Museums

Training to Be a Spy at the Brooklyn Museum

Top Secret International (State I), part of the Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar Festival, is an immersive play that reframes espionage through art.

A scene from Top Secret International (State 1), running January 5–15 at the Brooklyn Museum as part of The Public’s 13th Annual Under the Radar Festival (photo by Benno Tobler)

Running through the Egyptian Wing of the Brooklyn Museum, the two voices in my headphones instruct me to regard the seated scribe, the bust of ancient nobility, and the sarcophagi of deceased pharaohs. As a participant in Top Secret International (State I), part of the Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar Festival, the voices in my head are not the usual recordings of docents, but a set of instructions from undercover intelligence personnel. “The museum,” one of the voices explains, “is as good a place as any to train a spy.”

Top Secret is an ambitious new form of documentary theater that functions as an immersive radio play. Created by the German theater company Remini Protokoll, it is the first installment in a tetralogy of plays that dramatizes phenomena of the digital age like government surveillance, big data, and hacking. With technology in its crosshairs, Top Secret reframes espionage through art. By teaching its participants how to look at art, Remini Protokoll’s lessons on hyperawareness mimic the tools a spy must learn if he wants to survive.

Avoiding a pedagogical tone, Top Secret begins with the simple delights of looking. What constitutes a story? Our first stop is at the Italian sculptor Salvatore Albano’s “The Fallen Angels, or The Rebel Angels” in the museum’s lobby. Functioning as a tutorial, a voice in your headphones asks you to identify which figure is the fallen angel. But wait — it is a trick question. The voice reminds you that there is not one fallen angel but many, as the title suggests. This mini-lesson on deception suggests that if we can learn how our eyes deceive us, then we can begin to deceive others.

A scene from Top Secret International (State 1), running January 5–15 at the Brooklyn Museum as part of The Public’s 13th Annual Under the Radar Festival (photo by Benno Tobler)

Now at the Egyptian Wing, the discussion shifts to surveillance systems. Despite their reticence, monuments and images can serve as powerful, if passive, forms of authority. The Egyptians knew this, carving idealized images of their pharaohs as gods to authenticate their rule. And if we believe, as someone in your headphones remarks, that knowledge can be more powerful than action, then Top Secret argues that images are powerful receptacles of information. The metatheatrical marvel of this show is that it processes you as you process the Egyptian artifacts on display.

At this point, I should mention what I have neglected to say. Top Secret uses an algorithmic Bluetooth device that tracks your coordinates in the museum, sending you further information and instructions based on your location. This also means that when the voice in your headphone asks you a question, you can respond by moving in certain ways or relocating to specific areas in the galleries. For example, you may be asked to answer a question by walking to the other end of a gallery or waving your notebook (which Top Secret provides you with in the air above your head. These questions are at times exceedingly personal and duplicitous, like asking what your biggest fear is or inquiring if you would resort to violence to gain information that could save other people’s lives. As an aptitude test for espionage, Remini Protokoll hints at the ethical dilemmas individuals in the intelligence community juggle on a daily basis. Spy psychology is something rehearsed, sharpened, and performed. As the principle actor in Top Secret, you are also rehearsing, sharpening, performing.

A scene from Top Secret International (State 1), running January 5–15 at the Brooklyn Museum as part of The Public’s 13th Annual Under the Radar Festival (photo by Benno Tobler)

Surveillance is not a new topic in art, but Remini Protokoll excels at turning our theories and conversations about panopticism and the gaze back onto cultural institutions. How often do you enter a museum’s galleries and notice every security guard and surveillance camera tracking your movements? And when do you realize that they are not primarily there for your safety, but to protect the art? In the Brooklyn Museum’s Beaux-Arts Court (a grand space with high ceilings, balconies, and balustrades) you become hyperaware of the museum’s own adaptation of surveillance in its design and architecture. The impulse to watch others is such a basic human impulse, not a new invention designed around big data.

Enriching this spatial and auditory experience is a series of interviews played throughout Top Secret with former intelligence operators and key whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden, from around the world. Once again, we are reminded of the real human voices behind surveillance technology. Some of these voices pose controversial theories, like claiming there is a worldwide conspiracy within the intelligence community to allow terrorist attacks to occur to drum up business. Private contractors working for intelligence operations stand to make baffling amounts of money when tragedy strikes.

Presenting reality as stranger than fiction, these sidebars of commentary give a broader sense of purpose to your sneaking around the museum. In truth, your mission as a spy is a pretense, meant to engage you in the play’s documentary materials. And it’s a deviously smart ploy. By teaching its participants to think like a spy, Top Secret hopes to untangle the covert tactics of the international intelligence community.

Rimini Protokoll’s Top Secret International (State 1) continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) as part of The Public’s 13th Annual Under the Radar Festival through January 15. 

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