AN INTERVIEW WITH STEFAN KAEGI, CO-ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
OF REMOTE NEW YORK
Ashley Miskoff, NYU Skirball Education Associate: Thank you so much for taking this time and joining us here in the Skirball Rehearsal Room. For our viewers who have no idea what they’re about to get into here, can you tell us a little bit about Remote X and how this idea first came about?
Stefan Kaegi: Yeah, basically the vision of this project is to turn the city into a stage and in the same moment to control it highly through an audio-scape that is manually recorded and that really makes it an immersive experience that on one hand you are in the city and obviously you touch, you walk and in the same moment acoustically you’re in a completely fictional space. The idea behind the whole story line is that there are more and more of these artificial identities that control us through GPS, through little programs that run on our iPhones, they tell us where to go and we are very dependent on technology, we trust it and it goes up to the point that in a hospital you would have a machine controlling your respiration. And so the question for humanity at some point will be: how much do we give away the decision processes and how much do we want to outsource them to machines? And so the voice you’re listening to, you get your headphones, you start walking with a crowd of 50 people and you’re following basically instructions of Heather. Heather is a voice composed of 2,000 hours of a female voice and it’s a computer speaking to you that tries to, in any moment, predict what you will see, what you will want, how fast you will walk or if you slow down, she will say different things. So it becomes this identity of yours that is a perfect assistant. Then again we are doing this in New York; New York is a totally unpredictable city. We’ve been rehearsing in snow, suddenly the snow starts to melt, the weather changes, traffic jams, whatever comes in as unpredictable and so this is the contrast: the impact between the predictable and the unpredictable.
Ashley: You talked a little bit about how New York is very different than the other places you’re worked and it’s a very unique city. Can you tell us how the process of creating this experience in New York in particular has been different than creating it in the other locations that you’ve been? For instance, Berlin and Brazil.
Stefan: Yeah basically we start making the layout of this project putting a red thread, in the literal sense, through the city. We know that we want to start in a cemetery. We will then somehow use public transport and we will end up on a high place where you look down at the city. But in between we have to sort of, you know, it’s like making a film that you can’t cut, you can’t edit, so you basically have to take people along on that way. And we seduce you to enter doors that normally you wouldn’t enter alone. You sort of do it because you are a part of this hoard, this group of 50 people that is very different to the experience people used to have in the 90’s when people started to use the Walkman and it felt like ‘Are they isolating?, Don’t they want to talk to the others?’. It’s a different experience because you’re sharing a secret. It has a lot to do with conspiracy that you are walking with 50 people that listen to the same beat that might (make them) shake their head along, (and they) eventually will turn into a flash mob. They hear the instruction ‘let’s walk backwards’. You suddenly have 50 people walking backwards and it becomes a sculpture in public space in a way, but a vivid one that disappears again. So in the next, until the end of April basically in New York, you will on certain corners see, every day at 4 o’clock, 50 people turn around, look up into the sky and then clap in a moment and then start running. And these kinds of choreographies will be performed, not for others — there is no external audience that I had thought of — but there will be people standing around and they will see this thing going on. Some people in India said when we did it “Oh, you’re a sect”. And first I wanted to say “no” but then again, you’re in a crowd that shares a certain experience, an acoustic world, for the duration of two hours. And it might look like a sect at some point and it serves as an intervention, as confusion for public spaces. We bend over to tie shoelaces in the metro at some point where you suddenly see ‘okay, half of the subway here is on the ground, what is going on?’. You realize that. There is a subversive potential I guess in nowadays New York where everybody is ready to shoot at somebody running too fast or screaming something that might look like a terrorist attack in some moments. So it does raise these questions about who does the public space belong to? You’re asking about different cities we’ve been. I think it’s the 20th city that we are performing this in and for instance it felt very much like we did it in Bangalore around the time when the rape case was a big issue for a young generation. Where they would say ‘let’s redefine rules according to which public life is organized’ basically. They took it as a political project in a way. Whereas I think in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I think people took it much more like a fun, silent disco experience where you dance together with 50 people in the middle of a public space and suddenly we had people who had no headphones whatsoever on their head but they kept dancing along because they socialized with the others. So a lot of unpredictable experiences come out of this experiment in different places: in small cities like Le Havre or in the North of France we can suddenly access very surprising spaces like an ice skating rink or we crossed an entire swimming pool with 50 people while people were swimming all around us. As opposed to St. Petersburg where already about 80 of these shows were running in the last year and they’re picking it up this summer again. We use the public space available that is already very much defined for masses: the metro, the subway in St. Petersburg is the lowest one in the world and it has an amazing escalator taking you down that is an experience. This is created for masses and everybody has been there before but with the sound scape we created for it, it became a whole new experience.
