An Unlikely Utopia:
Super Night Shot, New Haven
By Jenny Schmidt
Super Night Shot
By Gob Squad
Yale University Theater
“Each of us is just one in a million, easy to replace and easy to forget in a city that doesn’t really need us. But don’t worry. We’re going to change all that. We’ve got a plan. This city will need us and this film will be our witness."
-- Opening statement of Super Night Shot
For the audience of Gob Squad’s Super Night Shot, the performance begins at the finish line. Instead of finding seats in the auditorium, we are directed to the concessions area of Yale’s University Theater, where we line up along a winding path leading to a banner that reads “The End.” Ushers distribute noisemakers, confetti, and free popcorn to the confused but intrigued crowd, and the house manager instructs us to cheer loudly for the four returning Gob Squad members, who have spent the last hour exploring the city with handheld video cameras. Whatever the performers experienced during their hour journey in the city, they are ensured a hero’s welcome now. As they arrive at the theater, fashionably late and considerably disheveled, they weave through the crowd recording a final, victorious scene for the evening’s film with the help of their audience.
A collective composed of British and German artists, Gob Squad, as their website simply states, “makes performances and videos.” Their popular, long-running project Super Night Shot, which uses what Gob Squad terms “live film,” combines the ephemerality of performance with the documentary quality of video. Gob Squad records unique footage for each performance of Super Night Shot, and produces from that footage a novel cinematic experience. Leaving a significant portion of the film’s content in the hands of strangers, each performance of Super Night Shot risks failure, but uses a structure (including the hero’s welcome just described) that guarantees any outcome will meet with success. With a few simple tricks, the show manufactures a magical experience from material that might otherwise seem mundane.
Once we are allowed into the auditorium and take our seats in front of a large movie screen filling the proscenium arch, we watch the collected footage from the beginning. The screen displays the four video recordings side by side (one from each of the performers), and while these projections keep rolling simultaneously, we hear the audio from only one video at a time. In an impressive act of improvisational sound design, the sound engineer Jeff McGory mixes live the audio from the various videos and overlays a soundtrack with music of varying moods, thus directing our attention and experience of the composite video in myriad ways.
The cameras begin recording when the performers assemble in the empty theater an hour before curtain time and prepare to embark on their journey. They explain the rules and the mission, exuding the optimism under which they unfailingly operate: “We’ve got a plan. This city will need us and this film will be our witness.” The assurance that they’ve “got a plan” establishes a contrast between the risk of unplanned human interaction and the security of a set framework. The pairing of a city in “need” with a film as witness is typical of the company’s aesthetic, its self-described “collision course” of “everyday life and magic, banality and utopia, reality and entertainment.”
Their utopian mission in Super Night Shot is to wage a “war on anonymity.” While it may seem odd, in the age of social media, that this war needs to be fought, Gob Squad offers a more satisfying antidote to anonymity than a confessional YouTube video or Craigslist ad. They seek to combat the loneliness of city streets with the earnest desire to help passers-by. The description of Super Night Shot on the company’s website includes a list of the project’s accomplishments in cities around the world, since its inception in 2003:
Over the years the film’s hero (a role rotated amongst Gob Squad’s performers) has done his/her best to solve all the problems thrown at them. In Siberia, the hero was asked to bring warmth to the city and melt the snow, in Brazil the hero bridged the gap between rich and poor and helped raise money for a homeless woman to buy milk for her baby. In London, the hero gave some instant marriage guidance to quarrelling pensioners. In Bangalore, the hero provided security for a market trader and during a recent mission in the company’s home town of Berlin the hero helped some confused shoppers assemble their new Ikea shelves.
The February 1, 2013, performance of Super Night Shot at the Yale University Theater in New Haven, CT, did not contain any narratives as poetic or fruitful as these. Taken out of context, the conversations in the footage wouldn’t have been particularly interesting or illuminating (and this has been true in other cities too), but in the framework of the four screens and the soundtrack, they became so. Gob Squad steered the audience to accept the banal as worthy of our time and attention. They asked us to look with different eyes at the well-known shapes of our city.
In all this work’s iterations, the loose narrative structure of the composite film is the hero’s journey. Before leaving the theater for the streets of New Haven, the performers explain the roles that each will play in their mission. First the hero, played this night by Bastian Trost, decides that an epic movie kiss with a stranger will be the ultimate goal of his journey. To help make the kiss “magical,” the other three assign themselves the roles of location scout (Sarah Thom), casting agent (Birit Strumpf), and PR person (Mat Hand). The danger of their journey is manifest as they bundle up to face a cold February night on the streets of New Haven.
They were obviously warned of New Haven’s reputation. As Mat Hand dons a facemask for warmth, his companions joke that looking like a criminal is dangerous in this place -– they hear there are a lot of police around. On a map, they show us the perimeter for their journey, and the enclosed area approximates the bounds of the Yale campus, a boundary many Yalies adhere to when walking alone at night. While the four Gob Squad members always refer to their location as New Haven, they might more accurately call the “city” of their film Yale.
Finally, before leaving on their mission, they share the secret to their courage: “naïve blind faith.” Each produces a pamphlet on the subject, carried for reference during the journey. The hero’s journey structure for their film will be as strong or weak as the imaginations and participation of the people on the street. With their “naïve blind faith” they trust that they will find willing subjects worthy of a film. The four turn on the “night shot” function of their cameras, the grey-green tones of this filter giving the video an action-movie atmosphere, and then step out into New Haven at night. After they exit the theater and begin to head in separate directions, they focus their cameras on words they write in chalk that, when put together on the four screens, spell out “This – is – super – night shot.” Providing a title sequence for their video, this gesture also serves as the first of several moments of planned synchronicity that give structure to the hour of non-stop recording when it is finished.
