Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Remote New York: All the World's a Stage

The voice in the headphones, Heather, tells us to have a dance party and shake our booty.  In the midst of Nolita I'm disco dancing to a terrible disco track.  Public dancing is not my favorite thing.  But in the safety of the group it's a little more palatable to me.  People in the garden where we are dancing, stop and stare but this is New York.  It's not all that odd.  They go back to their activities. 

Greenwood Cemetery
But as I look around I see two people who are part of this theater group not dancing.  Instead they have their smartphones out and are filming the rest of us dancing.  Smiling like idiots. In this interactive/walking tour/theater show, Remote New York, you have the power to be part of the group and follow the instructions or be an individual and not.  But frankly I thought it was rather dickish to film others participating in the show for their own amusement.  I thought to myself, "Can't we just be in the moment for one fucking moment everyone."  And don't blame this on millennials. These were boomers playing amateur auteurs.

I had high hopes for this show brought to New York by the German theater group, Rimini Protokoll. An audience of about 50 people are given headphones and we receive instructions from the voices on the headphones.  There is no "person" behind the voices.  They are constructed from pre-recorded words and re-constructed for the purpose of the "show."  Heather and Roger (our robot overlords) can't feel love or pain but they can live forever. The recordings were linked to guides in the "horde" and timed to match walk signs at crosswalks and trains arriving and departing. It allowed for us to engage in coordinated action and not get run over by cars.

We were instructed to take a picture of ourselves.
Mortality is a topic of discussion as we started the tour-show from Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.   At the beginning I liked the contemplation of disembodied computers against a world of mortal beings.  We saw the power the voices have over us and we comply.  There's a lovely moment where Heather described the theater of life all around us and we appreciated it in that manner--applauding as an audience as a poor unsuspecting couple walks by (I wish they had taken a bow).  But as the show dragged on (it was two hours) and the antics we engaged in became more focused on this idea of the individual against the "horde" (over and over again) I started to tire of the gambit.  Dramaturgically the material felt repetitive and not particularly rich.  We made our way from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side and the subway portion lacked any real content.  As we waited for our train, we got essentially "hold muzak" in our headphones.  I started to lose interest.  And a forced dance party on the subway train did not really bring me back into it.  I did like Heather's catchphrase whenever a train pulled away, "Go to Hell" she would say. I may adopt that.

Unlike say Hurtling, Greg Wohead's one-on-one show that also used headphones or Temporary Distortion's headphone based experience My Voice Has an Echo In It, Remote New York lacked human performers but more importantly it lacked a strong artistic vision.  The ideas floating around in the recording were interesting on the surface but there was no probing--of us or the ideas.  We kind of floated along just following instructions (or not).  Yes we were operated by your "remote control" but was that literally your whole idea?
With public dancing, fake public protest, and the constant "us vs. them" rhetoric, I chafed at the artificiality of the experience.  Nothing about it felt real.  And maybe they wanted to play with plastic experience--the simulacrum of life as we experience it through technology rather than real life.

But Wohead really got inside my head with show and asked me to think about myself and my life and my memories.  Temporary Distortion played with my perceptions and my understanding of the performance of music and power of sound.  When Chris Thorne and Hannah Walker had me contemplate my cellphone and it's role in my life in I Wish I Was Lonely, it lingered with me for days.  I want theater that goes somewhere.  That gets beyond the surface.  Remote New York kind of just wound me up like a toy and was like, "yeah you should think about that."  I guess it wasn't just the dickheads with their smartphone videos who were using me that day for their amusement.   How I utilize technology or how technology uses me is deep well of material.  Yet, Remote New York seemed casually flippant about it. Maybe putting the control in the virtual hands of the robots was problematic.  There was no artist confronting an audience (I mean artists had to build it but we did not even know who they were).  There was no engagement or mutuality.  There were no consequences for people failing to follow the horde and no rewards for staying with the horde (save getting my driver's license back at the end of the journey when I returned my headphones).  When the horde was to make a choice and there was the potential for disagreement, there was none. It felt a little like we'd all given up and just wanted the show to move along already (perhaps that was just me).  If I could have I might have dropped out at some point when I lost interest--true individualism on display.  But the artificiality of the construct did not allow for this.  And so I participated, trusting that there was a deeper point to it all, waiting for some meaning in it. When it came to the end, the impact of the final actions where we were supposed to feel some sort of momentous understanding of group mentality and individualism was nil.  After it was over, I walked away quickly forgetting most of the experience (except for my growing anger at the men with their videos of me dancing). But at least it was a sunny day and I had a nice walk with myself.  

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