Bring Me the Head of Henry Jenkins…. (Part One)

Coming soon to an art gallery near you: My decapitated head. Don’t worry if you don’t live in a major cultural center — my head will also be rolling around in a pool of blood in a straight to video horror movie that you can rent at your local Blockbuster. Well, this is another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.

In this entry, I will be sharing some images of the process by which the experimental artist Christian Jankowski transformed my head into an art object as part of a work known as “The Violence of Theory.”

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For me, this all began when I was asked by the folks at MIT’s List Gallery to give a talk about the intersection between popular culture and high art. (I have for a number of years served as part of the advisory group for the gallery, though I have been relatively inactive lately.) I decided to present a talk based on my essay about Matthew Barney’s relationship to the horror film, an essay which appears in my new anthology, The Wow Climax. In the course of the talk, I moved pretty fluidly from clips and images from Barney’s Cremaster series to clips and quotes from such popular horror artists as David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, and Clive Barker. This paragraph cuts to the heart of my argument:

The modern horror genre was born in the context of romanticism (with authors seeking within the monster and his creator powerful metaphors for their own uneasy relationship with bourgeois culture) and the horror film originated in the context of German expressionism (with the studios demanding that madness or the supernatural be put forth as a justification for the powerful feelings generated by that new aesthetic sensibility.) The popular aesthetic’s demand for affective intensity and novelty requires that popular artists constantly renew their formal vocabulary. Representing the monstrous gives popular artists a chance to move beyond conventional modes of representation, to imagine alternative forms of sensuality and perception, and to invert or transform dominant ideological assumptions. Historically, horror filmmakers have drawn on the “shock of the new” associated with cutting edge art movements to throw us off guard and open us up to new sensations.

From the start, horror films have required a complex balancing between the destabilization represented by those avant garde techniques and the restabilization represented by the reassertion of traditional moral categories and aesthetic norms in the films’ final moments. There is always the danger that these new devices will prove so fascinating in their own right that they will swamp any moral framing or narrative positioning. For many horror fans, the genre becomes most compelling and interesting where narrative breaks down and erotic spectacle and visual excess takes over.

If the horror film has a moment of original sin, it came when the producers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inserted, at the last moment, a frame story that recontextualized the film’s expressionist mise-en-scene as the distorted vision of a mad man. Through this compromise, they created a permanent space for modern art sensibilities within popular culture but only at the price of them no longer being taken seriously as art.

Among those people in the audience for the talk was Christian Jankowski, then in residence at MIT, as he was setting up an exhibition, “Everything Fell Together,” in the gallery. Some months later, Jankowski contacted me again, this time to talk about his newest project, a series of artistic explorations of the culture around the contemporary horror film. Jankowiski had found a low budget horror film production which was willing to work with him to create a parallel work: he wanted to interview some of the leading theorists of the horror genre and incorporate their insights into the dialogue of the film. And while he was at it, he wanted to take “impressions” of us and transform them into prosthetic body parts, which would be deployed in gorey ways in the film and then displayed under glass in the installation.

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Little did he know that he was tapping one of my boyhood fantasies. I was a horror film fan from the crib. I received a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine for my thirteen birthday and spent hours flipping through the pages. My favorite bits were when they showed us the process which transformed Lon Chaney into the Wolfman or Boris Karloff into Frankenstein. I had clipped articles from Life magazine about the aging of Dustan Hoffman for Little Big Man and about the process that transformed Hal Holbrook into Mark Twain for his famous television special. At one time, I could have told you what Lon Chaney had in his make-up kit and how long it took them to turn Roddy McDowell into a chimp for Planet of the Apes. My mother had given me a make up kit and book when I was in my tween years and I spent horrors dribbling fake blood from my mouth or making synthetic scars using mortuary wax. So, it didn’t take much to convince me to sit in the chair and have professional horror film makeup artists take an impression of my head.

My mother always told me to leave a good impression. My father always said that I should have my head examined. As it turns out, they both got their wish.

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They started by wraping my upper body with a plastic garbage bag and then making a skull cap. They proceeded by coating my beard and my hair with vasaline which is supposed to prevent the rubber from sticking to my folicules. Then, they coated the area around my nose with an hideous orange goop, clearing out an area around the nostrels into which they inserted straws so that I would be able to breathe throughout the rest of the process. From there, they proceeded to coat my entire face with this orange substance. As it starts to dry, it becomes more like rubber but at first, it felt a bit like dunking your face in a vat of cold oatmeal. To hold the rubbery stuff in place as it dries, they wraped my head with bandages and finally covered the whole with plaster. For me, the biggest surprise was how much weight all of this placed on my shoulder and chest.

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I had been warned that many people experience claustrophobia while undergoing this process: I went into a kind of hybernation and found the whole thing very relaxing up until the final few moments. For some reason, as we were approaching the end of the process, I suddenly found myself starting to sweet and felt some mild forms of panic. It was an enormous relief when the whole thing was removed — not the least because I was finally able to speak again. I had so many puns and one-liners built up that they just exploded out of me once I got a chance to talk again. The whole process took about two hours — and we did it in the main lobby of the CMS headquarters — so you can imagine the startled looks of people walking in to pick up forms or what not.

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The dried rubbery mask came off surprisingly easily and the technicians carried away with them a mold which perfectly captured the contours of my face. They said it would take about two weeks worth of work to transform it into a full reproduction of my head. While they were there, they took an extensive series of photographs of my face with various expressions, including asking me to imitate the lax jaw expression which we associate with death.