«Narrative Spaces. A form of immersive theatre»
…because this installation is no classical theater play: about narrative spaces
by Thomas Oberender
Speach for the symposium in Bergen, Norway
German Version published at the art magazine MONOPOL march 2015 and at Die Deutsche Bühne, Heft 5/2015
Traditional theater plays have a secure future. To write down what someone says as someone whom he is not, but whom he makes an appearance as, in spaces that are not the spaces that they are seen as, at a time that is not the present – all that is a wonderful process of displacement and metamorphosis of reality, which will certainly bring much joy to everyone who wants to play, to manifest a world and try out lives which he would otherwise rarely be able live. Theater in the traditional sense of representing something out there, are the musical notes of a unique, complex performance practice – what is noted within them creates a precomposed behaviour of a group of people that together sound a piece, by playing and showing it. Literary drafted dialogues are world-creating-machines from text, which are inhabited by those who present these words.
Theater is made for these world-creating composers – they are the software of a hardware consisting of ensembles and infrastructures that has matured over centuries, that on the basis of the authors text can continuously produce new worlds. Texts are the expression of experience, that of an individual author or of a group of people, They apply and test something in the text that they have understood from the world. Texts are problem processing processors. Differentiated from the lyric and epic by the description of activity, which is simultaneously their instruction manuel. They want to be executed, performed and acted out.
But what if the function of the theater text and the actions it prescribes are no longer in the script, no longer in a fixed written sequence of sentences and dialogue, but is instead taken over by a spatial installation, which through its content and configuration assign the visitor a role, similarly to the text being assigned to the actor? As such a form of text born spaces is where I want to introduce the term «Narrative Spaces.
«2+2=4. Das ist so. Zum Glück und zum Ganzen» (2+2=4, Thats how it is. Luckily and in the whole.) is written by hand on piece of paper with the company logo «IFM». When I read these lines in Mona El Gammals «Haus Nummer Null» (House Number Zero) on a table covered in documents, I instantly sensed the loneliness of this figure that must have gone about their business here. Apparently they left the room that I now stroll through shortly before my arrival. Everywhere machines are blinking, the interior design seems strangly futuristic, like from an Andrej Tarkowskij Science Fiction story. From the loudspeakers on the wall I hear governmental announcements. On the desks there are figures and numbers, pictures are pinned to the wall, excerpts from the news are shown, an answering machine switches on. From all this the fragmented impression is created that someone in this room made an alarming discovery. But who? Who is this person? What has been discovered?
Mona El Gammal called her Haus Nummer Null (House number zero) a «time and spatial installation». The futuristic dystopian fantasy of the young scenographer was shown during the Berlin theater meetings, but it could just as well have been part of an art exhibition. There arer no actors performing. The actor is a house, a survival station. Together with her team, Mona El Gammal created a kiosk from the 60’s on the East Berliner Karl Marx Allee and transformed it into the last refuge of a mysterious Mrs. N. Even though the visitor never meets her, she is constantly present through a variety of objects that manifest her biography. But not only her. The visitor also finds evidence for the presence of a totalitarian regime with the obscure name «Institute of Methods» (in German: IFM), and simultaneously also a secret underground organistion (The Rhizomat), which makes contact with the visitor at the end.
If you imagine Mona El Gammals story as a traditional theatric performance, the first scene would show an ivy-clad garden wall with an inconspicuous door. Someone rings the doorbel. This someone is yourself, the visitor. Everything that happens next, can only happen because this installation is not a traditional theater performance. The door opens. But instead of waiting in the theater seat for the scene to change, one can enter the door. Then one passes through a courtyard, at the end of which one finds the entrance door into a building, which leads to a freely accessible set. Starting with a decontamination room, complete with precise instructions on how to use it, a storage station containing hazmat suits, after that there are brightly lit corridors, showers and operating rooms, offices and laboratories containing mysterious test equipment. Behind a wall opening an apparently private study becomes visible, a little further there is a bedroom and through an almost invisible door one unexpectedly enters the world outside again. Somewhat dazed and confused one stands on the street in the bright sunlight and is unsure which world was more surreal.
Mona El Gammals installation showed that rooms can tell stories like actors. The rooms themselves are the actors in a performance that becomes appearant through the atmosphere and clues they contain. It is almost as if one were not entering an art room, but a crime scene. In these rooms everything that looks unsuspicious and carelessly placed, becomes part of the show, a clue. I feel reminded of a scenic installation «nights of other days» from Christian Boltanski that he created for the Ruhrtriennale in 2005. However, there, the actors played Kafkaesque scenes, often non-verbally, as directed by Andrea Breth. But also those rooms told a story through artifacts, similarly to Brett Baileys exhibition «Exhibit B» which presented motionless, silent people as sculptures in a «talking» environment.
