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Interview with Tim Etchells

Interview: Marion Siéfert

Berlin, July 2015.

I read something that you wrote about Void Story: “a movie where there is no movie, only a succession of stills: a show in which paradoxically there is little show. It’s the gaps that make it, hopefully – gaps between images, or in the images themselves, gaps between the performers and the text. They are voids that the spectators fill from themselves with the clues that pass by”. Void seems to fulfil a paradigmatic function in Forced Entertainment’s work. How do you reflect on that in your creating process?

On a general level, I think there is a strong inclination that we should create space in the work that the viewer has to fill; there’s something they have to complete, something that’s not been finished. There is an arrangement of materials but in the centre, there is nothing or between different elements, there is nothing. Generally, it is about wanting to make an experience where the audience has to imagine things, where they are invited to do some work. It is not a trick: it is not like a murder mystery where you have to guess who did it. But it is about saying that between the items on the table (the materials in the performance), there is a kind of electricity – a narrative or many possible narratives. We’re trying to make performances where the audience has to be involved and where they are trying to make a connexion and to fill that space. In Void Story these kinds of gaps they operate on every level. There’s a gap (or a distance) between the world of the projected images and world of the live performers. There are gaps in the narrative too; what you’re told and what you’re not told. There are gaps or discrepancies between the approaches of the different performers. It’s there in how they perform too, on a micro level; that they fill out some things; but leave other things blank. We can talk about gaps and holes, but perhaps blankness is another way of talking about the same thing, Robert Bresson talks about blankness in images and how when you put them together, they can resonate, setting off new ideas. The blanker the images are, he says, the better they are for this purpose. He says similar things about the blank mode of the actors that he liked to work with – he called them models, rather than actors. Things are not filled in – as a spectator you are left to do the work. Things just are. If I think about my work in visual art, it is often about wanting to put a phrase or a fragment of language there in a way that it doesn’t fill in the whole story. Things are left unexplained. You have to do the work to excavate the meaning – to figure out what it might be for you.

I think that there is something similar happening in your durational performances like 12 am, Quizoola! and And on the Thousandth Night…, or in your solo performance A Broadcast / Looping Pieces due repetition: as an audience, after a while, if I want to stay interested with the things that I am seeing, I really have to involve myself and not to wait that somebody tells me what I have to think.

Repeating material is a kind of insistence. As a spectator or viewer, you are pushed into a different space through repetition, where you have to think again. You think that you’ve looked and seen or listened and heard… but then the same thing comes around again and then again. The repeat view is a kind of challenge – it forces you to look and think again, to question or think again about what’s in front of you. You think that you have seen something, but actually, you have to think again.

I had to think how voids and holes are perceived in society. Having a hole in a conversation is something that is always considered as something that you have to avoid. A void is also something that algorithms want to get rid of. Because voids are uncertainty, voids make things shift. There is this moment in Possible Impossible House where a hole appears in the middle of the story. The performers argue about the hole and wonder if it’s a good idea to have a hole in the middle of the story. But then, they agree that it could also be “an opportunity for something unexpected to happen”. Indeed, this hole full of nothing causes the most important event of the story.

That’s true. The idea of the hole is a strategy in what we do, but it’s there explicitly, as a comical event in The Possible Impossible House. The characters encounter and have to deal with an actual hole! In general I’m very interested in the sense that the work is a constellation of things that are vibrating together. It’s not a singular statement, or single thing, it’s not a linear argument. There is a pressure when talking about the work, as if you should be able to say clearly what it is, what it means. I never think like that about works of art. To me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a movie or a performance, or a novel or a sculpture or whatever, a dance, it’s an object in the world, it’s incomplete in some radical way, and its purpose is to activate the viewer, society, public space or the theatre. We can’t say what it means – it only means anything once it enters dialogue, once it kicks off that process. Things don’t mean something, they act, they do something. It’s a process in motion. And of course, a hole is perfect for that! The work is something we have to wonder and speculate about, but there is not one ‘correct’ version or understanding. In our artistic practice, the kind of holes, gaps or spaces we are talking about are made in such a way that they don’t close, even at the end. Of course there are shows where at the end you feel there’s a tidy resolution to everything. And there are shows where even at the end some things are not finished. For me this second category is much more interesting – the lack of closure means we take the questions away with us. We go home and we continue to think about particular things. I am interested in both of these things; in closure – that a work has gone on a journey and that we have gotten to a particular place, but also in a kind of openness – that at the end, there are still things that have not been tied up.

