Interrupting the Narrative: A Talk With Tim Etchells

London, Nov. 23, 2012—The Battersea Arts Centre in South London feels like a good place for a Forced Entertainment show. It’s an unconventional theatrical space, off the beaten track, a bustling community center with a serious focus on fostering experimental and challenging artistic work. Even the beautifully slapdash mixture of worn patches and new paint inside this grand edifice—a late-19th-century town hall with a maze of rooms of varying sizes and purposes, and a convenient bar off the foyer—fits somehow the half-glitzy, half-homespun, always open-ended aesthetic of much Forced Entertainment work, including the company’s latest piece, The Coming Storm.

In contrast to the chilly gray weather outside on this November evening, the building’s foyer and café are aglow with a festive commotion as well as several prominently placed neon phrases. One of them, “end of story,” maybe says it all. The electric word sculptures are by Tim Etchells, multidisciplinary artist and Forced Entertainment’s artistic director, who is also launching a new book, Vacuum Days, the culmination of his year-long project in 2011 to shadow and dog the overloaded headlines of the day (more on this below). Another Etchells work, his anti-narrative monologue for American actor Jim Fletcher, Sight Is the Sense That Dying People Tend to Lose First, will follow tonight’s staging of The Coming Storm.

The book launch, including a reading of selected pages by the author (accompanied by a cellist), will begin this packed evening’s program momentarily. But first, Tim Etchells kindly agrees to sit down in the bar and answer some questions about, among other things, his productively conflicted relationship with storytelling.

I wanted to ask you about Sheffield. You moved there right around the Miners’ Strike. Was that part of the inspiration to go there?

A little bit. I’m from the North, more or less. I studied in Exeter [in southwest England]. I basically spent four years studying and kind of feeling out of place. I wanted to go back to the North. And politically the country at that time, you know, we had many elections and Thatcher was always elected. The North always voted against Thatcher and we still always had Thatcher as prime minister for like 12 years, or however long it was, it was a long time. And the North also bore the brunt of the economic downturn, the dismantling of industry, and so on. So it felt politically like the North was the more interesting place to be. It was a place where there was more fight, if you like. Also there were several of those big Northern cities—Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester—where there was a sort of socialist city government, and where they enacted social policies that were an antidote or resistance to what was coming on from the national government. So Sheffield had this reputation at the time: People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. Heavily subsidized public transport, a lot of cultural activities for the unemployed, and so on. It was quite interesting to be a part of that scene. In a wider context of quite brutal economic and political policies, Sheffield tried to find a way, on a local level, to enact things differently.

So it was interesting to be part of that, and to be part of that space of resistance. It was also possible to live in Sheffield, and in other cities outside of London, because it’s a lot cheaper. Actually, at that time, there was tons of space in Sheffield. We were basically unemployed, and within six months to a year we had our own warehouse space, that we took over and used as a rehearsal room, 24-hour access, electricity coming from the building next door. You know, it was kind of ideal. But that’s what economic downturn produces.

Almost a post-apocalyptic land of opportunity.

Yeah, exactly. So there was us, and the boxing gym upstairs, a sort of hippie circus group in the space next door—it was pretty interesting.

Since you were there and, moreover, since your work includes a lot of questions about narrative, I wonder what you think about the way that whole period of the mid-80s Miner’s Strike has come, years later, to be incorporated into the culture through various narrative streams. In one notable mainstream form, you have it as the backdrop to Billy Elliot. On the other hand, you have the work of an artist like Jeremy Deller, creator of the performance/film Battle of Orgreave [2001], which was produced about the same time as Billy Elliot, and which reenacts a key battle of the UK Miner’s Strike using many of the original participants. How do such things speak to you, and especially to your own approach to narrative?

I think in terms of the company’s work and my work in relation to narrative—well, there’s a couple of things. One is about incompletion, and about the fragment, either about bad memory or about the narrative that is severed or cut in different ways. We’re very interested in those incomplete things because they require of the spectator a kind of present act of reconstruction or completion, or imaginative intervention, in order to make sense of something. And what’s also interesting about the truncated or interrupted or fragmented narrative as a form is that it has the possibility then to join to other things, other fragments. For me, the sort of A-to-Z story, the total story, I don’t really enjoy that particularly. I have a habit of reading books and losing interest about half way through when the narrative is begging to close. I go, “Uhh. Really? Is that it?” In the beginning, the opening half of the book, when things are more up in the air, it’s much more interesting to me.

