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On embodiment, eroticism, the uncanny, abjection, transgression and the perverse in the performative documentation and production of art.

Ⅰ. The Cruel Practice of Art

“Torture takes place for a variety of reasons. In principle its purpose differs little from that of a scarecrow: unlike art, it is offered to sight in order to repel us from the horror it puts on display. The painted torture, conversely, does not attempt to reform us. Art never takes on itself the work of the judge. It does not interest us in some horror for its own sake: that is not even imaginable. […] When horror is subject to the transfiguration of an authentic art, it becomes a pleasure, an intense pleasure, but a pleasure all the same.”

Ⅱ. Dennis Rader, Danny Devos, Anne-Mie van Kerckhoven and AA Bronson

Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal
Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal
Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal

Dennis Rader, Untitled #1, #2, #3, 1991.

In this series of three untitled Polaroids by Dennis Rader, we see an act photographed in different stages. The photos are taken during the day. We have a partial view of the tree from which Rader is suspended. A high level of vegetation can be seen. This specific location seems well protected from the view of possible onlookers, suggesting privacy and intimacy, but also creates a tension; he might get noticed. We don’t know if he shot the series on his own or with assistance. Given the circumstances help would be useful, but the photos in the series are listed as self-portraits. Among the sparse writing found on these Polaroids, a review by J. Douglas who is close to Rader’s work, confirms this by noting that Rader “had snapped most of them himself” which implies some contribution, but assistants remain unidentified.

The order in which the series should be laid out is unspecified, for this reason they are numbered in this text. We see there is a sheet of plastic on the ground. In all three photos, Rader can be seen suspended by a white rope from a tree. There is white rope around his neck in the first picture, but it is unclear in the other two. His hands are visibly bound by white rope in the second picture. The first picture suggests the same, but he seems to be holding on to the white rope to keep himself elevated. By estimation, it seems he is no further than a meter above ground. In the third picture, he is holding his hands in front of his body, while possibly holding the rope. His ankles are bound in all pictures and his legs are bound with black rope in pictures 2 & 3. In the third picture, we see his feet are spread and bound to a stick. He is wearing something white on his head, a plastic bag perhaps, which also seems to be the case in the second picture. He is wearing a mask. The mouth is taped. It looks like there is a lock of hair or other material draped across the forehead. These depictions are unpolished even though we know they are staged. They are crude, visceral, raw, and in some aspects, akin to Art Brut.

In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes the following;

“…many photographers continue to prefer black-and-white images, which are felt to be more tactful, more decorous than color—or less voyeuristic and less sentimental or crudely lifelike.”

Tact and decency are generally lacking in Rader’s work. Elements of voyeurism are especially prominent in these photographs; the content is heavily indecorous and is captured crudely. Its aesthetic reminds us of Camp, a sensibility that, as Sontag explains; “sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman but a “woman.” To perceive camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a- Role.” “It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality” of irony over tragedy.” It is in these terms that Rader’s body of work, which ranges from considerably degenerate text, image, drawing, photography and installation, embeds itself in aesthetic over morality.“Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgement.” It also refers to Baroque, which was, in the seventeenth century, a term referring to deviant, impure and irrational art, not unlike Camp. In its etymology, Baroque is related to a ‘deformed pearl’, and ‘a wart’. The style is known for its dynamic composition, diagonals and sense of ascension.

The choice of photography points to the importance of stillness; "Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible; of making it stand still." The suspension is continuously interrupted, as if there is little time, importance or patience. Suspension in itself deals with transcendence. It is a type of body play known to be practised by (modern−) primitives and BDSM culture. Long sessions can lead to phenomena like an out of body experience, ecstasy, visions, and orgasms. To continuously interrupt this action, to capture it, does imply the importance of still image: of documentation over duration. The series may have been taken in a small timeframe. The lighting seems to indicate passing of time between the first and last photo, assuming the colour balance is reliable. But if this were a representation of something as process of movement –or impairment−, it would have done so more effectively as a video work.

“Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. […] Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.”

Not only is the photograph a mobile object, it has the potential to become an icon. For the viewer, enclosing a persona or embodiment into an object of worship can transcend into obsession: in other words, a fetish. This fixation might give away Rader’s intent.

“At one end of the spectrum, photographs are objective data; at the other end, they are items of psychological science fiction. [...] even the most banal photograph-document can mutate into an emblem of desire.”

Rader is wearing women’s clothes: a sheer black long-sleeved-shirt and a white bra, a white skirt or dress of some sort, and white stockings. He seems to be wearing white gloves. His clothing arrangement refers to cross-dressing, transgenderism and/or transsexuality. There is a clear element of (sexual) deviance. The urge to go outside and practice these acts of suspended bondage with the possibility to be seen might excite Rader; this might even be documentation or a representation of autoerotic asphyxiation. By photographing these actions, he can relive the act and the experience.

