Some Old Shit: Warhol on Stage
By Yelena Gluzman
Below I reflect on two performances, both from years ago, and both dealing, on some level, with Warhol. Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) was originally brought to New York by the Under the Radar Festival in 2011, and returned for a run at the Public Theater the following year. Romeo Castellucci’s Inferno (part of his Divine Comedy trilogy) has, as far as I can tell, never been performed in the United States.
This month, both Gob Squad and Castellucci will be showing brand new works in the U.S.: Gob Squad will be performing at Redcat in Los Angles Sept. 11-20, and Castellucci will be at the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival Sept 11 -13.
In Gob Squad’s Kitchen, the group presents a stage entirely obscured by a triptych of screens. Behind the screens, the performers enact Warhol films: Sleep and Kiss are live-streamed on the left-most screen, Kitchen occupies the center, and to the right there are a series of screen tests. Acting the clowns, the performers struggle over the proper New York pronunciation of caw-fee and argue over how much sexual tension is necessary, how to be cool and wild enough to capture that special combination of boring and thrilling that characterizes Warhol films. In short, they struggle with finding authenticity in their treatment of Warhol’s works.
To single out authenticity is ingenious, of course, since Warhol’s particular alchemy consisted in a refusal of authenticity, of openly making something out of nothing, or constructing aura around the banal. In Warhol’s world, anyone could become a superstar and any object could be reified as art; Warhol made it so, and the gaze of the camera, of the audience, and of history followed. The Gob Squad’s ingenuity lay in first setting itself up as comically incapable of authentically representing a Warholian system, and then by enacting such a system by choosing four banal schleps from the audience to serve as performers.
Gob Squad’s Kitchen absorbed me—literally, since I was one of the four to be schlepped to the stage, asked to stand in for one of the performers, given microphones, headphones, and a wireless transmitter through which the “original” performer instructed each of us in our every word, glance and action. I proceeded to obediently zombie my way through my 15 minutes of fame.
If you saw Gob Squad’s Kitchen, you may be interested to know that the performer I replaced was Shawn, the most tense and reluctant of the four characters. This meant that I played most of “my” scenes with Bastian, the most German and gay of the four. The experience of performing suddenly, trying to follow in real time instructions and text that are being fed into your headphones, is a bit what it must have been like being simultaneously on heroin and cocaine and trying to follow directions to get to the second floor of the Factory (hey man, does this place have a second floor?). You get there, but it is difficult to remember what you actually did, or what it felt like, or why you wanted to go there in the first place.
In my younger, angrier days, I would certainly have been tempted to willfully disobey the instructions given to me, to knock over the screen or whisper side-comments to the audience. These days, I am less angry, and more appreciative of anything that actually works, knowing what an enormous labor it takes, and what a miracle it is when it comes together. And so, I spoke the lines given to me, I laid my head in Bastian’s lap as the camera zoomed in on his face, and I crawled backward (off camera, as instructed) as he proceeded to simulate an orgasm in response to the blow job that I was not giving him. It was fun.
Bastian was sweet to perform with, and it was funny, when in our off-screen moments he offered me coffee in the same earnest and kind way he had earlier, on-screen with Shawn. The coffee was warm water, actually, and I noticed, while trying to keep up with my in-ear feed, that Bastian (waiting for me to complete my lines so he could speak his own) was very mildly lip-synching my lines as I spoke them. It was barely noticeable, of course; I am sure it would not be visible on screen, from the audience. But it underlined the difference between us, and in general, the vast chasm that separates the one who constructs a system, and the one who must move through it.
This reminded me of another play I have seen that dealt with the works of Andy Warhol: Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Inferno. Inferno, one of three plays based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, began with director/auteur Romeo Castellucci walking onto the stage, speaking his own name, putting on a protective suit, and then being mauled by a group of German Shepherd attack dogs, while another performer scaled and defaced the back wall of the stage. And that was just, like, the first five minutes.
Inferno did not deal so much with the issue of authenticity as it did with authorship, with the breathtaking glory and also the accountability, misery, and destruction that comes with the assertion of your name and the imposition of your worldview. And though authenticity is a more popular topic these days (fueling discourse about fiction, documentation, and time, and fitting nicely into deconstructions of historical and cultural narratives), the issues of authorship and accountability constitute the largely unacknowledged pile of shit exploding out of the outhouses of artists like Andy Warhol, John Cage, and Marcel Duchamp.
