Chris Burden, Trans-Fixed, 1974
The other day I had my most unusual job interview experience ever.
Everybody's first job interview is nerve-wracking, of course, and for a while such encounters can remain that way. After you've gone through hundreds of these exercises, however, you tend to calm down. Whatever the ultimate outcome, no one, as they like to say, is going to die. So you make sure to have your teeth clean, to wear a white shirt, prepare as best you can, adopt your "game face" and take a deep breath. No one is going to die.
Unless, of course, someone is actually trying to kill you.
When the possibility arose recently of obtaining a full-time position at a company where I had been consulting for some time and achieving what were always acknowledged as excellent results, I wanted to pursue the opportunity despite certain sacrifices I might need to make in terms of potential earnings, level of seniority and convenience of location. Work life is all about trade-offs (I try to keep in mind Andy Warhol's observation that "being born is like being kidnapped and then sold into slavery") and in addition to the apparent security offered by having a "regular" gig, I both enjoyed and felt a real commitment to my work and my clients at the company.
I was invited to travel to their corporate headquarters on the day before Thanksgiving to meet with the division head for whom I'd presumably be working if hired, and also briefly after that with my day-to-day company contact (essentially my current supervisor) and his boss, a person I had met once before, corresponded with occasionally, and with whom I previously enjoyed entirely cordial relations.
In a situation like this, one would normally imagine that the interview that might prompt concern, or even trepidation, would be the one with the division head, the person who was, after all, something of an unknown quantity. I had been informed that he had some important specific problems he wanted to solve quickly, and although I sincerely felt I was the perfect person to accomplish this based on similar work I had done in the past, convincing people is always a challenge.
He and I met at the appointed hour and that interview went swimmingly. He was an intelligent, analytical, well-mannered, highly accomplished but modest person, whose curiosity, practicality and sense of conversational give-and-take were refreshing, stimulating and impressive. Emerging from the meeting after an enjoyable 45 minutes, my mental notes read "so far, so good."
Now, this is where things go all Henry Green. I cite this English novelist, my favorite, because he is the great master of depicting unexpectedly askew situations and moments when the rules of "normal" order are suddenly and unexpectedly suspended. Instead, life itself flows in beyond the characters’ control and conventional views about the natural relations and positions of things topple and crumble. Readers who don't care for Green's works tend to mention what they perceive as their "oddness" (also their difficulties with his language), but I find Green’s words (especially dialogue showing peoples’ tendency to speak at cross-purposes and regularly miscommunicating) especially lifelike and accurate, and that "Henry Green situations" crop up all the time.
So, following my initial "good" meeting, I was taken to my company contact's office for several minutes to chat and “download”. A few minutes later, his boss entered (quite late for work and obviously in a bad mood) looking like a cross between Judas Iscariot in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper and the animated character known as Kung Fu Panda. That is to say, his appearance was that of a person harboring dark and secret guilt and anger over an impending, epoch-changing "pre-crime", while dressed in clothes that made him look like a fictional martial arts bear. To complete painting the scene, I should add that I myself was attired to resemble a business-suited mannequin from the Brooks Brothers window, circa 1964, wearing a fresh haircut and hopeful smile.
Generally, I'm both a perceptive and paranoid person. Had I not been trapped in the closed-off, concentrated mental state typical of people at job interviews, I believe I would immediately have suspected trouble ahead. (I recall once reading a profile of entertainment mogul David Geffen where he disclosed that he organized his business life around the mantra "what is it that we are not noticing?" I think this is good advice and a sound approach to most situations and I usually try to practice it.)
Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971
I had been told that this second meeting would be short, perfunctory and pleasant, which made sense. After all, this was the day before Thanksgiving -- a short workday and one that generally lifts people's spirits.
However, Judas Panda lost no time opening the door to the world of his personal psychopathy and I noticed that the air had become fetid. He began what quickly became an act of assault without pleasantries, leading off with a low snarl and a fixed stare at his sneakers that continued for the duration. A black curtain descended across and behind his eyes. Despite having seen the Omen trilogy a number of times and all the Exorcist movies (the good, the bad and the ugly ones), I’m no expert, but all indications pointed to a case of demonic possession.
What on earth made me think that I was qualified for this position, he wanted to know, rather than the piecework I had previously been assigned (which he volunteered, still snarling, his only such concession, that I executed well and great efficiency)?
What and where was my passion and what vision and unified theory could I offer for the entire future of his industry?
And finally, what even gave me the right to speak to him? (N.b., he referred to himself exclusively in the third-person and by his title, a bad and potent sign.)
I tried to answer to the first part first. I felt on solid ground saying that having worked at the place for a solid year and a half, achieving consistently good results and getting to know many of the people, I had developed both feelings of allegiance for the organization and a desire to make a total commitment to the work, i.e., to see projects through from beginning to end, rather than continuing to do peripatetic work on disparate and unrelated assignments. I also wanted to help the division head I met with solve his specific problems using what I regarded as my unique skills, which I had developed through long experience in increasingly senior positions at businesses involved in similar endeavors to this company's.
