See that pun? Yeah, I’m pretty proud of it.
I had originally told myself that I would write about this immediately after attending, but since my procrastination streak shows no real sign of abetting any time soon (sigh), here I am about a week after the fact. Thankfully, however, I have talked about the experience with enough people that the thing hasn’t completely faded from my memory.
First things first, for those who want something of a primer as to what this was, here is a helpful article from The Guardian:
In short, this experience is the result of a years-long ‘workshop’ of sorts, which saw several people from varying walks of life–artists mostly, but also scientists, researchers, and workers–inhabit a block of Soviet-era warehouse style buildings in Ukraine in such a manner that not only did they willingly cut themselves off from the outside world, they also recreated in minute detail, a temporally accelerated version of life in the Soviet-era Eastern bloc from 1938 – 1968. All the while, the inhabitants were constantly being filmed (the article linked above goes into some detail regarding some of the ethical questions surrounding this, notably those involving some of the women who took part in the project), with the final footage edited down into just over a dozen 3-hour films. As individual works, the films are held together by thematic threads more so than a single, constructed narrative. They could, in fact, be said to resemble more ‘reality TV’ footage, as nothing is simulated (you can probably guess where some of the more problematic elements come from based on this), and inter-personal relationships are ostensibly said to have occurred more or less naturally. The DAU project, then, is a way to both show the films as well as recreate the experience of living under the intense surveillance of the Soviet era.
Or, well, at least that’s what it attempted to do.
To get this out of the way early: no, it was not a colossal failure. Though some have come out and made comparisons between this and the Fyre festival, I would be hesitant to do the same. Yes, there were problems (a number of which should have definitely been foreseen by someone on the production team, but I’ll get into that later), and yes the hype around this as being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘the thing that’s finally going to change the art world/art will never be the same after this/etc etc etc’ was premature and obviously overblown. At the same time, I would chalk those problems up to an overambitious (and self-centered) ego, rather than as the result of a blatant scam. Honestly, the reception around this probably would have been a lot better had they not tried to advertise it as an immersive experience.
Keeping all that in mind, let’s get into this.
When I initially came across the advert for the experience on Instagram, I was intrigued by the fact that not only would it be an immersive experience, but it would also be taking place in two theaters that are currently undergoing extensive construction and renovation work (the Théâtre de la Ville and the Théâtre du Châtelet). As I had yet to set foot in either of those theaters, I figured, why not do it now, when possibilities for spatial dynamics and exploration are so open?
Instead of tickets, those who wished to attend had to apply for a “visa”, of which there were three options: 6-hours, 24hrs, and unlimited access. For the first type, all one had to do was put in one’s payment info, submit a photo, and then select the date and hour they wished for their visa to ‘start’ (the expo is open non-stop throughout the duration of its run, so possibilities for entry times are…pretty much endless).
As to the 24hr and unlimited access visa, in order to acquire those, one had to agree to fill out a very personal questionnaire, the results of which would be used to generate a personal itinerary. Theoretically, those visa holders would also be granted access to an electronic device (yeah, in the spirit of the event, all phones had to be stored away in lockers before entering), that would orient them on where to go, as well as the next steps in their itinerary.
I, being a curious person (and admittedly a bit wine-happy that night), opted for the 24hr option. When I got to the questionnaire (this must be filled out before one can proceed to payment), and saw just how personal the things being asked were (think questions about your moral compass, but also, and more problematic, questions about your personal intimate relationships), I decided to lie a bit in my answers. I gave myself the profile of someone who may have possibly experienced some kind of past trauma, if only for the sake of (hopefully) testing the limits of this. Knowing what I had marked down, would that mean that the itinerary would orient me towards potentially triggering content? Would there be adequate staff or support on hand should a patron end up unexpectedly confronting a past trauma? Was I, in essence, consenting to potentially being rendered unsafe?
Unfortunately, I never got my answers to those questions because one of the things that ended up not happening was the whole ‘personal itinerary’ thing. Something about having access to our data, and how that’s a privacy issue….hmmmmmmmm…. Yeah.
Knowing that the personal itinerary thing was scrapped, I still decided to go anyway because maybe the rest of the ‘experience’ would still be worth it. Also, there were no refunds and I had already thrown down a LOT more money than I had ever thought I would for a performance in this city (thanks, wine).
