The Milgram Re-enactment

By Neil Mulholland, 10 May 2002

Neil Mulholland on Rod Dickinson's The Milgram Re-enactment

Forming part of The Tenth Level at the CCA, Rod Dickinson’s The Milgram Re-enactment was a two-hour live dramatisation of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience to Authority’ electro-shock experiments, conducted at Yale University between 1961 and 1962. Milgram established that 65% of subjects from different classes, races and genders were willing to give deadly electric shocks to ‘Learners’, punishment for failing to correctly repeat simple word pairs. Dickinson’s re-enactment saw four ‘Teachers’ administer shocks beyond the ‘Tenth Level’, the point at which an actor portraying the Learner would ask the naïve Teacher to stop. Teachers carried on with the shocks, not because the psychologist coerced them, but because the ‘experiment’ demanded that they continue. Sweating and trembling, Teachers seemed to be as beguiled by the disembodied rhetoric of science as seduced by the material trappings of legitimate authority. Respectful ignorance of cognitive psychology added to the pressure of the situation, convincing many subjects to continue beyond 150 volts, despite their knowledge of the suffering supposedly caused.

Based in real-time and scripted carefully from conditions 08 and 02 of the experiment, Dickinson’s re-enactment was positioned precariously between theatre and live performance. In Milgram’s original experiment both social psychologist and the Learner were, in effect, acting. In the re-enactment, actors played both actors and subjects. This, accompanied by the sixties clothing and hairstyles, was initially estranging. However, things grew increasingly compelling as new Teachers entered the laboratory installation where they were told smoothly and dispassionately by the experimenter of the callous actions demanded of them. The drama of each scene took time to unfold as the audience waited for the Learner, supposedly suffering from a heart condition, to play pre-recorded tapes of his screams; the re-enacted experiment becoming as progressively authentic and mesmerising for the audience as it was for most subjects. A crux point was the reaction of the subjects being informed at the end of the experiment that they did not administer any shocks. ‘You did a real good job,’ chirped the Learner with numbing regularity as he shook each subject’s hand and beamed the phoney grin of a reality TV host. The unvarying theatricality of such experiments, the non-reactive benchmarks that supposedly avoid altering what is being analysed, are perhaps the most traumatic factors accentuated by the re-enactment. In giving insight into the effortlessness of calibrating ordinary rational people into rational perpetrators of genocide, as eager voyeurs of a controversial and entertaining show, The Milgram Re-enactment transformed its audience into enthusiastic accomplices.

Neil Mulholland <n.mulholland AT> is Lecturer in Contemporary Art at the Centre for Visual & Cultural Studies, Edinburgh College of Art

The Milgram Re-enactment // Rod Dickinson // CCA, Glasgow // 15 and 17 February 2002