This and That: Chris Burden, David Blaine + Youtube

by Rainey Knudson July 1, 2017

This and That” is an occasional series of paired observations. – Ed.

Today: Bullet Catching

This week a couple seeking Youtube fame attempted a shooting stunt, and a man holding a thick book against his chest was shot and accidentally killed by his girlfriend. According to the New York Times, the man believed the bullet wouldn’t go through the book.

The most obvious and immediate art reference is Chris Burden’s seminal 1971 performance Shoot, in which the artist was purposefully shot in the arm by a studiomate. In a 1975 interview with Roger Ebert, Burden explained that “we simply couldn’t allow for the possibility that the piece wouldn’t work.”

Burden survived (looking fazed), and the piece went down as one of the greatest examples of performance art from the past century.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1972

In 2009, the magician David Blaine performed a stunt where he caught a bullet in his mouth. Ever the student of magical history, Blaine recounts in this video some of the people who’ve attempted a bullet catch (as an illusion or for real), including Carl Skenes, who performed the stunt on the TV show That’s Incredible in 1980 and later coached Blaine for his own attempt at the bullet catch.

David Blaine


Carl Skenes on That’s Incredible

In all these activities, the mechanisms and tools are the same: you have a gun, you have a person being willingly shot at, and the experience is enlarged to other people through the media. But we only consider Burden’s piece to be art. The crucial difference of course is the intention. Once again, context is everything. One example is art, one is Houdini-style spectacle, and one is just people hoping to be seen.

It’s interesting to consider what Chris Burden would have done if Youtube had existed in 1972. He didn’t publicize Shoot at the time; only a few people were even there. It’s hard to imagine him, detached as he was from the gaudy aspect of his early endurance/self-torture performances, drumming up attention for Shoot on the Internet. We remember it, fittingly, in a short, grainy, bare-bones videotape and a couple of photographs.

Chris Burden

* In an interesting epilogue to Burden’s piece, he and his wife, the artist Nancy Rubins, resigned in protest from the art department at UCLA in 2005 when a student brought a gun into a classroom for a Russian roulette-style performance art piece. One has to wonder whether Burden was more upset by safety issues, or because the kid had tried to copy him.



No matter how original, innovative or crazy your idea, someone else is also working on that idea. Furthermore, they are using notation very similar to yours. – Bruce J. MacLennan


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