Since 2016 the Berliner Festspiele’s programme series Immersion has presented the works of artists who redefine established forms of presentation by breaking down classic juxtapositions between the work and the visitor, the stage and the auditorium, the object and the viewer.
The spatialization of a time-based art, the theatre
The first phase of the programme in 2016/17 focused on the spatialization of a time-based art, the theatre. With “RHIZOMAT”, the scenographer Mona el Gammal created a large “narrative space” that told the story of an upcoming uprising in a future world in a former East German telecommunications office – without actors, but with thousands of staged items that the artist made speak in a huge installation. The works of Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller, who have created an impressive spatial stage with their “Nationaltheater Reinickendorf”, are characterised by a similar world-building in which one enters and interacts with one's own reality. In a former ammunition factory on the outskirts of Berlin, they designed an architectural synthesis of the arts that connected a large theatre building with a cathedral, a submarine and a bar. This “Nationaltheater Reinickendorf” was both a monumental environment of visual works as well as an unusual, real-time controlled performance machine with various stages on which a 12-hour performance created from more than 120 hours of material was reassembled again and again. In October 2017, Jonathan Meese had already brought an opera to the stage of the Festspielhaus with his overwriting of Wagner “MONDPARSIFAL BETA 9–23”. The associative extensions and proliferations of the material were on display in various installations throughout the Festspielhaus in the extensive installation “ERZGRÜNER TOTALSTHÜGEL DE LARGE (EVOLUTIONSPARSIFAL'S MONDRAUM)”.
The temporalization of the exhibition format
The second focus of the programme was devoted to the temporalization of the exhibition format, which in its classical form is based on the presentation of still objects detached from their original contexts of meaning and use. But what happens when these fixed orders themselves start to move and the visitors experience an exhibition as a process – more like a performance in which “things” are constantly changing? In a series of exhibitions in the Gropius Bau, situations arose that the visitors were no longer confronted with, but whose complementary, sometimes even active element they became. Omer Fast showed his art films in the exhibition “Talking isn’t always the solution” in rooms that were film-like reproductions of profane waiting rooms in doctors’ surgeries, offices or airports. Here, his films were shown on the usual display screens of such spaces. Performers, hardly distinguishable from the visitors, appeared unannounced to read literary texts.
In a different way, the artist duo Lundahl & Seitl presented an exhibition that took the audience on a journey through various rooms of the building, whose architecture connected with a completely different story. With their “Symphony of a Missing Room” they created an unusual museum tour through real and imaginary spaces and layers of time, which exhibited interpersonal processes instead of objects. Lundahl & Seitl developed a continuation of this work with the premiere of their project “Unknown Cloud on Its Way to Berlin”, which used the myth of a natural phenomenon as an opportunity to bring a group of people into contact not only with each other, but also with other people in another place in the world via smartphone. The strange immediacy of the technologically induced community situation on the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin thus created a utopian community for a short time – nothing about this work was material except the form of social behaviour to which it invited.
In July 2017, an exhibition model entitled “Limits of Knowing” was created at the Gropius Bau. The subject was borderline experiences – not only in relation to new scientific findings, such as the discovery of gravitational waves, but also as confronting the subject of death and self-dissolution. The result was a cluster of three exhibition modules that enabled different forms of affective understanding in their respective spaces. For the scenic installation “Estate – Pièces sans personnes”, Rimini Protokoll worked together with terminally ill or death-defying people to create eight rooms that should remind us of them after their death. They created a scenic situation in which these people continued to be present and welcomed their visitors, even though they themselves had ceased to live in the meantime. The boundaries of one’s own body and those of perception were also at the centre of Chris Salter + TeZ’s multisensory spatial installation “Haptic Field (v2.0)”, in which the visitors were guided through full-body suits and scripted spaces full of musical, olfactory and colourful stimuli that tended to dissolve the boundary between inside and outside. The exhibition module “Arrival of Time”, curated by Isabel de Sena in collaboration with artists and scientists of the LIGO California Institute of Technology, finally explored a new understanding of time, as is created by gravitational waves that were first measured in autumn 2015. Shortly before the Nobel Prize was awarded to these researchers, the visitors were able to witness how they were working on the “translation” of knowledge models that are no longer intuitively comprehensible, and for this were searching for new ways of imparting scientific knowledge together with artists.