Before I get into the nonsense, a couple of things I actually did like:
- In the mezzanine hall of the Théâtre de la Ville, an area was set up with a series of small booths, covered in a heavy, metallic curtain. Inside these booths were ‘listeners’, people from different walks of life who had volunteered their time to the DAU project to sit in these booths as, one by one, visitors would come in and discuss whatever it was they wanted. I was curious about this, so I decided to put my name down at a moment when there seemed to be a lull in the wait time (oh yeah, it was pretty crowded the afternoon/evening I was there). I ended up in a booth with a nice older woman, and after the initial awkwardness was pushed out of the way–I have never put myself in a situation like this, so I literally had no idea what to say–, I, like any ‘good’ grad student, started talking about my dissertation. And the exchange was nice. Not the most incredibly, intimately personal of topics, but it was fun to flow back and forth with someone else for a bit…to bounce off my thoughts on them (because I still feel like I’m floundering and have no idea what I’m doing sometimes…figures). Originally, the idea was for all these sessions to be recorded, and, following their conclusion, for each visitor to be given the choice as to whether to erase or keep their video. Erase, and not only would that particular video be deleted from DAU’s recorded archives, but the visitor would be denied access from watching any other ‘confessions’. Keep, and the video would remain accessible to DAU and other visitors, and the individual in question would also be granted access to watch whatever other confessions they would have liked.
I think it’s pretty easy to understand why that would have caused problems, and why the whole recording thing ended up not happening (not sure if this was due more to technical issues, or to data and privacy protection laws in the EU…which, you know, someone should have looked into). For the record, just based on the nature of the conversation I happened to have, I would have probably been okay with its recording being stored in some kind of database, but I’m not sure how I would have felt about the whole ‘watch other people pour out their secrets’ thing. Besides, there would always have existed the possibility of someone consenting in error to having their data stored, but who knows how well DAU would have handled that scenario.
- My absolute favorite thing though was getting to watch a piano concerto in the still-unfinished main theatre of the Théâtre de la Ville. Walking in and seeing nothing but concrete steps that mark out the rows of seats (and that are usually covered by carpeting) was enough to bring me back to when I saw a show at the Bouffes du Nord (a theatre that is purposefully kept more or less in the state it was reduced to following a fire), but what really sealed the deal for my love for this precise moment of the experience was what they did to the area where the stage would normally have been. As the space is still under heavy construction, the actual stage floor had not been laid yet, meaning that though the ‘skeleton’ of the proscenium was still there, there was a very large and deep pit that, in a ‘finished’ theatre would normally remain hidden. Those who have ever had the opportunity to poke around behind the scenes in large theatre houses are probably aware of the fact that below those stages–even further below any orchestra pits–is a network of scaffolding, hallways and nooks and crannies, sometimes used for storing props or equipment, other times used for facilitating anything involving trap doors. Here, though, the pit was bare, save for the pianist. So that those in the audience could watch, and not just listen, him play, a very large mirror was set up at an angle from the proscenium arch, reflecting the image of the pianist below, and giving the spectators a sort of bird’s-eye view. We, as the words painted on the walls in the pit suggested, were almost like gods by virtue of our positioning. All that aside, sitting in there, witnessing this exposure of a new kind of verticality, of a new potentiality for the use and design of the theatre space, was probably the only time I did not think about how much time was passing. I think just the simple fact of being in that space with it laid out in such a way that I knew would no longer be possible after the experienced closed and the theatre was ‘fixed up’ was enough. It was, in effect, a use of art as an opening of spatial/architectural possibilities; unfortunately, this was, as far as I could tell, the only instance where such a use occurred.
And now, on to the rest:
The spaces themselves were divided and organized thematically through the painting of words on the walls. At the Théâtre de la Ville, one could pass from ‘Motherhood’ to ‘Inheritance’, then ‘Brain’, ‘Futures’, or the aforementioned ‘Gods’. The thematic labels at the Théâtre du Châtelet were quite a bit more provocative–examples include ‘Sadism’, ‘Sex’, ‘War’, ‘Lust’, ‘Orgy’, etc–, but quite frankly did not really live up to any of the images they conjured, unless of course those images included the incredible banality of concrete. A bar in each of the two theaters served food and drink–which I did not partake in, even though a vodka or a whiskey would only have set me back 2eur, and who knows, maybe would have changed my perspective on this whole thing–and conveniently, there was also a gift shop front and center at the entrance of the Théâtre de la Ville. Yes, dear
Patron Comrade, you too can complete your DAU experience with the purchase of an exhibition catalogue, a postcard, or even a delightful tin mug and/or bowl such as those that were used at the canteen.
