Workshop 3: Rod Dickinson, ‘Experiments with an Audience’

Rod Dickinson (School of Creative Arts, University of the West of England) opened his presentation arguing that from the artistic perspective the idea of an experiment is interesting precisely because it requires participants rather than viewers. Dickinson explained how engagement was a key to the idea of Milgram experiment as well. He proceeded in explaining that he wants to introduce workshop participants to two examples (looking at some short video clips) of an attempt at reformulation of the idea of an audience.

Rod Dickinson began by presenting the first work (Glasgow 2002 performance) which was a reconstruction of the Milgram’s experiment on obedience (1961). He began from claiming that first of all it is important to understand that the presented piece is a video document of a live performance of the experiment. In Dickinson’s performance (which he insisted, was not an experiment)  actors were used to recreate the experiment. He argued that, there were no ‘unknowing experimental subjects’ as in the original experiment. In fact the actors were literally animating or re-animating the transcripts from Milgram’s experiment – so what was presented was a word for word copy of the original experiment performed in front of a live audience.

Concomitantly, Dickinson gave a brief synopsis of this performance which intended looking at experiment from a different perspective, not generating data or scientific results but focusing on the representative and performative. He explained that in his performance people come to the lab where man [actor] poses as experimenter and unknowing subject [the learner] is supposedly responding by replicating screams from the original Milgram tape. Dickinson consequently described strategies of illusion and artifice used to create an effect of obedience/compliance i.e. the subject hears the screams that are pre-recorded and the audience is located in a place of the scientific observer. He argued that there was no distinction between the presentation of the illusional and real authority and the collapse of representation and enactment was the key element. Further, Rod Dickinson proposed that agency of the person is in a sense suspended or removed from them and their responsibility is also suspended. He explained that the situation in a sense dislocated the subject from their normal habitat – they knew they were taking part in a science experiment that they perceive as beneficial – due to the distance between the subject and the learner/victim (separated by a wall with clear indications to the subject that they are separated).


Thereafter, Rod Dickinson argued that through the lengthy research process for this piece in 2002 he decided to not take the most obvious route – of ‘re-doing’ the experiment – finding new subjects, making new scientific data from a new experiment. Instead, he decided that he wanted to examine the experiment from a different perspective – one afforded by art institution. Hence, this piece took place in the CCA in Glasgow, whose daily business, after all,  is not generating scientific statistics, or data but  to look at and think through processes of representation and mediation.

Dickinson claimed that we can see from the experiment very clearly that it uses strategies of illusion and artifice – drama and staging – to create an effect; to generate a scientific proof. So, for example, most importantly there are no shocks and the man who is apparently receiving shocks in the small booth is an actor, and his screams are prerecorded on a tape recorder. Further, the subject in the experiment hears these screams but does not know they are the prerecorded voice of an actor. Similarly they do not realise that the man in the white coat is also not a scientist and that he is also an actor. The real scientist – Stanley Milgram – is in fact watching the drama unfold from behind the surveillance windows, exactly as the audience to Rod Dickinson’s performance were, for the first time.


Concomitantly, Dickinson argued that in Milgram’s experiment there is NO distinction between the presentation and illusion of authority and real authority and NO distinction between the white coated actor and a real experimenter and this is a rather a key element of the experiment that is often overlooked in discussions.

Subsequently, Dickinson turned the attention on those strategies that the individual in the experiment is subject to (in order to awake his/hers complacency): agency, responsibility, setting/situation, moral purpose, distance, dehumanisation, isolation, derealisation, automation. He argued that all of these things simply cannot be understood via the statistics of the experiment, explaining at the same time, that in the Milgram’s experiment 66% of people were fully compliant – that is they continued administering what they thought were real shocks to the learner until they were told to stop (so they went right up to the maximum 450volts on the shock machine). Dickinson argued that perhaps a more fruitful way to understand the high level of compliance that takes place in front of the shock machine is to examine it dramaturgically: to see and identify with the subject in front of the shock machine and to bear witness to this micro drama that takes place.


Rod Dickinson explained that it is for these reasons that he decided to restage the experiment as a word for word reconstruction, in real time (4hrs) and focusing on these representational strategies in the experiment which have been overlooked by the spectacular statistics that experiment is now famous for.

As an artistic strategy it also allowed him to create this live, visceral experience that was both a direct experience and entirely mediated: mediated first by the original experiment and then once again by the knowledge that original experiment was itself a piece theatre.

Dickinson stated that his hope was that once the audience is placed in the position of witness the complexity and mechanics of the experiment become more evident. He explained that some of Milgram’s statistical 33% of resistors, didn’t resist completely; we might say that they complied slightly less than the majority, but no one walked out of the lab outraged, no one refused to start the experiment and all participants delivered at least135 volts before they resisted enough for the actors to terminate the experiment. Dickinson emphasised that there can also be seen substantial questioning and small acts of resistance from those that were subsequently categorised as complying completely. Hence he argued that Milgram’s own film misrepresents this, and focuses disproportionately on subjects that resisted.


