Can an amateur YouTube video sum up “Western society?” It sounds impossible, ridiculous even. But that’s the crazy conceit of Gob Squad’s newest show, Western Society (what else?), which visited NYU’s Skirball Center last week. The term itself is so vast and so loaded that even Wikipedia won’t touch it. In its inimitable fashion – that is to say by subversively mining the media tropes that define popular culture and by sporting an outrageous amount of bling – this German-British performance collective gets the job done in a little less than 2 hours. As we say in our corner of the West: Babam!
How do they do it? The opening sequence is some indication. The show begins with company members Sean Patten, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost and Simon Will, nude except for platinum wigs and gold stilettos, entering a stage littered with overturned furniture and microphones. A gigantic countdown of millions of years runs behind them while they phlegmatically put the set back together. As they do, they swathe themselves in ropes of gold chains, gold-rimmed Seventies-style shades, and a golden wardrobe, looking like modern day Midases. Every once in a while, they strike a pose as if for a fashion shoot. Before we know it, the year is 2015, and Sarah is comfortably ensconced on a leather couch, smart phone in hand. In 10 minutes and even fewer words, the stage has been literally and metaphorically set.
To be fair, this is a company that has been challenging us with big ideas written ironically small for over 20 years, using video and audience participation. On that basis alone, they are more than qualified to tackle their current subject, which thrives on both. And so an utterly banal YouTube post of a family karaoke party becomes the nexus for all of “Western society.” As playful and oddly endearing as that experiment is, it does leave the lingering impression that what we are at most is an overfed society of entertainment couch potatoes.
If that sounds critical, Gob Squad doesn’t make any judgements. Their approach could be described as one of boundless curiosity. While the insignificance of the hardly ever viewed video (“the least watched YouTube video on the planet”) becomes an ironic leitmotif, the family event it captures is treated like an archival relic from a lost civilization. The video, which is viewed from Sarah’s smart phone, projected via live feed onto a much larger screen, is painstakingly dissected, using a video simulation of a living room and chalk outlines (as for homicide victims, or in this case, the family members), which the cast takes turns sliding inside. Timing, sequence of events, setting, characters (given names like Granny, Boy in White Cap, Remote Guy…): all are minutely deconstructed with commentary about what the people in the video do and why (Why is Granny the only one dancing? What is Boy in White Cap doing on the couch? Is Cake Lady actually reading that magazine? What does it mean that “California Dreamin'” is the song on the karaoke machine?). It doesn’t take long for a larger, unspoken question to hang over the proceedings: Why does no one interact with each other?
But these glam investigators with an evident facility for parading themselves in front of the camera are also curious about our generalized penchant for performance in the age of the selfie. The actors frequently interrupt their explanations of the video to ask each other binary questions of no relation to what they are doing, but meant to get at who they actually are. So, Simon might ask Sean to pick between North and South Korea (or Dakota), or between sadism or masochism or between Christian or Muslim fundamentalism and so on. Suddenly, in a typical Gob Squad sleight of hand, the focus has shifted from impish copycatting of the video to a meta-question of theater’s self-referentiality, through an uncomfortably personal barrage of questions aimed at the actors themselves. At the same time, by extension, the silent humans in the video become imbued with the opinions and preferences of the actors portraying them.
But the centerpiece of the show comes when, to pull off a full reconstitution of the video, audience members are recruited to come on stage where they are assigned numbers and headphones. As soon as they begin to silently assume the different positions in the video (tele-guided by the company) the experiment has moved into new territory, Magically, the video we have had deconstructed for us by the performers now comes to life with people who don’t look so different from the ones in that actual living room. For a brief moment, the video has gone live as a piece of theater and an experiment with both performative and social implications.
That’s a lot to think about, and a celebration of champagne and chocolates for the audience participants would seem to fête the accomplishment. But Gob Squad is diehard, and their musings aren’t over yet. To finish off their microcosmic tableau of Western society, the cast members appropriate the video for their own uses: Sarah to reminisce with her Alzheimers-stricken father, Simon to enjoy a party with his pre-divorce parents, Sean to try out hypothetical scenarios as a father-in-law to his still teenage daughter. Now the anonymous YouTube video is the canvas onto which the actors – and ourselves – can project fantasies of a fulfilling family life. After so many questions and so much playing at answering them, the gilded fun comes to a tarnished conclusion : money – the rock on which Western society is built – can buy iPhones, karaoke players and cake, but happiness still lies in human relationships.
Can “Western Society” be summed up? Gob Squad’s interpretation is of course a vast generalization and even a gross over-simplification. Or is it? The smart phone from which the entire show grows is a synecdoche of our over-connected, disconnected lives. We have the world in the palm of our hands, but it’s not sure that world, as least as defined by the West, couldn’t benefit from a few more questions, a little less posturing. As interpreters of modern life, however, Gob Squad once again proves their weight, in gold.