7TH October 2016, Dwutygodnik.com nr 196, 10/2016
Zofia Cielątkowska: Gob Squad has been performing more than 20 years now.
SIMON WILL: Yes, we started in 1994.
It is a while. Quite often you emphasize that you want to ‘escape from the stage’. Looking at your works from the 90’s till today, you are now closer to the stage. Just to give some examples: House (1994) took place in an ordinary suburban home, Work (1995) was in the office space, Effortless Transaction(1996) was in the furniture store and Calling Laika (1998) was in a car park. Then, pieces like Before your very eyes (2011), My Square Lady (2015) or War and Peace (2016) – are actually more theatre performances.
In the beginning we were really excited by working in real spaces, where life took place. The places were almost like scripts; they were collaborators of the work or kind of starting point. Then, in 1998 we got invited into the theatre of Frankfurt and they wanted us to make something for the theatre. We still wanted to escape from the stage and finally we did a piece for the car par – that was Calling Laika. After that, we started to get more and more invitations from the theatres. The performances from 1998 onwards, are a sort of struggle to understand a black box – this kind of limited space. I must say that actually a lot of our early theater works like Close enough to kiss (1997) or What you are looking at (1998), were treating the theatre space as site specific.
Site specific in a sense that they were about the place, where people go, and meet other people, and sit in the darkness to look at other people. We got really interested in that act and started to think, what we could do as a performance. Another piece, which shows the way we dealt with the black box, was Safe (1999). It was this concert like performance, which also did make sense for as in the theatre space – it still gave us a license or excuse to behave in a certain way. We have never regarded ourselves as actors with scripts. We always wanted to combine somehow the outside world and theatre world.
And then comes The Great Outdors in 2011.
Yes, it was a breakthrough piece, as it was the first performance in which we took the cameras on the back side of the theatre and start messing around on the streets. The Great Outdors successfully combined those two worlds and from there, we could start to bring the outside reality into the theatre space. I think as soon as you go outside of the theatre, you don’t have to deal with expectations of the theater.
Is it somehow connected with your visual arts background? I’m thinking here especially about the different concepts of time in terms of perception of the work. As usually, in the gallery or museum, the time is more individual – the viewer can see a work of art in more personal way. While with the theater experience, you go to the black box, you sit in a chair in the darkness and then you go home. I think that you also try to break this dominating concept of time and perception.
Yes, in our performances we take a lot from visual arts. Many of us – me as well – have visual arts background. We are not really stage educated people, to put it this way. With the time… It is also something, what I have already said about the spaces; that they were themselves like co-authors of the piece or event. In Work, it did really make sense to put the piece from Monday to Friday in the office hours from 9 till 5, or to put The Room Service (2003) for the period of sleepless night. There were also some other pieces, which challenged this theatre concept of time: Are you with us (2010) or What are you looking at (1998).
Staying a bit longer with visual arts. There is a strong connection between what you do and ideas from the 60s or 70s like fluxus, life art or performance art. When I’m thinking about it in more precise terms, your pieces have more in common with every day life simplicity, than with the concept of the body, which is present in the works of such artists as Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci or Marina Abramovic. Then on the other hand, in the 90s – especially in British art – there was a strong influence coming from this esthetics of Young British Artists (probably Damien Hirst was the most famous one). In your performances there is a mix of high and low culture.
I wouldn’t say that anyone would bring Damien Hirst in to the table, but the references you talk about of the 60s and 70s were handed on to us very strongly in our artistic education. It was especially the case of group from Nottingham, but from Giessen also. We had really amazing teachers – some of them were a part of Fluxus. I think this kind of clashing of high and low culture happens since 60s onwards – in UK for sure – and gets especially visible in works of Young British Artists. It wasn’t really happening in Germany so much – especially in the theatre context. For us, it was completely natural, to draw on different references coming from pop, soap opera, video games etc. and merge that with this Fluxus and happening sensibilities. It wasn’t calculated. It just felt the right thing to do – that was in the air.
What about the structure of work? Your performances give a huge space for improvisation, and precisely because of that – they have to be really well structured and organized.
Since the works like Super night shot (2003) and Room service (2003), we really elaborated the means of structuring – and with time, we have very much honed them. We work in sort of frames of time or in segments of time, which you have to fulfill and there are also a ‘must do’ moments. We are always trying to make our works open enough, so whenever we step inside them, we have freedom, we can keep it fresh and we can surprise ourselves. A good example of that is Dancing about (2012) – it has structure, it has roles, it has rhythm, but at the same time it stays really open. There is always this kind of mixture of opposing forces: openness and improvisation versus structure and fixed elements.
Having said that, how do you treat text?
The text is again in between complete freedom and structure. I would describe our work with a text as islands of ‘I need this quote’, and ‘middle grounds’ – periods of time when you tell a story with some motive etc. In that sense, a text works as a kind of substructure – a frame or a parameter. Very rarely we have strict points.
Our approach to costumes varies from work to work: sometimes we do the costumes within the collective, sometimes we invite people from the outside. It maybe is funny thing to say, but we quite often don’t want people to say: ‘Oh, what a great costume design!’.
Well, ‘great’ aesthetic can change the meaning of the piece.
True! It was quite exceptional in case of War and Peace, for which we invited Ingken Benesch – a fashion designer. Ingken got really into our methodology and participated in our rehearsals – the process of creating. It was actually her work that influenced us to do these fashion shows within that piece.
Let’s talk about your political engagement. Sometimes it is direct, sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it is ironic, but – in whatever form – it is always present. For example in Prater-Saga 3 (2004), a random performer taken from the street has to negotiate his or her payment for the participation in the piece. Then again War and Peace can be described as a kind of critique of how the history is constructed, how the discourse of memory and power works.
I’m glad you are saying that. It is an interesting thing with political engagement within the theatre field. I think the generations before us, the theater makers of the 70s and 80s, were much more direct with that. I really like that you said, that we are politically engaged as we regard ourselves as political. We try not to smash anyone over the head with the hammer of politics. Our engagement is more in the methodology of how we put the piece together, how we structure ourselves as a group. We hope that the message is in the work, that this sensibility transfers the message to the audience without necessarily being a ‘bang’ in the head.
Talking about political engagement while you are here in Poland is also quite interesting. I think your Revolution Now! (2010) – a piece about not working, would be very much in time here. Polish women went on strike o 3rd of October and it seems it will be another one on 24th of October…
Oh, yes, Polish women went on strike! So in the end they did not proceed this complete abortion ban?
After the strike the lawmakers rejected the first proposal, but there is already second proposal on a way and it is not better.
But the low is already quite strict anyway?
Yes, and current government want to make it stricter.
Poland definitely needs revolution in this respect! You need to strike more!
Gob Squad is a British-German collective based in Berlin (members of the collective were students at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Giessen). They have worked collaboratively since 1994. Gob Squad mixes freely different artistic concepts and esthetics with the engagement of the public. Their works – quite often site specific – situate on the borders of performance, theatre, video installation, film and real life.
KONFRONTACJE FESTIVAL, LUBLIN, POLAND, 2016
7TH October 2016
English version of the text published in Polish culture magazine
Dwutygodnik.com nr 196, 10/2016;