it’s remote and people don’t know about it, a kind of hysteria or panic can follow you as you walk into the theater, and before the audience at On the Boards even sees the first thing, there is already a cacophony of panic entering the doors.
Yes. And you don’t know what it is. Quietly, an energy can follow you. And this idea is not new. I’ve been describing to a few people what I’m planning to do as a pageant play.
You mean like the old medieval mystery plays where processions would go through small towns depicting different moments in the Christ story?
Yeah, plays that travel and people don’t necessarily know the work itself, but they know the story—
Right, but this thing happens, and this imagery is poetic, so it’s operating on the level of you seeing it and having a humanist understanding of what’s happening, whether or not you agree with how it was achieved or not, you understand. More and more images are layered onto it so you can digest and think about it, and then it also enters the realm of the theater. And the theater is a place that can also be a symposium, for all of these thoughts and ideas to be happening all at once.
Then you go outside and you are left with the world.
If someone had no knowledge of the piece at dawn and saw the show, is there anything in the piece that would communicate what had happened?
No. But what you might think, or feel, is that something was different. Something else is happening, but you don’t know what. This has happened in my own life—you have these inherent human instincts where you can recognize certain sounds or you have the sense of when, say, an actual fight breaks out—if we were sitting here, and an actual fight broke out, we would both recognize it because there’s a change in the physicality of the people, or if you hear someone in the next room having sex, it immediately registers to you, or if you hear someone actually beating his wife, it changes your physical body.
Similarly, watching something if you don’t know anything about it, but if something has actually occurred, and there’s a hysteria around it. Even if people are trying to control their hysteria, you can tell. You can physically feel it in your body.
This is what I think makes these ideas experimental. I will be able to prove this idea through this piece.
I’ve had experience proving it other ways—proving the real and dramatic time collision with the arrow being shot, or with an eight-hour performance where arrows are flying past people who are standing in cold water in October, allowing people to experience the sublime. Really letting people transcend from simple discomfort to images of the sublime.
[We talk for a while about the Belmont, the Bridge Motel, and other works Mitchell has been involved with in which the public was made to participate by seeking out tickets, passing through condemned or dangerous spaces, etc.]
It culminates in this feeling. This feeling that you know something different is going on. It feels different than it normally does. This is not audience-as-participant, it’s audience-as-witness. Like: “Oh my god, something is going on over there. And I’m scared of it. Or I feel like I need to do something about it.” I’m interested in this idea of participant and witness. They are both equally valid. There is you running down the street with the gypsy band, which is you as participant, but then there’s when you accidentally walk into a wake, and you shouldn’t be there, but you know what you’re viewing you will never see again. And that changes the world for you.
Or you were just in Burma, right? Maybe you walked into moments where you knew you should’ve even be there, but you’re witnessing it, and you don’t get to—nor should you—participate, but it’s still a poetic action you’re witnessing, still a holy action. It has nothing to do with Seattle, but it changes the way you view Seattle forever.
And that’s where the directionality of the way I’m viewing audience in this project goes.
People love to feel like they’re in on something, and that’s what happens in your projects. But that’s a really tough thing for artists like you—you can’t do a Shakespeare play and then an Ibsen play and then a Ruhl play or a Kane play. You have to make people feel differently. You have to reinvent the wheel every time.
Oh yes, and people will compare it to how you reinvented the wheel last time. They’ll say: “Oh, you’re just reinventing the wheel; you’re a one-trick pony.” And that’s fine. That’s just part of being an artist.
When people hear about this piece, if it happens, I imagine they have some strong, immediate reactions. For example: “If you’re going to re-create a famous performance-art piece at dawn, of all the ones that have ever happened, why does it have to be this one?”
Well, to answer the first question, why anything? Why any piece? Why anything?
That sounds like you’re dodging the question.
It is a dodge. But I wonder, when I’m at this place in my life, how much—and this is coming from Burden, too, being a little bit quiet about his explanation, and this is something I feel like I’d never say in my normal life—but it feels like the right thing to do. It feels inherently correct. And all the dramaturgy is pointing to the same place. And that’s not the answer I’m going to give you. But it’s a more personal answer, when people say: “I’m really personally concerned about this—why?” It’s, well, it feels like the right thing to do. That’s why.