The mask however, suggests a need or wish to hide or transform and embody a persona. We don’t see Rader; we know it is Rader. So, who is this incapacitated woman dangling bound and gagged from a tree somewhere? Does this deprivation of strength and speech, this representation of powerlessness connect with his idea of womanhood? It is perhaps, in regard to psychoanalytic theory, a metaphor of castration. A form of pre-abject, where, at a loss of identity, Rader’s portrayed image embodies neither subject or object, under the risk of becoming just that; not nothing, but a “something that is not recognised as a thing.” In his action lies the risk of disembodiment. By covering or masking parts of the body, they disappear from our sight, which makes us assess what is still there. These parts are no longer his own, a fine line between becoming something else and losing (a part) of himself: something unbecoming or uncanny. Additionally, Rader runs the actual risk of losing his body, in death by hanging. An interesting dualism; in embodiment, there is a sense of desire, whereas in disembodiment, dissolution, disguise or destruction seems its motive, both transcend the body.

In suspension, −or ascension− there is an element of control. The object or subject in suspension is hanging down, lowered down, or kept suspended: unable to move either way. In ascension there is a sense of elevation: the unnatural, a higher power, a reference to the religious or sublime. Like Odin sacrificing himself upon the tree Yggdrasil, or the Hanged Man in Tarot.

In The Hanged Man, AA Bronson is hanged by the feet. The studio photo is balanced and clean, the title refers to the Tarot card that carries the same name. Derived from a form of punishment in the middle ages, a figure is suspended from a tree, bound by one foot. He is to be given food and water until death. In Tarot however, interpretations vary between a symbol of martyrdom or life in suspension. Reference to liminality seems more appropriate to the work of Bronson, who describes this “moment of stasis”, where the Hanged Man represents stagnation and the unknown in his practise.

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Click to reveal

AA Bronson, The Hanged Man, 2002

As Odin stares fixated down into the abyss for wisdom to reveal itself, Bronson too seems to be looking for an answer, whereas Rader is twisting and turning, moving his body, seemingly trying to escape. Rader is facing different angles but it is unclear what he is looking at, or whether he can see through the mask at all. There is no serenity or focus and more importantly, his identity is suppressed. Its embodiment is one of insult, repression and shame, masked and cloaked in clothes of others. He is looking inward, and his portraits are that of a stranger, a distorted, liminal persona as he is, ambiguously, both aggressor and victim of his own doing. Both are rendered unable to speak of the act, and therefore let the action speak of itself. These elements of sadomasochism play throughout his practice.

Rader’s act of pulling himself up to keep elevated is reminiscent of a series of performances by Danny Devos. In L’Age D’or Variation Belgicus performed by Club Moral in Bruges, 1987, Devos is bound by the feet, legs spread, and gagged by a pilot microphone. As he pulls a noose around his head and starts to hoist himself off the floor by grabbing the other side of the rope, he repeats “I wanna be injured”. His vocals are amplified and deformed by Anne-Mie van Kerckhoven. In the L’Age D’or series, this performance is presented in front of an audience, while others consist of private and intimate short super 8 films, shot by Van Kerckhoven as an hommage to their courtship. In these video documents, we see Devos on the ground face down, naked, hands bound and legs spread by a stick. They catch the atmosphere of Rader’s photographs, which are, −in regard of Devos and Van Kerckhoven’s hommage− perhaps more amatory than they seem. With their act, both Rader and Devos touch upon Georges Bataille’s concept of eroticism.

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Club Moral, L’Age D’or nr 2 Variation Belgicus #090, #087, 1987

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Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal

Left to right: L’Age D’or / I wanna be injured #084, #092, #094, 1987

In Eroticism, Bataille describes:

“We use the word eroticism every time a human being behaves in a way strongly contrasted with everyday standards and behaviour. Eroticism shows the other side of a façade of unimpeachable propriety. Behind the façade are revealed the feelings, parts of the body and habits we are normally ashamed of.”

Bataille stresses the importance of despoilment of beauty as essential to his take on eroticism. He notes that “ugliness cannot be spoiled.” But who is to determine this beauty, or the fall thereof? In Rader’s stance, his attempt to ‘beautify’ himself with mask and makeup, dressed in ill-fitting women’s clothes leaves us with a slight sense of the uncanny. He did not necessarily despoil himself but seemingly attempts to do so regarding his representation of a woman, by binding, gagging, muting and essentially hanging her. In contrast, Van Kerckhoven follows her lover, stripped naked, face down in the dirt and legs spread, leaving him vulnerable while filming the whole ordeal. Both Rader and Devos become something else, −object, subject− in the eye of the camera, and therefore the viewer. Besides a form of degradation, these actions seem like a celebration of perseverance, which is an obstinate quality in both Rader’s and Devos’, and Van Kerckhovens’ work.

In Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag writes: “All images that display the violation of an attractive body are to a certain degree, pornographic”, and “Photographs Objectify: They turn an event or person into something that can be possessed.” These feelings of entitlement or possessiveness are not unfamiliar to romance, as is abuse. To capture anyone on camera is a keepsake, something to hold on to, since we can’t always do so physically. Sontag states that the act of photographing does in fact not rape or possess, but rather violates: “it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit” from a distance and with detachment. There is no sense of liability.

