‘Reality is too important to be left to the realists’ – An interview with Tim Etchells, by Thom Cuell

Endland is a distorted, broken-mirror image of England, a glimpse of the teeming dystopia that lies just beneath the country’s veneer of civilised normality. A project spanning more than twenty years, the short stories that chart the lives of Endland’s inhabitants have been collected by Sheffield-based publisher And Other Stories with a new introduction by Jarvis Cocker. The publication couldn’t be better timed, with the country teetering on the brink of a catastrophic Brexit set to widen divisions between rich and poor, and a government seemingly determined to play on the population’s most atavistic impulses. Here, author, artist and theatre-maker Tim Etchells discusses the genesis of Endland.

Endland from Tim Etchells on Vimeo.

First of all, how would you describe Endland to someone who had never visited?

It’s a version of England, an unstable and distorted one. The stories often have a feeling that’s somewhere between fable and incoherent pub anecdote – things that happened to someone, perhaps a long time ago, events in which the details are a little hazy, or in which exaggeration or misunderstanding plays a part.

Endland has glimpses of England, especially the north where I’ve lived and worked most of my life – sometimes it’s a remembered England, something from the 70s when I was growing up, other times it’s more 80s, or Millennial. The time frame isn’t stable either. And on top of that there’s always a sense of fairytale and science fiction, as well as stuff leaking in from other places – conflict in Central Europe, wars in the Gulf. It’s at once very specific and extremely unpredictable

In other words – I think of it as a way to describe and map the psychic reality of this place, England. Reality is too important to be left to the realists, as I’ve taken to saying!

What was the starting point for writing about Endland? Was there a particular event which inspired it?

I moved – with colleagues from the experimental theatre group Forced Entertainment – to Sheffield in 1984. Mid-Thatcher era, mid-Miners’ strike, in the depths of that particular austerity. I think from that moment on I was trying to find a way to write about what I was seeing, what we were in, what we were living. Half of us lived on City Road, up towards the Manor Estate, opposite the cemetery. The rest of us lived further down City Road, opposite the Park Hill flats. I tried lots of different ways to write – there were a few more-or-less straightforward short stories – about things you’d see on the street, or drunken nights out. Then there was a novel (unpublished) – very weird, but in the background of it this sense of the city, the north, a decayed or distorted England. And then finally the Endland stories, which built on all of that work, whilst also discarding it.

My friend, the novelist Tony White, started a DIY publishing project called Piece of Paper Press (which he still runs), each book in the imprint made from one single sheet of folded A4 paper. I wrote the first of the Endland stories for him in 1995.

You’ve been writing about Endland for over 20 years, with the first publication in 1999 – what keeps bringing you back to this setting?

England keeps changing, and keeps staying the same. The stories are a way to reflect that, and to reflect on it. Endland has become a tool for me – it’s a way of thinking and seeing, a way of intervening. The fact that the world of the stories is playfully incoherent helps a lot! That means I can shift it around in all sorts of ways. The stories I’m writing now are very different in some ways than the original ones. The first ones were so so so boiled down – so economical. The later ones take time and space to enjoy the language in a different way.

Following on, how has Endland evolved over time, and how have you responded to changes in the political and cultural landscape?

I can certainly see phases in them – a bit more northern England here, a bit more USA there, a bit more fairy tale or sci-fi somewhere else. There are a bunch where things like the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent instability there is somewhere in the mix (Intentions Seemed Good), or where the migrant crisis or Brexit come into view (For The Avoidance of Doubt). These things tend to be peripheral in the stories but you can date them to a certain extent. Likewise the stories are full of real and imaginary references to TV shows, internet sensations, products and celebrities. There are definitely stories there that are pre-internet and others that are post. Some where the celebrities, catch phrases or products referred to are on the edges of memory. Fred and Rosie West show up as captains of a TV quiz team…

I think of them as political stories now. When I started to write them I don’t know if I had that conception of them. I thought about them much more in terms of language and the politics of language, as well as the politics around realism. I wanted to find a way into the situation and the landscape that didn’t involve sitting outside it like a Sunday supplement journalist.

The writing was a kind of possession, a speaking in tongues – pub slang, adverts, graffiti slogans, drunken yelling, hallucination. But you know… however weird the stories were the frame was the city, austerity, the antagonistic relationship between the north and the south, legitimate culture and the ‘illegitimate’ space we inhabited.

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How does Endland relate to your work in other disciplines, such as your theatre work with Forced Entertainments? And how did your creative process compare?

I used to struggle to resolve all the things I do! I make, direct and write text for performances with Forced Entertainment based in Sheffield. That’s a 36 year collaboration. Meanwhile I’m working more in the context of visual art – sculpture, video, drawings, installation, much of it using and exploring text, and I’m writing fiction, as well as writing critically about my own work, and about performance in broader terms. But the longer I’ve gone on the more I’m inclined to think about all of these things as connected, as part of the same larger enquiry in fact

I’m interested in the operations of language, spoken and written – the limits it has, the properties of it as a system, as well as in the kinds of encounters it creates between people and ideas. And I’m interested in the live moment of encounter – between art work and viewer, stage and audience and page and reader. Ideas, approaches and understandings tend to drift from one area of my work to another… each driving the other forwards (or driving it off the rails!)

