Bloody Knuckles

This piece came to be as the result of a sculpture assignment my junior year of college. The only requirements were it had to be at least your height and made of wood. For some reason, the first thing that came to mind was to make wooden slats so thin they were translucent. While that idea didn’t manifest itself in any way, it did get me thinking about how I could use thin slats of wood, and punching through them presented itself as the most appealing idea. This in turn got me thinking of the “Price is Right” game Punch-a-Bunch, where you have to punch through tissue paper to reveal cards with dollar amounts on them.

From that came Bloody Knuckles: A Game of Capitalist Misadventure. The premise, as described on the sign that accompanied it, was that there were two prizes hidden within the game: one fifty-dollar prize and one twenty-five dollar prize. The other boxes contained random facts for the participant’s enjoyment, but nothing more. The only rule for the game was that you had to use your fist and not a tool to break the wooden slats.

Conceptually, the piece had three points I wanted to explore. The first was to create a scenario to observe just how far people will go for cash prizes. Would you punch through an 1/8th”, splinter-prone piece of wood for a 1 in 25 chance at fifty or twenty-five dollars? Opinions ranged from “I’d never do that” to Where do I sign up? While this started out as the primary concept of the piece, its importance was reduced as I progressed with construction and thought about the work more. When performance time came, I observed that money wasn’t the primary concern of the participants, either.

Another point of interest was the tenuous line of trust that was intrinsically a part of interacting with Bloody Knuckles. The viewer had no assurance there weren’t nails behind the wooden slats other than my solemn promise. There was no guarantee the facts I provided were actually factual. Most importantly, there was no definitive proof of a monetary reward. There were only two ways to determine if I was trustworthy in this respect. One way was to submit to the rules of the game and enter into a blind contract of trust. The other way was to violate the rules of the game by some means (using a brick, reaching into concealed cubbies via exposed cubbies, etc.) in order to discover the truth. This, however, would dissolve the informal contract and reveal the abuser as the untrustworthy one, not the artist.

The third aspect of Bloody Knuckles was its hyper interactivity. The vast majority of traditional art is only accessible on the visual level – look but don’t touch, respect the velvet ropes. While interactive art exists, in many cases the art remains largely unchanged at the conclusion of the interaction, ready for the next patron to step up and operate the work. With Bloody Knuckles, the viewer was not just asked to interact with the work under the context that it was art, but asked to destroy the art and willingly experience pain in the process. To me, the moment someone punched their fist through one of those wooden slats with the understanding that it was a sculpture was the moment Bloody Knuckles stopped being a prop from some sadistic game show and started being art. This hyper interactivity is a theme in many of my art projects.

broken

How It Went

Initially, I pushed to get Bloody Knuckles into Geneseo’s annual juried show. The piece was rejected. I never received an answer as to why I was turned down, but I suspect it was due to injury concerns. Either that or the idea of bloodied hands, jumbled obscenities and sculpture fragments strewn about the floor didn’t quite fit the judges’ definition of ‘gallery setting.’ Of course, calling into question that velvet rope ‘aura’ was half the point of my project, but in retrospect, I can understand their reluctance. After all, all that commotion would detract from the work of others.

The next strongest ‘aura’ I could think of was owned by the school library. Screaming, violence and destruction are simply intolerable in a library setting – it would be perfect. I even worked at the library at the time, so I thought maybe I had an “in” I could exploit. Unfortunately, my request was turned down. They told me there were insurance concerns.

Fresh out of institutions to exploit, I saw my only choice was to set up Bloody Knuckles out on the campus green during all-college free hour. I knew if I went and asked permission from the school they’d refuse me the same as the library, so I decided to go guerilla-style and hope no one would come out of the offices to inspect the commotion.

A crowd formed almost immediately after set-up and remained fifteen to twenty strong throughout the entire performance. The range of experience was fascinating. First, let’s talk about those that failed to break the boards. There were several guys and one woman that attempted but failed to break a board. For the guys, you could tell the failure struck deep with each of them. It seemed as though for the men, money was the afterthought of participation, not the purpose. Instead, Bloody Knuckles was something to prove – a barometer of manhood. I suspect the crowd, gasping and groaning with each thwarted attempt, only intensified this idea in the minds of the failed participants. After three or four tries, hand bloodied and trembling with pain, they’d say something along the lines of “f*ck this sh*t,” refuse any of my bandages and storm off to nurse their wounds in private.

As for the three women that participated, the reasons seemed similar. It was not a matter of finding the cash. The real prize seemed to be proving they could hang with the boys, a drive that proved even stronger than testosterone. The crowd and I watched the lone failing female slam her fist into the board twelve times, barely making an impression on the wood. After about the third time, the crowd simply winced with each attempt as her hand got progressively more scuffed up and bloody. One guy actually offered to finish the job for her. Of course, she brusquely refused and continued to wail on the board with a shaking fist. The last few times may have been more painful for the audience than the girl, as her blows had little more power than a knock at the door. She ended up leaving after that twelfth time, saying very little but accepting the gauze I had on hand.

So for the participants, it appeared to be less about the money and more about proving something to themselves and others. But what about the spectators? What was in it for them? Some of them were old participants sticking around to goad on others, but many were simply observers to the spectacle. I can’t say for sure what about the project drew them in, but my best guess is the appeal was a combination of mob mentality and the desire to know.