The way that it relates to the piece is—I think that Shoot puts the artist in a place where they’re no longer there. The artist disappears. That is antithetical to what it has done for Burden, which is make him into an idol of performance art, but I don’t think that’s what you see when you see the piece happen in real life. I think you see the artist disappear. It’s a vanishing moment. It can only happen for a second.
It doesn’t matter if it’s me. It’s not me anymore. They’re focused on the shot or the action of care that has to insure safety, or they’re focused on themselves: someone hunting, someone shooting a gun, childhood trauma, or current sociopolitical things.
Once the shot happens, for me, the metaphor I see is you exist in another region forever. You’re neither living nor dead. You’ve done something that invokes death—I’m going to set it up as though I’m being executed, and I’m going to call it art, so once you’re shot, then you’re marked. Then you have to accept all of the reactionary—and deserved—vitriol. You can’t explain your way around it. You have to also accept the resentment that comes with people who’ve asked you not to do it.
From people you know personally.
Yes. And you have to accept the weird responsibility of saying you’re not glamorizing violence. It’s actually really sad what you’re doing. You hate yourself, you don’t want people to shoot themselves, but you have to highlight what it is for an artist to vanish. That is how it exactly relates to the piece at On the Boards.
You’ve said before that you’re not a masochist, which is another thing that people are going to fling at you—you’ve said before that the reason you use leeches in pieces is because you want to get blood out of your body in the least painful way.
Yes! I don’t want any of the self-hate that is shown when you’re cutting yourself. I’m not a masochist. I hate pain, I hate work—I worked for a truck driver for so long and was like: “Oh my god, I have to pick up all these pounds of potatoes every day.” But I do want, at the same time, to be able to address the things I want to address.
And I can endure, due to whatever circumstances of childhood. I cannot inflict harm on someone else. I cannot inflict harm on someone else onstage.
You couldn’t be the shooter in this piece?
I could never—I don’t have the skill to do it. And even if I had the skill, I don’t have the wherewithal to take the responsibility to do it. But I can take the responsibility to be shot.
But I already feel beyond my depths in the responsibility for what I do. There have been criticisms or observations that it’s been a cult of personality.
There have! I’ve heard that several times. The question is whether you’ve cultivated that or whether it’s been a by-product of some other method you’re using to work.
There’s something I’ve been talking to collaborators about a lot, the cult of rampant individualism. Like, you matter. Your ideas matter. But someone’s idea about—I don’t know, Kim Kardashian’s idea of what drug policy should be in Mexico is equally as valid as Brendan Kiley’s idea because everyone matters and their worlds totally matter and feeling good matters… I am the opposite of all of that. I don’t think any of that matters.
I think that you know way more than I do about this thing [drug policy], so my opinion is actually kind of void unless I want to do the work to understand something larger than myself.
So, it’s interesting, because it would be obviously more cultish if I were to say: “I’m going to do this to you and you have to trust me.” I can maybe shoot someone with a BB gun in the hand knowing that I cannot seriously harm them, but I can only do that if I’m going to do these other things and put myself in this more difficult position and know that I’m responsible for them and I’ve set up fail-safes for them.
But I can’t say, “I’m going to do something that would really damage you.” I would rather do that myself.
This is a circuitous point, but it’s interesting that there’s been this accusation of a cult of personality. I’m attracted to the idea of cult cultures, like propaganda cultures—like Britain in World War II—where it’s like: “Yes, you’re very important, now shut the fuck up and do your job.”
So when the conversation comes up about video, for example, then I need to shut the fuck up, and my opinion doesn’t matter. The project is bigger than you, than me, and that’s a beautiful moment.
I’m always interested in these ideas of—you hear it in acting school all the time—“the actor disappeared into the role” or “this actor was so giving, it was like they weren’t even there.” Shoot isn’t about me. It’s about a lot of people. It’s about a lot of parts of our culture. And it’s about setting something in motion that has resonance for a really, really long time.
Shoot generates fear. But the more you talk about these things, the less there is to fear about them. Whether Christopher Burden intended to do this or not, it doesn’t matter—but Shoot generates fear. It’s a frontline emotion, so you can attach yourself to that. Fear that kids will shoot each other, fear that X or Y or Z. But I think if you can move past the place of fear, Shoot is a pretty banal piece.
