‘By mid-1989 the demonstrations after Monday prayer meetings at Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche were spreading all over the country to Erfut, Halle, Dresdenm Rostock. People were protesting against travel restrictions, shortages of basic goods and the falsification of election results. Their protests took them to the offices of the most obvious representatives of the regime: not the Party, but the stasi. They cried, ‘Democracy, Now or Never!’, ‘Stasi Out!’ and ‘SED. You’re hurting me!’
In August, The Hungarians cut the barbed wire at the their border with Austria, creating the first hole in the Eastern Bloc. Thousands of East Germans flocked there and ran, crying with relief and anger, across the border. Thousands more travelled to the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw and set up camp, creating a diplomatic nightmare in German-German relations. Finally, the regime agreed to let them out, on the condition that the trains taking them to West Germany travel through the GDR. Honecker hoped to humiliate the ‘expellees’ by confiscating their identity papers. And he wanted them to fear (as they did) that he would stop the trains and arrest the passengers.
Honecker’s plans backfired. The people on eh trains ripped up their identity papers with tears of joy. Thousands flocked to the stations to see if they could climb aboard, and to cheer on their compatriots.
In early October, Leipzig was a flashpoint. Petrol-station attendants were refusing to refill police vehicles; the children of servicemen were being barred from crèches. Those who worked in the centre of town near the Nikolairkirche were sent home early. Hospitals called for more blood. people made their wills and said things they wanted their children to remember, before going out to demonstrations. There were rumours of tanks and helicopters and water cannon coming, but then so were the postcards from friends who had already reached the west. The people went on to the streets.’
[Stasiland, Anna Funder]
I’ve been commissioned to make a new game based around the theme of politics and play for the Delfina Foundation in November.
For a while I’ve been interested in the idea of exploring that moment at which public protest becomes collective action. I’m interested in what it takes to risk ridicule, or anger, or imprisonment, or worse to be one of the first comers. I’m interested in their relationship to everybody else, what the circumstances need to be for that initial spark to become an invitation and for that invitation to be accepted. I’m interested in how sea changes happen.
Is there a moment at which standing up and being counted becomes the status quo? Sinking into the warm anonymity of mass protest like Franz in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When I was at university I created a show where the audience was sat on the stage while an actor sat in the auditorium. At a certain point she encouraged someone to come forward and join her. There was no response. She even offered a fiver to anyone who came forward. In the end (as people are taught to do in pressure situations) she singled out one person who she demanded come and join her, which she did. She then asked someone else and so on. Very quickly there was a sea change; people as one got up and moved across. Decisive independent action had at a point tipped into collective acquiescence. I’m interested in that point.
I’m interested in how people’s relationship to the space they inhabit can change so quickly and so dramatically. In another beautiful passage from Stasiland Anna Funder talks about the breakneck speed with which the various Stasi headquarters went from being sites of terror and symbols of power to museums smelling of the sad old men who used to run these people’s lives. She describes the faces of ordinary East German’s as they walked through those endless corridors of fading brown linoleum, not knowing whether the laugh or throw up.
All it takes is a peculiar series of coincidences. A siren somewhere nearby. Two people happen to be running in the same direction. Maybe a bottle smashes accidentally. Heads turn. Suddenly you feel, in a wave of giddy confusion and excitement and fear, that something is happening. The world has changed. Then it passes. The siren fades. The runners catch their bus. Someone stands sheepishly over a broken beer bottle outside a busy pub. People carry on.
If as Michel de Cereau suggests, our movement through the streets is like the word when it is spoken – urban planning realised in the action of walking – I want to find a way of rearticulating familiar geographies. Of introducing people to the idea that those streets and squares and buildings can be spoken in a different way. I want to get them to try a few alternatives on for size. To play with what the city can mean.
Whatever it turns out to be, I’d like this game to be a kind of sister game to Checkpoint, the game I created for the Hide and Seek festival that involved people smuggling objects from one side of a blockade to another. That game was inspired by the stories of the valiant, startlingly creative ways in which people in East and West Germany found of smuggling things (and people) from one side of the wall to the other.
I’d quite like to make a trilogy of games around the bizarre, disturbing world created in East Germany; the most all-consuming surveillance state the world has ever seen. People found themselves crushed by a fear of the state and a fear of each other; suspended between the suffocating confines of their own reality and the imagined freedom that stood so tantalisingly close behind several meters of barbed wire and concrete wall.
Part of my reason for wanting to create this trilogy is as a way of confronting more head on the question that has come up (in more or less polite ways) a few times recently. Focussing such time and attention on this particular theme will at least, hopefully, give me the opportunity to answer that question, which, put most bluntly is: Isn’t it a bit smug and inappropriate to be making games out of people’s genuine suffering and genuine acts of bravery and sacrifice?
To which I guess my response is – it depends what you mean by games.
Obviously some kind of Iron Curtain themed climbing wall or a game of Hide and Seek with everyone dressed as Stasi officers would be pretty hard to defend (though probably, painfully, very easy to pitch to Channel 4). But my interest in games is less about the content or the aesthetic and more about the provocation it offers to those who are involved.
What I love about gaming is discovering alternatives models of engagement with an idea or a theme or even a narrative. I love that it opens up ways of engaging with something that feel simple and accessible and robust, borrowing from all the games we used to play as children.
Thinking doesn’t necessarily have to be something that happens sitting down.
Freud described dreaming as being thinking through doing. You think you are doing things – running, talking, flying – but it’s all in your head. It’s just a different way of thinking through problems or insecurities or ideas that you can’t find any other way of understanding.
For me, gaming is just another kind of theatre. A theatre that encourages you to be active, to be creative, in a way that feels comfortable and familiar and fun. So a game constructed around history or tragedy or suffering is a just a piece of theatre that invites you to confront and explore those things in a way that is possibly both familiar (in it’s structure) and unfamiliar (in it’s content) at the same time. It asks you to think about those issues through doing; through play. And hopefully in doing so you learn new things and relate to that alien experience in a way you wouldn’t by simply reading about it or watching a film or a play about it. And so, for me, it’s not just valid but, indeed, vital; a connection with other lives that you couldn’t have in any other way.