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Oncogenes and Irony in Western Society

Gob Squad: Western Society, U.S. Premier, REDCAT —

western1society0804m © David Baltzer copy

On Instagram, my daughter watches six second clips of her favorite boy band – little video memes showing the young musicians’ daily shenanigans — “O…M…G… Ashton slept shirtless last night!” — intercut with brief snippets of the band thrashing Green Day covers in concert. The other night she showed me a new episode of American Horror in which slasher movie motifs succeeded each other with such rapidity it felt as if I were watching a movie trailer stretched to fill a 54 minute series slot. The representational hooks of consumer culture are getting shorter and sharper, I notice — the number of neurological receptors required to create a convincing image of a stable world are decreasing by the day. These observations help me understand the peculiar giddiness I experienced as part of the audience of Western Society by the avant-garde British-German theatre collective Gob Squad last month at REDCAT. Sitting in the packed house I felt as if others are responding in much the same way. I could almost hear the low hiss of psychological pressure being released from our brainstems over the course of the ninety minutes. This long, slow breathy sigh suggested the degree to which our attentional energies are being fragmented, fractured, and siphoned away during the rest of our lives without, again, undermining our sense that the laws of cause and effect are stable, coherent, reliable and predictible. More than enjoying the show, the audience seemed grateful for the experience — high praise.

I’m typically a little wary of this kind of interactive theatre, which can be deadly when executed poorly. Often such productions devolve into a version of standup comedy with the humor left out, but the Gob Squad brings serious rigor to its interactive explorations, along with sly comedic expertise. I start grinning right at the top, when the figure of a man first appears in the shadows upstage, picking his way through the wreckage, entirely naked except for sunglasses and half a dozen cheap gold chains around his neck. The stage is a mess – overturned tables and chairs, assorted wreckage around the set of a domestic interior – as if we were occupying the dining hall of a mansion the morning after some disreputable German-Brit Beggar’s Banquet bacchanal that got a little out of hand. In keeping with this scenario, the naked man in the shadows has a scrawny, Keith Richards build – thin, a little bread-boxy in the belly – and he is wearing a wig too, amplifying the glam, 70s rockstar look. A second figure appears, a woman this time, naked also, her large, pendulous breasts resting on a plumb mid-drift, her attractive face wearing an expression as vacant as the man’s…who still stands close by… looking around…examining the wreckage as if it might conceal a cigarette he could light up. Oh, and the soundtrack through all this is minimalist percussion, adding a sense of urgency with understated efficiency.

I smile even wider as the two figures on stage are joined by two more, both male, both bling-bedecked and naked, both comical in their wigs and their oddly-shaped bodies (aren’t they all?). Like deer stepping into a meadow these newcomers wander forward with blank expressions, peering into the light. Then comes an accelerating shift in the sound design, and all four of these shameless maniacs begin to race around, straightening up the wreckage, and also covering their jiggly bits with articles of clothing found among the set pieces. And then, I think, I continue to smile for the entire show – these Gobbers know what they are doing.

western1society0060m © David Baltzer copy

Children of George Maciunas’s neo-Dada Fluxus movement of the 1960s, and Guy Debord’s Situationist International, the Gob Squad brings the countercultural practice of postdramatic theatre to a giddy completion. Better than any theatre piece I can think of Western Society embodies the dream of the avant garde: that artistic processes and practices – what in crit-theory terms is referred to as “praxis” – might flow out from the artistic or theatrical event to infuse the public space with new, creative and erotic energies, countering the dead, mechanical encodings forced onto us by the predatory and authoritarian formations of capitalism. Western Society, for example, centers around a little piece of intermedial flotsam swirling around in the vast in the ocean of digital media – a three minute video morsel one of the Gobbers discovered on YouTube, the little metrics display showing a grand total of three views. Shot in the living room of a middle class home in a suburb North of Santa Barbara, the clip captures a random moment of staggeringly banal family interaction around the gift of a home-based Karaoke system. “Santa Barbara,” in case you don’t recall your distant history, was a mythical land at the heart of the American consumer paradise that briefly graced the planet in the years on either side of the turn of the 21st century, before the calamity of the REDACTED and the REDACTED, and also before the rise of the regrettable REDACTED, a time when all problems seemed, for a brief interval, to be solvable, at least in principle…or at least if human beings hadn’t been made from such crooked timber, etc. etc.

