Where do artists’ ideas come from? Can art really create change? In Between Time 2017 artists Tim Etchells and Martin O’Brien discuss performance, politics and zombies
"There's a lot of easy rhetoric about art and changing the world"
Martin O'Brien in If It Were The Apocalypse I'd Eat You To Stay Alive. Photograph: Manuel Vason
In Between Time (IBT) Festival is Bristol’s biennial international celebration of live art. In February 2017, the festival presented a special showcase of UK artists for international programmers. We invited two of the artists in the programme – Tim Etchells and Martin O’Brien – to interview each other about their work.
Tim Etchells is an artist and writer based in the UK. His practice spans performance, video, photography, text projects, installation and fiction. He leads the world-renowned Sheffield-based performance group Forced Entertainment, which was awarded the International Ibsen Award 2016 for its groundbreaking contribution to contemporary theatre and performance.
Martin O'Brien’s work considers existence with a severe chronic illness within our contemporary situation. Martin suffers from cystic fibrosis and his practice uses physical endurance, hardship and pain based practices to challenge common representations of illness and examine what it means to be born with a life threatening disease. He has been commissioned and funded by the Live Art Development Agency, Arts Council England, Arts Catalyst, Midlands Art Centre and the British Council.
"I talk about the politics of sickness"
Tim Etchells: Why don't you tell me a bit about the piece you're doing in Bristol?
Martin O'Brien: The piece I'm doing is called If It Were The Apocalypse I’d Eat You To Stay Alive. All of my work comes out of having cystic fibrosis, which is this disease where your body produces excess amounts of mucus and it leads to early death.
A lot of my work is a gathering of performances in which I work with the materiality of my disease. So the mucus I produce becomes a material to use and I work with ideas of duration and physical endurance and infliction of pain on my body. I talk about the politics of sickness and at the moment a lot of my work is around the figure of a zombie. I’m doing work that thinks about how I might use the zombie as a metaphor for thinking about sickness and what it means to be sick.
This one is a performance that plays with the idea of the zombie. And so I’ve been interested in biting, flesh-eating, and the idea of contagion and infection that goes with the figure of the zombie.
"I make really big changes to the performance every time I do it"
Tim: It sounds like it's quite a strong through-line to previous pieces?
Martin: Yeah, I often use similar actions, similar materials, similar moments of the performance that get recycled again and again in different performances. Structurally, it’s quite interesting.
I want to ask you about this in a second as well, but one of the things about this piece is that it’s supposedly the fourth time that I’ve performed it but I make really big changes to the performance every time I do it. So what people see at IBT is completely different to the first time I showed it. Each time I edit, I take something out and I put something new in, and as that happens it changes to become a new piece that’s got the same name but is completely different.
I was watching the trailer of your film and I was interested in you talking about some similar things about how you make different versions of your piece and constantly edit it. And that was something that kind of struck me about your work as well actually – the improvisation – there is something interesting in that.
Tim: Yes, the solo that I’m doing at IBT – A Broadcast/Looping Pieces – is part of a body of work that’s focused on working with phrases, texts and other fragments from my notebook.
Around the end of 2013, I started working with that material in a way that was to do with composing and live editing and constructing something out of the bits. And I’ve been exploring that approach in many different contexts, sometimes performing as a 20-minute burst in a gallery, sometimes all day, over long duration, in a gallery context. I’ve also performed these theatre iterations of it – under the title A Broadcast/Looping Pieces.
They tend to be about an hour long but have a little bit more structure, responding to the context of theatre space and audience. There’s some structure in place but for each iteration I make very different choices about the material, so for me it’s a practice as much as it might be ‘a piece’. In the end it can be quite different, in different contexts.
"A database of possibilities"
Martin: How does it start? Where did it come from? Was it just that you kept these notebooks and then you decided to work with them as a material? Or was it a conscious decision, ‘Oh, I’m going to use a notebook in order to make a performance’?
Tim: More the former I think. The thing in my practice that’s been going on the longest is that I’ve been collecting bits of language. It’s something I’ve pretty much always done; writing down phrases or paragraphs or words that fascinate me or that I think are maybe going to be useful sometime.
It means I’ve got a load of notebooks or computer files that are just full of bits, that I’ve never really done anything with. And partly the initial desire to make A Broadcast/Looping Pieces came out of wondering what would happen if I gathered that material and began to work with it as a kind of archive or database of possibilities?
In that sense the material was definitely there first and these performances have become one of my ways of dealing with that, and utilising it. It’s responding to something, in a way. It’s not an illness, my notebook, at least as not as far as I know [laughs]. But it is a thing that’s in my life that’s been going on for a very long time, and the work has become a way of dealing with what’s accumulating.
"With my solo work I follow a different track"
Martin: Do you see your solo work as being a different body of work to your stuff with Forced Entertainment?