My answer didn't sit well. Amazingly, I was told through clenched and bared teeth (some spittle may have flown) that I spoke merely "platitudes" (expelling the word, Judas Panda bore a brief resemblance to television ranter Keith Olbermann on a tear) and that it was shocking, disgraceful and insulting to him (invoking his third-person identity again) that I didn't have anything different and more passionate to say that might be deserving of his time. Having spent the previous evening reviewing all my company work in preparation for the initial interview so that I could enumerate, if asked, various successful projects and the names of relevant executives, I considered re-starting my remarks and reciting my specific burning ardor for every person, place and thing I’d met or done with the organization. However, I believe in being concise and I could definitely tell that I was on the wrong end of a sword being wielded for mysterious, unpredictable purposes.
Addressing the matter of an industry’s future is always problematic. Lawyers are not usually asked this kind of question (especially in job interviews) because contributing on this level is not part of our basic job description. (What we do generally is to analyze discrete problems and make specific remedial action recommendations.) “Futurism” is usually assigned to others in the organization (generally, a strategic planning team comprised of finance executives) who consider uninvited incursions on their turf by others unwelcome.
Also, as any fool knows, predicting the future is by definition impossible, which is why it can be such an enjoyable way to pass the time in bars, at sporting events, parties and other places of inconsequence. I have my ideas, of course, but for all my years of industry experience, they really may not be much better than yours. I find that proven out all the time.
As things went down, I didn't really have an opportunity to respond to this one anyway. Having previously noted my clear passion deficiency, JP hammered home my lack of even the capacity for vision with some rage and volume. (Still no direct eye contact, though -- those sneakers must have had secret messages written on them or perhaps a running script like on a teleprompter). More (possibly actionable) foul invective followed, resulting in an incredible performance that I will never forget and one that will forever give contempt a bad name in my mind. As the very funny Monty Python joke goes, “The Spanish Inquisition? Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”.
This whole drive-by shooting incident (it was also akin to the slow motion effect one experiences in car crashes) went of for about 35 or 40 minutes. It was the most science fiction thing I’ve ever experienced and, although I’m a person who is generally receptive and positively disposed to the paranormal (see below), the whole encounter felt like I was being infected by a loathsome disease that had taken on human form.
Except I wasn't infected. Once JP left the room (I can’t remember his final words; they may have been something incongruous like “Happy Thanksgiving” delivered as Lucifer might recite them), the specific gravity of the environment immediately changed. There was a lightening of spirit and the air actually seemed to clear and sweeten. I didn't feel that taking the time to have anything but the briefest conversation with my clearly shocked and embarrassed company contact made much sense, so I descended to the avenue by elevator as quickly as possible.
I felt shaken, but intact. Strong still, but weakened.
Then I thought of something I hadn't remembered for years. When I worked as a Helena Rubenstein Fellow in Curatorial Studies at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975-76, we arranged for the artist Laurie Anderson, who was still at an early stage in her career, to perform in our gallery at 55 Water Street. Apart from her other artwork, Laurie was writing cute and clever country-western inflected songs that she performed, accompanying herself on violin. One of them concerned the performance artist Chris Burden, who was notorious at the time for engaging in various acts many people considered to be masochistic and highly anti-social, such as having himself nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle (Trans-Fixed, 1974) in a crucifixion-like pose and shot at by a friend with a rifle (Shoot, 1971). They were shocking and unforgettable artworks. Laurie wrote a really good song about Shoot. She said, in essence, that what mattered most "isn't the bullet, but the hole".
Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971
That's exactly how I felt after this ghastly experience. Shot through with a hole left behind, most likely sleepless for days, holiday definitely ruined (for the whole family), but alive, grateful and anticipating eventual recovery. Or, as another songwriter I like once put it, “diminished but not finished”.
The jackass I encountered is clearly a troubled person. A friend of mine published an article last week citing a study by a Harvard physician estimating that 1 out of every 25 people are sociopaths/psychopaths. That number seems high to me, but it is shocking nonetheless.
As further evidence of the toxicity of this encounter, I would like to mention that yesterday morning a small lighting fixture that was firmly anchored into the ceiling of our kitchen fell suddenly and for no apparent reason from its berth, exploding on the floor making a sound loud enough to be heard down the driveway, and shattering in a million pieces. We're no strangers to "psychic" phenomena in our house and have come to accept them as normal. I don't understand them, but I'm essentially grateful to be able to experience them. This horror show has generated and stirred up a lot of toxicity and a great deal of psychic energy.
Quakers (we are Quakers) respond to situations like this (and all manner of other occurrences testing the human spirit) by “holding in the Light” people who are suffering and in danger of failing, creating a sort of prayerful net supporting the needy. A central tenet of Quakerism is “seeing that of God in everyone”, including kidnappers, mass murderers, fascists and craven sneaks and creeps of every shape and kind. (Quakers give no quarter to Republicans these days, though, which is strange and regrettable.)
It is monumentally difficult to rise to the level where you can sincerely do this, but I still believe it’s a good and valid idea.
In a further act of generosity, and possibly as a subtle corrective, I would also point this wretched creature to two musical milestones, which I’m happy also (and with no agenda at all except the hope for your enjoyment) to leave as presents for present friends: