FILM REVIEW: Markus Imhof’s new film documents our complex relationship with the bees we rely so heavily upon.
In its opening moments, More than Honey alights on two worlds which couldn’t be more dissimilar. Firstly a gross magnification of the abstract geometry of the hive, with its wild swirling eddies and rigid hexagonal honeycomb. Incomprehensible, otherworldly, bee brothers hew off the cap of a lidded hollow to pop out the prized queen. Then: zoom out to the Swiss mountaintops, a monumental backdrop for a goaty pensioner sporting a stepladder and a pipe and staunchly scaling the wildflowered cliffs to attend to his own private colony of bees. Played straight up without comment, these two silent picture postcards address our unresolved sense of the wilderness. On the one hand the messy mysteries of microscopic nature, and on the other our kindly, or callous, cultivation of it.
Humans generally have a problem with insects – we can’t relate to them. They star only in sticky horror fantasies and children’s picture books – Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland – as a simmering sinister presence. But even the bumble bee, with its endearing fuzziness, is absent here. Numbed as we are to nature films in HD, film-maker Markus Imhoof, the man behind More than Honey, pickles our defences by delivering tryst after tango of careening bees in hundreds of states of fortitude and frailty.
Conceived in order to underline our complex relationship on bees, and the increasing fragility of their existence, More than Honey shows us live bees shipped off in stapled cartons for next day delivery, taxied by Red Bull-swilling runners from California to North Dakota in 48 hours. Then, case after case of colony collapse disorder, where whole colonies of worker bees abruptly disappear overnight. Gentle queens and docile drones in Europe, North America and China, bred for their honey, swilling antibiotics dissolved in sugar water. They can no longer survive without medicines. Put simply, the dominance of human civilisation has led to the death of bees on an epic scale. From the 20-hive farms hawking queens for $60, right up to the top.
Follow the Miller Honey Farms Toyota, for example, to a cornucopia of Californian Almond trees. They fill the screen and like anything in perpetuity lose all sense. The blossom is blinding and the sound of the company car barely interrupts the buzzing of the bees. “That’s the sound of money” our tour guide tells us, “4,000 hives at £150 per hive.” The multi-million dollar almond business relies entirely on pollination by bees.
In true Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline-style, we are educated in the craft of honey harvesting, and its roots in small business – the honeyed sweets Imhoof’s uncle sold in handpainted tins – but thankfully no time is wasted on mourning his and our past.
Beekeeping has always amounted to stealing honey from the hive and stopping up the gaps with cheap sugar. Now industrialised beekeeping is of course obligatory. But what happens, Imhoof asks, when we have more than the blood of bees on our hands? We see surreal parodies of commerce-gone-mad in the regions of China without bees, where the sparrows were once killed under Chairman Mao, the insects decimated, and where city dwellers now extract fertile pollen from rural apple blossoms to be hand-painted back onto plants in polluted wastelands. Sneakered farmers dressed in dusty camo stand perched in trees like so many peaky-looking partridges.
Our future must rest on a new kind of cultivation. As the man from Miller Honey Farms points out, most humans are motivated by greed and fear. “I don’t know how to shrink a business or a lifestyle and be happy. That’s not in my DNA.” Now only the advancement of science and research can oil the wheels of expansion.
Killer bees, Africanised honey bees originally crossbred in Sao Paulo, are resistant to the mites and disease affecting other bee populations, but they’re also, Imhoof tells us, “as dangerous as wolves”, something humans could never live with. Meanwhile the director’s son-in-law, an immunology student, fills his backpack with honey bee queens and heads for the wilds of a small island research centre specialising in the cross-insemination of Australian wild bees – the last healthy bees on earth. Nonsensically, as in the case of Alice and the Red Queen, it seems to take all the running you can muster to stay in remotely the same place.
Rosie Jackson examines how creativity doesn’t work and why we chase after it anyway.
Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, identifies a creative act as “the invention of something new that’s useful…It’s about a second life. It’s got to be useful or beautiful or meaningful to somebody else. That’s what takes a new thing and makes it a creative new thing.” While this isolates originality and clarity as key ingredients, it misses the most glaringly obvious quality, the destructive self-analysis, questioning and abject misery integral to the creative process.
Lehrer overlooks the kind of creativity which drives you mad because you can’t say what you want to say in the way you want to say it. That many artists stand on the brink of this big black hole to marvel at the complexity and the vastness of the universe and their own mind, and sometimes fall into it, is not a poeticism. Writing is solitary and arduous and no one who does it consistently and carefully is too far from disappearing into their own blackness. It’s paradoxical that this compulsion to speak out can mute the speaker. The fear of falling too far, of complete detachment, and, worst of all, the inability to produce more work can be stifling.
Karen Green, the wife of David Foster Wallace, talks about the end of her husband’s life: “There is that place you can get to when you are writing or making some art, which is a perfectly human place. A connected place. With David’s brain and the way it was wired and the way it worked, it was very hard for him to access that place. He had so many Jiminy Crickets on his shoulders. Sometimes a quick deadline helped.”
Chemically altering the brain’s activities might make it all go a bit easier (or not). In his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, Wallace chronicles thirty years of amphetamine use, in funny and tragic ways. With its flurries of footnotes and relentless self-questioning, it’s a lesson in how not to be a creative genius. Who would want to be him? Lots would want to write like him.
The kind of corporate-think Wallace satirises welcomes the creativity by numbers in Lehrer’s book. Imagine “how you, too, can use these secrets to unlock your own creativity, and how we can collectively build a more creative culture.” For Lehrer, creativity is a universal human trait, “something that we are all capable of. And we can all get better at it.” Of course, not everyone can be Shakespeare, but if we “wasted less genius” we could “expand the pool of human capital”. As many of Lehrer’s readers have pointed out, there are as many different types of creativity as there are creatives. Inventing the Post-it note is hardly comparable to a 3,000 word musing on the art of walking.
Gian Carlo Rota, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Philosophy at MIT, agrees: “Creativity is a bad word. Unfortunately, we must leave it in the books because the people in power believe in it with sanctimonious credulity… You cannot bunch together creativity in one field and creativity in another. It’s like matching producers of shoes with producers of meat loaf, because they’re both producers. It is an error of logic.”
Imagine though the kind of creativity which can be lumped together, the kind that CEOs and global corporations can systematically convert into cold hard cash. You may have thought it was the opposite, but creativity is a commodity, and competition for creative success is fierce and essential. According to Amy Fries, author of Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers, “no one can rest on his or her laurels anymore. Now we all have to scramble just to stay relevant…Those who actually want to be ahead of the curve are going to have to be visionary. Those businesses or individuals lost only in the tunnel vision of task will be left behind.” This marriage of creativity and business has given rise to scores of cookie-cutter schemes implementing “daydreaming” time to increase productivity. Following Google’s 20% example, encouraging employees to let their mind wander actually makes companies more money. “Just about all the good ideas here at Google have bubbled up from 20% time,” says Alec Proudfoot, “where people have their own idea and run with it.”