Tim: I think it all relates and everything influences everything else. Obviously the conditions of the work with the group are different. We’re showing a new group piece called Real Magic for IBT 2017, and in that collective process everything has to be negotiated with everybody else, so the work arises from our conversation. Whereas with all my solo stuff, I don’t have to be in a dialogue or negotiation with anybody so I follow a slightly different track. At the end of the day though, all the works speak to each other anyway and I chase my kind of concerns from one place to another as well.
What about this question of audience? What kind of relationship do audiences have to your work, do you think? What are you looking for?
"I need other people to be with"
Martin: I've always had a bit of a tricky relationship with that actually, because I don’t think so much about the audience but at the same time I need them for the work to happen. I’m not really doing it for them but for the work to exist I need to be in a space with them.
I think part of it for me is a political thing: I don’t see my work just as being about self-expression but about trying to figure out a political position of what being sick might mean. And in order to do that, I need other people to be with, and share that with and to say that actually it’s different than if I was to do it on my own, in my room.
There is always a sense that I’m trying to take some sort of control over my body. It becomes a space where I can own my illness for a short period of time and there’s something about the spectators’ positioning which is really central. Like, if I’m trying to claim some sort of agency over my body then it’s also a cry to everyone else to take agency over their own bodies. It’s to draw attention to the kind of power structures around our bodies as well.
Tim: That makes sense. It’s interesting because the solo, the stuff with language I’m doing – I often talk about it as coming from a desire to take this material that’s inert in notebooks and somehow test it by speaking it out in public. Which is about wanting to see what it is, or what it could become, or what it means to speak those words in different ways, in a public space.
And in that sense I think it’s similar to what you’re describing which is that for that testing to work, for that investigation of those things to work it has to be in public. Not necessarily linked to the idea of entertaining or amusing people but more that in order for the test to happen, it has to be a public thing. So there’s something, I think that’s quite similar in a way. I can’t do that work with that language unless there are people there. It doesn’t make any sense.
"Imagine that everybody's already dead"
Martin: Absolutely. A friend of mine the other day told me this story about Genesis P. Orridge and the way they described their relationship to the audience is that they just imagine that everybody’s already dead. [Tim laughs]
No expectation in any way and I love that idea. You know you’re walking in to perform in front of a bunch of corpses so it doesn’t really matter what they think. They’re just sort of there to stare at you. That’s all you need.
Tim: The thing for me is when there’s something… when people are there, what I’m doing also changes. With this whole thing of speaking out in front of other people, taking this text and experimenting with it, it’s because there are other people there that there’s an electricity, or a charge, or a tension, or maybe a comedy, even a communal listening. And for that they have to be alive I think! As much as I like the idea of the room full of the dead, I kind of need them alive.
"How can live art un-f**k the world?"
Tim: I'm not sure about this. I do think about art practice as a way of changing things and of changing people and changing what’s possible. But I tend to think of that as quite small, quite tiny gestures that have very small sort of ripple effects in individuals. I don’t really have a lot of faith in art as a thing that in some big way shifts the course of society or people’s actions.
I think on a small level it does…I think it’s something that is really important in that sense, but I suppose there’s a desire now, probably because the world is so f**ked, there’s a wish it could be a much more massive influence but I’m not really sure that’s what’s going to happen. What about you? What’s your felling about that?
Martin: Well, I have the idea of zombies that I’m working with and it’s a sort of funny juxtaposition to me. They’re asking how you un-f**k the world and I’m talking about this end of the world through a zombie apocalypse.
One of my thoughts about it is that zombies could be an alternative way of living. The zombie movie I made last year was essentially just me dressed as B-movie zombies in different locations walking around Coventry, walking around the city coughing mucus up. But the ideas were: there’s this world that has no healthy people left and it’s inhabited by the unwell, which is what we called them. And rather that being a dystopia it becomes a kind of utopia.
It’s just the next stage of humanity, everybody becomes sick and that’s the way of surviving. So my thoughts are similar to yours. But I like the idea that maybe I can infect people, and only the sick will survive, and everyone can take it up as a mantra for living.
"Art can be about bending the reality of the world"
Tim: A lot of the easy rhetoric about art and changing the world and making the world a better place is to do with, at worst, a sort of saccharine utopianism; something feel-good, something bland.
One of the things I like about art is that it’s a space where different realities and versions of reality are possible, where what we are as human beings is open to question of all kinds. Including very different ways of thinking about the world and what might happen, and how we can be in it. Things that are possible in art might change the world in a kind of homeopathic way.
Martin: Just the imagining of it.
Tim: Yeah, that. Art doesn’t have to be about imaging a better place in the most easy way. I think it can be about bending the reality of the world in all sorts of weird and different ways. About contradiction. About shock. About the hidden or forbidden ways of thinking. And those in themselves are ways of opening the possibility for change - so that we don’t get locked in a consensual reality – the one that we’re in for most of the time.
Find out more:
> Remember IBT 2017 with these reflections from Artistic Director Helen Cole
> Read Martin O’Brien’s writings on his work and on other artists
> Check out articles selected by Tim Etchells on his work
> Meet more IBT 2017 artists in our feature exploring what punk means to young theatremakers