What happens when I press this button?
Friedrich Kirschner, Professor of Digital Media in Puppetry, on buttons, switches and their participatory potential in a stage setting, in conversation with Tim Sandweg
Friedrich Kirschner, what have you brought along?
This is a push button. We used a lot of them in Battle Royale, a mini-simulation of various social systems that we developed as part of the scene study “Hybrid Forms” for the Next Level Festival in Dortmund. We tend to think of buttons as fairly simple constructions, but when you work with them you realise that in fact they are sophisticated mechanical arrangements. Many of our productions include a tactile element. In Battle Royale the audience took on a number of roles, including those of workers, and they were meant to press buttons like this. Each click increased the GDP. The fact that this playful process could function as an illustration of work is also connected to the sound, and above all their tactile nature. Along with the costumes that the workers wore – welders’ masks and aprons – it hit that mid-point between “we’re working” and “actually we’re just tapping at keyboards”, between “you used to hear a click” and “now we just tap on screens”. That’s why it was important to use precisely this switch.
In participatory forms of theatre, switches can often be important when it comes to decisions, as well.
There are switches, and there are switches. One switches back and forth between two states. But buttons that are also switches trigger something somewhere. Perhaps we’re used to the fact that the consequences of pushing a button are immense, that they launch rockets, for instance. But buttons usually conceal the many processes that they trigger. That’s why the sense of anticipation is so great – what happens when I press this button? Although it offers a very simple form of interaction, you can do an incredible amount with the button, depending on how it’s established dramaturgically. For example, I know that all sorts of things happen on the stage because someone “back there pressed a button”. Ideally the audience ignores that, in the best sense – the sense of “willing suspension of disbelief”; I am prepared to believe what’s happening here. In theatre we have that in a schizophrenic sense, at least in Germany. I believe what’s happening on the stage, and at the same time I know that someone is sitting behind there and pressing the buttons at the right time. That carries exciting challenges with it: how can I describe the technical processes that happen on stage in a stage space in which anything can happen because someone is pressing buttons?
Now a whole range of productions are working with technology as another performer. It seems to me that the more perfect the technology, the less it contributes to the narrative because I no longer see the manipulative and performative processes – there’s no concrete, tactile interaction any more.
It depends on what I want to say. When interactive media as such are visible on the stage, it’s often related to a chain of cause-and-effect – I enter something in a system and the system gives me something back. When you yourself are the person entering, there’s a tension. What happens when I press here? How does it work? But when I watch someone else doing it, of course I’m wondering what it’s trying to say and whether the means are necessary.
So that’s a dramaturgical contrast to the participatory context.
People in theatre like to claim that the work of art only arises in dialogue with the observer, but then theatre is usually a narrative format. In participatory spaces, however, an event or experience happens, and it’s not necessarily a narrative. A button that is pressed on the stage is a completely different dramaturgical issue to having a button and letting the audience press it.
There is currently a range of artistic participatory formats that are also aligned with gaming structures.
I think that’s a wrong turn. Many games that are used as the basis for productions work with clear objectives – you want to win, or experience a narrative. On that route obstacles are incorporated into the game, which are then described as “decisions”. The way decisions are dramaturgically inserted into these single-player games, and transferred to a theatre context – it’s something a lot of people don’t care for. For me, the issue of participation is also connected with the idea that theatre is a form of “text” that we “read” in the course of a performance. When this text exists beforehand, I want to look at what is being presented to me here in an exploratory way. That can be exciting because I get to find out what happens when I press various buttons and I unlock all the opportunities I have for solving a task. But for me that is not enough for the opportunities that the stage space offers, because I am less interested in the interaction than the participation. When I invite people on to the stage to take part, it is vital to me that there is no text beforehand. There is a starting point that we have to negotiate so that we ultimately arrive at a text together, but it only exists for that performance, for that audience.
So how do you incorporate something like a switch into these open ended negotiation processes?
We don’t use technology to trigger decisions from among pre-prepared options, but rather to make processes readily comprehensible. In the first instance this leads to security in your role. If I am a “working person”, the button means I don’t need to worry whether I can fulfil this role or not. That might sound banal, but for me it is a completely key point in participatory formats. I had one of my first experiences of this a long time ago in Hildesheim. The performance took place at a doner kebab stand, and right at the beginning a performer gave me a tray of Chinese cabbage and a knife and said: “Start cutting.” I felt completely overwhelmed. Not because cutting Chinese cabbage is that difficult, but because I didn’t know why I was doing it, for whom, how I should cut it, who I should be.
I would like to take a closer look at the issue of dramaturgy. In recent years narrative forms in the theatre have become subject to even more differentiation, become more fragmentary, interlinked, not just through the post dramatic discourse. Do you see a connection with digitalisation here?
I wonder it doesn’t have something to do with this very German delineation between analogue and digital. The store of knowledge from which we proceed has expanded enormously in recent years – today you connect Chinese cabbage to global politics. Everything has something to do with everything. Even without the word “digital”.
But the mass of knowledge, the high frequency of public negotiation and the conception of a pluralistic world image have recently led to overload.
There are no clear directions any more. Last week I was at PLAY – Creative Gaming Festival in Hamburg and there I listened to Anita Sarkeesian, whose blog Feminist Frequency is concerned with female characters in video games, who are often portrayed in a limited and sexist way. The responses of the audience made you feel what an incredible relief it is to have someone there in front of you who deals intensively with an issue. When this person then gives me advice on how to conduct myself, it will be the right advice. But from my perspective that is just a projection.
And above all it is a form of moral authority that you barely have any more in other areas.
That is something theatre does very well actually – it knows that it cannot perform this function any more. I am a little concerned about the new morality that is arising in response. There may be much good that it brings with it, it brings new evaluations and observations, but suddenly you have things that are either good or bad. And we had already moved beyond that.