This project examines how people react to stimuli under the influence of hypnosis. I was interested to see how an audience would respond to one of my video narratives after their conscious state had been altered, presenting the possibility that the work can operate on a number of different levels simultaneously – depending on who views it.
Interview with Doug Fishbone
Description/ summary of the work, thoughts on the work:
I filmed a group of 12 people, all of whom had been hypnotized by a professional stage hypnotist, as they watched a new video work I made using a range of subliminal images and other kinds of prompts. Each member of the audience was given specific suggestions while under trance, instructing them to behave in certain ways at different visual and aural cues. They were then woken, and filmed as they viewed the video.
The results were remarkable, and there are some very unusual moments where people responded without any self-consciousness whatsoever. Moreover, after the experiment, some of the members of the audience had no recollection of what had happened. Their reactions raise a broad range of questions about manipulation and behavioral conditioning, and the relativity of perception and understanding. How natural are our responses? How predisposed are we to respond in certain ways, and how easily can our perceptions and reactions be influenced by forces beyond our conscious awareness?
Could you please tell us something about yourself and your artistic background?
I am a film/video and performance artist based in London, originally born in New York. My educational background was originally in music, and before becoming interested in the visual arts I worked in the music industry in a number of capacities, including as an assistant to Luciano Pavarotti’s manager in New York. I came to London to do my MA at Goldsmiths, which I received in 2003, and have been living and working in London since then. My work is very much influenced by the rhythms of stand-up comedy, which I use as a strategy to address some quite elaborate and involved notions in an accessible and hopefully engaging way.
Tell us something about the initial idea and the work process.
I had come across something called EMDR, a form of psychotherapy that uses repeat exposure to imagery, at a rapid pace, to influence peoples’ phobias and this led me to consider how advertising and PR might use similar tactics of association and saturation to create subconscious attitudes and manipulate consumer behavior. Hypnosis seemed like a good terrain to explore, given its accessibility as a form of stage-entertainment.
I wanted to apply the experiment to a test audience to whom I exhibited one of my own video works, and see how easily they might be manipulated – a kind of double manipulation, I suppose, as the piece itself is quite aggressive, and then made even more so by being watched under hypnosis.
I found an excellent hypnotist, who was unsure if what I wanted to do would work, but was willing to give it a go, and we screened candidates to find people susceptible to being hypnotized. After that, we put them under, gave them all kinds of suggestions as to how to respond to different stimuli embedded in the video I was planning to show them, and then filmed them as they watched. The results were quite amazing, and surprised both me and my hypnotist. As hypnosis is generally a verbal form of interaction, he was unsure if rapid visual stimuli would work on the subconscious mind. They seemed to work quite effectively. What that might imply about how easily we can be manipulated by the big business/media establishment is potentially quite frightening.
How did you make your choices concerning cutting, music etc?
This piece has no music, and relies on my voice-over narration and certain sound effects to trigger responses in the viewers. The visual component of the film had two strands – the audience whom I filmed, and the video presentation they watched while hypnotized. I wanted a quite flat, restrained feel to the footage of the audience itself, as though they were under observation, with the camera following individuals at specific moments of interest, or sitting back and capturing the entire group, with a natural rhythm based on what actually happened while we were filming. That portion was filmed with 2 cameras.
The other portion, the video presentation, was composed of hundreds of images selected from the internet, and carefully woven into a narrative and visual tapestry with a voice-over narration. It aims to overload the viewer, yet is quite carefully and classically constructed, from a rhetorical standpoint, and quite manipulative in its own right. Some of the images are quite shocking, and they are combined in ways that undermine the familiar way of reading mass media imagery, while creating their own logic as a kind of poetic, visual rhetoric in their own right.
Looking back – would you have done something different if known before?
Initially, I had no idea if I would be able to manipulate my test audience effectively. Had I known how powerful it would turn out to be as a set of conditions, I would have perhaps manipulated the audience much more, in more elaborate and dramatic ways. With more time, I could have created a more symphonic set of behaviors in the audience – people interacting and playing off each other in all kinds of different ways, perhaps more physically outrageous, and so on.
As it was, I set the parameters of the experiment a little bit off the cuff, deciding in the moment of filming what I would instruct people to do, and when. We did not have a great deal of time to operate, as people only stay hypnotized for so long. We then let the experiment unfold, shot a few takes, and that was that. In retrospect, I might keep working with the audience over a longer time frame to calibrate their responses in a more rigorous, over-the-top manner. If I was able to create the effects I did with moderate coaching in one afternoon, it is amazing to think what one might be able to do working with a test group for a week, for instance. I am not sure whether that would be ethical, or even legal, but it could make for something quite intriguing.
To be honest, though, that might appear a bit too overly contrived, and I am happy with how the project came out. There was an unpredictability and sense of naturalness to it, in a strange way, as it was – albeit a completely manipulated, artificial one.
On what new project are you working at the moment?
I recently shot a feature film in Ghana, in which I (a white American) starred in the lead role in an otherwise completely African melodrama made with a cast of well-known Ghanaian celebrities. I was intrigued to see what would happen if I inserted myself into an alternate cinematic universe with no explanation, and see if the audience would accept such an unusual gesture in a popular film. Basically, I played a part that would normally be played by a black African actor – as a local Ghanaian farmer with a black wife and child – without ever explaining why the character is played by a white guy speaking with a totally wrong accent for the context. Everything is wrong in that regard, but it is treated as if it is completely normal.
I was curious to see if, after a brief time, people might put aside the racial issue and accept the drama according to its own logic, on its own terms. I was influenced by the idea of casting in opera, where the individual identity of a given singer is subordinated to the execution of the role itself. It is not considered relevant or problematic if it would make no literal sense as a representation – ie, a black singer or a Chinese singer can sing a role, in a Mozart opera, or whatever, without it being a black or Chinese character as such. A black woman singing Madame Butterfly, who is a Japanese character within the drama, is nothing out of the ordinary. Popular media like film rarely seem to tolerate much ambiguity, though, and I like to examine that. This film is centered around an entirely ambiguous act of casting for the lead role, yet never once acknowledges it. I will be launching it in Ghana soon, and curious to see what the audience makes of it.