The Stanford Prison Experiment

In the spirit of spontaneity, as below, I undertook an impulsive approach to research this morning. Visiting Camberwell to collect something briefly, I decided to look at the CD section of the charity shops on my way to college and select the first album that stood out to me: a self-titled album by California pop-punk band Stanford Prison Experiment, named after an experiment conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971 to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison guards, and named as such after the band’s lead saw a video of the experiment while working in the audiovisual department of UCLA.


Immediate thought jumps to the strange, once-removed nature of namesake projects such as this, and the relationship between the experiment and the final product, and so continued the happenstance research into the original, leading first to this documentary video.

This short documentary shows Limbardo explaining the orchestration of a mock prisoner / guard situation in the basement of the university, and the construction of a strange, almost clichéd guard character — complete with mirrored aviators — that would seem ridiculous in even a narrative movie.

The video touches on the well-known Milgram experiment on obedience to authority, which saw participants willing to put others in pain when commanded — or have responsibility taken away from them — by a figure of authority. The Stanford experiment looked further into the acquisition of roles, an idea set up by the Milgram experiment’s teacher-pupil set up, whereby those in positions of power and authority — the guards— independently came to behave in ways that would humiliate and dehumanise those in the prisoner role. Interestingly it also touches on the separate but connected role of those involved AS participants, subjects with independent thought acknowledging their part in the system the experiment had fabricated, and indeed that it WAS a fabrication, and how they used this as a means of manipulating factors to achieve a desired, or perceived desired, outcome.

Obviously intended as a microcosm of wider societal power structures, the latter point — of participants knowledge and even acknowledgement of the existence and make up of particular structures, and the part they play in those structures — is vital when considering something like a catalyst for change. It reminds me of a point made in conversation between documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis and comedian Russell Brand in a podcast last week, that the mass population simply don’t have time outside of work, family commitments, to educate themselves as to the position they find themselves in. A similar point to one i highlighted recently by Susan Sontag about the philistinism of wider society. The message from Curtis, one mentioned numerous times during this and other conversations, was that it was the journalist or documentary filmmaker’s job to consume this information, and distil it into a digestible narrative. By doing so, and by making it entertaining, the audience would be more willing to watch, engage and even consider things much more complex or even horrific than they would any other way.

Mid Point Review: Reflection

Feedback from discussion. Reflection on feedback.

