Gob Squad: The unauthorised biography
A bunch of long-haired students at Nottingham Trent University’s Creative Arts course make up a performance to get into Glastonbury festival for free. The piece is hailed as wonderfully entertaining nonsense by the Glastonbury revellers and a sharp Marxist critique of the class system by their tutors back at college. Taking their name from a mix-tape playing in the van on the way to Somerset, they call themselves “The Gob Squad”. They go on to make four further Glastonbury shows, all in exchange for free tickets.
The group graduate from university and make their first professional piece of work, House, performed in a Nottingham council house. Sean Patten, Sarah Thom and visiting Gießen theatre science student Berit Stumpf get the project started and are later joined by Theatre Design graduate Liane Sommers, fellow Gießen student Johanna Freiburg and “rocket artist” Miles Chalcraft. Alex Large plays a duster salesman in the back garden. The project is commissioned by young arts producer Simon Will for Expo 94 with a total production budget of £400. The group make their first TV appearance, a 3 minute slot on “East Midlands Today”.
Patten and Thom spend their entire earnings from a bit of teaching work on a PC. They become the first people on their (admittedly run-down) street to own a computer and write the concept for Work on it, enthusiastically handing it in personally to NOW festival director, Andrew Chetty. Later that year, Work is performed in Nottingham from 9-5 each day for a working week. The core membership of the group for the next 5 years all work on the project: Freiburg, Large, Patten, Sommers, Stumpf, Thom. Miles Chalcraft also collaborates. The production budget is over 10 times greater than for House. Half way through the process the entire group buys themselves some new clothes from Nottingham’s trendy Hockley district. Miles Chalcraft doesn’t perform again with Gob Squad for another 9 years.
Now working collectively on the concept, design, devising and performing of their projects, the group produce An Effortless Transaction, performed in a furniture shop in Nottingham’s Broadmarsh shopping centre. Despite trauma and relationship turmoil within the group, the piece is actually quite good and catches the attention of Berlin producer Aenne Quinones. The shop has since closed down.
15 Minutes to Comply presented in an underground station at Documenta X. The group asks for the use of a train on the technical list. Their request is granted. However, it is politely explained that artists “don’t get paid” to be in Documenta, so they learn the lesson that fortune doesn’t necessarily follow fame relatively early in their careers. The first Gob Squad office opens in Nottingham. Wages for admin work start to be paid at a rate of £1.25 per hour. First website and business cards produced. Alex Large edits first company promotional video. Close Enough To Kiss tours UK and Germany. First company computer purchased: Apple Performa 5400. Moving with the times, the word “The” is dropped from the group’s official title.
Gob Squad moves to a new, but damp, office with just a wood-burning stove for heating. Important documents start to go mouldy but are burnt for warmth. Martin Cooper, a sound technician recently thrown out of a band for putting too many annoying samples into the mix, is enlisted to work on the soundtrack for Calling Laika. The project is produced at TAT, Frankfurt under the watchful eyes of theatre impresario Tom Stromberg. The group starts flying with BA instead of driving a van to Germany. Backpacks from student days wear out and are replaced by suitcases. What Are You Looking At? premieres at Berlin Biennale and for a few heady days Gob Squad is the talk of the town. Matt Adams, part-time lecturer in German philosophy, becomes first company administrator. Admin wage increases to £1.87 per hour.
Simon Will stops climbing the arts administration career ladder and joins the group instead. They start taking music lessons during the rehearsal process for Safe. After weeks of effort, “Rockin’ All Over The World“ is played at the Kampnagel premiere in Hamburg. Thanks to a little nepotism, Safe is presented at the Edinburgh Fringe, courtesy of Armstrong Vinyl Flooring. The majority of the group now lives in Berlin, and become artists-in-residence at the Podewil Centre for Contemporary Art at the invitation of theatre curator Aenne Quiñones. Christina Runge takes over as administrator and achieves a rare understanding of the workings of the German tax system, earning her the nickname “Miss Moneypenny”, Little White Lies, a one-off performance for live audience and radio broadcast is presented at Akademie der Künste. At the after-show party, Alex Large’s bag, containing all photo and video documentation of the piece, is stolen, never to be seen again.
