In his experimental 1960s films, Andy Warhol famously anticipated the reality-TV and reality-celebrity culture of the 21st century, where life is a movie and everyone is a movie star. Gob Squad’s latest project takes its inspiration from those films - in particular, “Kitchen,’’ “Eat,’’ “Sleep,’’ “Kiss,’’ and “Screen Test.’’
Yet this Nottingham/Berlin theater troupe hadn’t actually seen Warhol’s movies when it started work. Moreover, as troupe member Sean Patten disingenuously notes, “Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good)’’ is a piece made by “a bunch of people who are not American and who weren’t really there in the ’60s.’’
The result, which is being presented this weekend at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is a disturbing meditation on the elusiveness of identity and the unrecoverability of time. What’s more, it offers selected audience members the opportunity to secure their 15 minutes of fame (or more!) by joining the proceedings.
“Kitchen,’’ which Warhol shot in May 1965, is more of a happening than a film. The idea was to promote Edie Sedgwick as the Factory’s new superstar, but Sedgwick kept forgetting her lines, and she was told to sneeze whenever she couldn’t remember one. (That led Norman Mailer, in his review of the film, to conclude she must have had a bad cold.)
At the ICA, Gob Squad is constantly asking you to think about the difference - if there is one - between performing and being. You’re watching a film, a video projection onto a tripartite screen, so you don’t actually see the four actors. Except that, at the beginning, you do, because as you enter, you’re shepherded behind the screen to greet Nina Tecklenburg and Sarah Thom, who are seated at the kitchen table, and Sharon Smith, who’s hanging out in the bedroom.
The black and white film itself starts with Nina and Simon Will in the kitchen, which occupies the center screen. “Hello,’’ Simon starts it off. “My name is Simon, and tonight I’ll be playing a character named Simon.’’ They introduce the chairs (which seem to be from the 1970s rather than 1960s, but that’s because “they’re ahead of their time’’), the table, the refrigerator, the whole milk, the Kellogg’s cornflakes, the Nescafé Clásico instant coffee. In the left panel, Sharon sleeps, emulating John Giorno, who slept for 321 minutes in Warhol’s “Sleep.’’ In the right panel, Sarah looks on impassively, performing the first of Gob Squad’s versions of Warhol’s “Screen Test.’’ Simon fails at “Sleep’’ and Nina fails at “Screen Test’’; they all wind up wearing Sedgwick’s trademark stripes in the kitchen, where Sarah tries to be a hot mama and Sharon and Nina attempt to snort lines of coffee. There’s not a single sneeze.
It might make you wonder whether you couldn’t do as well or better. Gob Squad have that same thought: one by one, the actors replace themselves with recruits from the audience. On Friday, the three audience men all had headsets and appeared to be getting prompts. Only Dora, who put in a stellar 20 minutes of sleep (while retaining her glasses) and then was joined by Sharon for “Kiss,’’ appeared to play herself. At the end, the actor replacing Nina announced, “We are the essence of our time.’’ That’s Gob Squad’s curse - and its blessing.