no. 7

Dramaturgy of Listening in the Age of Virtual Cities

Johannes Birringer


1. Göttelborn, laboratory-city

Founded in 2003, Interaktionslabor Göttelborn is an interactive media and technologies laboratory based in Göttelborn (Germany), in the former high-industrial region of the Saarland. An abandoned coal mine, where production had ended in 2000, became the site of the young workshop for integrative projects in artistic and scientific research. Its unusual location in the industrial landscape quickly drew attention to the lab, as well as to the infrastructural redevelopment of the coal mining region. As the lab was given the freedom to work inside one of the abandoned buildings, and “move” around the whole territory of the mine, it developed a close relationship, from the start, with its host, IndustrieKultur Saar (IKS) – the government agency set up in Göttelborn to oversee and direct the redevelopment plans. It also developed a particular relationship to the environment.

The laboratory arranges intensive summer workshops, each year during the month of July, and it announce its plans internationally, inviting artists, designers and engineers to travel to the region and live there in residency, sharing the work experience, the intensive hours in the studio and the encounter with the commanding, if decaying, industrial environment. Göttelborn itself is a small village, no more than perhaps 2000 retired workers and their families live there now. The focus of the lab’s research – communications technologies, interactive media and virtual environments – is directed at creating attention for processes of transformation and structural transitions, both as they relate to the digital media and to our life-worlds, now characterized by pervasive computing and mobile networks. In a modest way, the lab also tries to attract interest in its experimental work amongst the geneal public: each year open workshop demonstrations (the “Night of Interactive Media”) attract visitors and school children from the region.

Interaktionslabor is an independent workshop, and thus it can choose its artistic or scientific areas of interest depending on the constellation, the meeting of particular persons, in each year. As a general philosophy, the lab encourages the examination of the links between reality and virtuality, body and environment, movement, sound, visual space, and postindustrial nature and architecture, and one of the premises of the lab is to apply new digital media and interaction design to the perceptional research.

For four years now (2003-2006), the workshop has attracted participants from all over the world: artists, choreographers, composers, programmers, engineers and scientists. Each year the laboratory itself tried to improve its internal infrastructure, the working and living arrangements, the diversity of themes and interests, the outreach and inter-actions with local and regional communities, the reflection, critical documentation and archiving of the work, and the live transmission of the experiments (via webcams and website). In 2005, new buildings and the modernization of existing buildings, a project administered by the IKS, allowed a greater flexibility to the lab, and in 2006 the entire studio workshop was transplanted into the new “Gray Gallery,” a high-tech building attached to a 19th century mining workshop hall and linked to a futuristic-looking Guesthouse for artists in residence or visitors to the old mine.

Performance has been a central element in these efforts: each year a strong emphasis of the research resides in the physical and performative exploration of the digital, the concrete inter-face (face to face) with computer-generated audio-visual architectures, transformed by the bodily movements of performers or visitors into singular audio-visual processes and kinesthetic experiences. Each year the lab has selected a group of 15 to 20 international and local practitioners to participate in the planning of projects (online) and to meet on the physical site for the concrete experimentation. Sometimes new artworks were seeded, and then developed to be shown; sometimes new software applications were tested, films postproduced and shown at exhibitions; and the writing, and thus the diffusion of such laborartory methodologies for innovative digital media performance, is ongoing ( In 2004 the lab published its first catalog, Wechselwirkungen, and in 2006 it releases its second catalog, dedicated to the I-Map project: Spielsysteme.

The history of I-Map goes back to 2004 when Tzeni Argyriou and Ash Bulayev ( came from Athens to participate in the Interaktionslabor, study the workshop philosophy, and get to know some the core artists who had built strong affiliation with Göttelborn over the years, including Sher Doruff (Waag Society, Amsterdam), Paulo C. Chagas (Los Angeles) and Paul Verity Smith (London). Both Doruff and Smith have been involved in the Walhalla production and the research for the new artwork.

The structural scenario I described above is the context of “I-Map”, the trans-European project which was the focus in 2006, bringing team-members from the four partnership sites and four different European countries together in a cycle of workshops, ending with the testbed phase in Göttelbon (July 17-31, 2006), before the core team returned to Athens to prepare the public performances of the new work. It was a very challenging cycle combining research and artistic development of numerous multimedia elements which were envisioned to flow into a “staged” theatrical performance. Not a conventional theatre or dance performance, but a digital performance including a complex dramaturgy for the live transmissions of webcasts – connecting actions in remote sites. The compositional process as such involved scripting, fillm shooting, editing, software programming for the interface design, sound compositon, graphic composition, animation, web design, scenography, costume design, lighting design, projection design with specially built rear-projection screens, sensor programming and physical rehearsal for the choreography, and finally, rehearsal with distributed, networked scenarios that involved remote actors in Sofia and Amsterdam joining the “Avatar” on the stage in Athens.

