... just imagine watching it for two hours. Elisabeth Mahoney spends one of the longest evenings of her life at Glasgow's CCA gallery
Thursday February 21, 2002
You know the thought occurs from time to time, but it's rare to hear a cry of "Let me out! Let me out!" echoing through an art gallery. The shouting is part of the postmodern horseplay of Rod Dickinson's installation The Milgram Re-enactment, a restaging of Stanley Milgram's notorious 1961 experiment, Obedience to Authority.
Now unthinkable because of ethical guidelines, Milgram's project involved the duping of volunteers who were brought to his Yale University office by a newspaper advertisement and a small fee. In order to test how memory works, the volunteers were told, they would take the role of teacher in an experiment involving wordplay. What was actually being tested was an individual's obedience in an institutional setting: as teachers, the volunteers were told to punish their pupils' mistakes with electric shocks.
The "pupils" were actors, and their screams of agony were recordings, but the volunteers didn't know that. Milgram wanted to see if they would administer the shocks: whether they would relish their new-found power or try to wriggle out of the task, and how. He was working to show that mass acts of barbarism such as the Holocaust could not be explained away as the results of rare evil and madness. He once told a reporter that you could find enough people to staff the gas chambers in any small American town.
The issue of obedience is inescapable, even 40 years on, and with an audience that is in on the joke. A leaflet at the CCA gallery gives strict instructions: "You will not be able to leave the space unless in the case of emergency", "Turn off your watch alarm", and "Anyone using flash photography will be asked to leave".
As you sit around the set, a freestanding four-sided structure with windows, you notice that the seats are viciously uncomfortable and that cameras are trained on the crowd. In one corner lurks a menacing amount of technical equipment and a bank of screens replaying what we see before us. A man twiddles buttons mysteriously and unravels bundles of electrical wire.
The first performance begins almost an hour late, and is due to last almost two hours. By the halfway point I'm with the guy wailing to be set free, as I contemplate a Lady Macbeth-style fainting episode and wish I had a camera with flashbulb in my bag. Rather than a sign of the project's failure, however, the creeping enervation of being here is central to its dark power. Dickinson is testing us, seeing if we'll stave off boredom, nicotine cravings, and the lure of the busy bar just beyond the gallery door, just because we've been told to stay where we are.
Best known for making crop circles during the 1990s, Dickinson delights in toying with the limits and nature of faith, asking how and why we place ourselves within belief systems. Obedience, he seems to be saying in this new work, is central to those questions.
This is what you see. The windows look in on a drab institutional office, with a small room off to the side. In the main room, there's a (pretend) electric shock generator. The lighting is bad, the furnishings are depressing; it's like a consultation room in a brutal 1960s hospital, the sort that makes you feel worse just for being in it. Into this steps Graeme Edler as Dr Stanley Milgram and two other actors - one playing an actor and the other a volunteer, both here to participate in what they think is an experiment into memory and learning patterns. Confused? You won't be. You get to see four repetitions of this deliberately tortuous scenario.
The actor playing the actor is told to be the learner in the experiment and to sit in the side room; the actor playing the volunteer is to be the teacher. Pairs of words are read to the learner, who later has to match words with their other half. But it is almost impossible to remember the bewildering combinations of words - "fat neck", "soft hair", "sad face" - from the long list. Each time the learner gets it wrong, the teacher is told (though never forced) to administer increasingly severe shocks. The teacher hears the screams and protests of the learner, while in the side room the learner/actor sits happily, playing a tape recording of yells and pleas to stop.
Milgram wanted to test whether - as his colleagues and other scientific research suggested - only a tiny, psychotic minority of volunteers would proceed with giving shocks up to 450 volts. In fact, 65% administered them, with varying - and sometimes entirely absent - moral qualms. "That doesn't put me in a very good light," beams one woman, after speeding through the punishments without pause for thought. "I don't want to injure a man for $4.50," says one man, trying to cling to some kind of moral framework but raising the question of how much he'd have to be paid.
All of this is fascinating, but there is a gulf between the ideas that Milgram's work forces us to consider - most obviously, what would we do as "teacher" - and the reality of watching four of these exchanges, repeated in exhaustive detail. What the onset of ennui and mad escape fantasies tells the audience most winningly on the night (or when watching the tapes of the re-enactment now showing in the gallery) is how dreary it is to watch scientific experiments - something I'd forgotten from late-night Open University broadcasts of old, when only the fashions kept you awake.
The other message is that for all our claims to be free thinkers, institutions retain the power to make grateful doormats of us all. The audience shuffle and fidget in their seats, some people yawn, and yet only three people make a run for it, testing the (fake) security keeping us in the room. That the majority of the audience want to flee is clear: when the actor playing Milgram says, "Time for lunch," most people grab their coats and sprint. The bar does very good business in the minutes that follow.
¡¤ The Tenth Level is at CCA, Glasgow, until March 30. There is an accompanying series of panel discussions and a season of films. Details: 0141-352 4900 or www.thetenthlevel.org.