“Every Message Was Meant for Me”
von Lucien Strauch
Erschienen in: CHANGES (English edition) – Berliner Festspiele 2012 – 2021. Formats, Digital Culture, Identity Politics, Immersion, Sustainability (12/2021)
It is hard to know which came first—a new worldview, that is, one that was at least seen as contemporary, formed along with the emergence of a digital age at the beginning of the 60s of the last century, or a new practice by artists who developed new forms of work, thereby changing the ways that classical institutions operated and, in many places, redefining the way audiences encounter the art work. What had initially been heralded by cybernetics and computerisation led to a technical and media revolution comparable only to the invention of the printed book. With the arrival of the first post-internet generation, not only the existence of the internet became regarded as a natural state of affairs but also a way of thinking characterised by networking, feedback and environments designed in correspondingly intuitive ways. A generation that grew up with computer games not only built interactive worlds in digital playrooms but also carried this way of thinking over to old formats such as performances and exhibitions.
Even before the term “immersion” was used in German-speaking countries to describe a development, which had migrated from technology-based media arts to all other artistic fields by the 90s at the latest, Berliner Festspiele—under the direction of Thomas Oberender—established its own programme series entitled “Immersion”. This was dedicated to forms and formats that abandoned the established subject-object relationship of traditional art production and created holistic structures that actively perceive the presence of the visitors and include them in complex arrangements of activities.
The following text describes pioneering work in reflecting on and exploring these new developments between 2016 and 2021—a five-year period that yielded experimental formats for exhibitions, concerts and theatres, in which the Festspiele entered new territory and contributed powerful ideas to the intellectual and artistic debate of this century. The programme series “Immersion” with its subsidiary programme “The New Infinity”, which opened up the educational institutions of large-scale planetariums to artists of the digital age as galleries and concert halls, set down a marker for contemporary art production. Looking further back and also sideways, the text shows the role that the phenomenon of immersion has played in the festivals and events of the Berliner Festspiele, even beyond the programme series of the same name.
“Immersion” is the name of a programme series that has taken place since 2016 under the umbrella of the Berliner Festspiele alongside its long-established theatre and music festivals Theatertreffen, MaerzMusik, Jazzfest Berlin, Musikfest Berlin and various national contests. The term immersion refers to a process of delving into a subject, of plunging into or penetrating something: submerging one’s head below the surface of the water in baptism is also a form of immersion. That artistic works can have an invasive effect on us is nothing new. The fictitious worlds or atmospheres of ancient dramas, novels, symphonies or series that absorb us in the course of several seasons enter into us, touch us from the inside and in our innermost being. While this view of the aesthetic effect of immersion hardly necessitates a new curatorial category, the programme series of this name has been more interested in making a genre visible and its foundation focusses on a movement in the opposite direction: not only does the work pervade the audience, for its part, the audience also pervades the work. Instead of merely temporarily disappearing from sight, the front of the stage and the picture frame between the work and the audience actually dissolve altogether. At the same time, as Berliner Festspiele has defined its understanding of immersion from the outset, another boundary is dissolved: the one between the time-based art form of theatre and the space-based art form of the exhibition of visual art. As a result, two disciplines or genres, but above all two forms of presentation, come together. What is exhibited is no longer simply there, stationary, to be viewed front-on or from all sides in one’s own time, and what is performed sloshes over the front of the stage into the auditorium.
Two works from the beginning of the five-year “Immersion” project exemplify this blurring of boundaries: with RHIZOMAT in 2016, Mona el Gammal designed a narrative space in the GDR’s former long-distance telephone exchange that featured no actors yet hosted a continuous performance for 12 hours a day over three months. It was the exhibited objects themselves that were staged here, reacting—rhizomatically—to the reactions of the visitors and portraying a complex dystopia whose narratives and connections were successively unlocked by an audience wandering through it. While the work in this form was still bound to a physical location, surrounded by walls and sealed off from the outside that had to be entered and exited, in the 360° virtual reality version it was freed from the venue and could potentially be accessed from anywhere in the world.
