The German-English performance collective Gob Squad was founded in 1994 by creative arts students from Nottingham Trent University and applied theatre studies students from Giessen, a hotbed of German post-dramatic theatre talent (which also produced artists like René Pollesch, Rimini Protokoll and Showcase Beat Le Mot). The group first entered the public eye at the 1997 documenta X in Kassel with “15 Minutes To Comply”. In 1999, the curator Aenne Quiñones brought Gob Squad to Podewil arts centre in Berlin, and later to the Prater venue of the Volksbühne theatre, where the group developed its characteristic interactive formats with video links. In 2009, Gob Squad won the Goethe-Institut award at the “Impulse” festival – the most important independent theatre festival, held every two years – for “Saving The World”.
Gob Squad’s permanent members are Johanna Freiburg, Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost and Simon Will. Other musicians, video artists and actors (among them Laura Tonke) from a pool of around 25 artists regularly join in their performances. Because the productions intentionally feature fairly simple English, the group can tour worldwide. Hits such as “Super Night Shot” (Prater, 2003) and “Room Service” (Kampnagel, 2003) remain in the guest performance repertoire for years.
Gob Squad are masters of pop culture experimentation; their test material is the modern big city. Armed with video cameras, the German-English performance collective enters the public domain and puts its cinema, television and computer game fantasies to the test. In “Super Night Shot” (Prater, 2003), for example, a self-proclaimed superhero embarks on an urban night life mission, getting passers-by to help him produce a story suitable for filming. Three companions act as scouts, keeping their eyes open for possible film partners, while the hero gets people hurrying by to call out a mission for him, one that should be as heroic as possible. If everything goes smoothly, his mission will have a happy ending, finishing off with a kiss with a freshly cast night owl. This is a one-hour videoed city tour from the viewpoint of an ego-shooter; after the outdoor shooting, the sequences are mixed live and shown in the theatre on four parallel screens.
The group’s performances feature an odd blend of the cool and the ridiculous. Trivialities are charged with meaning through expansive pop gestures. The group’s real penchant is for the antihero, for the lives of the clueless and the lonely. “Help Me Make It Through The Night” is the subtitle of “Room Service” (Kampnagel, 2003), a hotel performance in which four isolated actors enter into contact with the spectators via video and phone and request ideas for the night. It could equally well be called: let us kill time together. Gob Squad’s art is always part banal and part emotional. In its city tour “Saving The World” (Kampnagel, 2008), this double meaning is even evident from the title: anyone wishing to record everyday life on celluloid must do so as a saviour of the world. Only something that has been made to shimmer in popular art is noticeable and worth preserving.
Gob Squad’s work is absurd art, living off the fact that the performers never find the right balance. Their intentions and claims are always too expansive (saving the world), their realities always too simple. Accordingly, they find their best moments in alienated miniature form: it is when punks suddenly begin dancing along to a choreography in a bank late at night, when those waiting quietly talk about “love at first sight”, or when drug addicts, their speech slurred, demand the hero to abolish drugs, that this live art touches reality in a wonderfully bizarre way, and the Gob Squad members triumph as theatre guerrillas wearing jester’s caps.
The group developed its characteristic interactive formats after 1999, initially at the Podewil in Berlin, then at the Prater venue of the Volksbühne theatre. In the only series of events to date in which the playwright and Prater director René Pollesch allowed his plays to be produced by other artists, Gob Squad took over “Prater-Saga 3: In diesem Kiez ist der Teufel eine Goldmine” (i.e. Prater Saga 3: In this neighbourhood, the devil is a goldmine, 2004). For the performance, they invited passers-by to appear on stage, kitted them out with headphones and then sent them into the theatre, as if by remote control. Hesitantly, the newly-cast actors performed the actions and spoken texts that they were instructed to via the headphones. The audience was able to experience live their battle to understand and their reactions – which ranged from amusement to emotion – to the texts, which are among the most complicated in post-dramatic theatre. The show became the highlight of the Prater series.
The casting principle has been perfected still further. In “Gob Squad’s Kitchen” (2007), spectators are invited (via headphones, once again) to re-enact old Andy Warhol films and to revive the aura of the 1960s pop era. The group was recently criticized for its first performance of “Revolution Now!” (2010) in the Volksbühne’s Grosses Haus, which explores the dogma – one that is often allowed to apply in theatres unquestioned – of the necessary “shift in relations” brought about by casting. The audience is taken hostage until such time as a passer-by in front of the theatre can be recruited as a flag-toting barricade fighter. A pop circus, featuring electric guitars rather than machine guns, fills the gap while the audience is waiting.
This experiment was described in reviews as being naive and hollow. One critic felt it to be a declaration of bankruptcy by political theatre. The group, however, actually provokes this reaction in the performance itself, in its usual mad fashion. “Do you want to join our revolution?”, an activist asks wide-eyed at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. To which a person hurrying past coolly replies: “There is no revolutionary situation. What you’re saying makes no sense whatsoever.” That is absurd art par excellence. Where artists like Gob Squad are willing to make fools of themselves and to make themselves look small, they can carry – on their backs, as it were – this sort of statement, with all its historical significance, into the artistic domain.
2013, Theater Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin
Before Your Very Eyes
2011, Theater Hebbel am Ufer (HAU 2), Berlin
2010, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
Live Long and Prosper
2009, Hebbel-am-Ufer, Berlin
Saving The World
2008, Kampnagel, Hamburg
Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve never had it so good)
2007, Prater der Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
Me The Monster
2006, Prater der Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
King Kong Club
2005, Hebbel-am-Ufer, Berlin
Prater-Saga 3: In diesem Kiez ist der Teufel eine Goldmine
2004, Prater der Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
Super Night Shot
2003, Prater der Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
Room Service (Help Me Make It Through The Night)
2003, InterCity Hotel (Kampnagel), Hamburg
Where Do You Want To Go To Die
2000, EXPO 2000, Hannover
15 Minutes To Comply
1997, “Theaterskizzen”, documenta X, Kassel
1995, NOW Festival, Nottingham/England
1994, Expo 94, Nottingham/England