Ashley: What are you most looking forward to working with New York audiences or seeing how the New York audiences react to what you’ve created?
Stefan: Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing how people react. I mean with very different, all sorts of generations, it seems that the biggest audience we get is between 18 and 35 year-olds because the whole idea that theater can be something interactive is much more familiar to people that have been growing up with social networks than to an older generation that is used to going to the theater at a front row space where you can basically sit and have a little nap while people pretend to be geniuses on the stage. So people participate in it often as a game. Some people have been calling this a treasure hunt and others have called it a game where you constantly enter, accessing new levels but you have to collaborate to find them. Others call it invisible architectures. That’s why we’ve had a lot of urbanists and architects say “Oh you’re basically raising a structure through the city that nobody can see and certain amount of people move through exactly this structure including certain choreographies”. Choreography is another name you could give it, as it contains a lot of little instructions. And then definitely it is a big music composition, it’s an acoustic experience.
Ashley: So it encompasses all art forms really. Can you describe one of the most memorable moments that you’ve experienced or seen or heard of a previous Remote X tour that you could think of that was maybe unexpected or was some kind of memorable experience?
Stefan: Well, there’s a scene that we normally perform, I think we’ve done it in most of the cities, where you hear the soundscape of a demonstration. It’s not just one demonstration against something. It’s the demonstration that is composed out of already now we’ve been recording demonstrations in all the cities where we’ve performed so you hear a bit of Hezbollah screaming, you hear a German demonstration against gentrification in Berlin, you hear a French demonstration in support of the Palestinians. There was demonstration in Portugal against (Angela) Merkel and her point on the European budget. So all of this melts into kind of a global demonstration and you’re walking with it as a demonstration. You’re picking up an object from your pocket and raising it up and showing it to the others and so it looks from the outside like a demonstration, but actually you’re sort of reenacting dozens of demonstrations in that moment. And we did this in St. Petersburg and it was in a time where it became more and more complex in Russia to make demonstrations. People have been arrested for altering their opinions in public space. But in this crowd, people felt like they couldn’t do it and I’ve seen people demonstrate that never would have done that on their own. And so that was quite a memorable moment especially when police cars came close and didn’t really know what they should do, is this a demonstration or not. Because in the same moment, if you don’t have a headphone, it’s completely silent and you can’t hear anything. And so is this a demonstration if it’s silent? Inside the headphones it’s very loud in the same moment. So it shows I guess a lot of the complexities of this project.
Ashley: Could you talk a little bit about your experience creating other site-specific work, about using other public spaces as your theater? As you talked about, it’s not just sitting down and watching some people on stage, it’s a different type of theatrical experience but I guess you could still call it public art or performance art or theater.
Stefan: Well the project that we’re more touring at the moment is very immersive but it’s the contrary of being site-specific because it’s a building with about 15 different situation rooms. They reconstruct environments by 20 different people that we’ve been working with that have to do with weapon trafficking, either as soldiers, as users, as purges, as manufacturers of weapons, as victims or we have a killer actually, from a Mexican drug cartel and we have a policeman performing in it. It’s a documentary piece so we’ve been working with these people and when it will be shown in Toronto next year, the experience is 20 people at a time will get an iPad mini in their hand and they go through this stage design that consists of, it’s like a film set that has more than 4,000 props in it, super detailed shooting range for instance in which you walk, you hear the marksmen from Germany explain to you the weapon you’re holding with the iPad as he held it when he was filming it. He’s not there, but 19 others are there so maybe we can show a bit or include a bit of the video trailer about how audience experienced it here and that will explain much better than me explaining it. So that’s one project that is highly interactive and immersive and it also feels very much like a game where you jump identity every seven minutes from being a serial refugee to becoming a lawyer from Pakistan to become an Indian soldier. Site-specific performance…Maybe one to mention would be 100% City that is a project we last made happen in Amsterdam and in Philadelphia for the Fringe Arts Festival and we will do it in Malaysia next August. It’s a project where 100 people stand on the stage. But it’s very site-specific because these 100 people are chosen from the city in such a way that they represent the demographics of the city according to age, household size, country of origin, neighborhood that you live in, and gender obviously. So they are a sample of the city and they form group pictures basically of what they’ve experienced. Like you see a group of people who have thought of suicide, the group of people who have children, the group of people who use bicycles, the group of people who own Facebook accounts and so you basically these different social niches mirrored by representatives of your city. So that’s something we elaborate in each city in the process of two or three weeks in a very site-specific way. There are many project 100%s: Brussels, Paris, or London.
Trailer: Remote X
Trailer: Situation Rooms