Korby Sears interviews Simon Will of Gob Squad Sep 22, 2012

by Jessica

Korby Sears, Seattle artist extraordinare, interviewed one of the longtime Gob Squad members, Simon Will. They covered a lot of ground, including the perils of filming on city sidewalks, the war on anonymity and, of course, a little Warhol. 

Read on and get ready for their performance, Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good).

KORBY: Gob Squad is based in Berlin, but you have members in the UK as well.  You’re coming up on your 20th anniversary, so can we assume that the bi-location status works to the group’s advantage?

SIMON: Yes! Four of us are from the UK, three from Germany. We spent a lot of time working between the two, but nowadays we have all gravitated toward Berlin. You may have heard: it’s quite good there...

KORBY: I hear some art occurs in Berlin from time to time.

SIMON: It’s actually a cliché to be an artist in Berlin. But yes: for now, we are all there. In the past some of us were in Hamburg, some in Nottingham, and some in Berlin. That was really hard. We keep a close link to the UK, and still have production there.

KORBY: Gob Squad’s SUPER NIGHT SHOT is a piece where the performance occurs with four live video cameras following four performers on the streets in whatever town you are currently visiting. Real events and strangers are used, and the video is then beamed into the theater. SUPER NIGHT SHOT debuted in 2003, and Gob Squad still performs it on a yearly basis all over the world. Clearly the group never tires of it. What is it about the format that continues to feed Gob Squad?

SIMON: Well it’s because it never ceases to be thrilling and very scary. Unlike stage-based shows, a performer in SNS is VERY vulnerable. With most shows we can feel that we have reached a point where it’s not really working for us to do it anymore. But with SNS we still feel its randomness really excites us.

KORBY: I assume you've had some close calls / accidents / insurance nightmares a few times.

SIMON: Yes! There was a funny incident in London where the Disney Corporation would not let us film on "THEIR" pavement. I had a scrape in Ireland where I had to get a group of lads to give me my camera back. In Berlin, we accidentally filmed some kind of drug exchange

KORBY: SNS sounds like it was proto-Google Maps Street View.

SIMON: [laughs] Yes: except we don’t blank-out the faces!

KORBY: Gob Squad describes SUPER NIGHT SHOT as a “War on Anonymity.” Being performed over the course of almost 10 years, the piece has witnessed some serious changes in the definition of Anonymity in Public Space. The ubiquity of Cell Phones, Digital Recordings and Social Media often combine in public to create instantaneous documentation that achieves notoriety online. We’re talking in a week when the Republican Candidate for President in the U.S. probably just saw his campaign end, due to his blunt remarks captured in a simple, poor-quality video recorded on a cell phone during a private party. I wonder how you’ve seen the reaction of audiences, and the public you interact with during SUPER NIGHT SHOT, change over the past decade. Is the war on Anonymity coming to an end?

SIMON: Its true. We coined that phrase in a time when President Bush was waging his War on Everything. But so much has changed in the last 10 years

KORBY: Maybe SNS has achieved its goal.

SIMON: Somehow, even though many people believe that we are some sort of reality, you tube, social network thing, when they step into our adventures, there is still something very unusual that the show does, which none of that other stuff does. It’s not Reality TV. It’s more like a fairytale, in which the participants are magical.

KORBY: So the strangers on the street somehow know you're not a news crew, or Reality TV, and appear too organized to be kids on a you pull something else out of them.

SIMON: Yes...we are not there to make them look dumb. We are there to REALLY talk to them, to play with them, to make them part of an adventure.

KORBY: Then there’s the great Banksy quote from 2008: “In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.”

SIMON: [laughs] Fame is totally over-rated.

KORBY: Speaking of Andy Warhol deviations, GOB SQUAD’S KITCHEN (YOU’VE NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD) is coming to On The Boards on September 27th. It uses four Warhol films – Kitchen, Sleep, Kiss and the Screen Tests - as source material for re-performance / plunder-performance. What in particular about these films struck a chord to create this work?

SIMON: Originally our aim was to make "a film that consumed the audience". We had an idea to make some sort of film that would not continue unless the entire audience went through it.

KORBY: That's great!

SIMON: Everyone would be a hostage, and the only means of escape would be through the film. On the way to try and do that, we played this game in which you had to perform films you had never seen before, because there are lots of films you know so much about without actually seeing them. One of those was (Warhol’s) Kitchen. From that we got into all the films of that period.