But by keeping it pretty much private, due to legal circumstances, inviting people in a certain way, Shoot will disappear, and the project itself will overwhelm Shoot.
And you don’t think people will say: “Shoot! And… also this piece by Saint Genet at On the Boards”?
It will be interesting. I’m re-creating something in order to create something else… I don’t know, though. It’s difficult to say.
Part Two: The Objections
Can we go through some of the possible reactions to this piece?
So, if this thing happens, and if people hear about it, I imagine they will have a lot of reactions, but I can imagine some off the bat. The first one being: “This guy’s an idiot. Why would anyone do that? This is art, art isn’t that important, and why would you shed blood over it and risk death—even though you plan to be shot by a .22, which isn’t that high-caliber rifle, but still—this is just a fucking stupid thing to do.” What would you say to those people?
[Laughs.] If someone was like, “You’re an idiot,” I would say, “I’m not an idiot!” [Laughs.] But sometimes you make a piece, or have to do things within a piece, that exist outside the boundaries of normal behavior, or normal civil standards of behavior, in order to highlight some of the absurdities or even atrocities that are going on in our culture.
So: Art is important only in that it serves to heighten people’s ability to understand themselves and the place they live and the world they live in and their place in the world. So you’re right, bleeding over art, though people have done it forever, may or may not be worthwhile, but that’s something that’s not actually for you to decide. It’s for me to decide, as the artist, whether or not I should bleed over the work. If I decided to bleed over the work, I guess all I could hope for or ask in exchange for that is that at least that much has been taken into account. At least you understand that that decision was made, which might help you understand why other decisions have been made. To risk things like being physically injured or having a long-term difficulty is also—is also—part of understanding yourself, and what you could do, or would do, or would be willing to do, or wouldn’t be willing to do, or why you wouldn’t be.
Where do these things begin and end? I do not think they are solid beginnings and endings. You could say: “Oh, I would be willing to bleed, certainly, to save my wife if some marauders were going to kill my wife.” Well, that’s a very easy answer. But are you also willing to bleed to stop the Steubenville rape culture? Where do you stand on things? Where are you in this realm? In reality, things are muddy. Day-to-day life is really, really muddy. Most of the time, people just get through their day, get through their lives, accept what is being put onto them, complain about it on the internet, and go to sleep. And if you want to complain about it on the internet, sure. That’s awesome.
But if you want to, there is also the potential for you to do something in real life that is different. It doesn’t mean you have to be shot to do it. But being shot maybe highlights the potential of what it means to do something.
This gets into this whole question of performance art as actuality and theater as representation, but to get to it: Is being willing to bleed over a representation a meaningful doing of something, like taking a stand against a rape culture would be?
I think it’s—well, there’s this really awesome 2Pac quote that says something like: “My mind isn’t the mind that’s going to change the world. But my mind is the mind that’s going to inspire the mind that changes the world.”
But it isn’t the same as taking a stand in rape culture or doing something in reality. But it does beg the question—it begs a lot of questions—of where an individual begins and ends. And that’s why I say things are muddy. This piece shows something that is clear, but to apply it is really muddy. When do you actually stop and say: “This is something I can or cannot be a part of?” Instead of asserting myself like the asshole that I am all of the time, I’m going to give over and stop being such an asshole in this culture. It works both ways. It doesn’t have to be an aggressive thing, like: “Now you must go out into the world and do something.” It also means you could stop doing something and give over and let yourself be a different person in that way, too.
It sounds like what we were talking about—the artist disappearing inside the piece. You’re talking about an individual disappearing into a moment, which could be a space of refusal, a gap, and could be kind of revolutionary because the expectations of what will happen or should happen (A, B, C, D, E) is interrupted, and there’s a gap between D and E where something else can enter. At least it sounds like that’s the potential of what you’re talking about.
Yes, it is. Of course it makes sense if you are a martyr—in real life you say: “Of course I’m going to martyr myself and be shot because I’m not going to ethically give in.” Like someone who says: “I’m not going to give up my gun rights, I’d rather have the police kick down my door and kill my whole family.” Okay, sure, in your strange fantasy mind that’s possible. But that is out of control. That’s ridiculous. So I can maybe keep my opinions about the Second Amendment but withdraw my support of the NRA and acquiesce and disappear from that.