When we think of self-portraits, like those of Cindy Sherman, there is the same sense of the uncanny, which is something still recognisable but has undergone some transformation: that which is eerie and makes us uncomfortable. This can be artificial, or a mash of makeup, dress and flesh. It’s a “familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it”, like a body part, especially when it is still able to move.

Most of Sherman’s self-portraits are of women, represented often equally constrained like Rader’s, but not physically. There is no ligature or other means to hold them, yet they are somehow restrained. Starting from 1975 with the black and white Untitled Film Stills series, and moving into her 80's Centerfolds series, her characters grew from attractive to increasingly less desirable. In this transition, her characters lose a certain glamour and forfeit into a colourful but bleak environment. Clothes and hair are in disarray, her body damp and motionless, eyes even glassier. When looking at Sherman’s Untitled #153 she is on the ground, laying in gravel, moss and covered with dirt. Her body motionless, eyes staring. Rader’s Untitled Polaroid −like Sherman, Rader did not title his photographs− taken somewhere between ’74 and ’91 will, for clarity, be indicated as #5. We see a patch of dirt, with something or someone in a ditch or shallow grave. On the left we see some clutter, like plastic sheet, tape and a shovel; material used for installation. The figure is mostly covered in dirt. The head and partial arm are sticking out of the ground, while the arm is slightly draped with what appears to be a transparent plastic. Other parts, like the head and part of the arm are covered with a brownish material, such as brown tape or a stocking. There is a piece of black cloth or rope around the neck, which is tied to something unidentifiable, presumably a branch in the back. A black line runs diagonally from the figure’s arm down, either rope or cable, but it is hard to tell. Partially covered by dirt, it seems to disappear next to the arm, under the sand; a cable shutter perhaps.

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Left: Cindy Sherman, Untitled #153, 1985 Right: Dennis Rader, Untitled #5, 1974-1991

Rader and Sherman obsessively repeat key elements. Sherman makes use of different masquerades but strongly focuses on a varied display of femininity; Rader changes attire and scene, but remains bound and masked, displaying a single persona in every photo. Both play out a different aesthetic, while Rader’s photos are crude and emphasize on scene, Sherman’s are meticulous and technically balanced with a focus on portraiture.

These figures down in the dirt are in a sense, an abject image. Even though “essentially different from “uncanniness,” more violent, too, abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognise its kin.” These discarded bodies, obscure, uncanny, unequal in form and detail, both seem human and feasibly real. They capture the transition from subject to object to abject, as Sherman lies supine, staring into the distance and Rader, dug into a ditch and masked beyond animation, their lack of vitality suggests they are soon to be consumed by their setting.

This creates a question of context, as Sontag noted in On Photography, the photograph changes content if placed in a different scenario. We see and review them differently in a gallery, fashion magazine, or police report. We see more images juxtaposed without additional information or context on the internet, collaged all together, often reducing them to an abstraction. This either renders them meaningless or excites our imagination, often leading to false content. In its etymology, the image relates to an apparition, a phantom representation of an idea. The camera captures a truth that is prone to manipulation. Not only does the camera lie, we are complicit. Images imply something; they entangle our truths, wishes, and desires, of both taker and viewer.

Ⅲ. Harvey Glatman, John Willie and Cindy Sherman

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Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal

Harvey Glatman, Untitled #1, #2, 1957

Looking at these black and white photos, we see model Judy Dull on a sofa chair. Both pictures roughly capture the same image, which is almost set up like a game of ‘spot the difference’ and shows a process of a mise-en-scène, where Glatman is mostly playing with Dull’s clothing arrangement. Her clothes are casual, wearing a buttoned-up cardigan with her over knee dress. Quality, light and sharpness of the photos differ, making it an unlikely diptych. Both photos are crudely framed, cutting a part of Dull’s toes on the left, and compressing the furniture on the right. She is gagged, first by cloth, later by rope. Her arms are behind her back, giving us the impression that they are tied. Bindings on her ankles move up along with her skirt, which shows another layer of undergarment. Her eyes, tensely focussed away from the camera, keep us guessing what she is looking at.

Harvey Glatman was a photographer disorganised in his practice; his work remains generally untitled but infamous. He was active in L.A. during the fifties, where he hired models to pose for his shoots. His work comes across strongly sadosexual, and can be described as ‘fetish art’. Other ‘fetish artists’ are Tom of Finland, Nobuyoshi Araki, Allen Jones and John Willie among others.

Whether Glatman was aware of John Willie’s work is unknown, but their photography bares a striking resemblance. John Willie, who started out with cult magazine Bizarre and a comic named Sweet Gwendoline in the late forties, depicted various fetishes like high heels, bondage, sadomasochism, corsets and amputee fetishism. His drawings include men, women and transvestites, which is why his work is described as having an open and progressive nature.

