Paper Cuts lets people experience the deadliest device of the French Revolution without losing their heads
A new sculpture takes interactive art to another level by inviting people to put their heads on the block and let the blade fall. Participants write down their last words, queue up to stick their necks out and are photographed as they meet their fate. Luckily, they survive with only a paper cut and a shareable gif of the moment they faced their doom.
“People get to experience a somewhat light-hearted version of what it’s like to face the blade of a very imposing guillotine. Even the bright colors that were used for the London exhibition don’t do much to ease the tension felt by anyone putting their neck through the hole of one of the world’s most famous instruments of death”, artists Mandy Smith and Hal Kirkland, the creators of Paper Cuts, explained to PSFK.
The inspiration behind Paper Cuts, a sculpture that recreates the infamous guillotine, was to push the boundaries of paper art.
“Ordinarily paper art is experienced as an editorial photograph or as a piece of art you’re not allowed to touch. The both of us wanted to create a piece that changed the nature of how people interact with paper art, while creating an experience that was thrilling enough to share”, Smith and Hal tell PSFK.
The installation, which was recently exhibited at Somerset House in London, is inspired by the guillotine of France’s Reign of Terror (1793-94) and the subsequent French Revolution. For a period, public beheadings were a popular form of entertainment and crowds would gather to watch, buying programs of the execution schedule and vying for the best views.
Paper Cuts plays upon our natural interest in the macabre and restores the guillotine to a form of entertainment, but in this time without its deadly consequences.
“The soundscape and the actual crowd of onlookers that stand in front of the guillotine really help people understand the humility of what a public execution represents. We personally like that Paper Cuts has turned this once abhorrent public spectacle on its head and instead created something people line up for – voluntarily this time”, Smith and Kirkland explain.
The artists talked us through each stage of the Paper Cuts experience.
Before entering the guillotine space, participants are invited to write down their semi-famous last words on a small card.
“This creates sense of creative uneasiness in the audience. Some of the responses are hilarious, others are genuinely nervous. On the back of the same card is a waiver written in a legalized tongue in cheek tone. This makes people actually wonder if they’re going to get cut, hurt or hospitalized”, Smith and Kirkland add.
As they queue up to meet their fate, a historical soundscape sets the scene.
“They are greeted with a fantastical soundscape of crowds booing, military drums reverberating of ancient courtyards, the bustling of a town square and haunting crows cawing for a meal. This helps to raise the pulse a little more and yet invites people to step into the role of guillotine victim”, the duo says.
Then it’s time for the victims to meet their doom.
“Next the person has to uncomfortably kneel behind the 12.5 high beast and place their head in its circular jaws. Either of us will then crank the paper blade to full height and let the person stew on their situation for a little while. A countdown is then given, usually amplified by the chanting voices of past victims that are allowed to gather around the piece after their own experience”, Smith and Kirkland say.
As the blade falls, their final moments are captured on camera.
“Before the blade falls and paper collides with the person’s neck, an application triggers a camera that captures the victim’s last fate-filled moments and expressions. It’s amazing to see the range of emotions people go through in mere seconds. The film is immediately transformed into a GIF and uploaded directly to papercuts-exhibition.com, joining the macabre library of fearful, shocked and mesmerizing expressions”, Smith and Kirkland state.
These GIFs record the unique experience of preparing to sacrifice yourself for art.
Further elaborating, Smith and Kirkland say, “The question on everyone’s faces is definitely “Am I really doing this for some art experience?” People love to see their GIF afterwards. Partly because they’re relieved they’re alive and they’d be impressed by a day old banana peel at that stage but also because they get to witness themselves considering their own mortality. You don’t get to do that every day, especially with paper art or art in general for that matter”,
Paper Cuts turns a gruesome historical spectacle into an immersive and spine-tingling experience that lets people confront their own mortality. How many art exhibitions can do that?