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An interview recorded by Gabriella Giannachi and Nick Kaye on 15 February 2006, edited by Nick Kaye.

Gabriella Giannachi: Do you approach the presence of the performer and the ‘character’ or ‘role’ in a specific way or with a particular attitude?

Tim Etchells: We tend to think about a kind of base line – about the performers being present, in a certain way, more or less as themselves - or as a kind of slightly exaggerated or extended version of themselves. And from there, there is a - kind of - process of a stepping - into either task, or character, or role - or into some kind of enactment anyway. I think that often in the pieces you will see both. Certainly, the performers are present, let’s say, ‘as themselves,’ doing the job - and then, kind of, in a layer above that you will see them enacting or stepping up into something that’s slightly more artificial or staged, if you like - or that maybe is not exaggerated. A nice way to think about this, for me, is a quotation from Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group Director. She says at one point - I read somewhere - that their Three Sisters piece, Brace Up! (1993), is two stories: it’s the story of the Three Sisters and it’s the story of the actors making their way through the Three Sisters. You see these two stories in parallel - and although we don’t work with dramatic texts like the Chekhov, we do - in a way - often think about the pieces in this ‘parallel track’ kind of a way.

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Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess (2005).
Photo: Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy Forced Entertainment.

Nick Kaye: Earlier - in the workshop - you talked about a kind of doubleness in performance. Do you think this doubleness is specifically linked to presence?

Tim Etchells: I think, for me, watching performance, I am aware of people on a number of levels, like I’m seeing past one layer of what they are doing to another layer and then may be to another. Perhaps there’s something important about this experience that we have, of seeing layers of information, the feeling that we are seeing through, from one layer to another to another. As watchers, we aggregate all of that information and we make a kind of map that allows us to say: there’s somebody there. None of those layers is quite enough on its own – presence is to do with the combination.

I suppose another way to think about that would be to say: I don’t know if there is such a thing as simply ‘being there,’ just being present. Being present is always a kind of construction. Perhaps we could think of presence as something that happens when one attempts to do something, and whilst attempting to do that thing you become visible; visible in not quite succeeding in doing it, visible through the cracks or the gaps. As humans we’re always present or perceived through something - through a particular aperture or through a particular grid or through a particular frame. I’m talking about social structures, frames of behaviour, social space and expectation. In fact, it’s these layers or frames or constrictions that make you visible - that make you there. Some people might harbour the fantasy that there is an easy or absolutely: ‘here I am’. But I don’t know if this can exist in society. Perhaps it can exist for some group of guru-like beings who exist in some abstract place, but in the real world we are already all performing too much, there are already too many frames, codes, limits and needs that we are performing in relation to and appearing through.

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Tim Etchells, Hugo Glendinning and Forced Entertainment, Frozen Palaces (1997).
Courtesy of the artists.

Gabriella Giannachi: In Certain Fragments you write that ‘presence now is always complicated and layered, a thing of degrees, and in these strange times one can feel closer to a person, sometimes, when they are further away than when they are fully and simply before us’ (Etchells 1999: 97). I was interested in their relationship between this statement and the idea of framing and shielding -

Tim Etchells: For me, maybe, it’s that presence is something that, on the one hand, perhaps as subjects we deploy certain signs in order to appear, but actually presence is so much about reception. It’s about reading. And reading is a complicated act. One of the things we do as readers of signs and situations - and of all things - is that we respond to absences - and we fill absence. So, you know, the way the telephone makes us imagine the whole person, the way that in text chatting - instant messaging - in writing, you sort of spend time with other people but you are not in the same room as them. And because it’s purely in that sense, because it’s purely language, there is a huge role for you in mentally unpacking what’s written or, in the phone, unpacking what’s said, to create people. Of course, it’s good to spend time with actual people in actual places, but there is this extraordinary thing that when there’s distance involved, - when your presence to other people is mediated via the phone or via text or other means - because these things involve an investment on the part of the reader or participant, you can, in a strange way, be extraordinarily close and connected as well – despite or even because of the distance. Fundamentally this is again about frames, which are apparently quite restrictive, but which can be extraordinarily productive in terms of letting people appear. The constriction can become a kind of gift inside which people operate as agents, but also can be read with an extraordinary level of profundity. Something like this might be true of the workshop exercise we did today, where the performers are asked to behave inside extremely restrictive sets of behavioural instructions: to sit or to stand behind a table and so on.

