By Tim Carlson
21.01.2011 / PuSH Festival 2011
100% Vancouver is the second portrait of a sample population from our city generated via Rimini Protokoll machinery.
In Best Before, presented at the PuSh Festival in 2010, the company invited the audience to produce a virtual version of itself, each member controlling an onscreen avatar, clashing or collaborating with the others in a two-hour videogame of survival—which revealed the collective temper and politics of that population each night.
100% Vancouver offers another portrait, from a different angle: by taking the virtual form of statistics, assigning flesh-and-bone citizens to the numbers, and humanizing the data on stage—a production protocol that Rimini calls a “statistical chain reaction.”
Last summer, we pored over census data and carved up the civic territory according to neighbourhood, gender, marital status, age, and mother tongue/ethnicity, and invited participants to ask a friend, colleague, or family member to be the next person in the chain. As dramaturge, my role would be to see what themes emerged in conversation with these people and use that information to collaborate with the director, Amiel Gladstone, in shaping the script.
At the outset, I imagined that this sample population might resemble the collection of people I would rub shoulders with on the Skytrain from YVR, then again while wending my way through the after-work crowd on Granville Mall and into Gastown, or on a bus out to the University of British Columbia (UBC), or over to Commercial Drive to meet friends for a show and a drink. Maybe along the way giving directions to one and small change to another, noticing a few more that I might learn a little about by overhearing conversation, or stealing a glance at their phone displays, chatting with a handful of people that I know, and the rest passing in a peripheral blur.
100% Vancouver offered the opportunity to see what would happen if those people opened their doors, invited us in, revealed the history behind a cherished keepsake, chose a chair in which to be photographed, and told us whether or not they think Vancouver is the best city in the world—the peripheral blur taking shape.
The protocol was based on data from Statistics Canada’s 2006 census, which may be the last of its kind. Statistics became the subject of a fierce national debate just as our chain reaction was being plotted. The minority Conservative government determined that the “long-form census”—a fifty-question survey that 20 percent of the population has for decades been required by law to answer to meet industry standards for relevant data—was an invasion of privacy and a form of state coercion. The long-form census was assigned to the paper shredder in favour of a more concise, voluntary survey, which will be sent to 30 percent of the population. The head of Statistics Canada resigned over the issue (significantly, as deputy ministers usually hang on to their perk-filled posts no matter what the political nightmare darkening their department, or choose to resign quietly, hoping for at least a lateral career shift). Opposition to the decision united social agencies, bankers, writers, marketers, and academics, both domestic and international. Support seems rather thin but the government has nonetheless pressed on and demanded further cuts at Statistics Canada.
The StatsCan furor is a slice of a larger debate about the control and interpretation of information that extends to the cases of Facebook vs. users, Google vs. copyright holders, and WikiLeaks vs. America. Two essential questions are posed in these arguments: How can we take a good look at ourselves? And, what’s the protocol for doing so?
In dozens of stage plays, installations, works for radio and film, lectures, and exhibitions over the past fifteen years, Rimini Protokoll directors Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel, and Stefan Kaegi and their collaborators have conceptualized and retrofitted various protocols for getting beneath the skin of telling contemporary narratives. Using or subverting theatrical traditions and documentary practices to suit their experiment, they design protocols to illuminate a subject through the experiences of “everyday experts,” performers ordinarily without acting experience, who play themselves.
A few recent examples:
–– Laid off muezzin (who delivered the call to prayer at Cairo mosques) talked about their place in the heart of their neighbourhoods in Radio Muezzin, which explored Islamic tradition and the technological imperatives forcing religious evolution.
–– Vùng Biên Giói looked at the issues of border and identity through the experiences of members of the North Vietnamese diaspora who came to East Germany and Czechoslovakia before the borders of all three nations involved vanished along with their names over the past thirty years.
