WRITTEN INTERVIEW: ADAM ZARETSKY & MARTHA WILSON, QUESTIONS BY LINDA MARY MONTANO REGARDING
THE SKINNER BOX
MARTHA WILSON AND ADAM ZARETSKY, YOU BOTH WERE PLACED IN A SKINNER BOX AS INFANTS. THIS IS A VERY UNUSAL AND RARE SITUATION AND I ASK THESE QUESTIONS TO BETTER UNDERSTAND YOUR EARLY INFLUECES AND THE WAY IT MIGHT HAVE REFLECTED ON YOUR ART AND LIFE. LINDA MARY MONTANO, 2018
QUESSTION: WHAT IS A SKINNER BOX?
Q. WHEN INVENTED?
Q. WHY WAS IT INVENTED?
Q. WHO INVENTED IT AND WHAT WAS THAT PERSON'S HISTORY AND MOTIVATION?
Q. WHY WOULD PARENTS CHOOSE TO PLACE A CHILD IN A SKINNER BOX?
My mother is a Jungian Comparative Literature, religion/symbolic remixer. My father was at the time a behaviorist afficionato. At Queens College he was working as a grad student with Schonfeld. Skinner was at Columbia or Harvard but Operant Conditioning was very much alive at Queens College. At the same time, I think the skinner crib was a rational commune urge of the family to consider cultural redesign. Probably in relation to Skinner’s planned society he wrote about in Walden Two. My parents had done a stint as Kibbutzim and also tried out living in the Former Yugoslavia in Tito’s Communism as an experiment in utopian options.
The general story goes as such: The Air Crib or Skinner Box was climate controlled, humidity and temperature were set outside with sci-fi dials. It was a bed and a playroom… but it offered novel options. As opposed to a standard crib, the air crib had no bars, was not designed as a temporary jail cell to escape from. Instead it was designed for the developing child. Somewhat like a large animal backstage at the zoo enriched holding cell. But, nonetheless, child centered.
Novel Options: There was mobility, privacy, exercise and nudism.
The nudism was due to the perfect climate (assuming that the controls were set well by my parents. They would check to see if I was to pink and flailing or if I started crunching into a little blue fetal ball… and adjust accordingly.
The Air Crib had a trampoline for a floor. So I could jump up to reach the bars for swinging on the ceiling. That functioned as exercise for the little captive but there was also a funnel under the trampoline in the case of urination. My baby pee would seep through the floor and be collected through the funnel system in a bucket under the crib. For the sake of easy cleaning, the flooring could be rolled across and out of the white room through the use of two rollers that also allowed laundering and semi-automated cage change providing new base with minimal discomfort.
Due to the climate controls, I was not hampered at night by blankets and regained some of my primate flexibility. I would often hang from the bars on the ceiling with two hands and drink from a milk bottle that I held with my feet.
The privacy feature was a shade that could be pulled down from the inside for my own sense of anonymity. You see the Air Crib was a white room, but the front window was clear plexiglass, somewhat like a sterile hood. I also eventually learned to close the privacy shade with my feet. I think I learned that on my own, but it could have been the operant conditioning.
These were all seen as assets for the child instead of the very obvious barred holding pen of the standard crib. Sort of like not cage free eggs but enriched imprisonment, sort of like the suburbia of cribs.
Q. HOW LONG WERE YOU IN THE SKINNER BOX?
I was born in 1968 and this was 1968-1976, pretty much 24/seven. Actually it was 1968-1972. And, I was not in the box all the time. It was a crib, a bed and playpen. Sometimes my friends would come over and play in there with me. Some of my friend’s parents were against the idea of letting their kids into the Skinner Box. Those friends I played with outside of the bubble or through the Plexiglas using invented sign language or emotive body/ face gestures.
Q. WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF THE SKINNER BOX EXPERIENCE?
I remember I could fly. I remember Stewart and Ramsey. I remember cutting my knee falling on a pile of glass and slicing my arm with a long thorn from a tree. The blood shone so brightly and glisteny in the summer sun. This was in Flushing, Queens. The conglomerate that they had mixed the concrete with to make the sidewalk had yellow, quartz-like, smooth rocks in it. The sidewalk smelled like ozone and dog shit and quartz after the rain. I remember dreaming of the color red. But the Skinner Box, nothing I can remember.