Ed Atkins described his exhibition “Old Food”, developed for the Gropius Bau, as a “chamber play”. His computer-generated works were juxtaposed on large monitor walls with 6,000 costumes from the collection of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which were exhibited as a found object in the same way as they are stored there. As the physical shell of literary fantasies, they contrasted the question of the reality status of Atkins’ CGI figures, whose actions were synchronized and musically connected across the five rooms, creating a composition of physical objects, cinematic fantasies, and intellectual comments on the wooden wall panels.
With two major exhibitions in the summer of 2018, we continued these experiments with the temporized format of the exhibition. French artist Philippe Parreno created his first large-scale institutional solo exhibition in Germany as a living organism that was set in motion by light, sounds and images. It focussed less on individual objects and more on the choreographed interaction between the various components. The use of contingency methods allowed the exhibition to evolve and transform over a period of time, bringing the work to life. For “Welt ohne Außen. Immersive spaces since the 60s”, the curators Thomas Oberender and Tino Sehgal developed a new format spanning group exhibition and performative art. Ranging from the Light and Space Movement of the late 1960s to works by contemporary artists like Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Cyprien Gaillard and performances and workshops, this exhibition spun a panorama featuring a great variety of immersive practices that blur the categories of viewer and work and close the distance between subject and object.
New art for planetariums
A completely different path is taken in the series “The New Infinity”, in which we understand planetariums as new places of contemporary art. Planetariums that were built almost 100 years ago in major German cities, when the natural starry sky above the cities, as Hans Blumenberg remarked, was no longer visible due to light pollution and the smoke above houses. The planetariums developed by Zeiss made a fulldome projection possible for the first time, which made this semicircular concrete architecture disappear the moment the artificial stars began to shine. To this day, planetariums offer one of the few possibilities to experience immersive experiences in the sense of an “all-round event” together with other people. In addition, planetariums were the places where digital projection processes and spatial sound situations were created at the turn of the millennium, where those cinematic processes were tested and new standards developed that later became so important for VR films.
With “The New Infinity”, the Festspiele aim at making this excellent hardware of planetariums and the technical knowledge available to artists to promote new works by filmmakers, game designers and sound artists who want to try this immersive genre of fulldome projections. In co-production with the Planetarium Hamburg, we are producing new works for the digital fulldome systems of planetariums between 2018 and 2020. Fulldome describes the technically maximum image impression of our time, which can be experienced and shared as a group. The planetarium's hardware, which is used all over the world, is thus opened up for the first time as a space for the arts.
In autumn 2018, this new programme series opened with a Mobile Dome on Mariannenplatz and showed works by David OReilly, Holly Herndon & Mathew Dryhurst, Fatima Al Qadiri & Transforma and a final concert with William Basinski, Evelina Domnitch & Dmitry Gelfand. All works produced so far are screened at festivals around the world. The second work cycle of “The New Infinity” with new works by Agnieszka Polska, Metahaven and Robert Lippok & Lucas Gutierrez celebrated its world premiere in August 2019 at Planetarium Hamburg in cooperation with the International Summer Festival Kampnagel. In September and as part of Berlin Art Week, the new works were again shown in our Mobile Dome, which returned to its original location on Berlin’s Mariannenplatz.
Besides these fulldome productions, which are consciously shown in public space, the Berliner Festpiele have also been producing films for VR glasses since 2016 to develop artistic works that make it possible to experience the positions of contemporary artists in this young medium. As part of a cooperation with ARTE, two 360° films have so far been produced in the free ARTE360 VR app and on the ARTE website, which extend analogue art spaces into virtual worlds. The 360° film “RHIZOMAT VR” by Mona el Gammal, produced jointly with INVR.SPACE, celebrated its world premiere in March 2017 at the SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival in Austin, Texas, and sees itself both as an experiment with artistic possibilities and as a critique of the medium of virtual reality.
In April 2018, we continued the cooperation with ARTE with “Mother and Son = Reality meets Art (F.U.T.U.R.E. of Infinity)”, the first virtual reality production by Jonathan Meese and his mother Brigitte Meese. In the artist’s virtual studio, the spectators witnessed the emergence of a 360° Gesamtkunstwerk of the future. For the initial presentation in April 2018, the room designed by Jonathan Meese during the shooting was reconstructed at Gropius Bau. Visitors were able to experience the creation of an artwork within an artwork.