–– The status of a German national literary classic was examined in an adaptation of Schiller’s drama Wallenstein, where the text and characters from that narrative were abandoned in favour of how the themes in the play might resonate in the lives of various experts today, among them two anti-war Vietnam vets, a former politician, a hook-up sexpert who sometimes halted the onstage action to take calls from clients, and a waiter who once poured orange juice for Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
In computer science, a protocol is a system for trading packets of information between hosts—an engine for delivery, whatever the dubious content might be. In diplomacy, protocols are a system of desperate attempts at understanding between countries that often have little in common. In the social realm, protocols are the arrangement of switches that keep us from crashing head-on into embarrassment or emergency wards—most of the time. Personal protocols are an internal schematic for individual survival.
Matters of protocol were a continual part of conversations with the 100% cast during our initial interviews set up in preparation for the live theatrical event. There was a shoes-at-the-door theme in operation throughout the casting calls. For instance, half the participants would glance at my feet offering a non-verbal cue that footwear should be left at the door, while the other half would verbally insist that footwear was a non-issue in their household, and was, perhaps, even a preference.
A personal space theme also resonated. One woman, who grew up as a second-generation Canadian in Chinatown, observed that matters of ethnic protocol are the basis of civic misunderstanding, a theme echoed by a recent Vietnamese immigrant, who talked about learning Canadian social distance protocols in a “skills connect” class.
Then there was a theme regarding transportation protocols illustrated by the story of an engineer who noted the tension arising between Vancouverites unable to consistently follow right-of-way protocols in “traffic calming” circles or by the committed cyclist who gets the finger from more militant cyclists on the days she drives her kid to school.
Jeffrey Zhou, a visiting professor in geoscience at UBC, who moved his family from Wuhan, China, a month before I interviewed his eight-year-old daughter Nancy, asked why we didn’t just do all the recruiting online. Why not let internet protocol simplify the clunky process of in-person casting? I said I likely wouldn’t have met him and we wouldn’t be discussing the matter if I didn’t get Nancy’s name through a friend of a friend of the daughter of one of my oldest personal friends. He then agreed to join the cast, talked about his expertise in mine site reclamation, and why a place I’d never heard of—Nanning, China’s “green city”—was his choice for the best city in the world.
What is the best city in the world? It’s been a fascinating question to ask people and hear them struggle with their answers, especially because they involve real life decisions, not just theoretical choices. Some have uprooted themselves to move to Vancouver or stay here even if they feel that it’s unlivable financially. Others have made the choice to live in Vancouver in a kind of comfortable resignation where they accept the idea that somewhere else is better in theory, but remain here in reality.
We had interviewed and contracted 87 percent of our cast by December 1, 2010—as I write this—and have had to break or revise our “chain reaction” protocol in various ways to ensure our sample population is representative. An ongoing discussion has been whether “mother tongue” statistics are a better signifier of diversity than the “ethnicity” numbers. We’ve leaned towards mother tongue—and are now surprised to find ourselves statistically short of Caucasian representation as we approach our casting deadline. Many who have identified as “visible” minorities are second- and third-generation Vancouverites, who helped to fill our English as first language quota. In terms of ethnic origin stats, the show is more colourful than it should be—and this is an illuminating statement on where our city is at in terms of diversity.
Failures in protocol are as revealing as successes, showing where understanding or expectation is out of joint. This is something that Rimini Protokoll lets happen in its productions—breakdowns in theatrical expectations illuminate the human experience on stage in a way that theatrical convention might not. A little chaos is in order. When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
— Lord Kelvin
I am not a number! I am a free man!— The Prisoner (1967–68)
Every theatrical performance, even the most free-form, the most improvisatory, has a script hidden away somewhere. These may be little more than wisps, ideas jotted on crumpled napkins or fast disappearing on clammy palms, but they still exist. At the other end of the spectrum, painstakingly precise scripts, enhanced with a filigree of expository marginalia and footnotes, guide actors through every step of their performance. In the case of Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Vancouver, the script is both a behemoth of daunting precision yet also a numerical abstraction. It is said of great actors that you’d be happy to hear them read the telephone directory. What about the census?