A similarly radical revival of a historical site, albeit with a very different artistic spirit, occurred at the former munitions factory on the edge of Berlin, where Ida Müller and Vegard Vinge temporarily established the Nationaltheater Reinickendorf, which, in addition to its centrepiece theatre building, also housed a “Panini Cathedral”, a bar and a submarine. While subjects and objects in RHIZOMAT encountered each other with comparative reticence, the total theatre of Vinge/Müller was one of maximum confrontation. Each time, a new combination of material was assembled from over 200 hours of prepared performance to make a 12-hour long night of theatre that overloaded the senses. The intermezzi that were announced as “intervals” simply pretended to lend a structure to the hours spent there. While performers wearing horror masks lovingly provided the audience with fruit and their sense of the performance’s duration shifted, Lana del Rey hammered in the fact that the lives of all those present were passing by with an increasingly disturbing loop: “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” Only a plexiglass panel lowered at just the right moment between the visitors and a Vegard Vinge armed with a primed fire extinguisher marked a limit to the breaking of boundaries.
Use of a venue not necessarily conceived for the art form concerned, the combination and at times merger of representation and exhibition, the blurring of the spatial, affective and cognitive separation of stage and auditorium, of actors and audience, of subject and object, and ultimately a treatment of time that often transcends the requirements of a work to be no longer than “a full evening” and sees time as an infinite, possibly renewable resource—these aspects can be identified as characteristics of many of the art works, artistic formats, exhibitions and productions that have been part of the “Immersion” programme. These included Jonathan Meese’s vision of Parsifal that merged installation and opera in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, or his virtual reality work with Brigitte Meese, that offered insights into perhaps the most productive mother-son relationship in contemporary art. They also included discursive formats such as Cornelius Puschke’s “Schule der Distanz No. 1” or exhibitions by and with Omer Fast, Ed Atkins, Philippe Parreno and Tino Sehgal, who repeatedly inverted the conventions of what we expect when we visit an “exhibition” and, for example in the case of “Down to Earth”, went far beyond art to extend into the institution itself.
When one looks beyond the “Immersion” programme series and uses the characteristics outlined above to study the last ten years of Berliner Festspiele’s history, it becomes evident that immersion has not been confined to the “Immersion” series for a long time. Immersive formats can be found in other programmes and festivals under the Berliner Festspiele umbrella and have been for some time. Even before Mona el Gammal appeared in the programme series with RHIZOMAT, she was represented at Theatertreffen’s Stückemarkt in 2014 with the “time and space installation” HAUS//NUMMER//NULL. This was during the brief phase in which the Stückemarkt temporarily changed its rules: instead of a jury choosing between submitted play texts, established artists nominated younger theatremakers. It is no coincidence that Mona el Gammal was recommended for the Stückemarkt by Signa Köstler, who has been working on immersive performances of her own with the company SIGNA since the beginning of the 2000s. Their 84-hour performance Die Erscheinungen der Martha Rubin was presented at the Theatertreffen in 2008. SIGNA create hyper-realistic, atmospheric worlds, often in gloomy, disused locations. You can spend hour after hour wandering through these worlds, and as with Mona el Gammal, assemble a complex, web-like narrative from all the available clues: you can get lost in these worlds. Unlike in RHIZOMAT, SIGNA’s audiences often come very close to the performers, they either fear each other or form alliances. And occasionally performers and members of the audience will meet each other by chance outside the format, in their private lives, and find themselves involuntarily thrust back into the intense shared experience of that SIGNA world.