In spite of last-minute help from sound designer Sebastian Bark, Say It Like You Mean It premieres to a mixed response. Several important critics and promoters chat, smoke and even sleep through the performance then say their goodbyes. A video installation, Where Do You Want To Go To Die? is made for Expo 2000, Hannover and installed outside the German pavillion. Soon after opening, the piece is closed down by the organisers who fear bad publicity after a member of the public falls to his death inside the building. Admin wage increases to 10 Deutschmarks (£3.30) per hour.
The year they broke America… and America almost broke them. Safe tours the US and the group are pleasantly surprised to find that a piece sometimes reviewed as “superficial and shallow” in Germany was thought of as “deep, dark” and “far-out” in the States. However, these were to be the final performances of Safe as Liane Sommers and Alex Large decide enough is enough and leave the group to pursue solo careers in the music video industry. The remaining members are rejoined by Miles Chalcraft and take a new direction, working with internet, phone and video technology to make The Great Outdoors.
The average age of the group is now distinctly over 30. Journalists have ceased referring to the collective as “young” artists. Group members now live in Hamburg, Nottingham and Berlin. Some have children, some are pregnant and some are in therapy. It seems impossible to draw up a rehearsal schedule which meets everyone’s needs. Everyone agrees Room Service will be Gob Squad’s make-or-break project. The group asks film/TV actor, Bastian Trost and American performance/video artist Elyce Semenec to collaborate on the project. Sound designer Jeff McGrory also works with Gob Squad for the first time. Rehearsals get underway in an erotic photo-studio in Berlin and despite an outbreak of scarlet fever, group morale is restored and Room Service is judged a great success. Christina Runge leaves the group and is replaced by Eva Hartmann.
Podewil loses both funding and artistic direction and the Gob Squad office moves to a disused perfume shop in central Berlin. As the year planner gradually fills up with Room Service gigs, Gob Squad is sued for 6000€ by a hotel chain after a drop of fake blood is spilled on a carpet. The group spend the two hottest weeks Britain has seen for decades on the vodka, vomit and violence-strewn streets of night-time Nottingham, walking around half-dressed with video cameras making improvised films with passers-by. These exploits were to evolve into Super Night Shot, premiered at the Volksbühne, Berlin in sub-zero December. Bastian Trost joins the group and becomes the first Gob Squad member to have been to drama school.
Ooh la la! Having toured Germany, Britain and most of Europe for years, it is now time to conquer the final frontier: France. Festivals all over the country take an interest in the company’s work. Those members who got better than grade C at school start learning their French lines ostentatiously in an effort to wind up those who have to stay behind. Backstage at Art Rock in Brittany, Bastian Trost chats to the drummer from Franz Ferdinand’s girlfriend just as Jane Birkin walks past. Nina Thielicke joins as assistant administrator. Work begins on Prater-Saga 3: In diesem Kiez ist der Teufel eine Goldmine. During a performance, an outraged audience member heckles Berit Stumpf and shouts “Watch out for your soul! You will pay for this! You will all die!” before walking out. Gob Squad end the year with a 10th birthday party and a huge cake. Admin wage is now 9€ per hour.
Still hungover from the 10th anniversary party, Gob Squad begins its second decade with work on King Kong Club – a kind of masked ball where the dress code is a gorilla costume. 100 costumes are commissioned, but due to budget constraints they end up looking not unlike fluffy pyjamas . Nevertheless, some audience members get completely carried away by the experience. At the Hamburg premiere complaints are made to a local paper as a 10 year old boy, anonymous in his ape costume, takes part in a simulated sex scene. “I thought he was a short adult”, explains Sean Patten to the anxious theatre management. Super Night Shot becomes the most successful show in the group’s history and tours the UK. Britain proves to be unique in the world as the only country where getting a video camera out in public guarantees that someone at some point will bare their behind to the lens. For the first time in the group’s history, all members are resident in the same city: Berlin. Bill Gee, responsible for UK Production, leaves for Australia, to be replaced by Ayla Suveren. A workshop for 20 people is run in a crumbling farmhouse in a village in Latvia. There are no showers and everybody sleeps crammed into dorms. One by one everyone falls ill with gastric flu.