I remember eating American Cheese and Frosted Flakes and then my parents choose tune in, turn on and drop out, move to ‘back to nature’ Woodstock and become heath food eating, cottage industry crafts people and artists. The switch to whole grain bread, fresh sprouts and limited TV did stress me greatly in 1972 when we moved away from the nearly every two minutes LGA flight plan. I remember that, but the Skinner Box, nothing I can remember.
Q. WHAT COULD YOU SEE? WHAT COULD YOU HEAR? WHAT COULD YOU CONTACT?
I plead Manchurian Candidate here. What I can concur from Martha’s Quote below is that there are issues about: crawling, enjoying being in a glass display and lack of hearing of lyrics
Martha Wrote, “Many years later, while in therapy, my analyst suggested that because I could not crawl to my mother when I wanted her, I became a performance artist—someone who makes a commotion to be seen. I think another effect of the Skinner Box was that I gravitated to storefronts as living space. It was soundproof, so I still today find it hard to hear the lyrics on records.”
I was also slow to walk, Martha, but I could crawl and I did crawl, at amazing speeds. I crawled so fast and ferally, that I wore out the knees on all my toddler pants. I know because I remember my parents bought me a pair of very thick leather pants with kneepads of thick hide. I crawled so fast that my dad had to operant condition me to become afraid of crawling past the curb. He would pop balloons behind my head whenever I tried to crawl off the sidewalk. He would literally wait until I reached my hand off the curb and touched the asphalt. The loud noise would be associated with the syreet and negatively reinforced. This was to train me to stop crawling at high speeds between cars and across the street through oncoming traffic. I suppose this was a my favorite pastime. Was this just a case of using behavior modification to save a life? Besides being alive, I still jaywalk and have no deep-seated fears of the curb.
I do often put myself in the place of Human Subjects and Experimental Animals in my art and writing. As an advocate, I do question my level of detachment, but I also feel that the humor offsets the glee in a nice reflective glancing. The obvious hardtop elephant in the room is the lack of any belief in authentic response. The agony of the arbitrary seems to coincide with the joys of the absurd.
Perhaps the imagined lyrics are better!?
Sending love and exegesis!
Q. WHAT WERE THE PARAMETERS OF TOUCH BY OTHERS?
I was held often. WE were a huggy, lovey family. Love was not scrimped on. Its just that societal antagonism was a house preference and parental passage of cultural expectations was discouraged. Rebel, soul rebel… but through the logic of science and the escape of tradition… a form of assimilation that involved cultural amnesia and yet purposeful random preferred instead of straight assimilation. I think it’s a kind of countercultural allowing subsuming… when your culture is to overbearing and yet the goy culture is obviously too protestant or to generic and so it becomes a third mind problem… sort of an inner space race… maybe samhadi star trek, maybe just a random walk in arbitrary worlding? The psychonauts of LSD and the Potheads that drove the 60s into action were also into Beat situationist casual encounters with an open mind.
A more quizzical and analytical approach was fostered through anomalous training and preverbal nonsense regimes culled from a range of potentials wider and more obtuse. Its true that the tenets of Behavior Modification (BM) were poisoned by cybernetic symbolic logic and hence the double blind led the double blind. But, by the 1970’s it became obvious that behaviorism in American Pop culture was part of the Self Help movement along with transcendental meditation, government sponsored cocaine flooding out those pesky psychonauts, disco, group sexual revolution fails. This was all geared towards self actualization which is to say the deluded becoming of a standard USA Ego: bulletproof, doomed to fail, anxiously self important, actually not accepted as psychology in other parts of the world. More likely, the impetus was to tame the immigrants with stopgap paranoid ego resurfacing of an otherwise untenable delusion, importance. All of this sponsoring resulted in the Me Generation of Ponzi Capitalism and took us out of utopian promise into boring mind control, banal propaganda and the safety of mass delusion. So, If I am a sleeper cell of dreamed deprogramming, let me sleep!
But in general, I respond well to touch.
Q. HOW HAS THAT EXPERIENCE EFFECTED YOU AS AN ARTIST? DID IT INSPIRE YOU TO MAKE ART?
Behaviorist parents are natural Performance Art trainers. Deprogramming is the crux of good art making. So, being programmed along obscure lines is a sort of permanent deprogramming or resistance imprinting or an arbitrary behavioral response pattern awareness or a moiré patter that never stops confuting the mass hallucinatory of consensus.