In the performance Instructions for Forgetting (2001), you tell how you brought your son for the first time in cinema. Even if he freaked out, you insisted on staying until the end and hoped that the happy end would resolve his anxiety. When do we need a happy end in a story?

Maybe there is a difference between “happy” and “resolved”. I am interested in the shape of things – the way we say goodbye, the way that an event closes, the way you negotiate the end of an artistic experience – “theatre”, “dance” whatever it is – and the means by which you are allowed to step out of that space and into the world. One question for me is: how to create endings that still leave some things uncertain, still leave things unsolved or alive? Closure is great, but perhaps avoiding closure is more interesting. The idea that you might take uncertainty or questions from the work with you out into the space of your life. For me that’s where those questions belong.

Almost all of the Forced Entertainment’s shows are dealing with stories and the ways of telling them. I think that as soon as you tell a story, you ask at the same time how to approach and construct the truth. And there is such a violence there. This is very explicit on TV, in biopics and in films or performances that imitate this pseudo objective documentary and televisual approach. The structure of these kinds of stories and the aesthetic are always the same: the way of framing, of editing, the rhythm of the images. Everything has to follow a very explicative path, so that it illustrates the message that the authorities of the TV-Chanel or the filmmaker or any kind of authority want to convey. A story always exercises a power on reality. Where is the power? In the story itself? Or in the hands of the storyteller? And who is telling the story actually?

When we work with narratives there’s also a deliberate attempt to leave space in the way that we were discussing before. So there’s a balancing between information and its absence. It’s a process that puts some power back in the hands of the listener or viewer. Thinking about story and its power, I’ve been thinking about biopics recently – they always feel very violent because they simplify the shape of a person’s life, making it conform to particular standard ideas of narrative, tension, development and drama.. Whenever I see those kinds of films, I never want to enter the narrative, I’m always leaning back; I hate the violence of the structure, the manipulation. I often end up with this angry feeling regarding the violence being done to somebody’s life – the difference between lived experience and the narrative structure. It feels very problematic politically. And emotionally, it’s super weird.

Exactly. By seeing it, you always have the feeling to be forced: to believe this or to feel that and to understand this and that.

And I guess on a broader level, you see that people who study story structures and who make movies, are taught to follow very formulaic patterns: you know the Robert McKee system of inciting incidents and first, second and third major reversals, for example. You can really draw the method on paper and say: after twenty minutes it should be the first of these incidents and after fifty minutes should be a reversal moment and in twenty more minutes should be another one. It’s very mechanical. When we watch this formula in its baldest form, it has a functionality, an efficiency, for sure. But you also feel the violence of it. That’s why I am suspicious of stories but of course you can do a lot of other things with them. You can disrupt or interrupt that machinery, which is something that we do a lot in the Forced Entertainment work, and which I do a lot in my fiction. In The Possible Impossible House we play a game of allowing the narrative to happen and then stopping it with interruptions. You get a tension that the story is actually not going to happen. It’s getting dragged off course.

Plays for children have become like a genre in theatre. What is for you the distinction between a performance for children and a performance for adults? What does it mean to make a piece for a young audience?

It’s a good question. We talked a lot about what children might be able to engage with, what do they like, what might confuse them? We had a million conversations while we were working about these kinds of things. When we make a work normally, we don’t talk about these questions, we never ask what the audience will like or what would make them laugh, what will be too difficult for them – it’s something we just deal with! But I guess we don’t need to even ask those questions when we are working for adults because we already have a lot of information about how a group of adults in a room will watch a theatre performance. And since we are adults of course, we don’t have any distance from that. There’s a temptation perhaps to see children as a totally other thing, as if they might require very different thinking. But looking at it now, I honestly think the piece is at its best when we are doing the kind of things that we normally do, we are following very similar logics that we normally follow, we are being inventive or disruptive, challenging in the kinds of ways that we will very often be on-stage, I think. So perhaps the idea of work designed for adults and work designed for children is not a hugely useful distinction. I know that many kids have seen and enjoyed the regular Forced Entertainment’s pieces. I think there’s something about the way we make and unmake narratives that’s quite pertinent for them. Now that we have made The Possible Impossible House, I’d be interested to make another piece for children, more extreme perhaps, something with no narrative or with very disrupted narrative. I don’t really know what exactly, but I do think that having seen this piece in front of young audiences, I would like to push them further.

