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Experts in the Use of Force

In their installation “Situation Rooms” Rimini Protokoll gives us a complex image of a civilization in which force, its tools and the images of it have become enmeshed in a global economy of death. What problems can be overcome when artists use theatre to address this topic? Peter Laudenbach spoke with Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel, the three heads of Rimini Protokoll.

Peter Laudenbach: In your installation “Situation Rooms” visitors move through  scenarios that all have something to do weapons and war in various ways. Is this a theme park offering adventure? 

Daniel Wetzel: We're not turning war into an adventure, but creating a way to access what certain people, who have experience with weapons, arms trade, weapons use and war, have to say. No illusionist simulation of adventure is created.  The visitor finds himself in a situation in which he is briefly made into an arms dealer or an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip. But there's always a certain distance to the role that remains.

Stefan Kaegi: In this context there seems to be a terrifying need for adventure. Latvians from Russia who volunteer for the separatists in the Ukraine or Belgian and German jihadists who travel to Iraq are looking for adventure.

PL: How did you find these experts in death, which visitors to your installation then encounter? How did you meet the soldiers, arms dealers, policemen, child soldiers, hitmen?

DW: That was a targeted, wide-ranging search. We wanted to have certain themes and different regions in the piece. Often one conversation led to the next. Of course it's not so easy to find someone who is willing to talk about such jobs. German armaments manufacturers only see such interviews as a losing proposition. So they don't talk. 

SK: We made inquiries to no avail at companies such as EADS or Krauss-Maffei Wegmann. The search, the casting process, went on for a year. Finally we found producers and dealers more in those countries where talking about weapons is less taboo. In India or Mexico the proximity to conflict is greater and so people deal with arms in a much more pragmatic way. We followed numerous tracks simultaneously, many came by way of acquaintances of acquaintances. You can't just find a hacker or a hitman by placing an ad in the newspaper.

PL: Is the hacker interesting because he forms a link, along with the iPad used in your installation, between weapons and entertainment technology?

DW: Yes, he treats the iPad as a potential weapon. The interconnections between visual media and weapons, between filming, observing and “shooting” are obvious.

PL: In your earlier work the experts of everyday life stand on stage as human readymades. Now we see experts in the use of force who only appear through media. I assume that is not just for technological reasons, but it also matters for the contents?

SK: There's hardly anything of the experts to be seen in “Situation Rooms”, at most their arms or legs. Once in a while someone appears briefly in a mirror. It is not the experts that can be seen, but the situation in which they find themselves, from their perspective. That's the shift. Instead of looking at a protagonist from outside, to a certain degree you look at an event “from inside”. In Hamburg one spectator left the performance after ten minutes. He didn't want to see any arms dealers, not even in a mirror.

Helgard Haug: For us it was about representing the experts differently. The spectators or visitors are linked in the piece to the various characters. They find themselves in the predicament of having to embody the different characters for a short time, regardless of whether they agree with what these experts do or think. All of this has practical advantages. We can show the piece without the performers from Africa, Switzerland or Mexico having to travel in. But that was not the decisive reason.

PL: Each visitor learns about the perspectives of 10 experts. How exactly does one encounter these professionals in death?

DW: You hear their voices through headphones. On the iPad or as you walk through the rooms of the film set you see their typical work situations. The visitor is always following the path, so to speak, that the expert in each case has paved by narrating/filming. This kind of approach is quite different than it would be looking at these people from a comfortable theatre seat. The piece operates from the sentence that is often used to explain things in conflicts: Put yourself in my shoes! It is about creating a form of proximity that is also perhaps a bit disturbing. This works if you get involved, like in a roller coaster ride, if you buckle in and accept that your freedom of choice is going to be restricted for the next few minutes.

HH: You don't look into a room from outside, but instead find yourself in it – in this case, although it's theatre, there are four and not three walls. You also see the behaviour of  other participants who are following the films of other experts. The 20 perspectives of the 20 experts collectively produce a sort of clockwork. The participant lands in a mechanism, and it has a certain rhythm. It jumps back to zero every 7 minutes. Then it moves the participant on into the perspective of a different expert, from which you can suddenly also observe the role that you had previously assumed.

PL: How did you shoot the iPad films with the experts?

DW: Dominic Huber built this film set in the Ufer Studios in Wedding, while at the same time we were rehearsing there with the experts. Then there was the final shooting day, when we simultaneously made these 20 different but intertwined films, each seven minutes long. 20 films were created at the same time on the same film set. The spectator/user re-enacts 10 of them in a performance by following them sequentially.

PL: Is the exemplary quality of the single stories reflected in the artificiality of the film studio?

HH: That's the character masks and situation models. The African child soldier stands in for zillions of others that have experienced something similar, just like the Israeli soldier. The arms lobbyist who says our Leopard tank is the best stands for a whole sector of the industry. Each of these character masks follows its own logic.

