Moritz von Rappard interviewed by Rory MacLean
Moritz von Rappard is a dramaturg. And a curator. And an installation artist. And a stage and lighting designer. His multi-disciplinary exhibitions, site-specific presentations of historical radio plays and performance-free theatre shows have shocked, provoked and amused audiences across Germany and beyond. On a sunny afternoon in his Schöneberg apartment I asked him to define himself, and he laughed. ‘Let me tell you where I began,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘I grew up in Hanover. Next door was a vacant lot which was our playground. When I was about thirteen years old the city paved it over and built the Sprengel Museum in its place. I missed that playground, until a neighbour suggested that I go into the gallery and see what I could do there. I discovered a whole new world, full of endless attractions and inspiration. I started playing on a different level.’
In the Sprengel and at school, von Rappard became aware of the commercialisation of art, especially contemporary painting, and the attraction of a traditional artistic career paled.
‘I wondered whether Picasso decided how long his Blue Period should last, or the market?’ he asked with a smile.
Instead he found himself drawn to the ‘places in between’: the nebulous area between life and art, daily existence and performance. ‘I liked to see and show things in a different way,’ he told me. ‘I wanted to entertain people, to engage them and – in a gentle manner – to direct them toward something new and unexpected.’
At the University of Cologne he studied Drama Science, German Philology and Pedagogics. At the Studiobuhne, where most graduates staged classics and hoped to be ‘discovered’, von Rappard again rejected the conventional. Instead he, in collaboration with Adrian Winkler, transformed Schiller’s The Robbers into an installation piece, removing the text and inviting the audience to walk through it, and so question the rituals of regular theatre.
Von Rappard’s next work at the Studiobuhne was Rauschraum or "Noise Room", produced with Georgia Zervoulakos de la Forge for the 1991 Null Komma Nichts Festival. Once more, the objective was to challenge the limitations of traditional theatre, especially in the accepted use of signs and meanings. Together von Rappard and de la Forge explored the world of sound, focusing in the end on the domestic hairdryer. Thirty hairdryers were suspended from the ceiling, their power supply controlled by a bank of rheostats which were adjusted to create a whirling, wild Bolero dance around the audience’s heads.
‘People imagined they were in a jungle or aboard a ship,’ he recalled. ‘Afterwards people told us that they’d never again use their hairdryer in the same way.’ He went on, ‘For me the piece was not just fun, but political as well, because it questioned the simplicity of functionalism and inspired the audience to look at things from different angles.’
The journey to the places ‘in between’ took von Rappard to Berlin, where in 2000 he and Adrian Winkler created the Stadt Theater. Their imaginary theatre had no stage, text or actors but it did have a full programme of performances.
‘We wanted to work in the theatre but there was no theatre which we wanted to work for,’ he told me with enthusiasm. ‘So our Stadt Theater staged its performances only in the audience’s mind. We defined precisely our five productions, sparking the audience’s imaginations from the moment they opened the printed programme. For us it was very interesting that that the German word "Vorstellung" means both performance and imagination.’
Over the last decade von Rappard has worked with installation artists Christian Boltanski and Ilya Kabakov as well as the medieval music ensemble Sequentia with whom he toured America, Australia and Africa. He has transformed dozen of Berlin’s landmark spaces – including the Television Tower, the cafeteria at Tempelhof Airport and an S-Bahn train – into temporary theatre spaces, which audiences explored while listening to relevant, historical radio documentaries and plays. On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall he also created two projects about the former East German youth radio station DT64.
His highest profile event to date was Embedded Art, staged at Berlin´s Akademie der Künste in 2009. The exhibition examined questions of national security, state control and individual freedom in the light of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and in Madrid, Moscow and London. Von Rappard curated the exhibition with Olaf Arndt, Janneke Schönenbach and Cecilia Wee of artists’ group BBM, inviting 41 international artists to respond to matters of terrorism, terror, security and control.
‘To draw attention to the intrusion of the security issues in our daily lives, the gallery guards were dressed in bullet-proof vests, and all the artwork was secured in a ‘safe zone’ in the Akademie’s four-level basement,’ he said, describing the provocative manner of display. ‘Visitors could choose to see the artwork either on video monitors or on a tightly-controlled basement “tour”.
This month von Rappard is dividing his time between Berlin and New York, managing two Ballhaus Naunynstraße productions which will be staged in Manhattan in association with Performance Space 122.
‘I’ve always tried both to widen and challenge the idea of dramaturgy. In all my projects, I ask myself, as honestly as possible, what is the ideal form for communicating a specific subject or issue. Perhaps that is why some of my work can be difficult to categorise. But if the final result reaches beyond any established category, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done: it is simply a question of communicating with the audience. And in the end that’s not too far from the change of museum to playground and back again.’