Recorded on November 4, 2002 in the artist’s studio
SHOT ON SIGHT: A conversation with Robert Beck
By Alex Dodge
Robert Beck was born in 1959 in Baltimore, Maryland; he now lives and works in New York City. Much of his recent work, having roots in his childhood experience shooting guns, has become uniquely resonant in the light of the recent shootings in Montgomery County and the surrounding area.
In the summer of 2001 Robert Beck created a portfolio of prints depicting 13 adolescent killers titled “Thirteen Shooters”. The portfolio was exhibited in a show entitled “Crossing the Line” at the Queens Museum, in which artists were asked to respond to a work in the museum’s collection, which is comprised mainly of artifacts from the 1939 and 1964-65 World’s Fair. Among the artifacts was Andy Warhol’s Mural, the “13 Most Wanted Men”, which Beck chose as a starting point for his 13 inkjet prints.
In his work there are moments where the erotic and the violent converge, often in the same place that our worst memories of high school torment and frustration reside.
Alex Dodge: I can imagine that the recent events in Montgomery County have no doubt exemplified some of the issues dealt with in your portfolio titled “Thirteen Shooters” where you made movie-poster-sized inkjet prints of thirteen adolescent killers, among them, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine High School infamy.
What was your reaction to the shootings in Maryland?
Robert Beck: I don’t know that I had a reaction per se. I can tell you what interests me, the randomness of the crime. There wasn’t any visible or immediately visible relationship between the victims, which may be a relatively new paradigm, if you will, for the serial killer. To relate them to school shootings may not be effective because the school shooting is specific to a context, even though the victims may be chosen at random by the shooter.
AD: Before the suspects in the Maryland shootings were apprehended, did you find it interesting that we had to build our own understanding or motive for these seemingly random shootings? There was the ominous white van that was fabricated within a police computer. This became a way of identifying something that had no identity.
RB: If I understand you, yes, it is interesting that this van, which had some contingent relationship to the killers, was cobbled together from first-hand accounts of several witnesses. It was a composite, but you also seem to be alluding to the way in which a narrative unfolded in the media. It was open-ended which becomes its allure, its marketability. In fact, the unfolding narrative relies on our participation. This particular crime extended for three weeks and in that time the public was enticed, even manipulated. Moreover, the role of the media at this point is not only crucial to the developments but may even precede or determine the outcome. There was that wonderful, esoteric phrase that was a message from the killers to the cops through the media, fed back to them, something about a rabbit and a noose…
AD: I’d like to ask a rather general question about your relationship with guns and shooting. With certain pieces such as your “gun pads”, you have actually used a firearm yourself. I guess what I could ask more specifically is, when you are shooting guns, is it a means of trying to identify with a particular culture or is it something that you already feel close to?
RB: I’m maybe lagging one question behind, but there is something that should be observed about the shooters in Montgomery County, and that is that they were two males, one being significantly older than the other one. Their behavior seems to me to be engendered perhaps by that relationship; a quasi father-son relationship. It may be the nature of the relationship that allowed the randomness of the crime.
AD: Are you referring to a father-son hunting parallel?
RB: Yes, male-male. To talk specifically about the “gun pads” and the question you asked, I suppose it is a way to address part of my experience growing up and to represent that experience, to make something that is knowable and visible rather than just experiential. This seems specific to art-making, what art making is as a discourse. It’s a way first to represent experiences, then perhaps to understand them. Second to that, it’s the culture surrounding those experiences. Specifically, when I was growing up, I would shoot game, but also, for target practice, light bulbs, egg cartons, beer cans. And I thought why not another object, which could be a drawing pad. They started out small and escalated in size and number. So there’s one piece that I’ve just completed titled “Thirteen Shots”, which has a relationship to the portfolio “Thirteen Shooters”. That series was done with a Daly over-under shotgun and a 12 gauge slug, or punkin ball, which is a shell with a ball of gunpowder on the end, that, unlike a usual shotgun shell which is scatter-shot, is a directed, more dynamic single shot. It’s mark making.
AD: Yes it is. It’s a very specific type of mark making, and involves a physical penetration of the surface that one could say, implies a kind of sexual impulse.
In the case of the “Thirteen Shooters” I’d like to address what has become an indiscernible boundary between celebrity and villain when looking at many of the shooters portraits, as some could pass for pages from a teen celebrity magazine and the ones taken from newspaper clippings have their own bad-boy appeal working on some level as well that hints at a kind of glamour or sex-appeal. What kind of role did this play for you?
