As Germany lived through two world wars in the 20th century, art coming out of the country has reflected the experience of bloodshed, violence and genocide, from the Expressionist pain of Käthe Kollwitz or Charlotte Salomon to Joseph Beuys’ felt-fur-stone installations (currently in a massive survey at the National Gallery of Canada) to Anselm Kiefer’s leaden Wagnerian mythologising; from Erich Maria Remarque’s enduring pacifist manifesto All Quiet On The Western Front to Bertolt Brecht’s war-profiteering Mother Courage and Her Children; from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films of rallying troops to disaster blockbusters like Das Boot (1981) and Downfall (2004).
Shock and trauma, shame and guilt, loss and recovery, remembering and inoculating lest we forget, as well as a propensity for self-reflective (psycho-) analysis and the famous German Vergangenheitsbewältigung — coming to terms with the past — all make up the larger cultural and socio-political framework in which these works continue to be created and received.
For Germans born post-WWII — like Rimini Protokoll’s Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel and Swiss-German Stefan Kaegi, or myself — our anti-military worldview was shaped by our parents’ or grandparents’ accounts (or lack thereof). It was shaped by the dissent and terrorism of the Red Army Faction in the 1970s, by living the Cold War literally at the frontier between the “Free World” and the “Soviet Bloc.” Many of us spent more time in the streets protesting US missiles deployed in Germany than in school. The Easter Peace Marches became a ritual that drew half a million each year. And if you were male, you likely objected to compulsory service in the Bundeswehr. Weapons and war continued to be omnipresent — strangely so in times of peace and prosperity in the “militant democracy” (wehrhafte Demokratie) of late 20th-century Germany that culminated in a uniquely Peaceful Revolution in 1989. Just watch the recent TV series Deutschland 83, a smash hit in the US and the UK, and you will get a sense of the underlying tension of the time.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and Germany “in theatre” in a global war in Afghanistan. I first took part in Situation Rooms, an immersive war game of sorts, at Munich’s Kammerspiele in 2014. I had seen, participated in, tested and debated nearly a dozen Rimini Protokoll productions over the past decade (they produce as many in a year). At the Goethe-Institut Toronto, we had commissioned their first work that used interactive gaming technology, Best Before, which played the Vancouver Cultural Olympiad for the PuSh Festival and Luminato Festival in 2010. The Berlin collective’s work is smart and quirky, cutting edge and playful, often called “games” or “player situations.”
Photo by Jörg Baumann. Courtesy of Rimini Protokoll.
The signature Rimini creation is thought-provoking and entertaining, political and always helmed by “experts of the everyday” — here an Indian army fighter pilot or an arms-industry manager. Above all, it is personally challenging. (Last year in Berlin they had me jump on a chair and start a revolution in their parlour game Home Visit Europe.) What had triggered the ominous choice of topic of Situation Rooms? An image we have all seen: the White House Situation Room during the Bin Laden manhunt, which compelled the three collaborators to research (always!) what it means to make, use, sell, be attacked or killed by weapons — and how all of these experiences connect across the 22 countries involved in this work and beyond.
Going to a show about arms traders and warlords that includes putting on a bullet-proof coat and conducting a triage was not something I was seeking out, despite my curiosity and trust in Rimini Protokoll’s work. The piece has not left me to this day. I remember holding my tablet, unsure how to navigate the huge container we entered, how to react to shifting situation rooms with their respective stories and cast of characters, how to move with the other participants in communal silence while interrupted by gun shots over my headphones. (I flinched or ducked more than once.)
Situation Rooms has taken Rimini Protokoll’s work to yet another level of post-dramatic shock and awe, both in terms of walking the walk of the oft-used but rarely realized audience participation, as well as the meaningful use of audio, video and virtual and real space in a complex and highly dramaturged and directed web of augmented-reality environments. Theatertreffen, Berlin’s annual best-of German theatre festival, agreed by selecting Situation Rooms with the jury comment, “It is astounding that directors can reinvent theatre after 2,500 years.”
War is stupid; I knew since before Boy George. Now I could feel it, sense it, touch it, smell and taste it. Alas, the arms manufacturer in Situation Rooms begs to differ. Don’t expect to hold on to all of your beliefs. You walk in with one set of notions and walk out with your mind rearranged. Luminato Festival’s Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt and I chatted after he had seen Situation Rooms and he had no doubt it was an artistically astounding and powerful experience, visceral and internationally relevant: one that had to come to Toronto to include Canadian audiences in a global conversation that, as we speak, continues with Ottawa and Berlin debating their respective arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
Situation Rooms runs June 10–26 at the Hearn. All performances are SOLD OUT. Presented by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel (Rimini Protokoll).