The Gob Squad treat this errant little YouTube clip with a ceremonial reverence that is ironic in the best sense of the word – the reverence is a joke, and then again it is defiantly not a joke. They carry this conceit to its natural conclusion too, as if begging for a reductio ad absurdum that, miraculously and also horrifically, fails to arrive. First the Gobbers jump into position, re-enacting the video. Arriving at iconic-sounding names – “Woman Who Eats Cake” – for each of the anonymous family-members, they imitate their precise movements and gestures as if trapped in a balletic video loop. Patiently explaining to the audience their fascination with the clip, which they view as a piece of living anthropology, the four members of the troupe next commission seven volunteers. These volunteers gather on stage, are promptly fitted out with head phones and then instructed via audio feed how to re-enact the events of the video, which they accomplish with a mesmerizing precision. These dragooned co-participants are then declared to be “winners” and, while the rest of us look on, are treated to a delicious meal – the banquet promised by the tableaux of wreckage at the top. The distribution at this stage – a handful of lucky “winners” enjoying easeful plenitude while the unfortunate majority watch the gaudy spectacle, salivating, from the shadows – mimics the abject political realities gripping the planet during the reign of “Western society.” Guy Debord rolls over smiling in his grave.

And yet the friend I went to REDCAT with, a working artist of considerable gifts who was seeing the show for the second time, expressed some intriguing — and quite nuanced — reservations about Western Society While applauding the intermedial hi-jinks as a sophisticated mode of thinking about theatre and politics, she also felt – and this perhaps only on her second viewing – the absence of something she called the virtuosic. Despite the relief and gratitude I felt toward these brilliant Gobbers, I knew what she was pointing toward. In Western Society what the Gob Squad have created is essentially a hyper-intelligent postdramatic clown show in which ceremonial irony is used as a kind of all-terrain vehicle of protest, giving us traction across the infinitely slippery flood plain of consumer culture. And yet there’s a final place of self-erasure the clown-mode does not deliver us to, a nub of self-regard that is, arguably, exactly what needs most to be dissolved. Pathologies of growth from the annals of oncological medicine spring to mind to describe our current challenge – how to become something other than a cancer on the earth. The human species was not always defined by the paradigm of growth at all costs, unsustainable and monstrous. If we could locate a cultural equivalent of the genetic trigger transforming healthy cells into cancerous ones, perhaps we could meet this challenge and become, as a collective, something a bit more flattering. For me, as for my friend, art and theatre have a central role to play in such an effort, and while postmodern ironists like the Gob Squad take us to the base of the fortress wall, we perhaps need something finer to vault us over.

western1society0306m © David Baltzer copy

All photography © David Baltzer




  1. Great Article. I missed the performance. Was out of town :(((

  2. dov rudnick says:

    “How to become something other than cancer on Earth.” That just about says it, I think, after spending Sunday listening to a Climate scientist give a talk. Your comment makes me wonder if a cancer cell ever transforms into a life-giving entity in harmony with the vitality of a singular organism…. a glance toward biology in hopes for an analogy to heal the pathology of runaway consumerism. I like your article and appreciate the honesty with regards to interactive theatre. My prejudice of this production is established immediately from the photos, and like most prejudices based on a general ignorance. but I will say that a gentle passing of the sublime(or virtuosic, as you say) in performance art is what’s appreciated on the part of the spectator. If anything that we might hold it in our hearts and minds amidst the drudgery, mediocrity and confusion that marks an average day. Much obliged, Guy, Please post again soon.

  3. Sissy Boyd says:

    dear Guy, it is ALWAYS such an incredible experience for me to read your pieces. each is a lesson in every aspect of theater…every aspect of everything! I’m on my toes. thank you. Sissy

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