We have just launched our next project, Operation Black Antler – an immersive theatre work in which members of the public are invited to go undercover at a protest meeting. Like many of the projects we’ve made, it is a risky work that puts the audience in a situation they would not normally be in. It invites them to pretend to be a police officer who is pretending to be a protester. And through doing that it creates a unique perspective on the murky world of police surveillance and state intrusion.
Given that it could be seen as condoning police surveillance or trivialising important political issues, I want to explain why we think this is important.
All of us working on the project were united in shock at the treatment of the protesters at the hands of the Special Demonstration Squad – covered in great depth in Undercover by Paul Lewis and Rob Evans. We have followed the ever widening scale of the revelations in which officers formed sexual relationships and even had children with women they were using to gain themselves trust within peaceful protest groups. Led by the courage of the women themselves and with the support of others such as the Undercover Research Group and Police Spies Out of Lives, they have brought evidence into the public domain and forced the Metropolitan Police to make an ‘unreserved apology’ for actions that were ‘abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong’.
Aware of a TV drama and a play in development to tell the story, we decided to take a different perspective. Rather than relate the events themselves, we are taking a wider view on the uses of police surveillance. Our work is fictional and does not feature any of the protest groups that were infiltrated nor the women who were victims.
Wikileaks, the Snowden affair and the revelations about the Special Demonstration Squad show that secret forces within the state have little respect for law. In that context, we have set out to look at the moral corruption that develops with the use of undercover officers as well as the wider ethical questions of when surveillance is justified.
In Operation Black Antler the audience is placed in the role of an undercover officer. You are given power and control. And you have to choose how to exercise it. From a first hand perspective, you must make decisions about what is acceptable. And then reflect on the consequences of your decisions.
It may be a work of fiction but our experience is that works of this kind have a powerful effect on those who take part. It is not a world of easy certainties. It is challenging and it is not for everyone. But, for 25 years, we have been trying to create new experiences that are deeply engaged with society and politics.
Throughout the work we’ve made in Blast Theory, we’ve put the audience in uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations. Our very first work – Gunmen Kill Three – restaged the murder of two employees at a mobile shop in Northern Ireland.
In Kidnap in 1998 we ran a lottery for the public in which the prize was to be kidnapped by us. Inspired by the Spanner Trial in which four gay sadomasochists were sent to prison despite all their acts being consenting and in private, we explored issues of power, consent and criminality.
And we’ve also made games to explore subjects that are sensitive and political. In Desert Rain we created a virtual reality game. Players searched for targets in a virtual representation of the Gulf War of 1991. As they played the game, the ethical implications of their decisions gradually assumed greater and greater importance.
More recently, in Ulrike and Eamon Compliant at the Venice Biennale, we sent each visitor through the city as either Ulrike Meinhof of the Red Army Faction or Eamonn Collins of the IRA. By inhabiting the lives of Ulrike or Eamonn and seeing the city around through their eyes, participants had a disconcerting glimpse of the forces driving towards political violence in the 1970s and 80s.
In all these works, we have explored the dangerous territory between political realities and popular culture. We believe in the value of placing our audiences inside experiences rather than watching from the outside. We believe that adopting roles and acting out situations allows audiences to engage and reflect on questions of ethics and behaviour in ways that are not possible otherwise. We hope that these experiences, while using structures from games and role playing to organise themselves, provide an opportunity to address difficult issues with seriousness and intelligence.
-Over the last three years we have been collaborating with Hydrocracker who make theatre in non-theatre spaces. Their project New World Order set Harold Pinter’s work inside a town hall, leading you from the polished press conference upstairs down to the interrogation spaces in the basement. It demonstrated how placing the audience inside events gave Pinter’s work a renewed political impact.
We actively encourage the conversations and debate that results from the works we create and the issues which they reflect. For this reason, from the outset, we planned a debate in partnership with the University of Brighton and Brighton Festival called Complicity and the ethics of undercover security. This event on 23rd May will provide a further opportunity to explore the specific issues highlighted in Operation Black Antler and place them within the current context.