In staging 100% Vancouver (and before it, 100% Berlin and 100% Vienna), Rimini Protokoll chose one hundred Vancouverites to each represent 1 percent of their city’s population. The participants are selected by their gender, age, marital status, ethnicity, and neighbourhood, to reflect the demographics of the city as designated in the census. Since Vancouver’s population is roughly 646,385, each person in 100% Vancouver thus represents 6,464 people. Playing so many individuals would surely test the chops of Brando or Olivier, but these percentiles, or “experts,” as Rimini Protokoll likes to call them, are not professional actors. They are “normal people,” doyens of the daily life, soubrettes of the quotidian.
Standing on the edge of a circular platform on the theatre’s stage, each of the experts slowly move past a microphone, which allows him or her a few seconds to announce, and pronounce on, himself or herself. Next, the experts stage a rapid-time version of twenty-four hours in their everyday lives; later the experts are asked to respond to much more personal questions along the lines of “Do you lie?” “Would you want to rule the world?” “Who here is against fascism?” The result is a living, breathing depiction of the city, a work that profiles Vancouver’s population not just demographically, but temperamentally and morally as well.
What kind of theatre is this? Rimini Protokoll has been called a practitioner of documentary or reality theatre, but this label does not fully capture the tentacular nature of its enterprise. Traditional documentary theatre is concerned with staging events that have actually happened. Recent examples include Katharine Viner and Alan Rickman’s My Name is Rachel Corrie, first staged in London in 2005, in which actors “performed” the diaries and e-mails of the titular activist who was killed in 2003 while protesting Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip. As radical a polemic as this seemed at the time, such instantaneous theatre can trace its lineage back to the 1920s and 1930s and the Living Newspaper productions performed by both Russian agitprop companies, like the Blue Blouse troupes, and the American Federal Theater Project. Part newsreel, part political manifesto, these companies’ productions sought to shake the audience into action by portraying their own social problems directly in front of them. This format was taken up and expanded by playwrights such as Peter Weiss, whose 1965 play The Investigation used excerpts from testimony given at the Auschwitz trials as dialogue.
A second strand of documentary theatre has sought to do away with the trappings of traditional theatre—i.e., stage, actors, script—altogether, in an effort to blur the lines between performer and audience. This strand also began to emerge in the 1920s, specifically in the work of Bertolt Brecht, who sought to rid audiences of their traditional suspension of disbelief and replace it with an awareness of the artificiality of the play, all the better to get his political message across. Actors addressed the audience directly and out of character, and the audience became ever more part of the play itself. By the 1960s and the arrival of New York’s Living Theatre, audiences were not simply addressed through the fourth wall, they were being encouraged to cross it. Currently participatory theatre seems to be everywhere, with companies such as the Anglo-German Gob Squad increasingly using both non-professional actors and non-theatrical venues to present the audience not with a dramatic performance, but an experience that is more like a heightened immersion in reality. Audiences at these shows do not empathize with the characters they see, because, more often than not, they actually become the characters themselves and live out the action.
Rimini Protokoll’s performances certainly partake of both strands of this documentary tradition. They stage seemingly inert documents and records, as in the 100% series, yet they also insist on involving the audience. Most notably this occurred in their 2010 work Best Before. In that piece, which was first created in Vancouver, each audience member is given a gaming controller with which to anonymously control an avatar on a large screen above the stage. For two hours the audience is asked to make decisions in the virtual city of “BestLand.” This is a play in the truest sense of the word. Will your avatar be male or female? Will it smoke pot? Will it have sex as soon as possible or will it wait? Will it carry a gun? The audience makes personal decisions and collective political ones, each choice inevitably leading to repercussions down the road. “When you come out of a movie, you might tell the story about somebody who killed somebody else,” Stefan Kaegi, from Rimini Protokoll, has said. “And here, you walk out and you’re like: ‘I was a woman; I got lots of money when I was 20 and lost it all in the stock market and committed suicide after infecting people with a disease.’”( 1 )
Yet while the 100% series has theatrical precursors, both in its use of actual documents and audience participation, its truest forefathers and most congruous counterparts can be found not in theatre at all but in the realm from which the census has been plucked: the defiantly pedantic and resolutely undramatic world of statistics.
The census is to statistics as the Bible and Quran are to religious studies. They appear in the dynasties of Egypt, China, and the Roman Empire, and show up throughout the ages at strangely dramatic moments—Jesus was born in Bethlehem, after all, because his parents were travelling there to register with the census instigated by the Emperor Augustus.
From England’s Domesday Book of 1086 to the talking knots of the Inca Empire, the wish to itemize and enumerate a state’s or city’s population has been a surprisingly universal aspect of human history. However, given the census’s link to conscription and taxation, it has not always been popular. The Bible itself is unclear as to whether it is a good thing. While God at one point demands a census of the Israelites to be taken, thus giving the “book of Numbers” its name, he later punishes King David with a plague for ordering a census in the book of Samuel. Indeed, the terrifying, almost unnatural, comprehensiveness of a census often seems to place it in the realm of the supernatural. For instance, the Domesday Book, an official tally of property and population, was so called because appealing against its painstaking inventory was as pointless as appealing against Christ’s judgment on doomsday.
In more recent times, the census has caused riots—as it did in Toulouse in the 1840s—and murders—as in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, when census takers were shot for being proxies of the British government. Lest one still think that a census is an anodyne and inconsequential procedure, it should be remembered
that the taking of a census is enshrined in the United States Constitution, and that this provision played a role in resolving one of the most hotly debated questions in its drafting—the number of delegates each state would have in the House of Representatives.
Infamously, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person as a compromise between southern states (who wanted to count slaves in their actual numbers to boost their strength in government)
and northern states (who wished to only count the free population). The census was thus no analytical bagatelle but a handmaiden to the United States’ deal with the devil at its very founding.Perhaps the ambivalence felt towards the census should not be surprising, as the act of enumerating people inevitably risks dehumanizing
them. As Joseph Stalin is alleged to have said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of one million is a statistic.” While the census offers a complete catalogue of a city’s or state’s population, when thousands upon thousands of lives are bundled together, the depths of individual lives inevitably
appear foreshortened. As Michael Lewis wrote in Moneyball (2003), his dissection
of the craze for statistical
analysis in baseball, our penchant for numerical substantiation can blind us to understanding. Quoting the groundbreaking sports statistician Bill James, Lewis writes, “I wonder . . . if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge
which might result from them.”( 2 )This question is one of the most salient features of Rimini Protokoll’s work in the 100% series: How do we attempt to restore meaning to the vast array of numbers that statistics throw up? How do we stop ourselves from being blinded to the truth by the purported agents of truth? The author Italo Calvino suggested an answer in Invisible
Cities (1972) in which he showed that a city—in this case the city of Zaira—would be best drawn not just by the measurement of its space but by the way these spaces interact with the past: “the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet: the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn...a description of Zaira as it is today
should contain all Zaira’s past.”( 3 )Calvino transforms measurements into personal micro-readings, individual stories about the data. He transforms the obsessive acts of quantification that pervade our hyper-numerate society—
we count our calories, watch the national debt rise, track mega- and gigabytes of information in our computers—
into strands of exquisite detail that together constitute the texture of a place.Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Vancouver similarly seems to restore human faces to numbers, with personal biography
offsetting impersonal statistics. But the more one looks at the piece, the more one sees an inherent contradiction
in this design. Rimini Protokoll appears to humanize
concepts, to give texture to abstractions, but what it in fact offers is a representation of an abstraction that, while itself textured to the point of life itself, is still, at bottom, a representation. To put it another
way, when you witness these experts on stage you may at first have the impression
that the abstract figures have been restored to life. However, upon further reflection,
it is impossible to ignore the fact that each person onstage
is still a stand-in representing 6,463 other people. They are a number made flesh, a digit made whole. Despite all visual indications to the contrary, they are not really “real” people at all. This ambivalence about the ability of theatre to restore human presence where we have become alienated from it has consistently characterized Rimini Protokoll’s work. In Call Cutta in a Box (2008), for example, participants entered a room alone and picked up a ringing cell phone. On the line was a call centre operator speaking from Calcutta. The operator told the listener about his or her life, as well as asking simple questions of the participant (“What job do you have?” “Can you pronounce my name?”). The conversation would then meander over a range of subjects—memories, religion, love life—and as the participant slowly loosened up, the operator began to ask the participant more personal details, asking them to share a secret, or to sing them a song.
