Across human history, there have been examples of people doing utterly terrible things for no other reason than the fact that they can. The Stanford Prison experiment showed that given a little power, a person would easily begin to mistreat peers under their own free will; a public art piece by Marina Abramovich showed that simply giving a gun and instructions to “do as they wish” to random bystanders was enough to make them almost commit murder.
These are just a couple of examples of how easy it is to get regular humans to do awful things, and one museum "experiment" in 2000 took things just as far.
Debuting at the Trapholt Museum, Denmark, an "art" piece called “Helena & El Pascador” by the somewhat-infamous Marco Evaristti presented museum-goers with 10 blenders, filled with water and a single goldfish in each swimming around the blades. The visitors were given a simple choice: press the large “ON” button and kill the fish (for absolutely no reason), or don’t touch the button and let the fish live.
The piece was intended to force people to "do battle with their conscience", according to a BBC article.
"It was a protest against what is going on in the world, against this cynicism, this brutality that impregnates the world in which we live," Evaristti continued.
Perhaps if the blenders were unplugged, the piece would have made for an evocative display of morals – however, the blenders were entirely real, and the ON button actually worked.
While most people did not press the button, at least one visitor did and killed two goldfish in a blitz of horrific cruelty.
Quickly, complaints began pouring in over the fact that the blenders were plugged in, and the police demanded museum owner Peter Meyer to immediately unplug the blenders. Meyer refused, and the police issued a 2,000 kroner ($205 at today’s rate) fine. Protesting the fine in the name of “artistic freedom”, Mayer did not pay the fine and was dragged into court for animal cruelty.
Shockingly, the court acquitted Meyer for animal cruelty, after veterinary testimonies explained that the fish would have died almost instantly, thus were not exposed to prolonged suffering. Meyer escaped any punishment, including the fine.
Years on, the piece remains a disturbing glimpse into the sadism of some humans, and the fact that cruelty does not necessarily need a reason or justification. Evaristti returned years later with another deeply troubling “art” piece in which he hosted a dinner party featuring meatballs made of his own fat.