Pulling the Wagon: Turbo Pascal and the Theater of Social Work

“We never felt like 'professional' professional artists.” German theater collective Turbo Pascal aggressively creates free and public art in a country where the state-run theater monopolizes professional opportunities.

Turbo Pascal members wheeling the mobile archive through the streets of Freiburg. Photo Credit: Kathrin Feldhaus.

It’s a sunny spring day in Littenweiler, a neighborhood of the southwestern German city of Freiburg, and the four people maintaining the Littenweiler Archive for Stories of Coming, Going, and Staying are sweating. Operating the archive is no easy task, at the least from a physical standpoint. It’s housed in a wagon the size of a food cart, wooden on rubber tires, a tarp strapped to the top and folding stools dangling from hooks on its belly. A chalkboard listing the day’s stops (train station, farmer’s market) covers one of its sides.

The many folders it contains — among them the folder for “Disappointed Expectations,” the folder for “New Beginnings,” the folder for “Paperwork,” the folder for “Imaginings About Places You’ve Never Been” — are open to anyone who wants to contribute. Add a fragment of your own story or of someone else’s and you become part of the archive, too. As a Littenweiler resident, it would be introduced to you as a municipal archive and its attendants as city employees. In actuality, however, the workers are members of Turbo Pascal, a Berlin-based theater collective.

Since 2004, Turbo Pascal has created performances examining how people organize their private, public, and communal lives. The collective aims to create contemporary contradictions: the ones they live and the ones lived by their audiences or collaborators — like the civilian contributors to the archive in Littenweiler.

The archive highlights perceptions of immigration, origins, and nationality in a neighborhood influenced by the influx of immigrants, many of them asylum-seekers. It’s a collaboration with the Freiburg-based arts organization Element 3, an extension of their project featuring the home’s inhabitants in 2013. Element 3 wanted to find a way to bring the project to Littenweiler residents beyond the boundaries of the refugee home.

Crossing and smearing out boundaries is central to Turbo Pascal’s work. Research is key in every project, but identifying the boundary between research and performance is usually impossible. In this, the collective is similar to American companies like Sojourn Theatre and projects like Mallory Catlett, Jim Findlay, and Aaron Landsman’s City Council Meeting. Though there will be a series of public performances in May that will serve as the culmination — for now — of the Littenweiler Archive project, the act of creating the archive is also certainly a performance.

“We said: we want a performative research,” says Eva Plischke, a founding member of the collective, talking about designing the project as a whole. “You open up your research again and again for people to join in it.” Even for their performances that feel more traditionally theatrical, in a theater space, with an audience, this opening is always on their minds. The performance is “the moment of opening up the research we did in advance and involving the audience in it.” For Turbo Pascal, the theater is a Versammlungsort: a place to gather.

“Was ihr macht ist doch Sozialarbeit”

Advanced and even undergraduate degree programs in social practice are popping up in art and performance departments across the United States, marking the art-world mainstreaming of an aesthetic and certain ways of working that long belonged to community organizers, self-taught and underground and othered artists, often artists who position themselves in opposition to the academy or the commercial art world. Art as social practice encompasses a wide range of projects and disciplines, but at its heart is a belief that art can be a catalyst for change. Accompanying the perspective’s popularity comes plenty of criticism of its naiveté or its recasting of the artist as a sort of cultural shaman, and lamentation that socially engaged artists lack the critical distance that makes great art great.

“In a lot of our performances the borders between: Is this art? Is this a kind of public gaming? Is this a social experiment — the borders are not so sharp.”

Frank Oberhaeusser, another Turbo Pascal co-founder, and Eva are ambivalent about the trend. In Germany they wouldn’t necessarily refer to it as social practice — maybe art as activism, they say, or art as a tool, or change management. But under whatever name, it shapes the form and content of much of what’s produced by the Freie Szene (the “free scene,” composed of independent, itinerant theater companies like Turbo Pascal as opposed to the German state-funded theater system with its permanent buildings and full-time ensembles of artists and staff).

If you’re criticizing it, Eva says, you might say, “Ja, aber dass was ihr macht ist doch Sozialarbeit. Yes, but what you’re doing is social work.”

As Frank and Eva see it, defining what they do as art is largely contextual. “In a lot of our performances the borders between: Is this art? Is this a kind of public gaming? Is this a social experiment — the borders are not so sharp,” says Frank.

In fact, it can often feel like the defining factor is the source of funding: it’s art because the money is coming from a cultural fund.

Regardless of whether it is social practice or not, the collective’s work is consistently fascinating in its disinterest in sharpening those borders for itself. Turbo Pascal’s allegiance is to the knotty, hypnotic questions around what it means to live today as a human being with other human beings. Grasping those questions requires reaching from odd angles. Limiting the work to projects that could be definitively categorized as theater, scientific study, or social work would artificially constrain their reach.

It helps, too, that Turbo Pascal is far from precious about their status as artists, which is a refreshing perspective in Germany’s hyper-professionalized theater system. The structure of state-funded theater makes it possible for actors, directors, and designers to make a living with a degree of stability that in the United States is currently the purview of administrators only, and that’s something American theater artists tend to romanticize without understanding the drawbacks of that structure’s rigidity. Imagine a world in which if you didn’t go to Juilliard, Tisch, or Carnegie Mellon’s drama conservatory, it’d be impossible for you to get a professional audition or paid directing gig. In this context, building a collective was a way for Turbo Pascal’s founding members, mostly graduates of an applied theater studies program (a hybrid between theoretical and conservatory-style theater training, of which there are very few in Germany) to become artists together. “We never felt like professional professional artists,” says Eva.

