INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE

2007-2015

Inextinguishable Fire engages spectators with the construction of images of violence and war in the media. Presented as both a live performance and a video, it juxtaposes the immediacy, urgency and ephemerality of live performance against constructed acts for camera in order to challenge the documentary truth factor of images.

LIVE PERFORMANCE

Inextinguishable Fire was performed live at the National Theatre in London on April 2, 2015, as part of the SPILL Festival of Performance.  As the performance began, the artist stood silently on stage, clothed only in a pair of briefs. They made eye contact with members of the audience as they assumed their seats in the theatre.  The mood was tense; the aesthetic was stark.  The house lights were on, and the stage appeared to be in-between productions with exposed wires and cords visibly dangling from the rafters.

When the majority of the audience had been seated, a stunt team entered the stage and began to prepare Cassils for the “full body burn,” a treacherous fire stunt borrowed from Hollywood productions.  For nearly twenty minutes, they laboriously coated the artist’s body in layers of fire resistant long underwear soaked in a freezing solution intended to induce a hypothermic state.  The risk in performing a fire stunt is not that the fire will touch the skin but that perspiration from the heat of the body will boil and burn the skin inside of the protective garments.  For this reason, Cassils was chilled to the bone before they were light ablaze.

In the video of the performance, a single shot slowly and steadily zooming outward to reveal this process of preparation to the viewer.  In the live performance, strategically placed microphones gradually amplified the sounds generated by the on-stage stunt preparation to focus the viewer’s attention.  Tension increased as the viewers began to hear the stunt coordinator whisper to the artist, the application of viscous protective fabric across the skin, a jaw shuttering with cold.  A sonic drone, barely audible, fluctuated in the live sound design by Kadet Kuhne. 

Once prepared, the theatre lights were sharply cut, and Cassils was lit on fire.  The audience watched as the artist was subsumed in flames.  They burned for fourteen seconds, and the fire was extinguished. When the lights came back on, the stage was empty.

Next the audience was guided to a well-traversed public walkway outside of the theatre where they watched a large-scale video version of Inextinguishable Fire projected on the side of the Southbank Centre building.  In contrast to their experience in the theatre – where audience members reported feeling “anxious,” “on edge,” and “ready to vomit” – they witnessed the same event as a mediated spectacle with a public bustling by without concern for the burning body. 

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Photos by Hanneke Wetzer.

 

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FILM

Inextinguishable Fire was initially created as a performance for camera in Los Angeles using stunt techniques borrowed from Hollywood films.

Shot on digital video at 1000 frames per second, Cassils’ fourteen-second live burn was extended to fourteen minutes of slow motion flame.  Slowing the burn down required the viewer to spend time in a world reduced to the fleeting headlines of Twitter and Facebook feeds.  When screened on a continuous loop, the video references continuous cycles of political uprising and apathy, life and death, ignition and extinguishment.  The title of the work references Harun Farocki’s eponymous 1969 film, which reflects on the impossibility of effectively representing the horror of napalm on film. 

“When we show you pictures of napalm victims, you’ll shut your eyes.  You’ll close your eyes to the pictures.  Then you’ll close them to the memory.  And then you’ll close your eyes to the facts.  – Harun Farocki, 1969

Cassils began to interrogate issues of violence and representation after they attend the United Stuntman’s Association’s International Student School in 2005. During this period, they produced Simulation in Training, an experimental documentary that investigates the theatre of war present in mass media in the United States.

Although Inextinguishable Fire is simulation of violence, it still presents real danger.  In capturing this volatile situation, Cassils creates an artwork where immanent physical danger, empathy for those experiencing violence, and the privilege of distance from such circumstances operate simultaneously in one transparent performance.