Man in a Box

By Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn


David Blaine’s 2003 starvation event ‘Above the Below’ offered a particularly ambiguous incarnation of the current public fascination with wound culture

‘This dissolution of the boundary between inside and outside gives rise to a fourth aspect of the felt experience of physical pain, an almost obscene conflation of private and public. It brings with it all the solitude of absolute privacy with none of its safety, all the self-exposure of the utterly public with none of its possibility for camaraderie or shared experience. Artistic objectifications of pain often concentrate on this combination of isolation and exposure.’ – Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain

 The exposure and, more particularly, self-exposure of psychological and bodily trauma has become the central feature of our ‘post-documentary’ culture. Television talk shows, observational documentary, life-style programming and reality TV all facilitate the exhibition and consumption of personal pain and suffering (as well as joy and individual success). Generally speaking, this showcasing of personal trauma is a gendered one; with many of the established and newer formats dismissed as feminised media culture; with few, if any, intellectual pretensions. This is partly the case because the domain of emotional suffering, at least, has been conventionally designated a ‘feminine’ one, with women especially licensed to speak about bodily or psychological insecurity, vulnerability or damage. When ‘masculine’ damage or trauma is at stake, its presentation and articulation in media culture takes on quite different forms and meanings.

In early September 2003, illusionist David Blaine was sealed within a plexi-glass box and suspended above Tower Bridge in the centre of London with the intention of starving himself for 44 days. His exploit was clearly a media spectacle and was designed to generate ‘event television’.

Above the Below’, devised by Blaine himself, fits this pattern of a commercial media enterprise whose success is predicated on the audience’s interaction with events and their reportage. It was broadcast by Channel 4 and Sky 1, who presented it as a variation on reality TV. Special shows were devoted to it on 19 and 20 October 2003, the latter being the day when the illusionist exited from his self-imposed imprisonment. The event was streamed live on Channel 4 broadband 24/7 and filmed by Blaine’s collaborator, the avant-garde filmmaker Harmony Korine, for a future documentary also entitled Above the Below. It was promoted as the pinnacle of Blaine’s major productions since 1999 which had so far included interment under the streets, encasement in a block of ice and ‘Vertigo’ (2002), in which he stood atop a 100-foot pole, without any means of support or a safety net, for 36 hours. British critics of ‘Above the Below’ tended to locate Blaine’s exploits within the context of extreme forms of Reality TV in which overt suffering or potential suffering formed a central feature of its appeal. However, it also numbered amongst its viewing constituencies those that came along to watch the event live on the ground over a sustained period of time. This seemed to be a genuine although highly planned ‘happening’ and it was an event evidentially in social space as well as media space.

Blaine’s exploits were thus multiply-mediated. His agenda was explicated and his suffering mediated through extensive commentary. The plexi-glass box both separated him from audiences and contained/framed him, as did the documentary footage, live television filming and web-streaming. These multimedia platforms reinforced the sense of immediacy that is so characteristic of the televisual experience. John Ellis has described how television, above all entertainment technologies, has epitomised the process of ‘witness’ through its aesthetic promise of liveness and intimacy. In particular, the abundance of audio and visual information signifies the live event, helping to intensify the experience of witness. In his words, ‘witness is underwritten by the presence of the entirely unremarkable within the image, and of the “atmosphere” of sound’

The spectacle and noise of the shifting, heaving crowds around Tower Bridge offered precisely this congruence of the contingent, unremarkable and ordinary together with the remarkable scene of Blaine’s suspension above them. So too, the images of ordinary people beneath the box seem to condone the event as acceptable, if exceptional, entertainment. These senses of ‘witnessing’ are further accentuated when the event is of a traumatic or disturbing nature.

Body Time / Television Time

The presentation of ‘Above the Below’ as a countdown of 44 days also signalled the production’s generic relationship to reality programming and, more particularly, to the peculiar (and contradictory) intimacy of this very public enterprise. As Misha Kavka and Amy West have suggested, ordinary clock time is expunged by reality genres which operate within their own temporal logic. Instead of linear time featuring years and dates within a historical context they segment the time into days, hours and minutes as experienced by the programmes’ participants; offering countdowns to dénouements such as house or lifestyle transformations, the achievement of personal challenges, feats of endurance or release from various forms of incarceration. In these ways reality entertainment collapses the time of production into the time of transmission, producing, in Kavka and West’s words, a ‘single order that mobilizes a community of viewers and affords them the optimum sense of immediacy and intimacy or at least, that is the intention.’

The live streaming of ‘Above the Below’ reinforced this collapse so that theoretically the ‘liveness’ and ‘immediacy’ of being able to view Blaine at all times (including the prolonged ‘dead time’ in which he does little or nothing) involved audiences in the enterprise. It established continuity between the external time of viewers and time as experienced by Blaine himself and which is marked upon his body through starvation. He seemed to be challenging not only himself but also ‘time’ and specifically time’s erosion of corporeal strength, vitality and agency. As the days unfolded the public and media commentators became increasingly convinced that ‘Above the Below’ was not going to be a feat of illusion after all but a feat of ‘real’ endurance and a battle against the clock, locating the body and its experience as the object of time passing.

Media coverage made it very clear that Blaine’s body and its decline was central to the narrative of the event. The Channel 4 website declared in the manner of a showground huckster ‘THE FEAT: read the complete low down on why and how David Blaine is enduring 44 days of isolation, the dangers he faces and what will happen to his body.’ Newspapers summarised ‘what could go wrong.’ The longer Blaine remained in the box, the more he starved, the more approval he seemed to attract and crowds of up to 10,000 visitors in a day increasingly overwhelmed the sceptics.

Huge crowds gathered on the day of his release. Blaine, stripped to the waist, was weighed as he exited from the box and was shown to have lost four stones in weight. As he emerged screen captions made his suffering explicit; The continual monitoring and final weighing of Blaine’s body marked it as the site of transformation and self-management; a spectacular rendition of the ‘before and after’ imagery used by advertising for charities and slimming clubs alike. His performance suggested a kind of ‘technics of the self’ in which individuals can through self-monitoring form and transform their bodies and, consequently, their souls, thoughts and conduct.

Like the hero of sequel action films, the masochistic performance artist continually sets himself new challenges that attest to his indestructibility, variations on a theme of the durability of the male body. The repetitious structure of these scenes is made more explicit when we consider other projects orchestrated by Blaine or by his most recent collaborator Korine. Note the scene in Above the Below in which a young man continually punches Blaine. This seems to be a more controlled version of Korine’s project Fight (undated, with Blaine as camera operator) in which Korine deliberately picked fights on the streets of New York in order to get himself assaulted by different ethnic groups. In Above the Below the pugilist and his friends are black. The assertion of the self through the presentation and visual record of the impervious body as both ‘masculine’ and ‘white’ is almost too obvious here but nonetheless needs to be mentioned. These scenes can also be read in the light of David Fincher’s controversial film Fight Club (1999) as ceremonies of masculine self-assertion and redemption through aggression, and a rejection of feminised culture.

To conclude, it makes sense to understand the fascination, confusion and intermittent hostility surrounding ‘Above the Below’ as responses partly rooted in Blaine’s performance of bodily trauma and masculinity together within the current moment of media culture. ‘Above the Below’ adopts the structuration of reality formats (webstreaming, liveness, temporal collapse and so forth) but it did not adopt their discourse of emotional exhibitionism or easy-going sociality. As such it occupied a far more ambivalent space within media culture and arguably failed to provide the necessary illusion of uniting subject and viewer that reality programming requires.

Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, from which this has been abridged and extracted, is published by Wallflower Press.