My father always harped on two ideas
1: Anything we have learned, we could have learned the opposite. 2: Human behavior is infinite.
I offered up my life as a synthesis: Starting from: Do what thou wilt. Leading to then do the opposite. Finally, do explore the nonBinary of 1 and 2… infinite behavior is us. As if the experiment was not caged… the doors are always open.
Q. HOW DID IT INFLUENCE YOUR PERSONAL LIFE? RELATIONSHIPS?
Well my personal life is all caught up in wide net variety fetishism trolling combined in a collage of any and all human potential to obsess on singular ecstasies. Part Sado/Maso, part obscure photo shoots, part reading of effluvia and in no small part clown domination and Certainly not too much gathering of moss: it is Divertisment… Ritual Process or bust. Add some Magnetism and inculcation… perhaps I am just passing the kool aid… who knows?
But there are other deep and pertinent influences throughout my childhood that need to be mixed in to understand the range of behavioral obscurity. Beyond the Skinner Box, there were some specific variants and strange attractors:
• Early Access to adult oriented Underground Comix like Zap, Yellow Dog, R. Crumb, The Checkered Demon, Robert Williams Felch Cumix, etc.
• Six weeks a year in Ann Arbor sleeping in the bunk bed near My Cousin’s Top Shelf in Human Sexuality Studies for her Ph.D. Including reading too much on Women’s Sexual Fantasies, Textbooks on Deviance (I even took a week on the Psychopathia Sexualis)
• Early mostly nonGenital Sexual Experiences with my Commune Sisters on the Rasneesh Love Commune with Mara and Lizzie and Peter and Jimi and Molly and the peacock. The fact is that this was an antiestablishment Guru fun-mirror of the U.S> Death Cult mentality, a Nietzsche inspired Shiva ecstatic active unleashing form of communitarianism in an atmosphere of gestalt, overeducated angst ridden NYC third generation, inculcated west coast yet outsider post gold rush drama towards old world reliving of Punch and Judy Rabelaisian smut. I am thankful I was not at Jonestown but I also think the intentions there were true there until they weren’t. Just like the war mongers, the intentions are good… just misunderstood as greed and usury.
Q. WHAT SPECIAL POSITIVE GIFTS DO YOU THINK THIS EXPERIENCE OF THE SKINNER BOX GAVE YOU?
Ability to enrich animals and refugees. Ability to sleep in very small places.
I do intuitively understand the kind of testing on mutants needed to gain deep knowledge. Transgenic road-tests, the experiments to see how the beings are made different entail varied definitions of endurance. Once an organism is altered genetically, the behavioristic approach is still needed to see the effect of the alteration of the workhorse genome in real time and during a multiplicity of tasks.
Q. HOW DID THE SKINNER BOX EXPERIENCE GUIDE YOUR USE OF TEXTURE/MATERIALS IN YOU WORK? HOW DID IT INFLUENCE YOUR WORK WITH OTHERS? COLLABORATIONS?
My early work was about porn, kitsch and iconoclasm. As I moved into Bioart, all of that stayed remained in the works. But when I got to MIT, I came to meet the sterile hood. This space for pure culture technique was like a gentle homecoming. So, I do think the Aircrib might have a good basis for raising a new crop of scientists. But when I experience fishtank-like experiences, I do think the enclosures are complexiglas for me but they also brings me great comfort.
Q. HOW DO U SEE? FEEL? TOUCH THE WORLD NOW AS A RESULT OF THIS EARLY EXPERIENCE?
Q. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO YOUR PARENTS REGARDING THEIR DECISION TO PLACE YOU IN A SKINNER BOX AS AN INFANT?
Whatever shakes you out of your predestined cultural habits can alleviate the canalization of repetition compusions through. Through novel neurotic style, the muck of possible behaviors is raked. But there is no deprogramming to a place of preconditioning. The return to habitus (habitat) is still something other than tabula rasa (clean slate) and so there is not a materialist samsara without using a- priori elbow pads.
Q. ARE THERE ANY POSITIVE ASPECTS COMING FROM SUCH A SITUATION? IS THE SKINNER BOX A GOOD THING?
Yes, but perhaps the ceremony would be better for adults, like: capsule hotels (fig), tanning booths, hiding under tables. For hamster people and old moles, I suggest space suits and latex.
