ABOUT "SPECTACULAR" AND OTHER REALMS OF GHOSTLINESS. A TALK ON THE PHONE WITH TIM ETCHELLS
By Helmut Ploebst
corpus: When thinking about the relation between ghostliness on the one hand and the stage on the other I can't avoid considering the relation between the title of Forced Entertainment's piece “Spectacular“ and the term “specter” – what kind of a connection does there exist between these two words for you?
Etchells: I suppose it makes me think of the vaudeville or carnival side show tradition of presenting the uncanny, the otherworldly or the grotesque – the whole desire to frame the unknown and the unknowable as if it could be tamed enough to be an entertainment or a visual delight. I guess that impulse has always been there as a part of popular entertainment, and as a much more general cultural tendency. Especially around performance, to somehow grapple with these unknowable things and to frame or capture them in such a way that they might be exhibitable on stage. And I'm saying that now of course knowing there is some irony, some sense that this capture of the unknowable is always going to fail, but I understand that performance always wants to go there, always wants to see what can be done with that.
corpus: It's actually also a ghost performance performing in “Spectacular”, one that we're never going to see but which is talked about and described as a radical and entertaining performance, which cannot happen … Why did you decide on this form?
Etchells: It's been a kind of ongoing interest of mine and of the company how in language you can create virtual events, by describing, by speaking about, or by writing – about how in language, in a certain way, you can ‘make things happen’. You see this very strongly in an earlier piece of ours, “Dirty Work”, where Robin Arthur and Cathy Naden take turns to describe the scenes of a kind of imaginary theatre spectacle, an impossible performance. And you see it in other projects of mine, video works and so on, but what really interested us in this new piece “Spectacular” was the way that Robin could really take us into quite intangible aspects of this other performance, the one that we don't see. So, a really early discovery in the work for me was a section in which Robin described a kind of musical interlude that the band supposedly play in this missing show. He describes a sort of Jazz improvisation that he calls the “music of sunshine”.
I really love this sense, of Robin not describing a dancing elephant or aeroplanes making circles in the sky – images that might well come from “Dirty Work”, but instead taking us into more intangible or abstract concepts, like the feelings or thoughts that this music suggests for him. That really interested us in this new work – that sense of interiority. And especially the way this approach allowed us to almost work with a microscope on these very intangible things that are happening to us as spectators as we sit there in our seats – looking inside the performer and inside the audience. Of course those things are always a part of any performance but here in “Spectacular” they're raised to the level of a subject – we reflect on those things.
“There is a kind of accumulating set of shadows or ghosts around all of the performers.”
corpus: The main focus in "spectacular" lies on the word “normally”. So the piece we see is representing an exceptional situation away from the norm, almost an emergency situation. What is the plan behind this?
Etchells: It seemed like a good form, a good, rich and pretty malleable way to speak – something we're always searching for in rehearsals. It's a tool. I think what's interesting is that to say ‘normally’ in the theatre is always slightly problematic, because even as it claims tonight's show as an exception, as a somehow ‘different case’, it draws attention to the routine or mechanical aspects of theatre as a form – the nightly repetition of a text, a structure, a joke, the predictable responses of audiences and so on. Talking about these things can create some good for comedy of course … but it's slippery ground. There's something unsettling about the insistence that what we are watching is predictable in this way, that it might be reduced to routine, to a matter of habit, or convention.
corpus: Both Claire Marshall and Robin Arthur are introducing their real first names on stage, so they open up the question of what kind of a projection appears, what is an actor transforming into a role giving him a ghost identity – as a norm of theatre. Did you include such questions in your process from the beginning?
Etchells: This is something we've worked on in different ways. I tend to think that what the performers in the pieces do over the years is create versions of themselves. We've always been shy of the word “character”. The performers work from themselves with their own impulses and creativity, with their own inclinations perhaps to make personas – something that is perhaps half a step away from themselves. What you make as a performer is a version of you, a kind of remix of you, a ghost of you – all of these terms would apply. And using their own names is just one small strategy to ground that process and to say, it's Robin and Claire, and they're doing this thing. It's still a construction of course, and there's still a huge, huge amount of artifice in a piece like “Spectacular”. We allow the fictitious stuff to circulate and to somehow go alongside, and even infiltrate their names. What you see in “Spectacular” adds to the version of Robin or Claire that you saw in “The World in Pictures”, or in “Bloody Mess”, or in “Exquisite Pain”. There is a kind of accumulating set of shadows or ghosts around all of the performers, and by using their names now in several shows repeatedly it becomes a little currency that we work with, a kind of crossing and re-crossing between your own self and then the fictional possibilities of yourself. That's what performance is I guess.
corpus: If you would transfer the metaphor of “ghost” into social or political contexts, where would you detect or put them?
