copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Sick shit happens: everyday histories in Martin Creed’s Body Docs

by James P. Hansen

“Nearly everyday, whether you like it or not, you make shit. Shit happens, and you cannot ignore it. Working is a matter of trying to come to terms with, to face up to, what comes out of you.” — Martin Creed

A brief introduction

Vomiting and defecating have long been accessed as elements of address in modern and contemporary art, as well as art film.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The abundance of shit and vomit in art never manages to move the discourse completely away from being an attention-grabbing shock tactic. Moreover, the commonality of these corporeal functions in the history of modern and contemporary art does little to curb aghast spectatorial responses at their presence in supposed artworks. Nevertheless, there’s a longstanding tradition of vomit and shit in art across media:

This tradition establishes excrement as an integral element for artworks[3] and individual artists.[4] The discussion surrounding vomit and shit in art has long been centered around elements of transgression and, while this remains a factor encounter, vomit and shit may not be quite so filthy anymore. Taking into account the abundance of vomit videos, fecophilia, and scat porn online today, vomit and shit have moved from everyday private functions for citizens to quotidian practices in at least some modern media. Perhaps with this in mind, many of the artists listed above use vomit and shit as a means of investigating the nature of the body, memory, and art itself while they simultaneously question the historicity of transgressive traditions.

In this essay, I will explore two recent films, Work No. 610  (Sick Film) (2006) and Work No. 660 (Shit Film) (2006), from contemporary British artist Martin Creed, which directly confront the bodily processes of vomiting and defecation. Sick Film and Shit Film have been shown in various formats in both cinemas and galleries around the world. Recognizing the transgressive role that vomit and shit have played in the history of art, Creed’s films accentuate a recontextualization of vomit and feces as repetitive everyday processes. This approach allows for the films to function as documentaries of these bodily processes — I will call them body docs — which challenge the way we view the films as both documentaries and art works. Choosing individuals to be “the people being sick” and “person taking a shit” moves these films away from a hierarchical view of the artist as the lone creator of art and extends the creation of art into the everyday. I will argue that this mentality highlights the historical transparency of bodily processes, marking them as an individual creation but also an ongoing universal process. In affecting the way these bodily functions are understood as both individual and universal, Creed challenges the ways we have viewed and analyzed these processes in the past, and positions a new way for the spectator (and artist) to actively engage with our world, artworks, and representations of what our bodies create.

The everyday art of Martin Creed

I want to start by placing these films in the context of Martin Creed’s body of work. Creed is perhaps best known for his installations, most famously winning the Turner Prize in 2001 for Work No. 227 — The lights going on and off

This is an installation in which the lights go on and off in an empty gallery space every five seconds. Prior to that new-found stature, Creed had been working for over 15 years uniquely incorporating everyday objects and items into his difficult to define artworks. Known as a minimalist/post-minimalist/conceptual artist, and commonly associated with the Young British Artists school, Creed’s simple, sometimes baffling works incite from critics both vitriolic reactions decrying the state of the art world[5] and major praise. His early work often manipulates the space of a given room by fixing objects in obstructive ways. Some of the works in which he repositions everyday items into new contexts include

More recently, Creed has begun exploring the human body and its processes of movement, repetition, and creation. Work No. 850 — Duveen Commission featured athletes sprinting through Tate Britain’s central galleries every 30 seconds, all day, every day for four and a half months.

The cyclical nature of Work No. 850 echoes Creed’s concerns with music and composition. Unhappy with several of his early sculptures for lacking a “process,” Creed began experimenting with music. He used several mechanical systems of sounds for installations including

He also formed a three-piece pop band named “Owada” with several friends. They worked on songs in which the process of making the music dictated the music itself, as well as the titles, such as “Blow and Suck” — a folk song, of sorts, in which a harmonica is played loudly.[7]  The “blow” and “suck” on the harmonic from the musician create the recorded sound and are represented further by the blunt title. Creed has continued working on music following the same principles with songs such as “I Like Things,” “I Can’t Move,” and “Fuck Off.”