A man from the World Cup’s cultural programme (taking place in Germany that year) phones the office offering a six figure sum to stage an event at the world cup final. He never calls again and all attempts to track him down prove fruitless. Inspired by horror films, Me The Monster premieres in Berlin to a mixed response. In the video performance the audience have their personalities profiled as one of 6 types of Monster. Most ‘vampires’ seem happy with their new monster identity, but being told ‘you are an alien’ does not go down well with every spectator. A group of Brazilian actors, dancers, storytellers and DJs is cast from Rio and Sao Paulo and Os Recrutas do Gob Squad is formed. After 3 weeks of training, the group present their own version of Super Night Shot – a portuguese speaking, all-singing all-dancing version as colourful, joyous, tragic and unpredictable as life on the streets of Brazil itself. At the Rio premiere the threat of arrest by the infamously violent and corrupt police hangs over the proceedings. It is apparently illegal to wear underwear in public (the final scene is performed in pants) so a backup plan is hatched. A courier is hastily dispatched to collect a range of bikinis (which are completely legal) from British Council HQ.
The year begins with Super Night Shot visiting Quebec in the middle of the Canadian winter. The show is nearly called off as the video cameras literally freeze up in the minus 25 C temperatures. Film actress Laura Tonke, “Dr of Dance” Sharon Smith and performer and academic Nina Tecklenburg join preparations for Gob Squad’s Kitchen, inspired by the films of Andy Warhol. There are now as many babies in the group as adults and rehearsals become fraught as toddlers roll around unplugging important cables and nappies are changed on set. By the end of the year, Gob Squad is beginning to conquer a world they never thought possible – the Stadttheater. The new Artistic Director at Schauspiel Köln books a whole package of works, and Kitchen regularly sells out at Berlin’s Volksbühne.
sees the group embark on its most technically ambitious project to date – Saving The World. Martin Clausen joins the performer pool for the project. The idea to synchronise 7 cameras and record a seamless panoramic film is possible in theory, but at the Berlin premiere a computer crashes leaving video technician Martin Cooper in a very sticky situation, playing and pausing camcorders by hand until sync is restored. Super Night Shot tours to Siberia, where the group have to do 7 local TV interviews in one day, leaving precious little time to prepare for the actual show. There is no hot water anywhere in the city, the venue has no fully functioning CD player and the museum director is lost in an endless chess game, unable to deal with the mounting confusion. The show is a huge success and the cast are stars for the day.
The touring calendar fills at a fast pace. Sometimes performances happen simultaneously in different corners of the globe. During a visit to Singapore, the group have to fill in legally binding documents confirming they will not commit suicide, just to be allowed to have their hotel windows opened. Not long after a passionate onstage kiss between a performer and audience member, the director of the theatre loses his job. Work begins on Revolution Now! at Berlin’s Volksbühne and the year ends with Saving The World winning the Goethe Institue prize at the Impulse festival. The trophy, a painting, is left behind at the awards ceremony.
The beginning of the year sees Gob Squad in turmoil. The Revolution Now! premiere is just weeks away and tempers are getting frayed. It takes hours of dragging cables through the snow and ice outside Berlin’s Volksbühne just to set up for rehearsal, and whole days are lost arguing if there is too much or too little politics in the show. New collaborators Kathrin Krottenthaler, Christopher Uhe and Masha Qrella put a brave face on proceedings. At the Cologne premiere, a passer-by’s blouse is accidentally set on fire and the massive iron curtain fails to rise, leaving the show without it’s climactic ending. Despite mixed reviews, audiences flock to the Berlin showings.
In Milan, undercover agents supported by a van full of riot police stop Super Night Shot‘s cameras dead in their tracks. Apparently a man in a rabbit mask kissing a stranger infringes Italy’s anti-subversive behaviour laws. The group work on Le Coup de Foudre in Ivory Coast, braving power cuts, riots and transport strikes to make a live film on the streets of Abidjan. Regular visits are made to Campo Arts Centre in Ghent, Belgium to work on Before Your Very Eyes, with a group of Flemish speaking 8-14 year olds. The hospitality of the Campo team compensates for the multiple difficulties of directing children, as a collective, via translators.
A reader, a website of video interviews and a step-by-step workshop guide are produced to meet growing demand from art students who have to write dissertations on Gob Squad. The group are uncertain whether to be flattered that they now seem to be part of official performance art history, or whether this marks their arrival in the mainstream, and therefore the company’s imminent demise.
The year ends with a showing of Are You With Us?, a durational performance billed as half group therapy, half performance nightmare. The group discover that airing their dirty linen in public in this way does them a world of good after a year in which everyone worked to their limits.
OMG USA! The Warhol-inspired Gob Squad’s Kitchen goes down a storm in New York, with performances at the Under The Radar festival. Fears of the locals taking offence at the performers’ deliberately bad American accents prove unfounded. Following performances in Minneapolis, the group head across the pacific to Australia for a tour of Super Night Shot. They are particularly pleased to perform in the Sydney Opera House – at last a venue which their parents have heard of!
Saving The World has several performances, but danger is never far away. Shortly after filming finishes in The Hague’s market square, a man is stabbed and police seal of the area.
Before Your Very Eyes premieres in Berlin to an ecstatic response from both audiences and critics and sets off on an intensive tour taking in all corners of Europe, as well as Seoul, Korea where the child performers email their parents photos of themselves eating fried insects. With financial crisis rocking the world and Occupy movements springing up in many cities, Revolution Now! touches a nerve with audiences in Turin and Dublin. An interactive lecture performance, We are Gob Squad and so are you, premieres at Bristol’s Arnolfini.
The year’s carbon footprint grows further still with performances of Super Night Shot (now in it’s 9th year) in Bangalore. During the film, the four activist/performers meet a yogic guru, men selling vegetables, women buying fruit, security guards, schoolchildren, several goats, three chickens and a cow. The year ends, rather unsurprisingly, with the cast and crew suffering from a touch of Delhi belly. The food on the plane home is blamed.
The year begins with a three week run of Gob Squad’s Kitchen at New York’s The Public theatre. With 8 shows a week and 7500 tickets to sell, the pressure is on, in a city where success is everything and failure not an option.
At the opening night party, the theatre management and their assistants are hunched over their smartphones reading the New York Times review as soon as it comes online. “It’s a rave!” shouts someone, to much whooping and fist-pumping. Relief and double whiskies all round…
Before Your Very Eyes reaches the top of the tree of the German-speaking theatre world by being selected for the prestigious Theater Treffen festival. Kitchen follows in the footsteps of the Blue Man Group by winning the New York Drama Desk award for ‘unique theatrical experience’.
The group go back to their site-specfic roots and make a project for HAU Hebbel am Ufer’s 24 hour staging of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. Working on an improvised physical piece, outdoors at Berlin’s Steffi Graf tennis stadium, with no video screens in sight, does everyone’s health a world of good. Freed from the constraints of making a tourable piece, everyone pulls together and works speedily to make The Conversationalist, a competitive psychological game where linguistic dexterity is rewarded (or penalised) on the whim of an all-powerful umpire.
