Numbers don’t lie, but people do. That’s one way of looking at the whole field of statistics, which is chiefly interested in how data is collected and presented.
In Rimini Protokoll’s “100% Penang” at George Town Festival, 100 people representing Penang – according to gender, ethnicity, age, where they stay, income bracket, and a whole slew of other categories – are put on stage, spontaneously performing their responses to questions and queries on almost anything and everything.
The performance becomes a veritable tour de force of presenting data: an aerial view of the stage allows bodies to be “plotted” like dots; performers gather at opposite ends of the stage; they hold up coloured cards representing their views on a specific issue (“When will Penang sink?” Some options include “It already is”, “We’ll adapt”, and “Not in my lifetime”); and in one section, they either stand together or apart on a staircase.
And the questions themselves are as interesting as the ways the responses are presented.
Some notable ones:
1) “Who came here by bus?”
Bodies on stage scurry around; a lone body stands by a “Me/Saya” placard, while everyone else gather round a “Not Me/Bukan Saya” sign. The audience laughs, tacitly acknowledging the myriad of problems facing Penangites who want to make more use of the island’s public transport system.
2) “Who here has lied on their income tax returns?”
At first, only a few people move to stand by the placard saying “Me/Saya”. Eventually, one of the performers says, “Surely this is not all. I know some of you are lying, so… Ok, let’s try another way”. The lights go out and those who say yes turn can on their torchlights – quite a few! A few other questions also use this way of answering, include about sexual experience, homosexuality, corruption, and hatred for/attraction towards someone else on stage.
In the cover of darkness, with anonymity, it sometimes becomes easier to answer some questions.
3) “Who thinks our friend is guilty?”
In this “Open Mic” section, performers got to ask their own questions. The one above has a very obvious reference to a current national political scandal. The audience immediately understood what was meant and there was much laughter in the hall. The verdict? Let’s say “our friend” has a lot to do to regain public trust.
In one section, the audience was invited to take selfies as, apparently, Penang is the one of the top ten cities in the world for “selfies”. I had to take one too!
Yet, for me, the most poignant and humanising moment in the performance was the section where people were asked to stand in the middle of a staircase in groups, based on statements such as “We survived cancer”, “We were raised without a father”, “We believe that we won’t be alive in 10 years/20 years/30 years…”
Rimini Protokoll is a trio of Berlin-based author-directors – Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel – who have been working together for the past 15 years. The 100% City series has been staged in Berlin, Zurich, London, San Diego and Melbourne among others. Each of their works aims to find new ways of looking at reality.
At one moment during the performance, people answered the question of when they believe they will pass on. With each person who walked to the center, those already there would gently welcome and accommodate them.
In this delicate yet emotionally potent section, I found that 100% Penang not only presented numbers, but also faces; it is a reminder that numbers and statistic are supposed to represent people. Or to put it another way: in handling seemingly staid survey figures, we must not lose sight of the individuals and their hopes, fears, longings, and dreams.
Fahmi Fadzil is a performer, writer and politician
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