Many years ago, in 1974, pre-moniker Godmother of Performance Art, a young artist, Marina Abramović, stood stock still, within the walls of Studio Morro in Naples, for her performance entitled Rhythm O. During the next six hours she would be the object and art would occur when the audience interacted with said object.Her instructions were very clear. She would take full and exclusive responsibility for everything that occurred during those six hours. The audience members were instructed that they could do whatever they wanted to her within the designated time frame. They were to interact with her using any one of the 72 objects she had laid out on a table nearby. Objects that ranged from a feather to glue and from a rose to a gun and one bullet.
WHY? To test her bodily and mental limits and to explore human nature (FYI, today at age 74 she is still at it).
After the performance this is what the artist stated:
“What I learned was that … if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you … I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”
I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between this experience and a much loved book of mine, Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
In Lord of the Flies the author explores the two impulses present in human beings: good vs. evil. This internal conflict is explained through the story of a group of young British lads that remain stranded on an uninhabited island and must govern themselves. Power, morality, selfishness, violence, the greater good and more are represented via these young boys.
Think about it. The good versus bad and right versus wrong conflict begins right from our get go. We are exposed to/become aware of these opposing forces through our religion, general education (parents and school) and through visual media where good and evil are depicted as the good fairy versus the evil witch or as a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. A constant battle wherein one must choose between order or chaos, rules or anarchy, being civilized or savage.
The transformation of proper British boys into “animals” within Lord of the Flies could be the synopsis for Rhythm O, with two main and shocking differences. Firstly, during the performance of Rhythm O there was no discernible reason for the escalation from civilized to savage behaviour. No one was in imminent danger, no one was being coerced, there was no need for self defense. Secondly, this transformation from law abiding citizen to outlaw occurred within a brief few hours.
So what unfettered the beast?
I believe it was the condition of TOTAL FREEDOM. No rules and no boundaries. In a situation wherein you are given the “all clear” (in this case via the artist’s disclaimer) you use this “permission” to justify your actions (or make them oddly okay). Furthermore, the knowledge of no repercussions (you will not be judged nor punished) adds another layer of acceptability, exempting you from any potential feelings of shame or guilt.
The difference between individual reactions will be based on the discipline/control exercised and the level of belief in the choice.
In this case, thank goodness the groupthink phenomenon was shattered by those audience members that reacted to the gun being pointed to the artist’s temple and her fingers being wrapped around the trigger.
To explore further together..
Was the artist prepared to die in the name of art and learning?
How do you explain the cowardice of the audience when the object “came back to life”?
Why do you think it was so easy to behave as the audience did?