Shit Film

Performer 10 is Rhiannon Hutchings — a large woman who enters the from the bottom left corner of the frame immediately vomiting a brown-ish liquid. As she backs across the screen from left to right, she purges herself, vomiting a dark red, chunky liquid, which, by the end of the 1:31 performance, covers the majority of the floor.

The continuous stream makes Sick Film the only “cinematic” version of the film and allows for the white cube space to extend beyond a representation of the gallery, but also as the blank cinema screen (not to mention a toilet with the edits serving as a veritable flush). Functioning as the cinematic version of an initial gallery installation (and even made up of the exact same footage), Sick Film confounds the notions of moving image art, gallery movies, and the spectacle involved in being an artistic toilet.

Shit Film, on the other hand, features only one performer. Running five minutes in length, a young woman enters the frame — a space identical to the one in Sick Film — wearing a light blue dress. She squats in the middle of the frame and lifts up her dress. She shifts her weight and shuffles her feet when she begins to defecate. A small amount of shit emits before a larger amount. The shit lands in a small, rather neat pile on the floor below her. When she finishes, she stands and exits the frame.

Given the shorter length and the inclusion of only one performer, Shit Film operates more as a short gallery video opposed to the cinematically conceived Sick Film. However, Shit Film has been shown theatrically in the same manner as Sick Film. Moreover, its selection of a female performer goes against the mindset that shitting is distinctly male — it is no coincidence that fart and shit jokes are seen as crude and therefore male. Since shitting is commonly recognized as male humor, Creed’s extension of the practice to a female body removes the gendered bias from the act of shitting, while importantly showcasing the mundane commonality of the act.[13] [open endnotes in new window] Though still a private function that some may feel uncomfortable viewing, Shit Film feels far less explicit than Sick Film despite showing something that most viewers, and Creed himself,[14] have not personally witnessed.

In the mundanity of Shit Film and the individually distinct performance, but overall commonality and repetition of vomit in Sick Film, Creed’s body docs represent a culmination of the traditions that run through Creed’s body of work. Here, Creed is able to achieve his dream of removing all extra materials from his art. Sick Film and Shit Film function only in the hands, or rather bodies, of the performers. The art of the films is the performer and the space. There are no extra objects seen on screen. We are left with just the bodies of the performers and what they create. What they create for the world to see — in this case, perhaps cynically, vomit and shit — is something unseen within themselves waiting to come out.[15]

A number of aesthetic questions arise from this kind of artistic representation. If we view film and art as objects created by an artist, what do Sick Film and Shit Film ask of the spectator? Or of the artist? If everyone can create objects, and if this creation is mundane, repetitive, and common, then how does this kind of representation change expectations of contemporary art? Of film and video? Of our own bodies? Or has the conversation already gone too far? Creed literalizes the expectation we have of art — something created in the mind (the inside) of an artist made visible for the outside of the world (created outside). He also uses the moving image in a way that allows the spectator to see the complete process of individual “creation” and extends the questions from spectatorial expectation to consumption to artistic production. If Creed has extended the modern white cube to the white cinema screen (where both represent the blank canvas allowing for endlessly extended modes of creation) then how can we see ourselves as bearers of art and simultaneous creators and consumers of art? Removing extra materials from the creation of this artwork, Creed leaves the creation of art as a process.[16] The process is all that remains. And the process belongs to the individual filmed, the artist, and the collective body of viewer-subjects.

Bodily functions in/as art

Before continuing to explore these questions, I want take to take a closer look at the various traditions that inform and inspire Creed’s work. This will help provide a backdrop for the films and show how the use of film fits into Creed’s body of work. Since Sick Film and Shit Film mark Creed’s early ventures into film, I will examine how modern and contemporary artists have used the specific media of film and video to see how this relates to Creed’s incorporation of the medium into his artistic practices.

In her dissertation “Impure Film: Medium Specificity and the North American Avant-Garde (1965-2005),” Tess Takahashi traces the early separation of avant-garde film traditions and contemporary art’s inclusion of video. Contrasting the discourses surrounding Structural/Materialist films and the Fluxus movement, Takahashi challenges the separation of film and video practices, particularly surrounding the question of medium specificity. Such an argument about specificity was promoted by scholars such as P. Adams Sitney and later by Peter Wollen, who actively promoted structuralist films against the conceptual art, video art, and film practices employed under the umbrella of the Fluxus movement. Takahashi summarizes Sitney’s argument: that film “was the result of artistic vision” unlike video which was “a tool to expand the boundaries of other media.” Fluxus, however, employed a methodology similar to that of Martin Creed. Fluxus “rejected individual authorship through the use of ‘recipes’ or ‘instruction’ kits that allowed anyone to reproduce a Fluxus piece.”[17]

Fluxus, organized by George Maciunas in 1961, is typically characterized by critics as a new-age Dada movement with an anti-commercial, anti-art sensibility. Dick Higgins coined the term “intermedia” in an influential 1966 essay that helped define the Fluxus movement. Higgins argues,

“For the last ten years or so, artists have changed their media to suit this situation, to the point where the media have broken down in their traditional forms, and have become merely puristic points of reference. The idea has arisen, as if by spontaneous combustion throughout the entire world, that these points are arbitrary and only useful as critical tools, in saying that such-and-such a work is basically musical, but also poetry. This is the intermedial approach, to emphasize the dialectic between the media. A composer is a dead man unless he composes for all the media and for his world.”

