The spy who came out of the loo

Von Bernd Noack

11.12.2016 /

The theatre makers Rimini Protokoll stage the obscure world of secret intelligence agencies at the Glyptothek in Munich, and the visitors are part of the production. A report.
I meet a man in the café of the Glyptothek in Munich. I have never seen him before. Through a signal transmitted by my headphones, we recognize each other. Side by side, we sit among all of the other strangers; we don’t look at each other, we don’t speak. Then he slides me his piece of paper, I slide him mine. After a few minutes of nonchalantly taking in the scene, we slowly stand up. The voice in my ear orders us to leave. Each in his own direction. We will cross paths again many times in the rooms of the museum, but we won’t let on anything. We are the only ones who know that each of us is carrying the other’s secret: written on the pieces of paper are our greatest fears.
Just a game. Harmless, but somehow still unnerving. We are part of a system that we do not understand, and of which we have been a part for a long time. We walk through the halls of the Glypothek twice, stroll around among the stone bodies, heads and fragments that tell of ancient, archaic Hellenic or Roman times, and yet we are still in the present. A present that can be terrifying. Because as we are standing in front of sculptures and busts like perfectly normal museum visitors, we are listening to stories that are incongruous with the exhibitions around us:
Intelligence workers talking about their missions, spies describing how they were recruited, informers confiding presumably classified national secrets, data experts confusing us with information about comprehensive surveillance possibilities that have long since been globally available. We can no longer escape, suddenly we know too much and are being pulled further into the network of special units, and in the end we will be recruited for the German Federal Intelligence Service.
A voice in your ear giving orders and directions

It is documentary theatre as only Rimini Protokoll can make it. For this Münchner Kammerspiele production, Helgard Kim Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel created a course in a public space that transports us to a non-public parallel world. As inconspicuous admirers of art, we are looking at the old things on exhibition, but our attention has long since been devoted to other things. The voices in our ears order and direct us, they steer our gaze to the head of Socrates, to an old mosaic on the wall, to the Barberini faun who lies outstretched in a state of obscene lust, and torments us with information, with terrible revelations, candidly revealed espionage tricks and undercover adventures.
As far as a direct connection between the reality of the antique setting and the story in which we find ourselves goes – there is none. But that’s precisely what makes it so appealing: The neutral place becomes the stage for global intrigues, even crimes, and covert activities that help to prepare a war or prevent a terrorist attack.
Time and again we are made to be involuntary spies, we emerge from our marvelous state of obliviousness and are requested to take a position. Decisions made by answering questions determine how and where the road will take us: Would you resort to violence to save others? Would you bribe someone in order to get at controversial information? If you knew about a potentially devastating catastrophe, would you tell a small group of people, or would you tell the whole world and set off a wave of mass panic? And suddenly, every other museum visitor – the tourist from the Far East who is standing in front of the bust of a dying warrior, or the apparently disinterested woman who is walking by the bold Alexander – becomes a somehow suspicious individual. Is she following you, or is it just coincidence? Do even the old marble heads here have ears? Is it all just a cover-up?
Does that man know something about me that I don’t know?
Just a game, of course. Perfectly and cleverly devised. Designed on a computer and individually timed. At the beginning, every player was given a notebook, inside which there is a telephone: everything is programmed, every step is monitored, every step out of line (or ‘opting out’, in the case of intelligence) is corrected. Anyone who has entered the system is trapped in it. We are carrying secrets, and we are thus a danger: to others, but also to ourselves. Our sense of security undermined, we look around; we’ve long since mastered the classic “360-degree view” for detecting suspicious activity, and we are painfully aware of not seeming suspicious ourselves. And the voices in our ears are always there. The whistleblower confides in us, the former head of the German Federal Intelligence Service chats about illegal activity, someone tries to convince us that secrets are necessary because otherwise the whole universe would go to the dogs. And that man over there has been watching me for a long time now, following me. What does he want from me, what does he know about me? Maybe something that not even I know yet?
The system sends me down the stairs to the lavatory. I am to walk past the mirror and go quickly into one of the stalls. Lock the door behind me. Finally alone, no one can see me here. A place for jittery agents to recuperate. The spy who came out of the loo. But there’s another piece of a paper on the floor: It is marked “Secret”.
My task would seem to have no end. There must be someone who found out that I’m here. Maybe the stranger from the café, the one I met conspiratorially? I still have his message; a folded piece of paper on which he has written what his greatest fear is. He has mine: In this whole museum, which is teeming with people this afternoon, there is exactly one person who has found out something about me that I have never told anyone else. What will he do with that information? Give it to his supervisor? Sell it? Blackmail me? The past two hours have made me distrustful. Even if I know that I’m alone, I feel like I’m being observed. Is it already paranoia? Or am I just hot on the trail of a “post-democracy phenomenon”, as Rimini Protokoll calls this (technically) extremely elaborate, disturbing research?
I unfold the stranger’s note. What I read there, written in a trembling hand, is touching and has really nothing to do with the cold, murderous, lawless and obscure world of intelligence. It is a fear from the olden days, a human one, sad and eternal. And one that would never interest the American or German intelligence agencies: “To be alone”, it says.


Read article in german at spiegel online


Translation: Justina Bartoli


Top Secret International (Staat 1)