Toward A Theater Without Organs: On the Work of Rimini Protokoll

A new piece by the Berlin-based theater collective Rimini Protokoll asks us to consider the omnipresence of international surveillance and espionage, completely breaking away from the genealogy of modernist theater in the process.

Von Dorian Batycka

03.04.2018 /

“The work on scenic material, the transformation of the stage into a machine, which helps to develop the work of the actor as broadly and manifoldly as possible, is then socially justified when this machine not only moves its pistons and holds up under a certain workload, but also begins to carry out a certain useful labour.”

-Sergei Tretyakov, “The Theater of Attractions”

The bifurcation of theater and life often implies a material separation between actor and participant, between reality and fiction. In the theater of antiquity, Greek gods and goddesses were allowed to fly across the proscenium of the stage using a dramatic system of pulleys that allowed them to literally float above other actors. In his Poetics, Aristotle criticized this method of theater by virtue of its reliance on machines, accusing them of creating a separation or hierarchy between technical spectacle and drama, signaling what he called the broader downfall of Greek tragedy as a whole.

In the long history of theater, there are few who interrupt or otherwise create ruptures that are truly revolutionary. In the post-revolutionary theater in the Soviet Union of the early 1920s, which had a massive influence on those like Bertolt Brecht, a group of radical theater-makers associated with V.E. Meyerhold and the First Moscow Workers Theater produced provocative experiments that unified actors, stage construction, and audience. Meyerhold was perhaps the first to anticipate a movement in the theater that sought to recalibrate the pedagogy of the theater toward the social body, toward life itself.

“The body is a machine, the worker the machinist,” Meyerhold once said, referring to the potential utilization of theater toward the early revolutionary ethos of the Soviet Union, envisaging the creation of a new (Soviet) socialist body politic. Associatively, a contemporary ‘play’ by the Berlin-based theater collective Rimini Protokoll also asks us to re-arrange the social machinery of the theater, albeit in a manner perhaps more consistent with what Deleuze and Guattari call a “body without organs.” This theater, as Deleuze and Guattari write in Anti-Oedipus,  “forces the play and the working of machines into the wings, behind a limit that has become impassible.” Likewise, Rimini Protokoll have developed a method of theater that is perhaps closest to the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari: unraveling the spatial and temporal limits of theater’s metaphysical composition, whereby the body, actors, public and stage melt into a decentralized, rhizomatic milieu.

In a play from 2016 that debuted at the Munich Kammerspiell entitled Staat 1 Top Secret International, the limits of theater are laid bare, and so too its abolition. Since 2016, the piece has been touring and in March 2018 it entered the sanctified space of the Neues Museum in Berlin, located on Museum Island, only a stone’s throw from numerous diplomatic outposts, the Berliner Dom and the Reichstag. The selection of the Neues Museum is an apt choice, a strategic location close to sites of concentrated political, economic and cultural power. On the surface, the work enables the audience to enter into the polyvalent world of surveillance, a highly secretive and often classified world that’s exerting more and more control over our modern, multi-polar, networked world.

Entering the museum we are first given a set of headphones. At mezzanine level, confronted first by the main staircase of the sprawling complex, we are instructed to wait and take in our surroundings, the anonymous female voice instructs. Looking around, bullet holes in the wall and a half-burnt fresco become suddenly apparent, the result of bombardments and fighting that took place here during World War II.

This is not a regular audio guide, however, but one supplied by our author-directors: Rimini Protokoll. Over the last several years, Rimini Protokoll (a collective principled by Helgard Kim Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel) have created a unique blend “documentary theater” that merges reality with fiction, audience with participant. The 90-minute tour unfolds amongst the museum’s ancient wares, in between past and present, we are asked to investigate global networks of state secrets and intelligence, unmasking the very edifice of modernist theater in the process.

The protagonist of the work—the audience—become the catalysts driving the shadowy narrative forward. Questions arise as we move through the museum from one room to the next, encountering ancient objects exploding with cultural symbolism.

What information gets classified versus what information should be shared with the public? At what juncture does the function of the state shift from protecting privacy, to releasing information deemed to be of public interest? Rimini Protokoll propels us through the museum’s space with these questions, forcing us to make decisions that impact the unfolding narrative event.

It’s almost as if we’re in one of those ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style novels, authored by Rimini Protokoll, whilst other museum-goers—clueless bystanders—move around us. “Find a good, comfortable place to sit,” the voiceover instructs us in a room adjacent to ancient Egyptian sarcophagi; if you agree that information should be kept from the public, or that you would not look into the personal communications of your lover, raise your hand, connect with others who believe the same. Write down your greatest fear, the voice on the headphones instructs, share it someone who believes in freedom of information. We are constantly asked to make decisions that impact the outcome of the work, forcing us to integrate with other participants, passing notes and creating little micro-coalitions between one another.

