My work City Changes will be presented as part of Göteborg Biennial which runs from September 5 – November 15 2009. Titled What A Wonderful World, the show is curated by Celia Prado and Johan Pousette. As preparation my friend the curator Ben Borthwick and I had a conversation about the work, focused on City Changes and the process of making it, the 7,500 words of which have been artfully excerpted (or chopped) to what’s below, to feature in the Biennal catalogue. If I get time (which may take some time) I’ll post the full version here later on. In the meantime thanks to Ben for the great conversation, and to Hester for the transcription.
BB: With City Changes what strikes me is that it takes a kind of Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis model but instead of synthesis being an end point, you imagine that it could go on reversing itself forever. Can you talk about how you structured the piece and how you thought about the movement from one text to the next?
TE: I was interested to create a text work that allowed me to archaeologise the process that had gone into it. We understand that speech is provisional; that speaking is a temporary, sketching process, but there’s always a temptation to present written textual artefacts as somehow solid or permanent. I’ve always been tuned to the fact that a text is somehow just a layering of the different choices that are made in its writing.
One influence for City Changes was the ‘track changes’ function in word processing software which I’d come across working on multi-authored admin documents. Rewritten by several persons these documents become colourful, slightly schizophrenic, endlessly commented on, cut and expanded. I began to think about these ‘layered documents’ as a form I could explore.
City Changes is a binary writing task, in which I describe and re-describe a city – first as an urban space of stasis and then as one that changes all the time. In the beginning, I was keeping daily track of the changes, colour coding them. So every morning, I re-wrote what I’d written the day before but I slowed down a bit for a while because it was doing my head in! What attracted me, I suppose, was this idea of archaeologising – making choices visible and exploring these contradictory versions of urban space.
BB: Did you start with certain models for cities in mind? Some are very clear – the totalitarian city, the psychedelic city, the neo-liberal ‘libertarian’ city – and then others are more opaque; they don’t quite fit any clear model of cities we know or recognise.
TE: I didn’t pre-plan it – I approached it much more as a kind of live improvising game, unfolding over several weeks. I wrote the first text and for the second simply made cheeky changes to reverse its meaning. After that, each time I revisited the text I was discovering new ways that I could propose either stillness or change. Partly it was about identifying models, as you suggest; thinking about cities and the languages and structures that are used to define them. Just as often though my approach emerged from the writing in quite a macro way. I saw it as a poetic job as well as a conceptual one, but it also felt strangely like how I think making sculpture must feel -because you’re always stuck working with this object that’s left from the day before. You might really wish you hadn’t deleted that word, or you’re sick to death of a particular sentence but you’re wary what happens to the object if you erase it. It was a very interesting moment-by-moment improvisational process that felt like a battle between two parts of myself; the part of me that loves or thrives in disorder or chaos, or the part of me that loves change versus the part of me that likes some peace and quiet.
BB: Which of the cities would you want to live in?
TE: I was very happy with the city where everything was fossilised. The stasis it summoned seemed really permanent.
BB: [Laughs] But to live in?
TE: [Also laughing] I don’t know.
BB: How do you situate your different practices in performance, writing and art practice in relation to each other?
TE: I used to find it almost impossible to reconcile my different activities, but lately I’ve been thinking about things that pull them together despite the shifts I make between forms. The first through-line is the way that my works occupy, or unfold in, time and space. There’s also this sense that often I’m co-opting the reader/viewer as a kind of active, imaginative agent who will unpack what I’ve done, at least in the works that involve language… So both sculpting time and space, and using language to conjure or make events and to pull viewers into relations with imagined objects, actions or spaces seem like useful frames around the work.
BB: What about the production process? You often work with a group…
TE: Of course all the work I’ve done with Forced Entertainment has been produced in a constant negotiation of the opinions and whims of six or more other people! By comparison, I’m often not answerable to anybody else in the space of either writing as writing or art-making, which opens some different possibilities.
BB: City Changes emerged from a shared editing processes, while in the work itself you’ve taken that collective process and made it a form for your solitary practice.
TE: I hadn’t thought of that. City Changes is absolutely a process of contestation – I’m writing and re-writing so that in the end every word in the text gets flipped or spun in some way. I suppose in one sense I’m mischievously re-enacting the kinds of contestation that go on when working with others. In one sense it’s flat, and in another sense what you get is me arguing with myself!
BB: One of the really striking aspects of the piece is the use of colour. Did you just follow whatever arbitrary colour scheme the software offered you, or have you used colours that evoke the moods in each scenario? I mean, it has a very clinical look to it but then there’s this vibrant colour scheme.
TE: I started with the most obvious colour – red, then did the next set in blue and so on. Making 20 versions you soon run out of easily distinguishable colours and the palette gets more and more complex. There’s some delight in the way that a procedure like the colour-coding, which is meant to generate transparency, in fact generates more confusion.
BB: What’s important to you about having this archaeological view on its own production? What’s your interest in archives?
TE: The interest is basically political because the twentieth century, and the twenty-first so far, have produced this kind of Capitalism that’s increasingly obsessed with surfaces –presenting artefacts that have their production hidden. Perhaps coming from performance, my interest is more in failure and in failing bodies, in processes that are visible and exposed. I’m interested to make objects that declare their contingency and their failure to a certain extent – that declare the fact that they are formed out of intention or intentions –the fact that they arise from, out of, processes. I find that important in face of a politics, and a cultural context, so based on hermetic positions and statements.
BB: One of the ways I read City Changes is as a kind of score, both formally and in the narratives. It brings to mind the work of someone like Steve Reich, or Bruce Nauman, or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, where they will start with a phrase and then explore the possibilities of that phrase from different perspectives…
TE: I love these kinds of structural approaches to meaning-making – in sound, language, dance, even in more pictorial practices. I’ve never been interested in writing that won’t acknowledge its status as writing, as arrangements of signs coded in a particular way. Of course that’s what people like Steve Reich, Nauman, or Georges Perec have done by exploring simple forms and rules – creating structures where, as a viewer or listener, you can start to see what the system is and therefore you can read decisions or moves that are being made. I find that much more interesting than some idea of supposed freedom.
Ben Borthwick is a curator and writer who works at Tate Modern, where he has curated exhibitions like Rodchenko and Popova, Gilbert & George, and The Irresistible Force. He is a specialist in sound related practices and, in addition to curating Bill Fontana and Bruce Nauman’s sound installations in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, he contributes to the music magazine The Wire. In 2008, he co-founded the public art organization Butcher’s that has done projects with Tim Etchells, Marcos Chaves and Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa.