28 July 2017.
Contact Young Company and Action Hero.
Andy Warhol’s prophetic assertion that “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” is the starting point for Contact Young Company’s new show.
What can you do in 15 minutes they ask? Travel to Contact on a bus from Piccadilly or bake a batch of cookies? Its limitations are starkly noted – not even enough time to take a decent photograph or write a good joke. There is a countdown from 15 to one – it’s over so quickly.
However, despite all the toying and teasing with that 15 minute time frame, the show’s spotlight falls most heavily on the pursuit of being ‘world-famous’. The company reimagine Warhol’s creative work space The Factory and, much as he did, they use it as a laboratory in which to examine and dissect celebrity.
A pitiful parade of increasingly desperate claims to fame is played out by the cast as an opener. “You’ll know me from….” the original Sugababes (or) my lips in a Rimmel advert (or) being Knutsford’s Rear of the Year. They then take turns coming forward to position their faces within a picture frame while their peers look on adoringly. To the side, a trio play out the modern obsession with quantifying popularity – how many people they were out socializing with, how big was the audience for something they appeared in or the size of crowd they were part of. Their networks more tenuous and meaningless as the numbers grow ever bigger.
Three vloggers pop up. Each breezily implores us to ‘like’ them , click on their links and tell our friends about them. One after another they exhort the desirability of Warhol’s trademark blonde wig. Through their vlogs the iconic wig becomes commodified. It’s something to wear when you are sad or jealous, a solution to a bad-hair day, and the missing ingredient in a brunch outing. Something we never knew we needed is suddenly made essential through endorsement. The tangled web of celebrity and consumerism is referenced again later as a Warhol clip of Lou Reed clutching a bottle of Coca-Cola is lovingly re-enacted.
I was doubtful at first as to how relevant The Factory period would be to a group of young people today. When the cast emerged all bewigged and dressed in black, lip-syncing along to ‘Andy’s Chest’ (the Velvet Underground’s tribute to Warhol and the Factory) I counted back to half a century ago. However Warhol and his work provide a surprisingly fertile context for the company’s more contemporary thoughts.
One of the young Warhols is interviewed centre stage, and only answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a technique often used by the real Andy. Then a stage full of Warhols begin to respond. Some answer ‘yes’ while others say ‘no’ to the same question. Celebrity may have become more democratised but it is accompanied by an increasing divergence of opinions.
In another revealing sequence a seemingly mundane script debating the desirability of working in Burger King over being famous is played out over and over again – just as it would have been in The Factory. Each time ‘Warhol’ shouts “cut” another person steps up to go through the lines. The spoken directions “points at face” and some scene-setting about hesitating to put on some sunglasses take on a deeper significance the more they are repeated. Someone has floods of fake tears applied to their face and after one final scene they are ushered away from the camera. Their 15 minutes is over. The conveyor belt process, the stilted acting and the heavily scripted directions play out like an homage to the reality television world of TOWIE.
Director Gemma Paintin used celebrity as a starting point to develop something more layered and complex in Action Hero’s recent show ‘Wrecking Ball‘. Here she does something similar, bringing a sharp focus to the piece as well as a willingness to explore some harsh truths. There is a recurring undercurrent of emptiness and desperation but also a lightness of touch that uses humour to dispel some of the chill. In a skillfully played out scenario several cast members competitively claim to have tried to kill Warhol. As they each say “I shot Andy Warhol” their peers’ reactions are entirely driven by the last two words and not the first. They never once condemn the act or express shock. Instead they focus on the bravery of that person for confessing, are fascinated by the planning and clamour to hear about the macabre connection to someone so famous. By the time a third person claims to have shot Warhol, condemnation finally comes but for jumping on the bandwagon not for the act itself. It’s a highly effective take on a society damaged and desensitised by its fascination with fame.
Interestingly Warhol only ever provides a starting point from which the show’s ideas develop his work doesn’t provide any answers. We are reminded that Warhol actually ‘adopted’ his famous persona from another artist.
The use of The Factory era allows us to put aside the belief that the obsession with celebrity is somehow new. This is reinforced with the use of technology from that time. The set is filled with old tv monitors stacked in piles, their screens monochrome (as well as colour). There are no mobiles, tablets or laptops to be seen.
The cast use handheld cameras tethered on long leads. Their gaze is often restless. They gather on the stage and look at us, or lie on the floor, resting their face in their hands and look at colleagues on the stage. They stare into cameras, from screens, at screens, through a lens.
As we near the end, a camera picks out someone in the crowd. Taking to the stage, he puts on a wig and sunglasses to become Andy as two more cameras are manoeuvred over his clothes, shoes, hands and face. They (and we) pore over him – up close, slowly and with intent. Meanwhile the others have all stood up and they start to notice people at the periphery of their vision, become aware of everyday detail. Sights, sounds and smells take on a new significance. Lipstick smeared on a glass. A glass smashing. Time seems to slow down.
Finally, one woman yearns for an ordinary life unfettered by fame. She notices how scared and unhappy celebrities seem behind their big sunglasses. “Fuck 15 minutes of fame” she declares. She moves towards ‘Andy’ and takes off his wig and glasses. Facing each other, they don’t just look – this time they actually see each other.
Director Gemma Paintin’s clever and inventive use of Warhol’s working methods brings structure and focus to themes that could potentially have been unwieldy and messy. Contact Young Company become present day ‘Warhol superstars’ subverting his techniques which were often designed to alienate and disorientate to create something more authentically truthful. Ultimately unimpressed by the reality of life in the spotlight their final moments remind us to celebrate the joys to be found in the everyday.