Of course, what Google call the 20% is just another name for the excruciating flailing around when creativity is pending and deadlines loom. Even the corporations themselves seem to drag their feet when it comes to implementing their own Sustainable Creativity schemes, argues Doug Williams, a Forrester Research analyst. Predictably “there’s always something happening in the short term that pushes the long-term innovation off”
Whoever you are, such a large part of being creative is about management. Whether that means yoga before work, a self-enforced 9-to-5 or scoffing Xanax so you can get some sleep at night; whether you’re sitting in a Manhattan high rise or a crumbling bedsit, it’s the throw-it-at-the-wall-until-it-sticks approach which finally gets good work done. And it’s not like good old-fashioned creativity isn’t about the success, or the money. In discussion of his book Therapy, David Lodge quotes novelist J. P. Donleavy: “Writing is a way of turning the unhappiest moments of your life into money.”
It would be a mistake, as Lehrer argues, to be eternally waiting on the ‘eureka moment’. Even Wallace had to make a living. And Lehrer is right to champion the sharing of ideas: the Renaissance artists worked in packs, harnessing “group think” in a long and rigorous process of creation and revision. Arthur J. DiFuria, author of Maerten van Heemskerck’s Rome: Memory, Antiquity, and the Netherlandish Cult of Ruins notes “the notebooks and sketchbooks of most Renaissance artists often contain multiple hands on single sheets, not just the sketches and ideas of one artist.” But the linear process Lehrer describes – the ‘eureka moment’ of conception followed by an injection of hard-earned “grit” to pull it off – is a gross simplification. “The completion phase unfolded in many overlapping and interrelated phase that required not only grit, but several more eureka moments of creative genesis. Also, today’s bad idea could become tomorrow’s or next year’s or even the next quarter century’s useful idea.” There might be a ‘eureka moment’, rare as they are, but its success will largely depend on other people backing it, and other people throwing money at it.
Rather than objecting to Lehrer’s generalisations, we could embrace them. In the fourth chapter of Imagine, for example, Lehrer lays out a diverse spread of anecdotal observations and neuroscience evidence to demonstrate why “the only way to be creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand”. He goes on to argue that seeing ones’ work with fresh eyes is “one of the central challenges of writing”. Rota agrees: “Research is sometimes not so much discovering something new as becoming aware of prejudices that stop us from seeing what is in front of us”. It might be that most people could benefit from Lehrer’s argument, not as science, or as an instruction manual, but as part of a pool of ideas. Except that’s not what the book’s publisher is selling it as.
The problem arises for neuroscientists when Lehrer makes tenuous links between brain chemistry and complex thoughts and behaviours. For example: “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited,” Lehrer writes, “the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” As Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist point out in The Problems with Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, “There is not a measurable one-to-one mapping between any brain region and any particular cognitive process; the same little patch of cortex is likely involved in multiple functions”. The book is full of fake breakthroughs like this.
It’s a brilliant turn of events that, as is by now well known, Jonah Lehrer’s success story turns into a troubled writer piece. Lehrer, neuroscience expert, prized popular science writer, has been found out for self-plagiarising in Wired, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, as well as manufacturing Bob Dylan quotations, and claiming quotations given to other journalists as his own. Lehrer emerges, ironically, as too creative for his own good.
I would hazard a guess that, on the whole, Lehrer’s readers didn’t especially mind. For journalists and other writers though it was an audacious move. So what exactly are we disagreeing with here? That someone in Lehrer’s position could get paid twice for the same piece of work, the laziness of self-replication, the pointlessness of duplication? Or is it that Lehrer reminds us that we all recycle ideas and borrow phrasing from ourselves and/or others? Are we frightened, in fact, by the idea that most of what we’re paid to do isn’t particularly original.
It’s telling that the reason WSJ journalist Michael C. Moynihan cites for shopping Lehrer is resentment, not schaudenfreude. “I resent people who cut corners,” he says, “because I’m not the fastest writer in the world, and I spend time banging my head against the wall trying to make the words come out in the right way. I don’t like people who cheat.” Journalism is competitive and the more prominent a writer you are, the more people will pick at you. The people at the top should be the most scrupulous about their sources.
At some point in their lives all writers hate writing. A certain amount of pain is necessary to make it worthwhile, to make it good. And if you don’t feel the pain you’re not a real writer. Imagining prolific journalists, like Lehrer, churning out reams of articles fully formed, like babies from the cabbage patch, is maddening. For creative people, work is complicated and sometimes, success is the problem. Lehrer is more than capable of re-phrasing his own ideas; he just didn’t have the time.
Monynihan’s final word on Lehrer is empathetic: “More than anything,” he says, “I’m completely fucking mystified as to how somebody who does this sort of thing thinks they’re going to go work at The New Yorker”. And what kind of creativity does The New Yorker recommend? In its own words: “Altering and cherry-picking details is an easy, hollow game for a writer. The challenge, and the art, lies in confronting the facts—all of them, whether you like them or not—and shaping them into something beautiful.” Lehrer might have made this sound easy, but his own story suggests otherwise.
Rosie Jackson interviews artist Kai Schiemenz about how buildings shape crowds, the rebirth of the stadium, and his latest exhibition, Islands of Swarm.
The latest work from Kai Schiemenz – a collaboration between the Berlin based artist and Mueller Kneer, the architects responsible for White Cube Bermondsey – is divided simply into two parts: a wall-mounted assemblage of scrapbooked stadium images and a windowed built structure through which to view them.
As giant enclosures designed solely for mass symbiosis, stadiums are rarely considered outside the context of the events they house. The freedom here to view them from outside, from multiple angles, is a luxury not often afforded from within.
Here monochrome photocopies of a mass wedding in Seoul sit alongside ampitheatre sea battles, shoals of fish, Kepler’s heavenly harmonies and a concentration camp in Santiago’s national stadium during the Pinochet dictatorship. Diagrams of Dante’s Inferno are informed by a map of Alcatraz. The stadium, theatre or rallying ground are linked by the analogous quality of events for which they’re designed.
The whole is reminiscent of Don Delillo’s story ‘At Yankee Stadium’ which depicts the stadium-goer’s ability to project his/her feelings on the sea of anonymous heads in front of him. “It knocks him back in awe, the loss of scale and intimacy, the way love and sex are multiplied out, the numbers and shaped crowd. This really scares him, a mass of people turned into a sculptured object. It is like a toy with 13,000 parts, just tootling along, an innocent and menacing thing.”
