Sensory deprivation installation

Between 2 and 11 May 2006, the Centre hosted a sensory deprivation installation. The installation was open to staff, students and the general public and was concerned with sensory deprivation techniques. In particular those techniques employed by the British Forces in the period of internment in Northern Ireland, the ever increasing reports of torture generated by the 'war on terror', together with medical research on sensory deprivation conducted by Harvard Medical School and McGill University.

The installation

Sensory_deprivationThe artist utilised different elements of the research experiments whilst considering their different application within the work, as well as making up some elements of her own. In this way, she hoped to produce a new kind of sensory deprivation procedure which would simultaneously deprive and overload the senses by virtue of spatial arrangements, film, sound and light.

The work resulted in two separate isolation chambers. The walls were made of fabric to prevent any feeling of stability or familiarity. The first chamber involves film and "cue factors" and the second chamber employs the use of paintings, lights and a timer mechanism. Once the viewer has engaged in both chambers, the "experimentation conditions" are deemed complete.

About the artist

Artist biography: Catherine Meredith

Catherine Meredith has a law degree from King's College and is currently studying for an LLM at LSE, specialising in human rights law. She also has a strong interest in art. Before taking a law degree, she took a foundation diploma in art and design and has continued to make work since then. Her work has largely consisted of paintings but has changed as a result of her interest in the way in which people respond to their environments and the way their perceptions may be modified. These areas of interest lend themselves more readily to 3D and new media. In art, as well as law, Catherine is interested in human conduct and the effect of politics and rules that govern or affect how we live our lives. She writes;

'Some of my work (and the installation is a good example of this) consolidates my legal knowledge in one sense but in another allows me to think beyond it and deal with variables often excluded by law - eg feelings, thoughts and emotions. Perhaps, human rights attempt to explain such themes (for example, freedom of thought, conscience and religion) but unsatisfactorily. Therefore there seems no reason why we should not cross-reference our knowledge and experience of the world around us: consequently, perhaps art, literature and culture may provide tools to help us explain or describe what we mean by human rights.

Background and research

The installation is designed to disorientate or confuse by means of a sensory deprivation procedure. There have been four bodies of research into sensory deprivation which have had an important bearing on this work.

The Five Techniques

Experiments conducted by McGill University in 1958 into sensory deprivation were of prime importance to the research. These tests paved the way for governmental use of sensory deprivation techniques as a means of interrogation, as seen, for example, with the internment of IRA suspects by the British forces. This policy was challenged before the European Court in Ireland v UK (1979 - 80) 2 EHRR 25. The techniques employed included sleep and food deprivation, hooding, wall-standing and being subjected to white noise. They could bring about mental, physical and moral breakdown, and in the extreme, even change a person's character beyond recognition, yet the techniques were not found to constitute torture.

Social Cue Factors

Secondly, research into sensory deprivation techniques conducted by Harvard Medical School found that "social cue factors" such as the presence of doctors, panic buttons, trays of medication and the like induced a belief that something bad was occurring or was likely to occur. Depending on the tests used and the disposition of the participant, effects included difficulties in concentration, mild hallucinations or disorientation.

Obedience to Authority

Thirdly, Stanley Milgram sought to answer whether Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust carried out inconceivably evil acts simply on the orders of others. He tested the practical aspects of obedience and found "extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority".

Behavioural Disorders - Commonplace Usage of Sensory Deprivation

Contrary to the above findings, sensory deprivation techniques have been found, in a therapeutic context, to have a relaxing effect on participants and have been used as a form of treatment for certain behavioural disorders. This research however, enabled the artist to think of "torturous" conditions in everyday life in order to circumvent a purely literal interpretation in the work.

The above research, in its different forms led to the conclusion that people can be manipulated by means of tests, including false tests. The artist wanted to see if she could change the way a person feels simply by engaging with an art work. Whilst she realised that it might not be possible to pinpoint what those feelings are exactly, the ultimate aim was to bring about disorientation or confusion.

