IN THE LAB
with Kathryn Hamilton
Julia Buntaine Hoel, Editor-in-Chief: What gave you the idea to start Brecht Forensics?
Kathryn Hamilton: I began working on Brecht Forensics almost accidentally - visiting the Berliner Ensemble last year, I was given a soldiers hat that had been a costume piece and that had never been washed, as Brecht wanted it to stink like the war. The hat is a kind of archive of the DNA of all the actors who have worn it through the years, and all the technicians, costumers, dressers, maybe even Brecht himself, who have come into contact with it. And so I wondered whether I could access this archive in some way, and create something with it. That led me to GenSpace, where I've been working on extracting the DNA from the hat. The project is now a series of different events and installations, as a way of sharing the research as it develops. So far there is Brecht Forensics: Drinking Brecht, a cocktail party with drinks made using DNA from the hat, and Brecht Forensics: Genetically Modified Theater, a table top installation that creates a miniature Berliner Ensemble rotating stage, with bacteria containing DNA from the Berliner Ensemble actors.
JBH: Can you talk a bit about your Genetically Modified Theater project? Specifically, what occurs over the duration of the installation, and how do viewers engage with the science behind it?
KH: The DNA that I have extracted from the hat is spliced with DNA from jellyfish, which emits a phosphorescing protein. This is a fairly standard procedure in the lab - the jellyfish gene is a way of making visible which bacteria that have taken up the DNA, but in the context of a miniature theater it takes on new meanings. The DNA from these actors is now spliced with the DNA of a jellyfish, inside of bacteria. Two types of organisms, each containing a different actor's DNA, and tagged with a jellyfish gene producing different colored proteins, are then put onto a single Petri dish. They will begin by co-existing, and eventually fighting for resources. So the basic driving dynamic of theater is being played out between these two transgenic organisms. The Petri dish is round, like the stage of the Berliner ensemble, and I exhibit it on a tiny rotating platform, making it a miniature of the Berliner Ensemble stage. Brecht famously said that he thought theater should be treated like a science experiment: his aim was to make his audience aware of the material conditions of life. He wanted to set up situations, have the actors play out the consequences, and have his audience as fully awake and aware spectators, judging the implications of what they were seeing, and through that, the society they were living in.
In this project I'm experimenting with what a post-human theater could look like, and re-thinking Brecht's techniques in today's context.
JBH: Drinking Brecht turns your audience into performers - what were the audience reactions like during this piece? Did any reactions surprise you, and why?
KH: There is DNA in everything we eat and drink, but we don't usually think about it. I tell the audience who are about to drink the cocktail that the performance will take place in their small intestines, as their bodies break down the DNA, and then absorbs those amino acids for building its own proteins. And so part of that life-essence of this long-dead Berliner ensemble member is now repurposed into their own body mechanisms. Its a way to think about acting - taking on a character, becoming someone else - and to start a conversation about our reactions to genetic modification and bio technology, our moral and ethical qualms about the integrity of the human body, and personal identity. One of my favorite writers, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, says that we should not strive so much to 'be ourselves', which is a very individualistic, western capitalist notion, but rather to 'change ourselves'. We change ourselves by allowing others - people, ideas, perspectives - into our lives. So here we are literally changing our physiological make up by adding the building blocks of life from another individual to our own.