If one looks at such a production scale, and the script of the evolving work which was conceived as a live “computer game -performance,” it is evident that a huge organisational and administrative effort was needed, both for the structural and financial side of the project, and for the artistic management and coordination of all the research and production elements. While some of the technical expertise and experience with translocal media performance rested with the professional artists and curators of the partners sites in the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Germany, the guiding spirit and project initiative derived from the enthusiastic Athens group, directed by The Greek partners had launched the European project and secured the funding support from the EU. Each site then had to match the EU Culture 2000 Framework funding and contribute to the success of the year-long process.


Game Systems and Interactive Relations

In the following, I will reflect on sone aspects of this process, regarding both the organisational and artistic methods as well as the conceptual content of the work. My thoughts are a collection of impressions based on the notes I made during the workshops and the Athens premiere of See you in Walhalla.

Fig. 1 Angeles Romero performing in Ensaio sobre a cegueïra, SCENE 2,
Machine Turbine Hall. © 2004 Interaktionslabor

[lights slowly go up in a large room. The audience on various levels, above and below, have stepped into the building and look into space. FILM. We see an image-projection slowly gain contours on the opposite wall. We see the visual action that is performed by the first blind man, except on film we see close up of hands, the broken shards, the flowers in his lap, the blood, the man’s face, falling asleep]
(ARIA) First Blind Man, with The Guide [spoken in german, sung in english] Blind Man’s Dream Monologue
He dreams the dream of the game.
He dreams that he is pretending to be blind,
he dreams that he is forever closing and opening his eyes
he finds waiting for him,
all the forms and colors of the world he knows.
He is not sure at this moment what reality awaits him.
(Ensaio sobre a cegueïra/Blind City, 2004)


When the actor in the 2004 lab rehearsals for a new opera (Ensaio sobre a cegueïra) spoke these lines about dreaming “the dream of the game,” he could not know that a live computer-game-performance was to be developed in 2006, reverberating with all its “forms and colors” in the brand new space that had been built in the Coal Mine. In the 2004 performance, actress Angeles Romero was performing with an accelerometer attached to her hand/wrist: with it she controlled the sound generated during an imaginary love scene.


Fig. 2 Veronica Endo dancing Canções dos Olhos in new Gray Gallery. © 2005 Interaktionslabor


The first time the Gray Building was tested was for the second version of “Blind City” in 2005; the unfinished opera had been transposed into an intermedia song-cycle, with music by Paulo Chagas. In his critical reflections on the compositional process, Chagas noted:

“I was reviewing my first conception of the opera from April 2004, inspired by the novel Blindness by José Saramago. I proposed to create individual virtual spaces and connect them through audio, video and feedback. The opera should emerge as a network of relations of individuals and objects in closed environments, defined as sound spaces. But we spent the first week struggling in the group about the conception, and in the second week we developed a conventional story-telling musical-theater enhanced with a couple of technological gestures, visual and acoustic effects.

In the 2005 revision for the intermedia songs (Canções dos Olhos / Augenlieder), it was my idea was to create an invisible layer of narration emerging from the relationship between sound, image and dance in the particular environment of the Mine. Again, what the team created is a linear story interpreted by a dancer acting with the Mine background and accompanied by music. This is definitely something very different from what I was expecting. And my critique on the public "performance situation"– which has been created in the Interaktionslabor in agreement with the participants – is that we didn't worked at all on the challenges of interactivity.” [].

This is an interesting observation by the composer, reminding those who worked on the long and complex process of the Walhalla creation that in 2006 we faced some of the same challenges of how to develop a collaborative model of decision-making, an evolving decision-making process open to changes, which takes into account different aesthetic points of view and divergent artistic methods.

