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When a robot begins to look too much like a person, we get suspicious. The aversion expresses itself in self-doubt and the question as to how humankind still distinguishes itself from the machine. This strange feeling has been described by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori as the ‘uncanny valley’ and forms the starting point for Rimini Protokoll’s theatrical performance. Working for the first time with playwright Thomas Melle, the German collective created a humanoid robot bearing his physical appearance. The life-like, mechanical doppelgänger takes the place onstage of the human original. This substitution raises a lot of questions. What happens to the original when the copy takes over? Does the original get to know itself better thanks to its electronic alter ego? Are the copy and the original doomed to compete or will they conclude a pact? And as spectators, do we feel as much empathy for the human being as for the machine? Uncanny Valley is an unsettling confrontation with the thinning boundary between the two.
By: Rimini Protokoll (Stefan Kaegi) & Thomas Melle / Münchner Kammerspiele
Concept, text & direction: Stefan Kaegi
Text, body & voice: Thomas Melle
Equipment: Evi Bauer
Animatronic: Chiscreatures Filmeffects GmbH
Manufacturing and art finish of the silicone head/coloration and hair: Tommy Opatz
Dramaturgy: Martin Valdés-Stauber
Video design: Mikko Gaestel
Music: Nicolas Neecke
Surtitling: Babel Subtitling
Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Kaaistudio’s
Production: Münchner Kammerspiele
Coproduction: Temporada Alta (Girona), Berliner Festspiele (Berlin), Immersion - Feodor Elutine (Moskau), SPRING Performing Arts Festival (Utrecht), FOG Triennale Milano Performing Arts (Milan), donaufestival (Krems)
Performing rights by: Rowohlt Theater Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg
With the support of: German Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Goethe Institut
This evening, the writer Thomas Melle invites the audience to a reading. Ritualised events such as these afford a supposedly authentic exchange between readers and writers. But doesn’t the controlled, public appearance distort this? Isn’t the same programme simply reeled out every evening? Perhaps it would even be possible to outsource this unpleasant, repetitive task to an automated machine. This device could then be sent on a reading tour forever. In Uncanny Valley, director Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll) is doing an experiment in the theatre without actors. Thomas Melle is replaced by an animatronic copy of himself. Precision mechanics, a mask and programming turn the machine into an actor, whose facial expressions, gestures and language might well produce empathy – or will the animatronics get stuck in the uncanny valley? Does the imitation convince us or do we find its inadequacy funny? Does it make us feel alienated or does a performance by a robot offend us?
People are unstable, become nervous or tired. How is it possible to control this instability, and therefore prevent it? In industry, robots carry out a variety of tasks efficiently and precisely, relieving the strain on people. These automated machines reliably perform the same task over and over again, simply executing their program-ming. To avoid emotional entanglements, they are made to look as little like humans as pos-sible. Humanoid robots, on the other hand, which are being developed for the care of the elderly, imitate human appearance to help us accept these machines. Could such a humanoid also appear on stage and take the place of a writer on his reading tour? The machine, at least, would never tire and could continuously repeat the same programme, night after night forever.
Does it provide relief to outsource unpleasant tasks? Or does it instill a fear of being replaced? Whatever the case, Thomas Melle surrenders control to his doppelgänger, who both replaces and displaces him. And so, the robot on stage becomes an object of projection for a future in which the human original can no longer be discerned in an unchanging world of consistent algorithms and machines. The animatronic copy, with its mechanical, unbeatable precision, will give exactly the same lecture every time. What does it mean to give up control to a code that is repeated without variation? Whose voice is being heard in the Uncanny Valley and what is its agenda?
