Artists Utilizing Pain in Various Forms
by Grant Maierhofer
Initially when I spoke with Christopher Higgs about the potential of putting together a brief meditation for his "Authors on Artists" series, my mind became flooded with images of the past few months; musicians and performance artists using their work to hurt themselves, authors at readings screaming and forcing themselves through words in awkward breaths, monks self-immolating, and myself walking for miles listening to music like Hoax, or Death Grips, or even Mahler’s first symphony while shadowboxing or crushing an empty can of soda until my hand begins to bleed. All of these things came to me, and I sat down to write. What came out was little more than garbled nonsense, but the germ of an idea seemed to stick.
With the publication of my novel just on the horizon now, and two poetry chapbooks published earlier this year, the potential of reading in physical environments rather than sharing work digitally has been a great curiosity of mine. Tied with this, I think, is a bit of teenage nostalgia for basement punk shows and such wherein I first saw art screamed in the face of listeners, rather than humbly presented, wherein I first saw artists willing to physically put themselves through something to achieve an end result higher than mere recording would allow.
All of this considered, I’ve decided it’s best to make a list. I try to shy away from lists as much as possible, what with sites like Buzzfeed et al it can really tend towards uninteresting tripe if your first journalistic decision is to make a list to convey thoughts, but here it seems the best way to organize the artists of late who’ve most inspired me.
John Maus. Perhaps one of the most innovative musicians to utilize the potential of electronics in recent memory, Maus has been hard at work for quite some time. I was first introduced to his work by friend and musician Lorn, who occupies a similar philosophical place to Maus, though their music sounds completely different for the most part. Riffing on cheesy 80s film scores just as much as the classical tradition—Maus has degrees in Music and Philosophy and if I’m not mistaken studied with Slavoj Zizek a bit—it might be the last thing you’d expect to find a raw punk energy in Maus’ sound, and yet with tracks like “My Hatred is Magnificent,” and “Cop Killer,” it’s obvious that anger is pretty essential to his process. Aside from that, however, is the man’s live performance. He typically sets up a small device to play instrumentals, and between singing his lyrics in a Scott Walker-esque croon, will scream at the top of his lungs and hit himself—hard—in the face. Perhaps the thing I like most about this guy is the complete separation between experiencing the music itself—i.e. sitting around listening to it on headphones, etc.—and his live show. Where punk music in the strictest sense implies that its live shows are going to contain some anger, violence, and likely some self-abuse, with Maus it comes as a surprise and is perhaps thus more risky. It’s like a book of poetry from Norman Mailer. You don’t expect it and as a result you spend the whole time thinking about what the hell poetry might actually be; except with Maus you’re wondering where performance starts and ends, and how the hell so many musicians get by presenting less than a quarter the enthusiasm of his shows.
Chris Burden. This one’s fairly obvious, I guess, if you’re into this sort of thing. Burden has been active in the art/performance art world since the 70s and has done everything from creating his own (completely fucked) late night commercials to nailing himself to a Volkswagen in a modern-day crucifixion that fans could witness at Speedway Avenue in Los Angeles. He’s still active today but much of his previous self-torture has fallen away in favor of installation pieces and sculptures, and that’s fine. I don’t really think self-torture becomes the aged, and I rather enjoy his later work, but there’s something absolutely infectious about the early pieces, particularly Shoot, wherein—Aha!—the artist stands against a wall and gets shot in the arm, and Through a Night Softly, one of the aforementioned commercials where Burden—his hands tied behind his back—crawls across broken glass in a dark room for a few seconds. Nowadays it might be hard to accept this sort of thing with shows like Fear Factor and Jackass already things of the past, but if you let yourself be consumed by the world presented in this vintage, almost home video footage, it’s hard not to feel something a bit more sincere than an exhibitionist rush. I learned recently that Burden provided a common artistic interest between members of the group Death Grips, which if you look at their video work and watch their performances makes a degree of sense. It requires a bit of nostalgia, I guess, but to me the sort of person who sees the limitations of art and decides to go straight in for the gore is still noteworthy in our highly desensitized times. Further, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been curious to have a friend shoot me in the arm, or leg, or something, just to see how it feels, how it changes you. I guess I figure if we’re going to be a society that provides guns and antidepressants in equally massive doses, why not see just how far we can go?
