"I think we've lost the ability to just be human with each other...and we've lost a way of even talking about what's going on in our country that needs fixing as a collective body. And so that's part of the reason why I think this kind of work is still important." — Leigh Fondakowski
Recently, Berlin-based theater artists Rimini Protokoll descended upon Los Angeles as part of Center Theatre Group’s 50th season at Mark Taper Forum. They brought their special brand of audio experiences to the city of angels in the form of “Remote L.A.,” a guided tour of sorts.
Extended Play’s James Carter spoke with Jörg Karrenbauer about the creation of the piece and how it plays with the predictability of human life.
JAMES CARTER: Can you just tell me a little bit about what “Remote L.A.” is?
JÖRG KARRENBAUER: It’s an audio walk for a group of 50 people at a time, wearing headphones. And they’re being guided by a Siri-like voice through the city. On the one hand, this voice is giving people the directions, so like a GPS system, and on the other hand, she is doing some kind of audio play scripted approach to the people.
JAMES: And is the audio scripted? Where did you get the script from? Is it traditional sort of interviews that you guys do or is it something different than you’ve done in the past?
JÖRG: Yeah, this is actually something quite different as it is not based on documentary research or interview-based at all. It’s really like a fictional script that is just based on a quite easy approach to technology that is coming to us via voices. Already now and also in the future, helping us in our everyday life. So this is a little bit of a red line in the script following this kind of development of technology that is based on voices giving us information and helping us to manage our everyday life. It’s not really based on a lot of interviews with scientists or whatever. It’s quite playful at that moment.
JAMES: Where did it come from? Is this your project mostly or where did it come from?
JÖRG: Actually Stefan brought up the idea—Stefan Kaegi you have been in contact with. It was his idea, but as we are already working quite a while together as co-directors or co-authors we developed the piece together or the idea together. I more or less do all the performances or the adaptations of the original script that Stefan developed to other cities—in other cities. So that’s why you speak with me right now because Stefan hasn’t been in L.A. Also it was his original idea. The project was his original idea.
JAMES: So how many cities have you done then?
JÖRG: I think 36 or something. 36 or 37. So we started four years—quite exactly four years ago—in Berlin, and since then did it in 36 or around something like that cities. All over the world more or less. At least, Europe, North America, South America, Russia, India so far.
JAMES: And is it basically the same sort of concept every time, but slightly different so it works with the city?
JÖRG: Yeah, it’s based on the same concept. 50 people, being guided through the city. So there is a dramaturgical red line that always comes up in the creation of the project. It needs adaptation to each city and references to certain attitudes or habits that people might have there or some special things about the city. So it’s always an adaptation but based on the same script. I mean, when I say “same script” it’s also not true because we developed it a lot over these four years so it was something not completely, but it was something very different at the beginning from what it is now. So it’s still a script that has to be developed all the time and attached also to some scientific news or whatever. But yeah, the basic red line is the same.
JAMES: It’s interesting because you’re not only developing and changing a script, but you’re changing and developing it or honing it for a specific location. So it changes in two ways each time, right?
JÖRG: Yeah, definitely…and a city like Los Angeles is definitely a different city than, I don’t know, Bangalore or a small village in Germany, where we also did it. So for sure, it means adaptation for these differences, and on the other high end, it became more and more the focus the group experience itself.
In the beginning, we were much more focused on bringing interview based, so it was more like documentary kind of approach in the beginning. Interview based information or specialists that you could also hear via headphones. So you had actually a lot of different voices talking to you as we brought interviews in the piece at the beginning. Talking about artificial intelligence, talking about the predictability of people, talking about architectural—how cities function and so on. And we took it out after a while because we realized it’s totally confusing if you have so many voices in your head. And it was actually not so interesting after a while that we thought it’s more interesting to focus on the group itself—something that we didn’t focus on right from the beginning. But it became much more interesting to think or to play around with the predictability of this 50 people and how they feel—how you feel as an audience member being part of a horde that you probably not like, but you like to experience the performance, but in what way you want to participate and when do you decide rather not to and step back and things like that. So this dynamic of the group itself, of the experience of itself, became much more the focus of the piece.
