BY Esmé Hogeveen in Books , Opinion | 14 SEP 22

Philippa Snow on the Strains of Violence in Culture

The author's debut book, Which As You Know Means Violence, reveals the politics of self-injury in performance art and contemporary culture

BY Esmé Hogeveen in Books , Opinion | 14 SEP 22

Violence surrounds us, its presence coursing through war, environmental destruction, and the micro and macro effects of capitalism. Whether violence is learned or innate, its indisputable role in human history is reflected by countless representations in art and culture. But what happens when an artist or entertainer deliberately turns the threat of violence upon themselves? And what does it say about a given sociocultural context wherein physical self-injury makes for a compelling – or, at least, attention-grabbing – statement? Philippa Snow’s new book, Which as You Know Means Violence: On Self-Injury as Art and Entertainment (2022), tackles these and other questions about violence in 20th- and 21st-century media.

Across four thoughtful, long-form essays, Snow considers the implications of self-injury as performed by artists, writers and media personalities including Marina Abramović, Chris Burden, Bob Flanagan, Johnny Knoxville, Harmony Korine, Yoko Ono, Peter Schjeldahl and Hunter S. Thompson. Though Snow grounds her analyses in close readings of artworks, her lens extends beyond the art world towards pop culture. One of her principal interests is the Jackass franchise (2000–ongoing), an American reality-television programme turned film series starring Knoxville and a group of conspirators, including Ryan Dunn and Steve-O. Beloved especially by teenage boys, its stars were reviled for engaging in risky – and oftentimes almost fatal – stunts, including a skit in which Knoxville wears a shock-collar designed for dogs.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the extreme risks undertaken, Knoxville and his gang seem to have a certain kind of fun. The title of Snow’s book underscores this interpretation and references a voicemail that Thompson left for Knoxville a few weeks before he took his own life in 2005: ‘I might be coming to Baton Rouge ... and, if I do, I will call you, because I will be looking to have some fun, which as you know usually means violence.’ The Jackass phenomenon – its stars’ perverse desire to behave in wildly unsafe and unsavoury ways; its audience’s perverse desire to watch – is a key reference within Snow’s broader interpretation of self-injury.

Hunter S Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson at his home in Aspen, Colorado, 1997. Courtesy: Wikicommons; photograph: Helen Davis


As she notes, some of the underlying themes of the franchise – masculinity, violence, guns, risk, self-harm and suburban ennui – have strong links to 1970s performance art. In Burden’s Shoot (1971), for instance, the artist arranged to be filmed while getting shot in the shoulder. Burden would later claim in a 2007 New Yorker interview with Schjedahl that the extremes he went to in Shoot and other self-injurious performances were motivated by ‘want[ing] to be taken seriously as an artist’, thereby offering an intriguing take on the contemporary metric for artistic achievement.

Reading Snow’s book, it’s apparent that critical and popular interpretations of performances featuring self-directed violence depend to a greater degree upon the identity of the performer. In particular, Snow reflects on the relationship between gender and violence. In chapter two, ‘This Performance Art Is for the Birds’, she considers work by Nina Arsenault, a trans artist who often reconfigures her own image within durational performances that involve acts of self-harm, such as whipping herself while riding a stationary bike (40 Days and 40 Nights: Working Towards a Spiritual Experience, 2012) or burning herself with cigarettes (Lillex, 2013).

Which As You Know Means Violence book cover
Philippa Snow, Which As You Know Means Violence, 2022. Courtesy: Repeater Books

In both of these performances, Arsenault did not express any signs of pain, though audiences can clearly discern her injuries. Relatedly, when discussing other now-canonical feminist performances, such as Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974) and Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), Snow notes how these artists seemingly only have to let down their boundaries to be exposed to the latent violence of misogyny. The state of vulnerability experienced by Abramović, Arsenault and Ono stands in stark contrast to Burden’s and Knoxville’s active pursuit of violent encounters with the world. 

A frequent writer for Artforum, The Nation and The New Statesman, Snow’s voice in Which as You Know Means Violence is as acerbic, confident and culturally informed as in her shorter texts. In connecting the dots between quasi-esoteric performance art, reality television and social media, she evokes complex questions about the nature of not only self-injury and violence, but also pain, agony, comedy, eroticism, the innate theatre of human experience, and the audience’s interest in bearing witness. In addition to breaking down some of the perceived delineations between so-called high and low art, Snow’s sharply traced observations shed light on the ways in which violence means differently to different individuals – from questions of strength, control and social vulnerability in works like Rhythm 0 and Cut Piece to white, cis-male nihilism in Jackass and Shoot. Performing or watching violence may, as Thompson said, be ‘fun’ for some, but Snow shows us how it’s also a potent reflection of insidious strains of violence lurking within culture.

Main image: An audience member cuts a piece of Yoko Ono's clothing with a pair of scissors during a 2003 performance of Cut Piece (1964) in Paris. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Francois Guillot 

Esmé Hogeveen is a writer based between Tkaronto/Toronto and Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. Her writing has appeared in Another Gaze: Feminist Film Journal, Artforum, Border Crossings, The Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art and cléo.