We have this hero culture here—“You’ll take my guns out of my dead hands,” or “Don’t you call my lady a ‘bitch,’” this Wild West culture. But life isn’t that way.
But some people would look at this piece and say you’re trying to be a hero and a martyr at the same time, glorifying yourself and showing how strong and magnificent you are to be able to do this…
This has been a major conversation dramaturgically. It’s that way if that’s all there is—it would be just an assertion of white heterosexual male privilege, basically. But to do it as part of this whole other thing, and to do it privately and quietly, it becomes about both, hero and martyr, and when those two things can occur. They’ll vacillate—between me, and the shooter, and the audience member, and then maybe the people on the street you’re passing, maybe it gets weird and sensational at times. It feels like it can exist as a microcosm and a macrocosm.
Because things aren’t black or white—we think we live in this bifurcated, red or blue, black or white culture. And the world doesn’t work that way. The people who are smart understand that the world is difficult—difficult as shit. Sometimes you have to give. Sometimes you have to stop giving and say: “This is enough.” But it’s not binary.
So they’re correct in saying I’m doing those things, but they’re wrong if they think I’m only doing those things.
The second reaction I can imagine is: “This guy’s a cheap sensationalist.”
There is a touch of sensationalism in it, but the reality of what’s happening is different than the perception of what’s happening. When reality and perception collide and change, then maybe some modicum of truth can exist after the firestorm of those two things meeting.
I don’t think I’m sensationalizing it. I’m trying to protect institutions and people by keeping it private. It all depends on the reaction outside—people who are reactionary will sensationalize it. And people who are not possessed by fear will—they will remain.
The procession is an even more difficult part of the performance.
You setting off every day at dawn and walking to the theater.
Yes, maybe it becomes triumphant. It seems martyrish, but maybe it becomes triumphant. Or maybe it becomes very dark and sad. Again, it’s about existing in a place where it would be foolish to decide that it is one thing and not another. It’s too easy, and it’s not the truth. It’s simultaneously understanding Christopher Burden and bringing the status of his piece into the real world it. It’s no longer this untouchable thing. We can touch it. We can feel it. We can look at it exactly, for what it was. Bare bones, stripped naked.
Then we get to see the potential of what it means now, and what it means in relation to this larger project.
What about people who’d say: “This man is a danger to himself and possibly a danger to others and should be locked up”?
[Laughs.] Well, I am dangerous!
Yes, conceptually. But we’re talking about some potentially serious shit here.
To say that it’s dangerous, I think you have to get to the root of what is danger and when is danger mixed with fear. It would be dangerous if I was, like—and there was a case of this in New York—where two people got drunk and one guy said: “Oh, just shoot me in the arm, bro.” The state pressed charges on the friend because they’re clearly irresponsible and dangerous. They don’t understand the consequences of their actions—they’re drunk and they’re negligent, criminally.
This is different because one, I have a strong creative history of touching on things that imply danger, are dangerous, or create an illusion of danger and chaos and fear. So it’s operating within a realm I understand. And two, I’ve taken as many steps as possible to eliminate danger for anyone else who could possibly be there and to mitigate the danger to myself. I’m less dangerous, let’s say, than the father in Tacoma who left a loaded gun under his car seat, and then his 3 year-old son got it and shot his 5-year-old son in the face.
It brings to mind the stuntman. There is a difference between jumping out of a fifth-story window on a whim and a trained person jumping out of a fifth-story window into a giant pile of cardboard boxes.
That’s an interesting point and gets at the Jackass vibe of things, too. Like: “Oh we’re just gonna fuck with each other and shoot each other.” Growing up I watched skateboard videos, and they approach moments of being artistic—early Jackass episodes had the home videos of kids in upstate Pennsylvania or somewhere, and they had nothing to do, but they’d get dressed up, and it was like guerilla theater. They’d get dressed up in hockey costumes, and one would just walk in and order a coffee. Ten minutes later, another would come in and say, “Oh, you saw me out on the ice!” and they’d fight in the place.