Etchells: Often the political and the social space we are in likes to appear very concrete and consequent. But what determines action and events are all kinds of hidden acts and histories, all kinds of ghosts and energies, that are in the background and which are denied politically, historically, and culturally. And although the political and social space we occupy is concrete, tangible and visible, our reality is at the same time that of moving in a landscape that is thick with ghosts, thick with interfering echoes. You could think that these sudden collapses in the global economy are an example here. How does something like this collapse actually happen? What is the relationship between this phantom economics – futures trading, derivatives – and any ‘real’ economy? It seems hard to establish. And when the crash comes, it spreads with an energy and a momentum that seems unnatural, uncanny – a set of squalls and storms in a possessed, haunted space that was supposed to be economics.
“I like the fact that performance, in the event, is out of your control.”
corpus: And if we project ourselves from these spaces into the areas, ideologies and markets of art, can we sense there also a system of ghostliness?
Etchells: Hm, I suppose what interests me in that sense is that as an artist you are a kind of receiver – a radio receiver or some kind of sensing device – and working as an artist for me is, at least in part, about allowing yourself to be spoken through. I'm a rational person, but at the same time I don't necessarily trust instrumentalist understandings of what art does and how it works and why and how it is made. If I think of my own practice, and this is a common thing I would say, I know that we go to the rehearsal studio in the first instance not knowing what we intend and not knowing where we are going with the work. The rehearsal process is a kind of stumbling, a discovering and to a certain extent a channeling of what's in the air between us and around us. In a certain way I don't feel 100 percent in control of that process and that's fine because I really don't quite trust or believe ‘intentions’. I think a lack of control or certainty can be important in fact, because it allows you a sensitivity to possibilities or ideas that you don't really understand or which you don't necessarily recognize at first.
But I'm interested in that stumbling, that recepticity, as a mode of practise and by contrast I get very nervous when people tell me with great certainty that their as-yet-unmade work is about this and this and this. I mean – afterwards I might know what a work is about, maybe a year afterwards, but knowing in advance seems weird to me, even if funders prefer it!
corpus: For the audience, when whitnessing a piece or seeing an exhibition, this hidden world is always the processes leading to what they see. So what you were descibing now on the other hand is always opaque to the auditorium, as a second reality behind the perceivable.
Etchells: The work that I've done in performance and in other forms is often keen to leave traces of that opaque reality laying around. So there's always inference of processes and decision-making that's gone on before, and often I try to make things in the work visible as decisions rather than as something completely opaque. So I think in “Spectacular” or in other shows you sense that the show is going that way, but that it could just as well have gone another way. What's seen is always explicitly opened up to its' other.
And apart from this sense of rehearsal traces or decision traces, there is of course another reality, which is the one that unfolds in the minds of the spectators. It's the uniqueness and the uncontrolledness of that for each spectator that interests me – they way that spectators think and have to make narratives, pictures and connections. As an artist you basically don't have control of that although some theatremakers rather wish they did of course!
I think I like the fact that performance, in the event, is out of your control – that you're throwing something into a public space and that it's then very creatively triangulated by the public. The most interesting understanding of this form is that audience members are very busy in their own little ghost realms making this event happen, and that even the simplest performance becomes very complicated and personal. And that interests me a lot. Again there is an intangible aspect of what it is to work in public and to have other people watch or intervene as spectators – because spectatorship is always a kind of intervention in the creative act.
“The current fetishisation of all things supposedly interactive and participatory is rather inane.”
corpus: This reminds a bit of Michel de Certeau, when he's writing about the creativity and the strategies of the consumer, or, according to him, the ‘user’.
