The dynamic between collectivism and individualism

28 05 2015 / Scenekunst

(Translated from Norwegian)

The dynamic between collectivism and individualism

by Hilde Elisabeth Bjørk


Key events in the development of the EU forms the backdrop of Rimini Protokoll’s latest performance Home Visit Europe. The format is everything but classical theatre as it is the audience itself that creates the performance. Rimini Protokoll’s two co-workers that are with us this evening introduce the concept as an experimental social platform. Our experiences this Saturday in a stranger’s apartment in Berlin cannot be described more accurately than that.


Home visits to hospitable Europeans provide the foundation on which this performance is built. In Berlin these nights are arranged in both English and German, and very soon the production finds its way into the homes of the people of Bergen during Bergen International Festival. The performance I am attending is an English speaking night, and that is probably why the audience consists of people from all over the world. Even two other Norwegians on a weekend-trip to Berlin have found their way to the borough of Schöneberg, visiting the German couple Julia and Florian.


The audience as actors

Rimini Protokoll writes on their website that “the continuous development of the tools of the theatre” in order to “allow for unusual perspectives on our reality” constitutes the focus of their work. This concept is not difficult to spot in the trio’s productions. The continuous exploration of the theatre’s format has previously led them to invite people on stage that one usually does not see in front of an audience, namely ordinary people, so called everyday experts that tells stories about their lives and projects. In addition to that, the distinction between actors and audience has become more diffused in the group’s latest productions. The performances are often organized as interactive installations where the audience has to play a very active role.


A short excursion in order to better understand where Home Visit Europe picks up the thread: the performance Situation Rooms, A multiplayer video piece saw the light in 2013. A picture taken from The White House Situation Room right after the caption and execution of Osama bin Laden in 2011 provided the point of departure for this performance where 20 people from all over the world told their story about how their lives directly or indirectly were affected by the production and use of weapons. For this purpose Rimini Protokoll had built a network of global situation rooms: A gigantic installation consisting of different rooms that were all connected to each other in one way or another, just like the stories of the people the performance was centred around. The distance between the Israeli border post on the West Bank and the German city of weapon production, Oberndorf, is not as far as you think. One by one the audience entered the installation armed with a tablet in their hands and headphones in their ears. It was our task to recreate the stories told to us by the people virtually via the tablets. We could for example, see an Israeli soldier located in the same room we stood in, on the West Bank, telling us about his tasks in the IDF and giving us instructions on what needed to do. For a few minutes we were playing his role on the border post, and the next moment we were portraying a worker in a weapon factory in Oberndorf.


In Situation Rooms virtuality is intertwined with reality, and the role of the audience becomes accentuated, as we simultaneously are observers and doers, audiences and actors. In addition to this, that which is often perceived as abstract becomes concretized here, as Rimini Protokoll draws a line from a macro to a micro perspective on what it entails to produce weapons in order to kill people. These aspects are also present in Home Visit Europe. But this performance completely revokes the line between actor and observer, because the only actors left are us, the audience. We are participants in a game and at the same time we observe each other while playing this game. On an abstract level, the performance is about the establishment and the development of the EU, while on a concretized level it is the individual’s role in a group constellation that is emphasized. Because is it not within these small, everyday and completely normal social structures that we must start if we want to initiate change?


This Saturday in May 14 unknown people gather in a stranger’s apartment in Schöneberg. We are received with open arms and offered tea and coffee before we are told to take place around the long table in the middle of the living room. The map of Europe is drawn on a white canvas covering the table. Our first assignment is to mark three places on the map that has some form of meaning to us, and though only the European continent is sketched, we can mark places outside this area. So we colour the map with places that are meaningful to us, from Quito to Beijing, Athens to Narvik. We were born here, we have an emotional connection there, and we live and work here. These large and colourful triangles create a network of connections. Then the game is introduced. There are five levels and the goal is to finish with the largest portion of the ‘Europe’ cake that is about to be but in the oven. A home-wired box, that resembles a bomb, is being passed around the table. We are supposed to press the green button and read the text on the note that is being printed out. After a little while it becomes clear that all the levels of this game are constructed after important political events in the community organisations that formed the foundation for the founding of the EU.


Thus, the opening level concerns the first meeting of The European Coal and Steel Community after World War II. This is where the first seed was sowed for a subsequent economical and political collaboration through the EU. The little machine is being passed around and one by one we pull out notes with questions to the hosts. We quickly arrive at the second level which deals with the other participants in the game, and in this round we have to answer questions about our past: Who was a school council representative? Who has participated in physical conflicts? Who has been a member of a political party?