Turbo Pascal’s artistry lies in marrying theory and practice. Giving research a physical form. Finding the right moment to involve the audience in the research. Creating a container for the space that this involvement opens.

Art as Arts Administration

Sometimes the containers Turbo Pascal uses are pretty literal: a wagon that contains and transports stories; an elevator that contains and transports bodies. During the early stages of Mitarbeiter*innenprojekt, a nine-month collaboration with Theater Freiburg, Frank and Veit Merkle, another collective member, spent a full working day riding up and down in the theater’s main elevator, asking anyone who entered it where she was headed next. True to form, the performative action served an elegant double function. It did the work of providing Turbo Pascal with a picture of Theater Freiburg’s day-to-day structure. Simultaneously, it made the collective visible to the theater’s employees, laying the groundwork for months of working together.

Fahrstuhl8i

Frank Oberhäußer and Veit Merkle organizing people’s responses to their questions in the elevator at Theater Freiburg. Photo Credit: Kathrin Feldhaus.

The focus of Turbo Pascal’s collaboration with Theater Freiburg, a state-funded institution that in recent years has hosted conferences and conversations on the future of the Stadttheater system, was to contribute to this discourse about theater as an institution by bringing together those who work within the institution (Theater Freiburg employees) with those who don’t (Turbo Pascal members). A complex project that Eva and Frank estimate involved about 200 Theater Freiburg employees at different levels of intensity and commitment, the collaboration was almost entirely internal. Performance actions took place inside the theater building and the final presentation was for an invited public of people directly affected by the conversation: employees’ family members, members of the independent theater scene in Freiburg, a few politicians.

Eva says that the connecting thread was action: finding ways to move beyond discussion into trying out ideas. Though the technique is different, it’s the same ethos behind the performance work of Augusto Boal and his Theater of the Oppressed. Theater of the Oppressed performances don’t have audiences — they have actors and spect-actors. Similarly, Eva and Frank hesitate to refer to an audience for the collective’s projects, often referring to “collaborators” or “participants” instead. (The title of Mitarbeiter*innenprojekt itself contains these multiple layers: “Mitarbeiter” translates equally well to “employee,” “co-worker,” and “collaborator”.) Also like Boal, though Turbo Pascal is constantly asking questions, it has no intention of identifying definitive answers. If theater is a tool, that’s not the kind of function it serves.

It may in fact be a tool that uses questions to generate more questions, like the classic improv game in which no statements are allowed. The discourse around what should happen with the Stadttheater system is already overfull of statements from artistic directors and cultural politicians who take a hard line when it comes to their positions on funding, aesthetics, and the needs of today’s German theater artists. (This 2013 interview with Berliner Festspiele artistic director Thomas Oberender is a great example.)

“We said, it’s important to involve the employees, the people working in the institution, because most of the time it’s not them involved or talking about this,” says Eva. “It’s the people running the institution, or even people not working in the institution. All the Freie Szene, collectives, like us, say things about the institution, but we don’t work there.”

But behaving as if the several hundred employees of Theater Freiburg can and should speak as a single voice in this discourse would be disingenuous, reductive. This makes theater an ideal tool to use here, from one-off performance actions that call attention to the day-to-day workings of the theater, to creating cross-departmental collectives that must work together on a small performance or research project.

On a day Turbo Pascal dubbed “100% Theater Freiburg,” a technique borrowed from Freie Szene bastion Rimini Protokoll, the stage became a quite literal Versammlungsort for the entire company.

“We used [the technique] inside of the institution,” says Eva, “to say, ‘Can we all meet, 100% Theater Freiburg, on a normal working day, can we all meet on the main stage, stop working for 2 hours, and do a kind of performative life statistics with ourselves?’ Trying to find out who we are and what we think about this institution.”

Living diagrams, living archives. Turbo Pascal performances do not just result from the research that it does. The research itself is also always a performance.

The black surface of Theater Freiburg’s main stage was marked by two concentric white circles. Backlit signs reading ICH (I) and ICH NICHT (NOT I) framed a bird’s-eye view of the stage projected against the wall. Statements and questions were posed to the group:

I have no desire to participate in decision-making here in the theater.

I only want to have a better understanding of the decisions that are made

Who would like to have a different contract than his current one?

Participants responded in each instance by positioning their bodies in relation to the circles and signs, creating a living diagram of fluid opinion.

Living diagrams, living archives. Turbo Pascal performances do not just result from the research that it does. The research itself is also always a performance. This may be true of all research, but Turbo Pascal’s consciousness of that fact creates something essential, complex, and very alive out of the research process itself.

Crucially, they acknowledge that this can be honored but not fully transmitted in the final performances or products of each research-performance project. Mitarbeiter*innenprojekt’s capstone is a print publication that shares impressions and diagrams, memories and pieces of individual voices, without trying to streamline them into answers or recommendations. For the Littenweiler Archive of Coming, Going, and Staying, the final performances will allow audience members to wander among a tableau of performers.

“When you come near them, they start telling the story,” Frank says. “When the story is finished, you walk to the next person and you hear another story.”

“But everybody will then hear, like, a different combination of stories from the archive,” Eva adds. “And you will never hear everything.”

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