And For The Rest
In the city
15/04 > 24/05
In the spring, while Brussels is being flooded with election posters, artist and performance-maker Tim Etchells is working behind the scenes to deconstruct the medium. Speaking with Brusselaars who, for different reasons, are excluded from the voting process, he gathers and presents texts that express the hopes and demands of the future, reflecting voices not typically heard in election agendas. Creating posters to be shown throughout the city, in And For The Rest, Etchells has selected short, enigmatic, and provocative fragments from conversations he and his team have had in Brussels; incomplete glimpses of desires, needs, and unfulfilled dreams. Tim Etchells is best known as the artistic director and founding member of Forced Entertainment, the British ensemble that for the past 30 years has served as a beacon for the performing arts. He is also an author, artist, and curator. In 2014, Tim Etchells was given free rein to make a series of projects at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts. Reverberations from the poster project can also be found in Order Cannot Help You Now, an exhibition in which Etchells works with curator Ive Stevenheydens to present his own work in neon and other media, in dialogue with pieces from Argos’s rich collection of film and video. Tim Etchells will also present his solo work, A Broadcast / Looping Pieces, a new, improvised text performance, at Kaaistudio’s.
Ann Weckx, Nedjma Hadj
With very special thanks from the artist
to the people that kindly agreed to be interviewed for this project
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Argos (Brussels), Forced Entertainment (Sheffield)
Sounding out: a conversation
Tim Etchells & Vlatka Horvat, April 2014
VH In the performance A Broadcast/Looping Pieces, you’re working with your own written archive – excavating fragments of text from a ‘notebook’ on your computer, and placing them in new combinations. What does it mean to mine your own archive in this way, taking things from disparate places and doing new things with them in the framework of a composite text?
TE The project arose from a fairly simple, initial decision to treat the Word file in which I make notes on my computer, as a resource, making a work focused on performing language. I don’t know how many years it has been since I switched from keeping a physical notebook to writing everything on my computer, but the computer file is an accumulation of writing, or observation, or bits pulled out of newspapers, or fiction, or stuff that I’ve come across online or overheard; all kinds of language fragments. Sometimes it’s whole paragraphs or longer chunks; more often, it’s single phrases or words or sentences. Sometimes you couldn’t really call it writing – it’s more an act of collecting; I’ve picked something up somewhere in the form of language and simply stuck it in a scrapbook; an accumulating collection of raw materials – a bit like one’s memory. In that context it was interesting to think about a project that could somehow start sampling that material.
VH I’m thinking about the act of voicing in the performance, and wondering what happens when you give sound and body to the written word? What happens in that transformation from page or screen, into speech?
TE This project begins with the gesture of recovering things that were collected; like going back to things that were left lying in a drawer. But at the same time, there’s another gesture; that of trying to animate and remake those things in different ways. Part of what I’m doing, in that respect, is simply speaking things in order to animate them. I’m grabbing text and repeating it, saying it again and again, and I’m altering the words as I say them, cutting things out, adding things in, emphasising words in different ways, making them mean different things. Often the gesture of looping a text fragment is about trying to find what the intent or the sense of it might be. There’s also something in the act of flipping from one fragment to another; perhaps moving from something I wrote two weeks ago to something I noted down eight or ten years ago – bouncing between those two things, where the contexts that produced the two statements are not at all visible, but where, in the moment of performance, I set up this resonance and friction between two very different kinds of textual objects. So there’s definitely an attempt to bring those things to life or to a new kind of animation, by speaking of them.
VH There seems to be something in that process that concerns the private, being made public.
TE Yes, there is almost a private attempt to grab hold of those text materials and chew them over; to sound them out and see what they are. It’s interesting that “to sound them out” is both to put something into sound, and to test it, to see what the properties of a thing might be. And of course, a key aspect of this process is that it takes place in public, so not only am I sounding these texts out – exploring what they are, intrinsically or semantically, what they might mean to me – but there’s also an attempt to throw them into the public space and explore what they might mean there. I’m sounding them out in relation to a group of people gathered to see a performance; those fragments, phrases, and loops take-on different meanings in the public space – it’s there that things really ‘come to life’.
VH One of the things I’m struck-by in seeing this piece is the way in which the words sometimes reveal new meanings as you repeat, loop, or juxtapose them; and yet, at other times, they lose meaning and become nonsensical by way of this same repetition. Can you speak about this apparently contradictory double-effect that the looping produces?