I had the feeling that in Possible Impossible House, the relationship to this young audience is particular, when I compare it with other Forced Entertainment’s performances. It is less cruel and it is a lot about taming fear. It has this kind of initiatory aspect that a lot of stories for children have.

We do a very unusual thing with the device of the central figure in the story being described as ‘you’. So the children are really placed at the centre of the narrative, in quite a vulnerable place. It’s something we’ve done in a few of the adult pieces too, especially in a work called The World in Pictures, in which Jerry Killick narrates a long story that frames the piece. He asks the audience to imagine that they’ve arrived in a city they don’t know. He says you’ve got time to kill before a meeting and that you decide to walk around. He describes you walking aimlessly in the city. It’s very casual. He takes you through various meanderings and eventually into a building where you start to climb the stairs, all the way up, to the top, going out through an open door onto the roof. And of course, there is the void, the view down to the city and you are looking at it. And Jerry says that you start to wonder what it would be like, if you were to jump? What would that feel like? He says that it occurs you that there might be something liberating about it. So, we play this rather cruel game with the adult audience, bringing them in as the central figures in an imagined narrative and then getting them into quite serious trouble. We do a similar thing with the kids – casting each of them as the lone protagonist, taking them into the unknown and mysterious environment of the house. We would like to scare them a bit with the dark corridors and the mystery of what is happening. But we are also very keen to reassure them. So it does become about that – the tension between safety and danger. I’m sure we are more careful with the younger audience than with the adult ones, we are careful not to scare the kids too much! With an adult audience, we never really think about that – we go as far as we can.

In Instructions for Forgetting, you describe how James and the Giant Peach, the movie that you saw with your son, ends up: everything has found its proper order again; James has his normal shape back. A performance or a story is always a way of asking this question: how to negotiate with chaos or with order? Why may I sometimes be relieved when order is back? Until which point don’t I enjoy chaos anymore? This is something that I could experience a lot amongst a younger audience and as a child myself, that I find certain things disgusting, that I feel this urge for order, while enjoying disorder at the same time. Was it something that you were thinking about with Possible Impossible House and playing with?

The range of kids is interesting and we think a lot about how to negotiate that. The younger kids fall into the spell of things very easily. The older ones are tougher to please – they need to show how grown up they are, to show what they know – they already want to prove that some things are boring or too childish for them. Sometimes, with the regular Forced Entertainment shows we’ve had rather conservative 16 year olds in the audience, who somehow take on a role of objecting, acting like they think their parents might, or how they think their parents might want them too. They become advocates of an overly sensible adult position. I guess there is always something about an audience reacting to a performance – it gives them the chance to prove who they are and what they know. For us I think it becomes a question of how we can pull them into the territory that we want to occupy. If we are interested in abstraction or in something very quiet and slow, how can we make that happen on-stage in a way that brings people into it – how can we wake the part of them that would go for that? Or if we want to be really noisy and disgusting, how do we make that available? We often find something that we like – but then how do we sell it? How do we communicate it? How do we frame it so that people can get into it? With the Shakespeare project, it’s a little bit like that too. I love the very simple game on the table. But there are so many questions – should we present it as a one continuous twelve-hour-long-thing? Or is it nicer to divide it and present four plays every evening – so the audience can see them as individual pieces, so they experience the pieces as objects, becoming aware of their shape? Or we might wonder how it does or doesn’t work on the Internet – because we live-streamed the performances. The thing, the idea, is solid. But how can we position it so that people can get into it somehow? You make calculation about what people will stand and where they will go. Sometimes we feel that an audience in Sheffield won’t buy something, that’s going to be very odd; for an audience in Berlin, that would be fine. Or vice versa. We have sometimes been in rehearsals and thinking about doing performances in a festival somewhere and it seems great. And then we think later: when we are on tour in England, or elsewhere, how will that play? This kind of calculation has never stopped us from doing something, but we are inevitably aware that different cultures have different tolerances, different kinds of reactions and approaches.

