A Privileged Source of Information

The Attraction of Taking Everything Away

Tim Etchells in conversation with Florian Malzacher about never-ending stories, making things disappear and God deleting the world.


Florian Malzacher


In ‘And On The Thousandth Night…’, a durational performance of six hours, eight performers wearing cardboard crowns and red robes tell stories as if to save their lives. The rule of the game is that any of the performers can interrupt at any time – and start their own story. I remember a performance in Frankfurt where you desperately tried to tell the story of God sitting at a computer trying to drag the icon for the world into the trash…

The taking away of people, of lives, of the earth, of memories plays an important role in almost all of your works. There is loss (experienced passively) and deletion (active). It reminds me of a game that Freud describes: Children making things disappear and reappear over and over again – as if they were practising the experience of loss.


Perhaps performance is always a game of making things appear and disappear. Filling the stage and emptying it. Filling the air with sound and returning to silence. The alternation of light and darkness. Often, especially working with language, we are interested in co-opting the audience as imaginative authors – so that they ‘create’ whole worlds, landscapes or characters in their head. Anytime we do this we are also driven to then finding ways to 'destroy' what they've made in order to start all over again…


… like for example in ‘Dirty Work’ where a gigantic play is staged only with words. In the last act everything, including the whole world, is destroyed.


Yes, and also the device of the 'stop' used by the performers in ’And On The Thousandth Night...’ to interrupt each other which abruptly terminates any narrative and resets the performance to 'zero' – that’s another one of our attempts at creating things and then wiping the slate clean. In doing this in different ways I think we're interested in drawing attention to the processes at work in the performances - the processes whereby the audience is also an author, imagining a world in response to textual and visual clues or signs.

There is a very special attraction in the idea of erasure and deletion, of taking everything away. I did a student piece recently in which the final section involved each of the 18 performers leaving their places at a long table on the stage one by one. This last part of the piece probably took about 15 minutes and there was something very compelling about it; about the increasing isolation of the performers who remained after each exit and about the growing number of empty seats, the empty places at the table – spaces in which one was forced or invited to imagine the people who had been there.

Perhaps the idea of deletion is deeply connected to the dynamic process at performance's core – that of the manufacture of absence and presence.



For the audience these situations of very prolonged vanishing and ending is an interesting experience – you also used it in ‘Bloody Mess’ (2005), when Cathy Naden very slowly describes how the performance is going to end, with the turning off of one light after another. On the one hand there is a wish that this process could last forever, never stopping – like a good novel or movie. On the other hand there is a certain feeling which paradoxically combines boredom and tension, a feeling that makes you wish the whole thing was over. This tension is also present in the very long, never-ending story of God attempting to erase the world in ‘And On the Thousandth Night ...’


It is one of my favourite stories from that piece. I tend to try and tell it late on in the performance, in hour five or six, so that the air is already full of stories that we have told, full of imagined characters, narratives and landscapes that have built up over the previous hours, in all of the stories.


God is sat at his computer one day and is bored. He selects the icon of the world and drags it slowly into the trash. Then he goes to the finder menu and selects the option 'Empty Trash'. The computer issues a warning on-screen "The trash currently contains 268 billion items. Are you sure you want to permanently delete them?" God thinks about it for a moment, about all the things in the folder called The World.

He cancels the emptying of the trash. He hesitates then opens the trash and drags the folder back towards the desktop. Then he relents and puts it back in the trash. He takes the cursor back up the menu bar and selects Empty Trash again..


Of course no matter how hard I might try I'm never allowed to get to the end of this story in the performance! Partly because the rule in "And On The Thousandth Night..." is that no narrative is allowed to be completed but partly perhaps because no one on stage can bear to let the world be ended in this way. What I love though is that while this story is being told everything is under threat – the erasure that's threatened includes not just all of the characters and stories that have been invented in the course of the performance, but also the performance itself, the eight of us sat on the stage, and all of the people watching. God in the story threatens to wipe everything out. So the story becomes a playful opportunity to have us consider the disposability, the ephemerality and even the vulnerability of performance itself and of our lives; the precariousness of our situation as beings. We're all living under the threat of deletion - if not from God (since I don't believe in it) then at least from death, sickness and forgetting.


If you delete something it can usually be restored, maybe not completely but still, it is not totally gone. Like the ‘Wunderblock’ in Freud's theory of memory: there are still traces left. They are written over and over, get less and less readable, but still there are traces. It is very difficult to completely remove something on purpose. On the other hand we all know that things get lost accidentally and never show up again. Interestingly enough, this analogy of memory, of life in general, is so closely related to the way that computers work ...