RB: Well it certainly played a role. As you might imagine, I had at my disposal, for the most part, not one image of each shooter, but a few. I had my pick. But it was also important that the portfolio, as a whole, display a number of key narrative moments in the representation of one of these crimes. So there was the image from the yearbook, which was used by the media with the shooters looking somewhat innocent. Then, and I’m foreshortening the narrative, there was “walking the perp”. Finally perhaps a shot in the courtroom. It was important that, taken as a whole, the portfolio exhibit the range of moments within the narrative deployed by the media, thus each portrait carry not the name of the shooter, but the name of the photographer or photographic source. One then has to question what exactly the context is with so many derivations for each photograph. In other words, you had mentioned the yearbook photo, well that would be T.J. Solomon, but that image was then reprinted in Newsweek magazine. Having the name of the photographer was one way in which those derivations could be reflected in the work itself and at the same time confuse one’s ability to assign the photograph to a specific context, not to mention it’s placement within the context of an art gallery.
But I want to go back to something you were talking about with the “gun pads” and the process being sexual. You mentioned the gun, but if it is sexual one must also talk about the pad, the thing that receives the shot, the thing that remains. And if this is not stretching the point, it’s a question of identification. Do you identify, and this will sound silly to say, with the pad or the gun, and, or, do you kind of fibrillate between the two. I think its important that if we talk about the gun, we have to talk about the pad.
AD: You could then even suggest a kind of skin-like quality to the paper of the drawing pad.
RB: Yes, that’s why the whole pad is exhibited. The thickness of the pad, the tactility, the artifact quality, all that’s very important to what I think you are referring to as the sexual aspect of the final work.
And if we’re talking about desire in some way, however tangentially, I would say that it is present in the portfolio “Thirteen Shooters”, because I suppose the media as well had a variety of images available to them, and chose the most marketable, i.e. the most desirable image for the cover of their magazine. If you look at the cover of TIME with Klebold and Harris on the cover, indeed it’s like two teen idol pics.
AD: One can’t ignore the obvious link between your “Thirteen Shooters” and Warhol’s “Ten Most Wanted Men”, however in Warhol’s world the thirteen shooters had their “15 minutes” so to speak and one might say that you’ve taken those 15 minutes and slowed them down frame by frame until there is something more to look at.
RB: I would say yes and no. I think that the question of “15 minutes” may have been part of the impetus on the shooters part. It’s almost as if that idea of celebrity is now a part of the contemporary subject or the contemporary adolescent subject. There is a knowledge perhaps that by committing such a crime, a certain type of notoriety will be achieved. I’ve seen shooters speak on television, in often the most misguided of interviews, Diane Sawyer for instance interviewing Charles Andrew Williams, saying that this was one way to transcend the kind of environment that they are subjected to in school. So the question of “15 minutes” may be built into the crime itself.
As far as a more specific comparison with Warhol’s “13 Most Wanted Men”, which I recently saw as part of the Warhol retrospective at the MOCA in Los Angeles, I was struck by the images in relation to Warhol’s other paintings of that era. The paintings of each of the individuals, the criminals, were singular; there was no repetition. So unlike the Mona Lisa or a car accident or the last supper, though with the exception of a few Marilyns, these images were diptychs, with a single frontal shot alongside a profile or void. There was an emphasis placed on this particular gesture for Warhol. Desire is of course at play here as well, along with the criminality of such desire.
AD: Perhaps many would disagree or prefer not to admit that on some level we identify with at least the ideas that motivated the shooters in your portfolio. I guess that when we are confronted with the reality of things like Columbine, we tend to deny the fact that we might have had similar impulses and instead find more socially acceptable means of sublimating our grievances.
One such form that seems relevant would be the video game, which was under certain scrutiny in the case of the Columbine shooters and their interest in games like “Doom” and “Quake”. More current is the video game “Grand Theft Auto III” and its recent sequel “Vice City”. These games are similar to other shooter games in that they do have a distinct teleology or direction with levels or missions that lead to an eventual end, however they are among the few games that allow for a kind of non-progressive (in gaming terms) activity in the form of random killing and vehicular mayhem. The game in the last year has sold over 3.5 million copies, which makes evident a somewhat endemic need for this type of violence, if only in a fantasy game playing sense. What are your thoughts?
RB: I would agree games of this sort are healthy because they indulge the imaginary.
An interesting question about the “therapy” that may be one of the benefits of these video games, is how does the release differ from the release one might enjoy in viewing a film, especially as video games and the sale of video games currently out-sell Hollywood. That’s what I’d like to concentrate on: what is the difference between that kind of involvement and type of fantasy; how is that fantasy engaged in a different way.
AD: I think that’s a good point. With some of the predecessors to these types of games, which are often referred to as “first person shooter” games. Grand Theft Auto III is not a first person shooter game by definition in that you, the player, are watching a character perform the action rather than maneuvering a hand with weapon, and in this way becomes much more cinematic and the character more identifiable in the way that a lead role in film might be. In film, the parallel might be the technique often used in horror films, where the camera becomes the killer’s perspective, which leaves little space for the kind of empathic interplay that watching another person can.