Is that still theater? Mona El Gammal let one visitor enter her abandoned station every 20 minutes – the experience of tentatively approaching the story of a woman, that comes closer and closer as you explore this strange world. This experience requires the explorers full attention to orientate himself in a strange, confusing and unclear situation. The theater scholar Barbara Gronau described the fundamental differences between a performance and an exhibition. In an exhibition time belongs to the visitor, whereas in a theater the timeline is dictated by the successive development of the plot, and therefore by the act. The rooms of Mona El Gammal are freely accessible to the visitor, they can be visited like an exhibition. Nonetheless, the there is constant monitoring and admonishment, if for example pictures are taken. The visitors self-chosen path through the rooms is lightly manipulated and controlled through sound and light effects. Behind the scenes a three person team sits in a control room that precisely controls all seemingly random events such as radio announcement and telephone calls. Even though there are no actors, an entire series of narrative elements is performed, which may be an indication that this is a performance after all – a «theater of objects» to quote Cleas Oldenburgs concept.
Narrative Spaces orchestrate secrets. They attest to dramatic events, of which we can only see the imprint they left behind on the room, their legacy speaks to us. Narrative Spaces can be compared to archeological digs – instigated excavations. The talking rooms of Mona El Gamma are negative excavations and attempt to tell a certain story, even if it takes place in the future, through a clever amalgamation of authentic findings with fictional messages of imaginary actors, to create the stories world. According to a concept paper, the members of the project Haus Nummer Null (house number zero) understand each other as cartographers of an interior world and the architects of an exterior world.
I often think that theater plays are like looking out of a window. On the inside is the viewer, who looks out into another world that is bright and in which life takes its course. It is not possible to intervene in the course of events outside, and viewed from the inside everything out there becomes part of the scene and the figure, it grows in importance and becomes interesting. Every theater piece creates something like this, a spot on earth that we can view, that permits us insight, that stands for something. The window of the theater portal shows a reality that is not «there» and is nonetheless present.
As long as one thinks of Theater as a process that begins to bring light to the interior of a silent cave and imagines a far away world, we move into the world of representation. In it, strange worlds and figures are teleported to, what in essence remains a strange place, the place of the theater. And perform as if they were somewhere else, as if the spoken text is their text, and as if the thoughts and and problems of the figure are their own. Theater pieces in this context are founded on the idea of reflecting the world. And is it quite difficult to imagine what would happen, and what type of text and theater is created when this «naturality» is stripped away. When the theater does not show what is not «there», so if it not referencing to anything that is claimed, then it substitutes the term of «reality» with that of representation. And that changes quite a few things.
When an actor no longer speaks the words of another as if they were his own, when he no longer claims to be at a place that is not his place, without explicitly stating so, the scenic literature and epic theater practice opens new windows. Theater plays lose their «natural» relation to the figure, to the action, to the fourth wall, and open themselves to the specific reality of the theater itself, the reality of language, the actual presence of the visitor. The representing stage design is replaced by the environment or installation, similar as to the development of visual arts in the 60s.
Maybe the question about the future of theater should be asked more fundamentally, as a question what narration on stage means today. I can think of multiple, yet equally justifiable ways in which on-stage narration takes place nowadays. Still in the first place is the Literature Theater, a theater of composers, text obedience and embodiment. It can, like with Botho Strauß, Jon Fosse or Roland Schimmelpfennig, tie to the old, extremely artificial claim that an empathetic and clever merging between figure and actor takes place. Or, be according to Andrzej Wirths, be the theater of publishers and casting dialogue, souffleuses, of secondary productions, and royalties. This is the theater of directors and producers, of unions and of course of the authors. Although the term author in this context is a fluid one, because the literary form, such as in «Verrücktes Blut» (Crazy Blood) from Naruk Erpulat and Jens Hillje or the texts of Rene Pollesch often the distillate collective rehearsal process manifests in a a multitude of influences. Writing under these real time circumstances of a self manifesting director is a much faster, hotter process but at the end, like in the case of the lonely author, a re-enactable piece is created. This, from the author detachable and through others re-enactable work concept, corresponds to Live Art as it is known in the Visual Arts – so it compares to pieces of artists like Tino Sehgal, Marina Abramović or Jeremy Deller. They too created pieces that can be sold and exported, but rely even heavier on the audience to be involved in the performance.
This is very different in the Theater of Creations, so in performances where the literary text is not necessarily completed, but where the material is selected or created in the course of the process. This is a theater of ensembles, of mixed authorship between director and actors, dramaturges, scenographers and musicians. This theater can follow either the concept of representation or amount to completely different strategies. These creations are generally not re-enacted and remain originals that treat the text, music, space and actors equally. They are, other than Live Art, still entirely in the realm of performance, it is an artistic practice that is only partially separable from the body of the artist or the troop. It is a theater of stars and planets, of Christoph Schlingensief, Christoph Marthaler, She She Pop and Rimini Protokoll, William Kentridge or Punchdrunk.
Thirdly there is that narrative form Narrative Space, so of instigated spaces that independently realise the narration by showing the visitor traces on the crime scene. Here it is the circumstances that talk, it is a theater for individual visitors, of immersive spaces and intersected frames. These rooms also create stages, create and tell of representative worlds in the world. Theatric large scale installations from Punchdrunk or dreamthinkspeak behave similarly. I would add to this group Sinne Peter Szondis’ Lyirschen Räume (Lyrical Rooms), and theater pieces that rather create atmospheric rooms, such as «Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen» (The sound of divine revelation) from Ragnar Kjartansson with a composition from Kjartan Sveinsson, or the accessible works of visual artists from the vague field of relational art, such as Philippe Parreno or Pierre Huyghe.
Narrative Spaces recreate moments of an almost child like first encounter with the world, an awe, mixed with slight fear of the different order or power that lurks behind these things. We face this world alone, not collectively as is the case in traditional theater. It is more like a long distance lorry driver that pauses at strange, abandoned places. The remainder becomes the entirety.
As an example of such a remaining room, lets take Thomas Bellincks exhibition in Vienna «Das Haus der Geschichte Europas im Exil» (The house of Europe’s history in exile). Here too the visitor individually enters the first room after a certain waiting period in a dusky, timeless room right behind the porters office. The exhibition that the Belgian theater director build into the vacant building of the imperial post office in 2014, is actually an exhibition within an exhibition. It fits wonderfully in this morbid, now obsolete place of past power and glory, as it shows over multiple stories a memory of our present times. This is similarly conceptually challenging to the work of Mona El Gammal, only through the arrangement of rooms and the objects within them an unheard story of the rise and fall of the European Union is told.
Bellincks Haus der Geschichte Europas (The house of Europe) is located in exile as the new empire of Europe consisting of a variety of countries, has disappeared by 2060. The once carefully and lovingly compiled exhibits and elaborately created showcases are yellowed and bleached, dust has settled on the showcases. The world of the exhibits collected here has lost the love that once compiled and maintained them. If the United Europe disintegrated in 2018, as is indicated by one of the showcases, the exhibition as a memorial to the European project must have been created in the 2040s. Since then it has come into the years. Meanwhile, a different language is spoken in Europe, Thomas Bellinck meticulously developed a language combining Esperanto, slavic and romanic languages. The former Euro has been replaced by a new currency (2 euro = 173 WEM). One cannot help but shudder at the sight of the individual exhibits. They are called» «Magnet Europe» (Magnetic Europe), Die Wiederkehr der Vergangenheit« (The Return of the Past), which covers the great recession of the year 2013, or «Demografische Bulemie» (Demographic Bulimia). We see a chapter «Richtlinien und Verordnungen» (Rules and Regulations) where the piles of files and folders lead up to the roof, and showcases with examples for the standardisation of bananas, the contents of printing cartridges or the movement angle of windshield wipers are presented.
In a talk with Thomas Trenkler Bellinck called his «fictive museum» an attempt to find distance to contemporary Europe «to be able to see the present differently». The exhibition clearly portrays the critical areas of the current Union. The visitor studies European wide strengthened rise of right wing nationalist parties by means of authentic election campaign material, the world capital of lobbyists by means of a huge collection of business cards and the tragedy of the «Generation Mauer» (Wall Generation) who let Europe’s fallen monument to separation decay to mere souvenirs and trade material. Shocking is also the re-creation of the miserable living conditions of illegal workers on tomato plantations in the south of Spain. Bellincks functionalists our present through the exhibition of an exhibition, he instigates trip through time by means of objects from the present, which lead directly to the fall of the European Union as we know it. He clarifies their own present to the visitor by giving the present a touching patina. And again the visitor experiences this as a detective, as an archeologists, who collects clues to build his own puzzle.
Is this exhibition of an exhibition only an exhibition? Sometimes wildly it finds it way through the imperial post office, builds rough wooden bridges over open floors. Extremely elaborately it stages a memory from the future, to create a symbol for the victims of today. At the end, in the final cabinet of the exhibition, it surprises with a message from its creator. In the gloomy illumination of an exposed light bulb a handwritten letter lies in the dust. «Dear Lucas» it says, «I am currently building a museum / a real museum with mannequins, info tablets and showcases./ I am not sure whether it is something for you, but there are tomatoes in it too. / I am sure you would like that. / in the last room of the museum I wanted to build a monument. / In memory of those who will never get one. / I was not sure sure how I was supposed to do that. / So I started collecting them. /The man who lit himself on fire in front of the tax office. / The man who shot himself himself in the head in front of the Parliament. / In the park. / In an attic. / From a window. / And then you. / Totally unexpected. On the same day as the Spaniard who had to leave his house. / In the very same way. (…)» The political misery which the exhibition portrays, is showcased in the last room through the suffering of a person. Or more accurately, of two people, as the exhibit not only tells the story of Lucas but also that of the director and his struggle with the exhibits and his own intentions.
