All photos by Erik Schmahl

Last week a friend texted, asking if I was interested in participating in the preview of a public theater piece. I had no idea what this entailed. Still, I immediately replied, “yes”, deciding it best to not ask any questions.

On Saturday morning I found myself in the back garden of El Pueblo de Los Angeles donning headphones and a wireless audio transmitter, waiting for further instructions. This wasn’t an altogether new experience, so I had some idea of what was coming. Last year I had participated in “Among Us” as part of the Live Arts Exchange, a piece by the same friend who had procured tickets to this event. Marike Splint is a Dutch director who I had met through my roommate in graduate school, and “Among Us” proved an incredible experience where participants explored an uncanny public realm. In the process we became aware of how we participate in public spaces and the ever-shifting gradient of belonging that permeates our sense of commons. It was basically what I was trying to do with my thesis, but markedly better at communicating similar ideas.

“Among Us” got me stoked about the potential for various methods of asking similar questions. I’m still not clear as to where the lines are drawn between theater, art, public practice, philosophy actions, and whatever it is to just be a person in the world. But I don’t think it matters; the medium becomes arbitrary when the message is executed in a compelling format. I’m personally fascinated by my own feeling of weirdness in public space. I don’t feel like I belong and I am unsure why that is. I’m curious if others feel like they belong, and if they do, what is the difference between us? Is it perceptual and spatial? Is it personal and emotional? Is it existential? I have a creeping feeling that it is all of those things.

This is where art becomes a useful translator. While Jan Gehl and Jane Jacobs lay it all out with diagrams and well-crafted essays in their landscape architecture curriculum, it’s the works of James Turrell and Lee Ufan that can make me feel space and all that it encompasses in ways that rattle me to my core.

I’m standing in a garden admiring the artichokes, wearing headphones, and listening to a light soundtrack of ambient music with an accompanying computer generated voice looping every couple minutes to assure me (and the thirty or so other folks wandering between the green beds) that Remote L.A. will begin shortly”.

Remote L.A. is a pedestrian-based live art experience by Rimini Protokoll, put on by the Center Theater Group in Downtown Los Angeles. Rimini Protokoll explains the global touring “Remote X” project as such:

“Hordes of people who have never met in the real world swarm out on virtual treasure hunts when playing online games. In Remote X we’re a horde of people wearing radio headphones, swarming out into the real city.”

A synthetic voice in our headphones (of the kind familiar from GPS navigators or airport announcements) directs the movements of our swarm. Binaural recordings and film scores turn the cityscape into a personal film; artificial intelligence explores unknown territories, mustering human activity from a remote perspective. And yet the voice sounds ever more human to us as we progress, while in the eyes of passers-by our remotely controlled horde starts to look like a kind of alien entity.

How are joint decisions made? Are we all hearing the same words? As 50 individuals observe each other, the swarm breaks down into ever-smaller units, before re-forming as a collective in which decisions are ultimately taken individually. Might this be the beginning of a movement?

Remote X lays a trail through the city for this swarm of 50 people. It composes a soundtrack to streets, parking garages, churches, and backyards. Each new city-specific version builds on the dramatic structure of its predecessor, writing more storylines for new sites.”

I’m not a theater reviewer or an art critic so I will just leave you with some photographs from the experience. Overall I find these types of projects to be fascinating and would encourage anyone who is curious about place to participate if you get a chance. I like to believe that landscape architecture is vast and has limitless reach as a discourse, but it’s up to landscape architects to poke and prod their field to try to make it squirm, remembering to laugh a little bit.

 

 

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