So we meet at the Battersea Arts Centre in London. The London Evening Standard would write it’s a rainy and cold and windy and nasty day. Tim Etchells is about to perform his solo work A Broadcasting/Looping Pieces later that day. And while we try to prepare for our interview and filter the illegible notes we took the week before during his performance there is a wild children’s birthday party in the corridor of the arts centre.
Tim Etchells is known for his performance productions with Forced Entertainment, one of the most influential post-dramatic theater collectives that was founded in 1984. Working on video art, mixed-media-installations and publishing texts on performance theory and contemporary culture Tim Etchells’ practice has been presented in a wide range of contexts and institutions: theatre spaces (Hebbel am Ufer and Volksbühne in Berlin), museums (Tate Modern), contemporary dance spaces (PACT Zollverein), music festivals (London Contemporary Music Festival), and public spaces. We want to talk to him about his constant travel in the gaps and fractures of contemporary artistic production, and the possibilities and limits of his transversal practice.
An off-tune piano is being take over by some of the children. Five more minutes until he arrives…
Question: Your solo performance A Broadcast/Looping Pieces starts with you repeating the sentence “I want to talk to you, I want to talk to you, I really want to talk to you.“ Your gestures are fractured like the text material you are using. On a table at the back of the performance space lies a stack of printed notes. What are you actually negotiating in that performance?
Tim Etchells: I’m exploring this body of text material that I’ve gathered over the last 15 years. That’s the stuff that’s on the cards and it’s all printed from a ‘notebook’ word processing document on my laptop. It’s a combination of many different things I wrote down; things I made up, things I heard, things I saw in a book or in a movie or on a website or in a newspaper or whatever. It’s a loose collection of materials that were interesting to me for one reason or another, gathered without any concrete program or agenda. One of the things I am trying to do in the performance is simply to speak out some of those archival materials, these fragments of language, in order to test them. I’m working to understand them in relation to each other as possible utterances in a space that other people are in.
These notebook materials are mostly just sitting on my computer; I look at it every now and then when preparing a project or looking for ideas but mostly stuff goes in there and just dies there – its an archive, a scrap book, a storage facility. So partly the desire in A Broadcasting/Looping Pieces and some of the other things I have done recently is to animate that material and to investigate it publicly.
More broadly for me, this approach I’m taking – revisiting these fragments of language, a lot of it found material- fits with some of my thinking of what language is and what linguistic identity is for a person. I don’t tend to think of myself as a writer who writes from a primal source deep inside me, something internal that has to get out, which I think a lot of people who start writing think it is about. I understand myself much more as somebody who is channelling, collaging, mixing, repeating, replaying text materials that come from different places. In a strange way all of it is alien, none of it is me – you could say that I’m only a meeting point for those particular signals and voices and stories that I find and which fascinate me for whatever reason. So you could see the performance as a kind of portrait, an experimental self-portrait, made through these materials that I’m channelling. Even in a more everyday context, in a conversation like this one, when I speak you will hear my teachers and my family, you will hear my friends, you’ll hear movies that I have seen, books I’ve read. Some stuff I will have borrowed consciously, tactically, and other things I’ll have borrowed unconsciously. To me that act of borrowing, re-mixing and re-using is what language is. And of course that’s the concern of the performance.
Q: It’s quite interesting that you use terms like channelling and your performance is called A Broadcasting/Looping Pieces – referring to distributional technology. But in the performance everything is analogue – your notes from your laptop are printed. At the same time there is this fractured body, fractured articulation and decontextualized sentences. There seems to be a strong sense of mediation.
TE: I think our understanding of what language is and our relation to it is always influenced by the kind of metaphors that are available. Many of them are technological of course and over time those technological metaphors and frameworks shift. So, for example when we first started to make performances, back in the 80s I used to say that the work was “understandable by anybody brought up in a house with the television always on”. The metaphor was about the idea of two narratives: a real world narrative and a simultaneous fictional one presented and experienced on a TV screen. Of course now – in the age of internet, in the time of social media and the pervasive presence of all kinds of screens and feeds – any metaphor about narrative that’s based on television seems absurdly ancient, an artefact from prehistory.