First, mob mentality. I think Bloody Knuckles tapped into the same part of the human brain that causes a crowd to form around a cafeteria fight. There’s something about goading others on to feats of violence that has a titillating effect, but it only seems to work when there are multiple people around. One person goading on two people to fight is sadistic; five thousand people goading on two people to fight is boxing. Of course, that’s oversimplifying the sport of boxing, but the idea is many people watching an act of violence together somehow validates the act for everyone involved. My belief is mobs turn off (or at least dull) that part of our brain that makes us question if what we’re witnessing is “okay” or not. When caught up in the spirit of a mob, we subconsciously reason that if everyone else thinks what’s going on is acceptable, we’re allowed to think it’s acceptable, too. The trick, of course, is that everyone is acting on the very same principle. No one’s really thinking about what’s being witnessed, and as a result visceral reactions reign supreme.

With this in mind, I’d venture that it’s not violence that appeals to mobs but rather the act of manipulating other people and//or objects via collective will. In the example of Bloody Knuckles, this control was applied through the comparatively gentle act of egging on participants to punch a piece of wood. In this manner, the crowd got their fix of bloodied hands and broken boards, but really it’s not about the act. Instead, it’s about three things:

    1. The stimulating experience of getting a group of likeminded people together.
    2. The empowering experience of using that like-mindedness to manipulate an outside element according to the collective will.
    3. The godlike experience of making that outside element do something they would never do on their own accord.

In the case of Bloody Knuckles¸ it seems the relationship between mob and element was symbiotic. The successful participant received validation from the crowd and a feeling that something important about their character had been proved. As for the mob, they got some board-smashing entertainment and the thrill of controlling the actions of a self-governing being, even if it was only for a moment or two.

The second spectator appeal of Bloody Knuckles, the one that kept people hanging around until well after college free hour was over, was the desire to know. Where was the fifty dollars? Was there fifty dollars at all? There were four or five boxes already punched out before I set up on the green (they were punched during the class critique) – had one of those boxes held the fifty dollars? I wasn’t about to kill the sculpture’s pretext for participation by saying yes or no. But the crowd needed that knowledge. Without it, Bloody Knuckles would win, and no one likes it when a conceptual piece of sculpture gets the better of them. This desire for knowledge only increased as the box count dwindled, and proved an interesting partner to the theme of violence.

About halfway through the boxes, the twenty-five dollar prize is discovered by a guy who not only punched through the wooden slat but through the plywood façade as well. I am proven half-trustworthy, but there’s a big difference between twenty-five dollars in prizes and seventy-five dollars in prizes, especially to a college student. I still may have been lying about the big one.

As the boxes fell one by one, the murmurings get louder. Where is the fifty dollars? Has it already been found and he isn’t telling us? Some people note that the sign describing the rules makes no direct mention of a fifty-dollar prize – it simply shows a picture of a fifty-dollar bill. Perhaps the grand prize is just a picture, or maybe even the very picture on the sign.

As the final participant sticks his hand into the cubby, all that awaits him is another bit of trivia. No fifty-dollar bill; no photocopied fifty. Only the newfound knowledge that for every person on earth there are an estimated 200 million insects. The mob isn’t as enchanted with this fact as they were with the others. They don’t want trivia; they want the answer. They want their hour and a half of standing around to mean something.

In response to their protests, I point out several things. First, I remind them of boxes that had been punched earlier in the week as well as the sign’s grand prize ambiguities. Then I point out to them the first line of the rules:

“Contained somewhere within this game are two monetary rewards.”

I suggest to the group that maybe the grand prize isn’t in one of the cubbies at all, but rather somewhere else within the game. Finally, I told them that if all present are willing to forfeit their right to the grand prize, I will gladly provide them with the knowledge they sought.

The next thing you know, Bloody Knuckles is on the pavement, tipped over by the mob. They rip off the plywood façade and toss it to the side, hectically rifling through splintery, nail-ridden sculpture remains like a birthday piñata. They tear off the legs and the wheels; kick apart the cabinetry; expose every previously concealed surface. Finally, one boy takes a good, long look at the rules sign standing by itself a step or two apart from the carnage. He takes out a knife. He tears the laminated rule sheet off the wooden sign and slices it open. There, behind the picture of the fifty-dollar bill, waits a message.

The boy is crestfallen. He tosses the sign to the ground rejoins the rest of the mob picking at the carcass of Bloody Knuckles. There’s not much left now. Some people sift through the shards of wooden slats, thinking maybe the fifty was taped to the back of one. Others just watch with their arms crossed, ready to give up so they can find out the answer. After a few minutes, even the die-hard’s admit there’s no stone they’ve left unturned. Once again, all eyes are on me.

“So everyone gives up?”

Heads nod.

“Are you sure? Because I don’t want to hear someone say ‘I didn’t give up’ after I reveal the answer.”

Again I get the affirmative. I pick up the rules sign, just another bit of refuse in the pile of rubble that was once my sculpture, and peel pack the purple note. There a crisp fifty-dollar bill awaits me, as well as a note for the winner that never was.

The mob’s reaction is one of begrudging respect. Some congratulate me on my guile, others leave without saying anything, kicking at the dust, but all seem satisfied in the fact that they now possessed the answer. Of course, since no one found the money, I put Mister Grant back in my wallet.

I had a great time with this project and consider it a success. My biggest regret is that I didn’t believe in documentation at the time. Back then, I was more about experiencing the moment and letting it flow rather than trying to capture it. In retrospect, I would have photographed everything and made a video for posterity and Youtube. But alas, all I have are some disposable camera shots, pictures of artifacts and photos my professor took on critique day. Such is life.