Creed has recently taken his compositions a step further by writing his first orchestral score (Work No. 955) for a 2008 retrospective on his work at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England and by conceiving, composing, and choreographing a ballet (Work No. 1020) for the 2009 Frieze Fair as part of a season marking the centenary of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Work No. 955 is short piece written so that each instrument becomes equal. Each one plays the same note for the same amount of time in order of pitch. Work No. 1020 ascribes a certain musical note to each of ballet’s five major positions — the only five used in the ballet. Each dancer can only move forward, backward, or sideways — not diagonally. As Creed says, “in the rules of the game, they can only move like the knight of the chessboard.”  Comparing Work No. 1020 to the rest of his work, Creed states,

“In my work, in the years gone by, I've tried to make work that doesn't use extra materials. Like The lights going on and off, which just uses the gallery, as it is. So to me, trying to use the human body is one step further in trying to make work that doesn't add things to the world. It's not adding extra stuff, it's people.”[8]

It is this recent use of the human body that bring us to Creed’s films and videos. Sick Film and Shit Film are two of Creed’s earliest experiments with filmmaking, but important differences come to light if we also briefly consider his other moving image works. Creed’s earliest use of video came in 2005 with Work No. 405 — Ships coming in[9]. This video, incorporating two television sets stacked on top of one another, featured two video loops of the same length showing ships docking in a harbor. In general, the looped video is a predominant feature of the moving image in galleries. With Work No. 405, Creed follows this contemporary tradition while he continues his emphasis on spatial relationships and everyday activities. In the longshot featured in the video, the space of the sea looms even as the ships return. Though a ship returns and people are seen leaving the ship, this mundane routine combined with the video’s repetitive looping suggests a need to return from somewhere else.

The practice of recording daily routines has been prominent since the first movies were shot. The Lumière Brothers’ famous film Workers Leaving The Factory (1895) introduced an interest in recording the social by highlighting workers after a day’s work. Work No. 405 retains this same kind of everyday simplicity — a simplicity Creed’s work often addresses and complicates — while also expanding the frame to suggest something beyond the literal nature of the video. The ships do come in, just as the workers do leave the factory, yet the vision of the sea behind the ships stands as a reminder that although they do come in, they will also return to another place before coming in again. Work No. 405 suggests the complete and necessary cycle of returning from someplace before leaving and returning to the same place again. The video loop makes the cyclical pattern even more apparent — and mundane. Even the would-be majesty of the sea loses its impact when the process becomes so repetitive. So Creed, while relying on the relative simplicity of his video, reflects on the nature of everyday work in terms of spatial relations — here between the sea, the ship, and the dock. Yet, unlike Lumière, Creed mimics the repetitive and cyclical nature of work. Work No. 405, then, serves a similar purpose as his early music experiments where Creed is looking for a larger process within work itself. This collective process must be uncovered before the individual can be fully portrayed. Just as Creed’s installations serve as an institutional critique of the museum (the process) and the spectator’s role within it (the socialized individual), Work No. 405 witnesses the same negotiation from a distance. However, the socialized individual loses his/her specific identity in the process. This problem resonates in Work No. 405 and will be further complicated and altered in Sick Film and Shit Film.

Creed’s move to focus on individuals and, in particular, on the human body began in 2006 with his video installations of footage from the 35mm Sick Film.[10] Work No. 503 is the first of these variations. (You can view the work here:

Sick Film is about one minute long and features one young woman getting sick. The white cube space is clear before she enters. Her coughing is heard off-screen before she enters. As she walks to the center of the frame, she begins gagging herself and vomiting on the ground. She continues gagging for several “rounds” of vomit, which seem to increase in the amount of vomit. She scoots backward as the vomit gathers around her feet. She continues coughing and breathing heavily as she exits the frame on the same side from which she entered. Seen in a gallery, Work No. 503 loops back to the beginning with a clean white space where the woman (re)enters and vomits.

Work No. 503 is an individual piece of what makes up the whole of Work No. 610 — Sick Film. The early variations of Sick Film, such as Work No. 503, feature only one person getting sick and are displayed as looped videos. The one exception is Work No. 583, which features one person getting sick on 4 different televisions (stacked 2 x 2) at the same time (see image). However, this example still gives each person their own screen.

Sick Film and Shit Film

 Sick Film, on the other hand, is 21 minutes in length and has ten different people getting sick one after another.[11] Creed says of this work,

“The cinema film is structured so that it has a narrative (the vomit gets more colourful and bigger in volume) and according to the amount of time it took each person between entering and vomiting.”[12]

Each person enters, vomits, and exits before an edit clears the screen of the vomit before another person enters to do their private business. There are six females and four males who vomit. Performer one (Jo Robertson — a young woman wearing a blue jeans skirt and black heels) attempts to purge herself while playing up to the camera. She stands in the middle of the frame hunched over. She snickers, drops to her knees, stands up, gags herself, dry-heaves, and giggles continuously for nearly three minutes before a small, barely visible amount of vomit emits. She says, “I can’t breathe” before spitting and quickly exiting the frame.

