Top Secret International – State 1 Inside the World of Intelligence Services

The Glyptothek is transformed into a fictional secret service building.
The Glyptothek is transformed into a fictional secret service building. | © Rimini Protokoll / Benno Tobler

Freedom or security? In their interactive performance “Top Secret International - State 1,” the Münchner Kammerspiele and the artist team Rimini Protokoll, in co-production with the Goethe-Institut, ask how much state surveillance democracy can tolerate.

In his philosophical Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius also dealt with the question of what the state should and should not do. Today, this issue is once again highly charged in the face of wiretapping scandals and the siphoning of citizens’ data by the intelligence services.

Top Secret International (State 1), 2016 Top Secret International (State 1), 2016 | © BND / Martin Lukas Kim In the first part of Top Secret International – State 1 to 4, the author-director team Rimini Protokoll sends the audience on a journey through the world of intelligence services in the halls of Munich’s Glyptothek. The production, in collaboration with Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Goethe-Institut, links the stone witnesses of antiquity with information from the shadowy world of the secret services and state intelligence collectors. While looking at busts and sculptures, the audience is introduced to texts and original recordings via headphones. For an hour and a half, the museum at Königsplatz is transformed into a fictional secret service building.

Playing with identities

In the performance, spectators become actors, who, unlike in straight theatre, decide the course of the play. They select the sequences that interest them most and become part of a game. As intelligence workers, they are supposed to recruit hires and to learn how the services procure their information and how they can, in principle, blackmail anyone, including politicians.

Spectators become actors. Spectators become actors. | © Rimini Protokoll / Benno Tobler The spectators become members of a secret military operation in disintegrating Libya, which is supposed to prevent weapons getting into the hands of terrorists. They learn a lot about dealing with local informers and the failures of Western politics in North Africa and the Middle East. They meet liaisons, intelligence officers, security advisors, diplomats, whistle-blowers and journalists. They constantly change their identities and are asked to unobtrusively observe the other spectators in the room.

The original recordings they hear confront them with the way that intelligence services think in times of increased risk of terrorist attacks: we need as much material as possible, because every citizen is a potential spy. Every person represents a possible danger and must therefore be scrutinized as thoroughly as possible.

The viewers are deliberately irritated and made insecure about their perceptions. Who are the other people in the room? Is there a completely different, possibly suspicious identity behind their normal appearance?

Top Secret International (Staat 1), 2016 Top Secret International (Staat 1), 2016 | © BND / Martin Lukas Kim For the intelligence services, state surveillance is an indispensable means of warding off dangers. This way of thinking also leads to ethical questions that the audience is directly confronted with: “Would you use force to get the code to defuse a bomb?” Or “Would you pay money for important information?”

Mind versus might

The tension between the testaments of ancient culture in the Glyptothek and the technical possibilities of the digital age is fascinating. The sculptures in their timeless beauty bring the questions of today into a historical perspective. Freedom or security: Which is worth more when it comes down to it? What does the pursuit of the most comprehensive security possible mean for civil liberties?

Ancient scholars asked themselves similar questions and established a tradition of dealing with greed for state power. Thinkers like Plato tried to defend themselves with the means of the mind against attacks, arbitrariness and abuse. A bust of the illustrious philosopher reminds us that he opposed authoritarian rule in ancient Greece with timeless, rational and independent ideas from which Europe still benefits today.

A trip into the “brave” new world of state data leeches. A trip into the“brave” new world of state data leeches. | © Rimini Protokoll / Benno Tobler

The state is surfing with you

Today, international terrorism is used to justify the inevitability of state penetration of all areas of life. Thanks to technology, global monitoring of e-mail traffic and social networks has long been an everyday occurrence. No one can be certain they are in a private, sheltered space when using their laptop. Is privacy becoming an anachronistic term that we can someday delete from the linguistic repertoire?

In the end, the performance Top Secret International – State 1 quotes Edward Snowden: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” A thoughtful conclusion for a tour of the “brave” new world of state data leeches.

By Claudia Mende