PL: The professionals that one encounters in this participatory observation are pursuing extreme activities. We meet the manager of a Swiss armaments concern, an African child soldier, the hitman for a Mexican drug cartel, an Israeli soldier, a war correspondent. Are there structural links beyond the pure phenomenology, that is, beyond the fact that all of them are directly or indirectly involved in violence? What do the various stories and people have in common with one another?

DW: First of all, they are connected through their lack of connectedness. It is about the oppositionality of experiences and perspectives. First “you are” an off-duty general from the Indian Air Force. He sees drones as the military device of the future, a boon for humanity. Seven minutes later “you are” a Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of drone attacks and says that they trample on human rights. Later a surgeon describes to you how he treated people in Sierra Leone whose hands had been hacked off. He leads you to a place of archaic violence.

PL: That begs the cynical question of what is better – high-tech war with drones or war with primitive weapons?

HH: We thought a long time about whether we should focus on a particular weapon, for instance an automatic rifle from the German firm Heckler & Koch – from the perspectives of a doctor, of a journalist, of someone who produces them, of someone who uses them, of someone who is active trying to prevent their export. In the end we decided against this kind of focus. Now it's about a wide variety of weapons that are used in conflicts today. Would a world without industrially manufactured weapons be the solution? A simple harvesting tool like a machete can become a deadly weapon. It is transformed in the hand of those who raise it against another being. The willingness to kill is the decisive thing, not the lethal object itself. We trace this arc up to the moment in which the Indian general raves about the use of drones.

PL: The material remains disparate, the life stories and weapons of the experts are quite diverse. No homogenous narrative comes into being. Does the space of the film set, in which this all takes place synchronously, suggest a kind of relation?

DW: Yes, it is a space of globalisation.

PL: There is a certain difference between a German policeman using weapons, defending the state monopoly on violence and thus basic civilian standards, and an African child soldier using them. Does the parallel presentation taken on by your piece necessarily obliterate significant differences?

SK: We're not saying that it's all the same, on the contrary. Every visitor moves through 10 very different scenarios. When you listen to these experts, first of all you take them seriously and give in to their logic. You cannot immediately distance yourself from these people and judge them, perhaps with the exception of the Mexican hitman. It can't simply be resolved into pro and contra.

PL: Are you using these criss-crossing perspectives to deliberately disturb the morally self-assured spectator perspective, one that knows perfectly well that the use of weapons is evil?

DW: We're sitting together here comfortably and peacefully in the restaurant of HAU, but of course we're all co-agents in this global play of violence.

PL: You mean, as co-agents we should be a little careful about setting ourselves above others who live in less comfortable situations? Are we agents and profiteers because we're doing well in an economic location like Germany, where the arms industry contributes to the gross national product and export surplus?

DW: We, here, are looking on. As news consumers, who get served a few catchwords on violence elsewhere before our crime show comes on.

SK: The three-minute reports on child soldiers in Africa or the 'Islamic State' in the “Tagesschau” have an unsettling effect. You can feel like you're affected, but then comes the next image. Somewhere down there terrible things are happening, but not here where we are. In contrast we produce a certain overload – also through the fact, for instance, that each visitor only sees 10 of a total of 20 stories in one run-through. There are always scenes that you miss.

PL: Does the deliberately produced overload also consist in the simultaneously running stories? Everything happens, as in real life, simultaneously. While we are talking, while a reader of this newspaper is reading this conversation, people are being killed in Syria or Mexico or Nigeria.

DW: For instance with weapons made by the German company Heckler & Koch.

PL: Whose taxes also contribute to financing the national cultural budget and the Capital Cultural Fund, which has already funded many of your projects.

DW: As we said: We are all, willingly or unwillingly, directly or indirectly, agents in this game, including of course you and me and Rimini Protokoll.

HH: Another aspect of simultaneity is that there is no linear dramaturgy or developed conflicts. Each visitor enters at a different point. Only the 7-minute units have a beginning and an end. There is no longer any global narrative strategy or an authoritative narrator that would explain everything. Everything is in a state of now and simultaneity.

PL: You can never see the complete picture. Is there no regulatory central perspective in the editing of these articles of reality?

DW: The ten stories that everyone sees, the 20 stories, are also only a small excerpt from an infinite number of stories. What you see is an excerpt of an excerpt of an excerpt. What you don't see, and the knowledge that there's a lot that you don't see – this is just as important as what you end up seeing. “Situation Rooms” is also a project at the interface of film and theatre.

PL: You encounter the experts through media, virtually. On the other hand, there is hardly any other human interaction that is as real and corporal as killing. What is the relation between the maximally virtual form of your multiplayer video piece and its maximally concrete theme?

HH: We were interested in this format and in simultaneous narration before it was clear to us what theme we wanted to examine. Unlike some of our other works, here we did not develop a format that was suitable to the theme. Nonetheless, it is of course anything but random that we are treating precisely these stories in this format. 