By Richard C. Windeyer
01.07.2018 / Canadian Theatre Review
In the wake of 2016—the year of ‘post-truth’1 and ‘fake facts’— Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Montréal employs elements of documentary, participatory, and intermedial theatre to reveal what the city’s actual census statistics have failed to record. The production achieves this primarily through a creative juxtaposition of the collected evidential truths of the city’s census data and the collected personal truths produced by a popular diagnostic tool—the referendum. This article tries to better understand what this juxtaposition either reveals or confirms about the precarious nature of statistical accuracy and the underlying forces that currently seem to be complicating the interpretation and pursuit of various truths about human existence. As this examination reveals, the quality of any statistic is determined not only by the instruments of its collection and the methods of its analysis, but by the quality of the information provided by its subjects as well. The year of ‘post-truth’ included the election of ‘fake news’ victim Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, the United Kingdom’s European Union referendum,2 and—to the relief of Canadian scientists, statisticians, and anyone else concerned with the search for evidence-based truth in collections of data—the reinstatement of the mandatory long-form census by a newly elected Liberal government.3 That same year, a collaboration began between German documentary theatre company Rimini Protokoll and 100 residents of Montreal, Quebec. The result, 100% Montréal,4 belongs to an ongoing series of city-specific documentary theatre performances entitled 100% City. First conceived by Rimini Protokoll in 2007, the series employs elements of intermedial and participatory theatre to explore a city’s statistical reality by putting faces, bodies, and voices to the numbers. The show’s principal subject of inquiry is to understand “Who is missing? Who thinks they might give answers on stage that are different from the ones they’d give in response to a telephone survey or in the voting booth? And what have the statistics failed to record? Who lives in a completely different Montréal? Who thinks that this city is different because they are a part of it?” (Rimini Protokoll, program note)5 The central organizing principle of the performance was derived from actual census data. Rimini Protokoll worked with a local statistician to assemble a statistical portrait of Montreal using the following criteria: age, gender, place of birth, territory/ neighbourhood, and domestic structure. One hundred Montreal residents were then recruited through “a statistical chain reaction”6 in which each participating resident is recruited for their ability to match some combination of the five criteria. That resident then has twenty-four hours to recruit a second resident who also matches some combination of the criteria. This process continues until the entire demographic portrait of Montreal has been cast.7 Onstage, each participant represents 1 per cent of the city’s population. A brief five-day rehearsal period familiarizes the 100 “percentiles” with the pre-existing presentation format and structure of the 100% City series. During this period, the percentiles and Rimini Protokoll generate and select the issues, subjects, and statistics that seem most directly applicable to Montreal residents for onstage exploration. Each performance begins with the first percentile—the statistician— who explains the show’s underlying premise and provides a brief overview of Montreal’s statistical portrait. One by one, the other ninety-nine percentiles introduce each other in order of recruitment, until the physicalized demographic portrait of Montreal stands onstage facing the audience.
Welcome to the petri dish
Following the percentiles’ introductions, the show’s central visual motif is established. The “petri dish effect”8 is produced by a video camera suspended above a large green-screen platform placed on the stage floor. The camera points straight down at the onstage percentiles from above. Video processing is then applied to the live camera feed that replaces the green screen colour with a variety of popular infographic forms such as radial graphs, scatterplots, and a topographical map outlining Montreal’s various districts. The resulting composite image is projected onto a circular screen suspended above the stage. It establishes a playfully abstract yet oddly depersonalized juxtaposition of perspectives—one perspective enables the viewer to watch the percentiles move about the stage unmediated, while the alternate perspective reduces the percentiles to tiny single-cell organisms moving through an evolving array of positions and patterns in response to a series of census-related questions. This dual perspective seems to be playfully invoking some common perceptions about the tendency of data and statistics to reduce human beings to numbers or objects. So while 100% Montréal seeks to fill in the gaps left by census statistics, the entire history of census-taking itself reveals an inherently social enterprise that has always struggled to achieve complete statistical accuracy. In Counting People: The Census in History, Hyman Alterman chronicles how virtually every attempt at statistical accuracy has been impaired by the histories, customs, assumptions, biases, and power relations that have often divided the people counting from the people being counted. Pre-modern census procedures, for example, omitted women, children, slaves, tax-exempt clergy, and privileged nobility entirely while focusing exclusively on eligible soldiers and taxpayers. In the United States, Native Americans were not officially counted in a census until 1880, owing to a host of factors,9 including the belief that they constituted only three fifths of a person.10 More recently, Hispanics were not identified as a distinct group until 1970. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that any census-related activity may be viewed with suspicion, distrust, or simply disinterest depending on a person’s racial, political, or economic position within a society. Other census scholars, such as David I. Kertzer and Dominique Arel, have argued that the census is an inherently political enterprise wherein the survey form often functions as a tactical battleground on which acts of avoidance, negation, deception, subversion,11 oppression,12 and surveillance may be asserted (3). This persistent distrust of the census—and its surrounding political dynamics—is a primary element in the underlying premise of 100% Montréal. In attempting to identify what and/or who is missing from Montreal’s census data, 100% Montréal avoids interrogating the methods by which census data are actually collected. Instead, an alternative version of the census is proposed, in the form of a free-flowing performance of referendum-styled questions and answers. camera feed that replaces the green screen colour with a variety of popular infographic forms such as radial graphs, scatterplots, and a topographical map outlining Montreal’s various districts. The resulting composite image is projected onto a circular screen suspended above the stage. It establishes a playfully abstract yet oddly depersonalized juxtaposition of perspectives—one perspective enables the viewer to watch the percentiles move about the stage unmediated, while the alternate perspective reduces the percentiles to tiny single-cell organisms moving through an evolving array of positions and patterns in response to a series of census-related questions. This dual perspective seems to be playfully invoking some common perceptions about the tendency of data and statistics to reduce human beings to numbers or objects. So while 100% Montréal seeks to fill in the gaps left by census statistics, the entire history of census-taking itself reveals an inherently social enterprise that has always struggled to achieve complete statistical accuracy. In Counting People: The Census in History, Hyman Alterman chronicles how virtually every attempt at statistical accuracy has been impaired by the histories, customs, assumptions, biases, and power relations that have often divided the people counting from the people being counted. Pre-modern census procedures, for example, omitted women, children, slaves, tax-exempt clergy, and privileged nobility entirely while focusing exclusively on eligible soldiers and taxpayers. In the United States, Native Americans were not officially counted in a census until 1880, owing to a host of factors,9 including the belief that they constituted only three fifths of a person.10 More recently, Hispanics were not identified as a distinct group until 1970. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that any census-related activity may be viewed with suspicion, distrust, or simply disinterest depending on a person’s racial, political, or economic position within a society. Other census scholars, such as David I. Kertzer and Dominique Arel, have argued that the census is an inherently political enterprise wherein the survey form often functions as a tactical battleground on which acts of avoidance, negation, deception, subversion,11 oppression,12 and surveillance may be asserted (3). This persistent distrust of the census—and its surrounding political dynamics—is a primary element in the underlying premise of 100% Montréal. In attempting to identify what and/or who is missing from Montreal’s census data, 100% Montréal avoids interrogating the methods by which census data are actually collected. Instead, an alternative version of the census is proposed, in the form of a free-flowing performance of referendum-styled questions and answers. In contrast to the questions of a census—which emphasize the collection of verifiable evidence about people, such as age, gender, place of origin, household structure, socio-economic status, and neighbourhood—the questions of referenda assess public opinion and preference regarding complex social or political issues. Because of the relative complexity of such issues, referendum questions tend to be reduced to a simplified set of binary positions, such as “yes/no,” “approve/disapprove,” and “agree/do not agree.” The polarizing and divisive nature of such questions can become an effective means of generating dramatic conflict and animosity within a population. Moreover, a process that assesses ‘public opinion’ does not always screen for factors that could easily distort the veracity of the results, such as personal bias, prejudice, dishonest claims, or conflicts of interest. Nevertheless, both the census and the referendum make claims to the pursuit of ‘functional truths’ about a population. If accurately assessed and effectively applied, such ‘truths’ should, in theory, help to improve the quality of life for that population through better governance and resource allocation. Nevertheless, some percentage of a population, it seems, will invariably resist participation in a census or referendum even when resistance is treated as a criminal offence. Thus, when the collected statistics can only provide a partial sampling of the population, methods must be developed and then employed to compensate for resulting gaps and missing or erroneous data. To what extent, then, can anyone trust a statistical assessment of a population’s lived experience if the accuracy or truthfulness of the information provided by that population cannot be trusted? Lack of evidence resulting from absent voices is one problem. Another problem concerns evidence based on inaccuracies, deceptions, or falsifications. It is precisely this question—the underlying dynamics of public distrust—that 100% Montréal begins to address next.
A tour of veracity by flashlight?
