If you’re never to trust a man with candy, following a person dressed like an alien in full body harness, facepaint and lycra is also not advisable. Yet, in signing up for participatory performance ‘DysTerb, NeoEuroGado PraYttLanth 22.214.171.124 – Infiltration der Rare Screen Halde’ at Berliner Festspiele on July 9, a group of us agreed to joining Berlin-based artist Johannes Paul Raether on a search of the messages from ‘The Witch’. ‘Protekto.x.x’ —one of Raether’s colourful drag characters from his growing set of fictional identities developing as part of his Identitecture project in recent years —introduces herself as “only an outdated prototype” that will deliver instructions from said sorceress.
We listen to Protekto.x.x’s soothing voice, partly live and partly as playback, through single-ear headphones as we leave the aforementioned theater. She will lead us to our final destination, the so-called “eyeStore”. As we walk, the group practices disintegrating and uniting around Protekto.x.x, blending in with the crowds that becomes more dense as we get closer to Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s busiest shopping street. Regularly she stops to pose for selfies at a passerby’s request, in exchange for a code she writes with thick black letters on their hands. The code, a few random letters ending with .tk is also written on the participant’s forearm.
The Witch believes that the humans are possessed by capitalism, materialised in what she calls their addiction to their “smartphone-candy-fetishes”. Her rituals are constructed around this belief. There is a possibility for “world healing” though, through “de-rationalization and sensual commoneering” —an antidote.
Arriving at the Apple store, our final destination, we place our smartphones into metal compartments attached to Protekto.x.x’s full body harness. Heavily blinking her thin metal eyelashes, she hands each of us a small coin before we enter, to be squeezed tightly in our palm. The group disperses easily between display tables in the huge commercial space, blending in with customers that languidly swipe their fingers on the tablets and laptops in front of them.
At one of these display computers, I type the code written on my forearm in a web browser. It leads me to a web page that partly looks like the store’s home page, plus hovering golden phones. Through my headphones now plugged into the device, I listen messages for message from The Witch. “Press, as you breathe in”, she says and we become one, me and the device. Myself, Apple Computers and capitalism: “Press, as you breathe out”. I look around at other participants, co-ordinated, clicking and breathing. One of them has advanced further than me following The Witch’s instructions. Over his shoulder I watch a moving image of a silver fluid leaking on a smartphone.
Until that moment I had followed the orders and kept my fingers firmly clenched, only to notice a silver drop seeping through them and onto the hardwood table in front of me. The coin has melted by the heat of my hand and transformed into a puddle in my palm. While I study the miraculous liquid, I’m grabbed from behind. “We have another one”, one of the Apple store employees announces in German. He ignores my protestations while leading me to the shop entrance where two other participants are held by a man marked “Security”.
From there, the situation escalates quickly. Until now, Raether’s Protekto.x.x has been waiting outside. He now enters, abandoning character to explain the situation, which appears to only cause more confusion as further traces of the mysterious liquid are discovered. The police arrive. With barricade tape, the small group, along with Raether himself, are isolated from the customers who have been ordered to evacuate the building immediately. Specialists are present to investigate the assumed chemical attack, accompanied by fully-armed police while we, the suspects, are transferred outside. A small area at the side of the store is cordoned off by the ribbon barrier, strung between pillars, with images of hovering laptops. Like we had observed the behaviour of the customers inside the store, we were now being observed by the growing mass of people gathering in Berlin’s busiest commercial district.
Filmed with smartphones from the store, we the participants become the feature for selfies, our hands covered in liquid gallium —the harmless rare earth metal that makes up every smartphone. “You have become your own fleshy prostheses of your own economy”, the Witch once said, “materialised in the smartphone”.
An unplanned interference in Raether’s performance, this result of high security alerts related to recent attacks around the world, was even more fantastical than the fictional narration we had followed. But it’s a serendipitous reminder of the complexity of economic entanglement that the artist had inadvertently pointed at directly. After an afternoon of captivity, one-by-one we reentered the “eyeStore” where mugshots were taken beside a giant banner of smartwatches, before finally being set ‘free’.**