077. Tim Etchells

Tim Etchells, Who Knows (installation view), 2014. Image courtesy of VITRINE. Photograph by Jonathan Bassett. 

Susie Pentelow Tim Etchells to discuss his current solo exhibition at VITRINE Bermondsey Street and VITRINE Bermondsey Square. 

You work as an artist and a writer. Did one come before the other?

It seems that whatever context I’m working in – performance, art, music, even collaborations with dancers/choreographers – I always come back around to text, spoken or written.

As a kid, I read lots, wrote lots, always lost and found myself in words, one way or another. So that’s the bedrock I think. What’s interesting is that ‘working with text’ has the potential to go across almost any art form. And it seems that whatever context I’m working in – performance, art, music, even collaborations with dancers/choreographers – I always come back around to text, spoken or written. I guess the thing is, that in shifting contexts I get to approach text from different directions, in different frames – so dealing with narrative, or the capacity of language to invoke image, or the capacity of language to create relations, or to manufacture presence, or thinking about language as texture, as rhythm, or music. I used to think that I did separate things, pursuing different questions and goals in different areas of my practice, but now, I see it all as deeply connected. Various circumstantial and contextual things change… but the core, the inquiry, has continuity.

Tim Etchells, Personal Statement (detail), 2015. Image courtesy of VITRINE. Photograph by Jonathan Bassett. 

Your work for ‘The Facts On The Ground’ really plays on the ambiguities inherent in language. I know that back in 2010 you collaborated with Ant Hampton on 'The Quiet Volume’, which was produced in several different languages. How did the experience of translating this project heighten your awareness of these uncertainties that exist both within and between languages?

Sad to say I’m not a linguist of any kind! So for the many versions of that piece Ant and I worked closely with translators and native speakers. Ant is pretty good in half a dozen languages… but for myself, I have only residual ‘school / touristic / on tour’ understanding of a few Northern European languages. Even my understanding of English is only intuitive, the kind understanding you get as default, as a native speaker. So I don’t even know grammar in any formal sense, I was never taught it.

But I’ve had plenty of texts (a novel, short stories, performance texts and critical/theoretical writing) published in translation, as well as presenting performances with Forced Entertainment (the Sheffield based collective that I’m artistic director of) pretty much all over the world. So I’m really sensitised to translation and the way that small changes make huge differences. In performance, the sur-titling of pieces can really shift things – changes in the translation, as well as changes in the temporal break-up of the text, which affects how closely it maps to the unfolding of the performers’ speech. The other thing that’s been very interesting is working with ‘you’ in the many texts I’ve written that revolve around direct address. Using the word you, in respect of the audience, in English, is super open and ambiguous. Say “You’re tired. You’re distracted” and everyone in the audience can feel addressed – it’s not specified from the language if you’re addressing one person or many, male or female. So in many European languages, you’d have to specify both those things – male/female, singular/plural - plus, of course, familiar/unfamiliar or formal. The English language ‘you’ is extremely imprecise. It’s open… it can go any direction – that’s been a really generative factor in the work. The desire to leave things open is very strong in my work across forms anyway – so translation always brings that kind of question, of how to keep ones’ options open, how to keep things plural, rather than closing them down. 

Tim Etchells, Personal Statement (installation view), 2015. Image courtesy of VITRINE. Photograph by Jonathan Bassett.

In VITRINE Bermondsey Street you present text-based works both in the form of handmade drawings, as seen in 'Personal Statement’, and digital renderings, as in 'News Ticker’. How do you think these contexts or modes of display affect the viewer’s interpretation of a text?