Bringing about disorientation

Disparate elements within the installation, either separately or cumulatively bring about disorientation.

The first chamber plays with the theme of control and is designed to place the viewer in a position of vulnerability. Participants are instructed to do as the 'doctor' says and normally people carry out these out obediently, even though there are no sanctions for non-compliance. This is based on the Milgram and Harvard tests and induces a belief that something bad will happen. The intention is to bring this belief about via the installation environment, the "doctor", tests and unpleasant noise.

The tests seen in the film are completely fictitious but put together in a certain way to play on feelings of anxiousness. The images are not in themselves frightening but appear unusual and the frequency with which the tests pass, repeat, flicker and reverse builds anxiety and is designed to take the viewer out of their comfort zone. Some people may believe the tests to be a form of subliminal messaging, particularly if the words used on the screen are seen to be part of some design. Others see them as an unusual but random collection.

The gloves, goggles, headphones and cramped environment again play on control - the participant is forced to take an unnatural physical position. The arms are outstretched above one's heads, caught between supporting themselves in mid air and the feeling that they can hang within the gloves. This opens the subject up to a feeling of helplessness, especially in the event of a perceived shock. The participant is forced to look down to the screen, well below eye level, through goggles which have an almost blurring effect. The noise heard in the headphones pans in and out of the left and right earphones which has a dizzying effect. The sound is made up of white noise of differing frequencies and distortions together with bat noises brought into our hearing range, but only just. The outcome is an unpleasant and uncomfortable noise.

The second chamber then plays on any feelings of disorientation or confusion the participant might be feeling and is designed to frustrate. It is obvious that there are two large images either side of the participant but the flashing light prevents the images from being deciphered. Participants perceive the pictures to be unpleasant and the situation is designed to conjure up the feeling of a hallucination or nightmare scenario. The paintings consist of layers which are only seen when the light flashes behind them. This makes it more difficult to understand what the top layer depicts: one, ants (people in isolation dream of herd creatures); the other, a fabricated compression theory of the audio-visual brain function (based on feelings brought about by the five techniques).

There is a distinction between the first chamber where the participant feels obligated to stay because instructed to do so and the second chamber where the participant know she/he is compelled to stay but told that she/he is free to leave at any time. The viewer feels she/he must work the paintings out and typically flits from one to the other, in order to make out sections of the images and piece them together as a whole. However, the flashing light and unfamiliarity of the marks on the paintings make this goal very difficult to achieve.

Reactions to the work

The following short comments are from a variety of people who viewed the installation. The majority of people wanted to discuss their experiences when they had finished viewing the installation and learn of the background. Some people did not wish to discuss it at all. It is important to note the extent of the viewer's knowledge was limited to the information contained in the promotion of the installation. The artist asked for their initial reactions first and then explained the design which they then gave feedback on.

  • 'Because I thought it was going to be about torture I expected something really in your face. However the way it was set up made me feel very nervous, I thought something bad was going to happen to me all the time. The doctor had authority and I felt he was controlling me. Because he said "the experiment will last for an undisclosed length of time" I was nervous about what would happen and anxious because I didn't know when it would end.'
  • 'It made me feel very uncomfortable and anxious. The noise was awful and standing in that position was very uncomfortable - I can't imagine being subjected to that for hours and hours on end. A few minutes was too long for me. The second room was so frustrating with the scratchy writing. You're right, it was a nightmare scenario. The words on the film were very effective too - like "skin", "tear", "fear". They made me feel uneasy.'
  • 'I thought it was going to be loads of scary pictures of torture...Seeing the doctor as a person of authority made me feel uneasy and vulnerable. I was most affected by the words on the film - I suppose words can say more than pictures...'
  • 'I wanted to see it because of what's going on with torture. I didn't think it would be like this but I found it very interesting.'
  • 'I felt totally vulnerable in the position I was forced to take in the first room and I was anxious in case anything happened, my hands were in the air and I would not be able to protect myself.'