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)

A flurry of performance festivals in New York — Under the Radar, American Realness, Prototype, COIL —  accompanies the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. Two of this year’s offerings, perhaps inadvertently, highlighted the sometimes awkward and asocial embrace of technology.

It may be of some comfort that the human tracking technology in the German theater group Rimini Protokoll’s Top Secret International (State 1) repeatedly lost my location. The specially installed spy system was supposed to be able to follow my whereabouts in the Brooklyn Museum and respond to my position with auditory prompts referring to the museum’s exhibition material or topics relating to surveillance. When I checked in at the start desk in the lobby, I was issued a conspicuous battery-powered transmitter poorly disguised as a medium-size notebook which I was told to carry with me. Should I feel safer that, even with my repeated consultations with on-site technicians, the system lost me five times inside the museum? The basic theme of the work was to heighten awareness of the often invisible state security apparatuses and agents operating both domestically and internationally and the shadowy ethics that govern these webs of intrigue. At one point in my tour, there was supposed to be a meeting with another participant, a secret rendezvous arranged by the technology, but the connection failed once more, and I had to again enlist the help of an Under the Radar technician.

For quite some time, Andrea Fraser and the team of Janet Cardiff and George Burrs Miller, among other artists, have created recorded tours for the context of museums. Those recordings encouraged listeners to observe the environment of the museum, including its human inhabitants. Rimini does likewise at the Brooklyn Museum, but its audio material frequently disrupts rather than promotes the sense of immersion. Though there are monologues focused on artifacts in the museum’s stellar Egyptian collection and instructions to look around, the Rimini project includes much recorded audio material from completely outside the museum context, which tends to detach the visitor’s experience from the surroundings.

Based in Berlin, Rimini Protokoll frequently incorporates the public and an element of participation in its projects. For example, in Karl Marx: Das Kapital, Erster Band, people from the former East Germany who had a deep personal relationship with Marxist-Leninist thought — some who dared to escape to the West, a university lecturer on Marxism, a nouveau capitalist — represented themselves on the stage in Berlin and spoke about their own, highly individual experiences. Copies of the first volume of Das Kapital were distributed, and the audience collectively read selections from the book under discussion. Another Rimini work called 360 Degrees determines its real-life cast and therefore its content according to the demographic mix of each city in which it is presented: the non-actors talk about themselves, their lives, and the city.

Top Secret retains its German origins with texts dealing with the security state in Germany voiced by their originators and translated in overdubbing for the Brooklyn audience. While I enjoyed hearing the snippets of German, with a little effort similar and perhaps more incisive audio quotations from the American context might have been found and could have had more impact.

I fear that the American security state has more robust technology than this German theater group. We are about to enter an authoritarian era in which state surveillance will be unprecedented in its scope and intrusiveness.

“CVRTAIN” (photo by Andrew Federman)

Another theater experience not involving actors but instead dicey technology was CVRTAIN [sic], by Yehuda Duenyas, part of PS122’s COIL festival. Attendees put on virtual reality visors which purported to simulate the performer’s point of view on a large stage during the curtain call at the end of a show. I lost count of the number of false starts as the operator attempted to make the equipment work as intended. After several technology failures, I was asked to leave and return later, to give the technician time for some debugging. After all the trouble, what I finally saw was less than virtually real and only haltingly plausible. The vision of a foggy theater auditorium may have been meant to simulate the effect of stage lights facing the actor when she looks out at the public, but the lack of visual detail diminished the illusion. The presumably human figures in the front rows were mere grey ghosts. In one nice touch, however, the wings of the stage were visible, including tall stands of blue lights.

I was disturbed to find out after the fact that while blindfolded by the ungainly mask of the virtual reality visor, the real curtain before which I stood was pulled back, so that others waiting their turns could watch me gesture and move about on the fantasy stage. The involuntary participation in what became a public performance raised ethical questions for me.

Apart from the technical failures, these machine-made “theater” pieces were also isolating, in the case of CVRTAIN rather extremely so. As theater rushes to modernize with technology or offer more marketable experiences to a younger generation, the human presence is neglected. The intellectual exchange with a trained performer in a common space has vanished in these projects, as is the vital physical communion with other spectators.

“CVRTAIN” (photo by Andrew Federman)

As Trump ascends to the presidency having convinced some large portion of the American public that the fake role he played on “reality” TV constitutes a real-world qualification to govern the nation, a theater in which living people gather to see each other and have a collective experience can be immensely powerful and uniquely useful in identifying what is real and true.

Paul David Young is a Contributing Editor for PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press). His book newARTtheatre: Evolutions of the Performance Aesthetic, about visual artists appropriating theatre,...