What kind of things for example?

All kinds. It might be around difficult things – if it would be very slow and serious or very aggressive acoustically. How much are audiences used to being challenged? The audience in some venues go there precisely because it’s going to be challenging, because they will be confronted by different ways of thinking about performance and theatre. They won’t like everything but they probably expect something that’s going to push them a little bit! Whereas in a more mainstream city theatre in England, it’s not always going to be like that. The season ticket holders don’t want to be pushed. They are not really used to think about theatre in that way. Or it might be around humour. There are very different reactions to the work in different places. None of this would ever stop us from making the choices we want to make, artistically speaking. But I know that we sometimes think: oh dear, this one is going to be difficult! We know that in certain contexts, particular decisions will play out differently. Of course you find venues everywhere where they’re really working hard on audiences to try and experiment with different things, to think about theatre in different ways. When you’ve got a festival or a theatre that is doing that work in one place for a number of years, then the culture in a particular city can really develop. Sheffield used to have a more experimental venue, years ago, and they brought interesting works to the city and it felt that the audience grew towards different kinds of challenges. That venue closed and since then the audience has shrunk back – people get used to more conservative works, the appetite and context change. If you are touring, you are always encountering that.

That’s right, even if I noticed that some international festivals shared the same kind of audiences. That’s another problem I think: you sometimes have the feeling that performances are just created for a tiny audience, very homogenous in its socio-professional components. You have the feeling that the pieces there are all sharing the same good taste. So that the interest slightly neglects artistic concerns and focuses on codes that a certain socio-professional audience feels confident with instead. I am annoyed when I witness that.

Sure. I agree. I think there is a certain homogeneity in these places. That’s why, in a way, being based in Sheffield has been really good for us I think. Especially in the beginning where we were very much in our own space, doing our own thing. A lot of the strategies the company developed in a kind of isolation – we were not part of a big European scene when we started. Even now, it’s clear that we are not based in Brussels or Berlin and that home is a smallish city of the North of England; that’s where the work gets made. Even if we are touring a lot, I feel that that’s still important to the work.

In your work, I have the feeling that something resists and is still very different.

I think so. We’re always slightly awkward! I think one of the things we are interested in is this idea that things can’t be resolved, just as we were discussing before – there’s a lack of closure in the work, a lack of ease. Even on an aesthetic level. When you look at a lot of the cutting edge theatre work in Europe, you really see the money – it’s in the costume or in the technology: it’s there on stage. That becomes a form of legitimation. People feel comfortable with that. Whereas when you look at a Forced Entertainment performance, and often you don’t really see the money: because the money is in time – it’s in the rehearsal room, in the long group process. We often take the decision, as with the Shakespeare project or with The Possible Impossible House, that the work looks temporary, provisional and even homemade. There are banal objects on a table or a little bit of cardboard to project on to, make shift things. No big construction or costume budgets. We use those strategies to help us create the feeling that everything is just here in the room, just here in the world, in the same space with the audience. It’s establishing a common ground, a connected space. From there something magical can happen; but it’s a magic that’s worked for, in transforming the space – it’s something building-up over time, not just a special effect.

Your work unifies two artistic approaches that are usually considered as antagonistic: a resolute step into fictive waters and an abstract concern and interest about what performance might be. Formalists often consider fiction merely as an entertainment or as something that is a little bit superficial, not so interesting. On the contrary, I have the feeling that your work is opening other territories for fiction that can’t be reduced to an escapist attitude. When I see Forced Entertainment’s pieces, I enjoy the performance and at the same time think about questions like this: When do we need fiction? What becomes possible with the use of fiction? You can sometimes speak about things more freely or in a more direct way. You can really go further with some thoughts, be more radical. In the Performance Art context, it often deals about questions like: What is real? What is fictive? But I have the feeling that it is a false question. It is not about saying: this is real, this is not real, because fiction talks about reality and shapes it. And conversely, every documentary work is a fictional thing. I have the feeling that it is a question of how do we construct truth? How do we approach truth?

