Content warning: this piece explores themes of violence and references sexual assault.
ONE EVENING IN his kitchen we talked about the performance artist Chris Burden, who I knew of only for having allowed himself to be shot in the shoulder for a film. Ciaran’s eyes lit up and said I ought to read about TV Hijack. He grabbed his phone and showed me a picture of a man standing behind a woman in a chair with his hand pressed to her throat. The backdrop was bright blue. She struggled to release the man’s grip on her.
Ciaran explained. This was one of Burden’s earlier works, part of his enduring interest in television, which was much more famously and successfully illustrated in his later work TV Ads. In Hijack, an art critic named Phyllis Lutjeans had asked Burden to do a piece on an arts and culture show she presented on local television. Several proposals Burden made were rejected by the station or Lutjeans, and he agreed instead to do an interview. He insisted that the interview be broadcast live.
When he arrived, Lutjeans began by asking him to talk about some of the actions he proposed which were ultimately shut down. At this point Burden stood behind her and held a knife to her throat. He threatened to kill her if the station stopped broadcasting. He went on to detail what he’d wanted: force her to perform obscene acts live on air.
Lutjeans was unaware of Burden’s plans. Her alarm and humiliation are real.
I listened as Ciaran talked and stared at the picture with growing unease.
‘She didn’t know?’ I asked, ‘He just pulled a knife on her?’
‘Tsk,’ rolling his eyes, ‘That’s beside the point. It was about confronting the televised violence we all accept. Anyway, she didn’t mind. She said so later.’
Later I found interviews which confirmed she was not complicit, was shocked and frightened. But she defended the work; it was simply Burden’s style.
I thought about this, about what the alternative was. I thought about times I laughed along with men making rape jokes only weeks after my own rape. I thought about Lutjeans being released from Burden’s grip and spinning to face him, searching his face frantically, the second in which she had to decide whether to cry and scream at him or wink. What would you choose? You can either be famous for being a shrill prop in a great man’s work, a victim sacrificed to the gods of art, or you can nod along and applaud. You can have a seat at the big boys table for being such a good sport. So, go ahead: ha ha ha.