By coincidence, news alerts about Russian hacking of the United States presidential election emerged just as I entered Rimini Protokoll’s newest production, Top Secret International (State 1). As I immersed myself within their staging amid Brooklyn Museum’s Ancient Egyptian displays, US intelligence agencies released a declassified report stating that Russian president Vladimir Putin had ordered an “influence campaign,” including cyber attacks against the Democratic and Republican National Committees, and strategic dissemination of information designed to affect the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections.
According to the report, “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” Although perhaps shocking in these particular revelations, attempts to undermine democratic institutions—including the functions of government and its officials, the free press, and rule of law—have become increasingly common in the 21st century.
In 2000, political scientist Colin Crouch coined the term “post-democracy” to refer to societies in which the systems of liberal democracy were fully functional and yet controlled increasingly by an ever more restricted elite. In a series of books and polemical essays, Crouch suggested that even seemingly stable and well-established democracies could become vulnerable to autocratic rule. In early 2017, his concerns seem to be well founded. More recently, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have argued similarly that the durability of contemporary democracies cannot be taken for granted. In their essay, “The Danger of Deconsolidation”, (July 2016) they demonstrated that trust in democratic systems of government was diminishing worldwide, particularly among younger generations.
“Not so long ago, young people were much more enthusiastic than older people about democratic values,” they wrote. “Today, the roles have reversed: On the whole, support for political radicalism in North America and Western Europe is higher among the young, and support for freedom of speech lower.” Although correlation is not necessarily causation, it is impossible to consider these shifts without noting the simultaneous rise in digital technologies and communications as well, particularly among the very demographics that Foa and Mounk identify as the most open to government-led alternatives to democracy. Amid the ongoing news reports of “fake news,” manipulation of voters via social media, rising autocracies, and threats to democracies globally, Rimini Protokoll’s production could hardly be timelier.
Top Secret International draws explicit connections between international espionage, digital surveillance, and performance, to suggest the consequences of these intersections for contemporary politics. Part immersive performance, part game, the production may be best understood as an ethically fraught meditation on the systems of intelligence, security, and technology that shape our daily experiences and knowledge about the world. Rimini Protokoll describes the performance as “an algorithmic-based interactive theater experience” and it follows procedures found in previous work, most notably Call Cutta in a Box (2008) and Situation Rooms (2013), where audience members serve as performers as well, following instructions to engage with a specific location, recorded voices, and other audience members.
In Top Secret International, participants begin the performance by receiving a technologically enhanced notebook and headphones, which convey location-triggered voice recordings as the user moves through the Brooklyn Museum. Two primary voices—one human and male, one robotic but suggestively feminine—provide navigation while highlighting the distinctive features and histories of the museum’s objects along the way.
The physical material of the museum serves as justification for the primary focus of the performance: the work of the international intelligence agencies. Following directions to different artifacts, the user listens to audio detailing the history of the intelligence services in first-person accounts from experts in the field of surveillance, analysis, and the field of intelligence gathering, or as one expert tells us, “the root of war.”
Alexander the Great, for example, is described as an “innovator of surveillance”; an Egyptian sarcophagus becomes a mechanism for taking coded information to the grave; and an erotic configuration of figurines from 305‒30 BC triggers discussion on the use of sexual blackmail to undermine a potential intelligence target. The connections are rarely subtle. A recording from Edward Snowden plays in the middle of the museum’s third-floor atrium in full view of two mounted surveillance cameras in the upper balconies. Participants contemplate the ethical question, “Do values always apply to those defending them?” in front of Samuel Colman’s large painting, The Edge of Doom (1836‒1838).
Punctuating these primary accounts by experts in intelligence (the “experts of the everyday” common to Rimini Protokoll productions) are seemingly spontaneous directives to action, reflection, and opportunities, for each participant to choose a unique ethical path. Is it always right to allow governments to withhold information, even if it could help solve a crime? Would you look at a private email? Would you share information about an impending disaster? Would you share that information with everyone, or only those close to you? Answering various questions pushes users in one direction or another, as each participant-performer tests their own potential as an intelligence agent. Could you be an effective spy? Would you want to be?
Such explorations throughout the museum remind us that espionage is fundamentally a theatrical activity, although necessarily invisible as such. The spy and the actor are two sides of the same coin, one using gesture to evade attention and the other to cultivate it. Top Secret International provides the opportunity for both, as it presents intelligence gathering at the nexus of performance, the algorithm, and the digital technologies that record, analyze, and transmit these performances. As one voice reminds us, “everything on your computer monitor is an act.”
Such declarations seem distinctly attuned to the current state of democracy in the United States; a country that recently chose a reality TV personality for president; in an election saturated with fake news, manipulation of social media, and, allegedly, the hacking of two of America’s major political parties by a foreign government and the strategic release of potentially damaging information. But what was hacked exactly and did it have any influence on the election? As many people have pointed out, there was no evidence of tampering with voting machines, nor clear signs of disruption in voting procedures (although voter access remains a lingering concern for some).
The real hack seems to have been of people’s thoughts, their perceptions of candidates and issues. That these perceptions could have been formed in response to false online information and the manipulation of social media algorithms, points to a collective political body with less autonomy (and certainty) than it imagines. Amid the many challenging ideas of Top Secret International, the most chilling is this: that the fundamental vulnerability in democracy’s algorithm is us.