zaungäste: Trip of a Lifetime

One of the last shows that had its opening night in Frankfurt’s (and Darmstadt’s, and Offenbach’s) Implantieren festival of 2020 was zaungäste’s Trip of a Lifetime. zaungäste is the label held by Susanne Zaun and Marion Schneider, and translated, Zaungäste stands for uninvited guests (Gäste) watching what’s happening from behind a fence (Zaun). Put like that, it might come across like a very offensive expression, but for me, there’s actually a quite affective tone in the word. With Trip of a Lifetime, Zaun and Schneider try something very risky. In Frankfurt’s industrial district of the Eastern city harbor, they invite their audience to a guided walk that is starting as a funny and crazy whale-watching tour, but slowly turns into something weirder, and darker.

Asja Mahgoub, the red guide, with one half of the audience. (Foto: Christian Schuller)

Trip of a Lifetime is risky because it doesn’t keep its promise. But what is the promise? The artists say that we will go on a small expedition to watch out for whales. Now, of course, nobody will believe that we will find a real whale in the waters of the Main river, and some might think that there’s a trick implied. But whale or no whale, this might really be fun (and this is the second part of the promise, and maybe the more central one). Only that, towards the end of the trip, it isn’t. The audience is humiliated, shouted at, and led through a desolate industrial street with dim lighting, all the while listening to strange lists of words connected to the feeling of being let down. “Did we have an appointment?”, the show seems to say to us, “Well, now we have a disappointment.” The magic thing is, though: This works, and it even is rewarding.

But let’s start at the beginning: Buying the tickets on a square next to the harbor police, the audience is divided in two parts: there’s a blue group and a red group. The audience get umbrellas and water bottles in their respective colors, and are asked to regroup according to their colors. Each of them gets a talky guide: Asja Mahgoub is the red one, and Hanna Steinmair is the blue one. They speak over microphones and portable boom boxes, and they have a lot of energy which they pump into their audiences. They explain a lot about whales, and their behavior, and where to find them (very detailed knowledge and complete nonsense is blended into one another). They really know how to gesture. They train their groups to get into military formations that get the names of certain whales: The blue whale formation, for example, is organized in lines with three people each. (We will be asked to get in the different formations during the show.)

Hanna Steinmair, the blue guide, with the other half of the audience. (Foto: Christian Schuller)

There also is a third performer, Judith Altmeyer, and following the logic of the show, she has the color purple, like a mix of red and blue. She’s more independent, telling us about strange things, and she’s also way more cryptic in her behavior. She often comes towards us wearing a teddy bear mask. Is it to protect herself from our gaze? Is it to make fun of our wish to see wild animals? Is it because zaungäste want to let us think of commercial amusement parks? She tells us a story of how the blue whale got this big, about his evolution as an animal. Then we walk alongside the water with our guide. We are asked to think about the risks of life, and the probability of death. We take a group selfie in front of a street mirror. The mood is pushy, as we constantly have to follow, and to keep up. The water that is at the imaginary center of the performance, and that is always in the harbor basin next to us, is dark, and dirty, and opaque. If this was watched from above, our walking and talking and feeling would be just a small movement in the framework of this blind mirror. What could emerge from these waters, what could lie hidden in this part of the city? While we are walking from station to station, my mind drifts away to what might be.

It’s not that easy to see where all of this is going. There’s a turning moment when we are asked to look at the water for a long time. (The groups are combined again, the separated training sessions seem to be over.) Nothing happens. An emotional soundtrack is playing from a boom box. I hear something, turn around, and see Altmeyer walking around in stealth mode, holding a grey bucket in her hand. She is preparing something in the backs of the audience. She installs some lights. She sets a small scene in front of the wall of an industrial building. Then she starts talking, asks everybody to turn around, and holds up some pictures of audience members. Those pictures show the audience members each with a person in an animal costume. She calls the people out, asks them to come forward, and accuses them of having made mistakes. What she wants to tell us is not clear all of the times, but the people play along, and there definitely is a shift in temperature. It’s confusing. But Altmeyer also brings up something important: The way our memory works plays an important part when it comes to thinking back to events. Oftentimes, it’s only objects and documentation that help us remember. Our feelings about certain memories might be deceiving. The performer says that we shouldn’t trust our own memories too much. Then we are left alone, some have gotten a print-out photograph, others have just watched the scene. One of us has a letter with indications, and so we follow the arrows on the ground that divide us in two groups again, and lead us to a bridge on which we meet our guides. They have megaphones now, and shout at us. Slowly, the sky gets darker. Following the guides isn’t fun anymore. We go along, we get another monologue about a whale performance gone awry by Judith Altmeyer, and then we walk into a long stretch of a road where containers and industrial buildings line up to the left and to the right hand side. Some of the lights come on and then go off again because of motion detection. The mood is gloomy, and through the boom boxes, we hear a seemingly endless list of vocabulary connected to the notion of disappointment. The show is not over here, as there will be another shift in temperature at the very end, including some sequins-ex-machina. Yet this final stretch seems to be the climax of Trip of a Lifetime: A bitter-sweet long disappointment moment where we have nothing to do but look at the abruptly changing lights of the harbor street that we walk in, and chat with our colleagues (or be silent), and think about what happened, and about our own feelings.

