In case you haven't noticed, we live in an age of constant self-documentation. This shouldn't be news to anyone, but I was reminded of this when I stopped in Starbucks and ended up in the back of someone's selfie stick-filmed video. Was this person trying to capture a grippingly interesting coffee-getting adventure, or were they more interested in the everyday nature of midtown coffee routines? Perhaps that video has already been uploaded to YouTube. It's not exactly viral video material, but how much of what we record and share about our lives really is? Let's face it: the vast portion of our day is not something anyone else would be interested in viewing.
So, what happens when these moments do get recorded and put out into a digital world that hasn't picked them up and made them stars in their own right? In Western Society, Gob Squad sets out to champion one such video. If you had to define "Western Society" as a concept in one video, it might not look very much like "Keyboard Cat" or "Charlie Bit My Finger - Again!". According to Gob Squad, a group of German and UK-based artists, the video that speaks to them about today's "Western Society" is far more mundane. It is a scene from what appears to be a karaoke party, filmed from a mounted camera of some sort. Despite there being eight (main) people visible in the video, Gob Squad claims that it had only four views when they found it. If all the people shown in the video couldn't even be bothered to watch it, why should anyone else?
Yet Gob Squad became obsessed with this odd relic from an unremarkable party in Santa Barbara, California. To be honest, that obsession is contagious. As I watched the performers embody these anonymous partygoers, talking us through what they think is happening to the people in the video, I found myself wondering about a lot of aspects of that party, YouTube culture, and society. Devoid of any information about the context of this found footage, Gob Squad and the audience is able to simultaneously extract and impose meaning and narrative onto this scene that YouTube has allowed us to endlessly repeat. "What are we doing here?" the performers constantly ask each other, as they step in and out of the various roles of this approximately three minute long clip. The trick is that the answer to that question both is and isn't contained in that video.
You see, the use of this video is not the first thing that I saw on stage at NYU's Skirball Center. Western Society begins with it's own abridged history of what has come before - it reminded me a bit of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Sean Patten, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost, and Simon Will entered the stage wearing nothing but heels and wigs, they literally built society up around themselves, moving furniture, a screen, and a video camera into place as the years raced towards the present moment. We have come with them through the past, and now we're here in the present.
But what are we doing here? One of the most fascinating aspects of Western Society is that the entire mood of the piece forces us to continually question the "here" in that sentence. What are we doing in New York City? What are we doing with our technology? What are we doing in a seat in the Skirball Center? Sean, Sarah, Bastian, and Simon are all calling each other by their real names, directly addressing the audience, and even interacting with actual audience members who are brought up to take on seven of the eight roles in some of the recreations of the video. These conditions mean that this performance creates a different kind of theatrical experience for an audience member. It's an almost hypnotic mix of the excitement of live performance and the comfort of the distance provided by technology. We feel somehow very close to the performers, who speak to us like friends and who have interacted with seven randomly chosen delegates from our audience community, yet we are protected by the screen and by the media that allows us to keep a safe distance. We know the performers are there, but we very often see them through a livestreamed projection onto a screen.
Western Society, like its namesake, actually requires your participation in the system to make meaning. Western Society has four performers -- like the four original viewers of the video -- who have now brought this slice of life reality to a broader audience. By putting the bodies of audience members on both sides of the equation, they have taken a video more impressive for its isolation on YouTube than for its content, and made it a model for the human desire to make narrative and meaning. As we watch the performers interweave their own stories (or, at least, what is presented as their own stories) into this video, we are encouraged to make parallel moves in our own minds. What do we think of when we first see "Cake Lady" or "Granny"? Who are these people in our own lives? What are we doing here?
All of these questions ebbed and flowed in my mind as I sat in the Skirball Center, watching a live performance of the complex relationships formed between technology and culture and reality. But the performance itself was most like Granny in the video, who several of the performers remark is just "pure joy." Gob Squad has managed to create a piece that asks and explores real questions through a performance that doesn't make thinking about any of these issues seem like work at all. Though Western Society has already moved on from the Skirball Center, you should be sure to catch this piece or any other Gob Squad offering the next time they're in town for a night worthy of a whole lot of YouTube views. It's like having a living room of one's own, but in a room full of people who feel the same way.