Dit artikel verscheen in FORUM+ Zomer 2018
Dossier feit als fictie
Jonas Rutgeerts and Nienke Scholts
In 2016 the Israeli choreographer Arkadi Zaides and a team of collaborators embarked on a two-year artistic research initiative based on TALOS, a European project aimed at developing a mobile robot for protecting and securing Europe’s borders. The article uses this artistic research as a basis for an exploration of the possibilities of pre-enactment and speculation in contemporary theatre, dance and performance.
In 2016 namen de Israëlische choreograaf Arkadi Zaides en een team van medewerkers het initiatief voor een tweejarig artistiek onderzoek gebaseerd op TALOS, een Europees project dat tot doel had een mobiele robot voor de bescherming en beveiliging van de Europese grenzen te ontwikkelen en te testen. Dit artikel neemt dat artistiek onderzoek als basis om de mogelijkheden van pre- enactment en speculatie in hedendaags theater, dans en performance te verkennen.
And Talos, the man of bronze, [...] given by the son of Cronos to Europa to be the warder of Crete and to stride round the island thrice a day with his feet of bronze. [Apollonius Rhodos, Argonautica, 3rd century B.C.]
The performance Talos 1 by Arkadi Zaides took its cue from TALOS, or Transportable Autonomous Patrol for Land bOrder Surveillance, a European sponsored research and development project for which an international consortium of organisations joined forces. TALOS aspired to develop and test a mobile robotic system for border control. 2 Originally the aim of the artistic research was to re-enact this project, taking as a starting point the actual development of a ground-drone that could detect people and prevent them from crossing a predefined border. However, the research on the European project brought to light that TALOS’s goal was not confined to the construction of a robotic surveillance vehicle. The project also tried to shape our vision on the future of Europe’s protection by aligning this future with Europe’s mythical past. Confronted with this complexity, what was originally set up as a re-construction of a robotic vehicle soon transformed into a performance that explores the manifold temporalities that are folded into the discourse of Talos. Rather than referring to, or re-examining TALOS, the project here focused on Talos as an idea and on the future that this idea seems to hold. In this article we aim to elaborate on the complexities and questions that arose during the artistic process of creating Talos. In doing so we do not only want to come to a better understanding of the actual performance, but also outline an approach to the documentary that focuses on the creative potential of documents and shifts the perspective from re-enacting the past to pre-enacting the future. We situate this approach within a broader discourse on speculation and of a movement of activating alternative futures.
The figure of Talos makes its first appearance in ancient Greek mythology. In the epic poem The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, Talos is staged as a giant bronze automaton, a gift from Zeus to his lover Europa. Talos had the task to protect Europa against potential threats. To do this the automaton patrolled Crete, the island were Europa was staying, encircling it three times a day. 3 When intruders who wanted to harm Europa tried to reach the island, Talos threw rocks at their ships, sinking them to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. If intruders still made it to the shore, Talos captured them, heated up his bronze body and burned them to death.
The project does not simply attempt to re-construct the long-lost mythical automaton. Instead, it creates a fictitious continuity between past, present and future.
Talos: a giant man of bronze – a robotic figure that protects Europa against intruders. Today, this description could fit an organisation like Frontex, a (giant) non-human yet artificial intelligent border guard, and on a more abstract level we could even see Talos in Europe’s politics of exclusion and fear. From the European perspective a helper or even hero, from an outside perspective a monster of security and control.
In 2008 fourteen organisations, among which research institutions and universities as well as companies that were involved in communication, software development and aviation, started working together to create an autonomous vehicle for border control: TALOS. 4 In their research and development project the ‘bronze giant’ is replaced by a ‘fully autonomous robotic craft’ that would be able to ‘perform routine patrols and react to typical situations without constant human supervision’. 5 Despite the fact that the European project recycles the ancient Greek logic, the project seems to be far less effective than its Greek predecessor. Whereas the bronze giant in the Greek mythology appears as a formidable killing machine that is able to take out entire ships in the blink of an eye, the semi-autonomous vehicle that is produced by the European consortium looks like it is in no way fit to really perform its task. Although the vehicle has some resemblance to a military tank, its small size and design, a beige platform with a grass green top and two cameras in the front that look like eyes, make it resemble Walt Disney’s Love bug or Pixar’s Wall-E more than a machine that is designed for confrontational encounters. Moreover, the vehicle does not only look like it is unfit to enter into confrontation with illegal trespassers, it simply is unable to perform this task. The machine has no lethal or non-lethal weaponry, only a loudspeaker that can command the trespasser to leave the territory. On top of that, European law prohibits the robot to actually collide with the trespasser, making a real confrontation literally impossible. To this day, the machine cannot even perform its very limited tasks, as it was disassembled in 2012. Immediately after the European support stopped, each organisation took out the parts it created, thus leaving nothing of Talos except for a vague promise.