The beginning of the journey most closely follows Bastian, our highly charismatic hero, who soon finds a man willing to speak with him, and the man charges Bastian with the task of saving New Haven from politics. Bastian accepts this mission, although we later learn that the man is not a city resident, only a visitor interviewing for Yale. The mission leads Bastian nowhere: no one gives him good suggestions for how to save the city from politics, he is kicked out of a bookstore when trying to consult books on politics, and eventually he abandons the task. In search of another way to help the city, he follows a man into an apartment building, which yields little, and then asks a series of people on the street if they need help. No one gives him a satisfactory mission or message. Despite these failures, Bastian remains hopeful, anticipating the climatic kiss that awaits him at the end.
The activities of Birit, Mat, and Sarah are no more revelatory. Birit, the fictional casting agent, engages in a long conversation with a man in Tyco Printing, much of which we don’t get to hear. In his PR duties, Mat posts pictures of Bastian on street signs, fire hydrants, and car bumpers, and Sarah rhapsodizes over various New Haven locations, before deciding they are all unfit for the kiss location.
In their most engaging moments, each of the performers finds ways to interact with the city in language specific to New Haven. Super Night Shot has visited numerous cities since 2003, and (as Sarah Thom articulated at a post-show discussion) each time the group seeks to have a “conversation with” the host city. Here, Sarah, inspired by the neo-Gothic architecture of Yale, stages a horror film at one point during her location scouting. Setting the camera down, she wanders like a zombie on the lawn outside a dark, stone, pointy-arched, turreted Yale building, and later finds a stranger to play another zombie. The PR agent, Mat, created a New Haven-specific poster of Bastian. The technique of plastering the city with images of the current hero’s face is common to all performances of Super Night Shot, but this city already has its own PR campaign called “New Haven Notables,” which celebrates the celebrities that once graced the city’s streets by pasting their faces on buildings. Mat used this campaign by creating a mock-up of a New Haven Notables poster in which Bastian Trost briefly joined the ranks of Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti.
It should be said that there is more to the hour-long film than the banality of its “everyday life.” It is also peppered with planned whimsical and fantastic interludes, which are the source of much of its “magic.” These well-choreographed moments of spectacle, supporting the interactions with strangers, draw on popular film culture, wardrobe surprises, and simple camera manipulations. As Nina Tecklenburg describes in a 2012 TDR article [56:2], these “magic moments” are a trademark of Gob Squad:
Whether in car parks, public squares, hotels, shopping centers, houses, or offices, Gob Squad presents a highly constructed everyday-within-the-everyday that is suddenly undermined: a door opens, music surges, a costume changes, a wig is pulled on…and already the familiar is briefly displaced. Gob Squad calls such occasions "magic moments." These moments are at the heart of the poetry as well as the utopian quality of their work.
At agreed upon times during the hour-long recording, the four start to act in unison in separate locations. The simplest and most repeated of these moments occurs when they start spinning slowly in a circle with the camera facing them, an effect that makes the spectator feel like she has each of them by the hands and is spinning along. Much of the power of these moments stems from the brief cohesion of all four screens with pre-planned music to evoke a perfectly nostalgic mood.
About halfway through the film the group sheds their military-green, cold-weather gear to reveal sequin-covered suits and animal masks. Bastian, caught in an apartment hallway for this transformation, looks especially dapper as he reveals underneath his coat a white tuxedo and then dons a rabbit mask that covers his face completely. Metamorphosing into fantastical creatures like this one, they dance wildly to swelling music. In a clear nod to film history, they later open umbrellas and approximate a tap dance.
The climactic “magic moment” of the hour is the long awaited kiss. Birit manages to find a willing participant just in time and all four race to the New Haven Green, “the perfect location,” so that the participant can kiss a “very handsome rabbit.” As the cameras converge in order to shoot from the same angle, the rabbit/Bastian and the girl kiss, with the cameras switched to slow-motion mode. The world of New Haven swirls and blurs as the rabbit dips the girl and the girl dips the rabbit in a prolonged and passionate kiss.
The presence of the camera acts as a conduit between the everyday and the magical. Holding a camera in this city in itself presents a risk (Yale students are warned not to display cell phones, let alone video equipment, when walking at night in New Haven). But in a way the cameras in this case also act as security, for both the Gob Squad members and the passers-by they interview. As the performers discussed after the show, the cameras give them both the courage and the excuse for their outlandish dances and costumes. An amateur tap dance with an umbrella is a more dignified and justified activity with a camera there to capture the action than it would be otherwise. The camera also helps the performers approach their subjects on the street, legitimizing their requests to people to be part of a film. As the video reaches the audience in the University Theater, the “live film” brings both the magical moments and the unscripted encounters with our fellow citizens to fruition, blending the intimate and the mythic.
“This city will need us.” By the end of Super Night Shot, I agreed with this brave statement. Although their triumphant treatment of a mission that, in reality, inevitably fails, might invite skepticism or sarcasm, the Gob Squad members, armed with pamphlets on naïve blind faith, persistently promote sincerity. As a resident of New Haven, I, for one, was glad of Super Night Shot’s sincere dose of whimsy, which alleviated for a brief while my cynicism towards and boredom with New Haven. I traverse daily the streets featured in Super Night Shot, but Gob Squad brought a welcome sense of wonder to them, creating magic with the simple manipulation of music, costume changes, and cheap special effects. In the end, it did not matter that there was no exceptional narrative for the hero’s journey, because the company fulfilled its mission to make the banal remarkable and to entertain the possibility of utopia for a short, glorious hour.