Uncanny Valley begins with Thomas Melle’s announcement that he is going to give a lecture on the problem of the instability. He himself has left the theatre long before; yet he is able to talk about his life and that of the computer scientist Alan Turing. Turing’s works have led the way for the development of modern computers and shaped our understanding of artificial intelligence to this day. Melle’s doppelgänger uses these two biographies to talk about loss of control and the cracks in the fabric of everyday life. But the experiment that director Stefan Kaegi is carrying out here on stage completely rules out any such instability. The doppelgänger will always execute its programme reliably. And while doing so, the Melle robot contemplates his duplication, and comes to the conclusion that outsourcing would be perfect: ‘After sharing the part of my mind that I extracted for my book, I have now outsourced my body and can let it do tours and all the unpleasant stuff.’ Thomas Melle, of all people, whose double talks about his loss of control, gives up control and responsibility for this performance to a robot and its programme. But what is authentic about this evening? What is artificial? Perhaps it is not necessary to resolve this question. The robot, in any case, reports that only ‘with the greatest artificiality … the greatest control’ can a representation of one’s own instability become authentic.
Despite duplication, differences between the original and copy are visible. The Melle double will try to move naturally and meet the audience’s expectations of a lecturer. Do we want to identify with the humanoid? Maybe it will trigger empathy in us – but empathy with whom? With Melle, who is no longer there, or with the robot himself? It is anyways flawed to claim that the copy is naturalistic. Perhaps the failure of the robot to be wholly identical to the original would even be a relief. As a viewer you could then confidently tell yourself apart from an animatronic machine. But aren’t we conditioned and programmed too? As a theatregoer in particular, don’t you also adhere to conventions and execute a fixed programme?Back to top
Stefan Kaegi has staged documentary theatre plays, radio dramas and site-specific productions with various constellations of people, often linking economic relations to its impact on humans. For example, Kaegi has toured the world with two Bulgarian truck drivers and a converted truck and has staged 10,000 locusts at the Schauspielhaus Zurich. His audio tour Remote X can currently be heard in Moscow, Berlin and Shanghai. At the Théâtre Vidy in Lausanne, Kaegi staged Nachlass (Legacy) with people who do not have long to live. Together with Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel, Kaegi works under the label Rimini Protokoll, which was awarded the Silver Lion for Theatre at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Most recently, Rimini Protokoll staged the multi-player video Situation Rooms about the global arms trade. The Hamburg Schauspielhaus celebrated the premiere of a simulation of a World Climate Change Conference, which was also shown at the Kammerspiele in 2015. In Canada, Rimini Protokoll staged 100 % Montreal with 100 representatives of the city, who were selected according to statistics. In Santiago de Chile, hundreds of memories of the Pinochet era were programmed for the App Recuerdos. Together with the Münchner Kammerspiele, Rimini Protokoll last staged Top Secret International (State 1) in the rooms of the Munich Glyptothek.
Thomas Melle studied comparative literature and philosophy in Tübingen, Austin, Texas and Berlin. In 2004 he made his debut as a playwright with 4 Million Doors (written together with Martin Heckmanns). In 2007 the short story collection Raumforderung for which he received the advancement award of the Bremen Prize for Literature in 2008. His debut novel Sickster (2011) was awarded the Franz Hessel Prize. His novel 3000 Euro followed in 2014, which was shortlisted for the German Book Prize. In 2015, Thomas Melle, who lives in Berlin, received the Berlin Art Prize. In the following year, he was shortlisted for the German Book Prize for Die Welt im Rücken (The World at Your Back, 2016). In this book Melle offers an extraordinary insight into the live and the reasoning of a person suffering from manic depression. It was awarded the Klopstock Prize for New Literature and the testimonial of the Schiller Foundation. The stage adaptation of the dramatised novel at the Vienna Burgtheater (directed by Jan Bosse) with Joachim Meyerhoff as the protagonist was selected for the Berlin Theatertreffen in 2018. Twice Thomas Melle has been nominated for the Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis: in 2016 for Bilder von Uns and in 2018 for Transfer. – For Uncanny Valley a doppelgänger was made of Thomas Melle. The writer’s face and hands were copied and his body measured. Thomas Melle wrote the text for Uncanny Valley together with the director Stefan Kaegi.