The headphones come outfitted with tracking devices that enable the audience to make decisions in real time. They contain soundbites in the form of instructions from a diverse ‘cast’ of experts, including Jacob Appelbaum, a journalist and computer scientist and one of the lead architects behind TOR, an anonymizing browser used to circumvent surveillance online, former NSA technical director and whistleblower, William Binney, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, a lawyer currently serving in the American Civil Liberties Union, a dissident from China, and others, their knowledge supposedly working to enlighten the audience by providing insight into how the shadowy world of surveillance and espionage works.

One of these experts, the former president of the German Secret Service (BND), Gerhard Schindler, remarks: “There is no clean intelligence agency; they all lie, betray, deceive and corrupt.” Moving further through the museum the audience encounters the voice of André Hahn, a representative of the Parliamentary Control Panel of Secret Services in Germany, who informs us of his inability to access the highly classified data and intelligence controlled by the BND, despite his position on the oversight committee designed to check on the inner workings of the German intelligence industry. While Hahn complains of being unable to access critical information, which he argues is necessary in order to bring transparency and democratic oversight to intelligence agencies; Schindler, the former top brass of the BND, argues that secrecy is by definition a crucial element in building and gathering reliable intelligence, even if that means keeping information from elected officials.

At a certain point, I settle in front of the bust of Nefertiti, the royal wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, thought to be from circa 1345 BCE, made of painted stucco on the surface of a smoothly coated limestone. An iconic object symbolizing feminine beauty in the ancient world, it’s also one of the most controversial artefacts in the Neues Museums’s collection. Over the last several decades since it was ‘discovered’ by a German archaeological team led by Ludwig Borchardt in 1912, and subsequently smuggled back to Berlin, it has become part of an ongoing controversy between Germany and Egypt over demands for its repatriation, as well as doubts over its authenticity. Seen within the context of Rimini Protokoll’s work, the bust of Nefertiti took on new meaning, beguiled with questions over its authenticity, I started to consider parallels in the modern world: What kinds of information do we deem authentic? And what role do museums play in establishing seemingly ‘authentic’ cultural narratives?

Perhaps this is also part of a wider trend in the museum world, I reasoned: where integrating contemporary art is now seen as a crucial part of programming in historical museums with ancient collections. In 2014, for example, The Natural History Museum (Naturkundemuseum) started its Art/Nature program, which gave contemporary artists a chance to intervene alongside scientific displays. With a number of interventions in the genres of visual art, sound art, and literature, the experimental project seeks to create a space where art, museum practice, and natural history research can interact.

At the last Istanbul Biennial in 2017, the American contemporary artist Fred Wilson uncovered latent African art histories within the collection of the Pera Museum, which houses a collection of paintings and objects dating back to the Ottoman Empire: “I’m interested in the museum because it’s a place where no one expects to be misled. Whatever they give you, you believe,” Wilson said. Likewise, Rimini Protokoll’s work falls within this vein, asking visitors to question assumed narratives contained within the museum, destabilizing, or at the very least, unveiling the bias of the Neues Museum in creating a canon of history made for us to blindly accept. Whether these trends are part of a larger initiative to get more visitors (and by extension more cultural funding), or a way to become more hip and cool, some of the world’s largest historical museums have been making similar efforts. In effect, creating non-linear strategies no longer bound to particular cultural epochs or grand narratives.

Moving through the museum we are asked to contemplate the ebbs and flows of these non-linear strategies. Recast from passive observers into active participants, we participate in a detournement of the very same cultural narratives museums tend to establish. If the double rise of post-truth and intelligence industries have taught us anything, it’s that myth and illusion have inevitably created an impossible maze of truth, such that any attempt to unravel them become an exercise in tortuous futility.

Consequently, Staat 1 Top Secret International exists somewhere at the intersection between theater, documentary research, history, and contemporary art. Upon finishing the tour, I was given an application form to join the German Secret Service, a parting gift I saw with trepidation, a sort of gallows humor. Leaving, I felt that at a certain level, Rimini Protokoll managed to uncover a primal force that, for too long, has been latent within theater (and here I am using the term ‘theater’ very loosely), perhaps since Meyerhold, wherein the space of the ‘stage’ becomes no longer a neutral territory, or merely the jurisdiction of bourgeois art and technological spectacle, but rather of life itself. In doing so, Rimini Protokoll have managed to rearrange the molecular constitution of cultural narratives and real-world events, transforming us—the viewer—into a wider body politic. Perhaps this is what Tretyakov envisaged when he called for theater that would create “a certain useful labour,” that is, a body liberated from the proscenium stage no longer constrained to its binary oppositions (i.e., actor and audience, technology and stage), but rather toward the abolition of theater itself, toward a theater without organs.


Top Secret International (Staat 1)