You’re looking for order…

Yeah, exactly. I think then your act of reading is a much more active one. And we’re often trying to preserve that. So, as a spectator, what you’re asked to reflect on is your own agency, in completing narrative, or your own agency in making what happens happen. That has really strong parallels in how I would like to think about looking at history and those kind of political narratives from the past; it’s really to do with one’s position now, and the responsibility and the opportunity to look at those things and to tell them and re-tell them in different ways. The weird thing that happens, in the culture, is that certain events settle down to have a particular meaning. It’s very weird, when you get to be as ancient as I am, that you can remember the 1980s, and you know what Thatcher was like, but actually the predominant story that we’re being told about Thatcher right now is not that story. She’s being brought back into the fold…

She’s played by Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep! Yeah. And it’s hideous. Because those of us who have any memory at all of the time know that this is a time of extreme violence, and it was very, very destructive and ideological, of the worst kind. It’s being replayed now as if that was all some fucking inevitable act of getting real with the dismantling of the unions, and getting rid of all this industry and stuff, and actually none of that is really true. I think there’s a sort of settling of things. And I think that’s what’s interesting about Jeremy’s film, or about the approach that we take—not to specific instances like that, but to this idea of narrative as something that needs to be disinterred and pulled apart: “Who is telling this and where are they coming from?”—that whole sort of deconstruction approach, I suppose, to what a story is. Rather than that very tidy bundle of myth that you’re handed…

As if it were merely a reflection of reality pure and simple.

Exactly. That’s what we should believe, kind of thing. I think that is a part of what we’re doing, is to look at story and to question—also its power. I think I’m both really attracted to narrative, because it’s compelling; it’s such a great vehicle for ideas and emotions and questions. But I’m also really suspicious of it and disgusted by it because it is a rhetorical form, and I don’t really trust any power like that. So you’ll see in the show, we’re both fascinated by a narrative and what a theater can do, and we’re also always trying to cut that and question it and make it tumble to the floor, so that you can sort of see what it is actually. It’s a big interest, and it sort of maps into those political questions.

Which brings me to the book that you’re launching tonight, Vacuum Days [Storythings, 2012], the text of a year-long online project of yours, which riffs on the truth claims of, in this instance, media narratives. Can you tell me about the origins of this project?

It has two origins actually. One is, I’ve had this interest for a long time in imagined or virtual events. So we made a performance years ago, which was just a description of a performance, an impossible one. As a spectator you were making all of these things happen in your head that couldn’t really be presented on the stage. But it became this virtual theater, an imaginary theater. And then I started to make these works, which were little booklets, which was announcing events that were often grotesque or with some political spin or with the spin of reworking contemporary news items as if they were spectacles or bizarre theatrical acts. I did a few of those. Then I decided at the very end of 2010 to start a project on the first of January 2011 which would basically be one entry per day, in which I would always announce some new rather striking combination of imaginary performances, political speeches, acts, events, film screenings—it’s a pretty weird remixing, scrambling job on whatever was going on at the time. It was a piece that was entirely written in response to whatever was going on. So it was the luck of the draw, really, in terms of what kind of a year 2011 turned out to be: the general context of the economic downturn, the Eurozone crisis, the Arab Spring, the riots that we had here in the summer, the royal wedding that we had slightly earlier, the killing of Bin Laden, outbreaks of E. Coli poisoning in different European cities, it was like everything, Berlusconi…

You’re reminding of what a horrible year it was.

Yeah, it was a terrible year, it was great. [Leafs through pages of the book to illustrate] So I was basically reworking that on a daily basis into these posters for different things. Sometimes it was absurd silliness. Other times, this was that whole phone-hacking scandal that we had with Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the [News of the] World. And often there’s this attempt to turn current events into pieces of entertainment. The share prices are turned into a dance.

It’s interesting because it flags the performative nature of all this to begin with.

Exactly, it’s already a hideous spectacle, so all I’m doing is reworking that.

Were you steeped more than usual in the news as a result of this project?

I felt so, yeah. I’m following a lot anyway, but I found I was pretty much glued to news sites, also to Twitter and those sorts of things. It’s also a little bit about trying to re-appropriate the kind of language that goes on in these kinds of contexts. You get used to a term like “power vacuum” or “fiscal injection,” “rendition to torture.”

“Fiscal injection,” right, that one goes to the way the economy is always a body that’s either healthy or not; kind of a telling physiological metaphor, especially when it entails the destruction of real physical bodies.

Exactly, yeah. The whole thing was not only grappling with events but also grappling with this hideous abuse of language that goes on or grows around things. For me, it was a way to really process a lot of that stuff. When this year began, and I wasn’t doing this project any longer, I really missed it, because this poison is dripping in one ear and I was able to sort of spit it out.

What do you think of the role of aesthetics in history? Is it a reflection of reality, primarily, or does it have a more active, even evolutionary role?