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Tim Etchells, Presence and Absence Interwined presence workshop University of Exeter, 15 February 2006.

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Presence Project CAVE exercise 1 UCL, July 2007. Digital photos by David Swapp

Tim Etchells: Here, in spite of - or let’s say because of the kind of cruelty of these impositions - they manage to be present in an extraordinarily vivid way. So I think restriction, absence, distance, blankness - all these things which, in a way, have a negative connotation if we want to talk about presence – can actually all be extraordinarily positive. The fantasy of pure or unmediated presence can be quite disturbing in fact - I can only think of it as a horrible gushing forth! – because we can only ever construct ourselves through all kinds of filters, frames barriers and social frameworks.

Nick Kaye: Towards the end of the Presence workshop this morning you were emphasizing interruption, failure, and blankness as important to articulating or revealing the performance’s presence. It was almost as if, in performing ‘blankness’ or ‘absence’, its opposite – presence - may be seen or brought it into play

Tim Etchells: This may be my taste, but I think it’s generally true that as watchers we enjoy reaching through something to find something. We don’t necessarily enjoy the train driving right at us. We like to find things and, in a way, interruption and the failure – and blankness - are all ways of inserting some noise, some ‘anti’ signal between you and what’s being said. Again, these glitches are the things that make it possible for us to see what’s happening and to invest in it. Spaces are very productive – they demand to be gilled. An example that I used this afternoon was to think about a particular performance I made with Forced Entertainment where one of the performers had an extraordinary long text, which was quite hard to take in. I realised at a certain point that two of the performers were messing around in the space, causing a lot of disturbance during this text. And I found myself, as a watcher, suddenly pulled to this text in an extraordinary way, I think, because somebody was making it very difficult for me to get to it. There’s nothing purposely perverse about that - I think we are always looking for these slightly circuitous routes. Socially, and as audiences, there’s a pleasure in that.

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Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess (2005).
Photo: Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy Forced Entertainment.

Gabriella Giannachi: In relation to this, in Certain Fragments you also write that ‘the theatre must take account of how technology has rewritten and is rewriting bodies, changing our understanding of narratives and places, changing our relationships to culture, changing our understandings of presence’ (Etchells 1999: 97). Could you expand on that? In what ways does this technology change our understandings of these things?

Tim Etchells: We are in an era where there’s a fairly large degree of technological change - to do with networking, especially, and communications - and I don’t think we can understand, really, what that’s doing to us as people or as a culture. It’s quite hard to get your head round it when you are in the middle of it, but, in a way, you do sense that these things make a profound difference. A superficial response to this situation as performance-makers is to think about reflecting those technological changes directly on the stage – basically by answering the question: how can we put this kind of technology on the stage in different ways? How does this technology change the form of performance? To me, that’s less interesting than the question, how do these technological changes affect us as human beings, in a deeper way, in the way that we think of - and feel - ourselves in the world? There are so many examples of this. If I think about my kids - who have no expectation when a photograph is taken that they should wait longer than two seconds to see it because they just want to look at the back of the camera - that’s not how I grew up with images. We are used, now, to having the images immediately, as part of what’s happening, and to being able to watch again. We have it even in performances. There will be school parties and there will be videoing while you are performing and they’re passing phones along to each other, sending the little clips to their friends, all while they are watching. It’s not that we encourage it, particularly, but I am interested in the ways that that changes how we think of ourselves and how we think of our relationship to our own images. That is what interests me - those kinds of changes in the construction of the social sense of individuals. That’s what’s exciting to me. I don’t care so much about how artists might put the technology on the stage - I’m more interested in how we get a fix on how these shifts affect what we are as human beings.

