Is surveillance still too abstract for us to grasp? An experimental theater production in Germany, featuring an appearance by Julian Assange attempts to makes it real by spying on the audience.
Julian Assange is rather pale. He hasn't seen sunlight in over four and a half years. The founder of whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks has been living in 25 square meters in exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Theater director Angela Richter met him there for a lengthy interview. Assange's story formed the basis of a new German play, "Supernerds. Ein Überwachungsabend" (Supernerds. An evening of surveillance), which is showing this week at the Kölner Schauspielhaus in Cologne.
The crossmedial work integrates television, stage and a second-screen website to tell not only Assange's story, but also that of nine other whistleblowers, and to examine the impact 9/11 had on surveillance practices.
Actors on stage slip into the roles of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg and Jeremy Hammond. Like a ghost, the real Assange appears on a screen in the theater and gives an interview conducted by journalist Bettina Böttinger, who is simultaneously hosting a television show on the risks of surveillance.
Böttinger asks Assange how he's doing. He'd like to be in Germany, he says.
Spying on the live audience
The genre-bending work not only mixes media but also aims to involve the audiences - both in the theater and those watching Böttinger's show. Ahead of the show, audience members were asked to reveal their names, mobile phone numbers and addresses. During the week prior to the production, they received annoying calls and emails, or found themselves in the role of the spy when other people's information was sent to their cell phones.
Usually a theater performance is preceded by a polite request to switch off all mobile devices, but this live audience was asked to leave theirs on during the show. Every iPhone is a "spy-phone," that can be manipulated or bugged, the organizers wanted to show.
For nearly two hours, the actors on the stage repeat interview protocols. Viewers learn from whistleblower Thomas Drake that the US government lied to the public. Drake used to work for the NSA. When a new wire tapping software known as "Trailblazer" was to be introduced, he went to the media.
"Trailblazer" violated the US constitution, he says, because it revealed private data. Drake was lucky; he came away with only a minor punishment.
Daniel Ellsberg's story is also told. In 1971, he published confidential Pentagon papers containing secret information about the Vietnam War, which contributed to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Collecting data from our telephone and Internet usage is nothing new, but for many it still seems to be an abstract phenomenon.
During the performance, a few phones ring. In other theaters, that would have drawn a few nasty looks from fellow patrons. Here, the "Supernerds" creators want to make a point about how easy it is to gain access to our data. Julian Assange calls once from Great Britain to leave a message on the answering machine: "The confidential information is not for the public."
'Post-modern version of North Korea'
German broadcaster WDR also got its live television audience involved. One person is selected and their credit report, place of residence and purchase power is quickly determined.
"If things continue like this, then we'll be living in a global, post-modern version of North Korea," says Assange. His fate of exile doesn't seem to have brought about any changes yet. Just last week, Germany revised a new law that allowed data retention for police probes into severe crimes. Telecoms would log phone and Internet usage for 10 weeks.
The villains and the real terrorists cannot be hindered with surveillance, says Assange. And while surveillance isn't preventing terrorist attacks, it is infringing on our democratic rights, asserts the theater production.
The attempt the visualize surveillance in a theater, however, where real contact counts, is only partially successful. When the actors imitate the whistleblowers, they seem distant. And the "threat" to the audience is only symbolic. A few ringing phones and even strange emails ahead of the show aren't enough to instill a real sense of danger amongst the audience members.
Important questions remain unanswered. Why do we continue to use technologies that come with a high price? And how can computers be kept in check?
"Supernerds" makes more of an effort to wake people up, rather than provide answers - and perhaps the arts are not the right sphere for that.