As the show progresses, the abstracted and anonymized effects of the “petri dish” are replaced by a succession of 'statistical tableaux,' formed by the percentiles in response to questions such as “Who thinks violence is an acceptable way of achieving political objectives?,” “Who came to Montreal to escape violence somewhere else?,” and “Who is doing the work they dreamed of doing as a child?” In full view of the audience, each percentile stands beneath one of two placards—“Me/Not Me” and “Moi/Pas moi”— according to their answer for each question. With each answer, the percentiles reveal more and more about themselves to us—their beliefs, ideas, prejudices, attitudes—while the subject matter of the questions themselves becomes increasingly personal: Percentile #51: Who doesn’t pay taxes? (Four percentiles stand under the “Me/Moi” sign, while the rest cluster around “Not Me/Pas Moi.”) Percentile #51: Come on, I don’t think so … So far we have been voting in full sight of the audience. Now I think we should see what happens when we vote secretly. So everybody turn off the lights, please. Everybody get into position. (Each percentile produces a small flashlight as all lighting in the theatre is extinguished.) Percentile #51: Okay, everybody, turn off your lights please, and now we can vote secretly. Percentile #51: So I will ask my question again—who doesn’t pay taxes? (In response, over a dozen flashlights are lit and held up toward the video camera suspended above the stage floor. The resulting video projection resembles a luminous scatterplot of anonymized confession while the questions grow ever more personal.) “Who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous?” “Who has ever wished the death of a relative?” “Who would choose abortion, if the fetus was diagnosed with Down syndrome?” “Who hasn’t had sex for more than one year?” However, the confident and mild combative atmosphere of “Me/Not Me” and “Moi/Pas moi” is then replaced by a cautiously daring and luminous mask play. This use of handheld illumination as an instrument of anonymized confession reveals a fundamental challenge in putting human faces to statistics—that the public disclosure of accurate, truthful testimony often relies on a trustworthy culture of respect and privacy protection between the surveyors and the surveyed. Moreover, these flashlight confessions are crucial in helping to strengthen and maintain viewer confidence in the veracity of each percentile’s willingness to provide truthful testimony—that is, until percentile #52 asks, “Who lied tonight?”13 In both the performance I attended and Rimini Protokoll’s own video recording of a subsequent performance, more than a dozen percentiles appear to raise their hands in response. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of knowing whether the same percentiles admitted to lying in each performance of 100% Montréal. More important, these percentiles are never required to explain why they lied or what they lied about. Herein lies a deeper and perhaps more troubling problem— how can the veracity of statistics produced either through a census or a referendum be ensured if the veracity of the data provided by participants cannot be trusted in the first place?14 I wondered if Rimini Protokoll should introduce real-time fact-checking into their statistical probing. If the evidential veracity of live-to-air presidential debates is strengthened by real-time fact-checking by credentialed journalists, why not the veracity of 100% Montréal? According to Rimini Protokoll Co-Director Stefan Kaegi, a percentile’s answers will often change throughout their 100% City experience. In the first few rehearsals, the attitudes, opinions, and prejudices that often pass for (personally held) ‘truths’ (as opposed to ‘truths’ derived from empirical evidence and scientific methods) tend to flourish (Alston and Koczy 4). Yet as the percentiles get to know each other, such ‘truths’ may be challenged and become harder to express publicly. Since Rimini Protokoll’s dramaturgical approach emphasizes what Florian Malzacher has described as “dramaturgies of care and zones of insecurity” for its participants, no attempt is made to script or enforce any particular set of answers (27). Instead, the percentiles are simply encouraged to stick with their initial—and often more radical—answers: [At] this moment we try to make the participants understand that it is much more interesting to stay with the first, more radical, answer because this comes closer to the truth than the ‘nice’ answer people would otherwise like to give. But of course it also goes in the opposite direction: people think that the audience expects them to state certain beliefs because they represent certain stereotypes. We always try to encourage people to not go with the majority and express diversity over and above this “we all love each other” feeling. However, there are always at least one-quarter of the 100 [who] do not take it too seriously, or who do not understand, or don’t really care. (Alston and Koczy 4) I can well imagine how the prospect of having to publicly express a set of ‘radical’ and potentially controversial positions could require a significant amount of bravery— particularly if those opinions have just been challenged and destabilized. How resilient will each percentile be in the face of preconceptions about audience expectation and the often unpredictable nature of audience response? What aspects of their established sense of self will require adjustment, suppression, or amplification to represent their imagined, criteria-based constituency without attracting negative responses from audiences or fellow percentiles? Onstage, some percentiles appear naturally inclined toward amplifying their role as the representative of a specific demographic, occasionally to the point of caricature or stereotype. At times, such amplifications appear to be motivated by an intention to either confirm or dispel preconceived notions about that particular demographic. At other times, it seems to be part of an attempt to rally or provoke members of various demographic ‘tribes’ out in the audience. As an audience member, I began to wonder if perhaps the safest and most emphatically theatrical performance strategy would be for each percentile to simply engage in a performance of an identity implied by the specific demographic criteria to which they belong.
