Adventure, Apocalypse and Abu Dhabi

Find a place on the grass and sit down, relax. Look around you. Notice the trees. They would not be here if not for man. This would all be dust and sand if not for man.
My name is Rachel. I am not real but I will try to be your friend. Close your eyes and imagine what I look like. Do I remind you of someone you know?

With Sennheiser headphones snugly over my ears, blocking out the real sounds of the world so that I may hear pre-recorded sounds and voices, the sound walk began. Sound walks are a form of alternate reality, where in some cases a participant or player obeys an automated voice to guide them around a space. I have wanted to engage in a sound walk for quite a while now and so when Riminii Protokoll, a German theatre group, was going to organize a few rehearsals and shows around Abu Dhabi, there was nothing but pure excitement running through my veins. “Remote Abu Dhabi,” as the performance is called, would be a chance to turn the city into a playground and discover a side to Abu Dhabi I had not known before.

Or so I thought. I joined a rehearsal with about 12 others on a beautiful windy evening. I enjoyed the walk, but my expectations were let down a little. I expected to be part of some sort of discovery of a little road that takes you out to the water, or leave traces in an abandoned building or something. For the most part, I knew the places and the neighbourhoods we were in. I was expecting to discover the city’s secrets, but the places we went to were public and ones that you would be likely to pass on a regular basis. That however, is likely the point: to stop passing these public spaces and start acknowledging and recognizing what they truly mean in the context of the city and its people.

Guiding the sound walk was Rachel, a technologically constructed female voice who later when at the bus station, metamorphosed into Peter. The voice provoked the question as to whether we were most likely to trust a woman’s voice or a man’s. Rachel’s metamorphosis into Peter marked the midpoint of the performance, and although I and many others felt a sense of trust for Rachel as she kept reaffirming her friendship, I enjoyed Peter’s company more. Peter was affirmative and daring. The second half of the walk was when we as a group truly started to engage with each other and the public around us. This was part of the performance’s let down for me; the first half involved really noticing and thinking about the spaces we were in like a park, bus stop or a car park. I do not feel like at the end of the walk, I had created a meaningful relationship with the strangers around me, but rather that we happened to share the same experience. However, Riminii Protokoll do set the experience of trying to connect with the group well, giving us the chance to do something together like a wave at a football stadium but with no one really around, before dancing in the middle of a crowded mall with everyone staring. At its core, Riminii Protokoll’s “Remote X” performances are about the conflict between the public and the private. A group of strangers share the secret of the experience together, becoming ‘spect actors’ and really seeing all the world as a stage. As Ngũgĩ fantastically discusses, the power of performance is when “it incorporates the architectural space of material or immaterial walls into itself and becomes a magic sphere by its own motion” (Thiong’o 13).

When discussing immediate theatre, Peter Brooks states that “the theatre is the arena where a living confrontation can take place” (Brook 112). “Remote Abu Dhabi” was an opportunity to confront the built city and the invisible social norms that exist in this constructed environment. The significant moments for me were in realizing that really the trees on the road and all these parks would not be around if not for man and everything would just be sand, and people are uncomfortable in front of other people. Why should dancing in public be seen as an odd spectacle, when really people should be joining in? The idea that there are restrictions we impose upon our own selves is one of the things I have been concerned with, especially since taking a movement-based class called “Fundamentals of Acting”. Even the idea that theatre only exists around the framework that there is a separation between the audience and the performer, is nonsense. The sound walk, which takes on an apocalyptic undertone, can be seen as relating to Greek tragedy. One of the things that Boal notes of “Aristotle’s coercive system of tragedy” is that it requires “the creation of a conflict between the character’s ethos and the ethos of the city in which he lives” (Boal 40). Aside from the confrontation with morality, there is the confrontation of the political. Ngũgĩ eloquently asserts that “the war between arts and state is really a struggle between the power of performance in the arts and the performance of power by the state – really the enactments of power” (Thiong’o 12). Riminii Protokoll’s work questions the physical structures around us as well as the immaterial and invisible ones. Think about how much control and power you really have in your life. To what extent are we disillusioned to believe that we, as citizens and a people, matter?

We are constantly affected by the world around us in some direct or indirect way. How lovely and daunting it would be to see the city as an empty stage with infinite potential. “A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching,” and that to Boal is all one needs to be engaged in an act of theatre. Ngũgĩ however believes that a performance site is never truly empty for it is defined by its internal and external relations. Internally the space is self-defined by its props, audience, lights and shadows, but what about the historical significance of the space? What about where it fits in relation to the town, city and world? What about its memories? To Ngũgĩ, a space can be “bare, yes, open, yes, but never empty” (Thiong’o 13). As much as I have come to love Brook, I wholehearted agree with N’gugi though at the same time I believe an empty stage is not empty, for this emptiness is something in it of itself.


Works Cited:

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985. Print.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” TDR 1988-) 41.3 (1997): 11.Web.


