The Art of Horror and the Horror of Art: An Interview with Christian Jankowski (Part Two)

Due to some miscommunications, there will be a delay in posting the next installment of the Gender and Fan Culture series. We hope to have it up by tomorrow. Meanwhile, I am continuing to share with you the strange saga of how my head ended up in a glass case in an art museum. Enjoy!

For Lycan Theorized you worked with theorists who had written about horror film and asked them to give you impressions of various body parts. Can you give us a list of the theorist and body parts involved? Can you describe the range of responses you got from theorists to this request?

Lycan Theorized is composed of two parts: one is my film that piggybacked onto a B-movie horror production called Lycan. My film incorporates lines of dialogue that were taken from horror academics’ writings and emails. The second part of Lycan Theorized is sculptural, and consists of the prosthetics used in the film that were molded directly from the bodies of the participating theorists. When you see Lycan Theorized, you have the film and then a vitrine that encases these body prosthetic body parts.

The Lycan script had basic scenes that climaxed in the horror moment, the moment the body is destroyed. I had the actors recite bits of horror theory in the seconds before they are killed off. In this moment, the actor would drop lines of theory as if in a moment of enlightenment, representing the moment between life and death, and a transition from actor to theorist, even philosopher. Immediately after the body part gets chopped off, the actor would continue as usual, according to the script.

Prosthetics are of course a big part of horror film productions. The producers know they’ll need a hand, a leg, a neck, ear, etc. for the special effects of the killing scenes. I thought that instead of using just basic props, it would be nice to load these objects with a more specific meaning.

I gave each film character an alter ego in the world of horror academia. The werewolves were cast as the founders of horror theory: Robin Woods, Barbara Creed, Nöel Carroll et. al. Marc Jankovich (who edited the horror reader that guided me through the entire project) became Kwan, the werewolf hunter.

To have theorists’ physical involvement in the project, and not only their words, we cast their bodies for the prosthetics used in the film. When asking their permissions to use their texts AND make prosthetic casts of their bodies, most of them were thrilled by the chance to see their heads roll across the screen

One of the strangest moments I had was with Vivian Sobchack. I had asked her if we could cast her leg. Her initial reaction was weird, then she said, ‘You know one of my legs is a prosthetic, right? I lost the leg in an accident. But you’re welcome to make a cast of the other one.” Knowing this changed my reading of her work.

I decided to exhibit all of the body parts. As they were cast from theorists, it was ‘Frankenstein-esque’ to put all of them together: an ear from Brigid Cherry, a head from Julian Petley, a neck from Linda Ruth Williams, your head, all of the thinkers together under glass. It symbolized the quotes that were chopped out of their bodies of text, and re-formed into a new body.

On another level, the prosthetics inform the audience. Next to the prosthetics table there is a list of the theorists and the academic institutions where they teach. If you only see part of the film and see a head flying, you could reference the body parts and their labels to help you identify the quote and their cinematic alter ego.

Fingers: Melissa Ragona, Assistant Professor of Art, Carnegie Mellon University

Right leg: Vivian Sobchack, Professor of Film and Television, UCLA

Spine: Marina Warner, Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies,

University of Essex

Head: Cynthia Freeland, Professor of Philosophy, University of Houston

Head: Julian Petley, Professor of Film and Television, Brunel University

Right ear: Brigid Cherry, St Mary’s College, University of Surrey

Neck: Linda Ruth Williams, Professor of Film Studies, University of Southampton

Head: Henry Jenkins, Professor and Co-director of Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT

Left arm, right arm :D r. Raiford Guins, Senior Lecturer in Media at the University of the West of England

Hand: Linda Williams, Professor of Rhetoric and Film Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Can you describe in some detail the specific use you made of my head in the film and in the exhibit?

I clearly remember your head being shipped to the studio and the weird sensation of pulling the head out of a box. On my way to London and the installation of the exhibition I carried your head in my hand luggage. The security at the airport put it all through the x-ray machine and one guard joked to the other, ‘Hey, this guy is carrying a chopped-off head in his bag!’

When I altered the Lycan script for Lycan Theorized, I kept your thoughts on stealing ideas from high and low cultures in mind. Lycan had a scene about theft, where a group of vandals try to steal copper pipes and get caught (and of course, punished) by a werewolf. Since I like to think of you as the vandal between high and low culture, you became Vandal 1.

Ultimately they cast an actor for the role who was bald, so they had to shave your prosthetic head. When they finished up, they let it roll on the asphalt for the decapitation scene. I had a very intense moment when I thought, this is not cool, because it seemed disrespectful and weird to treat an exact replica of someone I knew, so casually. It became a very physical experience of looking. But then also remembered filming one scene where your character says, “In horror films, this is the way the most radical ways of seeing the world can be accepted.’ And that made me think, It’s okay. It’s okay to chop off Jenkins’s head.


You also drew on excerpts of theoretical writings to form the basis of dialog in the film. Explain. So, what use did you make of my quotes?