In this case, the stadium event is a pretext for summoning the crowd for a performance of togetherness. Swarm behaviour, characterised by the collective motion of a large number of self-propelled entities arising from simple rules followed by individuals, goes hand in hand with stadium architecture which can effectively contain hundreds of thousands of people for a unified purpose.
All Schiemenz’s work could be seen as ruminations on the stadium theme. He builds walk-in structures which translate and subvert traditional theatre architecture and ideologies – spiralling, indecipherable monuments which require the viewer to participate in unexpected ways.
We emailed him some questions to find out more.
RJ: How did this preoccupation wih stadiums begin?
KS: Growing up, I was an athlete. I was training four times a week and there were competitions on the weekend. Mostly this took place in stadiums. The funny situation was all the rows were empty; there were just some people in the centre where the competition happened. All this had a strange impact on me. An empty stadium makes absolutely no sense. It needs the spectators; it needs the noise, the rumbling of the masses. I also remember a small book, a stadium fiction, written by the Frenchman Georges Perec called ‘W, or the Memory of Childhood ‘. It is a stadium fiction. He describes an unknown Olympian island called ‘W’ in Chile, governed by an absolute sport dictatorship, ruled by competition. I think that could be considered the starting point for my whole pursuit.
RJ: In your work Total Theatre, a seat is built inside the structure, creating a viewing platform for passersby. The title suggests an inversion of the usual division between audience and spectacle. How is the perception of the participant altered in this case?
KS: The idea came from the sixteenth century scholar Gulio Camillo, who convinced Francis I of France to fund the construction of a “Theater of Memory”. It was designed to be a physical representation of the sort of mental memory palaces used by orators and philosophers in the days before printing. The wooden memory palace was shaped like a Roman amphitheatre, but instead of the spectator sitting in the seats, he would stand in the centre. Everything that was knowable was laid out on the rows in a well ordered, systematic way. What Camillo did was invert the classical perspective of a theatre. The visitor no longer sits on the terrace looking at the drama performed on the stage, but stands himself amidst the scene viewing the world as the auditorium. What was interesting for me was how easily one could change the whole set-up of perception by using this simple method.
RJ: The press release describes stadium architecture as “a critical participant in the shaping of the crowd” and as “both stage and main actor”. How has the stage, and therefore the nature of the swarm, altered throughout history?
KS: The rebirth of the stadium came along with the Olympic Games, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the Parisian Champ de Mars etc. and is linked with the birth of the modern nation state in central Europe at the edge of the emergence of totalitarian states. Today the situation has changed. Stadiums are characterised by economic and representational reasons. In Munich, a new stadium was built by Herzog de Moron, a colourful bubble. Inside is a lot of space; there is so much space that you could stretch your legs without touching the person in front of you. That creates a totally different situation than the stadiums of the last century. Now we have skyboxes, where you can make business deals, where you can have a drink or do your shopping.
Architectures aren’t containers for human needs – but needs and humanities are being generated by architecture. Buildings aren’t neutral boxes for communities, but communities are being formed and governed by them.
RJ: Sloterdijk describes stadium events as “the public merging in the light of a narcissistic narcotic spectacle”. To turn that on its head, what happens when stadium-goers begin to feel dejected as a result of their collective experience, and spiral into negativity? Is it possible to fall through the surging wave of the ecstatic swarm and shrivel into insignificance?
KS: When Sloterdijk writes about stadiums, he writes about the appearance of totalitarian systems and at the same time he implies the spiral of negativity that appears in a war, a competition in a dimension where there are no winners. There is an interesting point and I would like to come back to the beginning, the book ‘W’ of Georges Perec. Perec connects the Stadium Fantasy with his own memory about his parents who died in a concentration camp. And finally he connects the stadium directly to the concentration camp and sees the “athletes” for what they are: desperate, half-starved creatures staggering around the track in striped prison garb. In fact, they are inmates, victims of “this huge machine, each cog of which contributes with implacable efficiency to the systematic annihilation of men.”
Islands of Swarm was created for the show of the same name at PayneShurvell from 13 July – 22 September 2012.
Depersonalisation, mimicry and seeing faces in the sky. Rosie Jackson looks at where our masks and our selves lie.
If you’ve ever sat in an intensive care unit with a relative in an oxygen mask, you’ll know how inappropriately funny it is. It’s partly due to the facial distortion, partly the inhibited movement. The brain makes sense of the new geometries and extensions, translating the plastic nozzle and trailing pipe into something familiarly elephantine – an awkwardly constructed ancient beast, all wrinkly skin and pulsating veins.
Historically, masks as reproductions of a stock character, spirit, or fantasy figure have always been used to incite transformation. Mask-wearing celebrities Lady Gaga, Bjork, Fever Ray and Daft Punk still appeal today. We’ve not only come to terms with their facelessness, or more appropriately their many faces, we enjoy their inflated personas. Encountering them only as stadium demi-gods or digitally, several times removed, they may as well be fictional performers, or puppets, who we’d enjoy nonetheless for not being real.
When real people wear masks – friends, serial killers, tights-wearing vigilantes – what is most terrifying for observers is not the mask itself (anything will do) but the fear that in wearing the mask, the person has become someone, or something, else. While their face is hidden, they have broken their contract with you and the world. Normal rules do not apply.
The dehumanising element doesn’t come from the mask itself, although it helps, but from the observation of a body without a decipherable face. Frozen-faced characters – Christiane from Eyes Without A Face, Michael Myers in Halloween, the killers in Scream – can be horrific or funny and probably both.
Identifying faces has always been integral to our survival. Carl Sagan examined the benefits of our hypersensitivity to faces. We require only the most minimal of details to recognise faces from a distance and in poor visibility. We are also “hard wired” to see patterns in chaos, Jesus on a slice of toast, and the man in the moon.
This phenomenon, called pareidolia, causes us to see faces where there aren’t any. A 2009 study found that the nerve activation in the brain in response to objects incidentally perceived as faces occurs at a similar time and location to that evoked by images of faces and real faces. Furthermore, repeated presentation of new visual shapes that were interpreted as meaningful led to decreased activity in response to real objects. These results indicate that interpretation of ambiguous stimuli depends on similar processes as those elicited for known objects.
This mechanism is responsive to subtle changes. People are quickly able to identify a “face”, analyse the “face-like” object, and determine the emotional state and identity of the subject – even before the conscious mind begins to process the information. Even the “stick figure face” – a few lines and a circle – can convey mood and intention. Sagan argues that this ability to recognise the motivations of a potential predator and pre-empt threatening situations with a flee-or-attack response earlier rather than later would have been beneficial to our earliest ancestors.
Still now, the face can be a comfort or a warning sign. The bridge between thought and action, it tells us what to do. It’s the first place we look when we meet someone for the first time.
