This week’s film and readings made me think about how context is so important to how people react emotionally and intellectually to what is presented to them. While the “Couple in the Cage” did provoke a range of reactions, there were numerous people that took the performance at face value, and did not object to the display of indigenous people in a cage in a museum setting. While this performance immediately reminded me of the long history of such displays at places like Coney Island (see Claire Prentice’s Lost Tribe of Coney Island in addition to the Fusco article) it also reminded me of the Yes Men. The Yes Men are a duo of activists/pranksters/performance artists who impersonate representatives of major corporations and speak at corporate and press conferences, as well as on TV interviews. Initially the Yes Men would present outrageously terrible propositions—for example posing as the World Trade Organization and promoting reinstating slavery in the US economy—and were shocked to find many people passively accepting these propositions, at least as audience members in a conference room where space for dissent was limited or socially taboo. They changed tactics and instead began posing as major corporations or government bodies and presented the policies that they would like to be instated. For example, they posed as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and announced they were accepting the validity of climate science at the National Press Club, and posed as Dow Chemical representatives on the BBC and announced they were going to compensate victims of the Bhopal Disaster with the $12.8 million dollars they would gain by liquidating Union Carbide. The response to these proposal was positive or neutral as well—although in the case of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce it actually led to progress on climate issues.
What I think both the “Couple in the Cage” and the Yes Men speak to is the willingness of an audience to accept what is presented to them in a formal context and how powerfully context can normalize ideas that might otherwise seem outrageous. Although the “Couple in the Cage” film and article offer only a snapshot of the reaction to the piece, they seem to indicate that repudiation of the concept was most frequently vocalized in the interviews and after the initial viewing. In other words, until viewers were directly asked their opinion they were–largely–not visibly or audibly condemning the exhibit, even if they later did so during the interview or called the museum privately to complain. The simple act of viewing an objectionable piece (without going into satire or perception of that piece as art), or similarly being in conference room or theatre listening to an objectionable presentation, does not offer room for vocal opposition within the realm of social acceptability. A challenge for public humanities practitioners then, would be to create spaces in their work where opposition and opinion are encouraged as socially acceptable–as well as to set the stage for empathetic responses.