John Willie, Best of Bizarre

Another interesting element that connects John Willie and Glatman is that they both hired Judy Dull to model for their bondage photographs, which gives us a unique opportunity to compare the outcome. In one series of Willie’s numerous sessions with Dull −it is said that he had ‘an old man’s folly’ for her− we see her in two different positions, seated on a chair and on the floor, most likely in the same unkept basement. Her hair and makeup appear to have been done, but it is hard to see the detail on account of the technical quality of either the photos or the reproduction. She is dressed in a white blouse, black skirt, sturdy black leather belt, and stockings that are held up by suspenders and black pumps. This outfit has a stronger erotic stance than that worn in Glatman’s photos, where Dull wears a buttoned-up cardigan over a knee long dress. This creates a different narrative for each series: the first by Glatman, where Judy Dull is caught off guard by someone that binds and gags her in a domestic environment, the other by Willie where she is dressed for the occasion, suggesting a more consensual scenario. If we take into consideration certain characteristics, such as the newspaper being carefully placed on the floor to ensure that her clothes aren’t soiled, we are given the impression that this photo shoot is not intended to come across as a violation, for either model or viewer. A telling feature is the contact between the photographer and model; in Willie’s series, Dull looks straight at the camera, with relaxed facial features, whereas with Glatman, she seems highly distressed and looks away.

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Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal

John Willie, Untitled #1, #2, 1946-1961

An interesting detail, pointed out by a bondage enthusiast, is the distinction in quality of ‘rope work’. High quality bindings are a prominent feature in John Willie’s work, and these are less elaborate and ‘professional’ in Glatman’s take. Glatman’s focus is on women who −are made to− embody a ‘damsel in distress’. His style seems to be a mix between boudoir and fashion photography, mainly because he controls the model’s clothes, hair and makeup, which are arranged and stylized. The photos do have a sense of eroticism. Although Dull is fully clothed, it revolves around themes of domination and control (both series do) but it is the non-consensual component that triggers it. The repetition and subject −a woman, debilitated but glamorous− and accompanied mise-en-scène add to the likeness of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. In The Phantasmagoria of the Female Body on Sherman, Laura Mulvey points out that:

“While the poses are soft and limp –polar opposites of a popular idea of fetishized femininity (high heeled and corseted, flamboyant and exhibitionist)- fetishism returns in the formal qualities of the photography.”

It is this formal quality that, in addition to a lack of physical restraint, makes the distinction between their otherwise relatable content. Glatman’s work is process based, literal and repetitive, he seems to have little interest in framing, or the technical quality of the photos and even though he does put the subject into context, he only zooms in, whereas Sherman leaves space for a more elaborate narrative. John Willie incorporates his narrative, by illustrating and writing its context on the page with it, and by making it a collection; a magazine. This doesn’t mean however that Glatman doesn’t have one, but it seems –due to its disarray and infamy− solely narrated and directed by anyone but him.

Ⅳ. Bob Berdella, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose

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Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal
Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal

Left to Right: Ferris 1985, Stoops 1986, Pearson 1987.

Looking at Stoops 1986, a black and white reproduction, −date unknown, and the originals are unavailable− we see a man on a bed which is made up of various fabrics of different dessins. The space looks crammed and messy or the photo is framed that way. His hands are bound; a rod is placed between his arms and back fixing his position on the bed, while making it impossible to relax. There are various strands of rope around the head area, some around the neck and one seems to be protruding from a piece of cloth serving as a gag. Judging from other photos taken at the same location, the rope is tied to the metal bars of the bed. There is a clamp, attached to a piece of wood and wiring, clasped to his arm. His eyes are wide, bulging. There is a sense of weightlessness, as though he is levitating. In this photo, Stoops reportedly receives a 7,700-volt electroshock from Bob Berdella, which is why his body is cramped up and lifted from the bed.

When Berdella’s photography came into the eye of the public, viewers reacted with fascination, shock and horror. His themes, which are heavily rooted in BDSM subculture, are not easy to look at. His portraits, often of gay prostitutes, summon pain by means of physical empathy. When in college, Berdella supposedly was expelled for killing a dog in the name of art. Interestingly, his last model wore nothing but a dog collar.

Berdella’s portrait series, which remains obscure, remind us of a slightly more familiar sight: Bob Flanagan’s work. In the field of art, he is better known or has at least enjoyed more notoriety. Flanagan, who started as a writer and poet, shared his life-threatening disease, cystic fibrosis, and masochist adventures together with Sheree Rose, his partner, in the form of text, music, photography, film, performance and installation. Flanagan, having suffered terrible stomach aches as a child, directed his attention to his penis; masturbation was the only thing that could temporarily relieve him from pain. He later started to experiment with his body, in search of different sensations, which he described as “fighting sickness with sickness”.