The ultimate outcome of the TALOS project should, however, not simply be measured against the actual production of an automated vehicle, but also against the production of a specific discourse, a singular vision that shapes our imagination of the future. Although TALOS seems incapable of creating a robotic system that can be deployed in border areas, the project's discourse paves the way for the future deployment of such a system. In a very subtle way TALOS intervenes in our imagination of the future, suggesting that the deployment of robotic systems is an inevitable and logical progression. It is perfectly possible that the consortium deliberately downplays the machine's aggressiveness, as this will ease us into the idea of using robots for border control. In other words, by giving the robot a friendly face the project makes it easier for us to imagine the deployment of robots in border areas. It is also in this respect that we should understand the reference to the Greek mythology. This reference generates a lineage between ancient Greece, commonly understood as one of the foundations of the European tradition, and the future deployment of robotic technologies for border securitisation. By using this reference the project implicitly suggests that the usage of robotic power to secure borders is ingrained in Europe's DNA. TALOS’ reference to Greek mythology should thus not be understood as a way to create a connection with a past event, but rather as a powerful means to employ the mythical figure to shape our vision on the future.
The confrontation with Talos’ double life was the starting point for the artistic research project that resulted in Talos (2016), a performance that reconciles an academic lecture, a sales pitch and a story. When entering the venue, the spectators are confronted with the abstracted image of a border, projected on a screen that takes up the whole back wall. As will be only revealed later on in the performance, these animated images are based on drone footage of real border areas. The people in the original footage are replaced by dots and all other elements are substituted by their symbolic representation (for example, a real car is replaced by the symbol of a car). This abstract animation makes the videos resemble instructional videos or computer simulations rather than real life situations. After a while, a man (Zaides) enters the stage and starts analysing the image. His analysis is clearly scripted, as he reads the text from autocues that are positioned throughout the room. The description is precise and meticulous, and includes all the different forms, relations and movements that are visible in the image. Despite this high level of precision, the analysis is marked by abstraction and detachment. Similar to the animation, the performer refrains from using concrete names for the elements, describing the people for example, who are depicted as dots, as ‘moving entities’.
By referring to the past in order to colonise the future, TALOS frames this future simply as the actualisation of the past.
After analysing five different border situations, the performer shifts his attention from the screen to the audience. This transition is reinforced by the background colour of the projection screen that changes from grey to bright yellow. The analysis of borders now makes way for an presentation of a robotic vehicle: Talos. As a consummate salesman the performer, who is still reading his text from the autocues, starts explaining the Talos project, defining the vehicle's different features, the context in which it has to perform and the solutions that it can bring for potential users. At first, this explanation resembles the original European TALOS project, most of the time quoting documents that originate from the actual project. Gradually however the text moves away from the original source material and explores more general developments in robotics.
This straying from the ‘facts’ culminates when the performance segues into the last part, dealing with the actual encounter between a trespasser and the machine. Where earlier parts were all based on documentary material, this part is almost entirely fabulated, based on the previously gathered/shared information. Once more accompanied by abstract animations of border situations, the performer imagines what the actual encounter between the robot and the trespasser could look like. Again, he refrains from concrete language. Moreover, his descriptions become even more abstract. Where in the first part the description was anchored in a specific situation, he now merely postulates general rules for an encounter to happen. Using a conditional ‘if-then’ proposition, the description meticulously maps out the different encounters that are possible in border areas and imagines how the vehicle could respond to this situation in a performant and effective way.