It’s hard to say it better than Yvonne Rainer, who in 1981 pointed out that Cage’s seemingly inclusive works summarily dismissed and excluded the injustice, oppression and suffering that surrounded him. Rainer argued that it was precisely Cage’s privileged position that allowed him the agency and naiveté to hold such a world-view. In the case of an artist like Warhol, whose work was often constituted and carried out by people in various states of suffering, this lapse takes a more (often literally) morbid turn. And even aside from the implicit exploitation of such relationships (which have been criticized elsewhere), Warhol’s basic stance as an artist opens a problematic gap of accountability.
Warhol often suggested, in his aphoristic essays and in interviews, that he was “empty” and that he liked his work to be empty too. And yet there was something different between his brand of “emptiness” and that found in many of the people around him. Emptiness implies lack of agency, and certainly lack of will. Warhol not only chose to be empty, he imposed it on his works, his collaborators and the public. For Warhol, it was precisely his position as a white man that made his choice of emptiness a powerful one; no woman or person of color of that time could have commanded authority through a seeming absence of will. For women, emptiness was not a choice, it was a condition thrust upon them.
Warhol, and Cage, and Duchamp before him, are giants of 20th century art because they challenged the very notion of content. By equating all content as being more-or-less irrelevant, they shifted the focus of the artwork on the choice of the artist. Yet though their works were hailed as an erasure of the Author, they all in fact posited that authorship itself (i.e., the act of choosing, the gesture of thrusting anything into the public gaze) constituted the content of an artwork. Their sleight of hand lay in the fact that they asserted authorship while simultaneously refusing responsibility for the semantic and political repercussions of such iterations.
Castellucci’s Warhol emerges from a car wreck (a real, life-size operatic car wreck on an enormous stage). He seems dazed and stumbles around a bit. He seems horrified. He seems empty. He is in Hell. There is little text given to contextualize this moment, though I think Castellucci might be referencing the moment after aspiring playwright Valerie Solanas shot Warhol, and imagining the instant in which Warhol glimpsed the Hell to which he would be subjected, a Hell that he authored.
In the very last moment of Gob Squad’s Kitchen, all the performers have been replaced by audience members. I am standing toward the back of the so-called kitchen, eating a stale peanut-butter sandwich, while one of the other audience members looks directly into the camera and repeats the closing monologue that is being fed into her earphones. In my own earphones, Shawn is telling me to put down the sandwich, and that when he counts to three, I am to take off the headphones, cutting the connection between us, and leaving me without subsequent instructions. “Take off the headphones, say hello to the others, offer them a beer. It will only last about 30 seconds.” Thus, my 15 minutes of fame ended with 30 seconds of freedom, with an authentically Warholian freedom, during which I stared blankly at the other schlepps on stage as the lights faded to black.
About the Author: Yelena Gluzman is a theater director, writer, editor, and researcher. She is a founding editor of Emergency Index, an annual compendium of performance documents, and Emergency Playscripts, a series of primary performance texts. Since 1999, she has staged numerous “Science Projects,” performance works made to consider how performativity functions. Last year, with Esther Neff, she convened the first Conference of Theoretical Theater, in New York. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. at the University of California San Diego. This essay was originally written in Helsinki, Aug. 2012, after seeing Gob Squad’s Kitchen at the Tampere Theater Festival (2012), and Castellucci’s Inferno at Festival/Tokyo (2009).
 Rainer wrote, quoting John Cage, “Only a man born with a sunny disposition could have said: ‘This play, however, is an affirmation of life, not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements on creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord’ (…) What is John Cage’s gift to some of us who make art? This; the relaying of conceptual precedents for nonhierarchical, indeterminate organization which can be used with a critical intelligence, that is, selectively and productively, not, however, so that we might awaken to this excellent life; on the contrary, so we may the more readily awaken to the ways in which we have been led to believe that this life is so excellent, and just, and right” (Rainer, “Looking Myself in the Mouth,” October 17 (1981): 67-68).