In the documentary film SICK: the life and death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist we follow Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose in their daily routine. We see Flanagan deteriorating and eventually die from his terminal illness. We are shown photographs from their extensive body of work, taken by Rose. Most of them are of Flanagan in various states; bound, gagged, suspended, cut, beaten, pierced, pissed on, shat on, penetrated, clipped, in chains, etcetera. In the two film stills from SICK, marked as #1 and #2, we see Flanagan on a chair, connected to some kind of self-fabricated harness; a metal ring with a bunch of clothing pegs attached to it by strings. He appears to be sitting on a blood stained hospital gown, which is a likely result from piercing the scrotum. His body presses back against the chair’s banister while his hands dig into the arm posts to set himself against the pull on the other end, his face in agony.

In the documentary Flanagan elaborates on masochism in relation to control;

“People don’t think of the masochist as being a strong person, the stereotype is that the masochist is snivelling and weak and it’s actually not true, the masochist has to know his or her body perfectly well and be in full control of their body. In order to either give the control to somebody else or to give control to pain, so the masochist is actually a really strong person.”

This sense of relinquished control is an important stimulus. Despite this, as he goes on, masochists don’t like to admit that they are, essentially, always in control. On the second photo, where Bob is laying on the sofa and where he seems more relaxed, wearing a nasal cannula to supply him with extra oxygen, he looks vulnerable. Again, his genitals are clamped.

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Warning! This image is graphic. Click to reveal

SICK: the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Film Still #1 & #2

In the prologue of Bad Girls and Sick Boys by Linda S. Kauffman, she starts by saying:

“Collectively, the work of the woman and men whom I discuss is too literal for art, too visceral for porn. These artists approach the body as material in every sense of the word: as matter−tangible and tactile−it is what matters most. The body is the material base, a methodological field for investigations of politics, history, identity.”

In Flanagan’s work, there is a sense of deconstructed male sexuality, first as Bob being subordinate to Sheree’s wishes, and second, a direct physical attack on the phallus. Kauffman questions these acts, asking “Is Flanagan’s sexuality “feminine” because it is masochistic?” and follows up with; “Rather than disavowing castration anxiety, Flanagan acts it out − he performs it. Rather than fetishizing the female body, he pokes and pierces his own.”

As we have seen with Dennis Rader in the first chapter, who quite literally tries to project this feminine masquerade, we can ask if, or why these perceived notions of castration are associated with femininity. Is femininity, aside from Freud’s theory of deducted sexuality, a synonym of subjection? Is it, in relation to masochism, to be controlled, or even, to tolerate abuse? It seems a reasonable assumption to say Rader’s dress is a literal semblance of a metaphor that deals with transference, a ritual that can involve; a type of dress, physical pain and/or mental summon. It is a trail of endurance; suffering and pain play an essential role in rites of passage and transformation, as they become a representation of the reality of death. Interestingly, it is not necessarily Rader, but his female persona that goes through this passage. Self-infliction of pain is seen as problematic, as we are not −in our Abrahamic religious tradition− supposed to ‘hurt’ our bodies, and especially not those of others. Perhaps this deviance ties in with uncleanliness −of spirit and body−, which in that same Abrahamic tradition, is female.

Unlike Rader, Devos, Sherman and Flanagan, who work their own bodies, Berdella and Rose not only photograph but work their subject as a material, and through their method the subject seems to become –or behave like− just that: a person or thing that is being dealt with. As they internalise these actions upon them, their objective is to overcome this ordeal into becoming: to arrive somewhere, obtain something and agree with the situation, a consensus. It’s a play of submission and devotion, a rite of passage.

In Modern Primitives, Rose describes it as that: “There is some spirituality involved in this. It’s like transcending what the body can feel as pain and turning it into pleasure and then turning it into a spiritual experience.” But it might internalize, become domestic; and render submissive. What do they −the models, the portrayed, the performers− become when their body becomes the material base of research and investigation of the other, at loss of autonomy?

Ⅴ. On a Plane Equal to Death

Within the essence of body play, the body as a material; regardless if it is one’s own body or somebody else’s; lies control. Control can be kept or given away, but whatever happens is essentially consensual. Consent, and intent, in regard to this text is important: you may or may not know, not all auteurs mentioned in this text are considered artists. The general question is why; of what importance is ethicality, regarding the process of making a work of art? This attempt to look at parallels between work of serial killers and artists is obviously questionable, but if the general context is unknown to us, as presented in a gallery, or written about in relation to art theory, the works discussed are, arguably, quite captivating.

In Berdella’s Ferris 1985 and Pearson 1987 we see, besides bondage and gag, experimentation with syringes. He would inject the men with drain cleaner, animal tranquilizers and antibiotics. These men are not only models, but also victims, kept at times for weeks on end, tortured, raped and photographed by Berdella after which he would eventually murder them. He had a staggering amount of photographic material and accompanying text to document his actions. He treated them as research material, finding different ways to work and experiment with their bodies. Berdella’s last victim, Chris Bryson, got away by untying himself and jumping out of the second story window, wearing nothing but a dog collar. Police found over two hundred Polaroids of his victims in various conditions, and fairly detailed notes he kept on the bizarre assaults, using code for different actions, like FF for fist-fuck, or CF for carrot or cucumber fuck.