On one hand, this is an idiot stunt. On the other, it’s theater. It’s totally theater. It seems clear to me if you watch Jackass it’s just idiot pain things, but some are weird, and you don’t really know what’s happening.
I’ve actually written reviews of Jackass movies comparing them to Burden—one of the characters pushed a big hook through his cheek, which was attached to a fishing rod, and went swimming in the water with sharks while his friend held the rod. He was operating as his friend’s bait. And I thought: “This has become something else—this is kind of haunting and beautiful.” That may not have been the intention, but for me it achieved this odd and kind of moving level of symbolism.
That’s happened to me a few times—it’s always too easy to dismiss someone by saying: “They don’t know what they’re doing.” To be able to show some things through the conduit of, like, MTV can be interesting. It isn’t always interesting. But sometimes it is.
To get back to the question of danger: I was walking home one night, I’d had maybe a beer and a shot, and I was behind this couple, and they were so, so drunk. We pass by a parking lot, and he goes over to the car, opens the door for his girl, then goes around the car and gets in, and this is where life is, again, muddy. Is this the moment I say: “No way. You guys cannot drive.” What do I do, as someone who believes in society? What if they tell me to fuck off, that they’re fine, and it escalates? Then when do I stop saying something? Or do I say nothing?
That sounds potentially more dangerous than what you’re proposing.
Yes. They could totally kill someone else. So what’s really dangerous? And what are we just afraid of? Did I just see the death of someone when those people drove away in that car? If I did, am I responsible for it? But we don’t think those things are actually real, that death could come right now, just as I don’t think I’m going to have a brain aneurysm right now. I’m not prepared to think like that.
This piece also brings that right to the table. It just puts it right in front of you—now you have to look at this thing. It’s real. It’s part of life.
Is this a gratuitous act you’re planning? It might point at certain facts in life, but is it a necessary way to point as these facts?
I would say it’s not necessary to be didactic—like when you ask about whether you bleed over a representation. To be didactic is never worthwhile, in my opinion. So, I’m being didactic in that description, but if that were the only description of the piece it wouldn’t be something I’d work on for so long.
How long have you been working on it?
I’ve been thinking about performance re-creation for, like, seven years. This specific piece I’ve been working on around a year and a half to two years.
So yeah, being didactic, who gives a shit? You don’t need to be hit over the head. But for something to touch on, or look at, or be part of—of this thing—it is important to do. At least to me, right now. Maybe in 30 years I won’t feel that way. But also, and this is something I’m really into, it doesn’t actually matter how I feel about it in 30 years. It only matters how it affects other people—it’s not mine anymore. It’s, again, like the artist disappearing into the piece.
It doesn’t really matter what an artist thinks about how their work is exhibited—if the point is about how the artist is present, the artist is there, and you must respect the artist more than the artwork? Then “go fuck off” is my main point to you.
I don’t think the piece is necessarily effective in doing something, because it’s not didactic, but it can be affecting for a long time.
Because a didactic thing can only do one, two, or three things, the ambiguity is more resonant.
Well, a didactic thing can only do one, two, or three things and for a limited amount of time. It’s something I struggle with with Brecht. Brecht is one of my favorites, but I read his plays and reread his ideas about epic theater all the time, but it’s a question—are these things affecting? Were they ever really that effective? I wonder about him. In my opinion they’re affecting, but you have to open the Pandora’s boxes that really is Brecht and the epic theater. Whenever I see Brecht, I see people’s homage to what they think the epic theater was, and the term “alienation” and all of this ridiculous shit. And it’s like, no, he doesn’t want it to be this. He wants it to be affecting. So you have to not only take the play, but the concepts it’s based on, and make it this thing—this is a tangent. But it’s an important thing within the dialogue because too often people look at performance or theater and just say: “It’s not what I thought it was, which means it’s bad.”
Like, I came here with certain expectations and I got a surprise, so it’s objectively bad.
