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‘Remote New York,’ a Tour From Brooklyn to Greenwich Village

The New York Times , JENNIFER SCHUESSLER , 12.03.2015

ON a rainy afternoon this week, passers-by may have paused to wonder about a headphone-wearing group assembled in front of a guardhouse at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, staring at a nondescript commercial strip outside the gates before suddenly bursting into applause.
They weren’t mourners, but both actors, after a fashion, and audience for “Remote New York,” a “pedestrian-based live art experience” that, starting on Saturday, will take 50 people (the script calls them a “horde”) per performance along a carefully planned route that wends, on foot and by subway, from Brooklyn to Greenwich Village.
“It’s a kind of invisible architecture,” Stefan Kaegi, part of the German-based arts collective Rimini Protokoll and the piece’s creator, said in a post-rehearsal interview. “We’re setting up a precise geographical structure, like a tunnel through the city that nobody sees.”
Guiding the group will be a comforting but eerie female voice that no one but the group hears, reconstituted from some 2,500 hours of previously recorded voices — an aural horde, if you will — by software that reads to the blind. That voice, in turn, is secretly controlled by a team of plainclothes theatrical officers (a.k.a. guides) being trained this week, who will cue the soundtrack according to unpredictable events and keep the group together over a nearly two-hour, six-mile journey exploring individuality, mortality, memory and the invasion of our mental geography by technology.
Stefan Kaegi, of Rimini Protokoll, in the Bowery. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
“What does it mean once we start to outsource so much of our brain to devices?” Mr. Kaegi said, summing up the themes. “What happens when machines are telling us exactly when to leave, what to buy, what to think?”
“Remote New York,” presented by the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University through April 12, is the first major work in New York for Rimini Protokoll, founded in 2002 by Mr. Kaegi, Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel. Since then, Rimini has gained an international reputation with projects that use the tools of theater and ordinary citizen-participants to investigate “real life.”
One such piece, “100%,” presented in 23 cities so far, features an onstage performance by 100 residents, carefully cast to reflect local demographics. “Cargo Sofia-X,” billed as a “live spatial model,” has ferried groups of 45 spectators around various European cities in the container of a specially fitted Bulgarian truck, exploring the lives of the drivers — “the nomads of cargo transport” — through stops at roadside fast-food restaurants, cargo ramps and border checkpoints.
“Remote X,” as the current piece is generically known, is Rimini’s most fictional to date, never referring to a city’s specific history or landmarks. It had its premiere in 2013 in Berlin, where Michael Harrington, the executive director of the Skirball Center, saw it and was struck by its cerebral twist on the standard tourist experience.
“I had already been there for a week, wandering around the city guided by my phone,” he recalled. “The piece made me see my relationship with technology, and the other people I was maneuvering through the city with, in a totally different light.”
“Remote X” has since traveled to 17 cities, including Lisbon; St. Petersburg, Russia; São Paulo, Brazil; and Bangalore, India. In each city, about half of it is rescripted, to adjust for travel times (the New York version includes about 50 minutes of walking) and location availability.
Touring “an idea, rather than a stage design,” as Mr. Kaegi put it, may save on some costs, but presents its own fearsome logistical challenges. In January his co-director, Jörg Karrenbauer, spent a week in New York scouting a list of more than 50 potential locations prepared by the Skirball staff, stopwatch in hand.
Back in Berlin, the team used Google Maps to sketch out potential routes while Skirball worked out permissions. Some locations used in other cities, including a hospital, a rooftop and a church, proved impossible to secure, whether because of security concerns, scheduling conflicts or simple landlord bafflement.
And then there was the challenge of navigating a large group through a city with frequent stoplights — each one “a small exercise in automated dictatorship,” says the voice, who does not encourage jaywalking — and little open, unclaimed space.
“It’s hard to find secret passages or shortcuts in New York,” Mr. Karrenbauer said. “Either they are locked or they don’t exist.”
Millie Tsai and Jörg Karrenbauer in Green-Wood Cemetery. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
The voice sometimes asks the horde to consider the people around them, starting with one another — and not always nicely. (“Whose telephone number would you like to have? And who would you prefer never to see again?”)
At other times, the group courts attention with carefully parceled out flash-mob moments, like a mass shoe-tying on the subway, a running race through “a ritual space for fitness” and an impromptu dance party in a garden.
On a busy downtown Manhattan street during the run-through, the voice pondered the nature of democracy and told the group to dig into their bags for something they would “fight for” and raise it overhead as if marching in a demonstration.
One guide-in-training, Erika Iverson, held up a translucent orthodontic retainer. “I don’t think I would fight for it, but I would be sad if I lost it,” she said.
The Rimini team worried that that moment in the script might cause trouble with the authorities when the piece was presented in St. Petersburg last year. “It turned out to be no problem,” Mr. Kaegi said. (The piece will travel to Moscow in May.)
But in Bangalore, where the piece was staged in early 2014, not long after the trial of suspects in a brutal gang rape on a bus in Delhi that caused an international outcry, the project took on an unexpectedly strong political charge.
“The young people who came really understood it as an investigation of the rules of behavior in public space, the way patriarchy is inscribed in public space,” Mr. Kaegi said. “There was a feeling that this was something that needed to be renegotiated.”
Potential political resonances aside, “Remote New York” is animated by an often goofy spirit of play and surprise, culminating in a dramatic ending that asks participants to consider how much of their intimate selves they are ready to surrender to digital rapture.
After the run-through, the Rimini team buzzed in German about kinks that needed to be worked out, while the guides-in-training checked their phones, submitting themselves to a more familiar kind of remote control.
Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons, a theater artist who collaborates with Ms. Iverson on a storytelling series, said she could handle any technical glitches. “I used to work at Disney World,” she said. “Sometimes rides would get stuck, and we’d have to entertain the crowd without breaking character.”
As Mr. Kaegi headed downtown for last-minute negotiations over an unexpectedly locked gate, the horde headed out to record some additional audio of a street basketball game, to be patched into the soundtrack.
They paused at the corner, as if wary of crossing the street on their own. “Take the headphones off,” Ms. Fitzsimmons said with a laugh, “and we’re lost.”

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