Reality 0 — What We Can Learn From This Terrifying Experiment


The following article contains images and depictions of violence that may be upsetting to some readers.

In 1974, artist Marina Abramović staged a performance art piece titled Rhythm 0. She stood motionless in an art gallery for exactly 6 hours. To the side stood a table bearing dozens of objects, each selected for their associations with pain or pleasure: a whip, honey, grapes, a feather, knives, lipstick, a camera, a scalpel, a rose, a gun… and a single bullet.

Rhythm 0 - Marina Abramović

A placard on the table described the performance.

Rhythm 0

There are 72 objects on the table that can be used on me as desired.

I am the object. During this time I take full responsibility.

Rhythm 0 - Marina AbramoviAbramovićAudience members were modest and timid at first, repositioning her arms, using the items nervously.

Then they became more bold. They placed objects on her. They took pictures of her and posed her with the photographs. They played with her body.

Then they became aggressive. They poured oil on her head. They pricked her with the thorns of the rose. They cut her clothing. They cut her. One participant actually licked her blood.

Marina Abramović at gunpointThey carried her around the room half-naked, then put her on a wooden table and stabbed a knife into the table between her legs.

One participant put a bullet in the gun and pointed it at her head, and held it there, finger on the trigger, until another audience member eventually pushed the gun away.

Throughout the performance, Abramović remained passive. She later described it as six hours of horror: “If you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.”

Rhythm 0 - Marina AbramovicAt the end of the six hours, the curator announced that the performance was concluded. Abramović stood up, tears in her eyes, blood dripping from her neck, and walked towards the audience.

The audience scattered. Nobody wanted to confront the active, animated version of the passive figure they had been abusing.

For me, this performance art is a powerful demonstration of what happens when people are given the message that it’s acceptable to denigrate a human being. Humanity is cruelest when presented with a passive victim, and that’s why would-be oppressors first seek to silence their targets.

Let’s face an unpleasant and inescapable fact: empathy is not humanity’s default mode of operation. Left to its own entropy, a culture inevitably loses its grip on compassion and descends into hatred and oppression.

It takes dedicated effort to counter that descent.

In recent years, a series of high-profile incidents have helped to peel back the veneer of the tech, publishing, and gaming industries, revealing the squirming rot at their core. In each case, these incidents would have been ignored had it not been for people with the courage to speak out and confront the abusers, to push back against the idea that it’s okay to demean others.

As Abramović’s performance 40 years ago shows, society will always do its worst to a passive victim. But when the abusers find that their victim is no longer a passive object, that she’s stepping forward to confront them face to face, their taste for confrontation suddenly vanishes.

About John Doppler

Author, cruciverbalist, serial hobbyist... John Doppler blends science, art, and humor into a delicious smoothie of chaotic evil.
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  1. Neurological science over the past couple of years suggest one area of the brain – the right supramarginal gyrus – is linked to empathy and another – the right amygdala – is linked to selflessness.

    It would be interesting to know if people who theory suggests are empathic and selfless would act any differently in a repeat of Rhythm 0 (which would mean society can choose compassion as a new default), or whether the degrading context is a force too powerful to endure, no matter what the intent or character of the individual.

    If it’s the former, there’s hope. If it’s the latter, the Lord of the Flies is inevitable when there’s freedom without responsibility, no matter what.

  2. It is a mistake to draw conclusions from one small experiment. If the same results would appear in different countries, different populations then – maybe.

    What people thought looking at these pain inducing items? Maybe the motivation was ‘these things are here for a reason, artist want to feel most of them’ and not pure intention to hurt other human being.

    On the other hand, Stanford prison and Milgram experiments showed similar results. Humans are dangerous when they get control over others.

    At last, if you look at genocide history, it seems we are abusive instantly we have too much power.

What are your thoughts?