The uncanniness of masks centres on the horror film moment, the moment at which our expectation of a face is derailed, when the man shows us a tumour where his face should be, or the little girl cannot turn to face us. It’s this nebulous grey area which masks occupy, the space between the reality and the expectation.
The mask, in its replication, replacement or removal of face, provokes a perpetual double take, drawing attention to our own duplicity. When faced with a fake face, we imagine the real face we cannot see, what lies beneath, and what lies beneath that. The uncertainty makes us think about what it is to be both a face and a mind, what makes a person. It’s a tension you can’t shake off.
The “Uncanny Valley”, a term invented by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, attempts to measure this tension. The hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, a human observer’s emotional response to the robot becomes increasingly positive and empathic until at a certain point it quickly turns to strong revulsion. However, as the robot’s appearance continues to become more like a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. The area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is called the Uncanny Valley.
This follows Freud’s concept of The Uncanny, which describes those instances and objects which are both attractively familiar, but also uncomfortably strange, and our tendency to reject rather than rationalise such disconcerting events. The fact that eerily real-looking robots illicit this same response points to our dependence on human recognition and classification, but also suggest an uncertainty about our own make-up. While we can assume that other humans have similar thoughts, feelings and physical needs to ourselves, hybrid creatures are an unknown quantity, we cannot get the measure of them.
Of course, it’s a thorny road between humanity and hybridity. From prosthetics to pacemakers, we’re becoming very good at enhancing our identity with add-ons and modifications. We’re more sympathetic to hybrids who start off human and step slowly away, than those advancing in the other direction.
How we feel about our own composition is central to our well being. In 1941, American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley explored the concept of psychopathic fake selves in his seminal book The Mask of Sanity and in the 1970s, psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott developed Freud’s belief in the id and the ego into a simpler identity model, the “false self” and the “true self” and sometimes simply “self”.
Several of Winnicott’s patients were suffering from a sense of being empty, dead or “phoney”. Despite an overriding feeling of being false to themselves, these patients continued to perform the “show of being real”.
For Winnicott, the false self was what allowed a person to present a “polite and mannered attitude” to society and acted as a shield for the true self. Like the character Rorschach from the DC comics Watchmen series whose mask displays a constantly morphing ink blot, our faces only show as much as people want to see in them.
It’s comforting to believe in an authentic self, cocooned but actionable if summoned in the right way. That our real thoughts seem to be burbling away somewhere deep inside while, outwardly, our faces grin and bear it is a necessary part of existence. But in extreme cases, it’s paralysing.
Sometimes diagnosed as depersonalisation disorder, what feels like a severe disconnection from one’s self also results in a divorce from physicality. Recently documented by Jonathan Caouette in the award winning film Tarnation, the condition is a sort of locked-in syndrome in reverse. Sufferers are cast out from their material presence and all thoughts and sensations feel unrelated to their reality or environment. Life passes them by as if it were happening to somebody else. They cannot locate themselves beyond the mask.
Such detachment from all fixed points is disorientating but desirable for alternate reality junkies. LSD-induced trips, bending life and nature into unrecognisable proportions, bring on similar out-of-body experiences which connect users with some kind of truth, if not their true selves – whatever that might mean.
Isolated epiphanies aside, in what other more permanent ways can we capture the shifting perceptions of our insides? Artistic representations can shed light on what lies beneath. Lucian Freud’s portraits, many depicting the artist’s close friends and family, disclose invisible internal ground in their display of fleshiness. Freud paints, in his own words “a distinction between fact and truth”. Catching someone in a state of undress, de-clothed and disclosed, is rare. Here the flesh, a mask of sorts, stretches and trembles when worked up to these proportions. When given this much attention, marks and contours become signs of consciousness. Fleeting thoughts cast shadows, like clouds in a clear sky. In the portraits of his mother, observing her grief over the death of his father, or lying in her hospital bed, we see her emotional life has literally shaped the face, but also her introspection, and therefore the relation between the intangible and the body. Of course it’s still projection, but that’s about as close as any of us can get.
Design Interactions graduate Tobias Revell discusses his lastest project, 88.7, which imagines a trading ship full of bankers circumnavigating the globe 24/7.
The meticulous creation of hypothetical worlds is science fiction’s forte. On the one hand you have the stories set in alternate universes with big philosophical contexts and alien models of existence, and on the other, stories set in a recognisable world containing relatable ways of life. Designer Tobias Revell, a graduate from the Royal College of Art’s Design Interactions course, has been “Bringing Un-shiny Futures to Life Since 2045”. For those investigating the relationship between complex systems and emerging technology, science, fiction and the future are eternally and problematically espoused.
The most recent addition to Tobias’ blog for example points to a EUR 1 billion “socio-economic knowledge collider” funded by the European commission – a living earth simulator project which will assimilate large banks of data including financial transactions, health records, travel details, carbon dioxide emissions to map the earth and the behaviour of society in real time. A further browse throws up Borges’ meta-mapping story On Exactitude in Science, the proposed reformation of Honduras and a diagram describing the illegibility of people.
Revell himself draws from Japanese mecha, post-war British cartoons, slick heist films and of course science fiction cinema to present possible, if not probable, futures. Both the mockumentary film New Mumbai, charting the rise of synthetic fungi in a fictional slum city, and his latest project 88.7, are posited in the 2040s.
RJ: 88.7 is a collection of convincing but fantastical ephemera gathered from a fictional ship. Can you describe the story behind it?
TR: An ex-Soviet icebreaker was recommissioned to act as an experiment in global finance at 88.7 degrees latitude – the heart of the arctic sea. Here it could circumnavigate the world in twenty-four hours, allowing it to stay in constant contact with trading zones throughout the world. The experiment was a phenomenal success. A few years later the European Union and its nation-state constructs were on the edge of dissolution into the greater body of the European Equestrian Union, an event marked by commemorative one hundred Euro bills for the crew. On board, the intensity of risk undertaken by traders led to mutations in their brain chemistry that optimised their abilities but made them suicidal, aggressive, animalistic and in some cases even manifested as horns on their epidermis. During its mission, it instigated an ideological power fracture in Russia, the growth of a uniquely North Korean economic solution in the broadcast of its mass games and the legitimisation of a highly competitive, individualistic way of life.
RJ: Trying to understand systems is problematic because any model, simulation or even art work that reflects a system becomes part of that system and so invalidates its own worth. Is there a way of bypassing this dilemma?
TR: This is a paradox that runs from Dante to quantum mechanics but applies especially to social and economic modelling. Nicholas Taleb’s famous Black Swans are one noted exemption – or an ‘excesssion’ as Iain M Banks dubbed them – an event totally unpredictable that shakes the system and forces it to reform. And of course hacktivists and various other subcultures have found ways of working around the systems set up for us. I suppose to escape you literally have to go ‘off the map.’ Whether that means disconnecting and living a secluded lifestyle or living vicariously as bots.