Expectation is a very privileged place to be—I expect this will be beautiful, I’ll see the best play in America. When I saw the Nature Theater of Oklahoma show at On the Boards, I watched a piece of pop-art theater that maybe worked really well in New York when we were on the Bush bubble before the housing market collapsed. People were ignoring these major, major corruptions and problems at the time—the use of language and all that has to do with it, the making of a piece that was pretty devoid of meaning. And people got into it—they liked it, people who are smart, because they could see parallels of what was happening. But when it came here, its 100th performance, I watched people see it, and like it, and relive their enjoyment of the piece when they saw it in New York, or pretend like they were seeing it back when in New York, and not realizing (because of their expectations) what was actually happening—that we’re not in an abandoned building, we’re not in an art space, we’re in a space that cannot be rented. People were working on it, and now the work has stopped.
[When Nature Theater of Oklahoma came to Seattle with their show No Dice, they performed it in an unfinished office space downtown that seemed to have been a casualty of the real-estate boom and bust.]
So the economic conditions had changed and we were watching what seemed to be a wry comment on the culture of the bubble era, but it seemed to some people—like me—kind of frivolous in an almost insulting way.
Totally. Like the peanut-butter sandwiches they served—maybe it was some commentary of hipster theater culture in New York. But then when we were actually in a depression and people are actually out of fucking work, the irony comes off differently.
They couldn’t change the piece, I understand that. They couldn’t change it because it was what was in the contract and all that.
But! You don’t have to relive the same experience just because it’s your expectation. You can also use your mind. So it’s a privileged place to be—or maybe that’s not the right word. But you’re willingly acquiescing your human ability to think critically. You’re giving over to what someone tells you is good or what someone tells you is happening.
Abdication has been a theme in this conversation! Can we get to the next reaction?
This one I think would come after the shocks of the other reactions, but it would be: “This guy’s a copycat. Maybe even infringing on copyright.”
Yes. I’m actually really excited for that dialogue if it comes up, because it gets to this more esoteric idea of: “What part of Shoot does Christopher Burden actually own?” I’m curious. If I changed the time, would he still own it? If I changed the caliber of the bullet, would he own that? That gets into the question of: “What is performance art? What part of this inherently illegal action do you own?”
If you make someone shooting someone else a piece of art, which he has—I mean, it’s in the history books as a pretty seminal piece of American performance artwork—can that then be re-created? If it can be, and I’m copying it and stealing it, I’m happy to be told why, and be told what I’ve stolen.
What if you got a cease-and-desist letter?
Well, he’d have to explain. I would happily go to court, and he could explain to me what it is I took from him. Because it’s a dialogue about what these things are. This is a little tongue in cheek—I know that. Like: “Oh, you’ll take me to court and tell me what part of getting shot you own. Cool? I would love for you to be on the stand—you know who you could sue so hard? 50 Cent. He’s been shot, like, nine times!”
But I think it would ultimately be intellectual property.
Does he own it as a unique event, as performance art? Or like you’re proposing to do it, as theater, with a script and actors, reproducing his event?
Then do I own it? I know another artist right now who has received a massive national grant to re-create whole sections of things that were broadcast on television, like a shooting or whatever, and they’re doing exact re-creations of people’s reactions. So… do they own that? Who owns that?
Like news broadcasts?
Yeah. From Florida. Extended sections that are exact re-creations. So if Burden’s argument was that it wasn’t an event, it was an artwork, and I’ve infringed on his artwork, I would probably ask—just to be a little bit difficult—what are the merits of the artwork he made? So he would have to answer all these questions that I’ve just answered for you, just so I could understand whether or not we made the same thing.
And I would be happy to explain it enough so that even he says we didn’t make the same thing, even though we’ve done almost exactly the same thing. I don’t want to be completely antagonistic about this, but I want to embrace it—I know it’s not the same thing because of all the other things going on around it—but I’m interested in these things. I’m interested in when performance becomes theater. Or if it can. I’m interested in that piece he made.
People used to own music, own images, but that’s changing rapidly—the whole idea of ownership. The whole idea of: “Oh, I’ve got this singular genius.” No. No, you don’t.
How has this divided the company? Have people left wholesale?
No, but it has divided the company in a few ways. One is that it’s not the company’s project, so I get touchy about how much I actually have to explain.
How is it not the company’s project? It’s part of Paradisiacal Rites.