It made us start to meditate on things like authenticity…originality...The Original.

KORBY: Just two weeks ago, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts   announced that it’s selling off 20,000 pieces of its holdings – that is, original Warhol works – to increase its endowment. Meanwhile, other dealers and owners of Warhol’s work are openly angry, as the Foundation’s sales will devalue their holdings.

SIMON: The economy of Warhol’s work is quite staggering. “The Fall begins this Fall.”

KORBY: You just wrote the tagline for the inevitable screenplay.

SIMON: [laughs]

KORBY: In past performances of GOB SQUAD'S KITCHEN - how has the audience performances fared? How have they been about escaping the film / performance?

SIMON: Well initially, we were quite amazed at how much people invest themselves into it. Often people think that we have somehow prepped the participants. Sometimes people say: "The performers in the second half of the show were much better than those in the first"!

KORBY: Gob Squad describes the piece’s setting by stating that “It’s 1965 and everything is just about to happen.” It’s great that you called that out, that fun little mid-period of the 60s before sex, drugs, feminism, psychedlia – basically everything that will define the era - bursts into mainstream culture. But those hot-button elements are being played with by an exuberant minority, unaware that they are about to set everything on fire in the best way possible. Is God Squad going to make it feel all 1965 up in the OTB mainstage?

SIMON: We talked a lot about the difference between 1965 and now. How it feels to us. Like in that time, you could look to the future and say: The Future is going to be great! Robots will do everything, and we will be free. The future was going to save us. But now, well it seems harder to project into the future. It’s full of disasters and environmental breakdown.

But there’s something to be said for those people who fought for things we now completely take for granted. Perhaps things got more complicated. Opposing forces became more sophisticated in opposing each other.

KORBY: Gob Squad’s name refers to British slang for “mouth”, and indeed, many Gob Quad works involve verbosity, language, and linguistic comprehension: this summer’s INFINATE JEST deconstructed The Art of Conversation via a tennis game in Steffi Graff Stadium; IT’S REVOLUTION NOW! contained debates of manifestos; ARE YOU WITH US? features much group therapy; and WHO ARE YOU WEARING? was all about the breathlessness of Hollywood red-carpet fashion commentary. The four Warhol films used as a source in GOB SQUAD’S KITCHEN are notoriously static, and – with the exception of Kitchen – dialog free. Will this be Gob Squad’s quietest performance?

SIMON: [laughs] No. We actually mainly come from Visual Art backgrounds. Most of what is said is improvised, and there are set passages of text and movement. 

KORBY: GOB SQUAD’S KITCHEN just won a 2012 Drama Desk Award, in the wonderfully-titled category of Unique Theatrical Experience. So Gob Squad is now in the same territory as John Gielgud, Cirque du Soleil, Lily Tomlin, and the Blue Man Group – all past winners of the same award. Did Gob Squad see this coming?

SIMON: Not at all. What we feel is that KITCHEN coming to the US was like a rebirth. The show was made in 2007 and has toured steadily since then. When it landed in New York and came into direct contact with the recent history its talking about....well....POP!

KORBY: The last time GOB SQUAD was in Seattle, it was 2001. Here in the US, that was One Terrorist Attack, Two Wars, One Depression and One Recession ago. In short – things have changed. How do you remember Seattle from the last time you were here?

SIMON: The show we did was a show based on plane would have been impossible to do a few months later. It really feels like another time.

I remember big streets…and Mark (Murphy, On The Boards Artistic Director, 1984 – 2001) on the drums, in some sort of funny jam session. Folks still talking about Nirvana. The Buckminster Fuller Dome [ed. - the Tacoma Dome] .And lots of Microsoft tech folks.

KORBY: Last Question: as a response to the show's subtitle - why have I never had it so good?  Not that I disagree…

SIMON: That’s actually a quote from Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Prime Minister of Britain from 1957 to 1963. It seems to embody the spirit of the age, the 60s. The white heat of technology: washing machines, contraceptive pills, vinyl, bright lights…

KORBY: That all does sound good.

SIMON: That’s what my mum said when I asked her what she remembers of the 60s. She said: suddenly there was more light. Everywhere.

KORBY: What a lovely thing to hear one's mom say.