Nick Kaye: You used a very interesting phrase during the Presence workshop, when you talked about your interest in the ‘texture’ of authenticity, which seems in a way paradoxical. I wondered how that related to these affects of technology?

Tim Etchells: To give slightly separate answers - in the one sense, when you work in performance – for over twenty years - you start to notice that there are certain ways of being on stage or in public that maybe guarantee that you are listened to. Things that ensure or suggest that you are doing is felt as ‘real’ or as ‘really happening’. There are also certain things you can do in a performance (unwittingly perhaps) which mean that what you say is not listened to - that it somehow doesn’t quite seem to happen. All of these things aren’t in your control, but you do get some sense and control. In different projects you learn certain strategies or tricks or textures of how the ‘authentic’ might be read or constructed - and of course you get interested in being able to reproduce those things. It’s particularly easy to talk about this in relation to language. In the beginning of the company’s work - and this maps into the thing about technology - we worked with texts that were evidently written. There was an interest in writing with a capital ‘W’ - in poetry, if you like. Increasingly we have come to work with improvised text and speech, so there’s been a shift in the work from an interest in writing to an interest in spoken language. One of the things you notice as soon as you start working with a video camera on a daily basis - as we did may be 10, 12 years ago – is that when you transcribe actual speech it’s quite extraordinary. I mean, the patterns of looping self-qualification, unfinished sentences, ideas that flow off in particular directions. Often, now, we are effectively transcribing text off videotapes of rehearsals and using that as the basis for scripts. What I like about that is that a performer will improvise a particular part of a show and, the first time they do it, it will have a really rich texture of dense qualification, using language in the most amazing, fluid ways. The second time they improvise it, it tends to be this intense over-simplification of what they did before. But when you go to the transcripts of the first one and you look at it as text and - if you are able as performers to reproduce that - you can end up with stuff that sounds like you are really saying it now, for the first time - which is really interesting. We have become hugely interested in working from transcription - and that’s only possible because of the ubiquity of technology. And that gives you then an understanding of a certain linguistic texture of authenticity.

Gabriella Giannachi: What implications do words such as ‘presence,’ ‘being there,’ ‘aura,’ ‘awareness,’ ‘or self-awareness’ have for you in this process?

Tim Etchells: The thing we talk about the most, really, when we are working, is the idea of ‘being there’. At one level I think we seek this probably impossible thing – a very simple, human scale presence beneath the theatrical – a way of simply being in a space and with some people. The other thing that’s relevant is a definition of theatre - of performance – we often invoke - that as performers we are people at one end of a room, who are paid to do something for a bunch of other people in the same room. It’s a deliberately rather levelling description of the form! But I think we want to stress this idea of some people in a room, and just to feel - it’s very hard to articulate - but to feel the absolute banality of that. That’s something that we’ve focused on and, I think, you sense it in the group’s work - that the performers tend to show or deploy a very relaxed, very human scale or version of themselves on stage. They don’t look like they are in some other universe. There’s a certain feeling of ordinariness, which I think is completely constructed - I am not under any illusions about that. I think that ordinariness, that human scale presence, is a thing that we stage - and we work very hard on how we want it to look. We attempt to create a kind of intimacy - an easy working, work-a-day ‘nowness’ on the stage and with the audience.

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Forced Entertainment, Exquisite Pain (2005)
Photo: Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy: Forced Entertainment.

Tim Etchells: It’s interesting, again, if I think about the work that we did in the workshop. You can see performers sat at the table in one of the excercises who can do that – ‘be there’ - completely comfortably. They are very happy being looked at; they are very happy looking back; they are very happy looking at the ground. Then some people who look like they’re being electrocuted by sitting there; they don’t know how to sit and be at ease in front of a group of people. I think it’s extraordinarily revealing.

