I’m back from Europe at last, including a presentation of Angry Eyes at Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. It was a sort of Berlin Wall Exchange, and I had a wonderful time; my interlocutor was Martin Gak, who raised a series of probing and thoughtful questions about drones and military violence to which I plan to return, and I had some exhilarating conversations extending over two nights about HAU’s three performance spaces and in particular its investment in documentary drama.
Which brings me to Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms playing at HAU 2 also as part of its Waffenlounge (‘Weapons Lounge': its logo above uses a silhouette that must rank alongside the AK-47 as one of the most iconic – and in this case, of course, German – guns in the world; one of the aims of ‘Weapons Lounge’ is to drive home the point that, after the USA and Russia, Germany is the third largest arms exporter in the world).
The title Situation Rooms is of course provoked by this famous image:
Here, incidentally, I recommend Keith Feldman‘s bravura reading in ‘Empire’s verticality: the Af/Pak frontier, visual culture and racialization from above‘ in Comparative American Studies 9 (4) (2011) 325-41; I’ll return to its relevance at the end.
But Situation Rooms provides an even more dispersed, global mapping of contemporary military violence:
Situation Rooms gathers together from various continents 20 people whose biographies have been shaped by weapons in a film set that recreates the globalised world of pistols and rocket-propelled grenades, of assault rifles and drones, of rulers and refugees, becoming a parcours of unexpected neighbourhoods and intersections.
With the personal narratives of the ‘inhabitants’, the images start to move and the audience follows the individual trails of the cameras they have been given. They start to inhabit the building, while following what they see and hear on their equipment. The audience does not sit opposite the piece to watch and judge it from the outside; instead, the spectators ensnare themselves in a network of incidents, slipping into the perspectives of the protagonists, whose traces are followed by other spectators.
One spectator sits at the desk of a manager for defence systems. At the same time, another follows the film of a Pakistani lawyer representing victims of American drone attacks in a cramped room with surveillance monitors. On her way there, she sees a third spectator who follows his film into the shooting range of a Berlin gun club, listening Germany’s parcours shooting champion. Around the corner stands another spectator in the role of a doctor carrying out amputations in Sierra Leone, while in the room next door a press photographer sorts pictures of German army missions in Afghanistan, only to stand in the shooting range himself a little later to do exactly what he was able to observe in passing just a while ago, thereby becoming a subject for observation himself.
The audience gradually becomes entangled in the film set’s spatial and material labyrinth; each individual becoming part of the re-enactment of a complicatedly elaborated multi-perspective “shooting”.
As some readers will recognise, there are all sorts of formal parallels (as well as the obvious disjunctures) with Gerry Pratt and Caleb Johnston‘s Nanay: a testimonial play – in staging, in evidentiary base – which was in fact performed at HAU in 2009 as well as in Vancouver and Manila.
You can read an extremely informative interview with Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel, the three architects of Rimini Protokoll, here, and what they have to say collectively about the politics of staging – about perspective, spectatorship and situation – is particularly illuminating:
‘We’re … creating a way to access what certain people, who have experience with weapons, arms trade, weapons use and war, have to say… It is not the experts that can be seen, but the situation in which they find themselves, from their perspective. That’s the shift. Instead of looking at a protagonist from outside, to a certain degree you look at an event “from inside”…
‘You hear their voices through headphones. On the iPad or as you walk through the rooms of the film set you see their typical work situations. The visitor is always following the path, so to speak, that the expert in each case has paved by narrating/filming. This kind of approach is quite different than it would be looking at these people from a comfortable theatre seat. The piece operates from the sentence that is often used to explain things in conflicts: Put yourself in my shoes! It is about creating a form of proximity that is also perhaps a bit disturbing…
‘You don’t look into a room from outside, but instead find yourself in it – in this case, although it’s theatre, there are four and not three walls. You also see the behaviour of other participants who are following the films of other experts. The 20 perspectives of the 20 experts collectively produce a sort of clockwork. The participant lands in a mechanism, and it has a certain rhythm. It jumps back to zero every 7 minutes. Then it moves the participant on into the perspective of a different expert, from which you can suddenly also observe the role that you had previously assumed.’
With good reason, this started me thinking about the multiple ‘situations’ folded into a single air strike orchestrated by a drone. Daniel emphasises that the different situations are connected ‘through their lack of connectedness’, and yet what comes into view is precisely the dispersed, uneven and labile formation of what Foucault called a dispositif. Daniel again:
‘First “you are” an off-duty general from the Indian Air Force. He sees drones as the military device of the future, a boon for humanity. Seven minutes later “you are” a Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of drone attacks and says that they trample on human rights…’
So the challenge for me, now, is to think about how I might stage the multiple situations that punctuate and animate the ‘incident’ in Afghanistan that I describe in Angry Eyes.… and, in particular, to incorporate the ‘situations’ of the Afghan victims who survived the attacks and who were treated in military hospitals for their awful injuries.
Thinking explicitly about how to stage all this is a way not only of presenting research differently but of conducting research differently. Because once you start to think in these terms, you begin to see things that were otherwise at best at the very edges of your field of view. Daniel insists that there is no overarching point of view, no ‘God trick’ (which, in a different register, is precisely what I sought to show in Angry Eyes):
‘The ten stories that everyone sees, the 20 stories [from which they are drawn], are also only a small excerpt from an infinite number of stories. What you see is an excerpt of an excerpt of an excerpt. What you don’t see, and the knowledge that there’s a lot that you don’t see – this is just as important as what you end up seeing. “Situation Rooms” is also a project at the interface of film and theatre.’
It’s also at the creative interface of the performing arts and critical research and I think offers another way of disclosing ‘Empire’s verticality’ and its imbrications with ‘Angry Eyes’…