Digital Prophesies Lab
An Ancient Greek myth tells that Zeus decided to determine where the centre of “Grandmother Earth” or Gaia is. To do that, he sent two eagles to fly in opposite directions – one from the Western extreme and the other one from the Eastern extreme of the sky. Their trajectories crossed over town of Delphi, seated on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. Zeus marked the spot by placing a stone known as omphalos or the naval of Gaia. At that place the most famous and influential temple of Antiquity emerged – The Temple of Apollo, where Pythia spelled her prophesies during certain months of the year.
Yet, in the 21st century we find out that the centre of the Earth has moved, at least temporarily, to Cologne, Germany. At Offenbachplatz to be precise. There the oracles of Delphi meet us at the end of a theatrical journey digi/topia. It involves 30 non-professional actors (with the exception of several elderly actors from the troop of the theatre) between the ages of 13 and 78, whom take their “test subjects”, the members of the audience, into small groups of up to 12 people in every 15-minutes through their performative installation, dedicated to the possible scenarios about the future they can imagine. It lasts about 90 minutes and unfolds between the two buildings of Schauspiel Köln, a significant part of which is undergoing reconstruction at the moment. Like the paths of the two eagles, it also presents two opposite to one another possible trajectories about what might be coming next: the utopian one and the dystopian one. Near the end they come together in a scene, where the audience is standing in a circle, each person showing to the others his or her just created avatar on the tablet, received at the entrance of the room, when two oracles appear to share their prophesies in the form of mystic sentences.
According the digital traces left intentionally on the official Instagram profile of the project, the first rehearsal of the group took place on 25th of February 2019. They worked together with the director and theatre pedagogue Bassam Ghazi, artistic manager Saliha Shagasi and the dramaturge Julia Fischer. And it feels like it has been a well-guided and structured but yet collaborative creative process. A separate journey on its own for the participants themselves, through which a personal performance, reflecting their own present concerns, fears, thoughts and positive anticipations has emerged.
The result of it, which is being presented between 17th and 19th of May to the public, consists of 4 major stages, following one another chronologically, clearly marked and announced within the performance: assumption, utopia, dystopia and digi/topia. The general framework in which digi/topia happens is the one a scientific laboratory, which studies the future, entitled “Laboratory for Future-Oriented Perspective Research (LzP)” – a common image when future is discussed, which implies the belief that what is coming next can be predicted, controlled and even directed, as opposed to be thoroughly chaotic and random. The scientists and the different characters inhibiting this space gently guide the audience through each scene and pass on the group to one another very rhythmically.
The assumption phase begins at the very entrance of the theatre building, right next to the box office, where data, including shoe size, is collected for each “test subject”. Afterwards two researchers in white aprons welcome the participants on the stage of the theatre. There they help them to calibrate and dive into digi/topia’s experiment through VR glasses and a short movie. As a matter of fact, that is the only instance when the audience is situated in a functioning theatre space, though again the theatrical convention is converted, since the viewers are also main actors in this performance. Thus, since everyone in the group is wearing the VR glasses, everyone is focused on the projection screened in them and there is no viewer-viewing situation. It is only the young actors, playing the scientists in the lab, who are actually observing their “test subject” on the stage. And from here on the digi/topia journey continues backstage, thought the other half of theatre building, the spots which are meant to remain invisible for the theatre-goers most of the time: the corridors, makeup, dressing and rehearsal rooms, the basement and the main stage of the building on the other side of the square, which is under construction and closed for the public since 2013.
The second phase of the experiment is the “place too good to be true”, which is the famous utopia – a genre capturing and triggering human imagination with a great strength especially since 1516, when Thomas More best-known work Utopia was printed for a first time. In the performance, the digi/topia’s utopia is introduced to the audience by the character of Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown, the inventor of the first-time travel machine from the popular American science fiction film from 1985 Back To The Future. This is one of the few direct references in digi/topia, which clearly indicates the intentional choice of the performance to work with images from popular culture.
The visions of a positive future presented discuss topics such as: the choice to continue getting old, instead of taking the opportunity to never age; politics and the very social and equal model of a country that has been achieved in Germany and shall be spread across the world; the possibility to have nice vacations in outer space; ecology in terms of the successful creation of plastic-eating robot and the fact that people have learnt to live with only what is necessary; appearance of the perfect love which is bodiless and totally virtual, with a perfect algorithm, that completely matches the needs of its lover. As a matter of fact, what makes this part utopian is not that the cases presented are not dubious, as some of them are actually quite twofold and seem ironic or as setting questions for further debate, but is that the personages are clearly happy in the situation the audience members encounter them in, their attitude is as if something nice and very positive is happening to them, even in the cases one sees from aside this does not necessary seems to be true.
This tone completely rolls over when the audience is taken into the dystopian phase – the dark counterpart of the utopia, which has prevailed in literature and art of the 20th century. 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke are among the most obvious titles that come to mind when the term – meaning “a bad-utopia” or “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic” (according to Oxford dictionary – A/N) – is mentioned. What is also worth noting is that in the recent years, with the quick development of platforms such as Netflix and HBO Go and the TV series produced by them, the dystopian genre is on the rise with productions like Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale (based on Margaret Atwood’s novel from 1985), The Society, West World and many others attracting thousands of viewers. And it feels like those TV shows are part of the closer context in which the digi/topia performance exists and “thinks” about the future. Most of them choose as a narrative strategy the creation of a complete image of the tumbledown world, which is shown bit by bit from within series after series. However, Black Mirror for example opts for presenting different case studies of particular situations, posing ethical questions in each episode, which happen to different people in diverse surroundings. Digi/topia seems to be making a similar dramaturgical choice: it unfolds as a series of separate scenes, where the audience sees each character once and a very particular situation, without a narrative link between them beyond the overall frameworks of the different stages that they are placed into and the general topic of the work.
To enter the dystopian phase of digi/topia, the audience is equipped with prerequisites for construction workers – special shoes with thick soles, helmets and protective vests – emphasizing the peculiarity of what is coming, and taken downstairs, in the gloomy, wet basement, linking the two buildings. Here live the professor and her test subject, that goes insane and asks for more and more broken glass; the librarian, taking good care of the bookworms; the ecologist worried that there is no nature left; the girl, obsessed with likes on social media, who becomes hysterical because she could not finish her latest post due to an empty battery; the paranoiac man, convinced that microchips have been injected into everyone a long time ago; the arrogant female robot, dressed in an evening dress, who let us know that robots are in charge and people are doing what they want for quite some time now; the actress, who reminisces about what it felt like to act live on stage and to be a real human.
When the audience is passing through the dystopian stage of the digi/topia experiment, the scientists, who were the leading figures in most of the scenes during the utopian stage, take a step back and become more like supervisors, escorting the “test subjects” and letting them experience what is there, without interacting with them. Their white aprons are not seen anymore, there are only staff people around, taking care of the security and quietly following the group, while it takes a look at this “exhibition” of cheerless, depressed and dim characters, living in the dark corridor beneath the ground.
They appeared again in the last stage – the digi/topia itself. It begins upstairs, where the light is bright and a few minutes later the oracles of Delphi will dance among the group, spelling their magic words and attempting to somehow connect the two extremes of what is the best possible to happen and the worst possible to come, according to the creators of digi/topia. Their appearance also reminds that the quest for predicting the future is not new at all and what lays ahead is simultaneously unpredictable and up to us.
Published 27 June 2019