Prague ‘Lucifer Effect’ exhibit examines the evil within us all

Czech Position

DOX’s ‘The Lucifer Effect: Encountering Evil’ is a mix of videos, photos and installations, all with one underlying theme: power corrupts

“Evil, psychologically, is the exercise and abuse of power to intentionally harm, hurt or destroy others, or to commit crimes against humanity when practiced by authority systems.” – Dr Philip Zimbardo

Seems like the perfect inspiration for an art exhibition, no? “The Lucifer Effect: Encountering Evil,” now showing at Dox Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague, took the name of its newest exhibition from the title of a university textbook by Zimbardo, an American psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, where he conducted a famous prison study.

At American universities in the ‘60s and ’70s, a variety of psychological experiments were conducted showing how normal, everyday people can be seduced by power — and evil; Dr. Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, is one of the most famous.

At Stanford, volunteers, all university students, were screened for mature, mentally stable men, who were then randomly divided into two groups — “prisoners” and “guards” — and placed in a “prison.” In the Dox exhibit, a video with accompanying text shares the results of Dr. Zimbardo’s findings:

“In less than a week, the experience of imprisonment undid, although temporarily, a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged and the ugliest, most base pathological side of human nature surfaced.” One-third of the guards were judged to have shown “genuine” sadistic tendencies while many prisoners were emotionally traumatized and many had to be removed from the study early.

Walk on the dark side

“The Lucifer Effect” at DOX is a mix of videos, photographs and installations — all with the underlying theme that power corrupts. Exhibit curator Jaroslav Andel told Czech Position that the center had long wanted to present a dark psychological installation like this. “We live in these times, we can see the issues — and shouldn’t just be bystanders, people who think someone else will do something,” he said.

At Dox, there are 25 installations on display, including by a variety of Czech artists whose work mainly reflect local contemporary issues, such as corruption and the relationship between politics and organized crime. Artists Anonymous have a few tongue-in-cheek installations; including a video of President Václav Klaus’ infamous “pen pocketing” incident in Chile earlier this year. Another video simply shows a spinning coin with half of the following statement on each side: “I don’t know an efficient way to distinguish between / clean and dirty money.”

The exhibition opens with artistic reconstructions of the university experiments by artists Rod Dickinson (“The Milgram Re-enactment”) and Artur Zmijewski. Another interesting video at the beginning is “A History of Evil” (see below) an animated documentary/mockumentary created by Norwegian artist Ole-Magnus Saxegard as a as student project at the University of Technology in Sydney that explores the history and perceptions of evil in Western civilization. In it, the artist strives to shows what people have believed to be evil over the ages. It’s meant to make people think about what evil really is, and show how people obsessed with something they consider “evil” can end up taking part in it themselves.

Become a part of it

Getting involved is a big part of the Dox exhibition. Jens M. Stober’s computer game “1378” takes you on an interactive journey into sections of the inner-German border in 1976. It’s the GDR border guards versus the refugees, as they try to escape to West Germany and the guards attempt to stop them.

You choose your role: Will the power of being a guard corrupt you? Do you shoot the refugee? Do you become one yourself? It’s this deeper consideration of the theme that has led Dox to introduce a new participation element to this exhibition. As the gallery’s PR spokeswoman Michaela Šilpochová explains, it’s the first time the center has done something like this.

“With our ‘Open Call,’ we want the public to participate, not only to have people see the exhibition but come and take an active part in thinking and considering the themes suggested here,” she told Czech Position.

The “Open Call” is soliciting anyone to share their thoughts on evil through text, video, photographs, website, a Smartphone app — the format is open. A panel of art critics and other professionals will choose the best ones, which will either be displayed in Dox, on their website, or in a public space. (Czech Position is a participant in this project and selected works will also be displayed on this website.)

“It’s not only artists but the general public we want to actively participate in expressing their interest in current issues, what they think about them and their thoughts from the exhibition,” Šilpochová said. “Text, photos taken on the street … we will include these works, if they fit, in the exhibition, so by the end this space might look different and be enriched with more works.”

She adds that Dox received about 20 submissions from the first deadline, and she expects these offerings to go on display around mid-November. Upcoming deadlines are Nov. 1 and Dec. 1. Dox has made a big effort to reach out with this exhibition.

“We have lots of complementary programs, the ‘Open Call’ to artists and the public, tours and conversations with personalities from different fields dealing with the issues in the exhibition,” said Andel, The Lucifer Effect curator. “We want to show this not only in the gallery but the public space, virtual space, and social networks.”

The flip side of evil

A question asked by Dr. Zimbardo is this: “What pushes some people to become perpetrators of evil while others to act heroically on behalf of those in need?” It was this question that led the psychologist to create the Heroic Imagination Project, which teaches people to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis. There’s a computer set-up at the exhibition to learn more about this effort.

“It’s the other side; to talk about evil is only one part,” Andel said. “There’s an old Indian legend about a Cherokee telling his grandson a story about a battle between two wolves, one bad and one good, and their fight is terrible. The grandson asks ‘who wins?’ and the grandfather says ‘the one you feed.’