Your recent show Out of Order was entirely non-verbal, whilst Endland has its own distinctive dialect, blending misspellings, tabloid-ese, brand-speak and slang. It feels like you’re challenging yourself to communicate ideas outside of formal or literary language – is this part of an ongoing project for you?

Yes. I think the interest is in finding a poetics. if there’s quotation in the performance work (or in Endland) it’s from the vernacular – always the snatch of dialogue from some unknown/imaginary TV movie, or the fragmentary scene from a terrible game show or cabaret routine, or some trope from children’s or amateur dramatics performance. We don’t deal with ‘important’ central objects, preferring that the significance of what we do isn’t rested on the significance of the sources. We tend to take materials that are commonplace, degraded or in a certain sense ‘unremarkable’. The point is that these rather weightless elements are then re-seen, re-used, repurposed – they may very well be critiqued, but they are also transformed, opened, made visible in a new way. Discarded or insignificant materials of all kinds get combined, turned around, become significant, take their place in a poetics. That’s the desire. As William Gibson says – “the street finds it’s own uses for things”.

Although Endland could be seen as a state of the nation book, it rejects realism in favour of an almost cartoonish dystopia – is that a reaction against a literary form that’s going stale?

In Endland I wanted to get into the world I was trying to describe in a different way – that meant going past describing the surface. Meanwhile what I don’t get on with is the staleness of so much literary fiction, especially at the realist end of things. I mean there are people who do it brilliantly, don’t get me wrong. But the great slabs of it that we’re surrounded by, and the way oozes and announces its own supposed quality and worth… like the acting in a BBC period drama. I just hate the way that these things are apparently bound up with meaning, thoughtfulness or value. I’m finding that somewhere else. In other voices. Other approaches. The middle, the mainstream… can dig a hole for itself and pull the earth down on top so far as I’m concerned.

I was interested in the way fate, and the gods, played an active role in life in Endland. What was it that drew you to the idea of using the ancient gods?

People in the stories are often pretty trapped. Difficult situations, all kinds of stasis, existential, economic., ontological There’s hardly a figure in there that has power in any easily graspable sense. But they find ways to get through, weird, inventive, idiosyncratic survival strategies – a kind of spirited adversarial humour being one of them. The gods meanwhile are like another arbitrary force that’s in operation in Endland. The world is chaotic and unkind, you might expect the Gods to be a force for order or sense or logic, but they’re as messed up as everyone else, maybe even worse.

I’m obsessed with names, as you can tell from the book (one story, The Chapter, is literally just a list of names for the members of a biker gang). I think the most fun for me writing the stories is naming the gods. There’s a childish pleasure in it. You have actual gods from various pantheons – Kali, Zeus, Thor, Artemis etc – but alongside them there’s Barbie, Weed-Killer, Rent-a-Gob, Rent Boy, Chlamydia and so on. It’s been a thing for me since the mid-80s this idea of an alternative pantheon that’s wound through the world we live in.

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

Laptop, with inter-dimensional internet connection.
Wireless headphones.
A gun and a bottle of vodka.

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

I mean it’s a pity what happened to John Lydon (ie became an ex-pat Brexit supporter) but that bit at the end of the last Sex Pistols gig at Winterland in San Francisco where he says to the crowd “Ever have the feeling that you’ve been cheated?” is pretty great.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

I like Steve McQueen’s early video piece Catch (1997). In it he and his sister are standing in a park, facing each other. What you see is him, and then the frame goes totally spinning and then it stops, levels and you see her, and then the frame goes totally spinning, showing sky, ground, flashes of trees as it turns, then it stops, is levelled and you see him. This back and forth goes on for a couple of minutes maybe, the camera being thrown back and forth between them. Something about the materiality and fragility of the object, the struggle to see someone, the love and the care taken to frame an image, to rest it from the world. There’s a delight in it too. It’s a brilliant piece of work. So simple, elegant.


Featured image, Let’s Pretend None of This Ever Happened, courtesy of Tim Etchells

Tim Etchells is an artist and writer based in Sheffield and London. His work shifts between performance, visual art, and writing, and is presented in a wide variety of contexts, from museums and galleries to festivals and public sites. Since 1984, he has been the leader of the ground-breaking, world-renowned Sheffield performance group Forced Entertainment, winners of the 2016 International Ibsen Award. His work in visual art has been shown in institutions including Tate Modern, Hayward Gallery, and Witte de With (Rotterdam), whilst his performances – either solo, with Forced Entertainment, or in collaboration with other artists, choreographers, and musicians – have been presented in venues including the Barbican Centre, Centre Pompidou Paris, Volksbühne Berlin, Tanzquartier Wien (Vienna) and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, to name a few. His public site commissions have included projects for Times Square (New York), Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013 and Glastonbury festival. Etchells has developed a unique voice in writing fiction and is currently Professor of Performance and Writing at Lancaster University.