Rather than aiming at reconstructing an original event, the performance in fact questions the reality of the ‘original document’. Following performance theorist Carol Martin we could see the complexification of the document's status as a technique to draw the spectators' attention to the fact that ‘reality is constructed’, thus redirecting ‘single perspective notions of truth toward the ambiguity of multiple viewpoints’. 6 Although we agree with Martin, it would, however, be a mistake to reduce the stakes of this performance to simply laying bare the fictional, or theatrical character of the document. Pointing out what is fictional or what is real is not relevant here. Although many documents originate from the TALOS project, a large quantity of documents was found in other places – interviews with experts, YouTube clips, mythology etc. – and whole parts are made up. Moreover, the distinctions between the parts that are based on actual documents and the parts that are imagined is bl
urred, as all elements have the same status. The spectators do not know if this information is true, as it is clear that Zaides does not always follow the original project by mixing information that is distilled from the actual TALOS project with more general information about robotic developments, and with fictional information. Real or invented: what matters is the documents' creative potential.
As the Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis pointed out, essential to creation is not ‘discovery’ but an active constitution of the ‘new’. The ‘real’ and the ‘invented’ are not opposites, but actually two states of the imaginary. In other words, imagination comes before both fiction and reality and is essential in the shaping of both. Everything is first invented/imagined and than perhaps realised, constituted, within a context (can be society, art, or other) that forms a particular reality. 7 Both real and fictional documents can shape our understanding of the present and/or open up possible imaginations of the future.
Talos, thus understood as a re-appearing document, is used to various ends. Neither the European project nor the performance re-create an ancient myth. Both projects try to grasp how the former project could resonate in a contemporary situation. They both investigate how the past could help shape the imagination of present and future. This is abundantly clear in TALOS. The project does not simply attempt to re-construct the long-lost mythical automaton. Instead, it creates a fictitious continuity between past, present and future. This continuity serves a dual purpose. In the first instance it frames the emergence of the robotic vehicle as ‘unavoidable’. Its implicit claim is that the idea of the deployment of robots for border protection is not new, but has always existed. Talos/TALOS will simply resume its role as a warden of Europe. In the second instance, the continuity eliminates the many political and ethical questions that are conjured up by the deployment of robots for border protection. By associating it with a divine figure, TALOS gives the robotic vehicle an aura of necessity and objectivity. This objectivity is not granted by a divine force, but by an objective algorithm instead. Were in ancient times the actions of the robot were justified by the fact that they originated from a divine presence, the actions of the European vehicle for border control seem just, because they are the outcome of a transparent algorithmic procedure. Here, the project blends the ancient belief in the infallibility of divinity with the contemporary belief that, with the help of big data and algorithms to process this data, we can solve any problem. God has been replaced by the algorithm, but the underlying logic stays the same: TALOS does what it needs to do, will never make mistakes and will always be equitable. We should not doubt that Talos be instantiated in the future, as its emergence is inevitable – embedded in Europe's DNA – and its actions are objective – following a procedural logic that is quasi-divine.
In the light of technological developments, the act of speculation touches upon one of the biggest questions we are faced with: how do we want to develop as humankind? Or: what kind of people do we want to be?
By referring to the past in order to colonise the future, TALOS frames this future simply as the actualisation of the past. This brought up the following question: how can an artistic project relate to this operational logic? In the first phase of the project, we discovered that strategies of re-enactment – building a land-drone – lose their potential as they would only point to the actual European project, laying bare its many flaws and problems but neglecting the implicit thread that the project weaves from past to future. We thus searched for a way to intervene in, or expose the territorialisation of the future that takes place in and through the European project. In order to do this we decided to shift from the strategy of reconstruction towards pre-enactment, or from staging documents towards speculation.
This strategy also entails a re-conceptualisation, or reframing of re-enactment. Often re-enactment is understood as an attempt to make something re-appear. It is conceived as an attempt to gain access to a past that has past, by bringing the past back into the present. As Hall Foster mentions, re-enactment here functions as an articulation of the ‘archival impulse’. 8 In turn, this impulse is the result of a ‘failure in cultural memory’, an attempt ‘to probe a misplaced past’. 9 As such, re-enactment is always reactive. It starts from the historical consciousness, the consciousness that time is progressive and creates a gap between past and present, and tries to find a way to deal with this gap. 10 However, this is not the case in the abovedescribed instantiation of the mythical figure. TALOS does not aim at re-creating the past. The project instead looks to the past for possible elements that would resonate with the future.
