Thursday, January 8, 2015

Situation Rooms

Warning: comparison with the video game Call of Duty follows...

Weapons export and manufacture is one of those weird areas of economics - like the market for oil, it kind of determines a lot, without being talked about in a meaningful way. Arms trade can determine alliances, which can determine information sharing and spy networks, which can determine cultural ties, which can determine how a conversation between an American and a German plays out in a bar. Likewise, for many unexplainable global events there is a military explanation - but like a report of new climate science, it just doesn't make a good media narrative. People don't wanna hear that they are slaves to a giant military machine that's operating virtually without ethics, regardless of the level of truth to that depiction. And there is at least some truth. Make no mistake - despite the liberal pomp about disarmament and stability, the world today is buzzing with military activity. With each passing year, the armament of the world grows ever-larger. (And no, I'm not talking about Iran or North Korea).

Weapons trade is particularly pertinent in Germany, which makes a hell of a lot of them. While post WWII Germany is careful not to appear military in its direct interventions,  when it comes to manufacture and export of weapons, the same care is not always shown. Thankfully, the issue has some visibility within Germany, or at least in Berlin, thanks largely to the presence of a vocal radical left wing which brings these things to dialogue, and a conservative bastion which, though interested in profit and exploitation, is also (mostly) willing to listen. This has the effect of keeping tabs on where weapons are going, and ensuring, to a degree, that those destinations have some justification beyond profit. If armament can ever be truly justified. Anyway.

Situation Rooms, a new work from German political theatre pin-ups Rimini Protokoll, is a participatory theatre work that makes a detailed investigation into the arms trade and its consequences. Many years in the making, it sees the audience (or I prefer 'user' for reasons which will become clear) given a video-guide in the form of a customised 'tablet on a stick', entering a carefully constructed maze with 15 other users, and encouraged to carry out tasks which follow the narratives of 20 individuals who have some connections with weapons trading. The stories intersect and are reliant on each other - for example, one user carries out an action as part of their story, which has a physical effect on another story. From the uprising in South Sudan to a firing range in Northern Germany to a hacker in the US, this complex tapestry of technology, economics and politics is mapped out through the stories of its agents. Some, as you expect, are very violent, some quite mundane, although all have a haze of menace overhanging them.

If that sounds like a good area for a political theatre company to be working in, well... yes, it fucking well is. Taking on the entire military industrial complex is an absolutely enormous task, some would even say it is THE ultimate objective for a political work today. Situation Rooms seems destined to fail just because of this total ambition. After all, how the hell do you represent this vast machine? Where do you even begin? Or end?

The answer to this first question for RP is: the human story. The various global narratives chosen all deliberately highlight the human connection to this vast machine, to varying awareness of the ethical complexity. The investigation produces some contradictory statements, such as an Israeli soldier: "I joined the army because I believed in Democracy" or a labourer in a weapons factory in Germany "we used to work on the parts for washing machines. Now we work on guns. It's the same for me"*. Sometimes these resolutions seem to fail, such as a war photographer being granted permission to take a photograph of a child soldier, only to have the soldier then stick a gun under his nose and threaten to shoot if he didn't give them his money. The photographer's resolution - "my life was worth four dollars that day", seems to reduce the complexity of the situation into a individualist form palatable to a western audience. The key take home message is surely not one of reducing life to a low dollar amount. There is something infinitely more problematic.

But yes, dear reader (here we go...) I have deeper problems than the content, which is at worst still incredibly well-researched. No - the key issue here is of form. As we left the installation, slightly overwhelmed and giddy from the experience, something odd happened. Were we discussing weapons trading? No, we were discussing the machine itself. "Oh, did you get the narrative about the ____" "Oh, did you get to eat the soup?" "I got lost in the maze!" "My iPad stopped working!!!" and so on. It really reminded me of the feeling coming out of laser-tag or paintball. "Man, remember when I shot you in the back! That shit was crazy..." "Dude, mine just shut down!" "Mate, I tagged yo' ass! Y'all were just a bunch of pink mist!" (Side note: for some reason, all of the 10 narratives I got, literally 100% of them, were from men).

In short, the form presents at once a interactive learning experience, together with a power/control fantasy for the user (so they are, I suggest provocatively, not audience). This taps into debates about 'streamlined learning', and about artistic reproduction of ethical experience. To be fair, the rabbit-hole here is incredibly deep, as it touches on so many contemporary debates. To put it naively - do we learn from gaming? Or is what we learn a certain position, a certain heirarchy - that we are mere users of an infrastructure watched over by interchangeable masters? How does one position oneself in relation to the violence of the system? Again, this is a credit to the company, who have healthily bitten off much more than anyone can physically chew. My questions here are one of many, and naturally simplified.

However, like Chris Thorpe's Confirmation, this work must surely be judged on whether the metaphor, taken in its totality, completes its stated objective. Despite all of its ambition, all of its production, all of the 'goodness' of it's direction - there is something not entirely honest about Situation Rooms. Using an interactive gaming experience to address the system of weapons trading just has fundamental and irreconcilable problems. As I said to a friend afterwards, I also learned a lot about military from the 4th level of Call of Duty, where you play a Russian soldier at the Battle of Stalingrad forced to scale the riverbank heavily defended by German mini-guns. It's a question of what was actually learnt - whether this learning was good, or not. In the case of CoD, I learnt some historical facts. I learnt what it was like to scale that hill. I learnt the narrative. But I also learnt an unspoken role. I learnt a position in the mechanism. I learnt the rules, and I learnt that I cannot break them. Here, I have some deep Orwellian fear - that what was learnt was not an empowerment, but a role in the system.

There is a gun to our head, and an attempt to represent it should be applauded. Situation Rooms is a genuine attempt to get inside this system - but it should be approach with an awareness of what is being accepted.

Only irrationally can we trade one master for another.

Situation Rooms
HAU2, Berlin, until 11th January, (returning in May for Theatertreffen 52)
 by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, and Stefan Wetzel

Scenography by Dominic Huber / blendwerk
Video by Chris Kondek
Sound by Frank Böhle
Technical Direction and Light by Sven Nichterlein
Research by Malte Hildebrand and Cornelius Puschke

Picture: Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann


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