Performer two (Mark Tallowin — a young man wearing an unbuttoned flannel shirt, brown pants, and sneakers) walks to the middle of the frame holding his chest. He slightly leans over and burps several times. He spits on the floor before another quick belch and emitting a mid-sized amount of vomit, which spreads across the middle of the floor. He leans further over and emits a larger amount of dark red vomit. He slowly bends back up, coughing, spitting, rubbing his head, and shaking vomit off his hand. He dry-heaves and coughs several more times for almost 2:30 before walking down towards the camera and exiting. His “performance” of 3:55 in total length is the longest of any person getting sick in the film.

“Performers” 3-10 take far less time vomiting. Of the final seven people getting sick, the shortest performance lasts 43 seconds and the longest 2:18. The vomit comes much more quickly with much higher volume between performer 3 and 10. Performer 3 is Robin Simpson — a tall, thin man who across the screen and back again before vomiting in two bursts — the first relatively small, the second quite large — before pacing around, spitting on the floor, and exiting. And 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] 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:

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.

The index and trace in everyday life

At this point, I hope to have shown the importance of intermediality in shaping the historical context of Creed’s art work, as well as the consciousness (or muscular memory) that the spectator draws upon in witnessing these documentary attractions. Creed’s paintings, installations, and particularly his films draw upon a number of varying traditions, which each inspire and problematize a contemporary analysis of Creed’s work. Since I have labeled Sick Film and Shit Film as body docs, I want to propose an analysis of these films as films in the documentary film tradition. This is not to suggest that the films should only be seen as documentaries or that art historical discourses should be minimized. Even in my attempts to focus this analysis in a film historical framework, I turn to consider a number of art-historical questions, which play a major role for Creed as a contemporary artist. While weighing these questions, I think also looking at these films within the documentary tradition will illuminate both cinematic and art-historical issues, so as to raise further questions for the study of films such as these (many of which were discussed earlier in this essay) in both contexts.

As discussed earlier in this essay, Sick Film and Shit Film can be associated with the earliest form of cinema — the actuality. The actuality films of the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison (Workers Leaving The Factory, etc.) serve as brief documentaries of a specific historical moment, event, or happening. John Grierson established the term documentary in 1926 as “the creative depiction of actuality.” To summarize the difference between actualities and documentaries, actualities can be seen as the recording and display of a single historical event, whereas the documentary is some form of creative outgrowth. Nevertheless, the actuality and the documentary serve a similar function in representing a social reality. While the form of documentary is difficult to define and under constant scrutiny, Bill Nichols argues

“the linkage between documentary and the historical world is the most distinctive feature of this [the documentary] tradition.”[27]

The actuality and the documentary serve as an historical record of whatever they have recorded — whether it be workers leaving a factory, the activities of indigenous cultures, or political upheaval. But if the recording is of an everyday activity of no historical significance, then how do we stake a claim for the film as a historical document(ary)?

If Sick Film and Shit Film serve the function of  “body docs,” their status as documentary immediately comes into question. While we may recognize getting sick or shitting as historical — yes, everyone poops — how does the commonality of these functions affect their historicity on film? How would considering this work as documentary change how we view it? And why in the hell would we watch it? To begin examining these questions, I want to take a closer look at body docs in terms of recording history.

Creed insists on using 35mm film for Sick Film and Shit Film. He wants to provide the films with a photographic base. Evaluating the imprint of reality on a photographic base was long considered a critical aspect of understanding the cinematic image. If the image is imprinted on celluloid, then we have proof the event actually happened. Instead of offering a mere representation of reality, photography brought a direct reproduction of the real. This at once makes the photographic image historical and present. While Sick Film and Shit Film could be understood in the context of video in museums and performance art, I argue that the use 35mm film rather than digital technology — something Creed has explained as an aesthetic choice — insists upon having an indexical base for the images. That aesthetic choice also influences this documentary reading rather than my seeing Creed’s work more in the context of gallery installation/video loop. In the way that Creed positions the films in and outside of the gallery setting creates a paradox between the blank cinema screen and the white cube space, for he sets the mise-en-scene of Sick Film and Shit Film in a similar space. This paradox, which underscores the contemporary shift in moving image viewing practices, can be usefully understood in an historical context. For this, I want to turn to recurring issues in documentary film theory around the index and the trace.

