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

Last Spring, I ran two blog posts which described the curious process by which my decapitated head (or at least a replica thereof) ended up being used in a low budget horror film, featured in an experimental movie, and displayed in art galleries in London and New York City. The man who pulled me (and my head) into this fine mess was Christian Jankowski, a contemporary multimedia artist who largely works in video, installation, and photography. He has created a number of television interventions, including "Telemistica" (1999), in which he asks Italian television psychics if his new art work will be successful (the video he then created is comprised of recordings of these psychics answering his question), and "The Holy Artwork" (2001), in which he collaborated with a televangelist pastor. One of his early works, "The Hunt," is currently on display at Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art: in this video, he takes a bow and arrow into a grocery store, vowing to live only on food that he shoots himself.

My head was one of the featured attractions of "The Violence of Theory," part of The Frankenstein Set, a larger exhibit of his works which explored Horror films, their fans, and their theorists.

Given my rather intimate involvement in this particular exhibit, not to mention its clear relevance to those of us interested in fan culture and on the relationship between high and popular art, I had long hoped to feature an interview with him here about the work. Until now, his schedule has not allowed him to respond to my questions. But, now, as he is preparing the printed catalog for the exhibit, he has taken some time out to talk about the work, including his own version of the travels and tribulations experienced by my prosthetic head. A fuller version of this interview will be published as part of the exhibit catalog.

Some of what follows may scare you. Some of what follows may shock you. But all of what follows is true. This interview is not for the weak of heart. Nurses are standing by to attend to anyone who faints as a result of reading this blog.

The exhibition The Frankenstein Set (Lisson Gallery, UK. Sept. 2007) consists of three artistic interventions in and around Horror film culture. Can you describe your relationship to the horror genre? Were you a fan before you began this project? What drew you to do a series of works based on the horror genre? (*Note: the US exhibition title at The Kitchen in NYC was 'Us and Them').

When I begin working on an art project, it can start with a fascination about something I know little about, or am ambiguous about - but then it normally sucks me in. This time it was horror and I guess you can say now I'm a horror fan.

Although thinking more about it, bits of the horror genre were present in my life early on. When my parents first started dating they were shooting a horror short on 8mm in their spare time, a kind of thriller. They co-wrote the story, acted in it, and filmed it. I grew up in Göttingen, a little university town in Germany where the Brothers Grimm were once professors and my mother put me to sleep reading their folk tales of children being eaten by witches and of a little boy who went out into the world to learn about fear. Later, as a teenaged electric-guitar player, I wore black leather and used kohl eyeliner to shock my parents and teachers. My favorite book back then was Freaks and Monsters (which also inspired my first band name „The Freaks"), and I loved H.R. Giger and of course, Hieronymus Bosch. Some of the first films they showed us in art school were The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Un Chien Andalou. I also think the photographs I saw then from the Orgien Mysterien Theater of Hermann Nitsch and the other bloody performances of the Vienna Actionists may have guided me in the direction of performance art - which is still the base of what I'm doing today.

The horror project started when I attended a lecture of yours at MIT on horror imagery in Matthew Barney's work. There was this high level of interpretation given to these super-popular horror images. To my mind Barney took horror visuals and used freakish characters like a woman with a prosthetic leg or even himself as a Satyr and then filmed a big budget art movie in the Guggenheim Museum. I thought it'd be more interesting to do something closer to actual horror film productions, infiltrate their vocabularies and work within their world.

Historically, many would have regarded horror as one of the most debased of entertainment genres. What do you see as the implications of incorporating this genre into your work for a gallery exhibit? What relationship are you positing here between popular culture and high art?

'Low culture' and popular culture have been a source of inspiration for many contemporary artists, so I don't think that distinction between low and high necessarily stands in the art world any more.

I'm not interested in putting horror on an intellectual, 'high', bloodless level. The work has to be sensual experience combined with an intellectual way of seeing things that you might not have seen before. I thought in this overlap between theory words and gruesome images, something surprising could happen. It's a kind of collage.

You could say The Blair Witch Project is a fiction disguised as a horror documentary, and Angels of Revenge is a documentary disguised as horror fiction. Normally it's all fiction that the horror fans watch and like. In Angels of Revenge though, they get to see their own fantasies and real life stories entering this half-documentary, half-fiction movie. Of course, you're never quite sure where the 'real' and 'fiction' begins and ends in their stories, because these fans are so influenced by horror film characters they follow.

One of the Angels of Revenge cast members organized to have the film shown at this year's Fangoria 'Weekend of Horror' convention, so in a way the work now has a life in two worlds: the world of the galleries and the world of horror films.

