Notes From Berlin (Part I)

Participants in Rimini Protokoll's "Remote Berlin"

Participants in Rimini Protokoll’s “Remote Berlin”

Late afternoon Wednesday our group was invited to participate in Rimini Protokoll‘s Remote Berlin, presented by the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) Theater. Remote Berlin is the local iteration of Rimini Protokoll’s ongoing project, Remote X, a site-responsive audio walking tour that is adapted to each city where it is presented. Each person is given a headset and receiver and the group sets out guided by a disembodied voice. I’m not sure how it works technically, but the group has a “minder” who seemed to have some kind of transmitter in her backpack. If one began to lose the signal, moving closer to the “minder” strengthened it. It was unclear whether this person was also controlling the pace and sequence of playback or just serving as a kind of radio tower, but the narrative soundscape itself did seem to be somewhat adaptive.

The concept was that this disembodied voice is an entity created by the technology of Artificial Intelligence and the narration served to frame the experience of every day life by calling attention to our interaction with, and dependence on, machines.

The creator, Stefan Kaegi, used a computer-generated language program that constructed the sentences from phonemes taken from multiple sources. The narrative played with ideas of group-think and behavior, swarms, flocks and hordes, the omnipresence of technology, the varieties of experience in the urban landscape and moments of dissonance between interiority and exteriority.

Immediately upon completing the experience I was quite taken with it. Audio tours have been something of a trend the past few years and I enjoyed Remote Berlin‘s writing, the light humor and the casually profound insights into the cityscape. But upon further reflection, though I still am favorably inclined towards the piece, I began to feel that it was perhaps less insightful than it could have been. I had a very striking personal moment when we stopped at a crosswalk, heeding the instructions of the “Walk/Don’t Walk” sign where I was encouraged to reflect on our tacit agreement to abide by these signs. Kaegi’s text, as I recall, framed this interaction as man/machine, but I thought about it differently, about the delicate balance between willing participation in the unspoken social contracts that underpin law and order versus the submission to the unmitigated power of the State that is manifest in every street sign giving orders and reinforcing normative behavior. Where, I thought, is the line between responsible citizenship and passive complicity?

Even later I wondered what Remote X would be like in different cities, how precisely it would be tailored to the history, culture and aesthetics of a specific city. Remote Berlin did not feel particularly tailored to Berlin except in the most surface-y ways. But Berlin, Tokyo, Paris, New York, Moscow, London, Sarajevo – every city in the world has a profoundly different history and street life, a different feel, a different set of conditions. What is visible and invisible, what is the nature of presence and absence in the urban environment? Which cities destroy their physical history and which preserve it? For that matter, the movement of population between city and countryside has fluctuated over time and the meaning and purpose of the city has been subject to change. How does this audio tour draw us into this kind of fundamental reconsideration of place? I found myself retrospectively wishing the narrative had gone deeper and been more challenging. That being said, the narrative as I experienced it did provoke these thoughts in me, so perhaps that is what it intended to do all along.

After completing Remote Berlin a few of us raced over to the Schaubühne to see Romeo Castellucci’s Hyperion: Letters of a Terrorist, a new work presented as part of the Festival Internationale Neue Dramatik (or, F.I.N.D.) After seeing On The Concept of the Face… at Montclair earlier this year I wasn’t quite sure I was in the mood for Castellucci, but I found myself quite engaged and appreciative of this new work.

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