Snuff Film Aesthetics: Chris Burden, The Ring and The Bodies Possessed byMedia

by on Mar.09, 2011

I’ve been thinking about snuff films, particularly as they pertain to the proliferative nature of media. One key figure of this thinking is obviously Artaud, whose theater of cruelty is suggests that the plague is a kind of media, turning bodies into conduits. Another key figure is performance artist Chris Burden, whose “documentation” seems like snuff films, whose art deals with the body infected by media (gun shots, electrified water, “velvet water”), whose documentation could be a crime scene (Art kills).

Some of the ideas I’m working with: wound-media (the idea of media as conceived as fluid, entering bodies through wounds, possessing the bodies, turning them into medium, this wound is often an eye-hole), the murderous quality of a media that kills “the original” through the creation of excessive copies or “versions” (“versioning”), the anti-kitsch rhetoric of “authenticity” (and how this pertains to the body, thus clashing with the wound-media dynamic, a clash which media always wins because art is never authentic, always inherently version-y, counterfeit, potentially kitsch), the automata (female robot generated as the excess of enlightenment science and then turned into the “automatic writing” and “automatism” of the surrealists) and some other stuff that I can’t think of right now but which will become clear through a series of posts that I will put up here.

Here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote for Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s new blog of poetics (it’s not up yet there)

The Ring:

In the horror movie The Ring, people get infected by viewing a cursed video tape, a kind of reverse snuff flick that doesn’t show death but causes it. The medium kills. The anachronism of the video tape medium itself foregrounds its mediumicity, as does the static that starts out the tape. This is followed by a “ring,” a burning ring with a dark center, an image that evokes a spellbound eye-hole, but it’s the eye hole of the viewer as well as an eye holes that looks back at the viewer: it’s a hole through which medium leaks, and infected the viewer, cursing them to die in seven days.

The eye is followed by an empty chair, the chair in which we might expect the victim of the snuff film to sit, but which here is left blank for the viewer. This is followed by Art that is alive: a woman combing her hair. Which is followed by a variety of scenes of violent interactions: a person either puking or having something shoved down her throat, a finger pierced, maggots crawling, cut-off fingers, centipedes, a dead horse, a woman jumping off a cliff. The film works as a two-way medium/media: it both accesses the dead and kills. Just like the eye-hole-shaped well in which a dead girl is supposed to be kept, but from which she also keeps accessing the world.

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It’s no surprise the film in The Ring is a montage of disparate images. It’s not surprise that it’s black and white. It’s no surprise that it features trick photography. Ie all the things the Surrealists loved about early cinema.

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It’s no surprise that the symptoms of having been cursed by viewing the films are (according to the Wikipedia entry) “surreal.” Reality becomes trick photography. A fly is both part of the tape and reality.

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It’s no surprise the movie starts with a typically silly girls’ secret/gossiping sleepover. Teenage girls are the preferred bodies for haunted mediumicity. (See the snuff poem “Lady Lazarus,” see “Munich Mannequins”, Kate Durbin’s teenage girl essay). They are most like automata. They like to play with ouiji boards.

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It’s not surprising the ring-curse is spread through media: the watching of the film, the copying of the film, both of which continues “the ring” of death. The ring which cannot be contained by the film, which flows over the film’s limits, demanding sequels. Samara cannot be put back in the box. She keeps “version-ing.” Rachel’s mistake is that she thinks that burying the original Samara corpse will solve the hauntings; the original doesn’t matter, it’s the replicating, the media “ring” that matters.

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It’s not surprising that Samara, the cursed daughter, was brought from China. The curse comes from abroad: media allows infections to cross boundaries. That’s the danger of media, it connects, it moves, it infects. It kills.

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Joyelle McSweeney on Korean artist Fi-Jae Lee and “the body possessed by media”:

Can a body be possessed by media? It’s a trick (and tricky) question, since a medium, in the occult sense, is supposed to be possessed by others. If an entity can be possessed by a medium, or, worse, by media, it is then opened to all kinds of possession, penetration, contents it cannot contain, overcrowding, doubling up, debility and damage. Deformation and eclipses, ellipses, reemergence and reemergence.

The gist of these metaphors calls to mind the libels directed at immigrants by nativists in most parts of the world—that immigrants crowd the space, use up the resources, create waste, destroy property, crowd out the job market, live in crowded living spaces, over-impregnate, make loud music, cook loud food, dress provokingly, wear the wrong skin, crash the state or (in America) crash emergency rooms with their bodily catastrophes. Such licit fantasies reverse the actual power dynamic in which the established population holds final power over the immigrant’s body.

[I will write more about this topics in the days to come, explaining some of these ideas in more detail. For example how Johan Jönson uses the snuff film in his book Collobert Orbital.]

5 comments for this entry:
  1. THE THEATRE OF GLITTER; OR, THE MOTHERSTAGE IS COVERED IN GLOW-IN-THE-DARK JIZZ: AN ANTIMANIFESTO OF THE ANIMATED TEXT AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE THEATRE OF CRUELTY (PT. I) « Blah Blah B*tCh3$zz

    […] is excerpted from a being I unleashed upon by theory & theatre class this morning. johannes’ post on artaud & snuff films inspired me to unleash it upon the […]

  2. THE THEATRE OF GLITTER; OR, THE MOTHERSTAGE IS COVERED IN GLOW-IN-THE-DARK JIZZ: AN ANTIMANIFESTO OF THE ANIMATED TEXT AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE THEATRE OF CRUELTY (PT. I) « Blah Blah B*tCh3$zz

    […] is excerpted from a being I set loose on my theory & theatre class this morning. johannes’ post on artaud & snuff films inspired me to unleash it upon the […]

  3. Lucas de Lima

    In Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts, it’s the teenage boy hustler’s body that’s possessed by media. We are not even sure he exists, but older men keep posting on forums about him, fabricating encounters and identities. The book itself is a compilation of these messages. Of course there is also HIV and lots of talk about snuff films.

  4. Blake Butler vs Chris Burden vs the Paris Review - Montevidayo

    […] Happens When a Writer Lives on the Internet.” It struck me how this article touches on both my recent post about Chris Burden and my post on the New York Times’ article about Lorin Stein, the new editor of the Paris […]

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