Interview with Tim Etchells about Qu’y a-t-il neon for Centre Pompidou

15 October 2021
In red neon letters reads 'OU'Y A-T-IL ENTRE NOUS?' on the side of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Interview with Tim Etchells about Qu’y a-t-il neon for Centre Pompidou

Could you tell us a bit more about the project you are presenting at Centre Pompidou ?

It’s a new work, commissioned especially for Pompidou. The full phrase is “Qu’y-at-il entre nous?” The letters are made of neon – in classic neon red, and they’re backed with Dibond letter forms to give the work greater definition. The letters are 3m high and the full phrase is around 42m long. The idea was to make something that spoke from the context of the building, to the square below and out to the city.

How did you choose the words up there, and what do they mean for you ?

As with many of my works I try to find a way of using language to open thoughts, questions, stories and ideas in the viewer. It’s important to me that the work is complex, plural – that different people will find different meanings in them. In this work I was thinking about the work and its place on a major building, in relation to this huge public square – a kind of heart of the city. I was thinking about connection, about the different kinds of links, stories and narratives that are unfolding in that space. I liked the idea of what is between us, in that it raises this question about connection and intimacy – what is it that we share, what are the stories that we are wrapped in together. It’s a very social question, a very political one in the broadest sense. At the same time I am intrigued by the idea that this question also raises the idea of division – in English ‘between’ is also about what might be a barrier or obstacle between things or people. So what is between us also starts to open questions about division – what are the things, the forces, the narratives, the conditions that divide us? These seemed like great ideas to speak to in the centre of a great city, on the walls of a major public building – basically encouraging people to think about different forms of connectivity and separation in society, in the world.

When did you start those giant light installations ?

We used neon phrases as part of early stage-designs for Forced Entertainment, in 1987, and in 1991. The first neon sign I made for another context – part of the art exhibition Art Sheffield – was done in 2008. I was excited by the idea that the work was in public space, in dialogue with the city. Every time a work gets made for a new place, or when an existing work gets installed in a new location, there’s always a kind of conversation with the environment around – different pieces take on new meaning, according to where they are positioned. The works in city space have an interesting temporality too – people pass them at different times of day, at different moments in their daily routines. And sometimes they pass by many times over periods of weeks and months. I like the way that, in these circumstances, the works enter people’s everyday experience – a phrase used in a work can be striking or inspiring and then fade into the background, only to be noticed again at some later moment. In this situation the text has the chance to resonate in many different ways – in different moods and energies of the city and the weather.

How do you play with the language, and what hidden meanings lie there ?

Most important for me is the idea of gaps, or space… so the things that are not said are often as important as the things that are said. In the case of this work “Qu’y-at-il entre nous?” (roughly in English ‘what is between us?”) there are many things unsaid – it’s not clear who is speaking, or who they are speaking to – so the possibility is there to imagine it in many different ways. Is it a question about the relation between many people? or about the relation between two? Is it about the building? Or about the city? These ambiguities or possibilities are important for me because they mean the work stays complex – a small number of words multiply to produce many different meanings, all of which are held in a kind of constellation or tension.

In what way does the city influence you ?

In the broadest sense I’m drawn to the city because of the way multiples lives, stories and agendas are moving through it at all times. The city is a machine that links and separates us in different ways, a machine that also reflects and bears traces of all the other systems and structures that define our lives. In this public space work has a great possibility to touch people. Im also drawn to the way that the city is a space of contradiction – personal and impersonal, intimate and massively social. It’s the perfect location to think about ideas about society and about connection and division.

Tell me more about Sheffield, and the beginnings of Forced Entertainment (I see your last
book has an intro by beloved Jarvis Cocker)?

We started Forced Entertainment in Sheffield in 1984. The decision to move there was a little random – we were heading north, to the place where resistance to Thatcherism was at its strongest, to a city that at that time was pioneering a very different (socialist) approach. There was a creative force, a subversive humour, and an amazing space for non- mainstream ideas in cities like Sheffield at that time. In another sense Sheffield was good because it was relatively isolated – we could live cheaply, quickly found an old industrial space to work in and we were not distracted or sucked into influences as we would have been in London. We quietly held a space for each other to collaborate, to research, to start creating work. That was the most important thing – we had a good few years at the beginning where we could really focus. We had no funding… but we made time. Jarvis lived above one of our first rehearsal spaces. For many years Pulp and Forced Entertainment were in quite smiler positions – working hard locally, developing our approaches. Forced Entertainment never quite got to the stadium level! But I think both Forced Entertainment and Pulp show something of what can come out of the kind of strong regional contexts in the UK, in adverse political and social conditions.

