Interview: Tim Etchells, English Director, Performer, Writer – Encounter with a Political Artist

Look directly into someone’s eyes. This sentence is at the heart of Tim Etchells’ latest installation at Kunsthalle Mainz in Germany (Installation „No Reason“ as part of exhibition “Between us”). Tim Etchells is a phenomenon, because he is one of the very few who have successfully and sustainably made their voice heard as an artist on an international stage. With a message. Many of us may think how unjust the world around us is. Many of us may complain about how we treat animals, how the rich get away with paying no taxes, how the stupidity and emptiness of the American popular culture dominates our public consciousness, how the human touch and real appreciation get replaced by the need for efficiency and a focus on quantification. However, thinking that there is something wrong with all that is not enough. As a democratic society we need this rare breed of people who get to have a voice in society without being paid for it by lobbyists, without being cheap and meaningless, without being focused on material crap. Tim Etchells is such a man. Let’s look him into the eyes.

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“Drag people from one place to the other”, “Fall over for no reason”, “Stand still while others stumble”, “Try to keep breathing under control” as well as “Push, shove, fight and run in circles” are the other sentences Tim Etchells presents to the public at Kunsthalle Mainz until June 16th. They all make reference to stupidity and brutality in some way, shape or form. We may think about the idiotic Brexit drama, about the war in Syria or how asylum seekers are being treated in Europe. Or just about the stressful work of management consultants or other unhealthy professions when we read them.

Capitalism is brutalising

“Capitalism is brutalising”, says Tim Etchells, but we cannot expect to immediately overturn or escape the system. “What we can do, however, is to make people attend to their own importance, their own responsibility and capacity for agency in relation to the world and in relation to each other.” Where capitalism is dumbing people down into mere consumers whose minds are kept busy with material desires for owning cars and phones and showing off with exotic vacations, Tim Etchells’ art wants to tune people to the situation of being alive. “Much of the way the world is structured is made to destroy that real, living, worthwhile kind of relation with others and responsibility towards life.” “The Americans have colonised our subconsciousness”, Wim Wenders once said. The task of a political artist in this context is to “get underneath that and think about the kind of relations that might be possible between people”. Look directly into someone’s eyes. Feel the importance and the power and the meaning of being alive, of being able to think and being kind to others.

What is possible with art?

“Challenge, sensitize, invite, confront” – For Tim Etchells that’s what is possible with art. “I try to pull people who encounter the work into a different kind of sensitivity – a realisation or thoughtfulness about what they are, how they are, where they are in relation to each other and society. I don’t think they are all going out the next day to start pulling things down and changing the world. But I do think that we need that challenge, invitation, confrontation from culture as human beings. It is one of the things that keep us alive and thinking – it gives us the possibility to have a different kind of thinking and different kinds of action, make other decisions. Think deeper and harder, confront ourselves, confront our neighbours: It is not very concrete but it can change something. The net effect of that is positive – that is my hope anyway.”

This desire for change and new thinking is why Tim Etchells also works with young people. Bringing them on stage is a life-changing experience for them and bringing their parents, friends and neighbours into the theatre means reaching out to an audience who the message Tim Etchells wants to bring across would never have reached otherwise. Just recently, his new production of his text “That Night Follows Day” about how the adult world shapes and controls children’s and youngsters’ lives has reached many people in London.

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(Tim Etchells 2019 – Picture: Chris Saunders)

You’re not doing your job

Tim Etchells also talks about how public funding of the art scene in Britain is more and more determined by numerical data that threatens to overtake human judgements. Funding decisions are increasingly based on standardised questions and evaluated by standardised metrics. “The same kind of process also takes place in the health service and in education with damaging results.” People in responsible positions are not given or do not take the time anymore to talk to real human beings. Instead, decisions are taken based on data or even big data. Looking around the restaurant we’re doing the interview in, Tim Etchells says: “If you’re the manager of this place you can manage it by listening to people and talking to them or by counting empty tables and calculating the number of seconds it takes to fulfil an order: if you only do it on the numbers and evaluate things from the mathematical data then you’re superficially doing your job but at the same time you’re not doing your job. Managing by numbers abdicates responsibility in a very profound way. Questions of quality – what’s of value – especially in the arts are always more complex than statistics.” Again: Look directly into someone’s eyes. That’s our responsibility as humans. Only then we’re doing our job. Only then we’re realising what it means to be human.

34 years on stage together

The importance of looking someone in the eyes must have played a role in Tim Etchells’ life as an artist on a very personal level more than just one time, one may guess: Together with 5 others he has uninterruptedly made performance art since 1984 under the label “Forced Entertainment”. “34 years of cooperation is basically absurd on a human and on an economic level. It has involved a lot hard work and determination, as well as sacrifice and commitment to each other and the idea of collaborative practice. At the same time it is also a very privileged position we have. People have supported us and have supported the work we do over the years and the audience is really engaged with what we do. We’ve been very lucky in that way”, Tim Etchells talks about the support from curators, commissioners, programmers, people working in theatres, people who put money in commissioned projects.

Germany

When asked about Germany, Tim Etchells concedes a somewhat naïve admiration for Angela Merkel’s position on the refugees. “It is hard to think of Germany without thinking about what is happening in the whole of Europe – the turn to the right which I am very sensitive to. So I am glad there is a country standing against that tide and rejecting isolation. I know you have AfD and all of that, but it feels like there’s strong public opposition to that too. At least for the moment Germany plays a good role – it’s not gone the way of Hungary or Poland and the rest.”

Also, “Germany is the only functioning economy in Europe”, Tim Etchells says with a twinkling eye. Speaking about the arts in Germany he is positive about the well-supported and consistent regional provision with art institutions, like Kunstvereine and Kunsthallen as well as the theatre scene. “Germany is probably the most important international context any of my work is seen and made in – Forced Entertainment and my visual art work find a very interested audience here. I think there is an appetite for rigorous challenging confrontation with art – more so than in the UK.” In this sense, Tim Etchells’ new installation at Kunsthalle Mainz may be taken as an encouragement: Stay curious. Be brave: Look directly into someone’s eyes.

(See also my review of Forced Entertainment’s stage performance “Out of Order” at Bockenheimer Depot Frankfurt am Main, May 2018: https://euradiopa.wordpress.com/2018/05/03/theaterkritik-out-of-order-von-der-gruppe-forced-entertainment-aus-sheffield-im-bockenheimer-depot-frankfurt-am-main/)

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