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ZEE Causes Seizures

People love flirting with danger. We dive out of planes, hang by elastic bands off bridges, swim with sharks and eat poisonous Japanese pufferfish: in short, we happily gamble with our lives and bodies for the payoff of an adrenalin rush, and although we can’t properly calculate the risks, we trust that those in charge are there to protect us.

We also gamble with our fortunes at the TAB and the blackjack table. Here again, we can’t properly calculate the risks (the vast majority of us aren’t even nearly smart enough to do so) – but we’re only betting with our livelihoods and not our lives, and we go in knowing full well that those in charge aren’t there to protect us (quite the opposite, in fact).

One man who is smart enough to compute the odds is the savant-like genius David Walsh, a professional gambler who amassed a huge fortune at the TAB and the blackjack table. A colourful character, he is infamous not only for the way in which he made his money (and his run-ins with the Australian Taxation Office) but also for the colourful mark that he has left on the otherwise rather virginal town of Hobart, Tasmania in the shape of MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art), MONA FOMA (the MONA Festival of Music and Art) and now also its winter equivalent, creatively named “Dark MOFO”.

As avid event aficionados, we went down to Hobart to scope out the inaugural Dark MOFO festival, which was held throughout Hobart over ten days earlier this month.

Mona

Anyone who has attended the MONA gallery will have no doubt that any and all alternative meanings of the word “MOFO” are not lost on David Walsh. The museum – in a number of ways the most advanced and brilliantly produced museum in the world – is designed to not only shock but also offend. Many of the modern artworks that it houses are truly remarkable: all of them are calculated to confront and disturb.

A voyage through MONA is designed to be a challenge. As a visitor to MONA, one gets the sense that the whole thing is a big game of “chicken” with David Walsh – that he respects you by challenging you, and that if you make it through without flinching then you’ve earned it. Regardless of your reaction, every step of the way you also sense the immense amount of care that the museum’s creators have put into the experience.

Dark Mofo

The inaugural Dark MOFO event was, by (almost) all accounts, similarly an organisational triumph. Incorporating, amongst much else, a naked swim in the icy Derwent River, a tower of light beaming 15 kilometres up into the Hobart sky and a sumptuous winter feast feeding thousands of hungry Hobartians, the festival was arranged and executed masterfully.

Around 2% of the visitor’s to ZEE will, however, disagree.

What is Zee?

ZEE is a psychedelic modern artwork by Austrian-born conceptual artist Kurt Hentschläger. It is an example of what arty folks call an “immersive installation”. Despite the fact that we actually knew the risks (explained below), we sent a MEP Operative into the heart of ZEE to find out for you what it’s all about. Here’s what our MEP Operative reported:

“ZEE is basically a room filled with extremely thick smoke – smoke-machine type smoke. It’s so thick that you can’t even see more than 30 centimetres or so in front of your face. As a result, as soon as you step inside, you can see nothing but smoke. You lose all depth perception. You have no visual frame of reference. The smoke is so thick that it actually makes it hard to breathe.

You enter in groups of around 10. You can’t see anything so you follow a rope into the smoke until you bump into the person in front of you and then you stop. At that point, loud droning sounds begin to pulse through the room and bright lights from somewhere behind the smoke start to flash ferociously.

We’re talking seriously bright, intense strobe lighting here! So bright that if you close your eyes, it makes very little difference to what you see. You can’t help but wonder what it’s doing to your retinas. The lights flash aggressively through the smoke, creating a kind of kaleidoscopic visual effect. The primary goal does not, however, appear to be aesthetic appeal – most would probably agree that a real kaleidoscope is more beautiful. Rather, the aim seems to be to trap and overwhelm you: to stifle some of your senses and bombard others. The predominant sensation is uneasiness. Your primary objective becomes struggling to breathe and keeping the anxiety at bay while you wait out the 13 minutes until it ends.

In my group, we didn’t make it that far: after about 10 minutes, a couple of us realised that the guy two notches down from me had collapsed to the floor and was convulsing violently. We yelled out for help and when the droning music stopped we could hear his convulsive grunting. It was horrific.”

Zee causes seizures

Of this, there is no doubt. The following day, we sent our MEP Operative back again, incognito, to conduct further investigations. The Dark MOFO manager who was supervising the entrance to ZEE stated that “around 2%” of all visitors to ZEE had experienced full tonic-clonic (otherwise known as “grand mal”) seizures. These are serious seizures, and that’s two out of every hundred visitors! When we asked for specifics as to the number of people who had in fact suffered such seizures, we were told that the ZEE staff are not at liberty to disclose that information.