The artistic programme of Immersion is also accompanied by discursive-performative formats that use the Gropius Bau in unusual ways and open up unexpected perspectives on the exhibition house and its rooms. In November 2016, the “School of Distance” curated by Cornelius Puschke transformed the conference room, forecourt, staircases and cloakrooms into art venues. In January 2018, Eva Veronica Born transformed the atrium into a conference venue for “INTO WORLDS. The Craft of Blurring Boundaries”.
Seated at a 110-metre long table, artists and scientists entered into an open exchange with the audience, while the surrounding exhibition spaces showed video art from the Julia Stoschek Collection, a virtual reality experience and a sound installation, among other things. In collaboration with the Federal Agency for Civic Education, this international conference and exhibition, conceived by theatre and media scholar Andreas Wolfsteiner, explored three areas of the immersive arts: spectacular entertainment formats, spiritual practices, and manual body techniques.
In the third year of the Immersion project series we interpret the term in a social context: What does it mean when political borders disappear, when people form or overthrow social systems? How can we test other forms of society and focus on them artistically?
With the return of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) in the form of a three-day performance in March 2019 we recalled the history of the revolution 30 years ago, reflecting on alternative political, economic and environmental concepts as they had at the time been developed by civil rights activists and experts and formulated in a new draft constitution. We brought the activists behind this upheaval in the East 30 years ago into contact with the reforming agents of a younger generation today, launching an “Empowerment East”. The palace, which was symbolically newly erected as a social sculpture, provided the setting for the transition and thought processes that take place in other circumstances to be discussed, practiced and celebrated for three days in the form of parliamentary committees and panels, concerts and performances.
In the European premiere of his 24-hour pop odyssey through American history, performer, author and activist Taylor Mac stages a queer stage show that at the same time creates a social event: “‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’ is a re-enactment that shows why individuals are losers in the long run, while communities and movements, when continuously brought together, have the potential to thrive and become ever more just,” says Taylor Mac. Berlin-based artists representing the local scene expanded the New York-created show by developing a multi-vocal and large-scale orchestrated counter-history of the USA with elements taken from musicals, cabaret, burlesque, drag shows and happenings.
A “test society” of a completely different kind emerges in Mariano Pensotti’s “Diamante”, a play in which he brings a workers’ settlement situated in the Argentinian jungle to the Berliner Festspielhaus to tell the story of a model city. Visitors to our coproduction with the Ruhrtriennale, the Wiener Festwochen and the Grand Theatre Groningen walk through a village from house to house “collecting” various impressions of a social transformation while surrounded by actors and the creeping changes their environment subjects them to, all of this finally leading to the demise of this utopian social project.
In addition to the “The New Infinity” programme series, the third round of the Immersion series shows test societies that make changes tangible from close up, from being there when people cross borders and something new emerges. The programme thus moves beyond the artistic and aesthetic framework of immersive experiences and into the field of political and activist processes. In doing so, immersion as a strategy of political action, as a practice of dissolving solidified patterns of thought and identity, as well as a search for other communities, is re-examined. The Festspiele continue the series of experimental guest and in-house productions with unusual formats, having begun in 2016 with Mona El Gamal's narrative space, “Rhizomat”, in the former East Berlin Telecommunications Office; Jonathan Meese's “MONDPARSIFAL BETA 9–23” in the Festspielhaus; and the “Nationaltheater Reinickendorf” by Vegard Vinge / Ida Müller in a former ammunition factory. The idea of the “test societies” in 2019 refers to play formats that consciously open up other forms of encounter with the performance and give visitors the possibility of a freely chosen perspective or option of participation.
In 2020, the programme series Immersion addressed the ecologies that mankind is embedded in and that consist of machines, plants, social practices, other species and landscapes. The project “Down to Earth” explored climate as a system that we are not confronted with but rather that we influence and are influenced by. To this end, our sustainable summer project itself created a system of varying realms of discourse and experience. This year, “The New Infinity” – our planetary format – was a guest at Zeiss-Großplanetarium for the first time. What both of these “expeditions into the entirety” have in common is the attempt to promote experimental forms of contemporary art and to strengthen marginalised knowledge, like the knowledge of indigenous people, as well as new practices of sustainability and integrated experience.