How decisions are made in groups, is the focus of the third level. The backdrop is the first major revision of the Treaty of Rome, the Single European Act from 1986 that amongst other things changed the rules on how decisions were made in the EC (later the EU). An increased use of majority voting was introduced, leaving unanimous voting more and more behind. On this level we are instructed to raise our hand and to keep it held high for as long as we feel like. One by one we let it drop until only one hand remains. After maybe 30 seconds, the remaining participant also lets his hand fall down. Later in the game we have to evaluate this incident as positive or negative. Is this person strong because he withstands peer pressure? Or is he an individualist at the expense of the collective? This dynamic between collectivism and individualism runs as a common thread throughout the game, and it distinctly underlines how our individual perspective shapes the reality surrounding us.


Formation of alliances

As we reach the fourth level, the game changes. All the information up to this point has been saved by the game master, and based on the answers we have given, alliances of two and two are being formed. As we both, among other things, feel more European than a citizen of our own country, I am teamed up with a German woman. When these alliances are being created, the feeling of togetherness from the first rounds fades. Now we are competing against each other, and the only goal is to achieve the biggest share of the cake in the end. Even though the vibe in the room is still nice and easy, it is notable that we are now a little more sceptical towards each other. During this level we are offered to form other alliances, and also to give or take points from the other teams. Towards the end, one team has to construct or withdraw a border in Europe. The choice naturally falls on Krim, so for an hour this Saturday, the peninsula belongs to Ukraine and Europe again.


Looking at the political situation in Europe, Home Visit Europe is a very current performance. Both the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean creates on-going debates about the borders of Europe, often on the basis of dichotomies such as us/them, Western/Eastern. And here we are, 14 strangers in a foreign apartment in the borough of Schöneberg, drawing on the map of Europe and negotiating agreements: Who wants to live with her on the basis of what she just uttered, who considers him reliable, who thinks she would be a great leader? Some questions confront us with our ability to evaluate ourselves, the relation between who you think you are and who you actually are. An example: from 0 to 5, where 0 is not at all and 5 is a hundred per cent, do you encourage solidarity? In my opinion it is impossible to answer this question without the image of the boat refugees popping up in your mind. Can you consider yourself as a person showing complete solidarity if you close your eyes for what’s happening on the thresholds of Europe? These are not questions explicitly being asked, but they are smouldering under the surface the whole time.


Rigid frames

The individual story and the smaller structures in society obviously plays a central role in the productions of Rimini Protokoll, but the perspective is always directed outwards towards that which is bigger than the individual. This is what makes this group’s productions so interesting both from a social and artistic perspective. Especially because, looking at the world from a micro perspective precisely means to acknowledge the mechanisms that provide the basis for the bigger social structures in our society. To observe and experience how alliances, solidarity and togetherness is created between complete strangers on a Saturday night, and to acknowledge the significance that these mechanisms can have if you apply them to a bigger context, is the very core of Home Visit Europe. The goal is to create a network across Europe, to open up a room that invites you to think about and discuss the concept of this continent.


And this is indeed what the performance achieves, but at the same time I find the format a bit too rigid. At first glance, the game-format provides space for coincidence and interaction. After all, it is precisely coincidence that made this exact group of people come together and the lack of complete control is also the very nature of a game. But as the game unfolds on the different levels, it becomes clear that we have a time limit, the task is to reach the goal and this means less room for the real meeting between this by-chance compounded group of people. It seems rigid in the sense that we do not have time to really discuss the situation in and on the borders of Europe, even though many of the questions actually initiate these types of conversations. It would have been an interesting touch to loosen up the format a little, as people from all over the world are sitting around the table and you notice that they want to talk about their thoughts and experiences. But this is probably where the theatrical format makes its entrance. It is not a normal Saturday night at a friend of a friend’s house where one sits around the kitchen table with people one hardly knows and discusses the future of Europe over a cold beer. It is a theatrical performance that has a structured dramaturgy with a beginning, middle and an end.


Just as the coloured lines on the map of Europe creates a network of global connections, this performance will connect people from all over Europe as it travels to different countries and visits the homes of different people. Go and see it if you are in the city during Bergen International Festival. You are sure to have a very interesting experience and the possibility of new acquaintances.