From 2016 to 2021, the Berliner Festspiele’s programme series Immersion, under the artistic directorship of Thomas Oberender and with changing curatorial teams, presented the work of artists who transcended the conventional oppositions between work and viewer, stage and auditorium, object and observer. The programme series also aimed to articulate and establish “immersion” as a key term for a different understanding of the world – representing both a new genre and an ancient principle of connectedness.
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.
Immersion 2019 – Test societies
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.
Immersion 2020 – The climate as the largest immersive system.
In 2020 the programme series was devoted to ecologies in which humans are embedded and that are made up of human beings, plants, social practices, other species and landscapes.
The project “Down to Earth. Climate art discourse unplugged” examined the climate as the largest immersive system that we do not look at from a distance but that we influence and are also influenced by. Instead of producing yet another exhibition of artistic positions on climate change, the project “Down to Earth” at the Gropius Bau attempted to expose and partially change the way exhibitions and festivals are made. The ground rules for the curatorial team and the approximately 200 artists, scientists and experts taking part in the project were that they would take no flights, be transparent about the resources used and employ sustainable strategies to produce exclusively analogue works in a show that used no electricity. Every exhibition creates an audience, and “Down to Earth” aimed to combine different audiences that rarely meet. The four-week climate, art and discursive project consisted of several clusters: 2,000 square metres of contemporary art; several rooms for a programme of unplugged music and performances; work spaces for an activist academy from Athens and the Paris college SPEAP, run by Bruno Latour and Frédérique Aït-Touati and a series of public talks with pioneers of solidary farming, repair cafés and the tiny house movement. “Down to Earth” focused on the boundary between nature and culture, looking into our own “operating system” – the way we work, eat, travel and produce exhibitions.
Our planetarium format “The New Infinity” made its first guest appearance at the Zeiss-Großplanetarium in Prenzlauer Allee. In addition to this new venue, there was also a new strand of programming, that adapted classic avantgarde films of “visual music” for the domed space. The expression “visual music” refers both to the application and transposition of musical structures to visual images and, beyond that, to methods or devices that can translate sound or music into a visual presentation. This new strand of programming was inaugurated this year with the meditative Northern Lights-like colour symphonies of the light artist Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968). This year’s programme also included invited works by Jan Kounen and Joanie Lemercier, the world premiere of Caterina Barbieri and Ruben Spini’s audio-visual show “Aurora Wounds” and a retrospective of selected TNI classics.
Immersion 2021 – Awareness
With a series of “Features” in 2021 we picked up on the concept of sustainability from the summer project “Down to Earth” (2020), in order to continue our holistic expedition and to reinforce new practices of sustainability and systemic experiences as well as marginalised knowledge such as that of Indigenous cultures. For example, a community of spider diviners from Somié in Cameroon realised the web portal “Nggàm dù” together with the artist Tomás Saraceno and the “Arachnophilia Community” in order to share their practice of divination with others. The web portal is devoted to the countless communication processes between humans and answering spiders – beyond the boundaries of language, time zones and species. A dialogue was opened with our arachnid relatives in the search for a better balance between humans and the techno- and biospheres. In another “Feature”, the director Bartosz Żurowski interviewed Hushahu Yawanawa, the first woman in the history of the Indigenous Yawanawa community from the North East of what is now Brazil to be named as their spiritual leader, breaking with the patriarchal tradition of her community. And for the publication “Down to Earth”, we collected 14 proposals for a culture of sustainability from artists, activists, scientists and politicians who subscribe to the practice of ecological change: away from a Western thinking that isolates, extracts and processes the elements of life and towards structures that operate holistically and respectfully. Each contribution worked in its own way on updating our human operating system, whose previous programme “anthropocentrism” has reached its conclusion with climate change: our world view is shifting from an age in which humanity became a force of nature in the direction of a new awareness of how we are embedded in an ecosystem of other creatures alongside, within and with us.
To mark their 70th anniversary, from 7 to 17 October the Berliner Festspiele opened the International Congress Centre Berlin (ICC) that has remained disused for many years and, together with the programme series Immersion, filled this architectural icon from 1979 with performance, circus arts, music, films and installations. Entitled “The Sun Machine Is Coming Down”, this event continued a concept developed previously in “Palast der Republik”, “Welt ohne Außen. Immersive Spaces since the 1960s” and “Down to Earth”. Different programming modules running in parallel generated an artistic and social space that created new experiential worlds by combining aesthetic and political processes. After “Down to Earth”, which looked at the climate as the largest system that surrounds humanity, “The Sun Machine Is Coming Down” focussed on awareness – and consequently with the shift of awareness in the way that we think about life and the future. The location chosen, the disused ICC, whose hi-tech architecture was designed for simultaneity, became a space to encounter and communicate other times. Here the final stage of the programme series Immersion examined alternative concepts of knowledge: Indigenous forms of wisdom and a radical media theory that referred back from the technical implications of the media to our thinking and social behaviour and which examined literature as works without an author, as it were, as expressions of particular technologies and procedures. This “decentralisation of the human” was explored, among others, by Joulia Strauss in her discourse programme dedicated to the achievements of the philosopher and pioneering thinker Friedrich Kittler. At the same time, art forms were viewed that defied terminological discourse by being physical in nature – physical arts such as circus and dance. The dancer and choreographer Grace Tjang (Grace Ellen Barkey) questioned her own identity in the course of a long-overdue process of decolonisation, while in “This Joy”, Tino Sehgal enabled visitors to encounter the momentary. In another Immersion project as part of “The Sun Machine Is Coming Down”, “Screws”, Alexander Vantournhout / not standing investigated the relationship between the body and the object and embarked on a search for unsuspected kinetic potential. On a socio-political level, this circumscribed shift of awareness is also linked to new thinking about the use of resources. So in his work “Suspire (for ICC’s control room)” Cyprien Gaillard illustrated the transformation of toxic materials to create resources, materialising the debate that had been conducted with reference to the ICC about reviving building that contain harmful substances. A challenge that was also reflected in the invitation made to the Floating University Berlin, an independent institution that experiments with alternative, biodiverse forms of cohabitation. In its practice culture based on collective learning and co-operative research, the artist-led organization has developed new initiatives for activating and repurposing urban spaces and a new relationship between humans, nature and technology.
“The New Infinity” took place as an independent festival outside the programme series Immersion for the first time in 2021 – a co-operation of Berliner Festspiele and Stiftung Planetarium Berlin – opening this year’s Berlin Art Week with a series of works at the Zeiss-Großplanetarium Berlin in Prenzlauer Allee. Our planetarium format then went on tour from 4 to 6 November, presenting “The New Infinity Athens” together with Onassis Culture and the Eugenides Foundation and as part of the 7th Athens Biennale ECLIPSE. Its venue was the New Digital Planetarium, one of the world’s largest and most modern star theatres.