For Angels of Revenge, you attended a horror fan convention and drew fans there into your film production work. What were your impressions of the convention? Can you describe your working relationship with these fans? What did you discover about the horror film audience through this process?

I came across the website of the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors when researching horror film productions. It's a yearly convention for the horror industry and fans with film screenings, panel discussions, presentation of new products etc. But the event that grabbed my attention was the advertised costume contest, which anybody could participate in. I imagined obsessed fans in elaborate costumes and figured it could be an interesting starting point for a project. So me and the cinematographer I usually work with, Max Petzel, flew to Chicago and arrived at this hotel in the middle of nowhere.

It looked deserted from the outside, but was packed. Three types of people were there: first, baseball fans. (I think there was a game going on). Second, groups of families going to bridal showers. And third, there were leather people, horror people, Goths. It was a pretty surreal mix of people.

The next morning, crowds lined up for tickets to the convention, and I saw the first fans in costumes. I met Anthony the Green Monster, who had a full face mask skillfully done by a makeup artist, so he could hardly speak. Another guy was the Butcher lugging around bloody body parts - I knew I had to have him in front of the camera. Some of them were there as fans, others were horror fans but also promoting their businesses - special FX make-up etc.

I approached various costumed fans, explained the project I had in mind and asked them to participate. We had built a small set in a conference room, a dark corridor that I wanted them to walk along towards the camera.

Before filming, I asked them to think of a person in their lives who had wronged them or disappointed them deeply, relive the experience and come up with a revenge fantasy. So part of the project was documenting their history, telling what had happened. And the other part was fiction, coming up with a just punishment for the betrayal or cruelty. Sort of a cathartic experience.

My favorite was the Anthony the Green Monster. His costume was crazy. It even had a remote control that could move something on his head for extra effect. He started talking about making horror costumes and how his former business partner stole his ideas and clients. He stood in one of his own costumes and told this self-reflexive story about the horror of the horror business. The costume had these big claws, but he was talking about using a little knife to kill this traitor. I thought, you are a big, green monster and you are going to use a knife? It was similar to the Butcher: Instead of chopping someone to pieces, as you'd predict, he talks about taking photographs of someone to blackmail them. This is where the projected image and their words go two different ways, which was absurd and great.

Some of them fell quickly into this stereotype of their characters' revenge cliché and not their own, personal stories. I'd give them the chance to rethink their revenge, some of them reconsidered and would reveal more personal details and the motivations that suited the revenge: Not only did you fire me, but I know that you're having an affair and I'll make that public as the revenge - instead of chopping your head off. Some were caught up in hate, I could feel it. In the moment, it was really sincere. I might ask them, 'You think this is a just revenge?' But in the end it was all up to them.

Part of my fascination in the horror genre is how it creates a free zone from these imposed social mores and standards, but ironically at the same time I found myself horrified at some of the revenge fantasies that the Angels cast members were voicing. Which of course was hypocritical because I had prodded them to do so, had created the free zone and was hoping for gruesome stories that would make for a good film; and on the other hand I was judging them by the accepted moral standards -- Girlfriend got stolen? They're going to rip her to pieces. Someone borrows money, doesn't give it back? He'll peel off their fingernails. So it also brought out the double-sided moral in myself.

I can't generalize horror fans. I met many fascinating characters but the most interesting to me were the people who had a certain personal approach. The last guy in Angels of Revenge had had a kidney transplant and thus had a distorted relationship to his body and the disease that had attacked him. It made him reflect on his body differently and to take uncommon things as normal. So horror could be a logical step to address a dysfunctional body or a trauma, or a way to deal with your own situation.

Horror deals with supernatural powers, and I think that many fans live very regular lives. I think horror films can help people break out of the power structures that they're in. And not by starting a revolution or riot, but for a moment in the theater.

Of course there is a certain body obsession with horror people; you see piercings, tattoos, physical transformations. And I'm sure you can easily get addicted to horror because of these incredible images you see on screen: another body opens up; you feel the thrills of excitement. And it's also a fascination with going beyond certain accepted human taboos. You get to rethink your standards, your moral standards, and pain standards.

The Second Part of this interview will run next Monday following the forthcoming installment of our ongoing Gender and Fan Culture series. It deals primarily with Lycan Theorized, the film which made use of my dismembered head. I will at last learn the details of what happened to my head when it, er, left my hands.

My essay on Matthew Barney and the horror film genre can be found in The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture (New York University Press, 2006).