These days I think the metaphors we might go to are much more about the Internet and interaction, or about glitch or machine writing, and about how the Internet itself is kind of a machine for making language. The technological metaphors have changed in this way, and in other ways, but they are still one place to go, one place we can start to think about language and what we might be in and through it. What stays constant I suppose, for me at least, is a suspicion of the idea of language as organic, as something interior. For me the more interesting metaphors are always those which see language as alien stuff coming in or filtering through; ways of thinking about language as collage or through processes like channelling or possession – the opposite to an approach that sees language as rising from some solid, fully constructed subject.
Q: It struck us that the only coherent meaning in the performance was the re-narration of a film. The beginning is paradigmatic for the whole performance: You try to reframe fragments of thoughts and articles and websites through your body. At the same time this process of reframing seems arbitrary. The same sentence is often framed in a variety of ways by repeating it many times and by changing the gestures and tonality. So there is a specific notion of dystopia displayed by staging the inability to articulate coherently.
TE: I can see this kind of dystopian critical notion within the performance. I think that’s partly where I would put myself. But there is also a kind of poetics in what I’m trying to do. Which is to say this is not a project about failed narration or utterance but rather one about putting fragments in a kind of constellation and exploring a shifting tonality, to make something that does communicate and articulate. It might not cohere as narrative but I don’t think of the piece as an hour of nonsense in which there is one ‘successful’ story (the recounting of a film plot, which takes place at a couple of points in the piece). There are things happening in those collisions of fragments, repetitions and constellations of language which made up the most of the piece. They might be harder to talk about since they are poetics rather than narration, but I do believe that something is emerging in those constellations.
I suppose the collage of repetition and jump-cutting I make is an extreme version of what you can do with language, but at the same time of course, I’d say that I’m just doing what we are all doing with language all the time: we are piecing things together. We are trying to make them function somehow. Any dystopic thinking about the piece, or arising from it, always has a balance for me. It’s an optimistic poetic gesture, a construct. It’s a dismantling, too, I know, but in every dismantling there is also a new set of propositions. There is a generative force in it, a primal force of multiplication and energy.
Perhaps A Broadcast/Looping Pieces works as a challenge for theatre audiences because they might expect something more narratively cohered; the dissolved nature of the piece is definitely on a certain edge of what is tolerable in theatre. It is a question of how do we tell or make stories. A Broadcast/Looping Pieces looks like chaos, but of course it’s very full of narratives, mostly those made by the audience themselves in the ways that they connect or jump from one fragment of material to another to another. That process of very active spectatorship is not necessarily what people come to theatre expecting. So the piece has a critical stance, a questioning stance, too: What is possible in theatre space?
Q: How do you think your fracturing of language and your fracturing of the relationship between the spectator and the piece relate to the fracturing of your work in a broader sense- exhibiting work in gallery spaces, the theatre, the museum? There are totally different people being confronted with your work, totally different expectations and different traditions applied to your work.
TE: For each work I think about a set of procedures and strategies that I can I evoke, it’s different in different contexts. I can do something in one context, and in that case I have to negotiate everything that is in there – the expectactions, the rules, the accumulated cultures of use. I can do something in the theatre, I can go in the streets, if I want to, I can go into gallery or into the context of a concert. And of course anyone of these imposes different stresses and conditions – each is a frame you have to think through and understand its implications for the work. In the gallery you never get the kind of concentration that you can get in the theatre – theatres are about stasis and collectivity, galleries create a much more individual flow and concentration.
One recent development is a project I’ve been working on with the violinist, Aisha Orazbayeva. We did a couple of radio sessions together – now we made a live performance and an EP called Seeping Through. It’s interesting to me to put the work into this contemporary music context; it’s an audience that I’d never get to engage with in theatre and of course the frames of reference are immediately very different.
That movement to another context always allows different aspects of the work to come into focus and it also challenges the work in different ways. In the theatre space the challenge is the dramaturgical journey of an hour – where can you take the audience in that time. With Aisha the thing that changes, is that time and information are processed very differently. Abstraction isn’t a surprise, it’s expected – so the focus is less on narrative and more on the way that I’m using rhythms and tonality. So it becomes much more about a sonic landscape than about a blank text and story.
Q: You seem to inhabit these fractured contexts quite elegantly: Having a certain tool box which you can apply to the most different contexts like a music festival or a gallery space. Do you think an institution for contemporary arts should polish these fractures or are you actually glad that these contextual fractures exist?
