Remembering the Four Years Chris Burden Spent Turning TV Ads into Art

A still from Full Financial Disclosure. Screencaps by the author.

Conceptual artist Chris Burden is probably best known for taking a bullet for art in Shoot and enduring other feats of bodily harm, like standing on a ladder over electrified water. Later in his career, Burden tamed slightly and began creating intricate large-scale sculptural installations, including kinetic works. But in the early-to-mid 70s, Burden embarked on a series of artworks that he subversively presented as television ads in Los Angeles and New York City. The artist purchased commercial time on broadcast television, then aired four “ads” from 1973 to 1977.

"During the early seventies, I conceived a way to break the omnipotent stranglehold of the airwaves that broadcast television had,” Burden writes of the ads in the video Documentation of Selected Works 1971-74. “The solution was to simply purchase commercial advertising time and have the stations play my tapes along with their other commercials."

Chris Burden in a still from Poem for L.A.

But, Burden’s work isn’t entirely without precedent. Rebecca Cleman, Distribution Director of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), tells The Creators Project that before Burden, filmmakers and performers had already used television as a lab for experimental art. “It's important to consider more broadly the influence of such figures as Ernie Kovacs or Alfred Hitchcock,” Cleman says. “Both of whom turned commercial television into a staging ground for subversive site-gags.”

Burden's first attempt, the 10-second clip Through the Night Softly, is essentially a filmed iteration of Burden’s early work enduring pain. It looks looks like a scene from a B horror film, and possesses a Hitchcockian cinematic vibe. In it, Burden crawls through a 50-foot gauntlet of broken glass in nothing but his underwear. The clip aired on TV every night from November 5 to December 2, 1973 on KHJ, Channel 9.

A still from Through the Night Softly

Burden followed this clip with Poem for LA, which aired as both 10- and 30-second ads. Since individuals cannot purchase air time on television networks, Burden had to register as a non-profit art organization called C.A.R.P. The work aired a total of 72 times, also on Channel 9, from June 23 to June 27, 1975. This time, Burden speaks directly to the camera, his comments intercut with title cards like “science has failed” and “time kills." Playing on the way TV programs the mind through images, sound, and text, Burden uses repetition of the phrases and title cards, saying and displaying them, respectively, over and over again.

In Chris Burden Promo, Burden adds his own name to a list of the most recognizable artist names in the United States. After convincing station managers that the name Chris Burden was also a business, the spot aired in the Los Angeles and New York markets, including during Saturday Night Live. This time, Burden opts for a voice over, repeating the names of artists like Michelangelo and Pablo Picasso, with accompanying text and motion graphics, before ending with his own name.

A still of a graphic from Poem for L.A.

Burden’s fourth and final commercial, Full Financial Disclosure, ran as part of an exhibition at Baum Silverman Gallery in Los Angeles. The ad aired 30 times from September 20 to October 4, 1977. “In the gallery were a series of drawings created by grouping each month’s cancelled bank checks together,” Burden says in Documentation of Selected Works 1971-74. “My 1976 Income Tax Forms were also displayed.”

Burden, seated at a desk with an American flag draped behind him, talks directly to his fellow citizens. He tells viewers that in keeping with the “American Bicentennial spirit, the post-Watergate mood, and the atmosphere on Capitol Hill,” he is making a full public financial disclosure. Burden then uses graphics and voiceover to disclose his finances. It’s an artistic intervention that makes a nice counterpoint to Donald Trump’s contemporary refusal to disclose his finances.

A still from Chris Burden Promo

“Burden's television interventions can be related to earlier avant-garde movements that sought to enter art into non-traditional contexts, or to commandeer popular cultural forums, such as theater and movies, for independent production,” says Cleman. “Television's dominance from the 1940s on had a huge impact across the arts, and inspired artists to consider broadcast and performance as creative tools. With the emergence of consumer-grade video in the late 1960s, individual artists were finally given access to television technology, which they could use for personal expression—a key aspect of Burden's TV Ads,” she adds. “The sweeping influence of computers and the internet is analogous to that of television earlier.”

In retrospect, Burden’s ads pointed to the future of new media art. They also anticipated the type of dark absurdism that UK satirist Chris Morris would later perfect in his 2000 series Jam, particularly Burden’s Through the Night Softly. And Burden’s ads wouldn’t be so out of place if aired on Adult Swim as a bump. Maybe Burden, as Cleman notes, wasn’t the first to subvert television, but he was definitely one of the best at it.

Click here to see more of Chris Burden’s work.

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