One comment

  1. Debra Levine · December 2, 2015

    Dear Harshini,

    There are several things to write about your last posts, from the
    Vanya post with the experimental writing through to the Rimini
    Protokoll post you recently added to your blog. First of all, a minor
    correction – at the end of the Rimini Protokoll post you wrote, “’A
    man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching,’” and
    that to Boal is all one needs to be engaged in an act of theatre.
    Ngũgĩ however believes that a performance site is never truly empty
    for it is defined by its internal and external relations.” I think
    you made a careless error and wrote Boal instead of Brook. But the
    little error points to something more interesting in your post. You
    begin with a set of expectations – that you will see the “hidden” Abu
    Dhabi, the exotic, alternative spaces that have been inaccessible to
    you for some reason, but that you believe is there – or at least you
    imagine them to exist and somehow that notion is important to you.
    And so you write of being let down, more isolated, the group not quite
    cohering as you would like. The post, while nicely descriptive and
    perfunctory analytical – (you get in N’gugi and Brook quite well)
    doesn’t dwell on the very problem that you define in the beginning –
    the set of expectations that you bring to any performance and when the
    performance doesn’t live up to those expectations, the spectator feels
    let down, your desires are thwarted. And so what you experience is
    good, to be sure, but desire itself precludes you to be fully open to
    the other, to giving over. There is something of the colonist in
    Brook and in ourselves – in treading in spaces that have contained
    others who have put their mark and impression on it, and who have
    applied their imagination to it. Rimini Protokoll negotiates that –
    and the question of how one narrates or allows others to narrate their
    experience of a chaotic event- but how also the extreme hubris of
    thinking that one could have an unmediated experience with a place and
    experience the “foreign” and “exotic” because of the way in which one
    imagines the other place and person as such is part of a colonialist
    project. Maybe the disappointment is the point – a way to open up a
    better and more ethical engagement with recognizing what is in front
    of you and the histories they also bring into the encounter.

    And to skip down to your pehlwani post, you didn’t have the same
    reaction to this experience – instead you remained open to it, knew
    how to place yourself inside it and you both write with more agency
    and you write of your engagement and agency within the event. Space
    here is also foregrounded – how community space is roughly but
    carefully delineated within the larger space of the city that is
    governed by a sense of what is and is not possible in public
    gatherings. If you ever go back to read your blogs – think of the two
    events together and how the soundwalk individuates (which also seems
    to make you a bit depressed) while the loosely bound circle of
    performance offers the communitas that delights you. It also ties you
    to one place – the mobility of the sound walk can summon up a horde,
    but the combination of sonic isolation and constant movement bind a
    group but don’t allow for a “deep” bonding (which the piece itself
    reflects upon.

    Your Sound of Music response also was well observed but somewhat
    perfunctory. When Wolf writes from the desiring position of the
    spectator, making choices of cultural identification in order to
    construct performative ways to express her own identity, what does
    that mean to you? Is this a kind of critical act that can be of use
    to you as an artist? As a gendered and race citizen who is sometimes
    illegible as you have written and spoken about throughout the course
    of the class? I want you to be Harshini here in these writings. If
    we are not to worry about the fact that you throw yourself into so
    much – then use the waking time wisely not just to do the assignment
    in an acceptable way (which you always do) but take the critical
    writing piece and find its use value for the way in which you are
    becoming an artist. Wrestle with the critical idea in the work a bit
    more. When you do, you are such a compelling and interesting thinker.

    The Piper experiment is also about breaking the social mores of the
    quotidian encounter. The moment where the man felt himself allowed to
    stare because you became the bearer of a text? It permitted what
    Rosemary Garland Thompson calls the “baroque stare.” Garland Thompson
    writes about this mode of looking as one that “bears witness to a
    failure of intelligibility… [it is] an overly intense engagement with
    looking. A baroque stare is unrepentant abandonment to the unruly, to
    that which refuses to conform to the dominant order of knowledge. As
    such, baroqueness resides not in the visual object but rather in the
    encounter between starer and staree. Baroque staring entangles the
    viewer and viewed in an urgent exchange that redefines both.”

    “Such visual probing, Garland Thompson continues, “singles out the
    staree as alien, and “he is at once cornered and empowered.” I
    wonder what would have happened in your writing if rather than just
    describing this encounter, you lingered on it and thought of it as an
    intersubjective engagement brought about by your performance. And
    then applied this notion to the rewrite of the card that was quite
    long and probably too explanatory. For the real performative power in
    the calling card is both its short provocation without forclosure.
    There are so many ways to engage it – but your rewrite at the end
    doesn’t leave that opening where the act engenders an “urgent exchange
    that redefines both.” If you wrote something about comments of care
    as inhibiting your ability to act – then that opens up more rather
    than less discussion. But the specificity in the card you wrote – as
    opposed to the more ambigious phrase on your forehead closes down
    rather than opens up a better mode of exchange and recognition that
    might still change you, even as you are the author of the action.

    Finally, I loved what you did with the Vanya text – and especially as
    you transformed it into a text message exchange. It got at the
    relational intimacy inherent in Chekhov’s work – and at the
    contemporary form of alienation that is also in his work but in
    earlier times was alleviated somewhat because everyone was bound
    together in space and time. You’re not judging either condition –on
    the contrary, like Chekhov you are showing the reality of it without
    reducing it’s own sense of humanity. Great job.


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