Would you say your work is political ? In what way ?

Yes, I think of the work in political terms. The questions of relation it raises – thinking in this case about our relation to each other (connection and division) – is of course a really political one. What are the forces that link or separate us? In another sense for me there’s a politics in the way my work tries to open space for other people. It’s less about statement and more about creating a zone in which others react, imagine and think for themselves. To me that’s important across all the forms I work in. I’m less interested in ’saying something’ than I am in creating a space for others to think deeply, creating a tension, a space in which certain ideas circulate, in all their contradiction.

As an artist, who would you say influenced you ?

A lot of my work comes from performance of course, from a very performative understanding of what language does and can do. The idea of open-ness, of an unfolding event that needs audience to ‘become’ something (something different each time) comes to me most strongly from there. Contradictory meanings in tension, audience as a space in which many different reactions are taking place at the same time – these understandings all come from performance. As for direct artistic influences – there are so many, and from so many areas. The DIY sprit of Punk and New Wave music were important for my generation. At the same time, I’m very connected to experimental literature, to conceptual art, to contemporary music. It’s not so much a matter of taking direct influence – but there are certainly artists whose work with text and language have been inspirational. I’m a Perec fan… and more recently Annie Ernaux has been a real important figure for me. I loved The Years so much and I find the way she creates this space which is personal-and-social/shared through language super interesting.

This interview with Tim Etchells first appeared in French in Centre Pompidou magazine.

Conversation with Tim Etchells and Aisha Orazbayeva

Tim stands to the right with a microphone behind a music stand. Aisha stands to the left holding a violin and bow.

Tim Etchells and Aisha Orazbayeva, in conversation with artist Vlatka Horvat about their text and music performance collaboration Heartbreaking Final (2021).

VH: You’ve been improvising together as a duo for some years now – what was the impulse for developing this larger collaboration?

TE: Most of what we’ve done as a duo has been pure improvisation – me working with text fragments pulled instantly from my notebook, Aisha proceeding from quite immediate impulses or discoveries regards violin material. The idea here was to make something with more structure, a planned longer-form work that has a clearer focused sense of itself and a dramaturgy in text terms and in musical terms. It relates to the work we’ve done before – there are approaches we’ve developed which we continue to draw on – but the challenges and the opportunities are quite different.

AO: When you are trapped in a limitation of a single violin against the stories, the narratives, the images of Tim’s words and his voice – you begin to look for all the possible ways out of that single violin voice, so it stops being just a violin. We discover a lot of unexpected ways to connect, to find and to replace each other in that process of escaping. As much as I enjoy it, the downside is not being able to develop the material fully, it’s like walking on the edge of a forest but never going in.

TE: Working together but with other performers in the room too is also something new – having John, Nicki, and Chihiro in the mix brings unexpected energies and understandings into play.

VH: In terms of instruments, Aisha you’ve constructed this piece for two violins – what’s your attraction to this doubling or dialogue?

AO: Working with Tim started me off on an improvisation/composition route where I’d spend more and more time experimenting with different violin sounds and I feel like I know the violin sound world better than any other instrument. I always tried to have “multiple” voices happening when improvising with Tim and I often wished there was one more person sharing a voice to make the texture richer, more complex.

VH: What about the decision to explore multiple speaking/performing voices in this work – is the motivation similar?

TE: Yes, my thinking relates to Aisha’s – in the duet work I’ve always enjoyed the way that the speaking voice is texture, energy, sound: musicality as well as semantics. And I’ve been interested to extend that understanding of the voice. Creating something for three voices allows me to play with overlapping layers of speech and with the device of interspersing or intercutting words and phrases from different speakers – there’s the possibility for sense, but also new possibilities for noise and for non-sense as well as a chance to create new, less straightforward, or obvious kinds of meaning. In performance terms I’m fascinated by energy or focus imbalance and by processes of transformation – how something playful becomes something serious, how something comical becomes upsetting – having three voices in the mix creates the possibility to work with different impulses at the same time. There are moments in the performance when one of us is very soft, and another will be very agitated or combative with the text, the two moods in a kind of unresolvable relation.

