Thomas Bo Nilsson creates participative real-life mirrors of Internet’s darkest corners. Maxi Krennmayr met him while his installation was up and running at Schauspielhaus Wien.
Thomas Bo Nilsson is a soft spoken individual, with dark hair and a charming swedish accent. I am lucky to catch him in one of the very few moments where his 504-hour-long installation Cellar Door is not running, except for its online chapter lexlydia.net.
While it is one of the first summery days outside, once you enter Schauspielhaus you dive into a truly darker place. The installation has been titled distopyian and disturbing even violent. Without any performers in it, these impressions are weirdly intensified, as if the last rats had left the sinking ship and this is what the world is stuck with now. The neon stage light is on, giving away any dirty corner that is normally hidden and then there is this hard-to-bear smell of spilt beer, coffee, energy drinks, cold smoke, disco-fog and a bit of sweat, all of which the seven houses built into the theater have been impregnated with in the past days.
It is precisely hour 359 of the installation running and we are currently in level 3. Owing to the online character of it the day is split into 6 levels, of which only level 4 and 5 are accessible to the public, while the other ones you can watch and interact with some of the performers online.
I meet Thomas and his co-directors and co-performers Julian Wolf Eicke and Jens Lassak in their tiny dressing room and improvised office. Jens, having a background in theater pedagogics, is currently on the phone, managing the schedule of the performers and checking if everyone is getting prepared while Julian, who studied stage design, gives me a quick tour through the allegorical village they built into literally all of Schauspielhaus.
Stage, backstage, auditorium, and foyer are occupied by the upstairs and downstairs of seven houses. While on the upper floor of the houses everything is comparably neat, it is the downstairs – remember the title – that is crucial to the story. Between those houses are the raunchy pits, an area you should be careful in when the installation is running. The explanation by its creator really helps me put together the pieces I have experienced during my first visit, when you are sort of thrown into all this with only a very short briefing.
Thomas, a studied architect, has long been with the Copenhagen performance collective SIGNA and has magically combined both his backgrounds in performance art and architecture in MEAT, a widely praised performance piece at Schaubühne Berlin in 2014.
„We are constantly storing things, also from this piece, that we want to emphasize in a future piece. For example the contact between a character and a complete stranger on the Xtube platform.“
This is where the trio first collaborated. Julian worked as Thomas’ assistant, stage and costume designer and Jens as both an assistent and a performer. MEAT and the accompanying trailer video by Matt Lambert – who also did chapter one, the introductory story for this piece – are often falsely seen as a prequel to Cellar Door, something that Thomas is quick to clear up.
„It is not a continuation on a story level, but on an artistic level of course it is. How we use the online world and how we deconstruct the installation, that is a continuous work. When you have seen that something works out well with the audience you store it and try it again, maybe in a different way and a different context. We are constantly storing things, also from this piece, that we want to emphasize in a future piece. For example the contact between a character and a complete stranger on the Xtube platform.“
Thomas is already dressed in his character, Gigi Gottlieb, who has said represention on online porn channels. Gigi is an impressive trans woman, currently sucking on a vapor, who lives in a very plush but filthy basement together with her boyfriend Cesar (Julian). They met online, started dating and now run online shows on Xtube and YouPorn, where visitors to their channels even pay to see them.
This duality between audience in the know and audience without knowing is one of the most striking features of the whole piece. Admittedly, an alert (porn) viewer should have known by the very first second that he is watching an act – Gigi had her introduction video asynchronously dubbed by a visitor with an authentic Eastern European accent thus completing, together with her looks and the setting, a set of cliches that is almost too good and crass to be true. But quite the contrary is the case, it seems that her offer is just what many seek to find: „I get a lot of messages how pretty my voice is and how feminine and how i manage to get it like this. We also have it in an older voice with an accent from Eastern Germany, Saxon.“
Since Cellar Door would immediately wake associations to the Fritzl Case I have to ask whether they had Amstetten in mind, which they did not. There is no actual geographic location you could pinpoint the piece to, they had a more diffuse idea for a perfect setting in mind „we have referential parts from all over the world. It’s like when you are on Chatroulette and thrown to different places constantly. Conceptually these are gathered to one location, but the whole piece pulls and connects from and with all different places“. Aren’t her viewers curios where she is from, I ask „I always say I am from Europe, for Americans that is close enough“.
„We all talked to strangers, found different identities or ones we found ourselves related to. It was scary, it was sexy and it was exciting.“
Maybe for someone who grew up with social media such hazy online identities are something dubious, but Cellar Door plays in an era where you didn’t have to reveal everything, up to where you went to kindergarten „it does tie back to the earlier days of the internet as a home device. It is from those years when you had to learn internet, and when, hard to imagine for other generations, when suddenly this whole new world opened up for us. We all talked to strangers, found different identities or ones we found ourselves related to. It was scary, it was sexy and it was exciting“.
Things were accessible back then, when the internet was still a relatively anarchic, law-less area, that now have to hide in the dark-web, a platform Thomas used heavily in his research. He is particularly interested in the backrooms, even trying to find, whether the myth of torture-basements is actually true.
Take Luka Magnotta, the guy who had a carreer as a porn actor and dozens of online personas. As such he infamously tortured cats and finally killed a guy whom he had met online, posting videos of the killing act and sending his cut-off foot to Canadas’ Conservative Party and afterwards involving in an oscarworthy police chase around the world until finally being recognized and arrested in a Berlin Neukölln Internet Café. He was a big inspiration for MEAT. Is it the dark characters that have the biggest attraction to be reborn on stage?
„Not necessarily. We got interested in Magnotta because of his online identities and personalities and that is something we continuously explore. Magnotta as a person is not present in this concept, but there is this idea of an age of the internet before it was commercialized and laws were put in place to control it and control the people moving in it. And then of course social media didn’t give away every detail of your life, which is why so many fascinating personas could arise from the web, even if it was someone like Magnotta.“
„I haven’t left the installation since it started, I think it is much harder to go out and in.“
Can Thomas still differ between his online character and his real self, does he have to get into the role like other actors do? „I haven’t left the installation since it started, I think it is much harder to go out and in. I like to stay until its over and be in the universe we have created until it vaporizes and disappears so when it’s gone, it’s gone forever.“
Unlike the Internet part, the physical one is not meant to stay forever. Will he watch the destruction of it? „No, I can’t do that. I can’t see that, I can’t handle that. It is very heartbreaking that it will be over and there will be quite a mourning period afterwards“. Let’s hope not for too long, what we hear, we will meet again in the woods.
Cellar Door ran from April 14th until May 5th, 2016 at Schauspielhaus Wien.
Text by Maxi Krennmayr
Photos by Luca Fuchs