Dragana Bulut: Beyond Love

February 9, 2023
HAU 3, Berlin

“Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” (Jacques Lacan)

Love, Love, Love. What’s its present and future? In her new HAU co-production Beyond Love, Dragana Bulut explores the commodification of love and poses questions about its significant presence in everyone’s life with an unusual, amusing and highly interactive performance.

The third part of a trilogy following Behind Fear and Happyology – Tears of Joy, the work probes how market commodification and technology plays a highly important role in determining emotional spheres. It asks: How do dating platforms, relationships mediated by algorithms and love robots change the way we fall in love? If love needs reciprocity, can technology provide it?

On arrival, we are asked to write our name on, and wear, a sticker. We also complete an online form, although its purpose is not revealed until later. Having then filled our glasses for free, we are invited to enter the performance space.

Dragana Bulut (left) and Caroline Neill Alexander with Harmony in Beyond Love
Photo Dieter Hartwig

We are participants. Everyone is asked to sit at a small table facing someone else. It’s like speed dating. We have four minutes to introduce ourselves to each other before a bell rings and we move to the next seat and meet someone else. It is amusing, quite entertaining even, but becomes awkward when we are asked to stare at our partner for some minutes without saying a word. Then there is the mimicking, mirroring, another challenging thing to do with a total stranger, if slightly less so.

The three performers enter and leave the unusual situation: Dragana Bulut, Caroline Neill Alexander and Harmony. The latter is a companion robot manufactured by Realbotix of Las Vegas, and comes with an incredibly realistic Angelina Jolie-like face and a toned body. Her head and lips move, her eyes open, close and turn, but her facial movements are out of sync with the text she recites. She can only sit, the rest of her body still, however.

Harmony answers questions asked, seemingly able to improvise answers (it was not revealed by the choreographer how she is able to do so). She looks at us and asks questions back. Her utterances include various bits of information, some of which come from information collected by the form completed earlier. We discover that of Berlin’s population (3,421,829), the percentage of single people per household is 50.6%, and that almost a half of people in the city live alone. Moving on to marriages, she notes that 42.3% of German marriages end in divorce.

Robotix creation, Harmony, in Beyond Love
Photo Dieter Hartwig

The two ‘real’ performers share stories related to personal Tinder experiences and love disappointments but also ask: How many of you use or have ever used Tinder? How many of you are single? How many of you feel loved? How many of you would like to be part of a caring and loving community? People answer lifting their hands.

More participation comes when the audience is asked to join the performers on stage. Some do so, amusing outcomes popping up from their interactions.

The notion that algorithms often fail, in particular when it comes to love, is not new, but that many people hope and at times do find their love on platforms using them, is certainly fascinating. But I cannot help thinking that the technology, instead of bringing people together and connecting them, can lead to a serious detachment and alienation from reality, not least because of removal of face-to-face, in-person communication.

It’s also interesting that most of the people behind these technologies are often lacking emotional intelligence and social skills themselves, shielded behind screens, being too shy or incapable to face reality as it is. Perhaps there’s a connection.

Where is this trend towards finding love through online dating apps leading us? After the show, I spoke to some people who agreed that they, and social media networks, are often deleterious to social skills, and tend to weaken self esteem, balance and general wellbeing. Seeing how Harmony worked, and bearing in mind that people do buy her, I wondered why they end up with a humanised robot companion. The fact that they have a need or desire for her certainly indicates a lack of confidence and ability to socialise with real people. There are surely other reasons too. I find the idea quite eerie and at odds with my conception of interaction and relationship but it is out there in the world, with a male version also soon to be released onto the market.

The show raised my own questions. Can online dating apps inhibit or even suppress our capacity to be social with strangers in-person? Can they dehumanise us? Is such technology leading us to be socially incompetent? I very much enjoy the bold capacity to interact face-to-face, embracing and valuing the vulnerability that goes with it, away from screens and AI. Algorithms may work at times, but they do take away something very special and important.

Dragana Bulut raises a lot of questions about personal interactions and relationships both in the present and future. She is fostering the sort of conversations that surely help people to think about their behaviours, on- and off-line. I found Beyond Love to be quite a learning experience. I believe there would be social benefit in performing it often, especially in winter when it may help people to deal with the loneliness so many feel. While there may be some initial awkwardness, creating a welcoming environment and situation where they meet and speak with strangers randomly, with no screens nor algorithms at hand, would be of help to many, in Berlin and beyond.