Bunny Performance art piece.
What can a breaching experiment reveal about differences in behaviour between people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds? By Olivia Lakin
Introduction & Research Aim I was interested in looking at public behaviour and interaction, and how they vary between different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Goffman (1963) talks about the intrinsic rules of conduct in public places, and I was interested to know if they vary between people with these different backgrounds. Kim (1988) has shown that norms which govern social situations are indeed determined by culture and ethnicity. I therefore needed an observational method which would reveal any such differences, so I decided my study would take the form of a mild breaching experiment, like the ones performed by Garfinkel (1967) in which he breaks common social norms to show what social order is present. I therefore needed to manipulate a situation where social norms are normally observed. I decided to use the setting of an art gallery, as indeed there are common expectations of the public in these environments and this results in a series of predictable behaviours that occur as a product of peoples’ adherence to social norms. Research done by Falk et al (1985) shows that museums are places where certain behaviour is expected and indeed “..most museum visitors [do] behave in a fairly predictable manner..” (Falk et al, 1985 p66).
For the breach I decided to use a concept from the performance art of Jane Clarke (2005), which entails the artist herself dressing up as a giant ‘Bugs Bunny’ and parading around an art gallery. She had carried out this exercise on several previous occasions but for her it was only a piece of performance art. However I was interested to take her art a step further, and actually observe the publics’ reactions to this breach of social norm.
With the experiment I wanted to observe in a natural setting, and stand back and watch peoples’ reactions without being too involved in the setting itself. I also wanted to have a control time to observe people before bringing out the bunny. Using an observational methodology enables me to satisfy these requirements and study the reactions from a distance, and to also rule out any impact that I might have on people should my body language influence their behaviour.
Methodology The observations took place on Sunday October 15th 2006 at the Frieze Art Fair in London. First I allocated myself an hour and a half to study peoples’ behaviour in this environment as the control period. I sat on a bench in the gallery where other people were reading guidebooks so as to look inconspicuous with my notebook. I observed this public for the whole time, looking for any patterns in behaviour and interaction. The outfit had been stuffed in a bag so not to give a clue as to our plans. Jane then changed into the bunny outfit, and for the next hour and a half she walked around the gallery, performing and interacting with people. I walked behind her at a slight distance and observed peoples’ reactions and behaviour in a mental form, as the notebook would have been too obvious here.
Results A quote from my field notes during the control portion adequately describes the cultural and ethnic composition of the public that day:
There is a dominance of white people, made up of a good mix of British, European and American. The rest of the viewers and exhibitors are made up of a broad mix of different ethnic origins, with oriental Asians making up a chunk of these. Ethnic minorities seem to be in slightly larger groups, sticking together. It’s easy to tell different nationalities apart because of their dialect and accents, and different ethnic groups are dressed differently to the norm of casual jeans.
I observed a vast age range of people, right from families with small children up to a scatter of elderly people. However most of the young children were asleep in pushchairs or bored, until they saw ‘something exciting, colourful or that looks like a toy’.
During the control period, groups were sticking together and I observed: ‘People who don’t know each other are not interacting at all’. The pace in the art gallery was slow and there was only ‘a slight hum of noise from the chattering of groups/couples’. By actually observing the facial expressions of people I found:
Most people have a look of interest and discernment on their faces, but there is rarely any sort of smile or grin.
As soon as we moved into the second half of the experiment, with Jane dressed as the bunny, ‘The change in peoples' behaviour is immediately obvious’. People were suddenly smiling and grinning, and the children were no longer bored. Most parents were encouraging their children to interact with the bunny but there were a few white British parents who held their children back. A quote from my field notes shows the impact the breach had on young professional adults:
Amongst the adults, there seems to be a split in the way people aged 20-40 are behaving. Some are laughing and smiling, but some are behaving as though the bunny isn’t there, even though I can see their eyes give a fleeting glance at Jane. Some of them are muttering disapproving words. However these people all seem to be white and mainly British, and are smartly dressed.
Furthermore we were threatened with ejection from the premises from two security guards, even though they could not pinpoint exactly for what reason. They were vaguely concerned that we were handing out leaflets, or staging a protest, but eventually relented, as we were not breaking any official art gallery rules. Although it was clear to them that we were breaking rules of ‘social order’, they could not find a reason to emit us. Quite conversely however, the following quote shows that other cultures and ethnic groups received the breach with a strong welcome:
There is a much more positive response from non-British people, particularly Americans and Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and people of Middle Eastern origin. A female Greek exhibitor is fascinated and even invited the bunny to lie down amongst her sculptural exhibits, which she did.
This part of Jane’s act elicited the highest response from people and even broke down the barriers of interaction between non-familiar members of the public:
People are crowding round her, laughing, grinning and taking lots of photos. A big group has formed, and people who don't know each other are chatting and laughing with each other. These people seem to be predominantly foreign but there is the odd English family here too.
However, at the end with everything back to normal I observed:
..the suit is off, the smiles and laughs have stopped, and people have gone back to being more pensive again’.
Evaluation of Adequacy As this was my first observation exercise, there may have been things I missed which could affect the accuracy of the data. However I was very comfortable performing this experiment, as was my accomplice Jane, and I feel that using an observational method did have its advantages. I was able to blend into the background as an ordinary member of the public and simply observe the changes in behaviour. There were only a few times when people guessed I was accompanying Jane, as she would ask me brief questions. A useful addition would have been a hidden video camera in the bunny head, then I would have been able to record exactly what Jane saw and heard. In addition to simple observation I could have done very brief informal interviews with various people in the gallery, but this would have blown my cover and also would have ethical implications for quoting members of the public.
Although my predetermined research aim was fairly specific, I would have needed to spend a lot longer doing both parts of the experiment to be able to fully evaluate any initial cultural or ethnic differences that I saw. I would also have to perform the breach in different places, times, days of the week and also tried other galleries of different genres and even other public places such as museums, bars, restaurants, train stations, airports, outdoors in public parks etc.
Conclusion Although I only had a limited time to observe and obviously I cannot make any definite conclusions, some of the data did point towards a difference in behaviour between different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The most negative reactions seemed to be from white professional British adults, but these could also be a result of the norms attributed to their professionalism, rather than their ethnic background. However it appeared to be true that people of a race other than British seemed to react the most positively to the experience and were able to relax, smile and enjoy the encounter with the bunny. Nevertheless, to make any conclusions other than mere hunches, I would have to perform many more similar experiments, as detailed previously.
References Clarke, J. (2005) Bunny at Frieze - in Performance Art at http://www.janeclarkegallery.co.uk/main.htm, accessed 13/10/2006.
Falk, J.H., Koran, J.J., Dierking, L.D., & Dreblow, L. (1985) Predicting Visitor Behavior. Curator, 28, 249-257.
Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Goffman, E. (1963) Behaviour in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, The Free Press (A Division of MacMillan Publishing Co. Inc), New York.
Kim, Y. Y. (1988) Communication and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: An Integrative Theory, Intercommunication Series. Multilingual Matters Ltd, Philadelphia.