Von Barbara Van Lindt
01.05.2008 / Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Brussels
Barbara Van Lindt: Rimini Protokoll, a theatre collective with quite a lot of experience in making projects with real people, about subjects at the top of our socio-economic agenda, really opened a call centre in Calcutta especially for this project. Are the employees actors or professional call centre employees?
Daniel Wetzel: The people we work with have all kinds of backgrounds, and some also have call centre experience. But professional call centre employees are actors by training and definition. We’ve been listening to them in various performances. My current favourite takes place on one floor of BNK in Calcutta. There, several New York Pizzerias have outsourced their telephone ordering services. So the operators there – let’s call them performers for the moment – have a very very different task, much more difficult and atavistic than a European theatre performer. It is all about the satisfying the appetite of people in New York, who are hungry. So you stand next to these operators in India and you hear them asking New Yorkers if they’d like extra cheese, extra peppers, large or extra large or XXL, combined with what drink and so on. And at the close, the performer repeats the order, clears the bill, checks the credit card number and tells the customer in how many minutes the pizzas will be delivered in Brooklyn or Manhattan and so on. Imagine what would happen to the appetite of the customers if they began to notice that the service staff they were talking to was located in India. This would mean a very heavy portion of “extra global cheese” that would run counter their desire for a quick pizza from around the corner. So, for the sake of both the outsourcing company and their customers, the Indian performer first of all has to make sure that his theatre of service hides the reality of globalisation. Actually, it could be an attraction – a free long distance call, with other things to talk about than extra cheese. My example was a pizza, but one of the growing service markets is around medical services; for example, the analysis of X-rays, the transcription of vocal prescription protocols about the medication for hospital patients and so on. All kinds of services that are being invented on the basis of the cost differential between India and the West.
But this theatre of service also forces the Indian performer to hide his identity. Without constant monitoring of his theatrical performance, the Eastern performer of Western service would lose his part – that is, his job. Globalisation – let’s use this term even though it is just a new word for a much older thing – implies illusion and self-betrayal on the side of the consumer (that is, us) and this of course is connected to racism and to xenophobia. Because there’s actually no reason why the pizza should be any worse only because the information about extra cheese came via India. Anyway, it’s the Pakistani who lives next door to you who will put it in the oven.
BvL: How did you find them, what were your criteria? Did your research in the call centre industry bring to light surprising insights?
DW: These people who are performers in this project are mostly non-actors, with a few exceptions (people who have been involved with theatre projects in Calcutta). They are students, young middle class urbanites. Pickup is at 2:30 pm Indian time, the bus takes them to the periphery of Calcutta and then they’re sitting in front of their communication units talking to theatre customers in Europe. Let’s call them the European theatre shift, because they share the same workstation landscape with the so-called Australian shift (with people trained to sell cell phones, modem devices and related tariff contracts to customers in Australia – of course pretending to be located in Australia) – and with the American shift (selling pension and health insurance contracts to the US, pretending to be located in the US). However, there are many differences between our workers and the two other shifts. An important one is that our people don’t work under the pressure of sales rankings. And they are not pretending to be someone else located close to you; they’re not using fake names, but spelling their real ones.
BvL: Call Cutta in a Box is the second version of a project called Call Cutta. The first version was a guided tour through the city: the spectator was connected to an Indian call centre employee via mobile phone and got walking directions through the city of Berlin, having the impression the person on the other side of the world knew more about it then the spectator himself. Why did you want to develop a second version?
DW: It was great fun and a very important experience, this walking tour project Call Cutta – we staged a first chapter in the North of Calcutta and then a second chapter in Berlin Kreuzberg. And, according to our normal way of working, after 2 months in India and 3 months in Berlin that would have been it. But these tours were very much shaped by the guiding task, conversation was rather limited because to stop walking and start talking was not really foreseen. Also, technically the connection was just not so good – it was too fragile and noisy. We asked ourselves what would happen if we reduced the complications along the way and offered the option to really talk. So we found out that it is what we needed to stage now for the Kunstenfestivaldesarts: a possibility to just talk a while.
BvL: Call Cutta in a Box puts the spectator in an office room, from where he/she has a view on a part of the city. This time, the travelling happens more in the head of the spectator, doesn’t it? Or is it more about details this time: the view from the window on this particular square in Brussels? How different is the nature of the interaction in this second version?
DW: The whole attention has shifted from the outside to the inside of this simple connection. To dealing with your imagination regarding this person you talk to. Yes, there are windows, one in Brussels and one in India. Here it’s the afternoon or early evening, there it is dark already; here you can see different things than there. But the subject of the interaction is more you. This is much riskier of course, because matters are in your hands this time; the attractions in this performance are, to a much larger extent, self-created attractions. With this performance, we also place a lot of trust in both sides – the operator and the theatregoer – that they really will use this possibility for a dialogue, not in search of the big art behind it, but for the maybe much more simple notions of imagination, role playing, staging – unexpected emotions that happen over the phone between you and the other.
It happens on another level, but very often in this play small things happen that make the experience memorable for both participants.
