Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne, Australia, February 15, 2016
“The experiment requires that you continue.”
“It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
“You must go on, there is no other choice!”1
Stanley Milgram framed his notorious social experiment of subservience as an inquiry into the Holocaust. Building on Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments of 1951, Milgram’s ‘obedience studies,’ which began in the early sixties, can be seen to demonstrate the banality of evil in a controlled environment, in a laboratory, in life.
The dark heart of the human animal, ripe for translation both direct and indirect, the Milgrim paradigm has since made countless appearances in literature, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, and film, Henri Verneul’s I as in Icarus and Paul Scheuring’s The Experiment to name a few, and now dance, in Stephanie’s Lake’s new work, “Double Blind.” Fresh from its Sydney Festival premiere at Carriageworks, “Double Blind” explores internal and external conflict, action and reaction, cause and effect, through a series of its own choreographed behavioural experiments. On stage, as in laboratory, roughhouse quickly gave over to cruelty and torture. Whether “seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions”2 or driven by fear: “how far can [one] be pushed to act outside of one’s moral code when instructed?” Lake asks. In a sixty-minute performance, it transpired, quite a bit.
Lake has freely drawn upon the psychological experiments of Milgram, but perhaps also upon the sense of theatre within his experiments. “Milgram was a fantastic dramaturg. His studies are fantastic little pieces of theater. They’re beautifully scripted.”3 The Milgram Experiment could almost be said to have been in play before the work began. As I waited near to the front of the queue, the usher (read: person in authority) informed the crowd (read: willing subjects gathered to see Lake’s new daring) to fill the theatre from the back rows downwards, thereby leaving the best seats for the last in line. A technique favoured by ushers because it is easier to manage naturally makes early birds bristle as perceived stragglers receive premium seats, front and centre. I found myself heading to the back of the venue before realising I could rebel, in part, and sit in the middle, albeit to the far end of the row.
Asked to look closer at our own animal instincts, “Double Blind” was an uncomfortable and powerful work. If you want to understand the human animal, sit back, prod it, and watch. Grim and episodic, as befits a series of experiments, I played the alternating role assigned to me of ‘passive observer’ and ‘active participant.’ In a work, like the experiments, that felt geared to evoke a specific response, I, too, was manipulated to administer electric shocks to another out of a sense of obligation. Yes, in order for an electric current to flow, the circuit needed to be completed. With audio-visual artist, Robin Fox, behind the console on the sidelines, a lab coat and black frames suggested by his impassive face, a gritty, disquieting subject was charged by and revealed in the frenetic movements of four dancers.
Alisdair Macindoe and Alana Everett, Amber Haines and Kyle Page alternated between being experimented on and being in charge, an extension of the definition of ‘double-blind.’ With the ringing of a boxer’s bell, following voice commands, they playing sated or hungry rats competing with one another for air, water, food, shelter, space; survival, in short. They lurched from defensive to aggressive. Revealing their backs in echo of the vulnerability of a blue hospital smock in costumes designed by Harriet Oxley, each one was a conduit for electrical charge. At times they moved like machinery parts, both in terms of the precision demanded and without fluidity of joint. Fox’s compositional audio barrage enhanced the effect. The clunk-clunk of the cogs and the hissing of the pistons, the ticking of a human motor not quite working in time with the current was made audible and then some.
Lake has replicated ideas behind the Milgram experiment with its snaking red and blue electric cables, but in a broad and visual sense, and in doing so, other psychological experiments were referenced. We also learnt that the human form, once hooked into the amplifier, is a noisy beast; a tap-tap on the shoulder of another sounds like a jackhammer. Clipboard in hand, in this session, where you stood ethically was also pulled from the recesses. In keeping the work open to interpretation, but precise in its choreographic execution, for me, a wealth of imagery, from the twisted surgical experiments of Vladimir Demikhov’s two-headed dogs to the deprivation of Harry F. Harlow’s tragic monkeys isolated within steel ‘pits of despair,’ leapt to mind. Thanks to the subterranean lighting of Bosco Shaw, pit ponies and canaries in a coalmine also got a look in. Bedded in a viscous sludge was every bit as alienating as the white noise confines of a sterile laboratory.
And it was this hideous and macabre imagery that Lake’s choreography hauled from the dark cavity as Haines appeared in a second position plié over a kneeling Macindoe. Her elbow upon his head, they moved as a surgically grafted Cerberus.4 Operating like an inkblot to interpret, this ‘wrong’ cohesiveness, this mutant form soon shifted. Haines appeared as controller over Macindoe, where she willed him to move, he followed suit. Before again, in role reversal, he donned a laboratory assistant’s rubber glove and appeared to ‘blow’ into her forearm.
Shadowing the metronome sequence between Everett as the friendly controller issuing prompts to continue and Macindoe in an initially comic, but increasingly frantic bid to keep up, I saw the movements of a baby monkey released from an isolation chamber in Macindoe’s arm held up in right angle to his head almost as if cradling himself. One brief but recurring action read as an echo of the repetitive gestures of a monkey, a nervous tic of detachment from the self and others.
In such a landscape, it was not unusual for all manner of unfixed imagery to collide. The power of suggestion! To me, coupled with its intensity, this was one of the work’s strengths. It made you think about all manner of things, and most of them were deeply unpleasant. This manipulation was many. People will do awful things if asked to by a person in authority. Compliance then and in Lake’s hands now, brutal.
As sound and movement was passed from one dancer to another—or was that electrical current?—the effect was often beautiful. And genuinely humorous, like the nose-to-nose pecking from Everett to Page to Macindoe, who in order to peck the shorter Haines, compressed his form by bending his knees before shuffling forward to touch her nose. Back and forth, in a line, a movement, a charge, it was passed. And a little faith restored in humanity.
The work is tight, the references many, and the effect: devastating.
- Instructions issued to the participants of the experiment (until they rebelled) to increase the electric charge in increments from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 volts (XXX). Stanley Milgram, “Behavioural Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, v. 67 (4), October 1963, 371–378
- Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 123
- Stephen Reicher, quoted by Cari Romm, “Rethinking One of Psychology’s Most Infamous Experiments,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2015
- In 1954, on the outskirts of Moscow, Demikhov, in a bid to create a single circulation of two forms, surgically grafted the head, shoulders, and front legs of a two-month-old puppy onto the neck of an adult dog. As the puppy drank milk, it dribbled out the unconnected stump of its oesophagus. Of the 20 hybrids, the longest survived for 28 days.