RJ: What are the implications of meta-mapping developments from Google and Apple? The distinction between the virtual and the real seems to become increasingly bewildering and beyond our control.
TR: Virtual reality died a quite, dignified sort of death in the mid-nineties to be replaced with augmented reality – overlaying what we see with information and data from external sources. This in itself raises questions about who filters and controls this information. Google’s glasses are already raising eyebrows about who exactly is going to have a say in what you see through their version of the data world.
RJ: You talk on your blog about “relanguaging” design methodology. When describing the realities of the future, there are inherent problems with both misleading scientific jargon and the use of dumbed-down relabelling. What language are you using?
TR: Over the last hundred years or so design has developed a wonderfully implicit language that we all understand – from door handles to program icons on your desktop. Design has given you the gift of being able to look at almost any object or image and instantly understand its purpose and reason for being. But this method of implicit and simple communication has almost exclusively been the tool of boardrooms and marketeers for all that time. I want to relinquish it somewhat and reveal ideas that are normally coated by opaque layers of complex language in Financial Times op-eds, scientific papers and carefully worded press releases.
With 88.7, I’m using motifs, artifacts and visuals that we were already familiar (like the tumourous growths extracted from the brains of the bankers, pictured above) with but systems and rules that were alien. We already have a universal language of design that we can understand, it’s just a case of applying that language to things that aren’t products or services.
Anonymity and opacity are the names of the fashion game – at the highest and lowest ends of the spectrum. While most of us can’t afford to buy sustainably-produced clothes, Rosie Jackson asks: can we afford not to?
There are two types of people. Those who buy a lot, and those who don’t. In fashion, this has very little to do with income, passion for quality design, or good cloth. For the most committed type of consumer, whether they’re chasing basics or luxury couture, the label always seems to get in the way.
Prior to the delivery of a design collaboration for Autumn/Winter 2012 between the world’s second largest retailer H&M and pioneering French fashion house Maison Martin Margiela, a brand “constantly questioning the norms of fashion”, both retailers have clearly laid out their comparative intentions in the tabular press release. While Margiela supports “conceptual and timeless fashion”, H&M sells “democratic fashion”. H&M’s values are “fashion and quality at the best price”, whereas Margiela trades, as it states here, under the banner of “Anonymity, Whites, Ambiguity.”
In an ingenious ploy, the teaser photos mirror Margiela’s no-label advertising and look uniformly utilitarian. White cardboard cut-outs and blank wooden signs, paper silhouettes and homogenous garment patterns. Anonymity already belongs to fashion at the highest and lowest ends of the spectrum. Take out the designer label, and exclusive fashion becomes fashion for all.
According to Simon Chilvers in The Guardian, all of the H&M pieces, akin to a nest of origami doves, are remakes of Margiela originals, and will be labelled with the year and collection they originate from. “Everything has been created from the original sketches and cut as they were originally seen on the catwalk,” a representative from Margiela explains, with compromises on material and price. “What was originally a fur coat is now a faux fur coat and so on.”
What any high street/designer collaboration amounts to is paying more for less. Retailers have cottoned on that weird-looking means expensive-looking. Add a skewed hem or an inflated silhouette, experiments with androgynous tailoring and visible seams and stitching, and voila. What you get is pieces which look ten times more expensive than the standard shop fare, but can be cut just as cheaply from the same scratchy cloth. Unlike the expensive designs they ape, these clothes will not last longer than they absolutely have to. The Margiela for H&M pieces are just more fuel for the fast-fashion fire.
DEFRA’s research tells us that in the UK we buy two million tonnes of clothes every year, one fifth of which is bought from “fast fashion” brands like H&M, Uniqlo and Zara. One million tonnes of clothes are thrown away every year, with 50 % of the total ending up in landfill.
In fast fashion outlets, skinny T-shirts are tossed around in rainbow showers like Skittles. On luxury clothing websites, The T-shirt, The Jeans, and The Ankle Boot are presented by trend under “Trophy Knits”, “Opulence”, “Shape and Form” or in colour order, with little correlation to season. In addition to their twice yearly seasonal collections, fashion houses release Resort ranges, for holiday-goers or year-round residents of Dubai, Florida or the Bahamas. Nearly instantaneous supply chains transfer catwalk sensations into shops within weeks.
Swanning around glass-fronted high street stores, past the podiums of lamb’s leather purses and patent pointed feet, I find I don’t want to buy anything. For me, the clothes on offer are not so much besmirched by greed, but drowned in apathy. So caricatured they appear like Danish art collective Superflex’s empty McDonald’s, slowly being submerged in flood water or a shop window art work by Josephine Meckseper, with its rotating rabbit, Pringle sock and perfume bottle [pictured below]: ugly, hard, isolated artefacts which will forever be stuck behind glass.
Brands are making changes. H&M, for example, has upped its game in the corporate social responsibility stakes. With 2,500 stores in 44 countries selling 80 billion garments, the brand haemorrhages resources. However a 2011 sustainability report, released in April, records a water saving of 50 million litres due to streamlining of the denim manufacture process, proving that change, and fast change, is possible.
Although companies have begun to implement more sustainable business models, Allana McAspurn of Dutch sustainability NGO, Made-By, explains that this is not just about rebranding for a new kind of ethically-confused consumer. “High street brands are feeling the effect of inflationary hikes in raw material prices and the overall rise in production costs,” she says. “One way of dealing with this is to think of how these costs can be controlled and create efficiencies.”
Celebrity-led Fairtrade initiatives, like Bono and Ali Hewson’s label Edun, purport to add value to people’s lives – if the garment is produced and finished in the developing world it creates more work opportunities in those countries. Countless other labels like this attempt to make the production process more visible. Like Paddington bear, these garments wear their histories like a luggage tag.
But the increased concern produces a glut of labels, many of which are inconsequential fluff – ‘eco’, ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, ‘fair-trade’, ‘organic’ – clogging up our vision of clean clothing. Manufacture, processing, designing and finishing: there are so many layers to garment production, which makes it easy to make big differences at one juncture of the chain but less at the other. Fairtrade cotton, for example, is introduced to supply chains that are not particularly clean, and is tagged with what the consumer erroneously sees as an honest label. Ten thousand people die every year from accidental pesticide poisoning in cotton agriculture. West African farmers are forced to sign a contract to buy the pesticides – before they can get a contract to sell their cotton. Buying organic cotton reduces pesticides, but uses a huge amount of water. The product may be organic, but the process is not sustainable. We need flags, like free-range chickens.