The nature of the public “performance situation”, for example, was subject to debate. It was a complicated debate since the needs of the remote actors (on webcam) and the hosting venues in Sofia and Amsterdam were rather different from the needs of the theatrical presenters in Athens. The plan to have a simultaneous premiere of See you in Walhalla in three cities, with Athens as core performance presenter creating a live transductive process of integrating the actors from the remote locations into the action plot and dramaturgy of the game, indicates a particular type of tele-performance – or multiplayer online game – which is generally characterized by modalities that are opposite to the rehearsed and carefully controlled theatre OS (operation system). The telematic OS is described, by our collagues from Waag Society of Old and New Media, as “translocal Live Art” or “connected performance,” a data flow environment which resists representation and is forever slipping between the more stratified genres of theatre, dance, music, and even games. As Sher Doruff writes, “its very liveness and insistance on change and transformation is integral to its practice…Live Art is all about process – transductive process – the changing of one form of energy into another,” investigating the “relationship between the digital and the analog, between code and affect, between time and space. Transductive processes occur between humans and the technologies they use to connect to other humans and between humans themselves.” [Connected! Live Art, ed. Sher Doruff, 2005].

In the same context of discussing connected performances, Sher reminds us that the use of the internet, webcams, chatlines and streaming protocols also imply social networks in progress, and with today’s global reach of the internet, such performances operate in a translocal feedback loop. The art produced in such process tends to scramble representational meanings at times, and it is of course fascinating to ask how such scrambling can be reconciled with the “system” of computer games. Interestingly, Sher mentions this in regard to the documentation of live events, the poor snapshot quality of the photos reflecting connected performances curated by the Waag Society. She suggests that performance making addressing the indeterminate dance-on-the-edge-of-chaos in compositional processes is a felt thing, an experience that doesn’t always translate well in laptop snapshots. Live artists and net artists potter with scrambled connections, noise, and the rhythms of real time streams and teleportations and how they affect embodied perception of digita time.

The photographs generated during the Walhalla rehearsals, however, are quite beautiful and poignant: they display the tremendous formal craft and compositional effort which went to the visual construction of the live game, especially the filmic cityscapes which constitute the “world” in which the Avatar acts or is acted upon.


Fig 3: Ermira Goro performing the Avatar in See you in Walhalla © 2006 I-Map


Can one perform a live game in a real theatre and its controlled condition, and synthesize the Avatar-performer onto an immersive film and animated environment? First, the operating system of games suggests a relationship between player (in the real world) and the gamespace designed for the computer or video screen. There are different games spaces (2d and 3D), player structures (singleplayer, multiplayer, singleteam, multiteam, etc), dynamic of static environments, various player-perspectives (1st person, 3rd person, or isomorphic), levels of control or degrees of freedom and restriction in the exploration of navigable space, and degrees of presence (or the illusion of presence) of being located inside the gamescape. Navigating inside a game landscape is a most common experience for players “moving an avatar,” but not all computer games have defined objectives: games such as EverQuest or The Sims alter the classic game model by removing the goals or, rather, by not defining possible outcomes as better than others.

Of course there are rules of engagement or navigation in every game, along with the procedures for choosing or modifying the avatar and for communicating among players (in the scaled up online multiplayer gaming). There are many different genres of computer games, but they all maintain a rule-based system, they provide a context for actions, there are goals or role-playing mechanics and outcomes/rewards; for example there are those rules that define game environments (the physical boundaries of components and procedures), and those that define how the interface is used to enact procedures and mechanics. The core principle of games is interactivity. Most contemporary analyses of game design agree that game language is not centered on narrativity (as in movies) but on interaction, both between players playing a game and between player and game. Furthermore, a common characteristics of digital games is the need for a specific environment, and for a specific interface which becomes the reference point of the player’s attention on the physical experience of the game.

The question of "interactivity" in a game environment is important for us, as Walhalla of course is a hybrid game/performance world in which both the players and the avatars (game characters) are enacted by real people. The avatar behavior, therefore, cannot be called “designed” or programmed, and the particular “interface” used to “enact procedures and machanics” needs to be understood radically differently, as the Player is “acting” to a webcam, while the Avatar in fact controls, to a certain extent, the game environment. Performed by a dancer, the Avatar enacts a real avatar to the audience and to an actor (the Player) who has to pretend to be in the game, walking into a “city” which is in fact constructed from the real (cinema verité, not synthetic computer graphics). Nor is this specific game environment unified and homogenous. Rather, it is composited, from the film shoots on location in Amsterdam, Athens, Sofia and Göttelborn, and complemented by numerous animations (found images, icons) and “masks” (color slides, motion graphics, etc), as well as interrupted or “surprised” by the live video streams from the webcams in Sofia and Athens, where Player and “Abandoned Avatar” are enacting their roles in the real world.


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