  • The aesthetic quality of the mini DV camera footage immediately recognised, and suggestion of a development of the aesthetic nostalgia the likes of Super-8 footage. This is something I’ve identified and articulated before, that our perception of nostalgia for the aesthetics of media aren’t quite as clear cut as film/digital, or even film/tape/digital. It reminded me of something included in my original project proposal about the aesthetic vernaculars of accessible media – of how you can identify if an image was taken with a blackberry camera being a quite specific example – and how this adds a layer onto the image being recorded and later presented, and as such are techniques that can be utilised in an intentional way to imbue certain kinds of meaning or messaging. 
  • Footage identified as “provocative”. This is obviously something I’m aware of, however I was surprised by quite the level of prudishness, that a close up of an inner thigh in fishnets or a topless woman (who was in actual fact a topless man) dancing was seen as provocative.
  • The ‘relic’ nature of the cement and ceramic CDs recognised, and a comment about the fragility of it’s appearance was mentioned – bits breaking off. The fragile aspect of this was only very passively intentional, but I like that the medium can have such an affect, and that my intention to render the object in a number of different materials (3D print, glass, plastic, etc.) without changing the object in any other way, that that consistency can actually allow a more subtle comparison than if I were to make radically different obejects.
  • How will the documentary approach of SS Richard Montgomery project differ or connect to the style of the prison project. The approach of the prison project was, intentionally and as a result of external factors, very direct and blunt in its telling of the story, with only three real components: incidental footage, audio, and a subtitled narration. For this next project I’ve definitely identified a much wider range of variables to change, and a greater subtly with which to do so in order to achieve a more harmonious message. For sound, for instance, I plan to experiment with score, incidental sound, narration and recorded dialogue, separately and together; for visuals I plan to experiment with colouring/grading, speed, more varied formats of cut, varying media with which to capture, etc.
  • My interest in the tension created by the wreckage’s existence, the sense of impending doom, referenced to the Sword of Damocles – an ancient moral story about the ever-present peril faced by those in positions of power or privilege. This interestingly is something that is referenced in a favourite documentary of mine, Countdown to Zero, which I find such a compelling watch due to the sense of urgency is creates through fairly simple documentary format subtly manipulated to create an atmosphere. My intention all along has been to make work that both highlights need for progress or change, and it’s interesting that this interest I had identified as something quite separate has the potential to act as a driving force for this purpose.
  • In response to my idea of a the modern-day gesamtkunstwerk, a “creation of multiples” that make up a single project, how will these separate components connect to one another? By using the music album-driven subject, and all that surrounds that topic, I feel conceptually the varied components are tied together n quit an obvious way, but it’s interesting that this might not be so? Also I think it’s key for me to explore how the materials and formats might connect. Is there some element of the life showing of this within a gallery setting that can connect to, incorporate or create a dialogue with an element outside of this – of its online presence or the material takeaways I make? This is probably the element I’m struggling most with, as any research into more high-tech material formats really feel like a distraction from something that to me feels quite human. Maybe interactivity ties into the immersive, barrage-like quality I want to achieve, while still tapping into that human element? Perhaps a starting point for research. 
  • Again, an undercurrent of a feeling of doom or darkness, or an attempt to unearth those things, identified throughout the projects I have done and the interests I have expressed. I talk about and project this aspect of my personality in a fairly tongue-in-cheek way, but I’m slightly concerned this leads to an analysis of work I make, or of me as the hands behind the work, as caricaturish, or naïve. I find work that takes itself too seriously, that pushes a point with too much of a straight face is much less effective in articulating a message, but this aspect of work I make, and huge influence on my interests, is very much influenced by real, personal and serious aspects of my identity and a by product of an attempt to make sense of and articulate those things. Is this something I should be more vocal about, if possible to do so while maintaining a jovial tone in line with my personality? And, again, do the three areas of my final project I discussed fit together, or exist separately? Their point is to exist separately, while connecting in every direction under a conceptual umbrella. Getting this to a place where it is seemless and so obvious it needn’t really be considered is vital if it’s to work.
  • There was identified an ambiguity in the visuals I showed – what is the audience actually seeing (in particular reference to the gender ambiguity of a lot of the subjects). “What am I watching?”
  • A connection between sound and visuals, and the emotional response or tension that can be created from such a combination.
  • On the ambiguity, is it necessary to understand what the viewer is watching, or is there a power n that ambiguity? Does this allow the audience to project meaning onto images that may seem without meaning or be merely suggestive?
  • The presence of ‘visual cues’ used as a means of provoking the viewer’s inquisitive nature, again questioning: “What am I watching? What does it mean?”
  • Can images be random with no context? Can the “barrage” of imagery I referenced exist within a recognisable context?
  • Again, the idea that a narrative can be created or implied at using atmosphere. Interestingly an idea I’ve considered for some time, and that is extremely pertinent to the provocative and immersive nature of work I want to make, but perhaps not something I have articulated in this way for some time.
  • The work was described as being so ecclectic and varied you can’t see me behind the images, but made as a positive point, because perhaps this allows for a certain ‘distance’ from the material to exist – the idea of the documentarian as providing an outside perspective.
  • The possibility that the “three-pronged” approach might allow for differing levels of closeness to the project. Can one be something quite intimate and personal, as the CD case was identified as being, and another distant and more objective an outlook, as the video was seen as being?Interestingly the arena of social media has been useful n testing out the effectiveness of work continuing. With numerous tests –

Ripe Ventilation: Empty Endemic (Album Artwork Part I)

Beginning with the found photos I unearthed today, I started making fake album art work for the fake bands I made up using an online band name generator – a tool I also utilised in making album names. Below are three examples for Ripe Ventilation: Empty Endemic

Takeaways III

I finally have the results of the first practice-research around my takeaways, an artefact representing the CD album in cement. I made a negative mould of the interior of an old CD case using air drying modelling clay – focusing online on the actually part of the inner casing that holds the CD. I then very roughly lined this with cling film and poured in fairly think quick-setting cement. The materials meant that the result has a varied, almost skin-like texture that adds to its fragile appearance – dry, brittle and cracked with loose pieces scattered around. Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 15.54.06

I intended on creating the entire object, but the dismantled and incomplete nature of the result adds to the feeling of this as some relic of the past. I may try also to somehow recreate the front cover in similar means and present together.

I also plan to continue this as a series in various materials. Next I plan to have both front and back covered scanned and 3D printed. I’m also looking into the possibilities of somehow having the shapes cast in some kind of metal or glass.