an afternoon in the history of the world

I enjoy writing about Forced Entertainment almost as much as I enjoy watching them perform. To go with my FE365 piece, here’s something I did in 2006 for the Vienna programme of The World in Pictures


Two o’clock in the afternoon in a rehearsal room like a bunker somewhere under Sheffield. The walls are black-padded. Two high-power electric heaters produce a pinky-orange light in one corner. A few chairs are lined up at one side, surrounded by the ordinary things that wash up out of life–coats, laptops, a half-eaten sandwich, some partly assembled caveman costumes made of fake fur.

    The company, about to perform a run-through of their new piece, wander about in this dimly lit space, half-confronting the history of the world. Such an undertaking must contain, they believe, everything they left out of their last show. It must be, in some sense at least, a reversal or inversion: where their last middle-scale work, Bloody Mess, concerned itself with the beginning and the end of the world, this new adventure, The World in Pictures, will apply itself to everything in between. This will mean a woman in a sexy frock, narrating a befuddled version of human history interrupted by cheap innuendo. It will mean hammering and banging, simulated sex, a volcano, industrial levels of noise and music, and, possibly, a bouncy castle. Large items will be dragged around. There will be a panel game, and this time handguns as prizes. A man will try to bite through a power cable. It will mean everything happening at once. On this stage civilisations are about to rise and fall.

First, though, we have to experience another kind of fall.

  The space goes dark. It goes empty. A nice young man in a T-shirt approaches the microphone and begins a monologue about killing time in a city you don’t know. His tone is familar yet distancing. When he says “you” that’s definitely what he means. He’s talking to you. He knows you, but not well. Not well enough, anyway, to be leading you on like this. Making this offer you canˆt refuse. By the time you realise the exact nature of the offer, you’ve also realised, too late, what a trap the second person singular can be, what a trap a nice young man can be. Meanwhile he is content, it seems, to have inserted a screwdriver between some of your assumptions–about yourself, about the world and your life in it, about, perhaps, what it is to be an audience–then applied steady, implacable leverage.

  This is one of the things Forced Entertainment does so well. One minute you’re laughing, the next minute you realise it wasn’t a joke. Too late now. One minute, trite music played from a mobile phone while a caveman made fire with two sticks, someone made a list of the real in a musing, lyrical tone while someone else drilled the word fuck into the bottom of a wooden drawer; the next it was all over and you were the audience again, retreating from the space that wasn’t quite you and wasn’t quite them.

Here in Sheffield, the run-through is over, and for me it’s April 2006 again. After 90 minutes of throbbing performance action I feel bruised, disoriented and elated, all at once, as I do at the end of every Forced Entertainment show. The floor is covered in shredded paper, and the performers (if that’s what they are, because now, as usual, I’m no more sure about what that word means than I am about the idea of performance itself) are exhausted; but the space is still theirs. It’s owned by them. They sit in a loose semi-circle around Tim Etchells, who speaks in a quiet, often puzzled voice. With his rolled trouser cuffs and stooped attitude, he looks like a homeless man who came in for the warmth and stayed to give advice. A discussion develops: suddenly no one’s as tired as you thought they were. I listen. I look forward to this piece being finished. I think: I can’t wait. In the same instant, I think: does a piece like this ever finish ? Because I’ll carry it away with me, the way I still carry Hidden J, Disco Relax, Speak Bitterness, all those other pieces.