Judith Altmeyer, with a teddy bear mask, haunting the Frankfurt’s East harbor district. (Foto: Christian Schuller)

Because this performance is at the end of Implantieren festival, I feel that there are some recurring motives in dealing with the public space. As in Janina Castellano’s / Yoga Church of Evil’s guided yoga class Recovering Beauty that leads from the former city walls onto the crowded main shopping street of Frankfurt’s Zeil, the audience is asked to follow orders, and to look out for details, and for beautiful moments. (And with these orders, in Recovering Beauty as well as in Trip of a Lifetime, comes a certain feeling of unease: What happens if we don’t follow the artists’ orders here, or if we even see it as our responsibility to disobey at times?) And as in PARA’s Speculative Ruins // Ruins of Speculation, we are asked to have a closer look at a special district in the city: Whereas in Speculative Ruins, we are asked to imagine a future where Frankfurt’s bank towers have fallen, and the former banking district has changed into a ruins’ park that can be explored in a guided tour (the slogan “The New Delphi!” is part of the in-time ads for the show), here, in Trip of a Lifetime, we see the changes, ruptures and idiosyncrasies of the harbor district and the space around it. At the same time, there’s also the idea of overlapping spaces that I tried to develop in my posts about Philip Albus’s and Ana Berkenhoff’s Space Machine No. 1 and Scripted Reality’s Die Stadt mit der Zunge betreten: In a way, zaungäste’s show gives us the impression to be at a seaside resort and in the middle of Frankfurt at the same time, and leads us to even more wondrous places. The situation and the virtual space, if you will, switches with every scene, or it not so much switches but is always kicked a notch into another direction. Those spaces begin to overlap in our heads. (Also, visual overlapping, on that note, will be a central part of the shows’s final twist.) And if this paragraph already develops into a look back at all of the artistic positions of the festival itself, I could easily add this: Trip of a Lifetime is very good in creating a ritual and a concentration on the own senses, and it is therefore that I am reminded of the way Haike Rausch and Torsten Grosch, in their Botanical Powwow, invite us to contemplate plants; and of the way that Frida Laux and Filomena Krause, with such simple means as an intelligently crafted book, some warm water pillows, blankets, and a beautifully minimalist installation set in paradance, invite us to discover and interconnect our body with stories, emotions, and the spatial structure. Ülkü Süngün’s Takdir seems to step out of this logic: Süngün’s performance (the Turkish word “takdir” is translated here as “Die Anerkennung” in the subtitle, which means as much as “the acknowledgment”) had set up a table in front of Frankfurt’s History Museum, and asked people to sit down with her. Süngün and the audience read out loud the names of the people killed by the right-wing terrorist organization NSU, namely Enver Şimşek, Abdurrahim Özüdoğru, Süleyman Taşköprü, Habil Kılıç, Mehmet Turgut, İsmail Yaşar, Theodoros Boulgarides, Mehmet Kubaşık, Halit Yozgat, and Michèle Kiesewetter. Yet, Süngün kept the performance very short, and when we discussed this after Trip of a Lifetime, we also saw that she somehow denied the audience the effect of having a strong, unifying group experience. So, in a way, Takdir, as well, worked with calculated disappointment. If I have now tapped into all of the shows in the frame of Implantieren‘s 2020 edition, I also want to address the one that was cancelled: Hannah Schassner’s & Mirrianne Mahn’s theaterperipherie show moved. BEWEGT. déplacé, which was given the subtitle (K)ein Spaziergang in Schwarzweiß. This show couldn’t take place as planned due to racist attacks. For the group of theaterperipherie and for the performers, this was and is hard, and for the festival organizers and the rest of the artists, it was difficult to react. The incident interrupted the festival as a brutal and criminal proof of the fact that there will never be something such as an artistic control of the public space. How to deal with this in the future, without making artistic works outside of safe arts spaces exclusive? How to calculate the risks in the public space that might (or might not) be important for what the artists want to say, and develop? Having all the question, comments and discussions about this in the back of my head, I was happy (is that the right word?) to see that zaungäste do not propose a feel-good show that builds up intelligently, locks the different puzzle parts together, and sends us off to a well-made spectacle (even if I had the feeling that many of us in the audience craved for something like that after the months of lockdown). Instead, the whole performance falls apart, and the different pieces do not really click with each other.

Now, is Trip of a Lifetime the trip of a lifetime? The title might be joke, alright. But it it might also be taken more literally: Maybe the artists really want to tell us something about life and death. We listen to the life stories of whales. We think about ways to die. We hear about what it means to remember something that happened earlier in our own lives, and that we really want to keep fond memories of. I already feel my own memories about the show changing. I cannot really keep track of what I felt in which part, and cannot go back directly to that emotions. The different stories, monologues and ideas blend into one another, and my mind shuffles them up with the other shows that I have seen during the festival. The constellation of the many points in the ap-point-ments and in the disap-point-ments of Implantieren slowly turn into a star nebula. I am here, looking up at it, at its shapes and forms, at its movements and qualities (“Fernblick, Nahblick“, I hear our guides Mahgoub and Steinmair in my head), and try to read something into them. But morning is already here, the constellation fades, and I only have my notes, and some diffuse memories. I will have to move on, back into my very own trip of the lifetime that I have ahead of me.

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