Image credit: The John Doppler Effect
Known for her work as a performance artist, Marina Abramovic has produced many different artworks involving the engagement of both artist and audience. One of her most controversial pieces, Rhythm 0, took this engagement to a whole new level.
Rhythm 0 involved a table with 72 objects laid out on it. The list of items included flowers, a brush, a sheet of white paper, a box of razor blades, a polaroid camera and a gun, etc. The description read “I am the object,” and, “During this period I take full responsibility.” For six hours, Abramovic would be a passive object, and the audience were free to move her and use the objects on her as they pleased. Some of the objects on the table were harmless or even pleasant. Others had the potential to seriously hurt her.
Rhythm 0 reflected performance art as a way to transform both artist and audience. The audience was invited to direct the action and collaborate in art-making. They were no longer mere observers. The art-space was shared by both artist and audience, and entailed objects and agents. However, the twist lay in the inverted relationship between artist and audience: Instead of art being produced by the artist as the agent, the audience has become the agent and has transformed into, to some extent, the artist.
Initially, members of the public were tentative and timid. They started off with repositioning her arms, placing objects on her and taking photographs. As the hours drew on, they became increasingly 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. They 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.”
At the end of the six hours, she stood up – bleeding and in tears, and walked towards her audience. She no longer existed as a ‘thing’ in a particular state of passivity. It was a reminder to the audience that she was very much ‘alive’, just like them. Knowing that Abramovic (as a person with a ‘self’) had been subject to their abuses for the past few hours, the audience scattered immediately. This reaction exposed a fear of facing up to the aftermath of their wretched humanity.
Abramovic believed that confronting physical pain and exhaustion was important in making a person completely present and aware of his or her self.  However, Rhythm 0 pushed the boundaries of morality and its relationship with personhood. To what extent do we treat a person as a ‘person’ (i.e. relational recognition of their ‘self’ with respect to our own) when they are thing-ified? How is morality affected? Abramovic challenges the possibilities of action taken against another person in the face of two things: 1) Absolving the responsibility of the agents, and 2) Her passivity, transforming herself into a mere object.
Responsibility is an important driver in directing people’s actions. However, even if they could not be held responsible, surely they would have felt it against their conscience? I suggest that Abramovic’s passivity was key in emboldening the audience. As far as possible, she turned herself into an object, just like the 72 others laid on the table, and the audience had no qualms inflicting violence on ‘things’.
Image credit: Movie pilot
Rhythm 0 took place in 1974, and the latest season of Black Mirror was released in 2016. However, despite the years between them, there were eerie parallels that can be drawn between Abramovic’s performance art and Black Mirror’s Men Against Fire (S03E06). If you have not already watched the episode, this is a spoiler alert. Black Mirror provides an interesting spin to notions of ‘conscience’ and ‘responsibility’ using technology. The episode is about how soldiers are issued implants, changing their sense of smell and vision. They do not see the goriness or smell the blood upon massacring the ‘enemy’. More importantly, the ‘enemy’ appears to them as subhuman monsters. The plot twist is that these ‘monsters’ are really just humans like the soldiers, and the soldiers are all part of a political ploy to eradicate certain groups of people. They are merely a vehicle for politics through the means of warfare.
Firstly, the dehumanisation of the ‘enemy’ is reminiscent of the ‘thingification’ that goes on in Rhythm 0. When you strip a person of their personhood and objectify them, violence and aggression is easily inflicted. It does not go against conscience because there is no tension to begin with. Secondly, the soldiers have the memory of receiving the implant erased. They do not have to bear the burden of knowing that their conscience has been tampered, making the killing a lot easier.
Both Abramovic’s performance art and Black Mirror invokes important and disturbing questions on humanity and agency. Men Against Fire’s dark themes are speculative fiction, but not without some degree of truth. Rhythm 0 is testament to this. When a person relates to another not as a human of equal standing but as an ‘other’ or an ‘object’, this potentially alters the nature of the relationship. Rhythm 0’s bold foray into these sinister themes is controversial because it is a real-life incident that has revealed the dark possibilities of human action when parameters of responsibility and conscience are tweaked.