Article by Jess Harrison in Berlin // Friday, March 9, 2018
Divulging the details of your deepest fear to a stranger, receiving glares from regular museum goers as you wave across the museum to no-one and helping test the ‘faulty’ smoke system of the delayed Berlin airport—these are all things that you find yourself doing while navigating through the spaces of the Neues Museum and Haus der Kulturen der Welt during Staat 1 and Staat 2 of Rimini Protokoll’s ‘Staat 1–4’. The tetralogy of performances by the group of author/directors have been shown in Munich, New York, Düsseldorf, Dresden and Zurich and throughout the course of this month, the four performances are unfolding in Berlin for the first time.
Helgard Kim Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel use immersive theatre techniques, humour and a disruption of expected behaviour to stage performances that examine fields that lie outside of the control of the nation-state. ‘Staat 1-4’ is a theatrical research project that focuses on the collection and exchange of information in our increasingly post-democratic society. Through the performers, who they term “experts of the everyday,” the performances seek to destabilize the idealization or perceived finality of democratic structures. Through the life stories of these real-life experts, the visitor is invited on a journey to unravel or reveal the web of complex structures and processes that underpin our institutions and behaviours. The nature of the macrostructures that control us and lie outside of our control are intersected and understood through individual experiences. Each ‘Staat’ mediates between reality and fiction, using real people and stories as its actors and rethinking the role of the spectator through active participation. The result is a new kind of sphere for knowledge production which focuses on the individual and provides an incredibly stimulating experience for the visitor.
In the confines of the Neues Museum, subtle yet distinctive gestures separate you from the regular museum visitor and grant access to biographic audio files from journalists, activists and former BND boss Gerhard Schindler. The first Staat (‘Top Secret International’) focus on the secret and its social function, exploring the autonomous structure of intelligence agencies. Spectators, or players, are given a headset and notebook and are guided around the museum by a voice in their ear which is controlled by an algorithm. Questions are repeatedly posed, the answers to which dictate your route through the ancient artifacts and sculptures. Do you store information about others that you will eventually be able to use to manipulate them? If no, then turn into the small frieze room. If yes, then follow a different path. By tracing the route and movements of your fellow participants, you learn things about them. The man in the hat waving would read his partner’s emails; the woman with the baby wouldn’t tell everyone if she knew when the world was going to end. The structure of the performance constructs this constant relay between the state and the personal. Exposed are details of how the network of secret services operate and simultaneously our own code of ethics is examined.
While Staat 1 takes place in a real-life environment, Staat 2 (‘Society Under Construction’) makes use of a purpose-built model to explore the construction site. In a feat of organization and timing, groups of spectators move through the exhibition hall at HKW, changing helmets and headphones, climbing sand hills and learning karate moves, all under the guidance of eight different experts. Each expert represents a contrasting viewpoint and through the different scenarios we slip into their everyday lives. High up on scaffolding in the middle of the space is Andreas Riegel, lawyer for Transparency International, a global coalition which seeks to end corruption. Riegel takes the construction site as example of a space in which corruption has reached a political level. Below him, in a container, is capital investment consultant Sonja-Verena Breidenbach, who instructs us to ignore the lies told by Riegel. The most memorable story comes Alfredo di Mauro, designer of the smoke extraction system of the Berlin airport. He explains how his system has been blamed for the delay in the airport opening, and how he hasn’t worked since. The experts often stumble over their lines and look uncomfortable, but this only serves to remind that they are not professional actors and that this is not a typical theatrical performance. As such, ‘Staat 1-4’ is not a packaged, finite, immutable work. It is rather open-ended, a kind of collaging of contradictions in ideas and experiences that unfolds in front of the visitor.
Ultimately, through Rimini Protokoll and their experts of the everyday, it is possible to recognise and re-appropriate the human element from the complex structural web that has come to dominate our societal present. Particularly through the staging of Staat 2, we can extract the individual humanism from the vast digital and economic algorithms that dictate financial, political and social behaviours. The result of this humanism is contradiction, a sort of dialectic of modernity. The performances force visitors to re-evaluate their constructions of knowledge and democracy and to face society’s underlying forces—and this writer looks forward to watching Staat 3 and 4 as they unfold.