It Started as a Movie. As It Ballooned, Its Troubles Mounted. | Modern Society of USA

It Started as a Movie. As It Ballooned, Its Troubles Mounted.

It Started as a Movie. As It Ballooned, Its Troubles Mounted.

PARIS — At the Institute, everything was real. Real mathematical equations chalked on real blackboards, by real scientists wearing real lab coats. Of course, in this midcentury Soviet science lab, there were no laptops, no internet, no Wi-Fi — nothing, in fact, that wouldn’t be part of the daily life of an institution studying theoretical physics in the U.S.S.R. Oh, except cameras, a director and a production staff who were turning the whole thing into a movie.

Between 2009 and 2011, the director Ilya Khrzhanovsky created the most ambitious film set of all time. His living recreation of a theoretical physics institute took over the town of Kharkiv, Ukraine, and the actors lived their roles 24 hours a day. No one had scripts: If a character was to be a lab assistant, the person in the role simply had to live as a lab assistant.

During the shoot, historical authenticity was paramount, down to the last detail, according to people on the set. Food was labeled with 1950s expiration dates. Underwear, cutlery and sanitary products were sourced to match those of the time. The toilet pipes in the institute where “DAU” is set were modified to ensure the flush sounded right. Despite this mammoth effort, shooting was sporadic, pausing for up to six months at a time. In all, more than 700 hours of footage were shot.

The performance artist Marina Abramovic plays a visiting professor of anatomy.CreditPhenomen IP

Khrzhanovsky said that his unorthodox approach began with the casting process. “I started working like this because I needed nonprofessional actors,” he said. “I needed to find certain types of personalities and combine them.”

These included the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis, who plays the uncompromising genius Landau, and Radmila Shchyogoleva, the only professional actor, as Landau’s wife. More than 400 ordinary people also joined the “DAU” experiment, as did 10,000 extras and the occasional, real-world luminary. The performance artist Marina Abramovic played a visiting professor of anatomy, and the theater director Romeo Castellucci a visiting anthropologist; the theoretical physicists David Gross and Carlo Rovelli also made appearances.

If the epic shoot was the first phase of the project, the premiere on Thursday is the beginning of the second — and it is just as ambitious. Upon entering the installation, visitors hand over their cellphones, exchanging them for smartphone-like devices that guide them through the various interactive performances, happenings and film screenings.

Each visitor’s experience will be different, although everyone will be invited to see at least one of the 13 feature-length films that have been cut from the footage. This, however, is only a portion of the material available to watch. A video-streaming platform, accessible in single-person booths, will show many more scenes, each tagged by character and theme, that let the viewer explore additional story lines.

Depending on the time, visitors might also be invited to one of an ever-changing series of talks and performances, including by Robert Del Naja of the band Massive Attack and the Venezuelan D.J. Arca. Meanwhile, actors — or, as Khrzhanovsky calls them, “participants” — will be improvising (or perhaps, living) their Institute lives in the backstage areas of the two theaters. (At the Pompidou Center, actors will be living for a month in a Soviet-style apartment, watched by visitors through two-way mirrors, as part of a supplementary exhibition.)

Visitors to the theaters, who must be over 18, purchase “entry visas” rather than tickets: A three-hour pass costs 35 euros, or about $40; an “M1 visa,” which grants unlimited access over the monthlong run, is €150. With passes for 24 hours or longer, visitors fill out a psychometric test, and the device that guides them through the installation will tailor its recommendations around the results.

What about the films themselves? Naturalistic and engrossing, they lure the viewer into the characters’ ethical dilemmas, scientific discussions and sexual encounters in real time. The human search for freedom — whether within a politically repressive society, a scientific laboratory or a marriage — is a constant theme.

At times, the films show humanity at its lowest: Mental breakdowns, incest and brutally degrading K.G.B. interrogations all feature. It’s made more shocking by the knowledge that the people appearing onscreen aren’t acting, but rather responding to their lived conditions.

“Nobody is ever in the middle of the road with this project,” said Ruth Mackenzie, co-artistic director of the Théâtre du Châtelet. “You either find it provocative or exhilarating.”

Khrzhanovsky said it was the project’s confrontational nature that spooked officials in Berlin and forced him to scale back its ambitions. “If it’s not possible to build a bridge in Paris, or a wall in Berlin,” he added, “it looks like art exists somewhere in a ghetto, where you can do things — but not very visible, not very provocative.”

But Khrzhanovsky said he remained committed to “DAU,” despite the need to compromise on his vision. “For me, satisfaction is when the project will meet the public,” he said. “The public is the main collaborator in this phase.”

Collaborators from the creative scene, like Mackenzie, are already convinced of the project’s significance.

“I’ve worked on a lot of ambitious projects, but this is the only one that has had mythic status before it’s even started,” she said. “It’s the world premiere of something that’s never been done before.”

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