Q. DO YOU EVER HAVE DREAMS ABOUT HAVING BEEN IN THE SKINNER BOX?
I often don’t remember my dreams. I prefer to sleep with a canopy or under a table or in a large tube. I once live in an office building and hid my bed under a shoddily constructed worktable. My rat, Sinfjötli used to wake me up in a funny way. He would wait until I was nearly stirring and run as fast as he could towards my feet, up my inner leg scampering towards my balls as fast as possible. I would parlay with a swat and Sinfjötli would go flying onto the green shag corporate carpet of the office building. This would repeat about 10 times until I was up and safe from having my penis chewed off by a rodent on a rampage. I still wake at dawn daily. I am very awake at dawn.
Q. DID YOU EVER GO TO A THERAPIST AND WORK ON THIS AS AN ISSUE AND MEMORY? WHAT WAS THE OUTCOME OF THAT RESEARCH?
No. Whatever I have I don’t want cured.
Q. WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT SPIRITUAL PRACTICE AND HOW IS IT SHAPED BY YOUR TIME IN A SKINNER BOX?
Channeling the orgone.
Q. DO YOU OR DID YOU MAKE SKINNER BOX ART?
It is obvious that the Skinner Box Experience effected my experimental designs.
The Workhorse Zoo:
The Clean Room that I stayed in for 7 days:
One day I was dressed as a baby!
The VASTAL Virginarium Is a Collaborative Cultural Containment Stage For Sterile Field Inter-Public Body Art Performances
Various performance artists will be ritually cleansed and enter the Glove Box one or two at a time. Various performance artists have been invited including Kira O’rielly, Jeanette Groenendaal, WARBEAR, Boryana Rossa, Zoot Derks, Oleg Mavromatti, Sarah Hamilton and Adam Zaretsky. Performers take turns in the box interacting with the public or other actors reaching into them with the gloves. This is experimental Body Art with a Biological theme that references experiments, lab animals, the pure and the impure as well as the distance (or presumed distance) that objectivity implies.
MARTHA WILSON : THE SKINNER BOX
Virginarium Performances: ‘Toxic’ Sarah Hamilton and Adam
Zaretsky Body Alterity Lab, VASTAL, 2009, Bouwkeet van Stedelijk Museum, de Baarsjes, November 14, 2009 Photo credit: Oleg Mavromatti, Link:
That is me inside that giant fluffy vagina BTW
It was during the VASTAL tissue culture lab that we broke the original, performative seal on the VASTAL Virginarium. Since then it has been used for over twelve VASTALperformances, none of which are reviewed as a part of this dissertation. Considering the cellular sculpture lab as an initiation rite for the Virginarium as a space for performance art, we need to compare how our bodies may be used in future IGM with the slain materialism of those goat corpses dissected in the lab and their mirrors in the ampules of HeLa cells.
As in many scapegoat driven sacrificial rites, the goat bodies stood in as metaphorical humans, killed specifically for dissection. If anatomical exploration was very freely explored on such a traditional sacrificial animal, it was not with any particular respect for the dead or the purpose for which the life had been razed. That is, unless you think producing enigmatic vials of semi-living continuance is anything but unsettling the allowance for decay of finished lives. In my opinion, the coordinating of such performative dominations and submissions, with public involvement, aids in a reinterpretation and impersonation of the role of human experimentalist working on either human subjects or other non-human non-objects. But, the artifice or re-enactment of biopolitical compulsions (e.g., surgical demolition and hereditary control) falls short of achieving our goals.
Tissue Culture Sculpture Lab, VASTAL, 2009, Precollage Photo credit:
we make money not art with additional Lectures from Oron Catts and Matteo Pasquinelli, Theatrum Anatomicum, de Waag, Amsterdam, 15.09.2009.
is a Triple Containment, Recombinant Safety Officer approved glove box:
that houses a tube within a tube within a box. I believe I am the tube with in a tube as are we all!
WE did have a young performance artist at Rosekill get inside the errorarium for a stint! She is the daughter of Jen Maharry, Miet and she was a prime mirror!
Q. CAN YOU IMAGINE SHARING THIS INFORMATION WITH OTHERS PUBLICALLY AND HELPING THEM UNDERSTAND THIS HISTORTICAL PHENOMENA?
Q. WHAT QUESTIONS DO YOU WANT TO ADD?
I just wonder if everything isn’t just a side effect of everything else?
Deleted. Ctrl + Z to Undo.