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The Privileged / II

As part of Spill Festival 2015 I went to see Jamal Harewood’s shocking performance The Privileged. The piece forces the audience to confront powerful emotions of disgust and anger in a public setting,breaking down the audience’s expectation of the space they are entering and giving the artist the control to manipulate their behaviour.

When considering the work of other artists who have also challenged the traditional gallery space against the traditional theatre space there present a pattern that indicates that audiences view these as safe spaces where their actions are unaccountable. Marina Abramovic’s performance Rhythm 0, 1974 was a durational six-hour performance at Galleria Studio Morra in Naples. During the performance, the audience was invited to do what they wished with Abramovic’s body using any of the given objects ranging from food to a gun. During this time audience members: “responded with vicious intent, marking, probing and scratching her, blindfolding her, dousing her with cold water and pinning slogans to her skin.”1 Perhaps the most violent moment was “the artist holding a loaded gun against her own head, with tears in her eyes, her blouse pulled open to expose her breasts, and bleeding from a head wound.”2 This shocking and disturbing account shows how willing an audience can be to both physically and emotionally abuse the artist if they feel they have been given the opportunity to do so, almost as if it is their right as the audience to see how far the artist can be pushed. Similar yet less extreme events have repeatedly occurred in Yoko Ono’s repeated Cut Piece performed in a theatre environment. Ono kneels before the audience and they are invited to cut wherever they would like from Ono’s clothing. Over the duration of forty minutes Ono remains in silence, her skin frequently grazed from the audience’s careless cutting. Jennifer Fisher recalls, “The piece was loaded with anxious affect, of intimacy hinging on threat and pain.”3 Ono and Abramovic’s work share with Harewood’s the aggressive and objective reactions from the audience. Arguably, audiences who feel the artist has given them control, act without accountability for their actions.

Looking to social science and the work of social scientists such as Stanley Milgram and his Obedience experiment, and Philip Zimbardo and his Stamford Prison experiment, aggressive and violent behaviour can be seen across groups of people when they feel no accountability for their actions. Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments in 1961 raised “deep moral questions.”4 Members of the public were paid to give someone else an electric shock every time that person answered a question incorrectly, gradually raising the voltage from 30 volts to a lethal 450 volts with each wrong answer. Unknown to the participants following instructions from a man in a lab coat the person receiving the shock was, in reality, acting. However, even with their pleas for the shocks to stop a shocking: “65% of participants in Milgram’s study delivered the maximum shocks.”5 In Zimbardo’s Stamford Prison Experiment in 1971 twenty-four students, half as guards and half as prisoners simulated a prison. The experiment was ended after just six of fourteen days as the guards became increasingly abusive towards the prisoners and prisoners became increasingly anxious, depressed and talked of escaping.

When looking at these experiments in relation to the work of the artists previously mentioned it can be seen how people behave aggressively and violently when they feel no accountability for their actions because they are following instructions, both in the constructed situations of the simulated prison and also in the constructed performative space of the theatre. It is perhaps this tension between construction and reality that allows people to distance themselves from their actions. In Milgram’s obedience experiments people are willing to act because an authority figure has commanded them. Similarly, in Harewood’s performance the audience follows the instructions given laid out by the artist. In such a situation, it is the artist who holds the power in the room and it would be a bold audience who challenged that for fear of disrupting the performance and spoiling the artist intentions. Harewood clearly knows this and plays upon that power dynamic.

The social scientist Allen Funt discussed “the worst thing, and I see it over and over is how easily people can be led by any authority figure.”6 Even though the actions are atrocious, the person instructed feels removed from the repercussions, the responsibility and the consequences of their actions. This seems to occur in particular in situations where their actions feel almost justified and condoned because others are acting in the same way. In the book Mass Hysteria (2001) by Lisa Blackman and Valerie Walkerdine, they discuss how: “Le Bon popularized the ideas of other continental thinkers who presented the masses when together in a crowd as an easily swayed and over suggestible mob.” They continue to discuss how: “the mass provides a heightened suggestibility, a cognation and hypnotic affect.” (p.34-35) It is shown that audiences become even further removed from the responsibility of their actions when acting in mass.

In The Body: Key Concepts (2008) Lisa Blackman examines the ideas of McNeil about social obedience that is seen throughout our society. She comments: “he suggests then, that we have not been keen to explore this gestural, muscular level of communication, preferring to see it as an abnormal or pathological phenomenon that occurs in what are deemed to be more primitive societies, or in those who are seen to have lost their will and submitted to the will of the charismatic leader- in those, in other words, who have lost the capacity for rationality and subsequently become defined by their bodies.” (p.32)

It could be argued that in Harewood’s performance, the audience’s are led, or indeed are manipulated, into these aggressive actions via the instructions that remove the moral responsibility of the individual, and encourage the hysteria of acting on mass. The loss of responsibility felt by the audience weakens a sense of individual moral obligation and hence their actions become increasingly instinctive bodily responses. As Foucault discusses the way that our society is constructed everything is a social process of normality. This process of normality leads to a process of othering. Everything that opposes what is viewed as normal in our westernised society, being white, male, straight, healthy, is abnormal and becomes the othered body. If you are abnormal then you are viewed as ill or primitive. Descartes theory “I think therefore I am,” dictates that by acting with bodily responses the audience is no longer thinking and becomes the opposite of civilised- primitive. They become the othered body.

In Harewood’s performance, I found myself acutely aware of the predominately white, middle-class theatre-going audience and the single black artist. As Lyn Gardner discusses in her article for The Guardian, Should Immersive Theatre Audiences Accept Greater Responsibility, the performance “is authored and owned by the young black artist who made it.” Harewood is the “charismatic leader” and the audience has become the primitive who have “lost their will and submitted to the will of the charismatic leader.” Through this process of social obedience, Harewood manages to reverse the social normal that is ingrained throughout our westernised society that anyone who isn’t white, male and straight becomes the othered body – the primitive one.

The Privileged is next on as part of The Croydonites Festival on 29th March 2017.

1. O’Hagan, Sean, The Observer, Interview: Marina Abramovic, 03/10/10, 04/01/16. [web] www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/oct/03/interview-marina-abramovic-performance-artist
2. The Tate, Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0 1974, 04/01/16. [web] http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/display/dla-piper-series-constellations/marina-abramovic-rhythm-0-1974
p.169, Fisher, Jennifer, Tangible Acts Touch Performances, Barnes, Sally, Lepecki, Andre, The Senses in Performance, Routledge, 2006. [print]
p.27, McCarthy, Anna, Stanley Milgram, Allen Funt and Me: Post-war Social Science and the ‘First Wave’ of Reality TV, Murray. S, Ouellette. L, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, New York and London: New York University Press, 2009. [print]
5. Cherry, Kendra, About, The Milgram Obedience Experiment, 05/01/16, 16/12/15. [web] http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm
6. p.27, McCarthy, Anna, Stanley Milgram, Allen Funt and Me: Post-war Social Science and the ‘First Wave’ of Reality TV, Murray. S, Ouellette. L, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, New York and London: New York University Press, 2009. [print]

Image: Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0, 1974, Photo: Phaidon