You Killed Me First Installation 8

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Xeroxed announcement for You Killed Me First, designed by Richard Kern. Courtesy Richard Kern.

You Killed Me First Installation #8 was created in December 1985 by David Wojnarowicz in collaboration with Richard Kern. It was composed of the film You Killed Me First (1985) and a multi-media installation that incorporated film, audio, visuals, and smells. It was up for one month at Ground Zero; the work was Wojnarowicz’s response to gallery owners James Romberger and Marguerite van Cook's request for a work that outraged, inspired, and challenged. It was a piece that “they'd never get a chance to do anywhere else because no one in their right mind would let them do it.”[1]

Wojnarowicz and Kern developed the idea for the film and installation after shooting up ecstasy on a late night in the fall of 1985.[2] Kern initially was interested in exploring the mental life of the younger generation in the East Village; he was particularly fascinated by a young model named Elizabeth Carr (Lung Leg), whom Kern had met while filming the video for Sonic Youth's "Death Valley '69."[3] Kern wanted to center the film on a dysfunctional family, and use anecdotes from the family lives of those in their social circle to build out the story. Over two days in October 1985, they shot the film You Killed Me First in the loft of artist Charles Hinman, for whom Kern was working as an assistant. It starred Karen Finley (mother), Lung Leg (Elisabeth/Cassandra), Montana Hewson (Elisabeth/Cassandra's boyfriend), Jessica Craig-Martin (Deborah), and Nick Cooper (Deborah's boyfriend). The script was improvised. The film takes place on Thanksgiving Day where a misunderstood teenage daughter Elisabeth/Cassandra sits down with her “normal” family for a meal. After a series of flashbacks that reveal traumatic past events, the film transitions back to the present where she kills her entire family around the dinner table and angrily proclaims, “You killed me first!” According to Lung Leg, "about fifty percent of it was directly from David Wojnarowicz's childhood,"[3] specifically those scenes concerning his abusive father, who Wojnarowicz essentially played in the film. The scenes where the father figure shoots a gun into the air and slaughters a rabbit are specific events from Wojnarowicz's life. In the last scene, the camera pans across the dead family. For the installation at Ground Zero, Wojnarowicz took this scene and constructed a real-life, interactive artwork.

For the installation, Wojnarowicz and Kern drove around town to steal cement blocks and mortar from building sites. Using these materials, they built a set inside Ground Zero. A long and narrow alley leading to a cement wall was replicated inside the gallery space. Wojnarowicz painted NO PARKING 24 HOUR along with other graffiti to imitate the aesthetic of an actual alley. Colored lightbulbs lit the space in blue and red. To further the alley's effect, Wojnarowicz and his friends collected detritus (dog shit, trash, hubcaps, etc.) from the 1980's New York streets to litter the space. An audio track of foghorns and the scurrying feet of rats played on loop. For those who dared to make their way down the alley, they would find themselves looking through a broken window onto the dead family from Kern's film. For his corpses, David covered skeletons in maps and paint and dressed them to portray the characters from the film. In the center of the group sat a table with a rotting Thanksgiving meal. Kern's film played on loop on a small television the back left corner. This was the film’s debut; despite the unusual viewing context the video was completely visible and audible for the audience on the other side of the wall. At the opening, Kern passed out joints to attendees and encouraged them to smoke them inside for a “special effect.” [4] By the end of the month, the smell of rotting meat and trash was unbearable.



Wojnarowicz’s childhood was a frequent topic of his autobiographical writing and conversations with friends, but he did not start addressing childhood and family trauma in his work until his Burning Child installation at Gracie Mansion Gallery in 1984. For the rest of his career, Wojnarowicz continued to plum the theme of dysfunctional family units and vulnerable children, with Installation #5 and You Killed Me First/Installation #8. In Installation #8 in particular, the film’s narrative allows Wojnarowicz and Kern to explore the idea of adolescent rebellion against the hypocrisy of the values of the previous generation; while the parents lecture their teenage daughter about religious values and gather around a traditional turkey dinner, the teenager creates her own world out of voodoo dolls and drawings, eventually taking the ultimate revenge for her abuse through patricide.


Romberger explains that Wojnarowicz had probably been slightly influenced by Marcel Duchamp's last piece Étant donnés. The artwork was a tableau that was only visible through a pair of peepholes of a nude woman laying on her back in the grass with her legs spread. Reminiscent of this technique, Wojnarowicz's installation lead his audience down a dark “alley” to a broken window that seemed to appear a part of a tenement where they were able to peak onto a family dinner that had been interrupted by a brutal homicide. Wojnarowicz revisits this motif quite often in his and Romberger's book Seven Miles a Second where within the first section, he is pictured peeping through a hole of a door [5].

Media and Techniques

You Killed Me First was filmed on Kern’s Canon Super-8mm camera. All props were scavenged or provided by Kern and Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz bought a turkey for the dinner scene, and used his car to transport other items. Kern supplied the gun, a starter pistol. There was no script, just a scene list, and the actors improvised their lines. Montanna assisted with the “special effects”, including the explosions during the scene when the family is shot. Cow’s blood was procured from a local butcher. Kern purchased fake intestines from a prop shop.

The installation utilized tape recorders to loop sound, a television to loop video, and found items. The cement blocks and mortar for the cement wall were stolen from building sites. Kern built the wall and window according to Wojnarowicz’s design. The blood splattered on the walls behind the corpses' heads was real pig's blood obtained from a local butcher. The detritus strewn within the space was gathered from the streets of New York.

In order to be screened on loop, the film was transferred to video. Kern recalls that he did the transfer at Boston film lab Brodsky and Treadway because they didn’t care about shocking content (he worked with some labs in New York who would refuse to make transfers of his films). There, the film was transferred on a ¾ inch master, which Kern dubbed, and then made VHS dubs of the duplicate. In the installation, the video was played using a VHS tape and VHS playback machine. Kern speculated that the TV that played the video had been scavenged along with the building materials. [6]


When Kern and Wojnarowicz first began discussing You Killed Me First, Kern recalled Wojnarowicz used the skeletons as a starting point: “He said, ‘Well I’ve got these skeletons I want to do something with. I’ve got this whole family of skeletons I bought.”[7] In January 1985, Wojnarowicz had purchased human skeletons and a baby elephant skeleton in Paris and had them shipped to friend Keith Davis. Gallerist Sur Rodney Sur recalls that the humans were shipped inside the cavity of the elephant. [8]. Though it is not clear how many were procured, Kern and Sur felt certain that he only had 3 skeletons--a family unit. Three skeletons, two adults and a child, appear in Installation #5 (where they were painted and papered over with maps) and Installation #8 (where they were covered with pig's blood and flesh-like plaster).[9] In between these two installations, and after You Killed Me First, the skeletons were stored in the basement of Gracie Mansion Gallery. Later they were transferred to Sur Rodney Sur’s apartment after one of the artists at Gracie Masion Gallery made a complaint. [10]


New York City: Installation #8 was installed in James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook's gallery Ground Zero – specifically the second location on E 10th Street facing Tompkins Square Park. The film was shot at Charles Hinman's loft at the edge of the Lower East Side and Soho. The film is closely associated with the Cinema of Transgression, a movement of filmmakers based in New York's East Village and Lower East Side.


Elizabeth Carr (Lung Leg)
Lung Leg starred in the film and was Kern's initial inspiration for the project.

Karen Finley
Finley starred as the mother in the film. Originally the part belonged to another woman who backed out at the last minute. Wojnarowicz, who was close with Finley, suggested her as a replacement.

Richard Kern
Wojnarowicz collaborated with Kern to create both the film You Killed Me First as well as the installation You Killed Me First Installation #8.

Montana Hewson
Montanna assisted with the filming and starred in the film.

James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook
Romberger and Van Cook were the gallery owners of Ground Zero. They encouraged challenging installation work within their space, at a time when few other galleries were willing to take those risks.

Sur Rodney Sur
Sur is an artist and was the co-director of Gracie Mansion Gallery.

Tommy Turner and others
Wojnarowicz also recruited other friends such as Tommy Turner to help collect debris for the installation.

Curatorial Information

The installation was exhibited only once at Ground Zero in 1985.

Conservation History

At the Fales Library, Kern's film exists on a VHS tape as part 1 of 3 other works. The film is also available Youtube.

Critical Reception

You Killed Me First is a landmark work in the Cinema of Transgression, a movement that consisted of a loosely affiliated group of filmmakers who used shock and humor in their work in New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s, including Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch, Tommy Turner, and Kembra Pfahler. Zedd coined the term Cinema of Transgression in the “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto” published under the pseudonym Orion Jeriko in his zine The Underground Film Bulletin. Due to the patricidal themes of You Killed Me First, the film captured the confrontational nature of Zedd’s manifesto: “a new generation of filmmakers daring to rip out of the stifling straight jackets of film theory in a direct attack on every value system known to man.”[11] A 2012 retrosective of the Cinema of Transgression at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin was titled You Killed Me First: The Cinema of Transgression.

Related Works

Installation #5

Installation View


  1. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012): 313
  2. See Richard Kern’s interview on this site
  3. 3.0 3.1 Carr, Cynthia. Fire In the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. New York: Bloomsbury. 2012
  4. See Richard Kern's interview on this site.
  5. See James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook's interview on this site
  6. All details from interview with Richard Kern, on this site.
  7. Ibid.
  8. See Sur Rodney Sur's interview on this site.
  9. One child skeleton, unaltered with paint, appears in America: Heads of Family/Heads of State, and there is one child skeleton, carefully preserved in a coffin, that is included in the Wojnarowicz Papers at Fales Library. It is not clear if this child skeleton is the same skeleton that was used in the earlier installations.
  10. See Sur interview.
  11. Orion Jeriko, ““The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” The Underground Film Bulletin (1985). Accessed 3/5/17