Art to promote empathy

The walk-through installation of participants in war

By Eva-Maria Magel

31.10.2013 / FAZ

The Rimini Protokoll performance collective has staged its "Situation Rooms" in the Frankfurt Lab. These rooms act as the setting for the visitor to become a performer, passing through scenarios that address topics of war and violence.

After his mission to Sierra Leone, the surgeon Volker Herzog says, he found himself waking up from bad dreams at night and getting out of bed. He did this to check that his children did indeed still have both their hands. Performing operations for "Médecins sans frontières", he spent weeks tending to children and adults who had had limbs chopped off by the rebels. A tiny, dismally-ventilated operating room at Connaught Hospital in the heart of Freetown contains Herzog's set of surgical appliances. Anyone opening up the drawer underneath finds a pile of photos showing victims of such mutilations.

This is not the only shock image in store for the spectators in "Situation Rooms". Indeed, the word "spectators" is not the right term: the Rimini Protokoll performance collective has devised a "multi-player video play" that draws 20 visitors at a time right into the heart of events. Although not part of the program for the B3 Biennale of the Moving Image, it could serve as an example for an "immersion", drawing the observer into a work of media art.

Encountering perpetrators and victims

The starting point is that historical photo dated May 1, 2011, showing US President Obama and his staff in the so-called Situation Room of the White House, observing the killing of Bin Laden on a screen. The supreme warlord is there live, even if the theater of war is thousands of kilometers away – Rimini Protokoll (Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel und Stefan Kaegi) have reproduced this principle of a Situation Room. In the Frankfurt Lab, where the production first staged at the Ruhrtriennale is now being shown at the Mousonturm, a huge film set has been put together - a design comprised of containers, doors, ladders, and passages, piled up over one another and next to one another, a labyrinth of space, entered through ten doors colored traffic-signal yellow.

Together with the set designer Dominic Huber and the video performance artist Chris Kondek, Rimini Protokoll have designed a minutely-planned scenario, turning the visitors into players in the events. An iPad fitted with strangely anachronistic wooden grips plays a film that steers us through the various rooms, as we encounter – with their original sounds playing in the iPad film –perpetrators and victims, child soldiers, drug dealers, refugees in boats, members of the German Bundestag parliament, weapons producers and peace activists, telling us of their work and of their sufferings and hopes.

Fellow-spectators become figures in the play

In passing through the rooms, each visitor experiences his or her own version of the story; after an hour and a half each one has put himself or herself in the place of ten of the 20 characters featured in "Situation Rooms", all of whom in some way have something to do with this world's wars, violence, and weapons. The characters all convey to us just how much all of this has to do with us. For instance, anyone looking over the shoulder of the family dad harmlessly playing games on his computer finds out in the next moment that this man, named Mike, located in a small cubicle, has steered the drone that killed dozens of women and children in Pakistan, as the lawyer working for the victims, Shazad Akbar, is trying to prove. In Akbar’s role, we put on a grey old-style lawyer's wig and observe images showing a destroyed village and those left behind to grieve.

Like in the film on the iPad, in the actual building that houses this work of art unfamiliar hands open doors for us, help us out of our bullet-proof vests, or move the model of a Leopard II tank on the conference table. This is because the fellow spectators become performing figures in the respective observer's film: when we raise a flag as a Sudanese peace reporter in our film, from the roof of the container construction another visitor sees the national flag waving in Islamabad.

Guest book attests to visitors' enthusiasm

Few of the items of information that "Situation Rooms" provides are new or astonishing in themselves. Placing them in the respective suitable "situations", using the voices of "everyday experts" gives the scenario a formidable closeness and density. This or that shocking image, or also the banality of the sale of a weapon, etches itself all the deeper into the mind because it is the spectators themselves playing the roles in these stories of war and violence, of helpless aides and global players deliberating over strategies.

Yet this is precisely where the difficulty lies in this "multi-player video play": it is a video play that denies the participants the opportunity to place themselves fully into the respective situation. For even the figures in the iPad films also always have an iPad with them, even when they are talking about how they are storming a house or examining a young boy. Of course, this can be seen as prompting us not to identify with the protagonists and also perhaps to reflect on the fact that these days, to a large degree, our everyday life only takes place filtered through smartphones and Internet information. This being so, why invest so much effort in building up, as authentically as possible, a whole walk-through installation for visitors, even including soup cooking away in asylum applicants' living quarters? The guest book for this work attests to participants being enthusiastic about and gripped by what they experienced. Yet the experience would be much more intensive if voices and instructions for roles were conveyed solely by headphones – or if the iPad were to be consistently used as a kind of set of instructions on what to do. Thus "Situation Rooms" finds itself lamed at precisely the point at which its purpose is to be particularly progressive.

Translation by Martina Englert


Situation Rooms