berlin performs david foster wallace

marcus canning: infinite jest—24 hours through the utopian west

Infinite Jest, 24 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

Infinite Jest, 24 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

Infinite Jest, 24 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

THE BENJAMIN FRANKLIN INSTITUT FUR MIKROBIOLOGIE UND HYGIENE IS A MENACING BRUTALIST MONSTER. FOR THE NEXT HOUR IT’S THE DAVID FOSTER WALLACE CENTRE. LARGE BANNERS FEATURING A BANDANA-BEDECKED AND BESPECTACLED DFW COVER ITS FAÇADE AND INTERIOR RECEPTION RECEPTACLES. IT’S LIKE SOME NUREMBERG/BOOK WORM CULT OF PERSONALITY CONVENTION HYBRID. A RANGE OF DFW GROUPIE T-SHIRTS ARE FOR SALE. PARTY PACK TOTE BAGS ARE DISTRIBUTED THAT INCLUDE SUSPECT SACHETS OF GLUCOSE POWDER TO HELP YOU STAY AWAKE.

Arriving with expectations of Matthias Lilienthal’s 24-hour (10am to 10am) theatre adaptation of Infinite Jest as high as a recent arrival at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery Centre, eventually I needed the long-range stamina of the youthful Aryan Internationale elite of the Enfield Tennis Academy to make it through the 24 hours of the production.

Moving through the walled-off West Berlin of another age, the 150-strong audience was carried in a convoy of double-decker buses to eight futuristic buildings constructed mostly during the 60s and 70s—a period of intensely competitive East-West Berlin development. This was the architectural equivalent of the space race and it led to some truly cosmic monuments to Late Modernist weirdness that today speak of derelict dreams and dystopia. What better arena to stage the seemingly impossible—a theatre adaptation of one of the most sprawling, improbable, dark and densely curious novels of the 20th century.

With Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace re-wrote the rule book on writing the literary rule book. With Unendlicher Spaß—24 Stunden durch den Utopischen Westen (Infinite Jest—24 Hours through the Utopian West), Matthias Lilienthal presented his penultimate production after a decade as director of the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theatre. Over this time he not only established HAU1, HAU2 and HAU3 but housed a startling array of the who’s who of international contemporary performance in these interlinked spaces and beyond, creating a genre-busting program of cross-societal as much as cross-artform collaborations.

Lilienthal assembled his favourite directors, companies and artists from across the globe for this, his last production with the HAU and the world’s first attempt at Infinite Jest live. Germany, the UK, Poland, Australia, Argentina, the US and France were present across the 12 participating groups handed a slice of the Infinite pie and a spot on the magical mystery tour.

Given a freeform chance to explore and experiment with key passages and concepts from the 1,079 pages and 388 footnotes of the postmodern magnum opus with its 200+ characters and multiple interwoven and interleaved micro-narratives, the contributors ran with the opportunity in an array of wildly different directions. Coherence was obviously not the order of the day.

Underground reservoir used as a wave motion engineering facility, Infinite Jest, 24 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

Underground reservoir used as a wave motion engineering facility, Infinite Jest, 24 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

Underground reservoir used as a wave motion engineering facility, Infinite Jest, 24 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

By the time we visited a Fritz Langesque 1930s state radio station it was starting to get late. My expectation high had peaked and was starting to crash. Herded into a live sound recording studio, we encountered Madame Psychosis broadcasting her voice-modulated monologue in veiled silhouette from behind the screens of a glass control box in the corner. It was mesmerising… until she broke a fundamental directorial rule and left the booth… trailing a very long piece of tulle… exiting through a brightly lit door as a somewhat stupid metaphor for her untimely demise. It wasn’t the first time surprisingly clumsy direction had undermined the tension and potency of a moment that felt authentically Infinite Jest. I was starting to get frustrated.

This fantastically ambitious production had the largesse and logistic precision of modern warfare, which is always impressive. For the DFW fanatic, it was intriguing, but inevitably disappointing as it kept somehow missing the mark. For the uninitiated, it was obviously an impenetrable nightmare. They were peeling off from the tour and hailing taxis in increasing numbers over the 24 hours.