Serial killers often target prostitutes because generally their families are either unaware of their activities or become disconnected because of them. Harvey Glatman, the first so called ‘want-ad killer’, targeted models who were willing to show a little more skin, which made it likely that they were not on best terms with their families, if they even knew at all, making them an easy target.

Glatman, who was active in the fifties, placed ads in the newspapers asking for aspiring models; he wanted to build up their career and would offer them higher pay than what was common. In July 1957 Glatman persuaded Judy Dull to model for a cover shoot. After a few photos, Glatman, forcing himself on Dull and losing his virginity, raped her several more times over the course of the day, and would make her watch his favourite comedy series with him in between ‘sessions’. During these actions, he took various photographs of which the process is described in the book Signature Killers:

“They were images of Glatman’s detailed methodology of murder, which showed a sequence of terror by re-creating the entire psychological arc of the crime. He first photographed each victim with a look of innocence on her face as if she were truly enjoying a modelling session. The next series represented a sadist’s view of a sexually terrorized victim with the impending horror of a slow and painful death etched across her face. The final frame depicted the victim’s position that Glatman himself had arranged after he strangled her.”

When we look at the published photographs of Judy Dull, we could try to analyse at what point, of this work method described above, they were taken. There is a trace of innocence captured, but her posture and facial expression tells us Dull probably already sensed the interlude of the second stage, where he starts assaulting and eventually raping her. In other photos, we see her on the ground, at this point, her cardigan is unbuttoned completely and she is still looking away from the camera, having the same anxious look on her face as we have seen above. In the other, she is laying face down, hands and ankles tied, next to what appears to be the coffee table. What makes these photographs so ambivalent, is the partly consensual aspect of their meeting, since Dull accepted to model for a ‘detective magazine cover shoot’, thinking that the bindings were part of the scene, but soon realised they were not for show.

These photographs have an extended aura because of the context we came to know. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura, which he regards as lost in work that is reproduced, therefore rendering it unauthentic, is an interesting dualism if we relate it to this kind of snuff photography. Emulating snuff films, these photographs capture the process of a murder, which are unlikely to be reproduced by the auteur as they are incriminating evidence. Unlike snuff films, that seem to thrive on the publishing possibilities, sharing on the internet in anonymity, rendering authorship to speculation and authenticity questionable, which is part of the excitement. When incriminating photographs become public, we most likely see them reproduced: scanned or copied, sometimes altered; blurring out detail, rendered black and white or cropped. The originals, uncovered when the auteur got caught, will probably remain in evidence. Due to moral implications, they are unlikely to be exhibited.

The aura of the original object; the photograph, used as an artifact, is seen in a different context and by a wider audience. Ultimately, its aura, which refers to a subtle, emanate extension of physicality, although reproduced is still eminent, and transfers an imprint additionally dense and gloomy. It remains an artifact prone to being fetishized, which is elaborately saved and shared, on numerous online galleries and fan sites as well as offline media. The originals, −which is what the reproductions have become− “here and now, in its unique existence in a particular place” have not lost their authenticity, they simply migrated to a different context, where there is no need for a set place, maintaining, if not expending their aura. The ‘here and now’ is forever captured within the image: a testament, where Judy Dull is captured, locked into an artifact that embodies her last living moment, and will −now forever on the net− contain her afterlife.

The context of the internet is compelling regarding images like these, whose authenticity and authorship is questioned and speculated upon, for it deals with the power of suggestion. As outlined above, the (formal) similarities of the work by Glatman and John Willie are apparent; both auteurs were active in the fifties, working in the City of Los Angeles, booking the same models and working with the same subject. It is likely that Glatman kept his photographs to himself, and was not socialising with the Bizarre cult of Willie. There is no known comment or statement made by Willie on the murders, but in the book Best of Bizarre, Eric Kroll writes the following:

“Conversely, it is rumoured that Willie was greatly disturbed by the death of one of his models, Judy Ann Dull. She was the third victim of Harvey Glatman, the Los Angeles “Bondage Murderer” […] It is said that Willie was very troubled that his photographs and art might have contributed in some way to this hideous crime.”

In Modern Primitives, Fakir Musafar talks about his contribution to Bizarre, and his contact with Willie, wherein he states:

“In 1958 [sic] one of his favourite models, 19-year-old Judy Dull, was Killed by Harvey Glatman, the “Bondage Murderer.” Perhaps the shock prompted him to leave; he died august 6, 1962 at age 60 at Catel, Guernsey, near France.”

This implies that John Willie was aware of the potential danger of publishing images that illustrate, and in a way, glorify harm to others. It remains a modern discourse sparked by violent representation, impelled by a fear that viewers might act out these perhaps suggestive images, exploited and condoned by the media.