In the original Lycan script, Vandal 1 is a thuggish thief. The actor who plays Vandal 1 has to say things like ‘What the fuck…’ or ‘Leave us alone, man!’ In Lycan Theorized, you’re still a thief, but you talk about theft in a different way. Using your words, the same actor would say, ‘The word ‘theft’ here is problematic. Let’s think of it as like a dialogue or exchange. High and popular artists borrow from each other all of the time.’ Actually, these lines are not direct quotes from your blog or an essay, but taken from your email responses where you discuss the link between pop culture and fine art. Your fellow Vandals in Lycan Theorized quote, and in a way become, Raiford Guins and Vivian Sobchack. And you all get attacked and killed by the werewolf, no matter what you say.

You worked with an existing film production as part of this project. What relationship exists between the film they set out to make and the film you have produced using the same sets and actors?

The films are like brothers. The goal of one is to be very popular as a feature film (straight to DVD feature), and the other aspired to be an art installation. Mine is a reflection about the multiple aspects of horror film and I use the visual aesthetics of their work and mixing them with theoretical writing. But some scenes appear in both films. The theorist body parts, including your head, made the final cut of the Blockbuster version.

The Lycan producers tried to reach a commercial horror audience, so they had to play by certain rules. The considerations were definitely on sales and that werewolf movies were popular right then. And the higher the body count, the more explosions there were, the more screen-time the monster had – the better the sales.

They had a young, enthusiastic, low-budget director team to make the horror production, but wanted a commercial film to sell to a big studio; which in the end, they did. The filmmakers were realistic about the limited budget, so they did a lot with their enthusiasm. They didn’t have the funds to hire professional actors, but they wanted to do a funny horror movie, and part of the humor is the acting. They wanted to entertain the audience with killing, gore, a bit of sexiness, and aimed the film more at teenagers.

I remember the fights between the directors and the producer because the werewolf didn’t look like a “real” werewolf; they thought it looked more like a big hamster or the Abominable Snowman. It seemed funny, but I know there was serious tension between them, because the producer wanted to see a lot of werewolf in scenes but the filmmakers thought. not too much — because you might laugh instead of being scared.

I wanted to layer the film production system and the landscape of theory on top of one another. If you have a female monster who talks self-reflexively about the presence of a female monster, you see a very condensed image of meaning. I thought it could be scary, funny, and informative at the same time. I thought that this horror film would “throw back” theory that was normally superimposed onto it. Theory normally comes after the horror film arrives. This time theory would be thrown onto the audience instead of only body parts.

Also, theorists normally have this academic distance. If you want to analyze something, you need a certain distance from it, and I wanted to erase that distance physically by using their body parts and theories as a script. The normal forum for theorists is the essay, book, or conference. Instead of a conference or panel discussion, what if we gave them costumes and special effects, and have this discussion in front of a camera during a horror production.?

How have gallery visitors responded to the more horrific aspects of the exhibit? Do you think the exhibit is having an impact on the ways they perceive the horror film genre?

The openings were crowded until the very end, so I couldn’t have scared too many people away! But I remember two days after the New York show, I toured the show with a group of museum trustees and collectors. I started with a group of thirty, and after they walked into a very gruesome scene in Lycan Theorized, I lost about a half of them. I hadn’t even started talking about the project; it just seemed like they couldn’t handle these images. Another scene came on, using a quote from Raiford Guins, “The libertines dancing around the tortured bodies are Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush,” and the question up came up about how political this exhibition was.

I used this quote because it was one of the few quotes that see horror as something related to present-day politics. It is the opinion of one academic, but I felt that we could not leave such an extreme voice out, because it represents a whole tradition of horror writing linked to politics, Nazism, photos of corpses in newspapers, and consumer-zombies in shopping malls. For me, it was only one way to look at horror and the exhibition. But it’s an important, and a possible reading.

I remember at the (Art Basel) Miami fair, a bunch of younger people came over and over to see Angels of Revenge. Maybe they liked the shock value of it, and the weird stories. I suspect that a lot of people didn’t consciously re-think their perceptions of the horror film genre (after viewing Lycan Theorized), but maybe they think more about how horror exists in their own lives, whether it’s in politics or even when the cell phone gets stolen. If horror impacts you individually, then you know it’s not just a fantasy.

How does this exhibit relate to your larger body of work?

Looking at the whole body of my work, the horror pieces might be a brain tumor: linking the gruesome with the physical, and affecting thought.

I’ve used similar strategies in the horror works to works I’ve done in the past, but each experience becomes its own story. I usually participate directly in the artwork, I infiltrate an existing production, and the element of chance always plays a huge part in the outcome of a piece. There is a performative element, a cinematic element, and a self-reflective element. I’ve worked with pop-culture genres like televangelism and karaoke to structure the projects, and when I learn about another culture, there are fun collaborators who guide the way.