VH: Thinking about those kind of counterpoints – how much of Heartbreaking Final is improvised? Are there scored elements? What form does the score take?

AO: For both the music and the voice there are elements that are fixed, decisions that are made in advance but within that frame there is room for improvisation. Musically there are scored elements to give general information about each piece like pitch, metre, rhythmic patterns, technique, any specific preparation, timings. It is mostly a text-based score which is half-notated in Sibelius.

VH: I was thinking about the relationship between voice/text and the musical elements of the piece, how they meet each other. What are the opportunities of working between words and music? And what are the pitfalls? Are there things you try to avoid?

AO: We aim for a relationship where the two are equal and where the roles are sometimes swapped, sounds becoming more like speech patterns with words getting closer to music. But also, at times the text and the sound don’t belong together, they stand apart. It’s always in motion – the text and the violin sound try to be together; they are together, they cover each other up and one becomes inaudible. Above all we try to avoid a scenario where music acts as an accompaniment to the text. From my experience that lack of hierarchy can be difficult to achieve because words are easier to hold on to, I find that in almost anything as soon as you hear someone speak your focus shifts.

VH: Tim, how do you see the relation between Heartbreaking Final and your other performance work, with Forced Entertainment or in other contexts?

TE: There’s certainly a shared ground. My interest is always chiefly in the live unfolding and negotiation of something in public – playing with the flow of information over time, with the shifting relation to the viewer, between intimacy and distance. And language itself has been a constant preoccupation – how to work with text and at the same time question, undermine or reveal its authority, its power to frame and fix meaning. Lots of the projects with Forced Entertainment have those goals. There’s tactical common ground too – the bare, straightforward set up for the performance, the use of listing and repetition are things that characterise a lot of my work. The biggest connection though is probably to my work with language in an art context. In the neon, LED sculptures and other text works I’ve been doing since 2007 there’s often an insistence on a single phrase or fragment – a line taken out of context that one has to see and see again, each moment of looking at it opening other readings or interpretations. The work in Heartbreaking Final performs a similar insistence at times, not turning a single phrase into a material object but into a sonic and temporal one, something that has to be heard and heard again. The effect is to open space for the audience, a space of imagination, contemplation – that’s another shared ground in this work.

VH: Aisha, as an instrumentalist you draw on a wide range of repertoire – what do you bring with you into a project like this one? Not influences as such – but ways of thinking or doing?

AO: Working with repertoire from Early Music to contemporary avant garde teaches you many ways of thinking and approaching music and sound. That exposure influences the way you think, the way you hear and the way you internalise music. You bring an open mind to a project like this. Also, stylistically it opens up possibilities where you can go from a single scrape or white noise polluted texture of an overpressed bow to something very fragile, melodic or 400 years old that’s coming to us through cracks of a battered bow.

VH: What holds it together? Do you think about there being a narrative shape to the work? A thematic?

TE: There’s not a narrative. What unfolds is the text, the music. You’re watching the five of us dealing with and negotiating the material of different kinds, it’s a task. That connects to aspects of my work with Forced Entertainment of course but there’s a new liberation in this piece – it deals with a different kind of journey, a sonic, emotional one rather than a dramatic one. As text-performers we’re also musicians, with the additional nuance of course that the text is always producing ideas, questions and images. I think what holds the whole thing together is a movement back and forth between interior and exterior – there’s a lot of material that feels like stream of consciousness, very internal, self-description or self-narration and then other material that’s much more exterior – images that give a sense of a larger world: landscapes, cities, people. We didn’t set out to create something that mapped into the last 18 months, the pandemic, the simultaneous sense of isolation and global connection that it has produced – but of course that’s the context in which we’ve been developing the material though this time. Thinking about the piece now I feel that strongly – it seems absolutely grounded in this strange stasis, this space of uncertainty and potential.

Vlatka Horvat (1974 in Čakovec, Croatia) works across sculpture, installation, drawing, performance, photography, video and writing. Her work is presented internationally in a variety of contexts – in museums and galleries, theatre and dance festivals and in public space. After 20 years in the US, she currently lives in London.