Charles Sanders Peirce defines the index as

“a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object... and it is not mere resemblance of its Object...”[28]

Peirce gives examples of the index such as rap on the door and a footprint, as well as pronouns such as “this,” “now,” and “here.” These signs all refer to an object — a hand/person on the other side of the door that we do not see or a foot that was previously in the position of the print — that is not actively longer present. The pronouns mark the index as a kind of symbol. Mary Anne Doane notes the “uncomfortable position” of the index in Peirce’s complex category of signs. She recognizes the distinctive nature of how an object like a footprint, which embodies “the order of the trace,” is opposed to a pronoun in language. In the case of a footprint, the index becomes a trace of the non-present object (the foot) through a visible sign (the footprint). Pronouns merely act as hollow pointers to objects. Doane finds in both cases that “the index is defined by a physical, material connection to its object.” However, she finds the index more complicated than other signs by raising a dialectic between the empty (a hollow pronoun) and the full (a photographic trace). This complication makes it difficult to refer to the index merely as trace or as a kind of pointer. Without ignoring this needed distinction, I want to move forward and examine the relation between the index (as a kind of historical marker) and the trace (as a way of the contemporary spectator-witness brings the index to the present).

Malin Wahlberg compares the still image and the moving image to mark the distinction between the index and the trace. She places the argument in the context of Jean-Marie Schaeffer who argued that

“the moving image...is image within time, whereas, the immobile image...is image of time.”[29]

Where Schaeffer sees a limitation for the spectator in viewing moving images, Wahlberg finds contemporary benefits, especially in relation to documentary and historical imagery. The moving image is, at once, both historical and contemporary. It allows the viewer to perceive

“continuous change, denoting the present tense of involvement and identification.”[30]

Wahlberg explains that moving image experiences exist within a plane of multiple temporalities (both past and present) which gives greater significance to the viewer by allowing historical events to be (re)created as present day narratives. Wahlberg argues this aspect gives moving images greater aesthetic and existential impact. Moving images, therefore, operate simultaneously as indexes of the past traced into the present.

Philip Rosen helps clarify these issues by providing an outline for what he calls the “indexical trace.” He explains,

“When Bazin compares cinema to such indexical signs as a fingerprint, a mold, a death mask, or the Holy Shroud of Turin, his examples consistently turn out to be the kind in which the reference was present in the past. I willl call this subcategory of sign the indexical trace. Photographic and filmic images have normally been apprehended as indexical traces, for the spatial field and the objects were in the camera’s “presence” at some point prior to the actual reading of the sign. The indexical trace is a matter of pastness.”[31]

Rosen goes on to explain the role of the spectator in viewing the filmic image and its relationship with indexicality and the indexical trace.

“The referential credibility of indexicality assumes something absent from any immediate perception: a different when from that of the spectator. Since this different when cannot be immediately present, it must be ‘filled in,’ ‘inferred,’ ‘provided’ by the subject. Thus, if indexicality is a crucial aspect of the image, we must assume some active capacity at work beyond perceptual activities, be it memory, mental activities, subconscious investment, rational inference, the effectivity of cultural discourses, or whatever.”[32]

This argument lets us see a distinction between the index and the indexical trace with recognition of the spectator’s critical role. It is the spectator who traces the indexical sign into the present, and it is through the spectator’s capacities beyond mere perception that gives the indexical trace contemporary significance.

But how do we view Sick Film and Shit Film as documentaries? And how does their being body docs affect the way we participate in viewing them? Vivian Sobchack in her article, “Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience” helps us understand different modes of viewer perceptionby identifying what she calls “documentary consciousness.”[33] Sobchack dissects how spectators engage with cinematic “documentary” images as opposed to images in fiction films and home movies (film-souvenirs).  Following Jean-Pierre Meunier’s phenomenology of cinematic identification, Sobchack argues for varying modes of consciousness as we watch film. In the film-souvenir, Meunier argues we existentially perceive images as already known to us, and thereby “elsewhere” than solely on the screen. We essentially look through the screen and to the “elsewhere” imbedded in the image. In the fiction film, we have a “fictional consciousness” in which

