Interviewing Stefan Kaegi

Discovering the city through theatre

By Claudio Rimmele

18.11.2013 / bettery magazine

Somehow, it seems almost sad that getting lost in a city has become near impossible thanks to mapping technologies like GPS or Google Maps and the constant availability of networked mobile devices. Instead of weaving our ways through uncertain paths, we approach our goals with unhesitant, robot-like precision. Gone are the days when we had to stop strangers for directions – and sometimes, these moments are sorely missed.

In the realm of theater, avant-garde collective Rimini Protokoll explores this experience via their Remote X production, co-produced by Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer theater. Here, GPS takes center stage and transforms the entire city into a living playing field. Compiled from one-hundred women’s voices, the collective’s audio guide leads the assembled audience through the city, allowing them to relinquish control and self-determination to the guiding technology, coupled with a sense of eerie disorientation and finishing with a liberating view from above. With his entirely actor-free production, director Stefan Kaegi conjures up an encompassing and previously unseen audio-visual experience of urbanity through theater – an intriguing premise and approach he clarifies in our interview.

Stefan Kaegi, thank you very much for taking the time to explain your current work as part of the Rimini Protokoll theater collective. Your Remote X audio-visual urban exploration – as experienced in Berlin – is truly fascinating. Was there a narrative goal behind it all? And how long did you explore the city to find and pinpoint your storyline?

I have always wanted to create a piece that uses the existing city for scenography. This allows the audience to observe the city as it is, to stop and wonder what the heck they are doing here. All we need for this particular tour is a suitcase full of receivers and three transmitters. It is the most flexible project I have ever done.

After its Berlin premiere, the production traveled to several other cities like Lisbon, Avignon, Zurich, Basel, and Vienna – cities that differ wildly in size, layout, and walkability. How did you translate your work to these different urban scenarios?

Traditional theater relies on trucks to transport stage designs and on planes to fly the ensembles to their next destination. In our case, the existing city doubles as a stage, so we need to know what we are dealing with. Usually, a small group of three people spends two to three weeks in every upcoming Remote X location. We try to see the city from the perspective of an artificial intelligence. We use this alien point of view to identify places where humans have evolved irrational behaviors: churches, cemeteries, shopping malls … or we seek out human patterns in spaces where they cooperate with machines: hospitals, weapon dealerships, elevators, subways…

Your final shows are scheduled to take place in São Paulo this November – a city that is seven times the size of Berlin and hardly sees any pedestrian traffic. It must have been hard to find just the right angle and approach for Remote X in this city: Was it a struggle or an inspiring challenge?

São Paulo is exciting since the city recently experienced several sizeable protest movements and because it is a place where people tend to have negative, rather than positive experiences in public space. They endure long queues on the subway or traffic jams and they like to lock themselves away in gated communities if they can afford it. The “praça da sé” is a special experience with hundreds of thousands crossing this neighborhood around 6 pm. A true ant colony for social observers…
At the same time, our project doesn’t stop with São Paulo: We will go to Bangalore in January and are currently talking to producers in Estonia, Le Havre, and St. Petersburg, among others.

What about audience reactions to your audio guide? Did you encounter any particularly unexpected moments or situations?

Well, people come up with a lot of conspiracy theories when they see my audience simultaneously bending over to tie shoe laces or running a race in an abandoned street. Some think we are a sect or flash mob, others see people walking around with raised fists and think we are a demonstration … But the city itself can also surprise us: In Avignon, we got stopped by the police one day. We told them that we had all the required permits, but more and more officers kept arriving. In the end, we realized that a minister was about to cross our tour.

As part of your production, the audience is guided by an artificial GPS persona. What kind of role does modern technology play in your piece?

The pivotal question is: What does technology do when we depend on it? Whenever I try to find my way around a city I completely depend on GPS navigation, my entire calendar is online, and I deal with e-mails every day. So, I find myself in a kind of a symbiosis with pre-programmed patterns. The voice that guides the Remote X audience through the city is synthetic and generated by a text-to-speech-program, just like those used by visually impaired people to communicate via computers. Walking through the city, the audience comes to trust this voice more and more as it seems to predict and synchronize just about anything that happens on the way. This is how we seduce our users or players to get involved and interact in ways that they would never consider if they were on their own.

So, are our Western lives already led and guided by smart phones and GPS? Have we lost our sense of control and orientation – and thus also our freedom and self-determination?

I wouldn’t phrase it in such negative terms. I like my tools. Don’t you? If not, you wouldn’t use them … But it is always good to question what they do and how much of our lives we want to turn over to them: Should they archive our memories? Should they keep us alive even if we start to forget who we are?

Productions like Remote X or Ciudades Paralelas allow the audience to discover new aspects of their own cities. Do you think theater should leave the traditional setting behind more often to explore public space?

I grew up in Switzerland where art in public space usually boils down to sculptures that stay in place more or less forever. I like to consider my work temporary invisible architectures; social and fictional structures that bring crowds together – and dissolve them before they get on your nerves. In Europe, theater has invested too much in fixed structures that predetermine the contents. Having said that: I also work with straightforward stage situations. They can be very useful. But many people in theater make use of them without ever questioning the set-up…

What about upcoming projects from you and Rimini Protokoll? Anything we should certainly see or experience in the next month or so?

We just premiered our biggest project ever, Situation Rooms – an interactive video construct on the weapons trade. To this end, we brought together twenty people from all over the world whose biographies have been shaped by weapons: an Israeli soldier, a Syrian refugee, a Pakistani lawyer, a Mexican gang member, a German politician, an African child soldier, a Swiss defense industry manager … We asked them to shoot short films that display their personal perspectives in reconstructions of their homes and offices. Now, the audience can retrace seven minutes of their lives by following their tracks through the installation. At the same time, we are also preparing a stage project with one hundred Belgians for the Kunsten Festival in Brussels as well as research into Chinese consumers of German cars. For updates, visit our website.

Stefan, thank you very much for your time. We are looking forward to experiencing one of your pieces soon!



Remote X