‘Anti-theatre’ of this ilk at its best, is the best. At its worst, it’s arbitrary avant garde style-over-substance too-smart-for-its-own-good self-indulgence that loses sight of the dramatic potential of its material and enters the terrain of tedium. This production featured both ends of the spectrum, and perhaps that was the point. Infinite Jest is, at its core, difficult, dense, depressing and at times incredibly boring. It’s also quintessentially 90s in style, so why shouldn’t the production be difficult to digest, with large tracts of dull, and feel somewhat dated?

The title, Infinite Jest, is not only a wry reference to a line from Hamlet’s soliloquy to the skull of Yorick, it’s the title of the very last ‘apres-garde’ film made by James Incandenza, a mostly absent character in the novel and around whom many of its narratives swirl. Infinite Jest is a film so captivating it literally entertains you to death. It’s Capital-E entertainment that incapacitates and renders you senseless—a central metaphor for the mindless pleasures of the overbearing culture of consumption that the book surreally portrays.

Rooftop gathering of wheelchair assasins, US Office of Unspecified Services, Infinite Jest, 4 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

Rooftop gathering of wheelchair assasins, US Office of Unspecified Services, Infinite Jest, 4 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

Rooftop gathering of wheelchair assasins, US Office of Unspecified Services, Infinite Jest, 4 Hours through the Utopian West, Hebbel am Ufer

It’s both poignant and ironic that the not too distant future described in the 1996 novel is now. Somehow it made the art-cool, cerebral distance of much of the direction of the ‘episodes’ feel like they’d missed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kick all of the blatantly ambitious experimental goals set for this production, while also entertaining the crap out of the audience.

I for one was expecting more gratuitous visceral enjoyment and a lot more laughs. It’s what I love about the book. It’s horrifically funny in ways that make you question your own mental health. No one belly-guffawed once during the tour I was on, and I for one never felt my sanity threatened in the slightest, apart from mild sleep deprivation.

The production’s consistent redemption was the genius of its locations: the Steffi-Graf-Stadium as the Enfield Tennis Academy; the 60s cultural complex ripped straight out of Clockwork Orange where the 5am AA meeting was held under brutal fluorescent lighting amid walls of primary colours; the surreal Teutonic version of a white-trash underground American Western Saloon; the derelict remains of Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes at a CIA monitoring station perched on top of an artificial mountain built from Hitler’s rubble; a vast underground reservoir used as a wave motion engineering testing facility, entered through a building with a monumental intestinal pink fibreglass tube curling through its exterior skin; the glorious 70s Reinickendorf tax office turned into US Office of Unspecified Services where the final manic episodes occurred, culminating on the rooftop at dawn where we all donned happy face banana bandana masks and sat in wheelchairs arranged in rows to become members of the notorious Québecois terrorist cell, the Wheelchair Assassins. There were moments such as these where it all came together and packed the desired punch. I just left wanting more of them in return for 24 hours of endurance. If nothing else, as a tour of West Berlin’s architectural underbelly of bizarre anomalies, the production was endlessly enthralling.

Perhaps this was always going to be a production that looked, and looks, better on paper—destined more for historical traction in the realms of contemporary performance academia due to the literary importance of Infinite Jest, the status of the artists involved and the lofty aspirations of the production, backed up by its densely researched and sexy-as-all-hell reader.

It certainly wasn’t designed to entertain the masses. After all, only eight performances, with half the crowd bailing each night equates to about 500 peeps in total experiencing the entire marathon. With over 100 individuals involved in the production and a lot of development behind it, that’s a gloriously decadent application of German Federal Cultural Foundation resources that would have equivalent artists and companies in Australia drooling at the potential.

Matthias Lilienthal is quoted in the reader as having once said “I was always at my best…when things got really tough.” If this was his best, I for one didn’t think it was good enough. Perhaps ‘things’ should have got tougher.

Hebbel am Ufer, Infinite Jest—24 Hours through the Utopian West: director Matthias Lilienthal, artists Biancchi/Macras, Gob Squad, Peter Kastenmüller, Jan Klata, Chris Kondek, Anna Sophie Mahler, Richard Maxwell, Mariano Pensotti, Philippe Quesne, She She Pop, Anna Viebrock, Jeremy Wade; video animation My best Thing by Frances Stark; Berlin. Berlin, June 2-27

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 31

© Marcus Canning; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012