“the cinematic object is perceived as ‘irreal’ (like Lassie) or ‘imaginary’ (like a dragon)...the images of fiction are experienced as directly given to us, and they exist not ‘elsewhere’ but ‘here’ in the virtual world that is ‘there before us.”[34]

Since we do not already know the images or the people before us, we look at the screen rather than through it. In the documentary, we use a documentary consciousness, which is the most complicated mode of cinematic identification. Documentary consciousness lets us apply our own existential and cultural knowledge to the image, while it also recognizes a lack of our personal knowledge. Photographic or cinematic images of John F. Kennedy or the Iraq War are recognized as from a real past or present, but they are modified by our personal knowledge or lack thereof. We simultaneously look at and through the image, rather than one or the other. This creates a contradictory temporal relation between the past and present that accesses two modes of identification.

Wahlberg locates a similar dialectic in the documentary where the modes of identification shift into two distinct, yet simultaneous types of phenomenology — aesthetic and existential.[35] She also discusses in depth the relation between documentary (the historical image) and the trace. Combining these two levels of temporality, we recognize the indexical aspects of the image — the pastness of social and historical markers — while we also identify the events as past and ourselves as present. We are able to leave the events in the past, to some degree, while we are also incapable of doing so because of our contemporary position in relation to the images. Wahlberg argues that “historical time is the time of our shared experiences, mediated through the constructed discourses of history” and

“in this context, the trace becomes an ethical responsibility, linking the experience of the past to the responsibility of the present...”[36]

Here, we rely heavily upon the trace and our own documentary consciousness in regard to the image. The film-souvenir and the fiction film are dependent upon only one distinct mode of identification with the image whereas in viewing documentary, we must access both. This recognition allows us to understand the moving image as a document of a past reality while we also trace it to our intersubjective present.

I want to take a closer look at the questions I posed earlier in relation to Martin Creed’s body docs. Sick Film and Shit Film both feature everyday bodily functions on screen. However, Creed does not record people shitting or getting sick on the streets of London or Los Angeles where the films were recorded. If so, we would gain access to the idea of London or Los Angeles on that day at that time. Instead, we see people getting sick and a person shitting in a large, unidentifiable white space. There are no indications of a worldly location or of a specific time period. The only documentary connection we have with what is on screen is the presence of the human body. The assumption behind the dialectic of the index and the trace that gives cadence to a documentary consciousness is that we recognize the images as historical.

Sick Film and Shit Film provide us a kind of history-less history. The 35mm projection (as well as the edits in between performers) assures us this is not a video feed and cannot be happening in the present. What we are left with are images of the everyday set in the very location where the film is seen — a cinema screen or a white cube gallery. The blankness of the set is echoed in both viewing situations by the blank, white screen or the white walls. Sick Film and Shit Film are positioned as everyday actualities in an everyday location. Mirroring the concept of his art and installations, Creed crafts Sick Film and Shit Film as a contemporary everyday documentary.

The concept of the everyday is not new to documentary practices. Many of the early films I discussed earlier fit into the mold of the actuality as they recorded everyday processes. The development of the documentary film arguably began with Nanook of the North, which was meant to show the everyday lives of an indigenous culture. Again, the actuality seems more appropriate for Creed. Rather than using his camera to record an Other culture, Creed records practices that he, and everyone, also does, albeit not on screen. Here, the relation between everyone and the everyday alongside the index and the trace needs further examination. While these theories can intersect, I will argue that Creed’s use of “everyone” in the contemporary everyday rather than an historical everyday further complicates our relation to his films and contemporary moving image viewing practices.

Jane Gaines’s article “Everyday Strangeness” presents a brief history of the “everyday strange” in the documentary film. Gaines finds theorists of everyday life primarily concerned with the ordinary and its uses. However, she finds “a fascination with the problem of the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.”[37] Gaines identifies two key categories of strangeness —  “the familiar made strange” and the “always already strange.” She questions the specific differences between these positions, especially in light of the cinematic audience. Gaines summarizes the studies of historian Neil Harris who wrote on P.T Barnum and found

“an audience that is drawn to oddities is an audience that is not duped but is rather intelligently engaged in philosophical questions as well as scientific inquiry.”[38]

She relates this inquiry into the audience for oddities to Tom Gunning’s analysis of the “curiously engaged” spectator of early cinema. Gaines argues,

“Everyday oddity could be seen here as fostering (on the part of the curious spectator) a new interpretation of culture, a reevaluation of the entire scheme of things, and even, possibly, a readjustment of worldview.”[39]