From the last ten years of the Theatertreffen alone, a wealth of works come to mind that broke down the boundaries of theatre in terms of space, time and often practical production considerations: with Show Me A Good Time (Theatertreffen 2021), Gob Squad reacted to the restrictions of the pandemic by turning the streets of Berlin into their theatre space for 12 hours, connected to the audience via a live link, with the performers and audience always laughing together “every half hour”, producing a minute of cathartic laughter whether they wanted to or not. With Dionysos Stadt (Theatertreffen 2019), Christopher Rüping and his ensemble offered an almost ten-hour feast of ancient culture. Anyone wanting to smoke during the performance was allowed to go on stage to do so as long as a traffic light showed green. Frank Castorf’s Faust (Theatertreffen 2018, seven hours in duration) hardly seems worth mentioning, as intensity created through an overload of time and information has been part of this director’s aesthetic for ages. A year earlier, the Theatertreffen moved into Berlin’s Rathenau-Hallen for a series of performances of Kay Voges’s Die Borderline Prozession. The audience looked from changing angles at countless simultaneously animated still lifes within a complex of buildings. A camera dolly incessantly circling the set multiplied the perspectives. It was no longer possible to rely on a framed central perspective here. In Karin Henkel’s BEUTE FRAUEN KRIEG (Theatertreffen 2018, once again held at Rathenau-Hallen) the game of changing perspectives continued. The audience, with the voices of tragic actors intimately present via headphones, repeatedly moved back and forth between three blocks of seating and three visual axes.
Perhaps one of the simplest and most touching ways to dissolve the boundaries between observing and being observed was found by two-women-machine-show and Jonathan Bonnici with TRANS- at the Stückemarkt 2016 in the wings of Haus der Berliner Festspiele: the audience was seated in a circle around the four performers, who only described what they saw: the space, faces and bodies, looks. The power of looking also played a key role in Markus Öhrn’s Conte d’amour, his disturbing exploration of the Josef Fritzl case, that was shown at Berliner Festspiele in Theatertreffen 2012. The visitors decided for themselves how long they were prepared to watch the action in Öhrn’s cellar of nightmares. In the same year at the Theatertreffen, 2012, Vinge/Müller also made their first appearance in the Berliner Festspiele programme with John Gabriel Borkman. Ibsen-Saga Part 4. Season 2 / Performances #20–25 and Milo Rau blurred the boundaries of theatre and politics with Hate Radio.
In Troubleyn / Jan Fabre’s Mount Olympus, presented by Foreign Affairs in 2015, the performers acted, sweated, loved, suffered, slept and dreamt their way through the ancient Greek myths for twenty-four hours. The following year, in Pere Faura’s Sweet Fever (all night version) the dancers and audience danced the choreographed moves from the cult film Saturday Night Fever to the music of the Bee Gees at Haus der Berliner Festspiele without a break from dusk till dawn, occasionally entering trance-like states that, even under very different auspices, were related to the principles of repetition in Vinge/Müller.
Extreme durations, unconventional venues and trance-like states are significant points along the way for Berliner Festspiele’s musical programme. A key influence for several years was “The Long Now” conceived by Berno Odo Polzer, which became MaerzMusik’s annual finale from 2015 to 2019. The 30-hour project at Berlin’s Kraftwerk Mitte, with camp beds instead of seats, was a format in the sense that Thomas Oberender identifies in his essay on the topic in this book: as a means of mediating between the work and the audience. “The Long Now” required a new consensus between visitors and makers that was continuously negotiated on a subtle level and has perhaps already been canonized within a small scene over a few years. When “The Long Now” could not take place in 2021 due to the pandemic, its place was taken by TIMEPIECE, a human speaking clock based on a composition by Peter Ablinger that was transmitted via the internet from the main stage of Haus der Berliner Festspiele for 27 uninterrupted hours.
