[NON-FICTION] Coals To Newcastle: Remembering Chris Burden

Coals To Newcastle: Remembering Chris Burden

by Bruce Licher

1978 was the year everything changed.  The energy of punk rock had blown open the doors of creative expression for a new generation the year before, and now that was rapidly morphing into post-punk as more young people with other creative ideas wanted to join in and create some new noise. It was during that time that I found myself as an undergraduate in the Art Department at UCLA, discovering new sights and sounds and possibilities. I had spent my first 2 years at UCLA getting all my general ed requirements out of the way while I tried to figure out what it was I actually wanted to do with my life.  After a year in the Design department I realized that it was more satisfying to be creative without having the end result distorted by other people’s ideas of what was best, so switched my major to Fine Art and found a new creative energy.

When it was announced that Chris Burden would be joining the UCLA Arts faculty to teach a class called “New Forms & Concepts,” it was as if someone had dropped a new color into the palette that we undergrads could now work with.  Chris’ reputation preceded him such that some students couldn’t wait to take his class while others weren’t sure it was something they really wanted to be exposed to.  Either way, none of us had any idea of what would actually happen in the class, and I was one of those who jumped in to find out that first term. 

What I learned, and what I experienced with the other 20 or so students, completely turned my mind around to what was possible to do in the name of ART.  In addition, the experience also pointed me in the direction I would take with my life. Not only did I realize through Chris Burden that anything was possible, that anything could be ART, but in that class I also met Brent Wilcox and Tim Quinn, two of the members of a fledgling avant garde musical group called NEEF.  It wasn’t long before I joined NEEF on weekends to make noise in the art studios of Dickson Hall, where we recorded our debut 7” EP, pressing 163 copies because that was how many we got back from the pressing plant for the $40 that each of the 5 of us in the band contributed to press them up. 

Making our own record was a kick, and I caught the record-making bug and decided to make my own record, signing up for an Independent Project course and asked Chris Burden if he would be my faculty adviser on the project.  He of course said yes, and I was off to record a batch of noisy art rock pieces with Brent and a few other

friends. I pressed up 300 copies, silk-screening label art directly on the records, and included a photo postcard from an experimental industrial film I’d made in the UCLA Animation Department (the only film-making class a non-film major could take).  When I’d completed the project I gave Chris a few copies of the record and he seemed pleased.  Don’t know if he ever kept them, but “Project 197” (the course number) became the first release on my Independent Project Records label, and I was more than happy with the results.

Towards the end of that first class with Chris, I mentioned to him that if he ever needed an assistant on one of his performances I’d be interested in helping him with whatever he needed.  Several weeks later he got back to me and said that he was planning a trip to Calexico to do a piece where he would fly a model airplane across the border into Mexico, with several “bombs” of marijuana attached under the wings.  Would I be interested in going with him, to share the driving as well as help document the piece by photographing the action?  Of course I jumped at the opportunity and said yes. 

The plan was to drive to Calexico in the afternoon, check into a motel for the night, and the next morning we would drive to an inconspicuous place along the border where he would fly his rubber-band powered toy plane over the fence into Mexico.  As with most of Chris’ early performances, there was an aura of danger involved, as not only was marijuana much more illegal than it is now, but to be caught doing something suspicious at the border would also have had consequences (though I can’t imagine being able to do what he did now in these days of border hysteria).

"As with most of Chris’ early performances, there was an aura of danger involved, as not only was marijuana much more illegal than it is now, but to be caught doing something suspicious at the border would also have had consequences."

I gave Chris my address, and on the designated day he and his girlfriend picked me up in his car.  I tossed my overnight bag in the trunk and climbed into the back seat for the drive to Calexico.  We arrived in the late afternoon, checking into a non-descript motel, and then Chris and I drove out of town on the road that paralleled the border on the US side, scoping out where he might do the piece the following morning.  Calexico and Mexicali are kind of like one big city/town, divided by a fence down the middle. The only difference was that Mexicali (on the Mexican side) seemed to be about 5 times bigger than Calexico, as the barrios stretched for miles on the other side of the fence, where it was dusty open desert on the US side.  This gave the location a somewhat surreal feeling, that there was a bustling city where people lived and carried on with their lives just past the fence, while on the US side it was a desolate and uninspiring desert.

After dinner Chris and I decided to cross the border and walk around Mexicali for the evening.  Chris’ girlfriend stayed back at the motel to rest as it seemed that she was coming down with something.  Mexicali seemed more colorful by far than Calexico, filled with life and small shops. I don’t remember us buying anything, but at one point when we were about to head back I stepped off a high curb into a pothole in the dark and twisted my ankle really bad.  I was in serious pain as I hobbled back to the motel, Chris helping me to walk, as I could barely put any pressure on my foot.  It didn’t seem that I had broken anything, so we got an ice pack at the motel and I did my best to get some sleep with my ankle throbbing in pain. 

Morning arrived after a fitful sleep, and Chris knocked at my door at around 7 AM as we’d planned.  It was raining pretty solidly, and had been for some time during the night.  We had breakfast and discussed how this would affect the plan, finally deciding to wait awhile and see if it would stop. By this time Chris’ girlfriend had come down with some pretty serious flu symptoms, and I could barely walk.  My ankle was swollen and I was still in a lot of pain, but I told him I was up for whatever he needed me to do, as long as I could physically do it. 

As the rain began to lighten up we decided to check out of the motel and head out the road along the border in hopes that we could find a clear place for him to do the piece. We drove several miles to the area we had scoped out the night before, and pulled off the side of the road so Chris could see if this felt like the right place for him to do the piece.  He wasn’t quite sure, so got back in to head down the road a bit further, only to find that we were now stuck in the mud by the side of the road.  Two of us would have to push the car while the other steered it back onto the pavement, and as much as I would have been fine with standing in the mud and rain pushing the car back onto the highway, there was no way with my twisted ankle that I could physically do it. 

So I ended up behind the wheel of the car while Chris and his very sick girlfriend got out and pushed.  Fortunately it didn’t take much to get the car back on the road, and by this time the rain had tapered off to a light drizzle.  At this point Chris decided to just do it here and now, so we parked the car part way on the road so we wouldn’t get stuck again and he opened the trunk to get out his planes. Chris had made several of the planes he planned to use, to make sure that if he had any problems with one plane that he’d have a backup to use. Chris handed me his camera and asked me to start taking pictures. I hobbled back a few feet and began shooting images of him preparing the first plane for flight.  In the one photo that is often used to document the piece you can see the tracks in the mud from where we had to push the car to get it free.  As I recall, Chris had to make several attempts, and to get close enough to the wall so that the rubber-band powered plane would make it over and into Mexico.  He was finally successful, and I remember snapping one image of the plane flying over the wall, with houses in the background on the other side.  As soon as the plane made it over the fence, Chris smiled and seemed very pleased, and we walked back to the car.  On the drive back to town we wondered who would find the plane and it’s cargo, and what they would do with it. 

I never saw all of the photos I shot of Chris that day, though there weren’t that many, as it was all done and over with rather quickly.  I remember seeing a few of them that ended up being published in High Performance magazine, and then there’s the one image of Chris and his plane that is most often used as documentation for the piece. I wish I’d been able to shoot more images, but under the circumstances it’s rather amazing that we got as many as we did.

So thank you Chris, for offering a young undergrad the chance of a lifetime, to be there and to be a part of one of your unique creations. It was an experience that has stayed with me all these years in more ways than one, as I still occasionally need a chiropractor to help pull out the kinks in my right ankle. But I also thank you for coming to work at UCLA when you did, and for opening my eyes to possibilities I never would have otherwise encountered.  You were by far the best teacher I ever had.

Bruce Licher is the founding member of the LA post-punk band Savage Republic and instrumental post-rock band Scenic. He is also the owner and founder of Independent Project Records and the associated graphic design firms Independent Project Press and Licher Art & Design.