Portraits of Artists 35

Michael Clegg in Conversation with Martin Guttmann

Martin Guttmann: Recently we found out about a body of literature written in the late fifties by sociologists, who wanted to start sociology again, so to speak, to try to take it back to its roots and to understand the basic mechanisms that govern people's everyday behaviour. And in order to do that, they devised a whole series of experiments that tried to test what happens when the basic conventions that govern the everyday behaviour are broken. So let's talk a little bit about this type of experiment.

Michael Clegg: Another kind of work that we started to look at, in relation to the sociological material, was material from the show, the American show, that started in the fifties, "Candid Camera", by the producer Allan Funt. Now this show has been repeated in the fifties, the sixties, seventies, in fact up to the eighties. And we noticed a very interesting relation between these two bodies of work. And, as time passed by, we started to get mixed up between them.

MG: You have experiments that try to test people's sensitivity to the personal space. They checked actually how long does it take for a person to react to an intrusion by another person, to violation of this invisible space that people have around them. A person sits in the park, and then another person sticks their hand, and when it gets to a certain distance, then they measure the amount of time that it takes the person to leave and go and try to find another place to sit. Or another thing that they did, was to try to see what happens when the basic mechanisms of conversations are broken down. The father comes home and the wife greets him, and he doesn't say anything, children say "Hi!" and he doesn't say anything. After a while, there is a measurable type of anxiety that is produced. And this type of phenomenon was investigated in a semi-rigorous way.
A very similar type of thinking occurred in the "Candid Camera" episode of the same time. And you really see how the same type of cognitive interest in the mechanisms that create everyday behaviour is present also in popular entertainment.

MC: It was interesting to see really certain trends, certain, in fact, surprising trends that were present on behalf of the intentions, the inexplicit intentions, on the side of the experimentors in the case of sociology, on the side of the producers in the case of the "Candid Camera". Now what we think about is, of course, this kind of sadistic behaviour that is present there, or the kind of set up situation that is neutralized in the case of the sociology, it's less transparent, that's obvious. But on the side of the "Candid Camera" it's definitely part of the structure, because the audience knows what's the joke. And the guy who the joke is on doesn't know that.

MG: There was a famous experiment that started the whole train of thought in sociology about the ethics of experimentation. There was a sociologist who tried to measure how long it takes people to urinate as a function of how near was the nearest person standing next to them. So he was hiding inside the booth in a public toilet, and he was measuring with a stopwatch, he was sitting there with a stopwatch, and he was measuring the amount of time from when he heard the zipper opening till he heard that there was some liquid in the urinal. And this research created quite a stir and the question was really whether this type, whatever result you can learn from such an experiment, really warrants the whole set-up that they produce and the fact that people's privacy was violated, etc. . But of course the most important discussion was created from the Milgram experiment. That was a little bit later.

MC: I think in the eighties, Alan Funt who was still the American producer of the "Candid Camera", he'd followed the series all those years and kind of adapted it to the different needs and to the different, in fact, possibilities of presenting material. So what Martin was referring to before in the experiment with urination was really obviously something that could not have been done and still can not be presented on American TV, although, in a certain sense, it's kind of prime material. But, perhaps more closely related, it would be like stuff with sexual experimentation, the stuff that was done in Playboy with this kind of typical "How would you react to the naked lady?" – That you're sitting in the office, and the wall collapses behind you, and, low and behold, there's a woman who is barely dressed. What would you do? What would you say to her?

MG: And generally you see really how people's curiosity is changing through the years. You look at the fifties, and you really see, people are interested in the changing population. So a lot of the episodes from the fifties were based on the behaviour of immigrants, people who don't speak English very well. There was a consistent preoccupation with shop-owners who don't speak English or people who go to the store and don't speak the language. That was very typical of the early episode. And then, when the sexual revolution begins, then there are those episodes, like the ones Michael was talking about, that try to explore people's sexual behaviour. So you can really see how in "Candid Camera" there is a reflection of what people find curious and interesting and what type of behaviour they really would like to be investigating.

MC: There was a very long experiment that was, in fact, about investigation of the habits of garbage disposal of people; investigated, followed for about ten years the habits of the one particular community on a very systematic basis. How they did it, I don't actually know, but they just followed the contents of the garbage. They just looked every day, enumerated the items, and then compared them, and kind of created a library of disposable materials and indexed it.

MG: And this was enormously expensive. They had to build special coolers, huge coolers, in order to house the garbage before it was sorted out. And it really cost in the neighbourhood of tens of millions of dollars. And somebody was sufficiently curious to actually think that the taxpayer should pay for things like that.

MC: What we wanted to do is to take the sociological texts and to try and apply them to "Candid Camera" episodes and to actually really give them as a kind of a script. We tried to write a few of those scripts; we tried to propose them to a particular production company in Munich. And that was really difficult for them to do it, but one can imagine easily, that this material could be cross-reference or available in two different formats.

MG: It's also quite interesting to think about early Pop in the same term. Early Pop also started exactly in the same time, between the mid- and late fifties. And when Rauschenberg took his bed and put it in the museum, you can really think about it precisely along the same line as breaking of expectation, as an idea of just looking at something that has no artistic value, and try to look at it as art. And indeed at the time that was precisely how people thought about it. The famous bed of Rauschenberg was looked at as a continuation of Marcel Duchamp's readymades. It is a little bit difficult for us to see it in these terms, but that's exactly how people looked at it at the time. And again, it's the same idea of at the same time a lot of curiosity about people's behaviour and a feeling that by breaking the expectation you can learn a lot about how people feel and how they react, how they behave, etc.

MC: It is also always interesting to find like who is the joke really on, in a sense, because what was implicit in the "Candid Camera" presentation always is the potential threat that was made on the viewer. They always said you can be the one who will be next or maybe you are right now the one who the joke is being played on. And this sort of made was a kind of the way that this became more palatable, more acceptable maybe to viewers to accept their own inclination to these sadistic structures.

MG: And you can see more or less at the same time, in the fifties, a lot of other things that were developed more or less along the same line. In France there were Situationists who again tried to apply ideas of the Surrealists in a slightly more direct way, and rather than just sitting at home and fantasizing, they actually went out and tried to get more involved directly in the stream of people in the urban environment. And it's even interesting to think about some development in philosophy, in the ordinary language philosophy in the fifties, is a reaction that has a lot of similarities to the other things that we've been talking about – rather than fixating on a very rigid description of language in formal terms, to try to actually derive the categories from observation of the way people use everyday language. That again happened more or less at the same time, I think, "Philosophical Investigation" was published in '53, which is again the same type of period.

MC: So, if you're asking yourself why or in which way did we really use in our work this, what is the source of our own fascination in "Candid Camera", and to compare it to sociology or to think about – what Martin was just proposing now – the extension to see it in Popper, to see it in philosophy. So this became a model for us that could be applied in different ways. It could be applied as a mechanism that the choices we can really think about or, in fact, observe the world in different ways – that we don't necessarily have to think in particular rigid categories. And it's interesting to examine particular cultural phenomena across the board, and we can get a lot of information about how particular restrictions in fact can masquerade certain contents in it. For example, if we think about, how much information one gets about the way sociologists think, if one wants to think about it, it can mean tricks of producers, and so on.

MG: So we were fascinated by the possibility that our work could provide a point of view that was a lot wider than the one that one can really commonly expect, because this point of view could span a variety of cultural form and, by emphasizing the parallels, you can really see how – not just what happens in one form – but how the whole culture spans different variations of a basic theme. This, we felt, could be a good methodology for us, for something that we can expect our art to do.

(Vienna, January 1995)