In his article The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances performance scholar André Lepecki tries to understand re-enactment as something that is not simply re-active, but also creative and active. For this description, Lepecki refers to Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘afterlife’. According to Benjamin, the task of the translator is not to strive for ‘likeness with the original’, but to look for ways to transform the original so that it resonates with the contemporary context. 11 Similarly, re-enactment should not try to ‘fix a work in its singular (originating) possibilization but to release a work’s many (in)compossibilities ((im)possibilities of composing), which the originating instantiations kept in reserve, virtually’. 12 As such, a re-enactment is always also a pre-enactment. It pre-forms or pre-figures something that was already (potentially) present in the past and that can be actualised in the present in order to condition possible futures.
In economy the term speculation refers to the investment in stocks, property, etc., in the hope of quick gains but with a huge risk of loss. In contemporary design, speculation might be about taking a risk with the unknown, in a much more playful way that could potentially even undermine the ideas of progress, profit or loss. Speculative design is proposed as a tool to understand the present and to create space for discussion about where we would want to go from here collectively. It is important to realise that speculation is actually a way of engaging with the present; a way of ‘staying with the trouble’ as Donna Haraway advocates so strongly. ‘Staying with the trouble’, she writes, ‘does not require such a relationship to times called the future. It requires learning to be truly present’. 13 One of her core methods of engaging with the present is ‘speculative fabulation’, which refers to everyday storytelling and the way in which people tell each other stories, or fables: ‘wild facts’. Fabulation is the making of fables and a form of ‘other world makings’. Like pre-enactment and speculative design are forms of training, of redefining our relationship to reality, fabulation is also such a practice that should be taken seriously next to what we assume as ‘truth’ (science fact). Fabulation is part of the same figure through which we (can) try to understand the world we live in. Speculation is of big influence on our world today, used by thinkers and innovators in economy, technology, anthropology, ecology, and philosophy (accelerationism, speculative realism), literature (science fiction, speculative fiction, afro-futurism), art and not seldomly several of those combined – as a strategy to open up a space to discuss/imagine/think about the future.
During our residence in Vienna, political philosopher Oliver Marchart was the first to introduce the notion of pre-enactment. It is a notion we have come to understand as a specific way of speculating. According to Marchart we can define pre-enactment as an ‘artistic anticipation of a political event to come’. 14 This anticipation, however, should not be understood as an analytical tool through which we ‘critically extrapolate from contemporary developments an image of our social and political future’, but as a ‘pre-formance’, an act through which we pre-figure, or pre-form the future. 15 Rather than making a prognosis about the future, the pre-enactment actively shapes it. To understand this process of 'pre-forming' philosopher and artist Patricia Reed gives insight. In her text Reorientate, Eccentricate, Speculate, Fictionalize, Geometricize, Commonize, Abstractify: Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism. (2014) she distinguishes between prognostics and speculation. According to Reed, prognostics equate the future with anticipation. Here, the future simply is the actualisation of certain threads that are already present in past and present. As such, the future remains ‘in the temporality of what is (or what was)’. Speculation however, is an attempt to (pre)shape the unknown future: ‘directing existing energies in (as yet) inexistent directions’. 16 Reed connects this ‘speculative possibility’ with the notions of fiction and fabulation. Rather than simply predicting the future, speculation actively fabulates the future by mapping ‘vectors of the future upon the present’. 17
Returning to our Talos’es with these insights, both the European TALOS project and Talos (the performance) could be viewed as the ‘strategy’ of pre-enactment, but to very different ends. The European project actively promotes ideas on surveillance at the continent borders through the use of technological devices, and intends to implement a (feeling of) need for those developments. Their demonstrator is not a question up for debate, but an idea that ‘we can get used to’, and mostly, a potential product for the European surveillance market. It seems a way of ‘mapping vectors of the future upon the present’, 18 that is quite violent as it tries to enforce a certain ideology/politics. This might be the reason for the project's pre-formative, speculative character being hidden. The project suggests a certain future but does not make this future explicit. Moreover, it masks its goals by representing its vision of the future as a simple continuation of present and past. As such, TALOS functions as a smooth operator, selling its speculation as mere prognostics. Seeing the TALOS Wall-E-lookalike as speculative design ‘in disguise’ makes it more political and more detrimental then it seemed at first. In this light, without even existing anymore or yet, the idea of the TALOS to be would already be an actual event (a pre-enactment).
