Israel, a nation that emerged as the product of a vision (Theodor Herzl’s) and a nightmare (Adolf Hitler’s), is amongst the most psychologically complex societies in the world. ‘Evil to the Core’, an exhibition built on the resources of experimental psychology, was an inquiry into the proximate themes of obedience, power, authority and resistance. The exhibition opened with ‘I Am Here’ (2005), David Tartakover’s photographic series of Israeli anti-occupation protests, shot in a series of West Bank locations. Tartakover makes an appearance in each of the images, taken at his behest by the photographers Ziv Koren and Alex Levac, wearing an orange emergency services jacket that states ‘Artist’ on the back (in the place of the more traditional label ‘Press’). It’s hard to tell whether Tartakover was actually there, or whether his presence is owed to the magic of Photoshop. Either way, the pictures assert the identity of the artist as witness.
A similar role is embodied by the videographer and painter David Reeb in his documentary video Ni’ilin 1.5.2009 (2009). Displayed alongside Bougainvillea (2009), Reeb’s painting depicting a scene from his video, the work is shot in Ni’ilin, the West Bank village in which the artist himself was recently shot and wounded. The footage captures a group of protesting Israeli and Palestinian activists jointly confronting soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) occupying a Palestinian house. The soldiers shoot randomly from the rooftop, while protesters murmur variations of the line: ‘You have no shame.’ One group performs its morals; the other its training. The former seem impotent, the latter indifferent. The suggestion is a strange co-dependence, being mounted theatrically for some inscrutable gaze.
While Reeb’s and Tartakover’s works mix art and politics, the exhibition’s third axis was science, presented here as an archive of psychological studies. Amongst the works shown were the 2008 BBC documentary Total Isolation, case footage of Philip Zimbardo’s The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971), Stanley Milgram’s Obedience (1961) and the ABC news documentary Eye of the Storm (1970), about an experimentally minded Texan teacher who, in the midst of the American civil rights movement, tested her elementary school class by telling them brown-eyed people were better than blue-eyed people. It would be problematic to repeat this kind of pedagogical gesture today, at the risk of inciting a Health and Safety-themed crackdown, but art offers cover; notably, the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments have both been restaged as art works in the last several years.
In 2005, Artur Z˙mijewski re-enacted Zimbardo’s experiment in Warsaw for the now well-known work Repetition (2005), in an attempt to test the Stanford Prison Experiment’s original findings by hiring unemployed Polish men to assume the roles of prisoners and guards. But what really were those findings? Writing in the wake of Abu Ghraib, in a well-timed book tie-in, Zimbardo posited the existence of an institutionally generated ‘Lucifer Effect’ through which (to restate his subtitle) good people turned evil. But his original experiment, lacking stable controls or a central hypothesis, was too imprecisely designed to identify how this occurred, besides restating the truism that power corrupts. Repetition repeats this methodological vagueness, while adding a staginess (abundant cameras, commercial editing) that resembles reality television.
The clinical coldness of Milgram is almost refreshing by contrast. In 1961, the same year Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist constructed a theatre of mirrors to demonstrate how expert authority supersedes individual conscience. Participants were invited to administer electric shocks to unseen volunteers, apparently in order to test the relationship between pain and memory. Two-thirds of the test subjects proved willing to administer massive 450-volt shocks. Three decades later, in 2002, Rod Dickinson devised The Milgram Re-Enactment, adapting Milgram’s documentation for the stage, reproducing the costumes, gestures, props and accents found in the original case footage. Along with that footage, ‘Evil to the Core’ features a copy of Dickinson’s own video documentation, as well as a copy of his set. Both are uncannily, tangibly, creepy.
Eyal Danon, a curator at the Israeli Center for Digital Art, has coined the term ‘pre-enactment’ to describe (and prescribe) how experimental dress rehearsals can play out in the real world. ‘Evil to the Core’ proposes this notion explicitly with respect to Detroit. Built near Ze’elim in the south of the country, Detroit was an IDF-built Arab-Grade village, complete with spindling minarets, intended to serve as a training ground for the invasion of Gaza. The exhibition featured a map of the site, allegedly found abandoned at the edge of the base, along with Amir Yatziv’s video, Detroit (2009), in which various baffled experts attempt to deduce its urban logic. Further illustration is provided by commercial photos of the minarets (or their models) lit by a lurid green light.
The fact that the IDF has the resources to simulate a whole city spotlights the problem of scale that politicized art practice faces. In Israel, the issue is exacerbated by the experimental condition of the nation itself as one of the few surviving Modernist projects. The exhibition’s final work is Noam Gelbart’s short video Experiment 5.6.5/10 (2009), a well-crafted, fictional animation tracking the results of an experiment in which a group of volunteers are asked to subject themselves to a set of irrational and arbitrary restrictions, including special diets, certain dress codes and traditional gender roles. After six weeks, following the rise of a charismatically unshaven ‘teacher’ figure who radicalizes his followers, the study spins out of control and the experimenters are liquidated. The video ends in a burst of glitchy computer noise. An analogous fate for Israel is an ongoing national possibility. Meanwhile, ‘Evil to the Core’ was a boldly conceived and complex exhibition, combining theoretical depth with immediate visceral impact.