Precisely there is the difference between narative spaces of Mona El Gammal and Thomas Bellinck from the artistic environments of an Ed Kienholz, Joseph Beuys or the Errinerungsräumen (Remembering Rooms) of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. The visitor finds a projected figure, whom they never physically meet, but through the trail and clues that are displayed, can nonetheless picture mentally. This connects their work also with «Situation Rooms», the multiplayer video piece of Rimini Protokoll. In 2013 it premiered at the Ruhrtriennale, or maybe one should say it opened, and toured through Europe. Even though it was only the hardware that did the traveling, a set of 20 film realistically created rooms that are nested into each other. Each of which was the setting for a figure, whose posture and movement the visitor followed as soon as he entered the room. This is made possible through iPads that function like a camera and probe. The visitor follows the spatial movements of the image that he sees on the screen, and thereby travels room by room through the live worlds of at least 10 figures. Again one starts alone in front a door and encounters an obstacle course full of speaking details.
The theme of «Situation Rooms» is the world of weapons – all figures in who’s world I enter as visitor through the rooms, has a connection to war and killing, be it because they are peace activists, child soldiers, refugees, precision engineers or, the cafeteria lady who works in an arms company, weapons dealer or doctor. Per room, the visitor takes up the role and perspective of these other people, and follows their physical movements into the finest of details, for example when he lies down on the floor of a shooting range, or when he sits down and takes control over a drone. With great speed the changes in position and perspective are made, and each time the visitor learns the subjective truths of a particular person, practically from the inside, which is then replaced only minutes later by another person on the screen. Actors are also not needed in these rooms, unless you consider the visitor themselves as such, whom on their journey through the world of weapons continuously take over the particular actions and objects of others. They even meet each other, without however, ever acting divergently from what the «author» prescribed, as ironically the visitor is the the fictitious person inside real rooms. He is a figure that is not invented, but that he has found when he turned on the iPad. From that figure, and its successors, the visitor is now moved and lead through a confusing set of hallways, conference rooms, watch towers, classrooms, basements and work stations.
Narrative Rooms take us a passenger. We walk through them like the wind and find traces of stories, that unveal at least one order. Narrative Spaces on the one hand search for a new type of immersion, they make the visitor thin-skinned, insecure, awed and shocked, like in the «Situation Rooms» with the sensual force of different realities. On the other hand, they are in position to speculate what life could be when it is observed from the inert world. From the perspective of stones and trees, or maybe also from plants, as in the project «Die Welt ohne uns» (The world without us) from the Lunatics in Hannover. Maybe even from the perspective of lunatics, children and animals, as with with Dostojewski.
The complete narrative space that artists like Anri Sala, Philippe Parreno or Pierre Huyghe developed in their exhibitions, do not have a vanishing point in a persona. Whoever enters them, will always be reminded of their shaping presence as visitor. In a Narrative Space such as Haus Nummer Null (House Number Zero) it would be unthinkable that upon entering the exhibit, the name of the visitor is announced out loud by a friendly porter. The anonomity and irrelevance of the own being is effectively evicted from the room, as wonderfully demonstrated by Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition.
Narrative Spaces create stories for intruders. They are are, like Signa Köstler wrote in the programme booklet of «Haus Nummer Null» (House Number Zero), «uninhabited, yet concentrated through the stories of its inhabitants». What does it mean, that in these time travels, that abbandone the connection to the people, but also to real institutes and their history of relationary art: The visitor is isolated from the collective and is beamed into fictional worlds that do not show him a counterpart other than an absent figure and a strange order of things? Exactly on this edge between exhibition and performance is where narrative spaces from theater artists such as Mona El Gammal, Thomas Bellinck, Rimini Protokoll or Dominic Huber, whose great achievement as an author is to create rooms that read time. They equip the visitor with experiences that can only be obtained in the room of events. In that way they transcend the traditional picture frame by «writing» rooms and to let the visitor become a participant in the situation which ultimately leads to discoveries which cannot be made without an active search. It is striking that Narrative Space exercise social criticism to a society that only shows its framework. Their adventure however clearly lies in Allan Kaprovs famous demand: «Go in, instead of look at».