TE The piece does focus on the musical, rhythmic, and sometimes nonsensical qualities of language that you’re speaking about; it is as much about these things as it is about the ‘sensible’ or the meaningful aspects of language. The performance constantly drifts back and forth between those things, and functions as an enquiry, not just into the meaningfulness or otherwise of the material, but also into the place of that meaning. Is the meaning in the semantic content or is it in the texture, musicality, and rhythm? Is the meaning intrinsic or is it in the act of performing, and how is that performance taking place in public?
VH As a viewer, you’re watching the act of ‘trying to make sense’ as much as you are watching ‘something that might make sense’. Is there something specific about the material you work and rework? What kinds of language does it draw on?
TE I could say it involves all kinds of things, but I’m drawn to certain edges of language – its capacity for paradox, its capacity for double and triple meanings. I’m also drawn to phrases that have a hint of violence or dysfunction in them: knots, wounds, insults, confessions. The performative, the act of speech. Phrases that recall images very vividly. There’s undoubtedly a consistency in what I collect.
VH The process of collecting is also central to your posters project, And For The Rest. How did you approach the gathering of material for that?
TE The project came out of conversations with Christophe Slagmuylder, about the fact that it would be election time in Brussels during the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, and the city would be bombarded with posters. We talked about re-purposing the festival posters to engage with, and comment on, that situation. I decided to interview a small group of people from constituencies that aren’t included in the voting process – young people, people sans papier, and the homeless – asking them about things they might want to change in the city or in their lives. It was a very open invitation, to think about big and small changes, realistic or fantastical. In the interviews, we basically gathered text and audio material in different languages – creating a pile of material that I then began to sift through, sort, and select from. In that sense, it was a bit like the process used in Broadcast.
VH Yes, in Broadcast you bring out traces from your own archive, which of course reveal your own preoccupations, whilst in the posters project, there’s a focus on statements reflecting the experience of other people. What the two projects share, to an extent, is this sense of the private becoming public, or the previously invisible being made visible.
TE Yes, there’s something fundamental that the project reflects-upon in a very simple way – that elections are about people who are in the voting process, for whom voting is a way to supposedly influence government and policy. But meanwhile, people who are excluded from the voting process – for whatever reason – aren’t really in that conversation about change and society at all – they aren’t invited to the table. In that sense, the posters project is a small gesture towards adding those voices into the mix. The interviews we conducted were a starting point for me; they became material for a kind of editing-as-writing task. The people we interviewed gave amazing, sometimes long accounts of their lives and concerns, but in the second phase of the project, I chose very particular fragments of text for making the posters.
VH What drove that selection process?
TE I was looking for phrases that were interesting when you took them out of context. Texts that I could imagine on the street as posters; phrases that seemed bold, challenging, or compelling. Sometimes I went for very simple, almost obvious things. You know, to have a poster that says “Take all the money in the world and share it out between everybody equally, so that everybody has the same amount”. There’s a utopian fantasy in that, and a naivete, of course, but to write it on a billboard in a public space is really compelling.
VH Yes, especially in relation to the way that the street is now so heavily inscribed with corporate agendas, advertising, and political messages; all kinds of official languages that claim, own, or usurp public space. What is it to intervene in the city with texts that don’t serve any powers-that-be and don’t promote any official position, with voices that don’t usually have the so-called right, or access, to that space? Something happens in that coexistence and in that counterpoint between texts that have a very particular agenda – usually intended to make you do, buy, or believe certain things – and in these texts, whose status is more ambiguous and more precarious.
TE The posters don’t present a coherent programme for change; much of what’s there is not ‘well-thought-out’ in terms of the existing social and political structures, or even in terms of practicality, but instead it is a contradictory, idiosyncratic set of demands and desires, which I hope resonate in the city. Some of the statements are very direct; others are very fragile and personal, fantastical, or absurd. I think that’s one of the things that art is good at, in fact; it doesn’t have to be coherent. It has to animate and challenge the ways we’re used to thinking and acting.
VH In that sense, the posters project also raises questions about the structures and systems we operate within – not just the social and political structures, but also the conceptual ones. Maybe this gives us a good segue in which to talk about the exhibition, Order Cannot Help You Now. Is that something you were working with here: making the problem of systems and frameworks, or flagging, a certain impossibility for a meaningful social order?
