Tim Zulauf/KMUProduktionen, Der Bau der Wörter (The Construction of Words), 2010. Performance view.

Tim Zulauf/KMUProduktionen, Der Bau der Wörter (The Construction of Words), 2010. Performance view.

Tim Zulauf

Tim Zulauf/KMUProduktionen, Der Bau der Wörter (The Construction of Words), 2010. Performance view.

Under the directorship of Andrea Thal, the Zurich art space Les Complices* has in recent years become a hot spot of activity in the interstice between society and art. The name evokes an attitude: Complex projects are planned and launched “conspiratorially,” while authorship is something created through the dynamic interaction of management and staff. So it is no coincidence that Tim Zulauf’s latest theatrical project, Der Bau der Wörter (The Construction of Words), 2010, had its starting point here: After buying a ticket at Les Complices, one was handed a book titled Tagebuch einer Planung (Diary of a Planning), ostensibly written by Michèle Bernstein, the French writer who was once married to Guy Debord—though in fact it is Zulauf’s work. Then one was sent to board a bus that was waiting at the curb. The ensuing city tour usually started out in rush-hour traffic. A recorded voice began speaking over the bus’s PA system, quoting from the “diary” and speculating on the thoughts the audience members might be having as the bus made its way through Zurich’s hybrid suburbs. Gradually the urban space revealed itself as a semiotic battlefield.

On reaching an empty office complex—the former headquarters of the armaments firm Contraves/Oerlikon Bührle in the aluminum-gray outskirts of town—the group disembarked, and the verbal exchanges became more intensely focused on and in this building: Once again voices were piped in, this time from hidden loudspeakers in the ceilings—until the owners of the five voices entered the building in person, mingling with the crowd, alternately separating and meeting up again amid all the commotion as one wandered through the abandoned building. Further copies of the “diary” and clues as to Bernstein’s supposed whereabouts could be found in the building, but she was nowhere in evidence and her traces were increasingly lost in the labyrinthine “construction of words.” This construction was actually the abandoned glass building itself—filled, when I visited, with ever more ghostly reflections as night set in—with its bleak foyer, transparent conversation cells and conference rooms, empty corridors, musty auditorium, and landscaped inner courtyard. It then became clear that the figures who appeared, or remained absent, were not only speaking words—they were words, with ever-changing meanings, debating not only the “construction” of individual “words” in private battles among themselves but also the ways words connect to form an entire construction.

That the meaning of a word consists in its use is one of the linchpins of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Taking Nathalie Sarraute’s 1997 novel Ouvrez! (Open!) as a point of departure, Zulauf approached the argument of these words qua actors with radical seriousness. In the spectacle he presented to us, not only the words and actions but also the site and movement between sites became factors in the negotiation of meaning. The boundaries between these categories disintegrated in the course of an increasingly grotesque horror story.

With this production, Zulauf exploded the framework of his own theatrical activity, finding his way to a more complex—while also more playful—form of thinking and self-reflection. There was a touch of irony to the large block, mirrored on all sides, that confronted visitors in the entry hall to the former Contraves/Oerlikon Bührle building. This object that had once helped enhance the company’s image—a typical example of art in the workplace—now appeared as an optical concentrate of disintegration.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.