thu 16/08/2018

10 Questions for Sharon Smith of Arts Collective Gob Squad | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Sharon Smith of Arts Collective Gob Squad

10 Questions for Sharon Smith of Arts Collective Gob Squad

Sharon Smith of the Berlin-based Gob Squad talks age, Oscar Wilde and Nicki Minaj

Sharon Smith is second-from-right© Jade Mainade

Gob Squad is a “seven-headed” Anglo-German arts collective who specialise in multimedia performance. Beginning in Nottingham in 1994 and now based in Berlin, their work ranges from site-specific to installation and film but, more recently, mainly theatre. They major in using technology to “make connections with places outside the theatre or to create different spaces inside the theatre where we can talk to the audience in quite intimate ways”. Recent works include War and Peace and My Square Lady. For the Brighton Festival they're presenting Gob Squad’s Creation (Pictures for Dorian), based on Oscar Wilde’s famous novel, at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts from 23-27 May. It will then tour to London’s Southbank Centre as part of LIFT Festival from 4-7 June 2018. Theartsdesk spoke to Gob Squad’s Sharon Smith (b.1970).

THOMAS H GREEN: Are there comic elements in what Gob Squad does?

SHARON SMITH: We think we’re hilarious! We like to employ a light touch. Often our themes and aims are epic, and a way we deal with that is by employing what we call naive blind faith. So we like to set ourselves very big challenges then deal with the inevitable failure, and there’s a certain pathos and, hopefully, comedy about that.

What do you, personally, do in Gob Squad?

Well, we’re quite committed to the collective idea. We argue everything. There’s no director in the group. Everybody is fully involved in all aspects of making and performing. The seven members of Gob Squad are, if you like, the shareholders. We’re the core. Then there’s quite a large family that hovers around that core; video designer, lighting designer, music and sound designer, people designing costumes, set realisation. So we outsource departmental jobs but we all have our fingers in the pie. We exchange roles constantly then we keep this collective thing and we're quite opposed to authorship within the work. Everything’s very fluid.

What have you done to Oscar Wilde?

We hope that we’ve done him proud because we love him. We’ve taken that as our springboard for talking about beauty in this age and also about who is the artist, who is the spectator of the artwork, and who is the subject. This triangle we borrowed; Basil, Henry and Dorian [in A Picture of Dorian Gray] create this triangle, so we borrowed that and the Faustian pact with the Devil and a few beautiful verses from the book. We’ve built something incredibly lush visually because of the lushness of Oscar Wilde’s writing, his descriptions of what is beauty and nature and art really inspired us to make something drenched in beauty.

For this piece, you interact with local performers. How does that work?

We’ve never done this before, actually. We made a call-out to local performers in the area. We wanted people under 22 and people over 75, three young people and three older people to join us in this multi-generational cast, because Gob Squad are middle-aged. The requirement was you’re either aspiring to be onstage in some way or you’ve spent a life onstage, so basically your body has been looked at and been your currency, your work. You’ve enjoyed the gaze of spectators. That’s the thematic common ground.

Have you been to Brighton before?

Yes, we’ve been working for a little bit at the University of Sussex at Falmer, built up relationships over the last couple of years. We’ve been doing workshops and we performed our last show, War and Peace, there. Four of us in the group are from England and quite a few of my very favourite people live in Brighton. I have an old relationship with it because of the Polytechnic. One of my favourite people of all time is Mine Kaylan, she was head of arts and culture there. And Matt Rudkin who was a freelance artist, an incredible artist based in Brighton. It’s a very special place, culturally, for me and it’s by the sea and the beautiful hills. It’s just a total win-win, isn’t it - a brilliant city.

How did you end up in Berlin?

Because of Gob Squad. Gob Squad’s been together for 25 years. It started in Nottingham and we still have a little office there. We’re very committed to keeping an active profile in the UK but we came to Berlin in the late-Nineties mainly because of opportunity. We were offered a great residency here at a place called Podewil and one thing led to another. Even now, although it’s changing, it’s possible to live here solely as an artist without trying to run around doing other jobs. There’s very good funding in Germany for the arts. It’s a very important part of cultural life, the free theatre scene and so on.

What are your own thoughts on ageing?

Well, of course I want to be incredibly graceful and ideological about it. I want to age gracefully. I do love spending time with old people. My granny’s 94 and she’s one of my favourite people in the whole world. But at the same time, as a middle-aged woman of 48 in the process of the menopause, I’m losing what I had. It’s happening daily and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel quite vain. So I’m caught between two places and I think what this project has taught me is that the middle place is, in some ways, the hardest part of the ageing process. For women, when you finish the menopause, things change, you’re free, potentially, if you’ve still got health and fitness. You can have this whole other emancipated chapter, free of ties that bind you. In a way, I’m quite looking forward to it.

Has physical beauty become our obsession in this age of endless visual documentation?

Yes, yes, I utterly do believe that. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t hate it and feel a little bit imprisoned by it. It’s the ultimate end-of-capitalism prison; the body is our last site of exploitation for both men and women, trapped by the capitalist fiction that if we work harder, try harder and spend more money and time on it, we’ll be better, more attractive, successful and happier. It’s the ultimate product. It’s not just beauty, it’s a commodity.

You are a feminist. How do you feel when artists such as Nicki Minaj claim their porno chic videos are empowering for women?

I’m a massive Nicki Minaj fan. I was having a conversation about Beyoncé the other day, about girl power and how that space is also occupied by the capitalist machine, a product probably surrounded by men, even though the figurehead is a woman, steeped in the male gaze. Strong women are speaking up for themselves and owning their bodies… at least the illusion of that has got to be better than its opposite. I don’t think it’s entirely an illusion either. Nicki Minaj is emancipated and exciting for women - and still for men - so I’m conflicted about it but my daughter, I hope, grows up feeling very empowered by visual culture, gender fluid, even post-gender, not so concerned by the history and politics that Nicki Minaj has grown from.

Overleaf: Watch a trailer for Creation (Pictures for Dorian)

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