Here, we find that the use of film and/or video was almost interchangeable for Fluxus artists. While several important artists were helping expand the burgeoning field of video (Nam Jun Paik, Joan Jonas, Dan Graham), others used film in a number of ways:

  • to record their performances (Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Marina Abramovich),
  • to record the creation of their art works (Bruce Nauman, Yves Klein, Jackson Pollock),
  • or, more abstractly, to reflect their creative process (Richard Serra’s Hand Catching Lead).

These films often were a mere recording of everyday activities and repetitive actions. The recording of ordinary, non-dramatic activities on film and video, whether to capture the creative process (Hand Catching Lead) or merely document the artist’s practices, has been common among artists across media since moving image media became cheap and easy to use. Whether on film or video, these artists have similarly used each medium to capture their work in time and space.

Understanding “intermediality” and the ways other artists have used film and video, we can place Martin Creed’s body docs in a larger historical framework. Importantly, however, we must recognize the differences between Creed’s work and that of the artists mentioned above. In almost all of those instances, the artists were recording actions and performances in which they were directly involved. Richard Serra’s Hand Catching Lead features the hand of the artist. Marina Abramovich and Chris Burden record actions taken on their own bodies. It is here where we can see the break between these artists and the Fluxus movement, to which Creed’s art is more closely related. While Abramovich, Burden, and Fluxus artist Yoko Ono’s performances often involved the spectator in one manner or another, Creed has never been an active participant in his art. Rather, Creed uses others rather than himself to complete his art, no matter the media or form it takes. The works can be appropriately appropriated and performed by others because the artist has no direct personal attribution for the performance that occurs.[18] For example, if Work No. 850 were designed for Creed to spring through the gallery every 30 seconds all day, it would be fundamentally different from proposing that a number of sprinters — none of whom are the artist — run through the gallery. Further examples of this can be seen in conceptual art; here, artists such as Sol Lewitt creates art handed down as an idea or a series of instructions for associates to follow.

In separating himself from his art and in his recording everyday bodily functions, Creed’s films can be seen as a contemporary version of the “cinema of attractions.” Preceded by the landmark photographic motion studies of Etienne Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge, actuality films were used to record ordinary events and actions, yet, as Tom Gunning argues, were centered around a form of spectacle. Early Lumière (The Waterer Watered (1895)) and Thomas Edison shorts (Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894), The Kiss (1896) and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)) exemplify this model. Tom Gunning explains such an early “cinema of attractions” as one in which the spectator is drawn to watch due to a designed spectacle on the cinema screen. He explains,

“It is the direct address of the audience, in which an attraction is offered to the spectator by a cinema showman, that defines this approach to filmmaking.”[19]

The “cinema of attractions” relies upon the direct address to the spectator which elicits a voyeuristic gaze and incites a visceral experience “soliciting attention and curiosity through acts of display.”

Martin Creed’s body docs, though they could arguably be labeled as voyeuristic because a static camera is letting us watch typically private acts of vomiting and shitting, are structured similarly to the “cinema of attractions.” The viewer’s attention is reliant upon a visceral connection to the acts of the body on screen. These everyday bodily functions become strange attractions that the audience may want to turn away from but are oddly entrancing. Here we can find the basis of Sick Film and Shit Film in the tradition of the actuality, an historical predecessor to the documentary. This early genre and the cinema of attractions, along with the idea of the everyday-strange, are ones I will return to at greater length later in this essay.

Jon Davies in his reports from the 2007 Rotterdam Film Festival, where Sick Film screened as part of a program entitled “Borderline Behavior,” describes his reaction to and fascination with Creed’s film. He writes,

“Martin Creed’s Sick Film ran people ragged with its stream of hipsters vomiting one after the other on a pure, white set... Beyond it’s obvious gross-out value, the film was quite compelling for allowing one to see just how different people’s tactics are for accomplishing this most unusual task, and surprising just how much you learn about someone from how they throw up in front of the camera. While united in act, it is the differences that stand out, in both degree and kind of theatrics...”[20]

Sarah Kent recalls a separate screening of Sick Film in which

“the audience turned the event into a party. Loud gasps, groans, and cries of ‘Oh No’ were followed by exclamations such as ‘What has she been eating?’... as if sharing these vulnerable moments makes everyone more open and spontaneous.”[21]

