Blaine electrified by Tesla Coils (Photo by Ellen Pearlman)

Perched on a pillar twenty feet tall like a modern incarnation of  St. Simon the Stylite,  daredevil magician David Blaine was zapped by one million volts of electricity for 72 hours during his circus-like performance at Pier 54 aptly titled “Electrified, One Million Volts Always On.” Encased in a special 27-pound Faraday chain-mail suit replete with a special wire helmet and red visor to protect against ultraviolet radiation, he resembled an image from  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or just one very tired looking puppy. The event, sponsored by Intel, was streamed live globally on Youtube, along with copious amounts of Twitter feed responses.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (top), Frankenstein (bottom) (Images via

Seven specially built Tesla Coils zapped Blaine with electricity. It’s safe to say no human being has ever endured such a drubbing. In addition to the lightning bolts, the piece’s cheesy music, which could be heard blocks away in Chelsea’s Meatpacking District, was so loud that Blaine stands to damage his hearing (ear plugs were being given out at the entrance by the bucketful). Besides not eating or sitting down for 72 hours, other hazards to the magician’s wellbeing were overexposure to ozone and nitrous oxide, byproducts of the highly ionized electrified air.

“Electrified” originated from Blaine’s encounter with  a Falk GroundStar Plasma Globe, originally part of the 1979 Sharper Image catalog. He imagined himself standing in the middle of the pulsating coils, conducting the electricity strikes. Blaine said about this performance. “My goal is to create a visual image that everyone will always remember, one that makes people curious and mystified.” Where does that place him in terms of the art world? Does he even qualify?

Artist Bruce Nauman, realizing activity done in the studio was as valid as any object he produced, made videos between 1966 and 1979 using his body to investigate art and the role of the artist, psychological states, and norms of behavior. Chris Burden had nails hammered in both his hands in “Trans-Fixed” (1974), and in “Doomed” (1975) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago,  the artist lay under a sheet of glass until a museum employee intervened 45 hours later by leaving him a pitcher of water.

Chris Burden Trans-Fixed, web image

Then there was Marina Abramovic’s  performance “House With the Ocean View” (2002)  at the Sean Kelly Gallery, during which she fasted for twelve days straight in a piece that “ritualize(ed) the simple actions of everyday life like lying, sitting, dreaming, and thinking.” What defines these pieces as art, and Blaine’s as kitschy entertainment? I’m not sure I see the line here anymore, except that Blaine was sponsored by Intel instead of a gallery or a museum — Hyperallergic readers feel free to pipe in about this aspect.

Blaine’s actual installation was created by ArcAttack, members of a rock group who made the original singing Tesla Coils, apparatuses in which the band plays guitars dressed in Faraday Suits. I was fortunate enough to speak with Joe DiPrima, the chief designer and leader of the band, who explained Blaine contacted them after seeing videos of their performance on Youtube, as well as their appearance on “America’s Got Talent.” Working with microcontrollers and a Midi interface, they use CPLD chips as pulse rate modulators traveling down a fiber optic cable that controls the on/off switches on the custom built Tesla Coils. The same set up can be hooked up to a piano, guitar, or visual apparatus to control pitch, tone or other parameters.

ArcAttack was given just 60 days to construct and test the entire installation. What made it so unique is that it was designed to be constantly on, and four truck radiators had to be installed to constantly cool the transistors and copper bits — the uber cooling power, good for making any processor run faster, is a hacker’s most wonderful wet dream.

All these impressive statistics and designs don’t actually answer that final question — is it art?

David Blaine in a Faraday suit being zapped by one million volts of electricity (Photo by Ellen Pearlman)

Electrified One Million Volts Always On, took place at Pier 54 in Manhattan from October 5 to October 8.

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Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.

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