As it becomes more fashionable to be a conscious consumer, a massive achievement in itself, the desire to be mindful has infiltrated the average shopper’s experience. In a survey, Made-By asked 1,00 British consumers between the ages of 16 and 65 what they valued in fashion. 75% of consumers felt that cotton farmers should be paid fair prices, while 60% expressed a wish for their clothing to be made in an eco-friendly way. Of course the idea of wisely weighing up possible purchases in the midst of the high street maelstrom is ridiculous. In any neon-lit shopping outlet, a conscious, fairtrade or green label by any other name seems as sweet. Consumer views are dictated by press releases. And despite exposure of bad practice, they continue to buy. There is a huge gap between what the consumer says and does.
Of course a discerning consumer, with an expendable income, will always gravitate towards independent designers. Whereas the high street fails to sell authenticity, when it comes to genuine emotional attachment, slow fashion labels flourish, with limited product runs and higher prices bearing out their affinity with idiosyncrasy. Those who can afford to buy exclusive and sustainably produced designs will.
An 100% organic jumper from Chinti and Parker which comes in cotton, bamboo and cotton-cashmere, is stocked at Browns, Harvey Nichols and Matches fashion boutique. Why spend £300 on a cashmere jumper, when you buy ecologically-produced cashmere? Scores of new sustainably-minded labels, like Friederike von Wedel-Parlow’s Project No1, are employing natural dyes, eco-friendly materials, and radical pattern systems producing zero waste to construct products just as desirable as the big name fashion houses. On the whole though, if you want truly beautiful design, clean or not, you have to pay for it.
With the arrival of H&M’s Conscious Clothing range, which utilises sustainably-produced fabrics like Tencel and Bamboo, Topshop’s collaboration with clothes salvage stalwart From Somewhere on a Reclaim to Wear upcycled collection, and Tesco’s partnership with high street surplus specialist GoodOne, affordable products for the mainstream market have already materialised, but you’ll still have to look hard for them, if you want to.
Fleeting fashion trends might be throwaway. But new designs from independent labels, generation-spanning pieces, or vintage one-offs are still highly emotionally charged. Assigning more value to the clothes which warrant it might make a convincing case for buying less, wearing longer, and reusing. Unlike shops, which have to sell, consumers don’t have to buy. Retailers just need to keep giving them a good reason not to.
On the brink of the 21st annual Outsider Art Fair in New York and Wellcome Collection’s Spring exhibition, Outsider Art in Japan, Rosie Jackson examines what we really mean when we talk about outsiders.
This year the Outsider Art Fair in New York will celebrate its 21st anniversary. Marc Quinn’s sculpture of the pregnant artist Alison Lapper, with no arms and no legs adorns the corner of Trafalgar square. Lille’s museum of modern art reopened two years ago under a new name – the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art. But critics still sidestep the term, perhaps because, confusingly, it no longer stands for exclusion, but endorsement.
Art produced from inside the mental hospitals has fascinated psychiatrists, artists and art collectors from at least as early as 1922 when psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn published Artistry of the Mentally Ill, a collation of the work of ten schizophrenic masters. The French artist Jean Dubuffet, who made primitive oil paintings tempered with sand, tar and straw, and coined the term “art brut” in the 1950s, was one of the first to assign aesthetic value to the work of outsiders.
These, he says, “created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.”
It’s easy to see how the outsider has become a convenient cipher for everything we want the art world to be. Uncensored, meaningful, a compulsive activity hammered out in blood, sweat and tears. Australian collector Peter Fay, whose collection formed the basis of a 2009 exhibition of self-taught and outsider art at the Callan Park Gallery in Sydney, attributes the works’ popularity to the “raw honesty, bravado and take-no-prisoners purity that all artists aspire to but seldom reach.” Texas-born artist Thomas Burleson who depicts elaborate contraptions with thickets of pipes and densely packed abstract compositions was, according to New York dealer Luise Ross, who handles Burleson’s work, “compelled to make his art…and reflects a very singular vision.” North Carolina artist George Widener, who makes drawings packed with complex future-date calculations is “autistic savant” says Arts and Antiques magazine. Roger Manley, curator of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, describes Renaldo Kuhler’s watercolours as “the coolest self-taught artist’s work since Henry Darger’s.”
Aren’t all artists outsiders? Outsider Art is often unashamedly autobiographical, shocking or compiled in an obsessive compulsive manner. For all artists, making work is a compulsion, sometimes an obsession, often it offers salvation. All artists provide a skewed perspective on the familiar. But while intelligent, articulate artists can choose to stand in the outsider camp, or not, the institutionalised are labelled as outsiders unwillingly or unintentionally.
But what is the difference between artists from an art institution and those from a psychiatric institution? One is discriminatory, the other necessarily inclusive, but teaching yourself through doing is what all artists do. To some extent, the distinction between the schooled and the unschooled has become less meaningful as contemporary artists lose interest in draughtsmanship and focus instead on conceptual, performance-based and digital art. On the other hand, as formal boundaries between inside and outside are shown to be untenable, there is perhaps more desire than ever to cling to outdated distinction.
Given that most of the work is made in the day centre or on the ward, under the guiding eye of a trained therapist, with limited resources, there’s no reason why these works should be any less derivative than mainstream artists constrained by the preferences and partialities of the society they find themselves in. For every holed-up hoarder, making masterpieces from broken bits of plates plastered to the ceiling, there are thousands of art therapy patients diligently daubing poster paint on paper in pretty patterns. It’s easier to praise the resourcefulness of the few than acknowledge the mediocrity of the many. By no means all of the institutionalised are artists and not all outsider artists are institutionalised.
The experience of the mentally ill is undoubtedly fascinating, but only when communicated in a surprising, beautiful or funny way. Those who are well enough to talk well about their work, for example, flourish under public scrutiny. Performance artist Bobby Baker played the role of a psychotherapist in comedy show How to Live (2004), where she posed an eleven-step recovery plan to her patient, a frozen pea. Five years later Baker’s pastel-hued picture diaries documenting an eleven-year stint in day centres and psychiatric wards popped up at The Wellcome Collection. Middle-aged, truthful and tragic – audiences loved her first, then they loved her work.
The lives of Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, even Sylvia Plath (whose tender drawings went on show in London’s Mayor Gallery in 2011) – rehashed in their own work and the therapy room, rewritten by broadsheets and TV talkshows – are perturbing but palatable and the public loves them in spite of, or because of, their fragility. We love outsiders, but we like charismatic ones even more. Not all outsider artists would fit so neatly on the pedestal of publicity.
Being outside of the mainstream has never hurt an artist’s reputation. Cocteau, Magritte, Max Ernst and most of the Surrealists proved that ‘outsider’ art can easily drift into the realms of high fashion. But the prices now being commanded certainly seem like a new phenomenon. In May this year, for example, the Ricco/Maresca gallery is rumoured to have sold a 90-by-36 inch graphite work on brown paper by the late artist Martin Ramirez who spent most of his life in mental hospitals in California, for more than $400,000. It’s hardly surprising: the self-taught nobody who rises to prominence is the American’s favourite story.
The glut of outsider art shows springing up suggests perhaps a growing crossover between the outsider and contemporary art worlds. The Museum of Everything’s first exhibition of some 200 works by outsiders included commentaries from David Byrne, Ed Ruscha and the French artist Annette Messenger. The fourth popped up in Selfridge’s department store. It’s easy to make outsider artists the poster boys and girls for edginess and authenticity – it’s just another art world exercise in rebranding. In many ways the outsider art pool is the marketeer’s dream: the work is varied enough to ride the wave of any passing trend, but indisputably sincere.
The growing popularity of outsider art has been a great enabler for art therapy advocates. Perhaps most obvious is the case of Mindful in 2011 – a contemporary art show on the theme of mental illness that raised funds for Mind’s creative therapies initiative. Curated by Stuart Semple – himself a beneficiary of the therapeutic powers of art – the exhibition featured big-name artists with an unorthodox bent, like Sebastian Horsley, the Chapman brothers and Tracey Emin. Housed underground at the Old Vic Tunnels near Waterloo Station, the show effectively challenged art therapy’s playschool reputation. And Janus-like, it looked both ways: at the mental issues grappled with by established ‘mainstream’ artists, and at art as a beneficial experience (both making and viewing) for those similarly suffering.
Art agency Outside In provides a platform for artists unable to access the art world because of mental illness, disability, or social circumstance. The agency’s annual exhibition at Pallant House gallery (open until 3 February) features work from 80 artists, whittled down from 1,300 entries. One imagines that like Outside In’s online gallery, the show will be peppered with personal statements. One reads simply: “I am in a psychiatric unit, I have never done art before but I enjoy it now and try to learn.” In this context the work doesn’t have to speak for itself.
So is this charity or is this art? Creative Future, a registered charity that helps disabled and marginalised artists to engage with mainstream art markets, is behind the touring exhibition Tight Modern, a collection of 50 miniature prints from 50 artists. At the Brighton event, Tight Modern’s second outing, only one of the works had sold. By channelling both the average output of art-therapy programs and the best examples of outsider art into the same market, do we run the risk of stamping everything down into the mainstream mire? No doubt some of the work these organisations advocate (Arron Kuiper/Ian Sherman) has found the significant attention it deserves but might not otherwise have found. But is it the case that any one of the exhibited artists, once supplied with a good enough story, marketing and mentoring, could be just as successful.
The best outsider art needs no sales pitch. Victorian examples are rare, strange and beautiful and have greater value because of this. One prominent example is that of Achilles G. Rizzoli, a (formally trained) draftsman in a San Francisco architecture firm who inked drawings of Beaux-Arts buildings – imaginary monuments to his mother that were never built. Another was the sale, at the New York Outsider Art Fair, of a 140 page scrapbook cobbled together from early-1900s invoice from a mental hospital in Nevada, each sheet covered in drawings of eagles, saw blades, chairs, wide-eyed men and women, garden plans, and circus menageries on offer for $12,000 a page.
Also in New York, the Approaching Abstraction exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum drew on the stylistic qualities of the work, rather than the troubled lives of the artists. Here we see the random patterns, systemic codes and symbols employed by many self-taught artists, including the graffiti-esque works of Dan Miller, where letters and words are repeatedly overdrawn, in a record of the artist’s obsession with objects like light bulbs, electrical sockets, food and the names of cities and people.
Outsider or not, all creative activity is a symptom of the need to design and define ourselves and the space we occupy in whatever means we can. Even when we buy production line flat packs and machine-made homeware to fill our ready-made houses, our choice of surroundings says a lot about who we want to be and how we wish to be perceived. While most of us assimilate status objects, furnish our lives with pre-loaded commodities, create and modify within the rigid compass of the social and cultural norm, less self-conscious artists adapt their external surroundings at will. In the same way children impose their imagined words on any environment they find themselves in.
While art collectors dress their designer homes with status-cementing contemporary art, outsiders amass a collection of marbles, make mole-like tunnels underground, painstakingly construct elaborate scenes using squirrels. Like all truthful work, it is purely a symptom, a cure, a record. Not freedom, but a different kind of entanglement. Surely, if anything, outsider art proves how ordinary making art is. Take away the blurb, and it will continue, as it always has.
50 years on, Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies retain a peculiar allure. Rosie Jackson asks why we still want to watch people squirm and why we really do like doing what we’re told.
We like watching people in desperate dilemmas. In the 1988 film A Short Film About Killing, directed by Krzysztof Kie?lowski, we are shown two murders of equal grossness. Both are implemented with considerable forethought and without hesitation: there’s the cold-blooded killer who strangles a repugnant taxi driver and bludgeons his head with a rock; and there’s the rabid, uniformed men who prepare the rope and execute the killer’s hanging. The dilemma exists not for the characters but for us, because neither death – the one sanctioned, the one criminal – is better or more justified than the other. There can be no cancelling out.
It’s a topical issue. In the same week that California’s Proposition 34 – the anti-death penalty ballot initiative also known as Safe California – was narrowly defeated by a vote of 52.8% to 47.2%, an Amnesty International film called “Execution: Right or Wrong? You Decide” was screened throughout the US to thousands of people. According to the press release, “Select theaters across America will become execution chambers” as movie-goers watch documentary footage of life on death row. It is the only film ever to star a real condemned man (William Neal Moore spent 16 years on Death Row and was only 7 hours from the electric chair) a real warden, a real priest and a real (possibly) execution. It’s 25 years after 70% of the state’s voters approved the death penalty, but the population of California still teeters on the brink of indecision. Given the choice, it’s preferable to put evil on a pedestal, and make it dance where we can see it.
In an article called “Deregulating Death”, the Director of Stanford Criminal Justice Centre Robert Weisberg, likens the death penalty juror to the experiment subjects of Stanley Milgram, the Yale professor who famously shed light on the capacity of ordinary people to commit heinous crimes. In 1961, three months after the start of the Adolf Eichmann trial, Milgram began to measure the capacity of individuals to harm innocent parties when instructed to do so. The subject was assigned the role of “teacher” and an actor the role of “learner”, before the two were separated into different rooms both connected with a microphone and loudspeaker. The teacher was asked to read aloud a series of word pairs to which the learner responded with the push of a button. If the answer was wrong, the teacher would dispense a shock, which increased in voltage as the test continued. 65% of participants did not terminate the experiment – even though many were visibly distressed by the shouts of pain from the learner – and successfully went on to administer the final 450V.
This “Behavioral study of Obedience” was the first of many conducted by Milgram and prompted a stream of copycat experiments, both scientific and artistic. Public and private evils acquired pop status on the big and small screen: Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment in 1971; 2010 French documentary The Game of Death; a black and white film called “Obedience” shot by Milgram himself in May 1962 to document his findings; and, most recently, Compliance, written and directed by Craig Zobel, whose frank depiction of the systematic abuse of a fast food employee in the name of a fake authority traumatised audiences at New York and Sundance. Chillingly, it’s based on a true story.
A new book, “Behind the Shock Machine”, which focuses on Milgram’s professional agenda, as well as the personal histories of the study’s actor and volunteers, misses the point of the matter entirely. The specifics of the experiment are in fact the least interesting thing about it. What is compelling about the 1961 study is its elegant assertion of what has continuously been proved to be the case – that for many of us there is no line that we will not cross if given a good enough reason to do so. As Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons puts it: “The law is not a ‘light’ for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any kind…The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.”
What Milgram rightly points out, biased or not, is that the subject’s conflict “stems from the opposition of two deeply ingrained behaviour dispositions: firstly, the disposition not to harm other people, and secondly, the tendency to obey those whom we perceive to be legitimate authorities.” For most people, the more questionable the act, the stronger and more entrenched the authority must be to convince individuals to implement it. And it won’t be easy. Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they executed Jewish women and children, but it didn’t stop them.
There is a difference between knowing a particular kind of behaviour is wrong, and feeling it is wrong, but we do not know where this distinction lies. What we do know is that daily life is a balance between fitting in, and doing what we believe is the right thing (wherever that impulse comes from). Whether any given person would follow Milgram’s experiment through to its logical conclusion, or not, simply depends on which of these impulses wins out.
As Craig Zobel explains to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald: “We can’t be on guard all the time. In order to have a pleasant life, you have to be able to trust that people are who they say they are. And if you questioned everything you heard, you’d never get anything done. It’s infinitely more efficient to follow a chosen leader and walk in lock step with a chosen tribe.” On the whole, we would rather surround ourselves with people who share our codes of behaviour than have our actions constantly questioned by others. In all cases, we have a tendency to take the path of least resistance.
For Milgram, this is largely dependent on the way we perceive our role in specific situations. Elaborating on the ‘agentic state theory’, he maintained that “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow”. If you see yourself as a pawn, you will be a pawn.
Commonly, our resting mode is deferral to a superior, the institution, the house rules. It is only when a freak event blows up in our faces, unexpectedly, that we are forced to act for ourselves. We cannot defer. Unlike the slow burn of Milgram’s strain of obedience, where instructors whisper in your ear at every juncture, sometimes the immediacy of a situation knocks us out of line.
This immediacy and intimacy is key. When the person in pain is close to us we are far more likely to act. Joan Didion argues in her essay on “wagon-train” morality and abandoning our loved ones to coyotes: “Except on the most primitive level – our loyalties to those we love – what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?” But do we act well, morally, kindly in the case of strangers? Sometimes, rarely, not always.
David Hume, who contradictorily maintained both that adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathise with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, and that our concern is limited to those in our close circle, said: “the minds of men are mirrors to one another” insofar as they “reflect each other’s emotions”. Indeed, social neuroscientists comparing neural activity when one feels pain and when one observes a close acquaintance in pain found similar firing patterns occurring.
Also, in the closest bonds, mirroring is tangible. Parents actually mimic the facial expressions of their children as they register their pain. Hume goes on to say that “We sympathise more with persons contiguous to us, than with persons remote from us: With our acquaintance, than with strangers: With our countrymen, than with foreigners.”
Empathising with the suffering of friends or strangers actually recruits different patterns of brain activation. While witnessing a friend’s pain activates the regions of the brain associated with firsthand experience, observing a stranger in pain activates brain regions associated with “mentalizing” – thinking about the mental states and intention of others. In order to empathise with strangers, we have to imagine ourselves in the position of someone close to them. And even Milgram’s experiments bear this out. In the experiment variation where the “learner’s” physical immediacy was closest, where participants had to physically hold the “learner’s” arm onto a shock plate, compliance decreased. Under that condition, only 30% of participants completed the experiment.
Of course empathy isn’t infallible – it results in all sorts of dubious judgements. All studies after Milgram needle us into getting the compliance point, when in many cases authority is not the greater evil. Yale Finance Professor Robert Shiller, author of Irrational Exuberance, argues that the Milgram experiment evidences deeply-ingrained trust of authority which isn’t misplaced: “[People] have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so. (In fact, it is worth noting that in this case the experimenter was indeed correct: it was all right to continue giving the ‘shocks’ — even though most of the subjects did not suspect the reason.”
We have learnt not to trust our own judgement, which might explain why we like to shake ourselves up a bit, to watch a film about killing, again and again. For the viewer, what is the difference between art about violence and violent art? Filmed experiments and films about experiments? Performances, like Milgram’s, which overturn the dark damp side of the rock? The agenda is different but the reaction the same – varying levels of horror, disgust, empathy or detachment.
We might compare Milgram’s experiment with Andy Warhol’s electric chair, or the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity show How Evil Are You? or Herzog’s Into the Abyss? All are instances in art or life which satisfy our predilection for the dark side, which in the best cases startle and subvert, but which ultimately, leave us as cold and changeable as ever. Putting a flag on a thing, or chaining it up in the limelight, doesn’t give you power over it. But it does, if only for a moment, make it questionable.
The Rope House, an architectural installation and performance space I produced in 2012 in collaboration with Graticule Architecture has been nominated for the Architects’ Journal Small Projects Award, and here it is on the cover of the magazine. Check out the blurb below and more images here.
”Spun from a single 5km length of rope the structure begins as a fraying cord which leads visitors to its site, a small hillock overlooking a lake at the southern end of the Secret Garden Party site. The rope creeps up the hill, meeting the building and spiraling to clad a tower-like structure. The rope acts as the building’s skin and is tensioned to form walls and held taught by a weighted spool hanging from the tip of the roof.
The project was designed and built by Graticule Architecture with help from their second year students at Canterbury School of Architecture, UCA. For the students the projected acted as a live experimentation between digital design processes and traditional craft techniques.
Local rope manufacturre The Chatham Rope Company guided the students through traditional splicing and weaving techniques while the frame was digitally modeled and fabricated off site.
Over the course of the festival this pristine structure was partially unraveled as part of the performance and natural inhabitation of the audience. Festival goers were encouraged to move in and tailor the rope surface to meet their needs – seats, handles, climbing frame, shelter.
The product of this amplified weathering and use was recorded by scanning the structure to produce a millimeter perfect 3D snapshot.”