TE I think the exhibition is about systems, and about the possibilities for change. I worked with Ive Stevenheydens, the curator at Argos, and we began by looking for works in their collection that addressed these concerns. In the posters and in the performance, I’d already begun to frame things. We were talking a lot about the relationship between language and politics, so one of the first things we knew we wanted to include were three works by Sven Augustijnen, each using language fragments that flash-up on monitors – very short, quite problematic statements that refer to quite particular political contexts. Taken together, they produce this complex micro-reflection on history and culture – what we know, what we say, the care we take over the narratives of the past and the future. We set the Augustijnen piece against a new one of mine, Mirror Pieces – a large multi-part neon work which also uses language in a set of contradictory, playful, and ambiguous phrases that sound/look similar but mean different things. After that, we went in many directions – to two quite abstract-appearing works by Edith Dekyndt, which I think establish an amazing sense of fragility and carefulness, and to works which refer to very particular social and political contexts –Till Roesken’s Vidéocartographies: Aïda, Palestine from 2009; Neša Paripovic’s NP 1977, made in Yugoslavia in 1977; and Julia Meltzer and David Thorne’s Not a matter of if but when: brief records of a time in which expectations were repeatedly raised and lowered and people grew exhausted from never knowing if the moment was at hand or still to come, produced in Syria in 2005-2006. They’re all works that playfully and seriously examine a situation and think about the possibility of change – Neša Paripovic, through his extraordinarily simple performative gesture of walking in a straight line through the city, over all spatial obstacles, rewriting the city’s geography; Meltzer and Thorne, through another improvisation – this time with text and gesture, whereby the performer in their piece reacts to prompted words, such as freedomor change, delivered from off-camera, interpreting and commenting on them.
VH What about the Neil Beloufa piece, Kempinski? I was struck by that work on the Venice Biennale last year – farmers in the fields of Mali talking about the future.
TE I think it’s the centre of the show, really. There’s something very compelling in the tension between the speakers and the text; the way it proposes a future, and yet casts all kinds of doubt over it. Perhaps the most offbeat work in the show is Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby’s Bad Ideas for Paradise. It’s a baroque construction, combining video footage, animation, music, and voiceover to form a contradictory essay of sorts, about the utopian possibility, or impossibility, and about the difference between human and animal.
VH I’m wondering if you can reflect on this idea of an artist (or a curator, in this last project) as somebody who isn’t there to make sense of things and present them back to you ordered or resolved, but as somebody who throws-up a decidedly unresolved set of things; things which contain not only ambiguity but also contradiction, and which have to be unpacked?
TE I think artwork in any medium is most interesting when it creates a question, rather than a putative answer. But at the same time, making something that embraces contradiction or diverse possibilities is not the same as making nonsense! What I’m aware of – improvising the performance of A Broadcast, selecting posters for And For The Rest, or selecting works with Ive for the Argos exhibition – is that one is looking for a dynamic, articulate constellation of materials that brings very particular kinds of questions and ideas into play. If the goal was simply contradiction or confusion, it would be too easy; there’s plenty of that!
VH So in a sense, all three projects – the performance, the posters in the public space, and the exhibition – engage the question of agency and action in different ways, thinking about its impact on the social and political realms, the question of how we negotiate relationships and how we alter our shared sense of what might or might not be possible.
TE Yes, between the lines perhaps, those are very much my concerns. The works try to relate to a viewer, to think about our desires and how they’re formulated in language, and about how to open a path towards change.
Vlatka Horvat is an artist based in London. She works in sculpture, installation, drawing, performance, photography, and text.Back to top
Tim Etchells (b. 1962) is an artist and a writer based in the UK whose work shifts between performance, visual art and fiction. He has worked in a wide variety of contexts, notably as the leader of the world-renowned performance group Forced Entertainment. In recent years he has exhibited widely in the context of visual arts, participating in biennales Manifesta 7 (2008) in Rovereto, Italy, Art Sheffield 2008, Göteborg Bienale (2009), October Salon Belgrade (2010), Aichi Trienale, Japan 2010, with Vlatka Horvat and Manifesta 9 (Parallel Projects) 2012. He has had solo shows at Gasworks and Sketch (London), Bunkier Sztuki (Krakow), Galerije Jakopič (Ljubljana) and Künstlerhaus Bremen. Etchells’ first novel The Broken World was published by Heinemann in 2008 and his monograph on contemporary performance and Forced Entertainment, Certain Fragments (Routledge 1999) is widely acclaimed. He is currently Professor of Performance at Lancaster University. Recent publications include Vacuum Days (Storythings, 2012), While You Are With Us Here Tonight (LADA, 2013).Back to top