Sunn O))), or Malefic. I include the band itself because when I first saw Sunn O))), at fifteen, in a museum alongside Boris, I couldn’t stop thinking of the fact that I was some seventy-five feet back from the amplifiers, and they were only inches away. There’s an element of masochism, and torture, in much of Stephen O’Malley’s work, but it’s in seeing them live that you understand just how far it really goes. They don’t want to merely hurt the audience with loud, incessant, seemingly random drones, but they want to welcome you into a world of shit and use their amplifiers to reach some lower state of consciousness, some universe outside our own where screams and vibrations dictate your every move. In mentioning Malefic (Scott Conner, of Xasthur), however, I’m of course referring to the recording of Black One, and the notorious story of locking the claustrophobic singer into a coffin to record the vocals for “Báthory Erzsébet”. Whether this is true and provable seems immaterial, as this rumor has become essential to the mythology that is Sunn O))). It isn’t just the imagery conjured up by a black metal singer locking himself in a coffin to achieve the desired register for a particular song, but the idea that he’s also claustrophobic that I find so captivating. There’s something in Sunn O)))’s music that seems rather claustrophobic, and if you commit yourself to it you’re in for hours of complete mental turmoil that puts you in a better place than years of therapy might. While punk musicians sought to dissect their instruments and scream louder than was then accepted to find something new, Sunn O)))—on this record especially—has abandoned the small scale of the past to impose new heights of sonic violence onto their ears and, in turn, ours.
GG Allin. I can’t really make a list of this nature without mentioning him. Although his later music kind of loses me, I don’t think I listened to The Jabbers and his early stuff because of the sound alone. Allin is one that—at least now, after the dust has settled—shoves his myth in your face along with his sounds and you either get swept up in it or you could care less. For a moment there I sort of became obsessed. While there are artists making things vastly more interesting with infinitely better things to say about our world, GG Allin is one that tortured himself and openly hated the world before there was really a container for that sort of thing. He quickly wore out his welcome and wound up regurgitating a lot of unimpressive garbage before inevitably overdosing, but for a while there he tapped into something interesting. Marilyn Manson, to name one of Allin’s many offspring, obviously has more interest in presenting music that enhances the message and imagery rather than just serving as an excuse for another performance, but without the precedent of Allin’s insanity the public fascination with this sort of outlier likely wouldn’t have been such that Manson could’ve reached so many miserable kids in the 90s. I welcome the anger. I welcome the disgust. I even welcome the sentiment that if he hadn’t done what he did he probably would’ve been a serial killer. I don’t doubt him when I see him tell Jerry Springer this on national television, and I’m grateful that a potential mass murderer instead became a punk rock musician. Still an asshole, sure, and not one of the better punk rock musicians to ever pick up an instrument, but in retrospect what a fascinating body of work he left behind (his life) for idiots like me to pore over at three in the morning.
Darby Crash. Kind of tough to mention him just after Allin, but considering they made that godawful Germs movie with the guy from that Mandy Moore thing, I feel like I can’t go on without mentioning him. Darby Crash, while not an intellectual powerhouse on par with an artist like Maus or Burden, did serve as a sort of benchmark for self-destruction and alcoholism in the early hardcore scene in Los Angeles. In addition to this, The Germs made some of the best music of that vintage and Crash’s lyrics can actually tend towards the artful, and quasi-interesting. He’s a bit nuts, and in his lifetime probably didn’t do much beyond drink stolen beers and light farts on fire, but I implore you to find me a fan of this era of punk rock who doesn’t immediately recall the iconic moments in Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization when Crash stumbles around begging the crowd for beers, or sits in his kitchen recalling old battles. While the struggle with addiction puts the bulk of his work into question—i.e., would he have been so interested in torturing himself if he wasn’t a drunk savage?—he still created a niche for later musicians like Kurt Cobain et al to incorporate self-hatred and spastic, childlike screaming into their performances where this might not otherwise have been the case.
Vito Acconci. I already posted a long ode to Acconci on Dennis Cooper’s blog, so I won’t get into too much detail here, but I felt like mentioning the more shameful and self-deprecating elements of Acconci’s work that I maybe only hinted at in the previous post. I’m thinking here mainly of Seedbed, a piece where Acconci installed himself between a quickly-assembled ‘ramp’ and masturbated for hours in a gallery while talking to the crowd of onlookers. While this isn’t exactly an example of self-torture—depending on how you masturbate, I guess—I do find the idea of a self-imposed microscope-while-jacking-off rather fascinating in its ability to degrade the artist to little more than a teenager who’s been caught by his parents. While you can in turn argue that the piece goes much farther in dissecting sexuality and what we’re actually doing while masturbating, I think guilt and shame has a great deal to do with it as well. On one end of the spectrum, say, you’ve got lead singers in punk bands smashing the microphone against their faces in an environment where that’s sort of expected, and encouraged, and on the other you’ve got this long-haired well-read performance artist huddling beneath a slab of wood touching himself and talking to a room full of strangers, welcoming any reactions they may have. Both sides have their elements of self-torture, or personally applied pain—whether internal and emotional or external and purely physical—and both require the artist to step outside of conventional performance and transcend the work itself.
And finally, before presenting a slew of imagery related to all I’ve just recounted, I’ll include this portion of the initial piece I wrote, as it gets to the heart—sort of—of why I find all this so interesting.