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Tim Etchells, Presence and Absence Interwined presence workshop University of Exeter, 15 February 2006.

Tim Etchells: What we have gone after in the work is to find a way that the performers look like they can just be there. I think you can get that by training and by working for 20 years, like we have. To some people it comes more easily. I sometimes think my brother was more or less born that way. He was a postman - he works on a fish farm now - but we can put Mark in any of the pieces and he is comfortable, just doing what he’s doing in a very easy, measured sort of way. I think that’s very interesting. I think there’s an interesting thing about people who give time to the thing that they are actually doing. There’s a kind of democracy, a lack of judgement and hierarchy about their presences - as if to say whatever they are doing, important or not, that’s the thing they are doing. They are not anxiously anticipating something over there; they are not fretting about what they just did. They are just doing that thing - and that is so extraordinary to watch. I mean, in an era in which everything is fragmented and mediated, the live actor is the one who stands up and says ‘I am here. You can look at me’. There’s a huge simplicity to a lot of the live work that we have done - a sort of peeling away of things to the point where we are often stood in a line at the front looking back at the audience - and very much measuring this body on the stage and this bunch of people watching; measuring the distance between the two.

Nick Kaye: In the images of empty stages and empty theatres created with Hugo Glendinning, there seems to be a tremendous sense of potential – of suspense – as if the image captures or produces a very potent moment – or promise. Does this link in some way to what you are describing with the paring down of the performers acivity and ‘being there’?

Tim Etchells: Yes. There’s a very nice quote from Peter Handke that I read in the workshop. He says, basically, that the trick is to have other people – the audience - tell stories and then persuade them that you told them a story. What we have done often in the performance work is to create spaces of possibility - and these pictures of empty stages are just that - when you see an empty stage, of course, you have to imagine the performance that would take place. We fill it. It’s like we just rush in and start making meaning happen. And, you know, all the very minimalist text performances that we’ve done - a lot of the pieces where you have repetition or you have very blank images – are also very much about creating this kind of space. I work on the assumption that in art at least nobody likes to be told anything. Instead we like to find things. So when art offers something blank or something that just slightly resists or frustrates my ability to ‘get it clearly’ I go in there and imagine - I want to get my hands dirty. I think that’s what people like to do. We have developed lots of tactics, I suppose, for creating different kinds of spaces or different kinds of experiences that invite the active participation of watchers and which make looking a kind of agency. Theatre on the whole thinks that it’s a didactic medium - it thinks it’s got to tell you something. We have always been much more of the kind of camp that says what you are doing is creating space for other people to fill - and in that sense their watching is hugely active. I think when you get people investing like that then things happen - and one of those things is presence. If you think about the greatest movie actors - my God, it’s really a collection of people with faces like a brick wall, the camera goes to there and sees those eyes –Martin Sheen at his best in something like Apocalypse Now - there’s nothing coming back. And when there’s nothing coming back, the viewer does all the work - you are telling yourself stories because there’s nothing actually there. I think of Michael Heneke in films like Funny Games or Hidden (Caché), or other people working with very formal, slightly distant camera. That work is so amazing and it is very much about creating emotional, narrative and architectural spaces that are empty at a certain level – and because they are empty therefore you go in. Blankness is a huge magnet - people really, really rush into that, they fight it as well too of course, because at first they can get nervous in art or cinema or performance if they’re ‘not being told anything’.

Gabriella Giannachi: This makes me think of Forced Entertainment’s interactive CD-ROMS such as Nightwalks. In exploring these still scenes, something has evidently happened in this space and yet it’s still. And that stillness is provocative – it makes you look more frantically.

