Standing in between rows of aligned tombs, a mix of allegorical sculptures and timeless monuments adorn the walking paths of a cemetery. In this unlikely setting, Germany-based artist group Rimini Protokoll has turned Macao into an urban backdrop.
Called Remote Macao, the piece offers the audience a chance to navigate the city and negotiate everyday encounters through the use of communication technologies. Over the past 5 years, this multidisciplinary collective has presented this same series in different cities. Whether in Genève or New York City, groups of people wearing radio headphones were remotely guided by a synthetic voice. These groups wander up and down the street, investigate every dark corner and penetrate into hidden backyards. These journeys have catalyzed an unusual collective experience, one that is synchronously shared while remaining isolated; a unique moment that appears and vanishes in the midst of the hustle-bustle of different cities.
Cemetery - a confrontation between the living and the dead
The piece began at the São Miguel Arcanjo Cemetery, where a large group of participants instantly engaged by a ghostly, humanlike voice that whispered, “Welcome to the cemetery. We thank you for taking part and for making here.” The participants were immediately guided to walk through a narrow pathway between small and big tombs. They were asked to smell the grass and read the engravings of the tombs, as if conjuring a collective ritual. Without any background noise, the voiceover acted as an initiator. The collective responded simultaneously and walked at a very slow pace like a funeral march. At times, the headset-wearing participants encountered people who are praying at the cemetery, casting both the participants and the cemetery-goer as real-life protagonists. One may wonder, who were the performers?
Walking along the gravel pathways, being in a close proximity to the buried bodies, the participants were confronted with simultaneous thoughts of life and death. When the participants took deep breaths at gravesites, they moved from what they were told to do as participants and began to reflect on the larger questions of how they wanted to be in life. If going to cemetery is a ritual that helps the living honor the dead, this unique experience provided a revealing opportunity for the participants to re-fashion the very act of conducting the ritual: How did the dead live? How does human flesh turn into soil? Is the meaning of life inevitably intertwined with death? As they meandered down a pathway dotted with gravestones, some participants lifted their gazes, drifting off in thought. While I listened to the synthetic voiceover, I thought how ironic it was to be reminded by a machine that a human’s destiny is to die.
On the road - reciprocal gazing in Macau’s past
After their walk between the living and the dead, the participants suddenly found themselves inundated by the fast beat of techno music. While the participants were leaving the cemetery, the piece turned into a create-your-own-story game. On a broad street paved in cobblestones, the participants were instructed to walk in two separate groups: those who identified themselves as shy on the left hand path and those who identified as arrogant on the right. For some participants, choosing their path was not a problem. For others, the moment where they determined their own position was confrontational. Perhaps being shy and arrogant are made up of the same components, so why should they be judged as opposites? As I walked on the right hand path, I began to become self-conscious and wondered how the others perceived me.
Before they had time to think on this deeply, the two groups found themselves united in the Euro-style narrow streets of the old town. Passerbies and cars crisscrossed, and one could find many Portuguese buildings with ground-floor vernacular shops. Against the nostalgic backdrop, the trajectory of the participants appeared like a fragmented choreographic sequence. Shortly, the group gathered in front of a convex traffic mirror on Travessa dos Santos. In front of the mirror, the participants gazed at one another, studying the reflections of each other. The reciprocal gaze shared by the participants intensified a sense of collective subjectivity. The mirror became a vignette, vividly capturing the participants’ state of mind from the inside out.
Footbridge and school - culture as performance within body movements
One might think the group was made of only passive participants listening to headphones, but the second half of Remote Macao surprised the participants by prompting their bodies to move.
On a footbridge in a residential area surrounded by concrete buildings dating from the 1970s, the participants dotted both sides of the passageway. They stood in a straight line and faced the road, and the whispered voice-over asked the group to imagine jumping off from the footbridge. The jittery feeling triggered by looking down from this height recalled an ever-present notion of death. Just as the participants had felt in the cemetery, existential questions about the uncertainty of life reemerged. Within a moment, the participants were told to turn back and face each other across the passageway. Having no expectations, the group began to jump to the music on their wireless headphones.
In such an almost awkward moment, the participants became performers for the walking pedestrians. While some pedestrians stood for a moment in a daze, many pedestrians looked on vacantly or turned their heads in query. It did not matter if the participants or the pedestrians understood what was happening, the vibration caused by the participants’ movement miraculously turned the footbridge into a temporary theatrical stage. In the historic part of Macau, the piece went on until the participants sat on the street stairs and watched the everyday people experiencing relentless social transformation.