My instinct is also not to dwell on the difference between what’s real and what’s fiction, these are almost fake questions at this point, because the two things turn into each other and braid around each other all the time, it’s a constant two-way relationship. There is an impulse in fiction, about critiquing, reimagining and transforming the world. I mean that some part of fiction is always about proposing an alternative to “where we are, now” – no matter how strange, idiosyncratic or remote that alternative is. People talk about fiction as a kind of escape – but it’s also about creating a different space, a space in which different things are possible, a space that allows you leverage against the context you find yourself in. Fiction can be a way of inventing an agency of yourself; an ability to act, or to change things, and there is a liberating function in that pure act of imagining that things can be different than they are. We can think of fiction as a sort of radical proposition – a proposition that always somehow plays back into reality. We know that we end up seeing the world through the movies that we’ve made, through the stories that we’ve told, through the stories that other people have told. The relation of fiction to the so-called real is always important, it’s never inactive. There’s no seal between those worlds. The one influences the other. In both directions, I think. Perhaps it’s interesting that some of the key figures in Possible Impossible House are drawings. I’m thinking that the drawing, the doodle, is a fabulously low and neglected form of fictional creation: when a person is bored, that they might draw a spider or a knight or a deep sea diver or a girl on a blank page in a book; that’s something like killing time, just to draw something, but at the same time to somehow open another world on a page. This is a very casual fiction, a daydream, a transformation nonetheless.

It comes from the situation where you are sitting in class, you’re bored and you make some drawings.

Yes. It’s like designing an escape route for yourself, opening up a crack that leads to another world, somehow. There is a desire to re-see the world, to magically transform the context that you are in. It’s the work that helps you re-invent and re-see the places you normally occupy.

Which is nice with fiction, is that you don’t have the answers; or that you can unfold some problems without having to simplify them and to explain them. Fictional stuffs don’t have to mean something, to convey a message. They are not illustrating an idea. A good fiction is always more complex than one single idea. In Possible Impossible House, a lot of political issues are tackled without being dealt directly. It’s there and it’s not there at the same time. Your performances don’t mean something; they don’t aim at representing one position. How do you come to speak about certain questions without raising them directly in your performances?

I sometimes say that political questions are too important to be left to realists. It feels like a certain kind of responsibility and importance has become the province of realists who can describe accurately the society we live in, at least, in terms of some documentary ideal. I am interested in that kind of work of course, but it always feels to me like that there is a value in approaching questions about society and politics also from another route; through abstraction and the fantastical or through all kinds of disruptive, transforming or bending narratives. To me it feels like these might be better tools with which to speak about this world in which we live, rather than in simply describing or recording details in a realistic way. In English theatre it still feels like they don’t really understand that the work could be political unless it’s a drama about unemployment, or about radicalisation or whatever. Those things are considered political. But the things that Forced Entertainment do, wouldn’t easily be talked about it in political terms. It has always seemed to me that this approach, this narrow definition of politics and political theatre, misses a lot of really amazing engaged art and artists.

In Instructions for Forgetting, you ask your friends for true stories. Why did you make this decision? What does it mean, “true”?

As I narrate in the performance I told my friends and acquaintances that I wanted true stories “whatever that means for you”. And when I did that, I knew that “true” would mean different things to different people. That piece was very much about taking certain kinds of documentary materials and traces and using them to make something that I hoped would be somehow more than a documentary. It started from the videos – the first thing I asked people. I asked them for a fragment of video, something they might have recorded themselves on a camcorder. And as that material began to arrive from the different people I invited, I thought I should also ask them and other people for narratives. So that layer began to accumulate still. My own initial fantasy was that I wouldn’t tell any stories of my own, I wouldn’t use any of my own material. I thought I’d just be like a reporter; show the videos that people have sent me and read their stories. I saw my job as composing – making an edit, make a structure. And that’s how I started. But after a while it became clear that I needed to play amore active part in the piece – this neutral / mediator role became very suspicious, as though I was a seriously unanswered question in my own piece! So I began to develop material for the piece, which allowed me to give shape to the whole thing. It really was a question of figuring out how to make something poetic out of essentially “documentary” materials? Fragments of videotapes that people have recorded and stories they prepared to tell me are true, whatever that means. The piece is interested in the question of what do we mean by “truth”? Because many of the stories open out in different ways and they deal with their own fictionality in different ways. Or they deal with true events that somehow becomes legends like the material about the footballer Georges Best, or the TV clip about the beached whale which they try to get rid of using dynamite. It’s about that relation between real things, true things and fiction, and the slippery and interesting territory that is in between them, about the traffic in between them.