A disconcerting conclusion
As 100% Montréal reaches its conclusion, the exact number of percentiles who have wilfully engaged in playful elaborations, exaggerations, disguises, or reinventions of their onstage identity grows ever more uncertain. With the census and the referendum as its dramaturgical engines, 100% Montréal leverages theatre’s ability to function as what Derrick De Kerckhove described as a “prototype of imagination, a try-out space for new experiences” and experiments in the art of elaboration, exaggeration, disguise, and reinvention and self-expression (149). Yet, in doing so, 100% Montréal amplifies aspects of the underlying social, cultural, and political dynamics that have traditionally plagued the pursuit of accurate statistical representations of a population’s lived experiences. In effect, 100% Montréal stages the conditions under which definitions of ‘truth’ become increasingly elusive. Both the onstage petri dish and the backstage rehearsal room provide opportunities for both audiences and participants to reflect on the mutable nature of personal ‘truths’ and the forces that shape their formulation—most notably the relative absence or abundance of first-hand encounters between people of different cultures, classes, and belief systems. Yet as I left Théâtre Jean-Duceppe and stepped back into this so-called era of post-truth and fake facts, I wondered what percentage of any population now regards participation in actual census surveys and referendums as opportunities for playful experimentation or performative resistance. And what might the realworld consequences of that be? Plato might have had something to say about all this.
1 The Oxford Dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth.
2 In the referendum, 51.9% of the participating electorate voted to leave the European Union.
3 The previous Conservative government had replaced the mandatory census in 2011 with a voluntary national household survey. For details, see Harris.
4 Attended by the author on 26 May 2017.
5 At the time of this article’s writing, 100% City has been performed in nineteen different cities around the world.
6 A phrase borrowed from 100% Berlin: A Statistical Chain Reaction, the title of Rimini Protokoll’s inaugural iteration of 100% City.
7 Notably, one additional filter is applied to the recruitment process: The number of theatre enthusiasts or actors allowed to participate as percentiles in the show must match the percentage of actors recorded in the census data (Alston and Koczy 3).
8 A term initially coined by Rimini Protokoll Co-Director Helgard Haug (Paterson 59).
9 According to Alterman, Native Americans were generally considered, at the time, to constitute three-fifths of a person as they were expected to soon die out completely (66–68). Thus, inaccurate population numbers were of little concern for census officials. Additionally, undercounting was prevalent owing to a variety of factors such as illiteracy, geographical remoteness, and cultural ignorance on the part of census takers. For example, surnames traditionally came from the mother, not the father; when asked by census takers, family members tended to list children not by age but by gender (females, then males); and some Mexicans would to try collect benefits by claiming status as Native Americans.
10 Ironically, an echo of this history found its way to 100% Montréal’s stage as the city’s Indigenous community appeared to be visually absent among the percentiles. During the post-show ‘talkback,’ it was explained that, from a statistical standpoint, Montreal’s Indigenous community comprises less than 1 per cent of the city’s population and therefore did not qualify to have its own designated percentile onstage.
11 For example, in the run-up to the 1931 population census in India, an activist group distributed flyers instructing people how to answer each population census question as an act of political subversion and resistance against the British government (Kertzer and Arel 28).
12 The census also has a history of being regarded as a top-down instrument of state control and surveillance through enforcement of racial, ethnic, and linguistic categories.
13 In the video recording of 100% Montréal available online, this moment occurs at the 1:19:52 mark. 14 It’s perhaps important to note that while there are penalties for refusing to participate in the Canadian long-form census, there do not appear to be any penalties for providing false information while completing a census.
Cited Alston, Adam, and Daniel Koczy. “‘Faces behind the Numbers’: Rimini Protokoll and Daniel Koczy Discuss 100% City.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 2, no. 25, 2015, contemporarytheatrereview. org/2015/rimini-protokoll-100-percent-city/. Alterman, Hyman. Counting People: The Census in History. 1st ed., Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969. De Kerckhove, Derrick. “Theatre as Information-Processing in Western Cultures.” Modern Drama, vol. 25, no. 1, 1982, pp. 143–153. doi. org/10.1353/mdr.1982.0000 Harris, Kathleen. “Mandatory long-form census restored by new Liberal government.” CBC News 05 Nov. 2015, cbc.ca/news/politics/canada -liberal-census-data-1.3305271 Kertzer, David I., and Dominique Arel. Census and Identity: The Politics of Race, Ethnicity, and Language in National Censuses. Vol. 1, Cambridge UP, 2002. Malzacher, Florian. "Dramaturgies of care and insecurity: The Story of Rimini Protokoll." Experts of the everyday: The theatre of Rimini Protokoll, 2008, pp. 13-43. Paterson, Eddie. “Bodies of Data: Informatics in Contemporary Performance.” Performance Paradigm, no. 12, 2016, pp. 52–69. Rimini Protokoll. 100% Montréal. 2017, vimeo.com/224155970. ———. Program Note. 100% Montréal, 2017, vimeo.com/224155970.
About the Author
Trained in music composition and sound design, Richard C. Windeyer is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (University of Toronto). His research integrates intermedial performance and sonic information design. Previously, he taught music technology and electroacoustic composition at Wilfrid Laurier University.