I need artists and artworks that torture the creator(s) in random unscripted ways. I need flaws and anxiety, real humanity thrusting itself in my face covered in blood and sweat and beneath it all let me have the theory; acknowledge, say, that Acconci studied immensely to become the artist he became, but afterward let’s watch the lunatic masturbate and drink too much coffee. Let’s hurt ourselves and see what pans out! Let’s walk down the road mumbling to ourselves and screaming and when somebody stops to offer help let’s ignore them for just a moment longer to know that we aren’t mere shapeless American Turds with all the depth of our flatscreened appendages, that we still might walk with Roy Batty and see attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion…please let’s.
I’ve thought about it too much lately. The publication of my book has brought it about. I don’t reject the notion of a presence. I accept this, I just quite like the idea of presenting a studied presence based on previous figures I’ve admired, people who weren’t afraid to fall apart on stage or hurt themselves or sling shit to get their point across. I need thrown fists and knives to make it real. I can’t explain it, in fact I doubt even those most learned performers could truly encapsulate what it means to drag a knife across your flesh in a museum setting, they just know it matters more than anything else they could come up with; or at the very least it attracted them the most.
In some ways it has to do with the fact that this book has existed in some form or another on my shelf for years. I’ve written and rewritten the thing and thus have no interest in meeting a world in quiet librarian moods to ponder influence, I’m ready to scream and break myself for the thing, hurt myself and let you know we aren’t dead yet.
Most writers renounce the prospect of holding readings, see it as little more than pandering to some elusive ‘reader’ they’ll never really meet anyway so why bother, and I accept this too. I understand Cormac McCarthy and even applaud his reluctance to teach to a room full of undergraduates the stuff he worked so tirelessly to cultivate. What’s more, those writers we’ve never once heard read in public are no less stimulating and profound because of their separation between the printed text, and the author who wrote it; I suppose it just comes down to a matter of preference.
For myself, I’ve never let go of the wondrous spectacle of watching passionate lunatics torture themselves to get the job done. I’m fifteen again and watching the guitarist for the Formaldehyde Junkies scream the lyrics to Discharge’s ‘Decontrol’ in a shitty Minneapolis basement long before the rest of the band joins him. I’m 22 and watching John Maus videos where for all the theory and education he still sees fit to simply come out on stage and scream his lyrics and swat himself violently in the face to achieve some desired effect. I’m 23 and walking around my neighborhood listening to Death Grips scowling at traffic crushing an empty can in my palm until it draws blood and even then I keep on walking for miles imagining Frederick Exley in A Fan’s Notes doing something similar and just before I collapse a small hint of catharsis presents itself and I agree to go on living.
Why should performance be a part of it? Well, to again riff on John Maus and the fact that each release of his is highly calculated and together, what would be more boring for the artist himself than to simply walk out each night attempting to recreate that thing from so long ago? In this respect, one might choose simply to let the work speak for itself and fuck off into the woods until inspiration strikes again, and this of course is perfectly alright, but some of us want to see how far we can stretch the work, until it’s broken and we’re Lost Boys and Girls eating mud and dragging our fists on pavement imagining Michael Douglas in Falling Down just before he exits his vehicle and everything suddenly becomes real.
I think of Bas Jan Ader and his tragic ‘death’ while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, all something he created as an artwork, something to satisfy some buried nerve. Just how far is enough when it comes to letting your work completely subsume your life and devoting yourself to the elusive idea of art. I’m just not sure, but I’m not there yet. It’s buried inside me like the midnight waves that swallowed Ader and the spit of an unruly audience covering Marina Abramovic or Allin. Wanted spit. Requested spit that suddenly shatters the wall between maker and audience.
I think of M. Kitchell and a reading video I saw recently wherein he begins by reading a compelling story about a mythic dwelling in the woods, and by the end of the video he’s being slapped aggressively on his ass by a partner clad in dark glasses and baseball cap, wearing leather gloves. I think of Foucault and his notorious visits to the S & M palaces in San Francisco
Would we have any of the works of these artists to sit and pore over if at some point they hadn’t committed themselves violently, ritualistically to their craft? I hardly think so. In fact, I wouldn’t feel the least bit interested in reading Discipline and Punish if I hadn’t also heard that Foucault got into philosophy because he wanted to have sex with boys in his class who seemed smarter than him. I wouldn’t be so compelled to study the works of Acconci if I didn’t in turn know that he desired to live his art just as much as he hoped to make it. And further, I wouldn’t care in the slightest about hearing new music from Death Grips or Hoax or John Maus if I didn’t know that their tours would provide audiences with a dose of humanity at its most basic, and essential form.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of Ode to a Vincent Gallo Nightingale (Drunk Uncle/Black Coffee Press)and The Persistence of Crows (Tiny TOE Press). His work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Gesture, Brawler Lit, and We Feel Pretty. He’s a frequent contributor to HTMLGIANT and Delphian Inc. He lives in Wisconsin.