As with 100% Vancouver, Call Cutta in a Box allowed participants to find a personal human voice amidst a vast impersonal structure, in this case not the monolithic numbers of the census, but the ever-grinding gears of globalization. Yet the same doubts persisted: How authentic was the connection with this other person? How much was scripted? If call centre employees are trained to make the customer feel at ease, was the participant also being treated as a customer? Was the whisper heard amidst the roar any less impersonal for being hard to hear? With these ambiguities clouding the mind, perhaps Rimini Protokoll’s dramatization of the census can most clearly be seen as a particularly effective piece of information design.
In 1786, the Scottish draftsman William Playfair made an awe-inspiring cognitive leap. Up until the eighteenth century, statistics were primarily seen as the systematic collecting of economic and demographic data by and about the nation-state. These facts were not numerically or graphically displayed but were listed or tabulated in ways little different to that of the great census compendiums of yore such as the Domesday Book. Playfair wanted to depict data in a less monolithic form. He wanted to use data not just to compile but to persuade.
Understanding that the eye “is the best judge of proportion,” Playfair planned to unite “proportion, progression and amount, all under one simple impression of vision and consequently one act of memory.”( 4 ) Taking a piece of paper, Playfair plotted a horizontal axis and a vertical axis. One axis represented time, he wrote, the other axis represented money. Between them a line would be drawn. The world of numbers would never be the same again.
The graphic representation of numbers may seem an obvious route to have taken, but such is the arrogance of hindsight. The concept of representing numbers abstractly was truly groundbreaking, so much so that Playfair was forced to defend his method in print against an army of doubters. “This method has struck several persons as being fallacious,” he wrote, “because geometrical measurement has not any relation to money or to time; yet here it is made to represent both.” Playfair had performed a mathematical transubstantiation: he had made numbers flesh. In line graphs, pie charts, and bar graphs, all of which Playfair would invent, data suddenly sprang into visual life. His designs transformed the very way we think about numbers. His charts allowed numbers to “speak to the eyes.”
And as Playfair gave numbers a body in charts and graphs, Rimini Protokoll too gives numbers body by, well, giving them bodies. As Calvino had suggested, the best way to comprehend the enormity and multiplicity of the city was by commingling a city’s spaces and a city’s experience into one image. Rimini Protokoll has, to some extent, fulfilled this impossible task.
They have also fulfilled the demands of the pre-eminent statistician of our age. Edward Tufte has long railed against “flatland,” the confusing bedlam of statistics and misinformation that is the result of the overuse and abuse of Play fair’s graphical innovations. “We envision information,” Tufte has written, “in order to reason about, communicate, document, and preserve that knowledge—activities nearly always carried out on two-dimensional paper and computer screen. Escaping this flatland and enriching the density of data displays are the essential tasks of information design.” ( 5 ) While Tufte chooses to hone and improve data displays on the page, Rimini Protokoll has shown that another way of breaking out of flatland is to present statistics in four dimensions, with time being the fourth.
Tufte describes what he does as “analytic design.” What we have in the 100% series is a sort of variant of this—analytic drama, if you will. It is notable that in 100% Vancouver the circular stage upon which the experts stand and describe themselves is filmed from above to give the illusion of a pie chart. Abstract numbers are fleshed out in three-dimensional bodies, while at the same time these bodies are being condensed and dehumanized again into a two-dimensional statistical graphic. Individual memories and morals are immediately quantified. Percentages suddenly sprout limbs and talk. Are the people on the stage numbers? Are the people on the stage free men?
( Notes )
1. Stefan Kaegi quoted in Marsha Lederman, “A Play Which Will Create 200 Biographies,” Globe and Mail, January 28, 2010.
2. Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 95.
3. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 10.
4. Harro Mass, Stanley Jevons and the Making of Modern Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 225–26.
5. Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1990), 33