This is something that we're interested in of course – that when you 'delete' something in performance its residue remains, perhaps through traces in the space, manifested on the bodies of the performers (through sweat, change in breathing etc) or simply as memory. So with the performers in my student piece, or with all the stories that are 'stopped' and consigned to oblivion in ‘And On The Thousandth Night …’ they are gone but not gone. We should perhaps talk more about the attempt to delete, or about how performance might invoke the idea of deletion. We quite recently showed some work in progress for a new performance (in Ghent, September 2005) and in one section of the performance Jerry Killick appeals to the audience asking them to first 'pause' the story that he has been telling them in order that he might come back to it later, and then, going further, imploring them to forget entirely everything that he has said. It’s a moment of great comedy – we simply can’t do as he asks – but it also has a certain tragedy in the banal but significant realisation it provokes – that time cannot be turned back.


I think it comes back again to absence and presence. We feel presence more acutely when the possibility of absence is raised. That's why one's interested in deletion, in absence. Because to think of it points back to the absolute uniqueness of presence.


I have to think here about Edit Kaldor's amazing performance in ‘Or Press Escape’. In the first part of the piece she tries to write a letter on the computer. We don't see her face, but we do see the results of her typing at the computer keyboard because the screen is projected for us to see. As she types she is constantly tweaking and changing the detail and even the substantial content of her letter – changing words and sentences, then changing or deleting whole paragraphs. We feel her to be very present in this part, as if we are taken very close to the workings of her mind through its dealing with language. The way she writes first that something is 'not bad' and then changes to say that it is 'good' – the 'not bad' is deleted but the 'good' which she substitutes in its place seems haunted by it, by her previous choice of word. So 'what is' (in the world, in the widest possible sense) is haunted by what was, what might have been.


Which is a process that seems to me to be getting increasingly lost : the idea of things being informed by former versions, by attempts, by failures… This is not only due to computers, but there are fewer and fewer sketches, notes, things crossed out – the result is the thing, finished and cut off from its past. Of course the function that, for example Mac OS X offers, to delete the trash securely without traces, is still missing in our lives. Though some politicians would be happy about a function like this for biographies …


Yes, I’m sure that Berlusconi, Blair and Bush would be glad of a function like that.

As you say, on the one hand digital media seems to promise (or threaten) the erasure of the traces of labour. In this sense (probably a fantasy) digital objects are all ‘perfect’ and don’t bear marks to show the strains, efforts, history or process of their creation. Somewhere after Marx, Brecht, and Structuralism, performance has often strapped its conception and articulation of politics to the exposure and examination of exactly these traces – labour, attempt, failure, versions – all of which are presented side by side or in dialogue with the ‘image’ conjured in a work. Certainly many of the Forced Entertainment performances are built on the interplay between an image or a text on the one hand and the exposure of the (rhetorical, theatrical, linguistic) mechanisms necessary for producing it on the other. Labour and process here remain, quite deliberately in view – undeleted. The instantaneousness of digital media and its propensity to hide or erase the processes of its own construction seem at first glance to help it evade the radar of this aesthetic – creating spectacle and surface in the place of a politicised exposure of mechanics, process or workings. It is frightening in a way, especially for those of us who were born into an analogue age!



But on the other hand we find reminders every day that the digital world continues to contain footprints, traces, history – that the idea of a supposedly pure surface is a fallacy, an illusion. Indeed, the era of this possibility (or fantasy) of erasure also brings the possibility for the massive and speedy proliferation of information, even new kinds of information that were never visible before. The Blair government was embarrassed not so long ago by a leaked Microsoft Word document in which the Track Changes function had been accidentally left turned on, so that the authorship and deletion of various words, lines and sentences could clearly be seen. And at the same time (with a different political connotation) Internet users have to get used to the idea that what they do is not invisible; that websites visited or files shared can be tracked. I guess every recording and distribution technology promises to create a new balance of the visible and invisible, the present and the absent, that which is ‘permanent’ and that which can be erased or hidden. For me interesting (and hopeful?) things remain, at the level of artistic intervention and in the possibilities for mischief and human error. There are many artists working to make visible the kinds of hidden or ‘erased’ processes commonly at work in digital media – I’m thinking about Internet writers like Alan Sondheim who I think is really interesting, or Jodi.org who have been working with dysfunctional or maverick computer interfaces or even about artists like Harry Shearer who’ve done work using feed material from satellites – showing politicians and others preparing or simply sat waiting vacantly for interviews or tv broadcasts.