Why did you want to be in the piece? It is because it is fairer? To clarify your position?

That’s a good question. Both of those answers are partly true. Something about fairness and something about my your position clear. But fundamentally, a person on stage, I think – possibly there are performances that are interesting which don’t do this – but I would say as a rule: the person on stage has to be at stake, something has to be at risk for them. As a performer you have to be implicated. You need to be an acknowledged part of what’s happening, with something to lose.

I noticed that I was happy that you told something about you.

Yes of course. The people who are there onstage should be somehow part of the deal. It is not okay if they hide.

As if they are neutral.

Exactly. It’s not okay to work on other people’s material and stories and questions and at the same time to act like you and me are not a topic. I think it was that – I had to be in it. I think in performance more generally the question is always this what’s at stake for the person who is doing it? We had it a bit with the Shakespeare project, that sometimes people would do a bad run through, where you didn’t sense them connected or implicated with the play they were re-telling. They can develop a critical stance to the plays of course, which they do with some of the texts, but nonetheless it’s important that as performers they find a way to put themselves into the task, that they are implicated in it. I think that’s true whatever we do. If you think of The Possible Impossible House, it’s kind of funny that the sound effects person is often making a mockery of the narrator’s project. But at the same time it’s also important that the sound effects person still has a stake in what goes on – there comes a point where that person takes over the narrative. Our question as watchers is about implication. What is at stake? Does it matter basically? We’ve certainly done pieces where there’s a conceit that certain people don’t care about what is happening on the stage – all kinds of bad tempers and indifferences and disconnections can be great fun to play with. But in the end you need to find a way for it to matter. The sound person in The Possible Impossible House is good fun because they are constantly messing it up, but beyond a certain point, that’s quite dangerous; they have to turn a corner. Something they do needs to be useful. That position needs to shift.

Once I had to play a translator in a performance, so that I had to translate and to play at the same time. We had big discussions with the others of the group about: how can we make it that I get really involved, that I just don’t remain distant to what is happening; that my position changes during the performance, so that at the end, everybody and even myself forget that I am the translator.

There is something there about a journey, in the sense that if you start in one distant relation to the task, it’s important that after half an hour you are in another position: your stake in what is happening changes. How do people who are distant to what is happening get more involved? How do they get implicated? How do they get tangled? These become really important questions, I think, dramaturgically speaking. To have a cold or neutral position at the beginning and to maintained it is tricky. I’m not saying impossible… but we have an expectation that people’s involvement will shift.

I am always wondering about this fear of expression that influences strongly the way of performing in the current performance context. By negation, this is an injunction to neutrality. As if people think that they can put a mask and holding it for their faces, as if they didn’t have to deal with their emotions, with all of the things that are real, that are there in the room and that can happen to you. Being neutral is preventing oneself from a certain kind of subjectivity and expression.

In Forced Entertainment’s work we think a lot in terms of social things on the stage; in everything we have made, we insist that everybody can see everybody else – the performers are connected. There’s no decision that this one or that one is somehow in their own world. The performance space is always socialized in a very banal way, which means that people onstage have to see, know about and deal with everything. It’s not just an image that this thing has been placed next to this thing – it’s two people. So when one person does something ineffective this one has to react to, at least see it. You see a lot of student work where one performer is in one universe and the other is in another universe. It is hard to think about them as people – they’re trapped in a very conceptual space. By contrast we’ve tended to be interested in real spaces: the real space where people are next to you on the stage and the real space where people seated around are watching you. What’s the relation about? That’s the question we come back to.

Thank you.