However, Gaines finds Ripley’s Believe It or Not to operate under a “smug worldview” in which “everything in the world could be odd except for you and me.” Instead of the films’confounding our curiosity toward the images of the “ordinary weird” and the “familiar strange,” the spectator of these films is mainly led to believe rather than question the status of what s/he sees. The viewer looks “for confirmation of what s/he already believes to be true.” This serves

“only a familiarizing function, whereby everything in the world is classified according to a preexistent schema. Rather than expanding horizons, the new-media explorer confirms our most reactionary suspicions and reinforces the narrowest of view...”[40] 

Sick Film and Shit Film find themselves once again entangled in these contradictory positions. They show us familiar bodily functions, which seem on screen both strange and off-putting. Such a presentation would seem to position body docs in the realm of the familiar made strange. If we are familiar with our bodies, then watching bodies similar to ours on screen should be familiar. It is the function, the action, the attraction that makes our bodies seem strange. Creed takes a function that is normally private and brings it into a public sphere. Although the functions may not seem strange when we personally do them, witnessing others “perform” these actions allows access to a form ofmuscular memory where we identify and react to the strange bodily process witnessed on screen.The specific bodily functions — vomiting and shitting — are strangeness coming from our familiar bodies.

So, are our interior bodily processes always already strange? In Near the Big Chakra, we found Anne Severson attempting to demystify the vulva as non-erotic and natural. By making visible the unseen object, Severson sought a normalizing function against the position of females as sexualized in dominant image culture. Later, Scott Stark’s Speechless showed that the same questions still persist years after Severson’s film brought theses issues to the forefront. James Broughton’s The Hermes Bird inverted this process by showing a slow-motion close up of a penis becoming erect. This positioned the phallus as erotic and beautiful rather than a symbol of power and dominance. Again, we find the process of taking a part of the body usually unseen on film and making it visible to alter the way we consider the object. Broughton’s voice-over poetry at one point reads,

“This is the secret that will not stay hidden.”

While men (and women) knew that the penis hardens when it becomes erect, Broughton’s showcasing of the bodily function on film takes something thought to be strange and familiarizes it to the viewer. These examples highlight that private parts of the body and invisible bodily functions as always already strange. The films themselves are what attempt to enact a familiarizing function with the spectator.

Sick Film and Shit Film work much in the same way. When they show us men and women vomiting and a woman shitting, the functions are received by viewers as strange, but through the repetitive loops, even if the volume of the vomit increases, we notice that each body creates vomit and shit. The familiarizing function removes vomit and shit from the realm of transgression and into the real of the everyday.  Body docs such as these confront the viewer with familiar bodies and functions that are understood as always already strange. The films serve as a way of taking these processes and making them familiar and “normal” for us. Body docs achieve this by allowing us to watch bodies on screen while also requiring a questioning process by turning the films back on the spectator.

Sick Film and Shit Film manage this by displaying the same setting in the films (the white cube/the blank cinema screen) where the spectator views the films (the gallery/the movie theater). This activates the viewing space as an critical component in watching the films. Since the spectator is present in the space seen on screen, the films operate in a non-historical everyday rather than merely as an imprinted past. Sick Film and Shit Film double back to the position of the spectator, which creates a dual-layered process in film viewing. The films act as historical documents of the bodily processes seen, yet they pivot upon the spectator’s position as equivalent to those on screen. The space on screen is mirrored by the viewing space of the spectator. This positions the spectator as part of the everyday histories seen on screen. I have argued that the use of 35mm film is a critical decision by Creed. Film’s chemical process allows access to a documentary tradition rather than just an art-historical one by providing his films with an indexicality that requires a documentary consciousness and a documentary trace. But how can we see the films as historical? Of course, we recognize the acts are not happening right now, but Sick Film and Shit Film have no significant socio-historical mark surrounding them. To use Rosen’s language, when was this then? The blank white background blends with the cinema screen, so all we are left with is the act on the screen. Yet, the screen remains white (albeit not illuminated) after the film is gone and the projector shuts down. All that is left is the blankness of a white screen.

Is the setting then the same diegetically and non-diegetically? Since we immediately recognize the filmic image as past yet are (ideally) confronted with a similar setting where the films are viewed, the blankness of the setting in Sick Film and Shit Film serves as a stand-in for the white cube gallery /blank cinematic screen that the spectator-subject attends everyday (and, in fact, would be attending when they see the films). We are no longer dealing with a specific historical moment but a perpetual history of the everyday. Sick Film and Shit Film, as body docs, question the status of the viewer-subject in relation to the indexical trace and the social environment of which we are taking part. Our “muscular memory” incites an intersubjective response to the historicity of the bodily functions, while the setting turns the films back on us as participants in an everyday strange, documentary attraction. We are no longer just watching a documentary — we are the documentary. Rather than reinforcing a “smug worldview” where we are assured of our “normal” status against always already strange imagery, body docs require us to question our own bodies and reverse the negative familiarizing function. We are all strange. We all vomit and we all create shit. Sick Film and Shit Film shows us these are processes that cannot be stopped, nor should they be. The question that lingers is how do we deal with ourselves everyday. Sick Film and Shit Film may not provide any answers, but it starts by contemplating what we create and questioning our everyday activities every everyday at a time.


1. An early version of this essay presented at the Visible Evidence XVI Conference was co-written by Maria Fosheim Lund. Her contributions during the formative stages of this essay remained a key influence throughout my rethinking and expansion of this essay. Her presence was instrumental in finding the footing for this essay and I remain grateful for her contributions. I also have to thank the editors of Jump Cut (Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage, and John Hess) for their detailed comments, support, and patience throughout my rewriting of this essay. And I want to thank Nico Baumbach for his guidance throughout my revisions. Our discussions continually pushed my ideas forward while finding greater clarity and confidence in my writing. Finally, I want to thank Martin Creed, Martin Creed Studios, and Hauser & Wirth for their commitment to this project. I first contacted them about this essay in the fall of 2007 and they have been incredibly generous through each step of this unexpectedly long process. [return to text]

2. It is worth noting that many of these works listed above have long been associated within the realm of art history, while others would fall into film discussions, and never the twain shall meet. This list is intended to highlight the use of shit and vomit in traditions referred to as art and not as a means to conflate the discourses. Few people were placing Pink Flamingos alongside Paul McCarthy or the Actionists at the time of its release, and it is not necessarily my intention to do so in this essay. My intention is not to conflate distinct traditions, but to see how they can inform one another and how contemporary artists, working in a number of different fields, are thinking through these various traditions in their work. I will argue Martin Creed does so quite explicitly. Furthermore, I will discuss these traditions later in this essay, which should help offset any worries of an attempted destruction of distinct fields.

3. Of course, there is an equally long tradition of vomit and shit in mainstream film, particularly in comedies.

4. This group listing of many of art works which have incorporated feces and vomit is not to suggest that each is used similarly or that they are used for the same purposes.

5. The most notable example of anti-YBA backlash is the foundation of the Stuckists art movement in 1999 by Billy Childish and Charles Thompson. Their outspoken critiques of Charles Saatchi, the art dealer who represents and promotes many of the highly praised YBAs, and demonstrations against the Turner Prize have given rise to their stature, although Anti-Stuckist groups have also been active since the group’s formation. As of 2009, Stuckism had become an international movement with 202 groups in 48 countries.

6. Each time Half the air in a given space is installed, it is given a new Work No. since the space of each given room would be different. Thus, I have not included a specific Work. No.

7. Examples of these songs are “Short G,” “Up and Down,” “Circle,” “Low,” “High,” and “Nothing.” The music follows the path set forth by the titles.

8. Anderson, Zoe. “A brand new Creed: The Turner prize-winner turns choreography,” in The Independent (UK), Oct. 15 2009.

9. I list Work. No 405 as the number for Ships Coming in, but, as with many of Creed’s film and videos, he creates slightly different variations on the work that are each given a separate number. I use Work. No 405 because it appears on his website, but there are other numbered works with the same title that use the same footage in a different manner. This problem will also be encountered with Sick Film and Shit Film.

10. It is important to note Creed’s switch from shooting on video to shooting on film. Even in regard to the video installations, Creed’s main reason for shooting on 35mm was “because I wanted it to be high quality and the colours and shapes to be well rendered.”

11. Creed actually shot 19 different people getting sick - mostly students from London - but decided to use 10 because he “didn’t want the film to be too long and [he] didn’t want any fillers; I wanted each person to be different” (Kent).

12. Martin Creed interview by Sarah Kent in Time Out London. Nov. 10 2006. (http://www.timeout.com/london/art/features

13. I mean this from a popular culture point of view, but it is certainly not always the case. Scat pornography goes against this idea by primarily featuring women. This could be argued as a role reversal from popular culture. If shitting is understood as male, it could be more interesting to see women in relation to shit.