None of the company members will be actors in this piece. I’ve gone outside to get the people who are the “actors” who will be in it. And it’s not theirs in order to protect them. I don’t want them there, to make sure they can always be in the other piece.
And you’ve made contingency plans if you can’t be in the other piece because you’ve been arrested or hospitalized?
Totally. It’s also not their piece because it’s not them that has to do it. It’s my piece. Just like Paradisiacal Rites is my piece, if it gets to a real push-comes-to-shove vibe. It’s my company. And that’s different than Implied Violence. [The company that won a Stranger Genius Award a few years back, of which Mitchell was a cofounder.] I’ve structured it differently, though it may seem similar from the outside.
A lot of the idea of Saint Genet is this idea of persona, a persona-driven false identity. So Saint Genet can be me and other people, or it can be me alone, it all depends on what project I want to manifest. So Paradisiacal Rites, but I have an insane investment in the people working in it, so not all elements are totally mine.
It’s not their project because—and I mean this more personally—I have not actually received any massive, negative critical feedback about it. It’s all muddled, like: “Oh, the logistics aren’t sound because of X, Y, and Z.”
So I parse it out and say: “I can totally talk about logistics with you. I can go through that. Or I can talk about conceptual rigor. I can talk about that part. But I can’t let you tell me that the logistics affect the rigor. You can’t tell me, ‘What if this, what if that, that’s why you can’t do it.’ The logistics I’m handling. Like I handled the 20 flights to Vienna [where Saint Genet premiered Paradisiacal Rites shortly before their US premiere at On the Boards] and handled all the shipping of things, I handled organizing all the rehearsals—I can handle logistics. It’s one of my strengths. So, if you never asked me about the $28,000 I just had to drop on flights because you had faith that I’d sort that out—even though I can barely pay my rent, but you know I can find that much money for flights—then you’re really going to ask me: ‘Who’s gonna be there to make sure your arm’s okay?’ Like that isn’t the first thing that I took care of? ‘Is the shooter, like, good at shooting?’” [Laughs.]
These are the very first things I took into account! Within the collaborative base I’ve sometimes felt almost insulted—it’s coming from care, and from nervousness, but it’s like, come on. I’ve made sure that all your meals are exactly the way you want them when we’re in Europe—which is harder than it sounds! And you think…
You think I’m not looking after my own fucking arm!
Exactly! But then it gets into the conceptual stuff and—if I could do anything else that was as strong as this, I would happily do it. If I could achieve the same things, I would happily do that. But nothing has come to me, nothing’s come up dramaturgically, or when I’m reading a book or taking a shower, that it should be something else.
If it is the inciting action for the play itself, it’s connected forever, outside the realms of dramatic time or the fantasy of the message of a show, I’m actually saying that from now until forever, this piece Shoot and this dialogue between spacing and staging of these pieces—wherever the show goes, even if I never do Shoot again, it will always be in dialogue with the show. It’s still something that has to be taken into account.
Something that is always overlooked is that when something important happens, you don’t have the complete picture right away. I have the complete picture because I’m distant from it, I’ve been working on it for two years, but dialogue comes over time. I don’t know that anyone else will have the complete picture for five years, this thing that I have pretty intentionally made to tour—
You mean Paradisiacal Rites?
Right. That opera is the white whale. And Shoot is fuckin’ Ahab, forever chasing it. And that is one of the most powerful metaphors for me, Ahab chasing the whale forever.
It will be interesting, as the opera travels around, to have this little ghost following it. But that’s cool. That’s what’s interesting about making pieces. And that’s why I’m so reluctant to give something up. I want to think about what the opera will be like in 10 years, and I don’t want to give up the ghost trailing behind it.
Well, let us hope for the day when you think that talking about this piece yet again has become more painful than actually doing it.
Yes. I have talked about it a lot. Sometimes you talk about these things like you’d talk to your grandma about something, where you’re like: “Listen, it’ll be okay, and I’m going to tell you this because I love you—I’m okay. And you don’t get it, Grandma, because you’re old. And I love you, so here’s the thing. I’m just gonna stop talking to you about it. I know you don’t like the gays. But let’s stop talking about it. I still love you. But let’s not ever talk about it again.”
I mean, that’s not my grandma, that’s what I assume other people do with their grandmas.