Swathed in silver Mylar and populated by an exotic cast of hustlers, artists, transvestites, and musicians, Andy Warhol’s Factory was the 1960s epicentre of everything from performance art to art rock to gay liberation—or, conversely, a seething cauldron of amphetamine-fuelled degeneracy. Either way, it was the kind of mad scene that in these more buttoned-down times we can only dream of, which is exactly what the Nottingham- and Berlin-based arts collective Gob Squad has been doing. And luckily for us, its members have been dreaming big.
The Warhol-inspired Gob Squad’s Kitchen, which makes its Vancouver debut as part of this year’s PuSh festival, is ostensibly theatre, as founding member Sharon Smith is happy to explain on the line from chilly Quebec City. “Kitchen is probably the most theatrical work that we’ve made,” she contends. “It belongs in a theatre, it’s made for the theatre.”
And then she backtracks. “Well, ‘contemporary performance’ is more true to what we are,” Smith notes. “It’s possible I’m just being lazy when I say ‘theatre’, because it’s all very interdisciplinary.”
That’s not surprising, given that Gob Squad got its start 20 years ago when its English members were enrolled in Nottingham Trent University’s contemporary-arts program. (The ensemble’s German contingent apparently comes from a more theory-driven and more explicitly theatrical background.) Subsequent projects have involved aspects of dance, pop music, installation art, and audience participation, but for Gob Squad’s Kitchen the starting point is film, and more specifically the curiously static studies Warhol shot as an adjunct to his painting and printmaking adventures of the mid ’60s.
Sleep, for instance, was a more-than-five-hour-long study of Warhol’s lover John Giorno sleeping. The “Screen Tests” series was made up of slow-motion, silent portraits of Factory habitués like Ingrid Superstar and International Velvet, along with occasional visitors such as Bob Dylan and Salvador Dalí. And Kitchen, Gob Squad’s nominal inspiration, was a vehicle for socialite and ’60s It Girl Edie Sedgwick; Norman Mailer memorably described it as capturing “the essence of every boring, dead day one’s ever had in a city”.
For Gob Squad’s remake, sets for all three films will be constructed on-stage, in which the troupe’s members will improvise Warhol-esque action for live, black-and-white broadcast on-screen. The “actors” usually fall short of the mark, Smith notes, although she’s not especially bothered by this.
“We often undermine ourselves in the work, and that’s also to create points of entry for the audience, both as spectators and as participants,” she explains, although she balks at explaining just how this participatory aspect might play out. With Gob Squad’s Kitchen, she continues, “We’ve set up this idea that we can do something that we can’t really do, that we can transport ourselves back to 1965 and say, ‘Okay, we’re in it right now; we’re in at the beginning of everything.’ And we fail. We fail spectacularly to re-create these films because we perform too much or we’re too affected; we try too hard. So by not achieving our goal we start to talk about what the films really are.”
It sounds very heady, but Smith points out that the experience will be anything but didactic. “We definitely don’t make theatre that has a big point,” she says. “Maybe a good way of describing our work is that we’re interested in collage. We don’t start with a text, and we definitely don’t start with one singular meaning or message. What we prefer to do is…offer a collection of things, a collection of ideas.”
It’s a strategy, she adds, that reflects Gob Squad’s essentially anarchic nature, as well as its interdisciplinary roots. “We don’t all agree on everything,” she says, laughing. “We’re all from different backgrounds, and although we would all say we share the same world-view, within that it’s quite complex. So we want to reflect that in the work.…And although sometimes it takes seven times longer to make a decision, to have those conversations constantly going on just makes the work richer.”
As will the mysterious audience participation mentioned above. “You’ll definitely leave the theatre feeling like you’ve shared something,” Smith promises. “It isn’t a dry, analytical investigation of Warhol: it’s a trip. And I think it’s a very uplifting, colluding experience, where people feel awakened together.”