Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good)
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
January 21, 2012
Andy Warhol's experimental films in the mid-'60s were seen by very few people. Shown at underground theaters in New York to an in-the-know artsy elite, they are astoundingly, aggressively dull. Conceived by Warhol as a vehicle to make Edie Sedgwick his Factory's superstar, Kitchen is a rambling, disjointed series of situations and half-remembered dialogue taking place in a cramped kitchen. In his review at the time, Norman Mailer described them as, “a horror to watch. It captured the essence of every boring, dead day one's ever had in a city.” And yet in their dullness they achieved something extraordinarily authentic and new in the face of the glossy and rapidly growing mediascape that would come to dominate American culture. Mailer went on to write that, “a hundred years from now people will look at Kitchen and say, ‘Yes, that is the way it was in the late Fifties, early Sixties in America. That’s why they had the war in Vietnam. That’s why the rivers were getting polluted. That’s why there was typological glut. That’s why the horror came down. That’s why the plague was on its way.’ Kitchen shows that better than any other work of that time.”
This notion of timeliness weighs heavily on British/German company Gob Squad as they take Warhol's films and adapt them into a live theatrical event, with “one hundred years from now” one of its most frequent refrains. Before taking their seats, the audience is taken on a tour of the studio, which consists of three small sets built on stage, obscured from the seated audience by a large projection screen. The center of the screen is dominated by the feed from the titular kitchen. It is flanked on either side by the bed for Sleep, in which a friend of Warhol's was filmed sleeping for hours, and a couch for Screen Tests, in which subjects were filmed simply sitting and waiting, often unaware that the camera had begun recording. The members of the Squad introduce themselves and the roles they will be playing (themselves—“I am Nina, and tonight I will be playing...Nina”), and haltingly explain the premise of their project, the films they are aiming to reproduce, and for lack of anything else to talk about, the furniture and foodstuffs in the room (Kellogg's Corn Flakes being played with panache and a wry wink by Trader Joe's Organic Corn Flakes). In so doing they actually begin to reproduce Kitchen, which began with an awkward explanation of itself and a catalog of the objects in the room.
Over the course of their self-conscious attempt to recreate the films, the actors become increasingly frustrated at the forced, disingenuous nature of their performance and how it is undermining the spirit of Warhol's work. The solution they find is to gradually replace themselves with proxies selected from the audience, given headphones through which the original actor can feed them instructions. It is through this maneuver that the show really finds its footing, opening itself up to become a framework for the cultivation of the spontaneous, genuine, and delightful. The first half of the show was marked by a slightly grating millennial nostalgia for authenticity, trapped in a viciously rabbit-holing obsession with context. This provided the necessary set-up for the real game of the piece, which elegantly solved the problem by resisting the urge to make grand proclamations about the spirit of our times, instead finding structural contemporaneity by making it literally about its own audience.
Warhol brilliantly anticipated the endgame of the rapidly growing, celebrity-obsessed media culture as the apotheosis of every consumer into a celebrity themselves. This was decades before reality television, before his 15 minutes of fame were reduced to the 2.5 minutes of the average YouTube video. Celebrity is less a function of something people do than it is the very act of recording them. By collapsing a live event into its filmed record and directly insinuating the audience, Gob Squad has brilliantly captured the tail end of what started with Kitchen in 1965, where technology and pervasive media channels have led to a culture of instantaneous nostalgia disconnecting us from the present. Most importantly, though, they do this without pretension and with an enormous and earnest sense of fun.