Indeed, Remote Macao has proved “culture as performance” correct. The contextual dimension of the piece shifted a performance from a carefully staged production to a performative act where real-life drama is literally performed by social actors. If the social world is a learned set of shared norms, the walking experience unpacked participants’ tacit assumptions about city life.
Although the participants thought jumping on the bridge was demanding enough, additional instructions for body movements were delivered via the headphones. At the playground of a typical Macau high school campus, the participants stood neatly on running blocks as if they were preparing themselves for a race. Running is often used as a metaphor for life. Put one foot in front of the other, keep going, without thinking, a long journey still left in front of us. The sight and sounds of the campus were familiar. Scenes of students running and bells ringing for chapel service had me thinking about my own past: a flashback to my childhood memories, to a time when everything appeared to be fun.
Downtown and observation deck - a silent rebel against the reality
The last part of the piece brought the participants back to the reality of Macau. The group was guided to leave the high school from another entrance. Like a sudden shift to different scene in a film, the nostalgic mood was replaced by the sounds of jackhammers putting up a new building and tourists marching on an overcrowded street in downtown Macau. The sudden change of atmosphere exposed the participants to an urban spectacle. Strolling in the narrow streets between gigantic casino buildings, one may ask how urban experience is forged by tourism. In recent years, Macau’s pace of urbanization has received a lot of attention. Whether you like the changes or not, Remote Macau smartly highlightes the status quo of the city by offering the experience of walking through different types of spaces.
Like the same series of work presented in other cities, Protokoll subtlety responded to politics. After maneuvering through the urban matrix, the group reached a piazza at the center of downtown Macau. Surrounded by jewelry shops and newly established buildings covered in neon lights and advertisement signs, the participants were again separated into two groups, each facing the other. They were instructed to move their bodies in a way that resembled Tai-chi. When I observed the two groups from a distance, they looked like two camps of protestors hurling insults and chants at each other, only silently. In a city where citizens have limited freedom to public assembly, for a moment, I thought the piece was close to a demonstration on the gentrification of the fast-changing city.
After an hour of walking, exercising and thinking, the final location was the top floor of a commercial building. On the observation deck, one could see views of miniature-looking people, taxis, bridges and evidence of the city’s prosperity. Suddenly, the participants were covered in special effect smoke: the city and the participants vanished from sight. With this sci-fi backdrop, the voice also disappeared.
Las Vegas of the East? Another kind of game and playground
Remote Macao is a game of make-believe, where an actual performance is absent. By adapting a site-specific approach and involving the audience as participants rather than as mere spectators, the piece tactically re-negotiated the everyday life of Macau.
If urban spaces are bound by their locational meanings and social rules, walking in Macau with Protokoll’s piece was not only an opportunity to revisit the everyday stories of Macau’s inhabitants, but the “illegitimate” way of walking and performing (ways of doing) in the lived space was also a tactical practice, charting a new form of urban subversion. Be it in the cemetery or the piazza, the performative acts by the participants challenged the system of appropriateness in various types of urban spaces, turning the bricks and mortar of the cityscape into a fluid and situationally contingent playground. The here and now of the spectator and inhabitant’s experience slips quietly between the imagined and everyday reality, a creative resistance to the strictures prescribed by social norms.
Apart from the interventionist tactics, the mutually constitutive relationship between space and collective subjectivities was beautifully presented in Remote Macao. On one hand, the participants were instructed by a voice whispering in their ears through headphones. On the other hand, the piece poetically revealed the subjective experience of the participants. Although the performance was conducted in a group, assemblages of narrative were introspectively perceived through individual participants’ attempts to understand the elusiveness of the journey. Between life and death, and between the past and present of the city, there is kind of freedom, a state that breaks away from the prescriptive cartography of the participants’ mind.
In a city whose priority is tourism, Remote Macao vividly offered a different visiting experience. In the last scene on the observation deck, perhaps what really vanished from sight was the history and culture from the past. A month after Remote Macao, I visited Macau again. Cutting through the massive casinos that resemble the “Las Vegas of the East,” I took the freedom to walk differently - losing myself, exploring new paths, connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar - hoping to once again remove myself from Macau. Perhaps the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis is correct: “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality."