Killed by the hand that feeds you: Rafael Spregelburd’s »Spam« by Joseph Pearson

Rafael Spregelburd is telling me the story of David Hume’s chicken. It was first recounted by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and later retold in a different form by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The chicken believes the hand that feeds him loves him. »They feed me, they like me, I love them! « The chicken is, of course, being fattened up for dinner, and that same hand that feeds, and loves him, eventually kills him.
»For the chicken this is a catastrophe, he would never have been able to understand this occurrence. And why? Because he never distrusted the information he was given. The real information is that you are going to be eaten at Christmas. We never know what other people have planned for us«, Rafael Spregelburd warns, on the problem of induction.
He is, by now, a familiar face in Germany, and an international presence, also on the festival circuit. Based in Buenos Aires, the Argentine director, filmmaker, and actor (he performs in his own productions), has directed works by Harold Pinter and Marius von Mayenburg, among others. He first started showing his work with the Schaubühne’s F.I.N.D. Festival in 2004, and for F.I.N.D. #15 he will perform his new piece »Spam«.
Spregelburd’s theatre does not lend itself to easy explanation, and this is perhaps the point. He describes himself to me as »a garbage collector, of bits and pieces of things. Usually, they are not ideas; they are images. The difference between the two is substantial. An image is a mystery. You are not sure why it attracts your attention; it is itself. It is a prompt of meaning. Images have this power«.
The first question many critics, or audience members, ask of a play is: what does it mean? For Spregelburd, a prolific reader of physics, in particular on the subject of chaos theory, the question of multiple causality is much more interesting. In his theatre creations, he explores inhabitual systems with which to organize information, rather than giving fixed explanations of meaning. How this works in practice requires some untangling, but his methods become clearer as we discuss »Spam«.
An enormous mass of information awaits the viewer, as we plunge into the Spam mailbox. »The play is hellish, a collection of images, that nobody should ever have put together«, says Spregelburd, »It’s the feeling I have in daily life, overwhelmed by disturbance, by Facebook, emails, by spam«. The bombardment is »an automatized net of associations«, »pits of bastard information«, or »pots of crap«, as he describes them. In the play, it is as if a series of mouse clicks brings us from the European banking crisis, to the end-days of the Mayan calendar (the play was written in 2012), to a radioactive conspiracy launched by the set designers of the James Bond film Dr. No.
All this »fake information in the play«, he says, »is linked to other moments in the play. This allows you to create a maze, a labyrinth of connections, which has the aspect of real life. It’s not of course. It’s fake«.
His design connects with other concerns in chaos theory that intrigue him: a »jump in categories of thinking, a step into the blind void which takes you somewhere else. Instead of reconfirming something you know already, you allow for intersecting reference fields, which were never likely to cross«. Spregelburd asks me to compare arriving at conclusions by surprising routes to Archimedes’ discovery in the bath.
One might think that »Spam« would be something of an uncomfortable and demanding bath, given its heady theoretical concerns, but a trademark of Spregelburd’s work is his interested in popular culture. Let’s say the water is warmer than expected. Spregelburd says, »I always insist that I need to work with popular issues of perceiving reality, which make my work, say, different from a play by Heiner Müller, in that there’s a combination of high and low culture. There’s as much you can learn from a bad football match as from a book on physics«.
Nor is »Spam« expected to be a cacophonous stream of white noise. It has a plot, and a poignant one at that: it is about a man named Mario Monti who has lost his memory and uses the internet as a tool to discover who he is. When he googles himself, he discovers he might just be the former Italian President. »He reaches a false conclusion about who he is. A person who has lost his memory reconstructs who he is by the internet; this is what the play is about«.
This brings us to yet another supposition derived from chaos theory, which is what Spregelburd calls »reflectaphors«, the process of creating resonances between scattered pieces of information.
»One box echoes the other one. This is taken also from chaos theory. Reflectaphor is the idea that one word is made by reflection, rather than by metaphor, which simply implies a substitution of an object A by another object B based on their resemblance. It is very interesting when I read what mathematicians and physicists have to say about metaphors. They tend to say, and I agree, that metaphor has been the alibi of occidental culture to tell a story by means of substitution. At a certain point in culture, this has lead to a dead end. Every time I say something, I am praying that I’m going to be able to read between the lines. In this play, we use new processes to think beyond meaning and message. With reflectaphors, different parts of the structure mirror each other, and you can think not only about similitudes, but also about differences between images that make up the plot«.
As an example of his method, Spregelburd provides the sinking of the Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia in January 2012 as an emblem »of the decadence of Italy. Italy could be taken as the symbol of the decadence of the Western Empire. You can enumerate all the garbage, located now off the Isola del Giglio. And it’s like a poem: it has no meaning in itself, but it connects in different ways to other apocalyptic ideas beating gently in the heart of the play. The sinking of the cruiser was a big deal in popular culture: people made ring tones out of the communications between the captain and the coast guard. Reality becomes pop. It’s very quickly eaten up by the marginal, by fringe cultures, and reincorporated with a sarcastic view. This is not something I feel proud of: but I combine – with a certain art – bits of this re-chewed information, which is somehow given back to a society for it to reflect on itself«.
There is a barrage of images, reference fields, »reflectaphors«, a multiplicity of explanation, but Spregelburd does not expect this will be difficult for the audience to assimilate. »Spam« is not a complex text«, he says, »You don’t even need to be educated to follow the play. Eventually I think it becomes very clear; it deals systematically with two or three different explanations for the same fact: a situation that happens to us all the time in real life, but is nonetheless still something forbidden in theatre. »Spam« is a play that asks you to distrust information. It makes you experience the feeling of distrusting information. Because information is a way of keeping people down«.
We wouldn’t want to end up like Hume’s chicken now, would we?, 17 aprile 2015