I guess it’s both. On the one hand, what’s possible aesthetically and culturally is somehow determined by the conditions and movements that are going on around you. We have a set of terms and a vocabulary and an experience now that we didn’t have in 1984; and in 1984 we had something that you didn’t have in 1954. So that situation produces what’s possible or imminent. But I suppose what’s also interesting is that artists and cultural producers find ways to see something out of that, and play it back in, and that can be transformative. You know, Dada, in 1918, grabs that moment at the end of the First World War, and the destruction of that war and the pointlessness of it, and the anger that comes from the context of that war. And that changes a lot of stuff; it ripples into language and into the culture and it sort of changes things. So it’s both. There’s an act of channeling, but I think there’s also that possibility to turn things in a way that changes the game, or maybe helps the death of a particular bit of language, or points it to a different way of thinking. But it’s difficult now because capitalism is so good at appropriating…

It’s genius at it…

It’s what it does, you know. We’ve been thinking very much about this—especially because performance has historically been seen as the thing that can resist the market, because it’s ephemeral and so on. But capitalism now is in this sort of performance mode—lifestyle capitalism, cognitive capitalism, all of those terms that describe that strange environment that we’re in now, where goods are ephemeral. You’re really not buying stuff anymore, you’re buying belonging, you’re buying your presence in a network, or the aura of belonging. It’s weird to think of this whole idea of ephemerality, whether that has any radicality anymore, because capitalism has entered that sort of phase.

It’s maybe what makes for a degree of ambivalence when you see the MoMA is now collecting performance art.

Exactly.

Are the ideas and practitioners in today’s contemporary dance/performance world of particular interest to you?

Yeah, absolutely. My set of connections as an artist is probably much more to people coming out of conceptual dance or visual art performance, or out of visual art itself. Theater—there are definitely some touchstones, people that I would feel connected to—but actually, the people I feel like I’m in a conversation with, in terms of artists, are basically a bunch of people who are working on the edge of a bunch of other forms. The people who are on that edge of dance that’s straying a bit toward performance, or the people on the edge of performance that’s straying a bit toward dance, or the edge of theater that’s moving a bit more toward visual art. That’s the zone really. Theater-theater, no, which explains why Britain is a problem for us. Here theater remains largely a playwright’s domain. Even if there are other groups like us, the main ground and the money are held by a set of other interests. So, yeah, for sure, Jérome Bel, Xavier [Le Roy], Meg Stuart—these kinds of people coming out of dance—they’re all people that I’ve been in conversation with for a very long time, about what they’re doing, about what we’re doing. There’s definitely a two-way street of conversation. Theater for me is not that. It’s just one thing on the map of what we’re referring to.

Can I ask you about the Institute of Failure?

It’s not so active at the moment, but it’s a project that I started with Matthew Goulish, who’s an American Chicago-based performance maker, and was part of a group called Goat Island (now they work under the name of Every House Has a Door, and they’re doing collaborative projects in different places). But Matthew and I got talking about failure at some point, maybe at the beginning of this century.I think it’s always been an interest for me, in terms of having a problematic relationship to virtuosity and to fluidity in terms of narrative or dramatic structure. So being interested in things that crumble or dissolve, that set the bar here but fall short of it in different ways. At one level, people are much more interesting when they’re failing than when they’re succeeding. Often in our shows, performance-wise, there’s a deliberate set up to create situations where people will struggle or fail, or where they’re sort of exposed by the difficulty of a task that they’re doing. Mostly for us that manifests in a set of pieces we made, which are between six and 24 hours long, where the performers are obviously under duress because they’re in the public gaze for very long periods of time and they’re improvising. You see people pass through waves of competence and incompetence, you see them try things and fail, try things and fail, try things and succeed. And that’s a very fascinating view on a person, compared to, “Here I am with all my really good tricks,” which is fine, but. And I think you’ll see in the piece tonight, in The Coming Storm, people dealing with interruptions and the fact that many things are happening at the same time. You don’t have the space to just do your thing. You’re being bombarded and nudged and knocked and spun while you’re working. Again, I think you get to see something of the performers because of that—and that will be hidden in a structure that says the floor is yours, go ahead. Impedance, the obstacle really, as the thing that produces what’s visible. Transparency and ease is only so interesting. The thing that has to negotiate an obstacle—both the obstacle and the thing are visible in a weird way.

That seems very of the moment somehow. The need for that.

I think so. Because culturally, again, we’re in a time which wants to hide labor and wants to hide effort. Everything should materialize effortlessly. But anything where you see the work, in that Brechtian sense—you see the stagehands, you see the set being put into place—suddenly labor is visible, in a space that, in a way, would rather deny it. And in the digital era labor is pretty heavily cloaked. I think for that reason there’s an interest in insisting on this analog business of performance; people who are present who are trying to make something happen with rudimentary tools. It’s not holograms. In a way, what we’re doing theatrically, it’s very basic and very raw. And one of the reasons for that is this interest in exposing these very simple means of production, and weaving those through the work itself, so you’re seeing the work and the labor at the same time.