Unlike most of the other visitors to ZEE, our MEP Operative was particularly alive to the risks involved with such intense stroboscopic lighting, as My Event Pages founder and Managing Director, Nadine Gerber, endured several years of undiagnosed epilepsy in her late teens and early twenties before finally getting the condition under control. Accordingly, before heading into the installation, our MEP Operative quizzed the medic who was stationed at the entrance – here’s what our MEP Operative reports:

“The medic stated that he, himself, had directly treated 7 people who had suffered full tonic-clonic seizures. So including the person from my group, that’s 8 confirmed. However, he also stated that he’s not the only medic, and that the medics work in rotating shifts of a few hours each. So the full number of victims must surely be a lot higher.

The medic said that they use an infra-red camera to see through the smoke, in order to detect when somebody collapses from a seizure! However, in my session, the medic didn’t run in until after we’d yelled out for help.” 

The risks

It is widely known that strobe lighting can trigger epileptic seizures in people who have a condition known as “photosensitive epilepsy”. The condition was famously highlighted by the 1997 “Pokémon Shock” incident in which an episode of the Pokémon cartoon TV show that used flashing visual effects caused a barrage of seizures throughout Japan. CNN reported that over 600 viewers had suffered convulsions, vomiting and other symptoms after watching the program when it was originally aired.

It is not, however, commonly known that extremely aggressive strobe lighting can apparently trigger seizures in people who are not considered to meet the requirements for a diagnosis of “photosensitive epilepsy”, and who have no medical history of epilepsy or seizures of any kind. Indeed, the medic who spoke to our MEP Operative informed us that all of the victims whom he had treated had no prior history of seizures and did not identify as being epileptic!

Disclosure of the risks

When news of the ZEE seizures started to surface, the reaction of the Dark MOFO organisers was to temporarily close the installation while they consulted with their lawyers. Their response was to re-open the installation some time later, with a new, whiz-bang legal disclaimer for everyone to sign before entering. Photos of the warnings and legal disclaimer are provided below – take a look.

The document that goes some way towards disclosing the risks is the red document. It states, “For people suffering from epilepsy, the strobe light may generate an attack”.

Regarding the risks for people who have no prior history of epilepsy and believe that they are not epileptic, a careful read of the red document reveals the following:

“Can sometimes affect people who have not had epilepsy, causing a condition called “photosensitive epilepsy”. This is a type of seizure or “fit”.”

And separately, lower down the page, it states as follows:

“You could be susceptible without knowing you are. So ask if you have ever felt nauseous or dizzy when exposed to strobe light? If even vaguely yes, you shouldn’t see ZEE.”

Informed consent?

Here’s the key question: Do you consider that these two statements, buried in plain font along with a bunch of “legalese” – not bold, not in capital letters and not in a larger typeface – are sufficient to duly disclose the risks?

Indeed, David Walsh, we ask you that question directly. As a man who made your fortune by knowing the odds, don’t you think it would be reasonable to tell all of your visitors exactly how many of your previous guests have suffered a seizure, and inform them both verbally and in huge, bold, bright, capital letters that many, if not all, of those previous guests (/victims) had no prior history of epilepsy?!

After all, there is a natural asymmetry of information/power in the relationship between the event organisers and the visitors to the installation: the Dark MOFO organisers engaged heavy-hitting lawyers to draft their legal disclaimer, whereas the visitors to ZEE were given no opportunity to obtain legal advice about what there were asked to sign. This raises potential issues of so-called “unconscionable conduct”, and it’s a rather murky picture as to whether or not those legal manoeuvrings could be sufficient to discharge the Dark MOFO organisers of their legal duty of care.

Moreover, that picture is further obscured by the fact that alcohol was being sold at official Dark MOFO bars within only a few steps from the ZEE entrance. Even if the legal effect of these disclaimers is considered to be understandable by the average (non-lawyer) visitor, how could the Dark MOFO organisers be sure that every entrant to ZEE was sufficiently sober so as to be able to give his/her informed consent to the risks? Participants were not breath-tested before being asked to sign their lives away.

Moral duty of care

Leaving aside that somewhat questionable legal position, there is still an overarching moral issue here: regardless of the legal position, as an event organiser, the moral duty to seek to protect the health and safety of your guests is paramount. Thrill them. Entertain them. Excite them. Challenge them. Even outright offend them if you so wish …

But above all else, care for them. You know that you’ve lost your way when you knowingly give 2% of your guests a tonic-clonic seizure in the name of art.

* * * *

Did you attend ZEE during the Dark MOFO festival? If so, share your experience below.

Should ZEE be banned? Let us know your views by leaving a comment.

The MEP Team

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