Capping the trilogy Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems, World of Wires is Jay Scheib‘s adaptation of filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht, opening Friday at The Kitchen. Catching Scheib on the phone during his final week of rehearsals, he talked with me about science fiction, simulations and the new work.
World of Wires is your third production in the trilogy Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems created in residence at MIT. What’s it like making work there and what has the environment offered to your process?
Six or seven years ago I asked a group of students what they expected to be doing in 10 years and one student said she’d probably be the first woman on Mars. That was the first I knew there was a really serious Mars program out there in the world. Then a month later I had a conversation with Joe Gavin, the guy who directed the moon lander. He was the lunar lander brain. He said he wouldn’t go to Mars unless it’s a one-way trip. He didn’t want to be involved in a mission to Mars to go there and bring back rocks. The only mission he’d do is to first build a habitat, and then six months later send people, and then after that send supplies and more people and actually have a station on Martian surface. This is the famous one-way mission model, which was essentially adopted and there’s an entire community of people who are engaged in that.
So that’s the seed that started the human simulation trilogy. I learned about the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert where scientists and researchers go and wear spacesuits and live in full simulation for months at a time. So I began putting together the pieces, combining that with some of my other interests. Although I’ve been doing other productions in between – operas and plays, the ballet in Hong Kong – this trilogy it has remained a real focus of my life.
For this part of the trilogy you focus mostly on the disciplines of computer science and artificial intelligence. Can you describe how those areas helped you generate material and the interface with professionals or research in these fields?
For this production, someone approached me after a performance of Untitled Mars and said “Oh my god, do you know the work of Nick Bostrom?” So I found this guy who is the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute and Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University. He wrote a paper called Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? In the white paper he speculates that there’s a pretty high probability that we are in fact living in a computer simulation. It turns out that the idea has a healthy following. The article is brilliant and synthesizes a number of interests that I’ve had over the years growing up, reading about simulation and finding myself drawn into the world of MIT and artificial intelligence, so its been an interesting ride. A lot of artificial intelligence is actually like Amazon.com can tell you what you want based on your preferences. We have these computers gathering information and drawing conclusions about our lives, which can be pretty nice in a way, but is also very dangerous.
There’s also my love of science fiction, which in the United States, is one area where, in my mind, really interesting thinking about the world and the way in which its changing is reflected. I don’t draw a line between science fiction and literature. I find that many of our science fiction authors are the greatest we’ve produced. The ideas are interesting. I worked with Philip K. Dick first and then spent a couple of years building a piece based on Samuel R. Delany novel Dhalgren and getting to know Chip Delany was really the highlight of the decade. Now we’re working with a novel by Daniel F. Galouye called Simulacron-3, although the piece is really based on Fassbinder’s adaptation of Galouye’s Simulacron-3. Galouye wrote this novel that’s about people who discover that they’re living in a computer simulation and it’s one of the first novels that contains the trope of plugging yourself into a network. I found that interesting pre-Matrix.
So in The Matrix, would you take the red pill or the blue pill?
We make a joke about that! In the play, this character in the Garden of Eden pours a whole handful of pills into his hand and everyone gives him advice: “Only take the blue one…Only take the red one.” I agree with Mikéah Jennings who decided in the performance to just eat all of them. That’s what happens. It would just double the affect.
I understand that a robbery you witnessed at Duane Reade influenced this work. Can you talk about what happened and what it got you thinking?
So Galouye writes in Simulacron-3 that simulations have this uncanny ability to migrate into the real, and sometimes the simulation becomes real before you expect it to, so if you want to test the theory, try simulating a bank robbery. Enter a bank with a fake pistol and stage a robbery and very quickly a customer will die of a real heart attack, the bank teller will hand you with shaking hands real money and the police officer will likely shoot you with real bullets. This is kind of a bland example, but of course if you told the cop that you’d be robbing the bank with a fake gun, you wouldn’t really learn a lot about bank robberies. It wouldn’t be a worthwhile simulation. So this is one of those ideas that stuck with me and there was something about it that didn’t make sense to me.
Then a couple of years later I was in a Duane Reade drug store on 111th and Broadway and I found myself in the middle of a really violent robbery. I had a gun held to my head for what seemed like an hour and was probably only about 40 minutes. People got beat up and hurt really badly and there was a moment where he pointed the gun at someone else and I saw it and I swear it was fake. I didn’t test the theory at the time but it stuck with me forever where I thought that’s definitely a fake pistol and if he pulled the trigger, maybe a little fire would have come out the end like a lighter or something. So that was a really scary horrifying event. There is nothing funny about what happened in that room, but the pistol – I still carry that with me that the pistol was fake. Was it all real?
In terms of working with your performers, can you give an example of what you might ask to do in rehearsals to work with this material?
We spent three weeks on Governors Island thanks to a residency from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. We took the ferry and hung out on an island. We watched a lot of Fassbinder films. We read the entire novel out loud. We read the screenplay based on the TV series. We improvised for two and a half weeks and came up with a list of tasks: maybe that’s 10 entrances and exits, someone has to accidentally get hurt, and we improvise with these small event structures. Then we showed a work in progress assembled again in November. This is where things got interesting. We decided that in order to start the project we’d make a different work by Fassbinder first. We did a little work on a play of his called The Garbage, the City and Death and then switched to another early film called Katzelmacher. We actually shot our own version of Katzelmacher, in which we improvised text and new situations in a week and a half. Basically, we made a knockoff Fassbinder film and that’s how we started our preparation and re-entered this work. We had a studio in Tribeca for a month in an old office building, then had another residency with the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center on the Lower East Side, a month on Governers Island and one at MIT.
What else are you thinking about during these final rehearsals before the opening?
The thing I’m thinking about a lot right now since I am making final decisions, is that I am onstage during the whole play, which means that there are almost two plays. The play staged for the audience and the play that I see. I’m operating the camera the whole time. What comes from the Katzelmacher experiment is that essentially the making of the production is also the making of a 90-minute single take film. So there are a number of dimensions to the work, which is an interesting prospect. It’s not staged in a traditional sense because I never leave the stage. It’s a live film, but at the same time, because we’re working on material that questions live-ness, we are trying everything we can to continue questioning live-ness from beginning to end and there are a lot of things that go into that. I don’t think I should say anything else about it!
World of Wires runs January 6-21 at The Kitchen. Tickets $20.
Originally published January 5, 2012 on Culturebot.