Wed 8 Apr 2015
Founded in 1994 by a collective of students attending Nottingham Trent University and the University of Giessen in Germany, Gob Squad have risen to become one of the most exciting, and the most talked-about experimental theatre collectives in Europe. The current line-up – Johanna Freiburg, Sean Patten, Sharon Smith, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost and Simon Will, under the watchful eye of manager and dramaturge Eva Hartmann - are coming to Behaviour Festival this year with an acclaimed show, Western Society.
The play promises to explore the “remote darkness” of the internet, examining the way in which technology distances us from ourselves and our families, while also bringing us together. Gob Squad use video, movement, improvisation and song to depict a fractured, atomised, utterly modern reality. The New York Times called it “a deliriously sane portrait of the age of the selfie.” We caught up with Gob Squad’s Sharon Smith ahead of the show’s opening night at Glasgow’s Centre for the Contemporary Arts to talk about the internet age, robotic operas, and the company’s disparate visions of the future…
Western Society engages with ideas like remote surveillance and voyeurism; exhibitionism and narcissism, and how these impact our view of ourselves. What changes has the media-saturated era we live in wrought upon the family, the individual, and our sense of self?
‘Western Society’ shows a home video of a family in some ways ‘alone together.’ A room full of people are centred around a TV screen which displays karaoke. The screen provides the central feature; is the camp fire for this gathering. On the sofa a young girl sits communicating though her iPhone to others, removed from her actual place. The TV holds the family together as it simultaneously distracts the family from communicating directly with each other.
The original translation of the Japanese word for ‘karaoke’ is ‘silent orchestra.’ How does karaoke as a device in this piece allow Gob Squad to explore the personal and the performative?
Karaoke is more of a backdrop in the show. A constant. The home video is a projection screen for the Gob Squad performers. They see something, recognise something in the home video which is ‘like their family.’ There is something very ordinary and at the same time something magical and timeless about the video. Gob Squad perform this possibility to project – they imagine their own families, different scenarios are played out and personal narratives are changed… Gob Squad re-write pasts, imagine futures and critique the present.
Previous Gob Squad productions have also explored the impact of technological change on human behaviour – in what sense is Western Society a continuation of that exploration, and in what ways is it engaging with new questions about technology?
Each performer interrogates another during the show. Performers must choose, are forced to decide between this and that – between Iran and Iraq, between Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston, between being fracked or being raped. Access to the internet and our relationship to ‘news’ is examined through this game as we are expected to know something about everything and take a position on anything. They find the least watched video on the internet, illuminating the dark corners, at the edges of the ‘spotlight.’
How important is improvisation to the development of a Gob Squad show, and what does using improvised elements bring to your performances?
Improvisation is very important. The work is heavily structured, there are a huge amount of cues and appointments between sound, video and performers. What we desire the most is that the real-life event can get inside the work – and actually be part of the work, affect the atmosphere. If we want this, we have to have loose moments where the real-life can get in. This keeps the work alive, and it can surprise us. This makes us perform better, and connects us with the whole room – with everybody in the room. We have to be open when the audience get directly involved in the work too. We have to be prepared to negotiate with so many unplanned and un plan-able elements. The work feels different – more live.
One strand of Behaviour this year is about engaging with the concept of ‘Futures’ – where do Gob Squad see society in relation to technology a decade from now – what will have changed, and what effect will this have had?
As a collective, the members of Gob Squad are in constant debate between differing positions on all things, including ‘future.’ At the moment we are working on an opera which stars a robot. Our engagement with the robot inevitably brings us to questions about being human. The more we discover through technology and about technology, the closer it brings us to questioning ourselves. Advancements in neuroscience are being made thanks to our research into robot technology. We are learning more about human-ness as a side effect of this technology, and a battle will continue. Some of us believe that the singularity is inevitable, some are nostalgic for the body. We think robots will look after us when we are old. We know that Google have mapped the world and bought the military robots and we wonder what will happen when this technology is combined. We know the corporations are in-human and in-charge. We have children and they are hope for the future. We worry that the future is very, very close.
Part of Behaviour Festival