In Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment to test obedience to authority, the experimenter orders the volunteer subject – cast in the role of teacher for the purposes of the experiment – to administer a painful electric shock to an unseen pupil when they get something wrong. In fact the experimenters and pupils were actors and the screams were pre-recorded sounds. The test determines the degree to which the subjects of the experiment were prepared to obey orders when doing so involved – or so they believed – inflicting pain on others.
In 2002, artist Rod Dickinson, working in collaboration with Graeme Edler and Steve Rushton, exactly recreated the setting used by Milgram – the Interaction Laboratory at Yale – and engaged actors to reenact the experiment as an art performance.
The audience at the performance, staged at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow, were asked to stay throughout and form part of the video documentation. Even knowing the nature of the work and the origins of the works being spoken and sound effects being delivered this is not something that would be easy to sit through.
The work is now shown in video form either accompanied by a set of photographs of details from the facsimile laboratory or with the laboratory as an installation which the audience can walk through. Sounds from the experiment are played into the space.
Though the work is a reenactment, Dickinson doesn’t really take on the role of Milgram in the way that Mark Dion becomes an archaeologist for a work such as Tate Thames Dig. Arguably, to an extent, Dickinson is testing the audience; despite knowing what one is watching and understanding the artifice, it would nonetheless be hard to sit through something of this nature. In this respect, Dickinson’s interest – here and in other works, and other than reenactments of this nature, Dickinson was part of a group of circlemakers – seems primarily to lie in belief systems, mythologies and collective understanding of the world.