Suggestion and interpretation −or speculation− opposed to the literal and real seem preferred, when approaching art. It is something that we can project onto, and as long as something stays in the context of art, −where we consider ourselves safe, because it is somehow not ‘real’− many things are possible. When we look at the work of Dennis Rader, who produced a vast amount of self-portraits by re-enacting the deaths of his victims, we could state his output is quite artistic.

Rader used his victims’ clothes and other artifacts, to photograph post mortem ‘installations’ where he would position the bodies, change their attire and place artifacts on or near them. Besides photographs, Rader worked on collages, drawings and stories, while working out concepts like, what he called “afterlife concept of victim” , where the people he killed −and therefore becoming his− would in some way serve him in afterlife.

The series of re-enactments often took place outside, where he had the privacy and opportunity to reminisce on past experiences and, to act out or capture those facets he had no time to assimilate during and after homicide. Based on his actions, and assisted with artifacts taken from his victims, he would relive the experience. What is interesting is that, perhaps because there was no accomplice to pose for him, Rader used his own body to represent his victims, turning the act full circle by simultaneously disembodying; losing control and embodying them; regaining it. In this process of transference he shifts from one group, the murderer, to the other, the victim. In a sense, by re-enacting these acts, he continued the process of their deaths. Just as in ritual, re-enactments maintain their relevance and relationship to contemporary society. As noted before, it is a trail of endurance, a representation of the reality of death. Rader’s acts, and those of others, function as a modern rite, which may explain its unwavering enticement in historical and contemporary culture.

If we look at the artists and murderers mentioned, and we disregard their intent, motive and homicides for the sake of argument, the remnant is something that can be reviewed within the context of art theory. What remains is: do we review the work in its ‘final state’, or is the process equally important? If an artist works within the realm of death, is her/his involvement relevant? It’s a question of integrity. The level of involvement gives us information on the work’s context: it blurs or enriches its final state. You can oppose to the ethical circumstances in which a work came about or question what it addresses. In reviewing it as art, there seems no other consequence than to simply conclude: this exists, and we can learn something from its existence, it does not have to be engaging or sensible. It is a result, reflection, interpretation, objection −and abjection− of our society. In essence, our eyes are lied to, but our gaze is not innocent.


  1. Bataille, Georges. "The Cruel Practice of Art." Editorial. Médicine De France 1946: n. pag. Georges Bataille - The Cruel Practice of Art. Web. 11 Sept. 2016. Back to text
  2. “Scattered among all the folders were Polaroid snapshots. Rader had snapped most of them himself while engaged in various activities…” Douglas, John E., and Johnny Dodd. "The Capture and Arrest of BTK." Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story behind the Thirty-year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008. 128-39. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. Back to text
  3. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. London, England: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008. 128. Print. Back to text
  4. Sontag, Susan. "Notes On "Camp"." The Partisan Review (1964). Susan Sontag. The Partisan Review. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. Back to text
  5. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. London, England: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008. 162. Print. Back to text
  6. Idem, 17. Back to text
  7. Idem, 162. Back to text
  8. Kristeva, Julia, and Leon S. Roudiez. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print. Back to text
  9. The Globe and Mail (CA) Sholem Krishtalka, Published; Oct. 08, 2013. ‘For Bronson, the notion of a group dynamic has been the driving force of his entire career’: “When Jorge [Zontal] and Felix [Partz, the other two members of General Idea] died, I found myself very solitary, I didn’t know how to work as an individual artist. I was in this funny, weird moment of stasis. And then the hanged man appears, that piece [a triptych of Bronson suspended upside-down from his heels], which is really not knowing what I’m doing or where I’m going, or how to make art.” Back to text
  10. Turner, Victor. "Liminality and Communitas." The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine, 1969. Victor Turner. Excerpt from The Ritual Process. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. “The attributed of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such; their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon.” Back to text
  11. Club Moral - L'Age D'Or Nº2 (1987). Dir. Danny Devos and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven. Perf. Danny Devos and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven. YouTube. Club Moral/Performan, 17 Feb. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. Back to text
  12. Bataille, Georges. Eroticism. Trans. Mary Dalwood. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. 109. Print. Back to text
  13. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin, 2004. 85. Print. Back to text
  14. Idem, 72. Back to text
  15. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. London, England: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008. 13. Print. Back to text
  16. Freud, Sigmund. "The Uncanny." The Uncanny (1919). 15. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. Back to text
  17. Kristeva, Julia, and Leon S. Roudiez. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. 5. Print. Back to text
  18. The photos are in black and white, but in regard of Willie’s body of work we can assume these were the colours and material of Dulls attire. Back to text
  19. Mulvey, Laura. "The Phanstasmagoria of the Female Body." Cindy Sherman. Paris: Flammarion/Jeu De Palme, 2006. 284-303. Print. Back to text
  20. Known under the terms electro play or ‘electrotorture’ in BDSM body play, -in this case- 7,700 volt is not deadly, in the right circumstances. This also depends on the amount of milliampere used. If received for a short time, 7,700 volts will only cause the muscles to cramp. Back to text
  21. SICK: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Dir. Kirby Dick. Perf. Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose. Watchfree. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. Back to text
  22. Idem. Back to text
  23. Kauffman, Linda S. Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 1998. 1. Print. Back to text
  24. Idem, 24. Back to text
  25. Idem, 26. Back to text
  26. Vale, V., and Andrea Juno. Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual. San Francisco, CA: Re/Search Publications, 1989. 113. Print. Back to text
  27. Keppel, Robert D., and William J. Birnes. "The 'Lonely Hearts Killer' and the Murder of Shirley Bridgeford." Signature Killers. New York: Pocket, 1997. 30-38. Google Books. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. Back to text
  28. Benjamin, Walter. "III." The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. 21-22. Web. 29 Jan. 2017. Back to text
  29. Willie, John, and Eric Kroll. "John Willie Is Bizarre." John Willie's Best of Bizarre. Köln: Taschen, 2001. 9. Print. Back to text
  30. Vale, V., and Andrea Juno. Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual. San Francisco, CA: Re/Search Publications, 1989. 22. Print. Back to text
  31. Wenzl, Roy, Tim Potter, L. Kelly, and Hurst Laviana. Bind, Torture, Kill: The inside Story of the Serial Killer next Door. New York, NY: Harper, 2007. Print."He told the cops he also fantasized about enslaving them in the afterlife. In his writings he called that AFLV, short for Afterlife Concept of Victim. Joseph Otero would be his bodyguard. Julie Otero would bathe him and serve him in the bedroom. Joey would be his servant and a sex toy. Josie would be his "young maiden." He would instruct her in sex, bondage, and sadomasochism." Back to text