Capitalism is fun.
By and large, the rest of the experience saw the majority of available spaces either outfitted as screening rooms to show the various films, or filled with even more of those metallic ‘confession booths’ described earlier (only this time, they were just…empty). An exception to this was the top floor of the Théâtre de la Ville–labeled ‘Communism’ on the handy maps that all visitors were given upon entry–which was transformed into a group of meticulously recreated Soviet-style apartments for the occasion. Think furnishings, knickknacks, photographs, clothes, basically anything to give the impression that the space had been and still was ‘lived in’. As the apartments were set up in what I am assuming normally function as administrative offices, one could peer into them from the windows that lined the hallway connecting all the apartments together. In other words, once again, any illusion of privacy, of a right to true personal space, was promptly done away with. Here one would also be very likely to encounter performers/artists who had either lived in the DAU complex in Ukraine and signed on to continue ‘playing’ their roles, or had been hired to play at being residents solely for the purpose of these exhibitions (after finishing here in Paris, DAU is set to move to London with the same concept). Visitors could engage these performers in conversation if they wished, though at times it was very possible that the latter would only speak Russian and have little to no knowledge of English or French. Verisimilitude and whatnot…or something.
One incident stood out from this portion of the experience: at the back of the hallway was a large apartment that seemed to belong to a group of traveling Romani shamans. It just so happened that when I and some other visitors wandered in, a few of them were preparing for a seance. The performers seemed to be ignoring us–though, when they spoke to one another, it was not in a language I understood, so I’m not entirely sure how our presence, or even the fact that we had the freedom to wander in and out as we pleased, factored in to their present routine–, and this sort of mutual lack of direct acknowledgement would have likely continued were it not for the fact that a fellow visitor at one point asked one of the performers if it would be alright if we stayed and watched.
It’s funny, I think in any other situation this would have been the correct way to go. We do not know if we are welcome, if we have been invited in, therefore it is only right that we ask. The tricky thing about this situation, however, is the fact that by virtue of the layout of the space, and the fact that our Visas grant us leave of exploration, this gesture of asking permission for access rings false. It doesn’t matter, really, if the performers answer that actually, yes, they’d prefer this to be a closed session. The window into the hallway ensures that there will always be eyes–the visitors’ eyes, our eyes, the eyes of the outsiders–looking in. We have the power of observation, of surveillance, of accessing almost whatever we want while in this area of the exhibit (though, at the same time, we watch knowing fully well that we are also under surveillance from those working the experience, for instance, ready to catch anyone who may have tried breaking the no-cell phone rule). Hell, those planning on trying to stick out the night could even theoretically sleep on one of the beds if they liked (though at that point, they themselves would also run the risk of being watched, of sacrificing their privacy and their power as an observer).
As to the films themselves, I managed to catch some snippets of some, but to be quite honest, I do not think I could sit through a full three hours of one. That takes a kind of willpower that I, quite frankly, have little time or patience for. Maybe it’s just me, but stark, loosely thematically connected, documentary/anthropological cinema isn’t something that can really hold my attention for that long. This becomes especially more evident when babies or small children are involved and you remember that there was no script writing or planning really involved in these, and you can’t help but think what kind of advocacy (if any) these kids had while essentially ‘working’ on this project. Nothing too egregious happened with the children on screen as far as I could tell–though there was one sequence involving babies being brought into a medical laboratory straight out of the late 40s/early 50s and being strapped to some equipment that made me uncomfortable, even though it didn’t appear as though any actual/permanent harm was done to them. The problem, though, is that all of that does raise questions about responsible artistic practices and the question of consent from minors or otherwise almost (if not entirely) voiceless persons.
In all though, even one week after the fact, I still cannot see the reason why all this had to happen in precisely those theaters, in those spaces ‘under construction’–spaces in transition, spaces that are not quite what they are supposedly labeled as–if the majority of the project consisted of screening films. Why call it an immersive experience? Yes, it was a bit odd having to surrender my phone, while at the same time seeing other workers/volunteers using their phones or other similar electronic devices (to do what…spy on us? Keep track of scheduled performances/screenings? Post updates on Instagram because yeah, you gotta keep the public interested after all?), and yes there were some flashes of realism/immersion with the apartment recreation, but overall, this could all have very well also taken place at a rented out movie theatre.
But who knows, maybe they’ll iron out the kinks by the time they get to London, at which point they may actually end up recreating a surveillance space as they had originally wanted.