May 2010, Interview with Tim Etchells

Tim Etchells, Art Flavours, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Gasworks

Tim Etchells, City Changes, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Gasworks

Representation in order to critique representation; in discussion with Tim Etchells

Sophie Risner: The show at the Gasworks (in my mind) spans three different entrance points into the narrative of a continued exploration within your practice. Having looked in depth at the work Insults & Praises and Threats & Promises, which featured as part of the 2008 Sheffield biennial, I can see certain ideas and thoughts begin to perforate through the work and the way you 'go-about' your practice. Time and time again I have witnessed the word 'communication' resplendent within the context of your work. This seems to act out as a trompe d'oeil, claustrophobically binding your work, sheltering it behind the massive array of difficulties within the very design and narrative of what communication actually does. With this in mind I was wandering if you could at first explain why you specifically chose the works Art Flavours (AF) and City Changes (CC), two pieces from 2008, to show at Gasworks from the artillery of work you have.

Tim Etchells: In answer to this first question: Partly the selection arose because this was work that Anna from Gasworks had seen in Manifesta 7, and she very much liked both of the pieces. We discussed making a new commission but there were financial issues for that.. so decided to show the M7 pieces... which was an easy choice since neither of them had been shown in the UK before at all.

Secondly, for me AF and CC represented two different explorations of what I'd call a process of working within a frame. In AF I set up a structure for dialogue and action, or a process of exchange and asked two strangers to be a part of it. The process of this, and the result were determined by the way they inhabited the structure I'd established. In CC I created a structure or frame which I then obliged myself to occupy... the work arose from this process and the decisions I made in response to the constraints I'd established for myself. Both works are about language in a certain sense too - in that they explore it's limitations, it's ability or inability to map, experience or summon ideas.... and both works are interested in process of transformation - the transformation of 'words' or concepts into flavours... and the transformation of one text into another as well as, less formalistically the transformation of cities/landscapes in and of themselves, and their transformation/encapsulation by/through language. Despite these things I can identify as being 'in common' or shared by the works, I was also drawn to put them together again because they present quite different experiences for the viewer/gallery visitor - the CC being text, rather dry in a sense, and the AF being video, rather more sensual, requiring a different kind of attention.

SR: So, they both play off each other; almost as a quest into the uncertainty of language and its potential to define, communicate, transform, mutate, produce, push forward etc. Whilst CC remarks on a repetition within the landscape of language, AF pushes more towards a play on translation. I personally found AF to be very illuminating as it transgressed two very different vernaculars; that of the 'art' language and that of the ice cream maker. Your explorations within both projects AF and CC seem to hint at some kind of frustration you have with language and its many guises and vernaculars. Do you think you try to imagine a place that language, communication et al, does not exist or finds it hard to inhabit?

TE: I think I'm drawn to spaces which language finds hard to inhabit, or at least spaces in which I can foresee a particular set of difficulties or complexities for language. Much of my work has been done in the frame of live performance, and in that context I've been particularly drawn to ideas of failure, error and to unfolding, real-time processes of making do or improvisation, especially in language. In live work I'm very much drawn to the way that error or the struggle of the speaker makes something visible - I suppose I think that the subject becomes visible in a particular (open, transparent) way thanks to the force of error or rupture. If you want to understand a system, first study how it fails! You can see something very like this in operation in the AF video, on many levels - the communication between Roberto and Osvaldo of course, and the act of attempted translation between discourses or art and gelato. I'm definitely driven to create situations where communication in general and language in particular will 'fail' to function. I guess I'm entirely dubious about its authority, and keen, in different ways, to expose its limits. At the same time, to be honest, I don't have much time for the fantasy of a space outside of language or representation. These are the things in and through which we live to a large extent and their failure to adequately map experience on the one hand is mirrored by the way that they place a tangible limit or filter on experience in the first place.

I suppose the place I'm optimistic about all this is in relation to struggle - the dynamic process of the people trying to use, negotiate language for example - which I think is always fertile and inventive. I'm also fascinated with the excess produced by error or by failure - that 'failure' (of language for example, in something like CC or in a performance work like Quizoola!) also has a creative force or aspect to it.

SR: So, your practice almost maps the territory of language and experience, moving and shifting between what we 'know' of both and what we can only presume. I love the line about studying something through its failure; what it doesn't do, as supposed to what something does. Thus, more questions arise which produce a far more insightful reading than is first thought. This couldn't be more pertinent, and I definitely see the connection through both AF and CC. With this in mind, let me think of a way out of the initial conundrum I set myself; which is that your work seems to always be married or attached to this term 'communication.' On discussion with you this is a complete trompe d'oeil. In fact, what you propose is a way to find or look at articulation, or, maybe even more inherent, the chaos of representation. Time and time again you seem to suggest that it is the very instance of our human-ness (when you say you do not have time for fantasy) which perplexes or creates the greatest difficulty for ourselves. In effect, we are only to blame for the way we either miss the possibility of articulation or pin too much hope and desire on its necessity.

TE: Hard to know where to start with this! I think I can follow, in that you’re emphasizing or drawing out this double interest of mine – the nature of experience, and its relation to representation – how the two move in and out of each other. I think for me a lot of the fascination is with the ways that we have to use representation in order to critique representation – there’s a kind of mis en abyme at work. The complexities of experience are perhaps, in any case, only visible through both the successes and the failures in representation, where we feel that language has grasped something, where we feel that it has failed… But the sense that language has failed also, in some way, makes the experience it was reaching for more present, more vivid. I can go round and around this…. Perhaps it suffices to say that I’m drawn very much into this territory of contradiction.

I suppose the other thing to underline is my interest in process. The business of ‘coming to’ a conclusion, or arriving at an articulation – this process is the deeply human one, the one in which we are all visible and vulnerable.. and its perhaps this process (rather than completed utterances) that much of my work seeks to reveal, stage or enact. You can see that both in CC and AF, as well as in much of the live performance work I’ve done. It’s the negotiation with task – the flow and unfolding of decisions in relation to contingencies that interests me.


Tim Etchells (1962) is an artist and a writer based in the UK. He has worked in a wide variety of contexts, notably as the leader of the world renowned performance group Forced Entertainment and in collaboration with a range of visual artists, choreographers, and photographers. His work spans performance, video, photography, text projects, installation and fiction. His 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. In recent years Etchells has exhibited widely in the context of visual arts, with solo shows at Gasworks and Sketch (London) and Künstlerhaus Bremen (forthcoming, September 2010). His work has appeard in the biennales Manifesta 7 (2008) in Rovereto, Italy, Art Sheffield 2008 and Goteborg Bienale (2009). Selected groups shows include Netherlands Media Art Institute (Amsterdam), Sparwasser HQ (Berlin), MACBA (2009), The Centre for Book Arts, Canada and Exit Art (all New York) and Kunsthaus Graz. He is currently Legacy: Thinker in Residence (2009-2010) at Tate Research and LADA in London.

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Sophie Risner

Sophie Risner is a freelance art writer and critic living in London. "I am less art critic and more art writer - I find the idea of critiquing art through writing difficult in a purely formalist fashion. I often lean towards the difficulty of language as a way into the inherent difficulty of art. Embracing all aspects which observe and inspire artist practice as a way to create a more fruitful and less didactic approach."

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