In August 1977 I bought a seven inch single by a punk band called The
It was a song called Gary Gilmore’s Eyes, which presented a two and a
half minute narrative told in the first person by a man who’d undergone
an eye transplant which had seen him fitted with the corneas of Gary
In January that year, the real Gary Gilmore was killed by firing squad
after insisting that the death sentence he was given following two
murders he committed in Utah be fulfilled.
Gilmore also requested that his eyes be used for transplant purposes,
and within hours of his execution, two people received his corneas.
So, here was a record taking a real life incident and turning it into a
fiction that fitted perfectly with the self-destructive, nihilistic
iconography of punk.
There was mild tabloid outrage, although Gary Gilmore’s Eyes made the
lower reaches of the UK pop charts, and The Adverts even appeared
miming to it on Top of the Pops.
It didn’t end there.
In 1979, Norman Mailor fictionalized Gilmore’s story in his novel, the
Executioner’s Song, which was made into a film in 1982.
In 1995, playwright Dic Edwards used Gary Gilmore’s story in his play,
Gilmore was also the main character in the second part of artist
Matthew Barney’s 1999 series of films, The Cremester Cycle, in which
Gilmore was played by a woman.
On the day of Gilmore’s execution, performance artist Monte Cazazza
sent out postcards of himself strapped to an electric chair.
Cazazza also sent out postcards of himself and members of industrial
provocateurs Throbbing Gristle posed blindfolded and tied to chairs
with loaded guns pointing at them.
The postcards were sent out under the name, the Gary Gilmore Memorial
In 1981, Throbbing Gristle contemporaries, Whitehouse – named as an
ironic tribute to anti porn campaigner Mary Whitehouse – released an
album called Dedicated to Peter Kurten.
Peter Kurten was a German serial killer known as the Vampire of
Dusseldorf who in 1929 stabbed, strangled or hammered nine people to
Fritz Lang’s film, M, is said to have been inspired by Kurten, while in
1991 Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson produced his play, Normal: the
Dusseldorf Ripper, about Kurten.
As well as the instrumental title track, Whitehouse’s Dedicated to
Peter Kurten album featured tracks such as Prosexist, Piss Fun and Rape
The opening track on the album, Ripper Territory, featured a sample of
a news report relating the capture that year of mass murderer Peter
Sutcliffe, who had been immortalized as the Yorkshire Ripper after
killing thirteen women between 1975 and 1980.
Between 1999 and 2002, novelist David Peace used the Yorkshire Ripper
case as the back-drop to his four books now known as The Red Riding
In 2008, the four books were dramatized for television, and featured a
character called Peter.
In 1997, at the Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists at the
Royal Academy of Art, Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Moors Murderer Myra
Hindley that had been put together using a cast of a child’s hand had
to be temporarily removed after it was attacked in two separate
incidents with ink and eggs.
This fascination with murderers is nothing new.
In 1966, American author Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, a
none-fiction novel based on quadruple murders of a farmer and his
family in Kansas by two men, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.
In 1976, Tom Wolfe’s essay, Pornoviolence, criticized In Cold Blood for
promising its readers gory details of the crime it discusses, and in
effect degenerating it to the level of sensationalism.
Capote was also criticized for adding scenes and situations to In Cold
Blood that never occurred, and that were fictional.
In 1986, poet and performer Lydia Lunch, who’d played in New York No
Wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and who sang lead vocals on
Sonic Youth’s record, Death Valley 69 – a song inspired by the Charles
Manson family murders - wrote and performed a piece called In Defence
In Defence of Filth was essentially an argument for an anything goes
strategy for art, in which, free of censorship, all taboos could be
explored and exposed by any means necessary, whatever shock tactics
were required to make their point.
All of this came to mind after watching Jerk on DVD, and then speaking
to Dennis Cooper about it.
Cooper stressed that he didn’t know much about the case he was writing
about, and that it was a fiction.
All the works mentioned are fictions like Jerk, but by taking from real
life they become something else besides.
They become mythologies, as with the far more shocking Greek tragedies
They become pieces of imagined history to illustrate our own times, as
with Shakespeare’s history plays.
But, how far can you go when there are no more taboos to break and even
shock tactics become fetishised?
While the wet liberal in me might wince from such material, ultimately
I think Jerk and all the other fictions mentioned are important pieces
of work that provoke and disturb in equal measure.
Jerk may be shocking, but is also very necessary, and artists should
continue to provoke in this way.
In the last words of Gary Gilmore – which were later appropriated in
part by the Nike corporation of all people – Let’s do it.
Text of a two minute provocation given as part of a post-show discussion of Giselle Vienne and Dennis Cooper's piece, Jerk, performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh as part of the Manipulate Puppet and Animation Festival, February 2011.