RB: But seeing your self, so to speak, within the frame enhances the vulnerability. In earlier games the camera had a one-to-one relationship with the shooter – a single vantage. A specific precedent in film would be “Lady in the Lake”, or the opening sequence of “Halloween”.
AD: You might say that in that mode of game play or cinematography there seems a certain level of insusceptibility to consequence.
RB: Yes a kind of invincibility. The self is not seen inhabiting a world, an environment, which can be a very anxiety producing position. Perhaps the new level of violence is equivalent to the feelings of vulnerability. The player is a potential target, which is not true of the earlier games. In the case of the recent Maryland shootings, we never received a composite of the sniper, only a composite of the truck. The sniper was an unseen threat, which because it wasn’t visible, made the vulnerability all the more traumatic.
AD: I wonder if the Maryland snipers ever played such games or if in their minds the real act was not unlike a video game from the vantage of a sniper’s scope? There’s a similar kind of distancing there.
As a general question for an artist as your self who’s work deals with subjects that might be thought of as controversial at times if not sensitive in some sense; does the question of advocacy vs. portrayal ever seem an issue?
RB: Not initially, I only think of it once it’s out of the studio and I see it through someone else’s eyes. For me it’s not advocacy or portrayal, it’s about reframing or recontextualization. A lot of my work begins with appropriation. There are certain gestures that may be additive thereafter, but appropriation is usually where the work begins. America is a violent culture, and I’m interested in contemporary American culture, and not to incorporate violence would be irresponsible. I recently saw “Bowling for Columbine”, and speaking of advocacy vs. portrayal, there’s an extremely questionable sequence in which Michael Moore takes two survivors from Littleton, Colorado, with him to K-mart headquarters and asks, with these two students present, that K-mart remove ammunition from the shelves of their stores. His use of those students for his purposes, in front of cameras, gave me pause. Was this what someone might think I’m doing with “Thirteen Shooters”? My work is not about advocacy in any way. Through reframing and recontextualization I ask questions, though I am not directing the answer to those questions. I would embrace the idea that someone would think that I’m advocating something, because at least it admits to the risk, and I encourage the full spectrum of responses.
AD: I’d like to talk about your background in film. You went to New York University for film and have done video work in the past. How has this informed your other work?
RB: My film background does inform my practice, but perhaps not in the most usual ways. I’m as interested in the relationship between things as I am in the things themselves. This results in a kind of montage effect, in which one “shot” replaces the preceding “shot”, and a relationship between two things, however disparate, is established. The viewer is left to contend with what that relationship is. This is otherwise known as metonymy, which is very important to me, especially within the context of an exhibition in which independent, autonomous works are resignified through their contingent relationship with other works.
AD: I find that to be very true about your work in the way that much of it seems to be highly interdependent. By this, I mean that seeing various pieces or selections from different series’ to be much more informative in the way that one might find various connections in a director’s progression of films and their reoccurring tendencies and how that might make the experience of one film to the next or one gesture, or exhibition to the next in your case, more interesting.
RB: I guess it’s my way of engaging with art-making and the art market in a critical way. I don’t know that I could make work that is exclusively autonomous, because I ‘m interested in the relationship that artworks have with other contemporary artifacts and other industries like Hollywood. So what’s left to art in light of these new industries in an increasingly commodified world? I often think that the only thing artists are able to do currently, and effectively is to question the relationship between things. This is very important as you’re observing, regarding the significance of the work; it’s something that I struggle to have happen. For me it’s about looking from side to side rather than ahead. “Horizontality”, I suppose I would call it. This may be one viable strategy left to art making.
AD: I should have asked this previously while we were talking about Warhol, but I wanted to address the use of the screen-print by Warhol and your use of the large-format inkjet print, specifically in the case of the “Thirteen Shooters”. Do you feel that it is, in terms of appropriating and reproducing imagery, merely an updated version of what Warhol and Rauschenburg used the screen-print for, or do you feel that it opens new avenues?
RB: It differs from Warhol. Screen-printing would have been an end in it self for Warhol, with the exception of the “Brillo Boxes”, and I’m interested in them at this particular time, as well as the role film played in Warhol’s practice. The “Brillo box” was an end and a beginning because it’s a complete simulation and as a simulacrum of a household commodity, one of a variety of many such commodities, it suddenly wasn’t the thing itself but the thing in relation to other things. In other words, its significance was contingent upon other such commodities. Consequently art can operate in a different way, and as I’ve interpreted Warhol’s achievement, it’s the relationship between things rather than the things themselves, exclusively.
The signature of the artist changed from Robert Beck to Robert Buck in 2008.