I think texts always stage the writer/author somehow – so in them, there’s always the summoning of a figure, an implied consciousness, the moment of or approach to authorship. Or, to think about it another way, a text implies a relation. In the hand-done drawings (quite a new departure for me, in some ways) you construct the authorship from two things – from the semantic content of the texts of course, and, secondly, from the ways in which they are manifested as objects. Regarding the latter, many of them are rather casual in one sense – uneven spacing, crossings out, uneven application of the acrylics – so you very much feel them as something hand-made, something with a certain energy and time. Some of the drawings are more careful, more perfect in their relation to the surface of the page, with more care taken over the typography. And, of course, there are color decisions – the simple bold colors of the paints, sometimes mixed to make rather more complex and uneven shades. So I guess between all these things you start to ‘read’ the presence of a person, quite apart from the content – you’re aware of them as things made, by a human being, in time and space. That’s the really great thing about drawing. With anything that’s been made in a more industrial or commercial process - the LED piece at Vitrine (News Ticker), the neons I’ve done, the Vacuum Days printed posters and City Changes A4 inkjet pages that I showed in MirrorCity at the Hayward last year – you don’t have these same signs of life, these material factors and textures in the fabrication to the same extent. In those works, you’re constructing the authorship more from the content or from design and resonances of the object or process of course. I think often in the neon/LED/poster works I try to make a drama out of the tension between the mode of presentation and the content. So these very machine-made, fabricated objects often have a very hot, very opinionated content, or a kind of content that’s playful, or process-based, so you can really feel the consciousness or the authorship as a presence inside the work. In those works, the tension is pretty productive. For News Ticker, the LED piece on show at Vitrine, I work very much with word-association – so formally it’s a standard LED unit, something that could well be carrying a news feed… but content-wise it’s very much a human process, a playful, libidinous, anarchic rhyming and free-associating – more or less the opposite of what one might expect from that particular object.

Tim Etchells, News Ticker, 2015. Image courtesy of VITRINE. Photograph by Jonathan Bassett.

'Who Knows’, your work for VITRINE’s Bermondsey Square space, references the dwindling existence of privacy in 21st-century society, both in terms of organized government surveillance and the spontaneous spread of information on the web. Do you feel that there is a close relationship between this work and the very public nature of the space that it is being shown in?

I think one of the interesting things about any of these text pieces, or indeed any work of art, is that it’s always porous to and informed by, rewritten by context.

Yes, in some ways – it was first shown in Vancouver, at Contemporary Art Gallery there, in a space very like this one and there’s a clear link between this piece and that kind of context of a very public announcement. And for me, the piece exists very much in this time, post-Wikileaks and post-Snowden revelations, as we exist in a rather paranoid surveillance world, where we’re thinking through and calculating who knows what about whom. At the same time, though, I think one of the interesting things about any of these text pieces, or indeed any work of art, is that it’s always porous to and informed by, rewritten by context. So Who Knows feels right in a more-or-less corporate semi-public space. But if we were to install it in a basement, or in a pristine white cube in Chelsea, or on the roof of an old telephone exchange or in the playground of a school, it would find different resonances. The work opens things in the location, and the location opens things in the work – it’s a two-way process that interests me. The work permits relocation and is generative in that way. It’s porous.

Tim Etchells, News Ticker, 2015. Image courtesy of VITRINE. Photograph by Jonathan Bassett. 

'The Facts on the Ground’ is viewable across VITRINE’s two spaces until 25 April. What else is on your agenda for the coming months?

Aghhh. I’m just on my way to London for the broadcast of an improvisation session I did with the violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, it’s for BBC Radio 3, Late Junction and will be up for download for until late April. We’re also working on more material together… so there’ll be an album at some point. I’m working with text, Aisha with violin. We did a little work together before, on a project of mine from a couple of years ago. 

Meanwhile I’m working with Forced Entertainment on a pretty ambitious, but very small project, called Collected Works, which involves the group telling all of the narratives of Shakespeare’s plays, using everyday objects as stand-ins for the characters – salt and pepper pots, bottles of shampoo, a cheese grater, a box of matches and so on. Each of them sits at a table and they tell each of the narratives very simply. It’s a kind of odd mix between low-level puppetry and a kind of very everyday re-telling of these stories. We’re presenting the work live in Berlin this June, but most likely streaming it to the Internet too.

Tim Etchells, Who Knows (detail), 2014. Image courtesy of VITRINE. Photograph by Jonathan Bassett. 

I’m appearing in a big set of Boris Charmatz projects at Tate later in May, particularly in a work of his that I’ve been in before called expo zero. It’s a pretty great piece.

As well as these performance things…  there are neons in development for various places, this year and next – there’ll be a big set of performance works presented in Chicago at Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016, also new neon work and a performance retrospective in Korea later this year. It’s pretty hard to keep track, to be honest.


Tune into Late Junction with Aisha Orazbayeva and Tim Etchells here

‘The Facts on The Ground’ is viewable at VITRINE Bermondsey Street and VITRINE Bermondsey Square from 20 March 2015 - 25 April 2015. Visit http://www.vitrinegallery.co.uk for more information. 

Find out more about Tim Etchells’ practice at http://www.timetchells.com