Next, Rod Dickinson dwelled just a little more on the performances that take place in the laboratory. He argued that it’s quite evident that the actors who were playing the scientist and learner or victim were performing – they were paid performers (paid actors) – working for Milgram as part of the theatrical staging of authority that he wanted to create. However, Dickinson illustrated that there are more actors in this drama: the third actor – the subject in front of the shock machine – also plays a role albeit less obviously. Here, Dickinson referred to the psychological and linguistic devices that Milgram put in place to deprive the subject of autonomy and agency, so that they become in Milgram’s words a ‘confederate’ of the actor/scientist, the man in the white coat; they in fact become an operational part of the system that the laboratory and it’s occupants personify (the reference to cybernetic is prominent in this context), arguably performing their role as efficiently as the paid actors. Finally, Dickinson illustrated that more performers can be seen through the surveillance windows – the audience – who were asked to not to leave the performance space for the 4 hour duration of the piece and like the experimental subject, they sat, bored and obedient. Therefore, audience became participants through their passivity.


Thereafter, Rod Dickinson presented a  more recent piece that he performed last summer at a contemporary art space in Amsterdam: a live performance that was based on, and simulated, a government press briefing. This piece was set in a meticulously constructed press conference environment, where two actors delivered a 40 minute script composed solely of fragments of press statements from the Cold War onward (with the speeches drawn from sources as diverse as Lyndon Johnson and Saddam Hussein). The fragments focused on the way in which similar declarations and political rhetoric have been repeated and reused by numerous governments across continents and through the decades to declare states of crisis and justify acts of state sanctioned violence. The fragments are woven together irrespective of context and date – in fact the only change that Rod Dickinson and Steve Rushton made to the original material was to remove any specific mention of people, places and dates BUT their provenance was made simultaneously evident to the audience in the live event via synced autocue text scrolling up a screen off set on both sides of the audience. Dickinson added that in the video installation a synchronized autocue faces the projection screen serving the same function.

Dickinson explained that, just as with the Milgram piece, he was interested in exposing the mechanics of the event – here with the use of these visible autocues (that would normally be small transparent plexiglass) the audience becomes aware that the head movements of the actors – from side to side – are not them making eye contact with all the audience but simply reading from the autocues. By exposing the mechanics of the event, exposing the staging – making the text visible – the audience becomes aware that the head movements are related not to the contact but to the reading of the script. Dickinson pointed out the obvious irony of the fact that that normally, in press briefings, governments use elaborate forms of artifice to make their staging invisible. Further, he explained that this piece was filmed and photographed and the cameras were deliberately in evidence during the event, partly obscuring the audience’s view at times. Dickinson stated that these types of briefing events – often called ‘photo opportunities’ in the 60s and 70s – are clearly staged for the cameras and their liveness is dependant on being mediated.

Consequently, Dickinson proposed that although the focus for current media coverage of conflict is often on the DIY film making techniques used during terror campaigns with journalists embedded with troops on the front line, it is the long established but often overlooked government press briefing that is the primary tool to construct a rationale and morale for conflict in democracies.

Here, he argued that by serving as a focus for civic society it creates, as James W. Carey calls it, a sense of  “mechanical solidarity”, “a sense of membership, similarity, equality, and familiarity” (‘Media, Ritual and Identity’, Routledge, 1998), which in some ways is very resonant of the bond formed between the subject and experimenter in Milgram’s experiment.


Finally, Rod Dickinson proposed that arguably Television and the moving image have long shaped not only how dramatic events such as conflicts and crises are perceived, but also how and if they happen. He argued that the press statement is part of that mechanism, where it is carefully constructed for the template of television and current affairs programmes which disseminate it, and which in turn shape political and social reality. Consequently, Dickinson illustrated that once again we are confronted by a similar feedback loop that is present in the Milgram experiment. In the second example however that loop is configured by television and the media who create a similar sense of distance and abstraction between the politicians and us, the experimental subjects.



Firstly, it was pointed out that he statistical recognition of result in the Milgram experiment hid the resistance and only registered the break off point at the experiment with no acknowledgement of the ‘in-between’.

Secondly, it was proposed that the number of actors in Milgram experiment is larger than anticipated at first. Here, attention was given to the use of tape recorders in the context of a wider problematic recurring through the whole history of simulation as experiment: the decisions about what is part of the simulation and what is not. It was agreed that this is a political choice. Concomitantly, the ideas of when does the simulation begin, when does the network begin and how do you contain the system were considered as cybernetic questions.

Thirdly, some doubts were voiced of whether the Glasgow performance is an experiment on the audience. It was pointed out that after all, there is no reason for them to intervene and we need to unpick what is going on in terms of theatricality and performativity – revealing the theatricality of the original experiment to the audience. Here, it was emphasised that the audience is acting too as the given role is a safe and tame, un-conflicting position for them to be in.

Thereafter, a reference was made to the work of Adorno in terms of aesthetics and violence in order to articulate some arguments regarding the aesthetisation of audience. Here, the issues of discomfort were discussed with an agreement that clean audience is required for such studies.

Finally, playing with the management of our affairs was considered as experimental in terms of  trying to allow people to overcome these effects. In this context, a particular focus was given to the management of affect and aesthetics of the processes as a part of it.