I’m surprised that I haven’t shared this story before. It seems that I at least mentioned it back in June 2017, but only as a tease that never got followed up on. At least, until last night.
The UC Irvine art classes. How did a physics major end up in the wackadoodle UCI performance art classes? And how did he survive?
First of all, what do I mean by “wackadoodle”? From Day One I was told about a guy who was a legend there, a guy who, for his master’s thesis, locked himself naked in a locker out in the middle of the campus for days, counting on the kindness or strangers passing by to give him food and water. As a topper to that, for his PhD thesis he did a performance which ended (as planned, it was part of the piece) with someone (a marksman?) shooting him in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle.
It was “art.”
(As a side note, I wondered for years if the legend had grown over time with repeated tellings and associated embellishments. Then I saw this article in May 2015 about Chris Burden, UC Irvine class of 1971, who had just passed away. The masters thesis was called “Five Day Locker,” the locker was two feet by two feet by three feet and is still there today. The piece where he was shot was called “Shoot” and was done in 1971 – no word on if it was a PhD piece, but it was done. Beyond that, I learned that he’s the artist who later did the “Urban Light” exhibit at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) which I’ve so, so, so much wanted to see for years. Now I’ll have to make it a priority.)
Back to our physics major. What happens when we go from “read chapter five and do problems five through twenty” to “take sticks and strings – make art?”
It’s entirely possible that a cranial short-circuit will happen and green brain goo will start to run out of one ear while wisps of smoke start to come out of the other.
It was touch and go for a while, believe me.
Then something amazing happened. The physics major found a different way to think, a different way to look at problems. There was a whole new world out there! All problems weren’t all right or wrong, true or false, black or white. There was a spectrum there, a rainbow. (Isn’t a spectrum a physics thing as well, come to think of it?) If I were able to toss my preconceptions and expectations just allow my less analytical side to play, interesting things could happen.
The other project I remember vividly was in spring quarter. “Take 100 or more identical objects – make art.” Physics Paul would have imploded. Art Paul said, “Cool!”
At the time I was working my way through college by working for Marriott, back in the kitchen in purchasing and room service. In an industrial kitchen you buy LOTS of food and staples in “number 10″ sized cans. Most of them come with plastic lids about 8” across, sort of like the lids you get on butter containers or cheap, imitation Tupperware. I started gathering them instead of throwing them out and quickly had more than a hundred. Some were already colored or white with food logos on them but many were clear. I took them and spray painted them different colors.
UCI didn’t have a football team, but they already had a great stadium. I took the class out on a sunny morning and sat them in the stands, while I went out to mid-field with a classmate. I put a stick in the ground to hold on to (hey, guess where I got that stick??!!), blindfolded myself, and grabbed onto the stick with my left hand. My classmate then started handing the lids to me one at a time, I walked in a circle while holding onto the stick, and flung the lids like Frisbees all over the field, at random, blindfolded. When I was done, they made a nice, pretty, random colored, and randomly scattered array across the green grass.
Art!! (Jerry loved it.)
Did I get my breadth requirement fulfilled with my art classes? Yes, that and more.
I ended up taking all three quarters of “Art 101” and I got straight A’s. Which really, really pissed off a lot of the art majors who desperately needed a good grade in this class in order to succeed in their chosen major. They were so, so earnest and trying so, so hard and getting so-so grades, while I had nothing to lose, didn’t really care, just did whatever fun shit came to mind, and got A’s. (There might have been a lesson in there for them, but it wasn’t for me to teach it to them.)
When I got to my senior year at UCI I only needed a couple of physics and math classes to graduate so I had plenty of open space in my schedule for the year. I seriously thought about trying for a double major, in both physics and art. A couple of “real” art classes (painting and drawing) convinced me that there might also be a certain level of artistic talent necessary for that plan which I wasn’t in possession of. I had fun in the “Drawing the Human Figure & Anatomy” classes, but the teachers there were more concerned with actually being able to make a recognizable human than being enthusiastically goofy.
However, on the other side of campus (literally), many’s the time, particularly on tests and finals, when that Art 101 mindset proved useful. As much as they might want you to learn HOW to do some problem or calculation in the homework, when it comes time to the finals they love to start throwing curve balls to see if you can apply what you’ve learned to problem solve instead of simply regurgitating it by rote. Being able to flip that switch in your head over to “art mode” momentarily to look at a problem often showed me the way when I was stuck.
Sometimes today I can still do it. When I remember to. It’s like a muscle that needs periodic exercise to stay strong.
I found that, similar to what I’ve heard about improv comedy, the biggest obstacle people have in “making art” like this is the fear of failure, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of looking stupid. I understand. There are times that I’m drowning in those feelings and those exact thoughts.
When you’re drowning there, here’s your life preserver – “Make Art.”
Once you figure out what that means and how to flip that switch (and having no fucks to give on whether or not you fail or are embarrassed or look stupid) it’s amazing what you can get done.
Postscript – While proofreading I was curious and went looking for more on the Chris Burden “Shoot” piece.
Oh. My. God!! Watch this 5-minute documentary (including the shooting!) done by the New York Times in 2015 after Burden’s death!!! Amazing!!