With the publication of each quarterly brochure are including a new piece of critical writing. For our current brochure we invited the artist and writer, Tim Etchells, to respond to the idea of ‘Performance Now’.
To be honest I had one of those strange nights in the theatre; you know the kind where you are there but not really there and you find yourself spiralling, only-half watching the show, mostly wishing it would end, or counting the props and the lights, sometimes finding something to grab on to and think about, but just as often observing people down the row from you and wondering what on earth they are laughing at.
When then show really did come to an end, the applause only made things worse; I was doubting I knew anything about theatre at all; pretty much doubting my connection to the whole human race. They say that you’re never quite so alone as you are sometimes when you’re sitting down and watching with others.
After the terrible show thing it turned into a long night involving several bars, drink, music, a lost bike and a search for a cab that didn’t really work out and then later, in fact much later, around 3 am, I was much pretty lost until Ahmed’s Kebab Burger Soft Drink & Fries Van somehow magically appeared like a mirage on the other side of the roundabout just opposite the burned out remains of what used to be the Picture House.
It was there, at the Kebab Burger Soft Drink & Fries Van that a light rain began to fall. Behind the counter a young guy – probably not Ahmed but a friend or relation of his more up for doing the late shift – looked up.How’s it going? he said.
Alright, I said, just a long night at the theatre.
Looks like it, he said. Any good?
No, I said, not so good. What about you?
Not-Ahmed shrugged, to indicate an inevitable answer – too much Saturday night crowd, too much noise, too much other everything. Then he spoke.
No wonder things are tough; the speed and alacrity with which Capital has absorbed and neutralised those things which sought or aspired to resist it is daunting, impressive even.
And I said, Wait, wait what are you talking about?
And he leaned forward over the counter and said I mean just look at it – from the green agenda to the strategies of the so-called avant garde Capital absorbs everything in its path. These days the market is not just a shop filled with consumer stuff – what we’ve got here is an experience economy.
Not-Ahmed looked around, and stabbed the air with his doner knife, pointing out to the city as if to emphasise his point.
Performance used to be a space of resistance he said; against the market, against commodity. But everything can be commodity now. Just look at it (again pointing out with the doner knife) everything can be bought and sold, no matter how insubstantial… identity, the accumulating adventure of you.
Everyone in the market now understands that what they’re selling is belonging, he said. They understand that what they’re selling is participation and community, even if it is only imagined community. Those things were once the radical province of art, but now…
Just then other customers arrived in the form of three drunk guys and I retreated to slump at a bench nearby, looking back at Ahmed’s Van. The three drunk guys bought Kebabs and then staggered off, talking and eating at the same time, trailing ketchup and chopped cabbage behind them like doomed children in a distorted fairy tale.
Once they were gone Not-Ahmed called me over, leaned forward at his counter.
This city is changing so fast he said, pointing at the nighttime skyline. The quicker old stuff falls apart or goes bankrupt the quicker they’re cladding it in new materials and opening it up again. You have to admire it in some ways but really all that’s on offer is panic and terror and feverish lust…
What do you mean? I said.
Lust, accumulation. Fear and death. The mirage of ownership, I mean you’re bought and sold he said,wrapped so tight in it you can’t even see, can’t breathe, can’t navigate. They’ll sell you back to yourself given half the chance.
I looked out at the city, feeling low. It’s useless then? Now that even the most ephemeral and intimate exchanges are commodities? Is that what you’re saying?
No. Not useless, Not-Ahmed said. He paused then made to hand me something, an object slid across the counter, hidden under his hand.
What’s that? I said.
He said I’m quitting and this is the keys to the Van. He raised his hand to show the keys beneath. Take themhe said, I’m not doing the whole late night Kebab Burger Soft Drink & Fries thing anymore.
I was quiet. Then I said something but I don’t know what.
Look, he said, tidying sundry items on the counter, cleaning the surfaces and then bringing the roller shutter down over the serving hatch window with a slam. Look. I know the situation is bad – I know that the market ate up everything, they even confused capital with democracy, but I still believe in art.
What? That show I saw tonight was cretinous. Ridiculous. If you had seen it…
Not-Ahmed shut the door to the Van and walked to the bench, motioning me to join him. Ridiculous, maybe. But I still believe in art, he said. I believe in performance. Beuys. Early Abramovic. Nauman. Beckett. Hsieh. Pina Bausch. Kantor. Cage. Performance isn’t just the icing on someone else’s cake. A bit of added value. The cheap thrill of role play. It’s a way of changing the world.
We watched the wind dislodge the top layers of paper from the precarious temporary sculpture of cans, newsprint , food wrappers and wastes piled to over flow on the rubbish bin right next to the closed-up Kebab Burger Soft Drink & Fries Van, the single eye of its serving hatch shuttered down, turned away from the night.
What will happen? I said.
Not-Ahmed laughed. My uncle will find someone else to run the Van.
But what about you?
We watched the papers skid and slide intermittently on the paving slabs, uncertain of their newfound freedom in space.
I’ll be OK, he said. I am going back to Istanbul to start a theatre company.
I was quiet. Watching Not-Ahmed, watching the litter shift on the paving slabs.
Not-Ahmed said; Art is a place that speaks vividly, that speaks language back to life, that re-animates ideas, turns them round, turns them over. Art is a place that breaks an old idea, breaks it open, makes a new one in it. Art is a tool for navigation, better than GPS. It’s a weapon also better than a petrol bomb.
Performance? I said.
I believe in that, he said. Performance creates a space in which different kinds of contact are possible, different kinds of conversations. It is a place to step out of, side step from the general tendency to commodified lust wrapped, crushed and hidden in panic and terror.
We sat a while longer. Then Not-Ahmed made to go. The moon was full. You could see and hear everything. The city lights, the distant traffic, the litter skidding and the moon on the water.
Tim Etchells, Sheffield, 2012
Etchell’s interdisciplinary practice shifts between performance, visual art and fiction. He has worked in a wide variety of contexts, notably as the leader of the world-renowned performance group Forced Entertainment.