For 10 years now, the members of Gob Squad, a German-British performance collective, have been roaming the streets of major cities around the world armed with video cameras, waging what they call a "war on anonymity" with a show they call Super Night Shot.
At a time where Western governments spy on their own citizens, and those citizens voluntarily invade their own privacy on Facebook, isn't it about time to unfurl the "Mission Accomplished" banner?
Gob Squad is not ready to lay down its weapons yet: Member Simon Will believes that behind the headlines and beyond the social-media trends, anonymity still lurks – and thrives. "The city and urban existence still remain a very anonymous space," he says. "We're still lonely in a crowd."
Super Night Shot, which will take place on Thursday and Saturday night as part of the Luminato Festival, is a hybrid video-performance that, nevertheless, has a nostalgic air to it – thanks to the heady speed of technological change over the past decade.
Armed with older, highly visible hand-held cameras – rather than today's secretive camera-infused smartphones – four members of Gob Squad will head out to make an hour-long film on the streets of Toronto in exactly an hour.
One Gob Squad member will play the hero in the film, while another searches for a member of the public willing to ditch his or her anonymity and share a kiss with the hero at the film's climactic moment.
At the end of 60 minutes, Gob Squad members will return to David Pecault Square, where they will attach their video cameras to projectors, rewind the tapes and press play – and a sound engineer will attempt to turns the four streams of footage into a cohesive film in front of a live audience.
The conceit of Super Night Shot depends on the outdated technology: It is an hour long, because that's the length of a videocassette tape. "We have that amount of time to fulfill our mission, which, of course, gives it a sense of urgency," explains Gob Squad's Sarah Thom, who wears two stopwatches to make sure she doesn't exceed the time.
That sense of urgency could also be described as a sense of theatricality. Indeed, Gob Squad – based in Nottingham and Berlin – has been at the forefront of exploring the intersections between theatre and video art, media and real life, since the collective was founded in 1994.
Today, the dominant discussion surrounding technology still seems to be about how it distances humans from one another – while live theatre offers itself as a remedy for reconnecting.
But Gob Squad clearly believes that video can bring us together. Thom notes that if she were to approach a stranger unarmed and ask them a question like, "Do you believe in love at first sight?" he might think she was mad or on the prowl. But when she has a camera in her hand, strangers will open up about intimate subjects. "There's a liberation in speaking through mediation," she says.
It's is a point journalists have long known, but theatre creators have seemed less aware of – which is why so much audience participation can be awkward or forced. (I was reminded of this paradox recently at puppeteer Ronnie Burkett's show at Luminato. He practically had to drag one man up onstage with him, but when he told audience members they could take pictures and tweet, dozens of phones were whipped out in a flash.)
Jorn Weisbrodt, artistic director of Luminato, says he programmed Gob Squad's work because of how the collective has helped expand the notions of performance and theatre into mediatized realms. He was in Berlin at the 2003 premiere of Super Night Shot, which has since toured to almost 100 cities worldwide, from London to Oslo, from Sao Paulo to Sydney, from New York to Quebec City.
"What's amazing about this piece is that it basically changes with every city – and really reacts to the city where it's being performed," says Weisbrodt.
Super Night Shot premiered a year before Facebook and two years before YouTube, so the members of Gob Squad have had a great opportunity to observe how our relationship to cameras in public places has shifted. Passersby used to come up and shout "Hi mom!" says Thom; now, they are more used to being filmed – and filming, as well.
These days, Gob Squad often finds clips of them shooting Super Night Shot on YouTube after a performance. But they themselves don't put the films online. The Toronto screenings will be as ephemeral as any theatre performance – screened once and then, to use the title of a Martin Crimp play, No One Sees The Video.
And if any city's residents can understand the power of videos that are screened once, then disappear, it's those of Toronto.
Super Night Shot will screen in David Pecault Square Thursday and Saturday at 11 p.m.