Such audience reactions reflect how watching the human body can in and of itself serve as a kind of attraction for the spectator. Aaron Anderson, in analyzing the martial arts films of Steven Seagal, argues for a kinesthetic theory of watching physical movement that involves both mental (or “psychical”)[22] and physical reactions on the part of the spectator. Using Paul Connerton’s description of “practiced movement as a form of ‘memory’” and John Martin’s theories of dance, Anderson argues that Seagal’s martial arts films “function[s] as a kinesthetic cinema of attractions” in which

“the spectacular...will inevitably evoke in the viewer some form of physical, emotional sympathy or response.”[23]

Moreover, Anderson argues,

“Since every human body intrinsically knows what it feels like to move a human body through space, movement itself evokes a ‘feeling’ through a process of the viewer’s muscular sympathy or empathy... the body itself, through empathic physical sensation, participates in the process of understanding the viewed movement... in other words, physical empathy expresses itself through emotional response based in prior, personal experience.”

While Anderson’s argument remains specific to movement of the body through space, the physical reactions of revulsion and fascination that Creed’s films elicit recall a memory of lived experience, in which the spectator responds to the amount of vomit or shit, perhaps recalling their own personal experiences. Though Creed’s films have less to do with physical movement through space, the cinematic recreation of these private bodily functions, put in a public context, demands the same kind of “muscular memory” of the body. It is through that “muscular memory” that the spectator understands the viewed action and responds emotionally in terms of his/her own personal history. When we watch processes we know — vomiting and shitting — we instinctively respond to the spectacle of the bodily functions on screen. Since the actions seem strange and spectacular, despite their being everyday bodily processes, we will respond viscerally and emotionally to the images. The responses to Sick Film and Shit Film sway wildly from viewers’ being disturbed and grossed out to their hysterical laughing and cheering. Muscular memory is unavoidable and instinctive when we witness human bodies on screen.

However, in choosing bodily functions thought to be private, Creed extends the discourse beyond something public and moves into personal, private images. Sick Film and Shit Film attempt to literalize the process of taking something from inside a person/ artist/ spectator and making that invisible interior process visible. This follows a tradition of feminist and queer art since the 1970s, as well as refers to the generic underpinnings of pornography. Oftentimes, these films will display one private part of the female or male body so as to counter more frequently seen, capitalist representations of the (female) body as an erotic object. In this way, films such as Anne Severson’s Near the Big Chakra (1972) have sought to demystify representations of the female body as the visual track consists of extreme close-ups of the vulvas of 37 different women ranging in age from three months to 56 years. Commenting on the film, Scott MacDonald explains that Severson

“work[ed] for healthier representations and responses to the female body and, more specifically, for an understanding and a relation to the body as an organism, and evolving process, rather than as a conventionally erotic, static icon.”[24]

Recently, Scott Stark — a heterosexual male filmmaker — took up the challenge in responding to these questions from a male perspective with Speechless (2008). Stark, using 3D photographs from ViewMaster reels that accompanied a 1978 textbook entitled The Clitoris, intercuts images of vulvae with surfaces and textures found in natural and human-made environments. Stark, unlike Severson, allows the viewer to find a source of pleasure in Speechless by moving away from “the sterile scrutiny of the physician’s gaze” or the “crudely sexualized” images in modern pornography. In taking up these questions once again years after Severson’s film, Stark reintroduces into aesthetics the importance of contemplating and comprehending under-represented images of the body. The images are left to speak for the women, and speak to the audience, and the audience is the group that is left speechless. However, Stark’s welcoming of sexual arousal and pleasure could be seen as problematic in light of the feminist work, like Severson’s, which attempted to counter the Hollywood perspective of the female body as purely sexual. Stark interestingly argues that the opposing views MacDonald summarizes can operate in conjunction with one another. 

Though Creed’s films are less explicitly sexual than Severson’s or Stark’s,[25] they attempt to equalize the gender representation of these bodily functions, shitting and vomiting. While Speechless importantly introduces the idea of the male viewer of female imagery (in response to Severson’s positioning of vaginal close-ups against Hollywood eroticization), Creed’s inclusion of males and females in Sick Film and one female in Shit Film allow questions of gender and sexuality to become level. The functions are seen as common and repetitive for male and female bodies alike. This allows equal access for both male and female spectators to find distinct, muscular memory in Creed’s bodily representations. As we consider images of the body in contemporary times, we often come back to questions of gender, but Creed finds repetition and similarity in the functions of vomiting and shitting in male and female bodies. Similar to his sculptures and painting, which play with size and scale of objects, Creed finds differences between the individuals, but as a collective social group — an audience of viewer-subject-participants — each distinct, gendered individual is given equal status.[26] Sick Film allows us to see the physical differences between men and women vomiting, but the process of the function is the same for each individual. Individuality is not lost and equality is gained. This equality may influence the spectators’ reactions as they connect the films to their intersubjective muscular memories and, perhaps awkwardly, find themselves in a public audience of individuals observing the films.

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