The following article features mild spoilers for Chapter 4: BARZAKH by The Waldorf Project, an immersive theatre/performance art experience which was staged in London. The run of this show is now finished and will not be remounted in this form. In the context of this website – BARZAKH uses light versions of techniques used in extreme haunts, such as touch, contact with unknown substances, crawling, and moments of intense light and darkness. This however is where comparisons end – and I would say the show resides in a very unique grey area, somewhere between immersive theatre, art performance, and extreme haunt. The show claims it is not for everybody, and that is correct, but everything inside was performed very professionally and respectfully, and I can only recommend anyone who is intrigued by this article to follow The Waldorf Project, and to keep your eyes peeled for further projects. Barzakh Barzakh Barzakh
Lying prostrated, my forehead rests on someone else’s back. My hands, on the cold factory floor, are filthy and caked in dirt. Every now and then, black fingers run through my hair. In the distance, I hear the vague sound of rain, through the ever-present thundering drone. As I lift my gaze, an altar, hidden by clouds of fog, but faintly illuminated by a blue hue. Mysterious silhouettes, water cascading down from the sky.
Two hours before, I stood in front of the Shredded Wheat Factory in Welwyn Garden City, some thirty minutes North of central London. I was here to experience the latest installment by The Waldorf Project, their fourth chapter, called BARZAKH. An instant before we would be allowed to enter, the sound system roared to life, giving us a teaser of what was to come. A crushing soundscape, finding natural frequencies and one by one resonating with every loose bit of the towering buildings around us, our entire surroundings rattling and shaking like the disused plant was about to collapse. And then, the dark took over.
The Waldorf Project started in 2012 as an immersive dining experience. Since then, they produced three different chapters, where the focus shifted to consciousness transformation and the engineering of empathy. Today, Waldorf creates experiences that constitute some weird marriage between immersive theater and performance art, through the use of ideas from psychology, neurobiology, gastronomy, and most likely a whole lot of other fields. The core idea they seem to go for is a Japanese emotion called ‘AMAE’ – something described as a “temporary surrender in perfect safety,” which seems to originate from parent-child or caregiver type of relationships, where absolute trust is given from one to another, coming from a desire to be loved or to be taken care of, and when stretched a bit, includes a form of submission from one to another.
Waldorf captures a middle road between intensity and strong concepts, between audiovisual beauty, artful intent, but a willingness to go beyond what most people would consider a comfortable place. Prior experiences were executed in a massive performance for thousands of people at a festival in Thailand and were contained within a modified Lufthansa aircraft in order to give a transatlantic flight full of SXSW attendees a unique on-board experience. Not exactly a banal portfolio.
This fourth chapter, BARZAKH, saw the light in Stockholm, where Sean Rogg and his team trialed the concept for a more intimate audience. Specifically, this experience is a show designed to make you feel in the presence of a higher being. The title derives from an Arabic word meaning barrier or obstacle, and designates a place between Hell and Heaven where the soul resides, living through its own version of said Heaven and Hell, while it awaits judgment. Limbo, if you will. And by the time I stumbled out of that factory, if I hadn’t felt the exact thing they claimed to be able to evoke, I had come pretty fucking close. Allow me to explain.
Its scorching and insanely intense finale became a mind-bending, extended period of time, in which drone sounds and metallic voices bore down and I honestly felt close to hallucinating. I saw squares, three by three, or four by four, morphing into longer shapes as I was flying through them, again changing into a swirling pattern, dragging me under, turning into waves that crashed into me and absorbed me, all of this, happening on the inside of my eyelids as I tried to bear through it all and possibly squeezed the hands of my fellow participants to a pulp. When it started, I physically recoiled from the intensity. But it was beautiful, in its own way. And then, it was all gone. All that remained was us. A human connection. As one by one we came to our senses, there were no gods in this factory.
It’s this reflection that ultimately made this show as amazing as it feels now, in my mind. What preceded it was a sequence of religious practices and tribal rituals – all of them mysterious and drenched in the feeling you were participating in something important. I’m not sure why every single action was there, or what it meant. But, the same can be said about actual religious practices, I suppose. I do know that every single moment was stunning on an audiovisual level, especially staged on this grand factory floor. My idea of space and where I found myself was obliterated. Swaying back and forth around a fire pit filled with gooey volcanic mud, running freely through empty, industrial surroundings until I was halted by a menacing dark shadow, crawling toward purification, lying on the floor, warmed by another human body, as deep drones permeated my body.
I’ve heard the experience described as an extreme spa, and I kinda get that. It really is like a deep tissue massage, both for the body and the mind – not necessarily comfortable at the time, but ultimately releasing. Another thing that came to mind was the White temple in Thailand, close to Chiang Rai – where guests walk through Hell in order to arrive in the embrace of the Buddha. BARZAKH felt remarkably at home in this idea. Of course, in the end, Buddha was revealed to be an incomprehensible and somewhat menacing alien entity, leaving us mere mortals behind in each other’s embrace. But still.
Now, although I wholeheartedly recommend this show to anyone who feels like this is something they would want to try – it’s not a perfect show. Part of that is my fault. Reading up on Waldorf, you’ll find a lot about empathy engineering, so much I thought at the time that this was the sole purpose on this show. Now, although it certainly makes an appearance, I don’t think it was the main message. But, it lead to me wondering, ‘“Is this it? Am I supposed to feel empathy? What am I supposed to be feeling?” during the majority of the performance. It’s hard to turn my brain off at times, and instead of going with the flow, I suppose I turned to analyzing a bit too soon, but that’s on me. When the show obviously did turn to the empathy part, it maybe felt a little forced to me – but the success of this scene really depends on yourself and whoever you are partnered up with. If the both of you are fully immersed and willing to go along with it, I can see this being absolutely amazing. However, get one skeptic in the mix, or someone who is a bit awkward about the whole thing, whatever that might mean, and the feeling I believe the interaction was meant to evoke can disappear quite quickly. For me, it ended up indeed being a haven of safety, warmth and comfort, even though I felt a bit aware of myself and the situation, getting slightly in the way of the complete surrender I assume Waldorf is after. It won’t be a popular opinion I suppose, but for me personally, if the preceding scenes had been even more intense I think I would have sought the comfort of other human beings more readily – but I can see how the creators need to balance out the intensity to appease a somewhat more general audience. The point where I really caught that AMAE emotion though, was the purification scene. I wish that moment would have lasted for so much longer – because that truly was me, surrendering to another person as I was being cleansed of the previous ordeals – and it was one of my standout scenes because of it.
Another factor is, you’re part of a group of up to forty guests, and the flow can be a little slow because of it, as everyone ends up going through the scene. Sometimes, that results in you, observing twenty people being smeared in an unknown substance before it happens to you, and that does diminish the shock value. What saves the first two-thirds of this show from dragging a bit is the sheer audiovisual brilliance – and I truly was in awe of the level of presentation that managed to astound, no matter how minimal – this is a dark show, but when there is a ray of light, it is the exact kind of light that was necessary to punctuate the scene. All in all, by the time I walked past a candle-lit path through the factory darkness in search of my clothes, any flaws had long been forgiven.
Waldorf came through on its promise to me make me feel in the presence of something higher – and I can only commend their unique voice and vision to those who are willing to dig just a little bit deeper for their theatrical and/or artistic experiences. The disclaimer is true, this experience is not for everyone – but they managed to strike a balance that I believe could please the majority of people willing to lean toward the slightly more adventurous – and they won’t regret they took the step.
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