TE: It’s probably shameful but I tend to take them as a kind of given, initially at least. I understand that the theatre comes with a set of expectations and frames and I understand that the gallery space comes with its own frames and that the music context does so too. So in that sense I tend to see them as pre-made objects or frameworks that I can move around and against. Those objects and frameworks are shifting all the time of course through the actions of artists and others. But in the first instance I tend to step into the space as it exists and start working. As much as I like to disrespect and subvert the frames I also rely on them. That’s how meaning happens. It’s the same with language – we can rail about language and what a limiting prison it is, but on the other hand it is the very thing that allows you to fight against.
One aspect of what I am talking about as context is architectural. I’ve done a couple of things recently with the choreographer Boris Charmatz, a project called expo zero. The first time I was part of it recently was in a gallery in Berlin, a converted 19th century apartment and the second time was at Tate Modern in London. The Berlin gallery was very quotidian, very human scale – in there you can be people, communicate intimately, in the frame and scale of domestic space. Taking the same work to Tate Modern was a big confrontation. The spaces are former industrial and they are colossal, epic spaces. So all that intimacy goes. As a human being you’re in much less warm or intimate frame.
Each space is a challenge, a question. A former factory. A purpose built gallery. A 19th Century theatre. A converted house. Each space is solid, a frame, a landscape and making the work becomes a question of how do you meet that proposition, that context. The big space at PACT Zollverein in Essen versus the space at Tate Modern or a concert venue – I mean they are all a question that gets thrown to you. How do you respond to that? I probably treat the context of space a bit like I’m talking about language, as a thing to enter and react to, a place to question existing relations.
Q: For us it seems that on the one hand you as a solo artist are jumping between different institutions and contexts and on the other hand Forced Entertainment shows their work mostly in theatre spaces. How does that go together?
TE: In the early 90s Forced Entertainment and I made some projects together in gallery contexts. But the question of how the group made those works together was quite challenging. The work in theatre relies on having the whole group of people in the rehearsal room for five months. Work in the gallery context meanwhile tended to be more conceptual or it else to come out of solo processes – so it was always hard to feel like we were really collaborating at a deep level in that frame. Performance has felt much more like the organic location for that work together.
The other thing is: when we made those moves into the art context, it was hard for anybody to really understand or engage with the group, with the collective nature of the practice. They didn’t know how to read or position that. Even now, an individual artist – me working alone – is much easier for the art context to grasp.
And it is interesting because the collectivity that you have in theatre as a default exists more rarely in visual art. Despite the art collectives here and there in art history primarily it is an egotistical field; what you’re marked for is your supposed uniqueness and your inability to compromise. Whereas in a sense theatre is all about compromise, it is all about negotiation. In art it has to be that kind of paper, and that light, and this space. Nothing else. Try working in theatre like that – you wouldn’t do any touring! Our experience of touring is compromise, negotiate, shape-shift. We know how to change our shape. Touring is always about that – slightly social, slightly negotiating.
Q: And why did you push into the direction of visual arts? What was your interest in that?
TE: It was partly about wanting to establish different kinds of relations to the audience; being able to make different kinds of encounters with people, because the theatre frame allows you one particularly set. Normally in the theatre you are talking about the temporal frame – the architecture of an hour, two hours, four hours. You are talking about an audience that comes at the start and stays until the end. Whereas in the gallery people can arrive anytime and stay for as long as they like – can be ten minutes or can be four hours. They make their own path. So you’re instantly involved in a different kind of relation, depending on the context.
Making the neon-word sculptures in public space was about that, as well. I was interested to make work that could sit on the high street where people will pass by. They didn’t have to buy a ticket or think they are involved in some artistic experience. They could just encounter the work, find it by accident, be thrilled and puzzled by the proposition of it in public space.
I’ve written fiction too, again because it opens a different channel to people. It is not about the collectivity of the audience and the social negotiation of the space of the auditorium. You know I’ve spent thirty years worrying about that question, that collective negotiation! But it is actually nice to have some other questions. For example: What is it to be in a room with a work in the form of an object? What is the object of a book? How does a book perform? How does a book open up a space between people?
I tend to think about a lot of my work in terms of performance. That’s probably clear beacause it’s where I come from. Performance informs my understanding of everything I do. But I’m interested in having different kinds of conversations through art too, constructing other relations. From the start, from my work in theatre, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be leakages in other directions – shifts of frame and context – as I’m by seeking out other kinds of contact with people.
Pujan Karambeigi and Anneliese Ostertag study Philosophy and Cultural Reflection at the University of Witten/Herdecke and at Goldsmiths University of London (visual cultures) and Central Saint Martins College (performance design and practice).