For this reason, we accepted the task to make the speculative character of the European project explicit, and as such open up the future that TALOS pre-forms and enable a debate about that future. One aspect specifically compelled our attention upon examining the European TALOS project. This was the absence of the actual encounter between the machine and the trespasser, in both the visual and textual documents that were available on the project. 19 One would expect that TALOS – as his Greek predecessors - would be focused on his main target: the trespasser. The film Jason and the Argonauts (1963) by Don Chaffey for example emphasises how the bronze giant defends his lady Europa, as he basically lifts the intruders' ship from the sea and shakes it with ease until all passengers are flung towards their deaths. A scene reminiscent of immigrant dramas happening on many international waters today where the violent giant has many appearances. None of the documents that were produced by the European consortium however discuss the actual encounter with illegal bodies.
In the performance Talos, Zaides and his team consequently tried to think through the operational logic of the automated vehicle. By adopting strategies of generalisation that transform concrete situations into abstract models and political/ethical processes of decision-making into mechanic operations, the performancecrystallised the encounter between the human and the machine that would take place at the border. In other words, Talos explicitly pre-formed what the European TALOS project merely suggested.
This speculative mapping creates a double-edged feeling. In the first instance, the viewer comes to understand the violence that is contained in the logarithmic reduction of human interactions to a series of if-then-propositions. This cruelty becomes abundantly clear towards the very end of the performance, when the animated images transform into the real drone footage. Suddenly the dots, or moving entities, become singular human beings. At the same time, however, the spectators are confronted with the futility, or vanity of this project. It becomes clear that the procedural logic of the vehicle will never be able to respond to the concrete situation in an adequate way, as it is impossible to reduce the endlessly complex real life situations with actual people to a fixed set of variables and constants. As such, Talos manages to lay bare the atrocities which TALOS sweeps under the rug, but also shows how the project is in itself based on a fiction: the fiction that technical developments and procedural logics are natural or necessary and that they will solve all our problems.
What should we use speculation for? In the light of technological developments, the act of speculation touches upon one of the biggest questions we are faced with: how do we want to develop as humankind? Or: what kind of people do we want to be (within this world)? ‘To speculate’, Reed writes, ‘is to articulate and enable the contingencies of the given, armed only with the certainty that what is, is always incomplete; to speculate is to play with the demonstration of this innately porous, nontotalisable set of givens’. 20 This quotation beautifully describes what we attempted with our approach in Talos. Moreover, Reed’s notion underlines speculation as an act of engagement. An engagement with the present perhaps, a present (both real and invented) world in which we wonder; ‘what future do we want to see performed?’ This question seems to be burning in more and more people. Not because we want to know what lies ahead, but on the contrary, because we want the future back as a multitude of inexistent directions. Some of us have the feeling that the future is being hijacked, that particular versions of the future are being produced by Silicon Valley and other high-tech developers into consumable Musk-ian futurisms. Haraway warns for this kind of naïve ‘techno-fixes’: the idea that in the face of all global crises – of immigration, ecology or other – ‘technology will come to the rescue of us all’. The European consortium developed the TALOS border surveillance drone exactly as such a product. Through pre-enacting the inherent promise, their idea carried a dataist ideology of sorts - such a future that ‘will save us [from immigrants]’. If we do not want to see our future performed for us, the question becomes: what future do we ourselves wish to perform, pre-form, pre-enact?
is a dramaturge and performance theorist. As dramaturge and researcher he collaborates among others with Ivana Müller, David Weber-Krebs and Clément Layes. Currently, he is working on a PhD on rhythms as both an artistic tool and theoretical concept in contemporary choreography (KU Leuven). He also is the author of Re-act: Over re-enactment in de hedendaagse dans (Tectum Verlag, 2015).
is freelance dramaturge, working with several artists and since 2013 with Veem House for Performance. She is researcher at DAS Research/Local School in Amsterdam, and lectures at the MA Scenography program at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. She also is co-founder and editor of Platform-Scenography (P-S). Currently she is working on the multi-voiced publication series Words for the Future (2017/2018).