In a collaboration with Jazzfest Berlin extending over several editions of the festival, the KIM Collective has thoroughly tested the acoustics of the rooms, corridors, staircases and corners of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. In 2018, still down in the “UN(TER)ORT”, the formation reacted to musical events on the surface through a series of echoes. In 2019, KIM Collective, now dubbing itself “Jazzfest Berlin’s mushrooming network”, rose up and spread out its roots in the Festspielhaus foyer in a constantly evolving sound installation extending over two days. Very similar movement patterns had been displayed just the day before at Gropius Bau. In Anthony Braxton’s Sonic Genome numerous small ensembles associated with the composer moved through the extensive exhibition space following his improvisatory principle of “ghost trance music”, swapping from work to work, dividing like living organisms and forming new line-ups, while the visitors were themselves mobile and could continuously compile their evening’s listening itinerary for themselves.
Two Gropius Bau exhibitions from recent years exemplify immersive approaches from the directions of visual arts and architecture. Yayoi Kusama is world famous for her infinity mirror rooms. She exhibited several of these in 2021 in the retrospective “A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe.” Using countless mirrors, these appear to multiply into infinity. Perhaps it was fortunate that the exhibition was consistently sold out: respect for the steady flow of visitors behind them prevented anyone from lingering too long in these mises en abyme and losing their sense of time along with their sense of space.
Endlessly fluid spaces are also a core theme of the universal artist Friedrich Kiesler, to whom Martin-Gropius-Bau dedicated the first exhibition in its series “Rediscovered Modern” in 2017. Kiesler is frequently quoted as saying: “Life is short, art is long, architecture endless.” His “spatial stage”, which arranges the audience in a ribbon shape around a floating core, is an alternative to the proscenium stage perhaps only surpassed in radicality by Kiesler’s Endless Theatre, which envisions the theatre building as a hollow-shaped uterus. The Martin-Gropius-Bau enabled these places to be experienced in model form, accompanied by a discussion between Hans Ulrich Obrist, Dorothea von Hantelmann, Milo Rau and Thomas Oberender entitled “The Theatre of his Dreams” and compared Kiesler’s designs with another vision of the theatrical space: the Fun Palace of Cedric Price.
The phenomenon of immersion not only runs through all the different strands of Festspiele’s programming, it can also be traced back a long way in time. During the directorship of Ulrich Eckhardt, the Berliner Festspiele were already working on breaking down boundaries between venues and the city landscape and on bringing together the most disparate target audiences and groups of practitioners. “SternStunden”, which formed part of the city of Berlin’s 750th anniversary celebrations, closed the Großer Stern around the Siegessäule for several weeks in the summer of 1987 and staged four revues with up to 1,000 participants in a temporary theatre with 25,000 seats. Even earlier, in 1974, Metamusik, the festival that preceded MaerzMusik, invited Nico, John Cale and Brian Eno to perform in the Neue Nationalgalerie, thereby bringing together very different audience groups.
From 2001 onwards, Berliner Festspiele presented works both in the former Theater der Freien Volksbühne on Schaperstrasse, a classic theatre building with two stages, seated auditoria, cloakrooms, a canteen and foyers, and the exhibition space at Martin-Gropius-Bau with its highly versatile atrium. By this point at the latest, the fusion of theatre and exhibitions under the umbrella of a joint institution—not only on an administrative level but also in its artistic practice—became obvious. The selection of works and formats assembled here is incomplete and contentious, but it nevertheless illustrates a trend of recent years. It is an amusing paradox that an institution that has included a picture frame in its logo for the last ten years has devoted itself to dissolving that same frame on so many different levels in such a range of different formats, festivals and production processes. And yet this focus, which is so much more visible in retrospect, seems appropriate at a time when the making of arts and culture finds itself in transition and for a new worldview that cannot ignore interdependence. “Ultimately, every message was meant for me, wherever I looked,” says the narrator in Thomas Melle’s auto-fictional book Die Welt im Rücken [published in English as The World at My Back] (Rowohlt 2016, p. 59), whose stage adaptation from Vienna was presented at Theatertreffen 2018. Admission to a world where things are meant for us is something that Berliner Festspiele has helped numerous artistic forms of expression to achieve ever since its foundation—and particularly over the last ten years.
Lucien Strauch is a dramaturge for theatre and opera.