JAMES: Can you speak what it means to you as a company? Technology and how we interact with it as human beings?
JÖRG: I mean, there is so much technology already around us that one approach—it’s not like we are totally up to date in the latest devices and creating a performance or something around it just in…as a main aim to feature this technology or something. It’s not like that. But for sure it’s an approach that for—or the hope that some devices, some technology might bring the audience more in an immersive situation. So to really experience something and maybe to be guided by, I don’t know, an iPad or a headphone or whatever to bring them into something that is more like a computer game. Like a live computer game together with other people. Something that you can really experience and that brings you out of your comfort zone in the traditional theater. It’s not that we don’t do it as well it’s sorts of pieces that we stage, but it’s not the major approach to theater or to art that we are interested in. It’s really like involving the audience as an actor and a performer and an audience member at the same time. So a lot of these performances don’t exist if there is no audience because on the other hand there is no actor.
JAMES: There’s sort of been this thinking over the last few years with the framing of “the people formerly known as the audience.”
JAMES: How does the audience react to being now the focus and perhaps the actor in the piece? Are they excited about being into it or are they scared of it?
JÖRG: You mean in general or you talk of “Remote?”
JAMES: Both I guess. I mean, your experience generally speaking with the work that you’ve done, but how are people relating to “Remote L.A.?”
JÖRG: I mean…once you decided to buy a ticket for it, you took the first hurdle, the first obstacle. For sure people who don’t like to be active or somehow involved in the process or the performance at all, they will not buy a ticket. So that’s the first step towards it. But on the other hand, we never do these kinds of performances or…this approach to the audience that we ask them to do something where they always be under pressure, you know? The audience member asked by an actor, “come on stage” or whatever he—also it can be friendly or be done in a nice way. They never have a chance, you know? They are always the losers on stage. And most people don’t like that. Some like it because they are, I don’t know, actors themselves or they are eager to stand on stage. But it’s not like this kind of stuff that we do. It’s really more like: you enter a museum and you can also buy or rent a guide there, you know, an audio guide, and experience the paintings and the sculptures and the museum and listening to an audio guide. It’s a little bit more like this approach that people, for sure, they act because they are active in the performance, but we don’t ask them to “act” you know? To really do something.
JAMES: How are the audience members reacting to “Remote L.A.?” What are they getting from it?
JÖRG: Most of the people like it. And they said they have been a little bit scared because of all this walking. As you know people, especially people from L.A., don’t walk a lot in the city. This is something that is obviously most surprising to the participants, to the audience, that it’s quite often that people say, “Oh wow, I’ve never been to these places. And I’ve lived here since years, or since ever, and I’m born and raised here, but I’ve never been to where this performance brought me to.” And this is obviously something that they like. This stroll around in their own city which they normally never do in their regular life cause everything is based on the car.
It’s actually all based on, “What is a human being, and how do they normally behave?” And all this is being processed in a device, in a program, or whatever that just refers to us as how we normally behave. So all these programs trying to simulate an ideal human being and gather as much information about being human as possible so that these devices can come to us and tell us, “Okay, we know how you feel. We know how to help you. We know how to interact with you.” And all this is just based on predictability. And this is one issue that we try to stress in this performance: how predictable we all are, how many rules we follow every day without noticing it anymore. Programs and devices…have nothing to do with artificial intelligence. They are based on big data about how humans in general behave. So it’s about what is human in general and how we humans behave in general and only based on this data these devices can approach us and tell us, “Okay, we know how you feel. We know how to help you. We know how to guide you. Because we know what you do and what makes a human so to say.” So there is something quite interesting in this that humanity—or being human and being predictable is something quite close to each other. The city would not work without people being predictable or without people following rules. This is what the performance is actually focusing on: to show the people, or to play around with how many rules you follow every day, by walking through a city without even thinking about it anymore. To play around with the predictability of a group of 50 people and also with how an individual feels.