From the L.A. Times:
Internationally known artists Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins have retired abruptly from their longtime professorships at UCLA in part because the university refused to suspend a graduate student who used a gun during a classroom performance art piece, a spokeswoman for the artists said Friday.
"They feel this was sort of domestic terrorism. There should have been more outrage and a firmer response," said Sarah Watson, a director at [the gallery that] represents Burden and Rubins. . . .
The brief performance involved a simulation of Russian roulette, in which the student appeared before the class holding a handgun, put in what appeared to be a bullet, spun the cylinder, then pointed the gun at his head and pulled the trigger, according to one student's account that was confirmed by law enforcement sources. The weapon didn't fire. The student quickly left the room, then the audience heard a shot from outside. . . .
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office determined Friday that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal misdemeanor charges . . . .
Lawrence Lokman, UCLA's assistant vice chancellor for communication, said the dean of students' office was continuing to investigate whether university rules against weapon possession were violated, which could lead to disciplinary action. . . .
Burden made his name in the early 1970s with influential and controversial performance art. In his best-known piece, "Shoot," performed in a Santa Ana gallery while he was a graduate student at UC Irvine, Burden had an assistant stand 15 feet away and shoot him in the upper arm with a .22-caliber rifle.
Watson said Burden's work was controlled and that the audiences never felt in jeopardy. The UCLA case is different, she said, because it was a surprise action and "there was genuine fear."
Even before the incident, Watson said, Burden and Rubins were unhappy at UCLA . . . .
Campus police said that in the course of the investigation, [the student] handed over a gun that was not a real firearm. Robison, the district attorney's spokeswoman, said there was "insufficient evidence to show a gun was discharged or any bullet fired." . . .
Barbara Drucker, who chairs the art department, and Ron Athey, a visiting instructor who taught the course and was present during the performance, conducted a meeting at the Warner Building a week after the incident to dispel rumors and allow students to air any concerns, as well as to emphasize rules against possessing weapons on university property . . . . Athey, known for piercing and cutting his body as a form of performance, did not return calls.
A graduate student who attended the meeting said a few students expressed safety concerns but more were alarmed that the university, if it disciplined the artist, would be cracking down on freedom of expression. . . .
My first three thoughts when I heard about this: (1) Anyone who plays around either with real guns or with fake guns that others are likely to think are real is an idiot, a jerk, or both. (2) I guess sometimes transgressive art gets too transgressive even for artists. (3) A teacher who gets shot (presumably not really) with a rifle complaining about a student who pretends to play Russian roulette, and a follow-up meeting conducted by someone who pierces and cuts his body — the modern art world is quite a place.
(For those interested in the constitutional and academic freedom issues, I think the school can indeed restrict students from doing things that make others reasonably fear that someone might get killed, though I'm not sure what the UCLA policy on this subject actually is.)
UPDATE: Chris Lansdown points to this item about Chris Burden's first brush with gun art:
"In this instant I was a sculpture." Chris Burden means the moment his arm was pierced by a bullet from a (copperjacket) 22 long rifle. Actually, when a friend pulled the trigger on November 19, 1971 at a distance of 13 feet, the intent was only to graze the artist's arm. "Shoot" was considered one of the most spectacular performances of the seventies, provoking journalists to ask, "Will he survive 30?" Such remarks turned Burden into a living myth but they also delineated the controversy that has always attended his work. The controversy surrounding "Shoot" was fuelled by the fantasies and fears triggered by shooting and gunshot wounds.Wow, performance artists are odder than I even thought they were! But wait a sec: "Burden's work was controlled and that the audiences never felt in jeopardy"? When people are shooting at each other with real rifles, think that they're good enough "only to graze the [target's] arm" (not impossible for a good marksman at 13 feet, but not a piece of cake, either), but actually aren't good enough, and apparently inflict a substantial wound, that's "controlled"? I'd feel in a little bit of jeopardy hanging around clowns like that. (True, I wouldn't think that there'd be a huge chance that the bullet would hit me, but I don't feel in huge jeopardy from guys playing Russian roulette, either.)