UCLA graduate student Joseph Deutch wanted to test whether, in this seen-it-all age, an audience still could have an indelibly shocking experience and be left wondering whether what it had witnessed was make-believe or real. So he decided to play Russian roulette as performance art.
On the evening of Nov. 29, 2004, Deutch stood before his classmates in a suit, instead of his usual T-shirt and jeans. He knew that what he would do next could have consequences for his grade from instructor Ron Athey, himself known for body-cutting performance art so extreme that he became part of the 1990s “culture wars.”
Deutch, now 26, also knew that gunplay could upset fellow students and get him in trouble with campus authorities. But in his first comments on the incident, he says he never dreamed, as he got up to perform in UCLA’s graduate art annex in Culver City, that his phantom gunshot would ricochet and cause the departure of two UCLA professors, roiling the campus for several months.
After long careers at UCLA, Chris Burden, a famous pioneer of disturbing and sometimes self-injuring performance art, and Nancy Rubins, an artist known internationally for gigantic sculptures, retired suddenly less than a month after Deutch’s performance (which no faculty member but Athey saw). They later explained that the university’s failure to suspend the first-year master’s degree candidate immediately was the last straw -- on top of their displeasure over budget cuts and other administrative issues. What Deutch had done, they said at the time through their art dealer, was a kind of “domestic terrorism” that made onlookers fear for their lives.
The following account of Deutch’s performance and its aftermath comes from interviews with him and his lawyer, Howard R. Price, as well as documents from the investigation and Student Conduct Committee hearing that ended in Deutch being cleared of violating campus rules against gun possession, inflicting or threatening violence and disrupting education. Campus officials confirmed that the process ended with Deutch still enrolled, but they refused to comment further.
Standing in front of the class, Deutch pulled out a real-looking gun he had carved from wood. To make it seem genuine, Price said, Deutch had bought a .357 Magnum to use as a model -- then returned it to the gun dealer. He inserted what appeared to be a bullet, spun the cylinder and put the barrel against his head.
Deutch pulled the trigger, producing a click. Then he dashed into an adjoining hall. His lawyer said that he had pre-positioned “a big firecracker” in a can there and that he set it off, producing a bang. Then Deutch returned to the room, where normally a discussion and critique would have followed. Instead, “it was pandemonium,” Deutch said in a telephone interview. “The idea of a class structure or any critical thinking was blown out of the water.”
“My jaw dropped; I wasn’t sure whether it was real or simulated,” Athey said Thursday. Deutch was gone from the classroom less than a minute, Athey said. When he returned to a room divided among anger, shock and concern, a long discussion followed, “more group therapy than about his piece.” After that, Athey drove Deutch around Culver City for about an hour, because “I just wanted to make sure” the student was not suicidal.
Deutch said he was careful during the performance to point the gun only at himself, avoiding any move that could seem menacing toward others.
Only one student, said attorney Price, was upset enough to complain to university authorities, and that student wound up not testifying in two daylong hearings that took place in February and April. The investigation by university police centered largely on whether Deutch had used a real gun -- with suspicions heightened by his purchase of the real weapon before the performance.
In January, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute Deutch for misdemeanor weapon charges.
But the university proceeded against him, based on possible violations of its student conduct code. When the investigation became public, neither faculty nor art department students were willing to discuss Deutch’s performance or the professors’ abrupt retirement.
“I figured [in advance] that I would have to explain the nature of the piece” to administrators, investigators and perhaps a campus disciplinary tribunal, said Deutch, who hails from St. Louis, graduated from Webster University there and pronounces his name “deech.”
“The thing I hadn’t counted on was Chris and Nancy freaking out to the extent they did.”
Deutch said that he did not know Rubins and that he’d had only one substantial conversation with Burden, who oversaw instruction in new genres, the branch of the art department that includes performance art. Burden stopped doing performance art by the 1980s, having made a lasting mark with trailblazing work such as his 1971 piece “Shoot,” in which an assistant, standing 15 feet away in a Santa Ana gallery, shot him in the upper arm with a .22-caliber rifle.
In 1972, Phyllis Lutjeans, a friend who hosted a cable TV show, invited Burden on the program. Without warning -- in a performance he dubbed “TV Hijack” -- he held her at knifepoint for several minutes.
“When Chris put the knife at my throat, I was absolutely terrified,” Lutjeans recalled for The Times 20 years later. “I thought, ‘This guy’s psychotic.’ ”
Deutch said that although he was familiar with the history of performance art and Burden’s place in it, his untitled Russian roulette piece was not intended as a response or allusion to the professor’s early work.
A panel of three faculty members heard the case. They issued their report in May, concluding by a 2-1 vote that Deutch did not use a real weapon in his performance. They voted unanimously against the two other charges -- that the performance had posed a threat and was disruptive to education.
According to the panel’s report, Deutch had given conflicting accounts to university authorities about what kind of gun replica he used, heightening suspicions that it actually was real. Deutch said in an interview that he wanted to obscure the truth, because maintaining a sense of mystery was part of his artistic intent. But ultimately, he said, “if I was to remain a student, [campus authorities] needed to know what happened.” He wouldn’t comment further on the weapon during the interview, saying he didn’t want to dispel the uncertainty that his piece sought to achieve.
The weapon he turned in, according to the panel report, was a wooden gun that had broken into pieces, raising further questions about his honesty.
Deutch got out of hot water with a feat of craftsmanship: He carved another real-looking revolver out of wood, complete with rotating cylinder. It “undermines critical elements of the University’s case,” the panel wrote.
In the end, Deutch said, his performance did no harm to others, while Burden and Rubins’ midyear retirements left students in the lurch: The two professors, who are married, were both advising graduate students on their theses, and both were scheduled to teach during the second half of the academic year.
“They had a lot of obligations to different students, and they saw this as an opportunity to shirk those obligations,” Deutch said. “The intelligent thing would have been to let the university do what it was going to do, and after the fact disagree with the ruling.”
He added, “Somebody who took someone hostage in an interview calling me a terrorist is kind of funny.”
Burden and Rubins declined to be interviewed for this story.
In a Jan. 28 letter to The Times, Burden said that Deutch had violated boundaries by surprising an audience with a gun and by doing it on university turf where “there are rules of speech and decorum.” Burden emphasized that in his own “Shoot” piece, the audience had been forewarned.
“By not taking immediate and decisive action against the student who brought a gun to campus, and who intimidated his fellow students by playing Russian roulette in their presence, the University has created a hostile and violent work environment,” Burden wrote. “I am not willing to work in such an environment, nor do I wish to be associated with an institution that condones such behavior.”
Deutch said he remains enthusiastic about his studies at UCLA: “I have absolutely no complaints. I never felt like I was being persecuted.”
As an educational exercise, he said, the performance that could have gotten him kicked out of school gave him “a lot to think about in terms of my responsibility to the viewer. How much am I really allowed to affect you? How much of an experience can you have? I’m not interested in just shocking people.”
On the advice of university deans, Deutch skipped the last meeting of Athey’s performance art class.
Even so, Deutch said, he got an A-minus for the course.