Tim Etchells: Yeah. I think the link for me is that often, when we have made theatre pieces, we’ve temporarily constructed a space in the rehearsal room and then there’s a process for us, in a way, of figuring out what could or would or should happen there in that space we’ve built. And sometimes we can’t figure out an answer - so we build something else - and sometimes we can figure out an answer and that becomes the performance. The process for us, I suppose, is understanding that the space, the architecture, is a kind of writing - it makes things possible, it makes things happen, it suggests things and denies others. A line of chairs at the front or a cluster of chairs at the back tells you different things about what might happen. You might be wrong, but those are clues, architectural clues. That’s always been part of how we’ve worked. So Nightwalks and Frozen Palaces and the model city installation Ground Plans for Paradise, and even Nights in this City in Sheffied, were about seeing what happens when you create, in a sense, empty spaces, empty city streets, and empty model city streets, or photographed scenes that have figures in them, but where the figures are completely frozen, locked into a single moment in which they become a kind of scenery. What does a viewer or an audience do with that? How do you encounter that? What kinds of mental processes start to happen?

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Tim Etchells, Hugo Glendinning and Forced Entertainment, Nightwalks (1998).
Courtesy of the artists.

Tim Etchells: I suppose, for us, that’s very much related to the kinds of explorations we’ve always made in the rehearsal studio, but now translated into a form where it can be somebody else that thinks, yeah, ok, what could go on here? It’s the viewer’s imagination that makes the link between this figure in the distance and this object in the landscape, or that doorway or whatever. In the theatre you sit in the dark and normally you do all that work in your head. In the interactive work it’s the same - you are making the meaning, you are joining things up - but via the computer interface/navigation you are also steering the gaze of the piece. A more explicitly active role is dramatised in a certain way. And the CD Roms of course are very solitary experiences. In the theatre pieces there is always a kind of social negotiation going on. As an audience member you might be absolutely captivated by looking at something on the stage, but another spectator may be bored to death or walking out. So in performance one’s encounter with the work always has a social dimension, there’s always a negotiation of some kind, in the auditorium. On the other hand, sat alone at your computer making your way through Nightwalks it’s a much more private space that you are able to go into. It doesn’t have the same kind of social question, which I think at the time was interesting for us to get away from. We are always trying to give ourselves a holiday from the constraints and the topics that live performance forces us back to!

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Tim Etchells, Hugo Glendinning and Forced Entertainment, Frozen Palaces (1997).
Courtesy of the artists.

Gabriella Giannachi: At the same time, engaging with these works can produce the illusion or sensation of some kind of spatial and social negotiation - even in the absence of the performer - I found myself going through a series of emotions, of being trapped and trying to get back and being unable to do so.

Tim Etchells: I think the difference for me is to do with social negotiation. In the digital pieces you go from one photographed environment to another to another and in each of them you find the kind of images and clues that we’ve made - a guy lying on a bed of old clothes; a pantomime horse outside some High Rise buildings; a yellow shirt discarded near a smashed up phonebooth. These things have a particular flavour and suggest certain things rather than others. They’re also linked in what is without question, a limited set of ways – I mean your possible routes through the work are determined to a certain extent. That produces the sense of encounter, limit, and frustration even that you describe.

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Tim Etchells, Hugo Glendinning and Forced Entertainment, Frozen Palaces (1997).
Courtesy of the artists.

Tim Etchells: The difference though is that in encountering these things, you don’t have to negotiate with any other real people – there aren’t 200 other people sat with you and giving their opinion (by reacting) as the work unfolds. So there’s a privacy to one’s encounter with the digital work whereby one’s relation to it is not negotiated socially. For me, that’s probably the key difference - that in the theatre or performance everything is negotiated socially whilst in Nightwalks or Frozen Palaces - or in a way with the photo-works - that doesn’t really happen. Those works are just there - people look at them and they work on them in their own minds, quite privately. I guess it’s more like novels – our experience reading novel doesn’t have that social dimension either - it’s another form that operates more privately.


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