Battles without war
The premiere of the play Blackout by the collective internil at Berlin’s Discounter Theatre was announced as
Performers: Arne Vogelgesang, Marina Dessau and Christopher Hutti Böhm
Stage design: GUT Holz Strahl
Theater Discounter, Berlin, premiere December 3. 2021
«infotainment about war and games in cyberspace.» It is a play about conflicts that hybridise in digital space, but whose actors are rarely visible and yet keep a kind of global proto-war going that occasionally leads to real blackouts.
The format announcement makes one think of television, influencers or YouTube, and like most of internil’s pieces, Blackout is based on documents and true events that were researched over long periods of time on the internet. And that is exactly where the livestream can be seen, which is being created in parallel as an online version of the play with its own dramaturgy. For this, the collective GUT Holz Strahl has built a stage set as a mixture of television studio and a fair stand. The performers Christopher Hotti Böhm, Marina Dessau and Arne Vogelgesang move between their information stand and projection screens, accompanied by a live operator to control a drone and a small camera robot on four wheels for the audience in front of the screens.
The theme of the play is lurid, as with any infotainment show: where Blackout is written above it, we expect catastrophes, danger and great emotions underneath. Ten years ago, Marc Elsberg wrote a best-selling novel about the abyss that lurks in the darkness of Blackout. In his new production, internil enters this hidden world. In doing so, it examines not so much the state of «blackout» itself as the unsettling question of what leads to it.
The evening begins with a monologue by Marina Dessau about the memory of a club night that became a blissful intoxication after a little ecstasy and collides with her boyfriend’s sober external perception the next morning. For brief moments, her own «self» was gone – who was she then? From the private experience of a blackout, the show’s research journey leads to the hidden hacker wars on the Internet, which attack computer systems and infrastructures with viruses and Trojans, without these permanent attacks ever really becoming visible, unless there are major blackouts like in Mumbai or Mannhatten.
Arne Vogelgesang called the piece a «platform» at the beginning. It houses various modules with titles like «Crouching Panda» called, «Balance of Hacking» or «Module of Cyber Games». They lead to the battlefields of international conflicts, which for the time being they do not escalate into formal wars, since the opponents are usually states with nuclear weapons whose troll armies and hacker brigades are engaged in non-stop battles without war. The show demonstrates this through film clips and lectures in the style of forensic architecture, using aerial images and leaked cyber identities of this great battle without war in cyberspace.
But also by the performers playing with drones and washing machines to give a real presence to the invisible actors of these virtual conflicts, the digital viruses and worms. The functioning of the Stuxnet Trojan, which destroyed the centrifuges of an Iranian uranium enrichment plant, is demonstrated in the internil show, for example, in an experimental set-up in which Marina Dessau turns the old machine into scrap by cranking the washing drum ever more violently. And so the piece also reports on our fear as humans, as vulnerable bio-bodies before these immaterial powers that operate in the global data sphere and pose a real threat to our security in offline life.
In Blackout, as in earlier performances, Internil decentralizes the role of the live performer, i.e. the human being. Alongside him, non-human figures, cyber-personas, robots or modules with documents from other media appear. This space is designed for feedback and is partially permeable for the audience, which is given its own voice in the chat. Blackout is open as a platform for the most diverse narratives – the audience can be heard in the piece just as much as documents from the Internet. The direct address of the audience in the hall and in front of the screen, which is typical for this evening, is reminiscent of the formats of social media and the theatricality inherent in moderators and influencers. And because the topic of cyber war is serious, the evening never loses its humour.
This hybrid theatre is reminiscent of Bruno Latour’s idea of the laboratory, of the science theatre that effectively stages its results and models for the public in order to make new knowledge plausible and popular. On the one hand, Blackout is a lecture-performance that conveys a lot of expert knowledge about cyber war and its classic hacks. On the other hand, it is quite a new form of theatre in which no director goes home and the audience no longer looks through the fourth wall, because the live direction lets the «outside» into the play. The audience chat controls the camera drone and creates an active group feeling among the audience. You can tell from the performance of Blackout on the day of the premiere how challenging this live navigation through all the cues for recordings, performance interludes, chat support and info commentary is.
Arne Vogelgesang studied ethnology for a few semesters many years ago and you can still see that in the productions of internil today - they are a form of scenic field research, driven by curiosity about deviant phenomena that often act out more radically in the anonymity of 4chan than in the old world. The play shows concrete scenes from the border conflict of Pakistan, India and China with the associated online wars, it analyses the attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities or takes us into the TV studio of computer journalist Wolfgang Rudolf, who explains to us the «info-hygiene» for mobile phones - e.g. to delete all unused apps immediately and not to use GPS.
As in previous productions, internil delves into the media theatre of the net communities to look at «us» from there. The evening connects many things that seemingly don’t really belong together – but suddenly we are given a deeper picture of our situation. Marina Dessau’s awakening after the night of drugs combines in the course of the evening with the discovery of a global pre-war in cyberspace and our involuntary proximity to it. Thus Blackout creates a Situation Room of three performers who observe and re-enact such developments.
For a moment, it seems as if this educational piece about cyber war is suddenly hacked itself. And this was reminiscent of Vogelgesang’s film This is not a Game, which traces the path from alternate reality games like QAnon to the real storming of the Capitol in Washington. Blackout also describes the overturning of events in digital space into the physical world, from virtual cyber war to real blackout.
What is most amazing about Internil’s work is not so much the choice of material, but the construction of a unique transitional space. In it, their stage connects the online and offline world and shows the cross-references between drugs and code, between mathematical elegance and state violence, between the theatre of the net communities and the bodies of the performers.
Blackout creates a theatrical form of the digital age and ends with a classical monologue: suddenly it becomes dark on stage, matches blaze on the many screens towards their fading, while Arne Vogelgesang’s pleasant voice reports on the sinking of the big city into blackout and chaos. Even though this play demonstrates the construction of a very different contemporary machine, its true events are always a moving encounter with real humans.
This is an English version of the review by Thomas Oberender, which was published in Norwegian, in NST # 4 2021.