December 30, 2003
Forced Entertainment

I've been thinking about Tim Etchells for a while, trying to figure out how to explain his brilliance in a blog-compatible compression format. Etchells is the central figure of Forced Entertainment, a UK-based group of artists "producing new works in theatre and performance as well as projects in digital media, video and installation."

That's pretty generic, which I think has more to do with modesty than any lack of innovation. I write this without ever having seen any of their theatre pieces. But they are so important to so many people in, e.g., Berlin, that I could tell you everything that happens in half of them without even knowing what they look like.

I've been reading two books by Etchells, though. Certain Fragments is an anthology of Etchells' writings, which I like a lot because it gets very personal and very not, and there's a lot to be said for making sure both these things happen. Then The Dream Dictionary: For the Modern Dreamer is described by The Guardian as "dadaist," but I think it's far more calculated than that, and I mean this as a compliment. I still haven't figured out how to describe its beauty, and I don't have it in front of me, but it's a series of dream topics (e.g., "a dream of the former soviet union," "a dream of a change in housing benefits regulation") and what it means to dream them. It's something about the fragments that happen when some rigorous system of meaning collides with not only the chaos of our dreams, but with the chaos of our everyday newpaper-printed world. Something about lending an intimacy to the former soviet union. Something about Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

There's plenty more: "Surrender Control" was a piece Etchells did with SMS messages, sending out instructions via SMS to subscribers, "somewhere between a game and a set of dares." From an interview about it:

...the texts become more
and more insistent, stranger, more intrusive and at certain times more
frequent or at anti-social times of the day. I tried to make it develop
whilst at the same time avoiding any sense of it starting to cohere
around a single narrative idea. It's something I say or think about a
lot of my work in a lot of media - I don't want it to collapse into a
narrative, I want it to stay in that state of suspension where
narratives are possible, but not confirmed. In this way I'd say I am
interested in juggling the elements of story, but not really in telling
them! Of course this also connects very well to the context of SMS - as
a writer I can't control the context of receiving, so however much one
wants to 'control' the meaning of what one writes/sends it is always
changed/reinvented/reassembled at the other end. I embrace this.

Beyond that, there's his work with The Institute of Failure, "a think tank dedicated to the documentation, study, and theorisation of failure in all aspects of human endeavor." Etchells' Maintenance of Daily Life is a subsection, "a collection of failure, breakdown and maintenance related memoranda gathered from diverse sources." (see "Subject: Level Three Toilets")

The Institute of Failure really deserves an entry all its own, if for no other reason than to distinguish it from an old love of mine, Failure Analysis Associates, which seems to now be part of Exponent. Both institutions, steadfast and deadpan about what's tiny and what's catastrophic and the likelihood that those are the same things.

I'd like all this to be a lot more articulate, but I feel the need to bring it up right now because Etchells is not well known here, and because there are ten performances of "Instructions for Forgetting" at PS 122, and there's tickets, and there's time.

Posted by kevin slavin at December 30, 2003 07:04 PM
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