Etchells: Yes, his writing about that is very relevant. And also the idea of renting passivity (which is either from de Certeau or Bourdieu) for example the situation in cinema, where you pay money in order to sit in the dark and stay silent and not move, but that these restrictions, these passivities, form or give permission to a kind of creative space that is extraordinarily free. And I think the current fetishisation of all things supposedly interactive and participatory is rather inane – especially when it's reduced to pushing buttons or voting for what ending you'd like. I don't think these kind of mechanical freedoms are always the interesting ones in art. There's so much rich work done in the form of theatre, performance, dance, film, the novel, where a different sense of the spectators' freedom – to think, to imagine, to create-in-watching – is explored. As watchers I believe that people are very inventive.
corpus: When you compare your working with live performance and with video, how do you prepare yourself thinking about the experience of the audience with these two different media?
Etchells: No matter what for I'm working in, if it's a performance or a novel or a video then I'm dealing with the unfolding of time, the dramaturgy of time. And I'm dealing with the constructing of a relation to a viewer: so I'm always dealing with how is that relationship structured, or developed, or thickened, or challenged, or probed, or extended. And I'm also always dealing with some level of play between the “real” and the “fictional”. In video, in fiction and in performance these things are approached and articulated differently perhaps, but they remain a constant set of frames or co-ordinates for me. My understanding as an artist comes from performance, so even when I was working in the last years on a novel – “The Broken World” – which was published this year, I think I was still very much thinking through and coming out of performance when I wrote that. And when I'm working on video also I'm plugged into various ways of thinking about the manifacture of presence, or about relationships to the viewers, or about how to deal with time.
“… and the voices that came out of there were the voices of the dead.”
corpus: Ken McMullen did a video “Ghost dance” with Jacques Derrida in it, did you … ?
Etchells: Yes, I've seen it!
corpus: On the cover you can read this quote of his: “Cinema plus Psychoanalysis equals the Science of Ghosts.” What did you carry away from this film?
Etchells: I saw this movie in 1985 or 1986, a few years after it was made, and I've maybe seen it again since. I remember there is a text describing a ritual performance of some kind, and the line that sticks in my head from it is: “… and the voices that came out of there were the voices of the dead.” Strange – this stays with me since more than 20 years. For me it's an important phrase – a fragment that is relevant to the conversation we were having earlier, about what speaks to and through us, those things or forces that find voice in us whether we like it or not.
I remember also the interview with Derrida in “Ghost Dance”, and him talking there about voices on the phone and about film and video being kind of ghosts. The metaphor of the ghost: I saw in New York a while ago an exhibition about spirit photography, and it was so interesting to me that the historical moment where the camera falls into popular hands is connected with the emergence of spirit photography. It's linked also to the end of World War I and to the many deaths that European societies suffered during that time – generations of lost men, and the desire to have them back, and in a sense emerging photography finds this way that's apparently capeable of pulling them back.
It seems to be that the ghost is always, for us anyway, tied to technology now. We can't get away from this really, since photography, and then moving film and video, and then the digital era – the whole idea of the image that supports to show what is hidden. Every technology probably brings its own apparent revelation and with it a new idea of the ghostly – reveals (or creates) another realm that can be captured … And in this line of development it is the digital realm that probably has the most extraordinatory shadows or reminders of the ghostly. You only have to think about things like the computer virus, or about avatars in on-line games, about intelligent gents that assume a kind of personality, about the Turing test and so on … the whole digital realm is awash with the ghostly, the almost human, the almost autonomous, the shadow of life.
corpus: Where are you right now while we're talking? I can hear voices in the background.
Etchells: I'm standing in St. Pancras Station. As we speak I'm watching people go by the whole time, so this is quite a nice location for this conversation. This place is full of ghosts. All talking on their cell phones as they pass me, speaking to other ghosts far away from them. About 200 metres from where I'm standing there are the trains leaving to Sheffield – I'm on my way home now.
“Spectacular” is currently touring the UK, with plans for more European dates in the new year. Details at www.forcedentertainment.com Tim Etchells' first novel "The Broken World" was published by Heinemann UK in July 2008 and is available to buy at www.forcedentertainment.com/shop
More about Tim Etchells’ other projects on his website www.timetchells.com