Operant Conditioning

Apr 26, 2018

Following the commission to create a sculpture that serves as a birdhouse to be installed in a psychiatric hospital, the project reconstructs a so-called Skinner Box for ‘operant conditioning,’ referencing the dark history of psychiatry and the colloquial association (in German) between birds and psychiatric conditions. In his experiments, Psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner conceived of behavior as a mere function of external stimuli over which the subject’s will has no influence. He is best known for his conditioning of pigeons, which he trained to play ping pong or develop superstitious behavior. The implication was that with the appropriate stimuli and reinforcements, people could be programmed to adopt any desired behaviors. Our birdhouse is a reconstruction of a historic Skinner Box for pigeons. Here, however, it is not the birds that are conditioned. Instead, the birds condition their human feeders by triggering a visible signal when the birdhouse runs out of food.

The object was produced within the project For the Birds / Pour les oiseaux, a collective aeronautic sculpture garden displayed on the premises of the Landesklinikum Hollabrunn in 2019, commissioned by the Art in Public Space department of Lower Austria government and the socio-psychiatric department of the clinic Hollabrunn. For the Birds is a public space art project by Claudia Märzendorfer, produced with the support of Jeanette Pacher and Katrina Petter (KÖR Niederösterreich), including contributions by many international artists.

Concept and artistic direction: Azra Akšamija and Dietmar Offenhuber

Prototypung and fabrication: Natalie Bellefleur