Art, Lies and Videotape
In the notorious 1920 "Little Albert Study," J.B. Watson, the founding father of behavioral psychology, conditioned an 11-month-old orphan to fear a pet white rat by repeatedly startling the child with a loud noise. Research photos also show Watson holding a pipe with a terrified infant dangling from it by one hand -- a test of the baby's grasp response. Surprisingly, Watson's academic career came to an end not because of the unethical and sadistic aspects of his research, but because of his affair with his research assistant (with whom he later wrote child-rearing books that advised parents to "never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap"). But Watson really made his mark when he turned his talents to the advertising industry. He sought to draw upon his theories of behavior and tap the consumer animal's emotions of fear, rage and love to better sell products. It's in no small part thanks to Watson that today we endure a constant onslaught of attempted manipulation by everyone from politicians to Hollywood producers to telemarketers.
Artist Lynne McCabe is conducting her own research in manipulation. "The Caledonian Institute for the Study of Interpersonal Relationships presents a series of intimate exchanges hosted by Lynne McCabe" at Lawndale Art Center is an exhibit of videos showing McCabe's interviews with art-scene participants. The questions are pulled from various resources in behavioral science, but McCabe presents them in two different ways -- both truthful, but representing different aspects of her personality. In the first McCabe sells herself as a friend. She's chatty, friendly, warm -- a sweet Irish Catholic girl truly interested in the answers to her questions. In the other, she's a businesslike artist in black executing a conceptual project, encouraging quick, concise answers to her questions. Her interest is in how people respond to the two personae and the level of participation each approach exacts.
McCabe became interested in the ideas of truth and image and trust when she worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland as a video loan counselor. Potential applicants at grocery store bank branches would speak with her via live video feed. For the job, McCabe had to take a monthlong course on body language -- learning both to control hers and to read others' for truthfulness. She was instructed to "paint positive word pictures" and to not say no.
McCabe started developing her current project with a psychology grad student, who later dropped out because of the questionable ethics of working on a "fake" survey. McCabe's work is a conceptual art piece; the institute that provided her with a grant is fictitious. At McCabe's opening reception at Lawndale, volunteers rounded up participants with a "Hey, can you help us out with something?" The recruits filled out an information sheet with e-mail, address and phone number. They posed for a dazed Polaroid portrait and scheduled an interview time. That most people have been conditioned to dutifully provide personal information is disturbing, but it's understandable when you consider the context of a nonprofit arts organization. The assumed level of trust here is higher than at a kiosk in the mall.
The Polaroids are clipped to manila folders hung on the wall, each one stamped "confidential" in red ink. Tiny labels read, "Please do not touch works of art." Because the folders may not be opened, their imagined contents become much more fascinating than what must really be inside.
A monitor in each corner of the room plays the videos. Concurrent shots of the interviewer and the interviewee run opposite each other. In the first series -- with the subjects snuggled in cozy chairs and a relaxed McCabe smiling encouragement -- the exchange becomes an elaborate conversation. In the second series, McCabe crosses her arms, nods impatiently and fires the questions one after another. The subject's answers are shorter and the interaction feels more like an impersonal survey.
McCabe is clearly interested in how the level of information changes according to how she presents herself, but she also simply wonders at the fact that people are so forthcoming. McCabe moved to Houston from Glasgow just over a year ago, and her amazement that people are so open has a cultural basis. Americans freely provide what most of the rest of the world would consider "too much information."
Of course, scientifically, the study falls short. The nature of the project selects for people who are comfortable talking about themselves and appearing on camera. Also, pulling from the attendees at an art opening provides for a pretty specialized sampling. They know that it's an art project, whether or not they buy into any clinical objectivity. It would be interesting to set it up at a socioeconomic crossroads like Wal-Mart.
Even so, the Caledonian project probably wouldn't tell us anything we didn't already know. The participants and their answers are the real reason McCabe's work is interesting. Asked to tell about themselves, the events or details people deem important are as intriguing as the information itself. The participants are mainly women, either because they are stereotypically more comfortable talking about themselves or because fewer men were recruited. And they seem surprised by and interested in their own answers to the questions McCabe poses: Who do you trust and why? Are you happy? Would more money make you happier? Do you believe in love at first sight? What makes you sad? What are your priorities right now? What do you think makes you a good friend?
The videos are compelling for the same reasons a Studs Terkel interview of a spot-welder can glue you to the page. A twentysomething girl tells of love at first sight at Amy's Ice Cream. A man describes his grandfather as an artist and a deadbeat. A woman talks about "finding out who I am." People speak of battling depression and giving up pot. We sense a sadness in a woman who says she went from international sales to being a homemaker at her husband's insistence. There is enchantment and disenchantment with religion. One woman works with a company that launches human cremains into space. This is where the nonconversational interviews get frustrating. Conceptual agenda aside, how can you resist following up on that answer? Screw the project -- we want to know more about these people. The videos are fascinating because people are inherently fascinating; provocative questions just help reveal it. As viewers, we evaluate their performances: Are they truthful, guarded, relaxed? We catch glimpses of underlying pain in someone and want to console them. We realize the flaws of our initial judgments as someone who at first seems superficial reveals a thoughtful depth.
The project has an additional local appeal: If you're involved in the Houston art community, you'll know or will have seen many of the project's participants. Finding out who believes in God and why or what someone wanted to be when she grew up is doubly intriguing. There's an exploitative aspect to the process, but the subjects are complicit. McCabe handles things fairly sensitively, asking if there is anything they regret saying, and then offering the option to edit it out. The questions she asks are revealing, but not in a spill-your-guts way (although some people are inclined to do so anyway). The inquiries speak more to attitudes and values than deep, dark secrets.
McCabe is an empathetic artist and thankfully unable/unwilling to pull off the clinical rigor of J.B. Watson and company. The project has a life of its own and wanders off from its stated objectives as the subjects steal the show. In the end, the humanistic wins over the pseudoscientific.
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