14. Though Creed was in the room during the filming of Sick Film, he decided against being present for the filming of Shit Film saying it seemed to voyeuristic.

15. Using a process such as this, we can see Creed’s own meditations on his own forms of “creation” in his art. The films can serve as an extended metaphor of the artist dealing with the art that comes out of them.

16. In this case, the process is a literal bodily process – the shit and vomit are “created” and therefore art – as well as a creative process behind the film. This paradox between the artist and the spectators is an essential component to the films and Creed’s body of work.

17. Takahashi, Tess. “Impure Film: Medium Specificity and the North American Avant-Garde (1965-2005),” p. 25-26.

18. It is notable that Abramovich’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art includes re-performances of her performances by trained performers. Insodoing, Abramovich calls into question my assumption here that performances performed by an artist are distinctly that artist’s performance. If the action can be reperformed, then who does the performance “belong” to? This is an ongoing question in the “preservation” of performance art and one that begs for further analysis and theoretical inquiry.

19. Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Cinema, its Spectators, and the Avant-Garde” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (ed. Thomas Elsaesser,1990), p. 58.

20. http://www.jondavies.ca/Rotterdam.html

21. Martin Creed interview by Sarah Kent in Time Out London. Nov. 10 2006. (http://www.timeout.com/london/art/features

22. Anderson, Aaron.“Kinesthesia in martial arts films: Action in Motion,” in Jump Cut 42. Dec. 1998. 6. Anderson quotes the term from John Martin’s description of metakinesis. Martin uses mental and psychical interchangeably, but seems to prefer the latter.

23. Ibid., 13.

24. Macdonald, Scott. “Demystifying the Female Body – Anne Severson Near the Big Chakra, Yvonne Rainer – Privelege,” in Film Quarterly (volume 45, n. 1, Fall 1991): 18.

25. Creed’s Work No. 730 - Sex Film is his most sexually explicit film and could be found to have interesting parallels to the films of Severson and Stark, as well as early traditions in queer filmmaking like James Broughton’s Hermes Bird (1979). Sex Film is black & white and features a close up of the sex act between a male and female. Unlike pornographic sexual representations, however, Sex Film shows the penis being inserted into the body followed by the non-stop thrusting. The film continues showing this motion without a climax. The sex act, therein, is seen as a repetitive and clinical process when there is no evident climax. In May 2010, Creed premiered a new (black & white) film in which a penis becomes erect. A live violinist plays scales that correspond with the ascending or descending penis. Going along with the previous titles given to Creed’s films, I call this Dick Film. It continues Creed’s exploration of corporeal repetition and rhythm.

26. In an interview I conducted with Nicole Keller of Hauser & Wirth, she confirmed that when shown in galleries or museums, Sick Film (Work No. 610) and Shit Film (Work No. 660) are always split into individual works and given status as completely different works by Creed who ascribes each individual piece its own number. Most often, one individual “performer” projected onto a screen in a continuous loop. In other instances, Creed has made a group of multi-monitor pieces shown on Sony PVM-2730QM monitors. Sick Film (Work. No 610) and Shit Film (Work No. 660) are the 35mm originals, while Work Nos. 548, 503, 600, 546, and 837 are all individual gallery pieces taken from the 35mm original and shown on DVD or HD in museums.

27. Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concept in Documentary (Indiana University Press, 1992): ix.

28. Peirce, WS. "Logic as Semiotic: the Theory of Signs." Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Justus Bucher. New York: Dover, 1955. 102.

29. Wahlberg, Malin. Documentary Time: Film and Phenomenology (University of Minnesota Press, 2008): 7.

30. Ibid., 6.

31. Rosen, Philip. Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 2001): 20.

32. Ibid., 20-21.

33. Sobchack, Vivian. “Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience,” in Collecting Visible Evidence (ed. Jane Gaines and Michael Renov; University of Minnesota Press, 1999): 241.

34. Ibid., 243.

35. Wahlberg, 16.

36. Ibid., 39. In making this argument, Wahlberg directly references similar arguments made by Paul Ricoeur and Martin Heidegger.

37. Gaines, Jane. “Everyday Strangeness: International Oddities as Documentary Attractions” in New Literary History, Volume 33, Number 4, Autumn 2002: 1.

38. Ibid., 5.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., 8.

To topJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.