BvL: The call centre phenomenon is part of the world of business – the exchange is based on service, it is client-oriented and it is focused on efficiency and low cost: a strictly professional interaction. Is Call Cutta in a Box the “personal” version aiming at a kind of intimacy?
BvL: Do you use this professional frame as a theatrical, fictional tool?
DW: While developing this play, we worked a lot on the fictional level. There were different paths available, and according to the answers that you would give, you’d enter a different level of some kind of job interview. But we learned that just the simplest indications that what the call centre performer tells you might be made up encourages you not believe anything he will tell you later on. For example, that the young man in the photo is him. But there is another possibility for theatricality. Theatricality, as we understand it, doesn’t have to do with obvious role-playing. This is a widespread misunderstanding. Theatricality is a process between me and the other while I watch him or her or it – in a state of interruption, fascination, openness – I call theatricality the process of an aesthetic experience. It’s a process of creative perception. That is why theatre is political.
BvL: Are we participants playing ourselves, or fictional office employees in a fictional firm with its headquarters at the Place de la Monnaie in Brussels?
DW: No, no, you are who you are, that includes: you bring along more fiction than required.... And the company is a real one as well, Descon Limited in India. And this conversation you’re having takes place because Descon Limited – rather a small player on the software and call centre services market – is generous enough to provide us with 15 workstations including all technical equipment and maintenance services, for free. We’ve talked to bigger companies in India as well, with greater capacity, and they wanted US$100 or more per day per workstation. Descon just wanted to be mentioned. But in fact this means that every single performance is a joint venture between cultural institutions here and a company there, so we decided to declare the offices to be the offices of Descon Limited, India. You are a guest of this company during the show and they have outsourced the question of what to provide European theatre customers with to us. And we have developed our own Descon corporate identity, with cups and pens and so on, things Descon itself doesn’t have.
And yes, the play gives you the chance to imagine being in the situation of an employee in this office. But frankly, I hate plays that tell me what to imagine about myself. I agree with the notion of an option. But then I want to refer to my instincts and my own interest. During the festival, hundreds of one-to-one conversations will take place. One-to-one, some very personal, some very distant – according to the combination of the two people who meet over the phone. Of course, the Belgian side will be led a bit by the Indian side – they know how to do it, and you will find out along the way.
BvL: Are you providing a “theatre service” or are you creating circumstances for an interaction between two people?
DW: Yes and yes again. These are one in the same. This theatre is a service and the service is theatre. Did you ever ask yourself why the supermarket cashier smiles to you and says “thank you”?
BvL: How would you describe the theatrical element in this project?
DW: In a standard theatre situation, I am alone in the audience, so to speak, because what strikes me – the person who attracts me and tells me something up there on stage – would be at least momentarily prevented from doing so if I were to start talking to him or her. In our project, theatricality rather floats between two people – as might happen in every phone conversation, especially when two people talk who don’t know each other. Let me ask you: What do you think, how many telephone conversations are taking place at this very moment? How many of the people speaking at the moment have never seen the person on the other end of the line (and thus talk to an image they have created themselves)? And how many of these talks end with the transfer of money? Or some other business result? I have no idea about amounts, but sometimes I try to just imagine this vast ocean of business-related talking all around the globe, occurring all the time, on the one hand, and this absolute lack of communication from person to person, on the other hand. And then, how many conversations are happening at the moment between two people who don’t know each other, who are literally situated in different worlds, without any business-related reasons, and trying to just get a glimpse of who and where and what the other one might be? The better you know a person, the longer you can talk over the phone. If you had a 50-minute conversation with someone located in a call centre, what would you talk about?
BvL: Call Cutta in a Box is a “copy” of an economic phenomenon of globalisation. Do you want to criticise it or question it in some way?
DW: Theatre can be a tool to create experiences that don’t fit in the standard settings of perceiving the world and its so-called order – be it regarding the person next door, or the ideology of global markets. But we don’t use theatre in order to tell you what we criticise or what you’re supposed to criticise. We would write a pamphlet then. This play offers you an opportunity to talk to subjects on the backstage of the globalisation process.
BvL: Do you want to stress the “absurdity” that comes along with it, the strong sense of displacement? Or use it as a very specific model for a one-on-one interaction?
DW: Absurdity and displacement might be elements you sense – but that is up to you and not an intention of ours. They rather arise from the part of reality that we’re providing you access to. Of course, the feedback of people who “did” the play varies considerably. And we’re not there to prefigure what kind of experience you will have. I personally experienced both a strong sense of displacement – just plain difference – and moments of surprising closeness.
We are exploring theatre as a model for experience instead of representation. But what you represent and what the other represents – this is what we can play with and make experiences with, in the framework of what theatre can make happen.
BvL: Do you use the format in order to make us conscious about the underlying economic structure of any artistic or theatrical event?
DW: This is nothing we have to stress, it is there and you can sense it. At the centre of the play is the possibility to use what industry provides us (thanks to its little helper, the military) in a way that is not consistent with the strategies of capital and its little helper – politics.
published in the programme leaflet for "Call Cutta in a Box" at Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2008