Later that year, Dancing About sees the company break new ground by putting both dance therapy and a real, live praying mantis at the heart of their new work. Shame is the name of the game, as the performers state their most embarrassing habits and experiences loud and proud in the intimacy of Volksbühne’s Roter Salon and turn these statements into dances of liberation. Opinion is divided on the company’s first dance piece. Some key production partners walk out, never to be seen again, some audience members ask if Gob Squad are actually professional dancers…
The year ends with a 10 hour version of the part group therapy, part photo shoot, improvised performance Are You With Us? on the date of the (alleged) Mayan apocalypse of 21.12.2012 . Truths are told, secrets are revealed, modesty-concealing balloons are popped and one performer fulfils a lifelong ambition by falling asleep onstage…
Work begins on the ambitiously titled Western Society. New collaborators include Argentinian actress and DJ Tatiana Saphir, and Australian musician and performer Damian Rebgetz. The all-important initial rehearsal phase is marred by illness without a single day’s work with the full team present. Rehearsals include a residency at Center Theater Group in LA and the group decamp to Venice Beach to seek inspiration from the beach-bums, hustlers and body-builders who grace the boardwalk. They stay in a low-budget gated-community, where Nirvana once spent time recording an album, and buy most of the gold stiletoes and swimsuits used as costumes for the show from beachside stalls.
Back in Berlin, rehearsals run harmoniously although the final weeks are so exhausting that post-rehearsal feedback sessions disintegrate into meaningless zombie-like gatherings. At one point, company manager Eva Hartmann tells everyone to ‘Go home. You’re talking nonsense. No one is listening to each other and you all look ill’. After many years of developing a sensitive consensus-based decision method, on the day of the premiere, the final scene (a panpipe rendition of Michael Jackson’s Earth Song performed by the technicians) is voted out of the piece by a 4 to 3 majority. In spite of, or because of this, Western Society goes down very all with the audience, sells out at HAU and goes on to gather a 5 star review in the New York Times.
Canada features prominently on the touring agenda. Super Night Shot performs to an outdoor music festival audience in Toronto on huge LED screens. Later in the year, 1200 citizens of Bordeaux watch Super Night Shot – Gob Squad’s largest ever indoor audience. The festival later goes bankrupt and still owes several thousand Euros to the company…
Touring takes the company far and wide. In Calgary, video artist Miles Chalcraft replaces suddenly ill performer Sharon Smith in Kitchen. In Sri Lanka, Super Night Shot is performed in a porn cinema alongside movies with titles such as “Bang, I Want You”. Poland is 2014’s most visited country, where live translators grapple with the most appropriate translation of ‘F**K’ into the local language. A performance of Western Society marks an emotional home-coming to Nottingham, whereas later in the year, the UK premiere of Are You With Us? is seen by less than 50 people at Warwick Arts Centre, some of whom leave before the end of the show to catch a bus home. Western Society is performed in a huge theatre in Bogota, with a machine-gun toting armed guard and a six-strong medical team patrolling the wings. The Conversationalist is presented at Boris Becker’s former tennis club in Mannheim as part of Theater der Welt, and the hero of Super Night Shot tries to bring hope to the grime and despair of downtown LA.
Work begins on My Square Lady, an ambitious coupling of robotics and opera, with residencies at Komische Oper Berlin and Humboldt University’s Neurorobotics Research Laboratory. The aim of the project is nothing less than to teach a humanoid robot called Myon how to emote like a human, using the all the means at the opera house’s disposal. The project arouses unprecedented media attention and TV crews line-up to witness the all-singing, all dancing robotic phenomenon. They are of course disappointed as the reality of early 21st century robotics is far removed from any Hollywood movie…
In November, Gob Squad’s 20th birthday is celebrated at HAU Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin with a ‘weekend of collectivity’ , co-curated by Christina Runge. Be Part of Something Bigger is 3 days of performances, talks, films, bands, DJs, dancing, stunt men and women, fortune tellers, hot soup, furniture-making and collective eating, drinking, dancing, watching and discussing. It brings two decades of working as an artists collective to a poignant and emotional close.