Image source (in chronological order)

  1. Rader, Dennis. Untitled #1. 1991. Wichita Police, Wichita - Sedgwick County, Kansas, USA. Here Is Rader Wearing a Mask to Simulate One of His Victims. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Web. 28 Jan. 2017. "Rader wears undergarments from Doloris Davis and a mask over his face while hoisting himself off the ground with pulleys in one of his self-bondage pictures." from Bind, Torture, Kill: the inside story of BTK, the serial killer next door. Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, L.Kelly and Hurst Laviana. Black and white reproduction. p.311
  2. Rader, Dennis. Untitled #2. 1991. Wichita Police, Wichita - Sedgwick County, Kansas, USA. From the Other Side. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.
  3. Rader, Dennis. Untitled #3. 1991. Wichita Police, Wichita - Sedgwick County, Kansas, USA. From the Other Side. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.
  4. Bronson, AA. The Hanged Man. 2002. Courtesy of the Artist & Esther Schipper, Berlin. Blouin Artinfo. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  5. Devos, Danny, and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven. L’Age D’or Nr 2 Variation Belgicus #090. 1987. Club Moral, Kortrijk, Belgium. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
  6. Devos, Danny, and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven. L’Age D’or Nr 2 Variation Belgicus #087. 1987. Club Moral, Kortrijk, Belgium. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
  7. Devos, Danny, and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven. L’Age D’or / I Wanna Be Injured #084. 1987. Club Moral. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
  8. Devos, Danny, and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven. L’Age D’or / I Wanna Be Injured #092. 1987. Club Moral. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
  9. Devos, Danny, and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven. L’Age D’or / I Wanna Be Injured #094. 1987. Club Moral. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
  10. Sherman, Cindy. Untitled #153. 1985. Cindy Sherman, Photographic Work 1975 - 1995. Schirmer/Mosel, 2002. 104. Print.
  11. Rader, Dennis. Untitled #5. 1974-1991. Wichita Police, Wichita - Sedgwick County, Kansas, USA. For the next Several Hours, Rader Slowly Worked Himself Free, but It Was a Close Call. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.
  12. Glatman, Harvey. Untitled #1. 1957. Los Angeles Police, The City of Los Angeles, California, USA. Bizarrepedia. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
  13. Glatman, Harvey. Untitled #2. 1957. Los Angeles Police, The City of Los Angeles, California, USA. Bizarrepedia. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
  14. Willie, John. and lots of this – and this -. 2001. John Willie's Best of Bizarre. 3 magnificent John Willie watercolors of damsels in severe figure training.> Vol. 11. John Willie, 1952. 14-15. Print. Bizarre.
  15. Willie, John. Untitled #1. 1946-1961. The City of Los Angeles. USA. Murderpedia. Web. 23 May 2016.
  16. Willie, John. Untitled #2. 1946-1961. The City of Los Angeles. USA. Murderpedia. Web. 23 May 2016.
  17. Berdella, Bob. Ferris 1985. 1985. Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Bizarrepedia. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.
  18. Berdella, Bob. Stoops 1986. 1986. Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Bizarrepedia. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.
  19. Berdella, Bob. Pearson 1987. 1987. Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Bizarrepedia. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.