Tim Etchells on ’12am: Awake & Looking Down’

I was looking at video from the first presentation of the Forced Entertainment durational performance – 12am Awake & Looking Down – recorded at the National Review of Live Art at the ICA in 1993 – seeing those bodies – Richard, Robin, Terry, Claire, Cathy – more than familiar to me and at the same time more or less unrecognisable, hardly marked by time, watching them take on, rehearse and play the possibilities of lives they had not lived and probably would not (or could not) ever live.
The Hypnotised Girl, A Nine Year Old Shepherd Boy, Nightshift Dave, The Come-Back Kid, A 4th Generation Car Production-Line Worker, Elvis Presley, Marcie (Pregnant), A Telepath (Aged 12), Michel The Intellectual, Stephen (Holding Back Tears), The Ex-Wife of the Ex-President of the United States.

There they were playing all those (and many more) characters, phantom figures summoned in the chaotic game of the piece, para-fictions made in the interplay between cardboard signs, costumes and performers’ bodies inhabiting them.
Always, at the heart of this performance there’s a sense of versions and versionality, a perpetual motion of if this, then this, new possibilities continually inhabited and each eventually abandoned and replaced with another one. If not that, then this. You see a group of performers trying things out endlessly, making and breaking their ‘enactments’ of figures, starting and stopping as if rehearsing, as if in some private yet public game of ‘figuring out’ who they are or could be. Changing costumes and changing names repeatedly using the titling signs, they are somehow being and performing at the same time. Twelve hours long in its first incarnation, 12am was performance as a way of tumbling into the world; a way of stretching, taking space, inventing, projecting, crude public self-imagining. People making work but at the same time rehearsing themselves.

Watching back the digitised recordings from ‘93 and from other, later performances of the piece I’m thinking that beyond its immediate function as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, a machine for making stories, 12am was perhaps above all else about the future and it’s sense of possibility; about who the performers might become, however implausibly, at some later date.
I had related thoughts watching Ann Theresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas company as they re-performed their 1983 piece Rosas Dans Rosas a few years ago; that the women dancing when I had first watched it in ‘86 had, like us with 12am, been framed in a dance of possibility; a dance about their lives and what they might be, what they could be, about what the future might hold, every gesture a question. And watching some of the same people dance the same material nearly 30 years later, it seemed to me to that in the re-performance, it became more about history or memory, more facts than questions; not so much possibility as echo.

A lot has changed since we first performed 12am of course, since the first time we loaded those great bags of second-hand clothing and cardboard signs into the Nash Room at the ICA, nervous, having no idea what this 12-hour performance event we had planned might be like… How could you know since you could not rehearse it? How could you even start to feel or anticipate its shape in advance? Would spectators stay in the room? How long would they stay?
What changed? Well, for one thing, we got used to these long tricky blurred architectures and relations with audience, these exhilarating long performances. They became something we did, a space we inhabited.

Other things changed too of course. In 1993, just into our 30’s, we would have guessed, if asked, that we had more future than past. Now, with most of us past 50 years old, we can say for sure that we have more past than we have future.
We got older. The open aperture of our identities narrowed in the year on year build up of the actual – focusing, accumulating, becoming, materialising. Dying, in some cases. The roads forked and the route options narrowed. Paths, trodden over many times, were walked into being, appearing as identity, over time, through the landscape of years. We became. And in some ways, who any of us are now is more a constellation of facts in vibration than the zone of open speculation we might have thought or felt it was back then; a fraught dance we’re in now with the biological and historical absolutes in and through which we exist.

Going back to 12am in partnership with the amazing team at PACT Zollverein in Essen begins this year’s presentation of each of the key Forced Entertainment durationals as both live and live-streaming events – watch out for the others as the year progresses. With two of the original cast (Robin Arthur and Terry O’Connor) out this time because of injury, Cathy Naden, Clare Marshall and Richard Lowdon are joined by Ben Neale, who played the piece from time to time with us back in the ‘90’s, and by my brother, Mark, who in between his other careers (fish farmer, postman, roofer, IFOR Election Supervisor, joiner), has stepped into numerous works with the company here and there, down the line, through the years. After the last durational Mark did with us – a long questions marathon Quizoola! in London back in ‘97 – the critic in The Independent wrote that he did not trust Mark’s answers, that he was pretty sure Mark was not really a postman, as he’d claimed in the piece. For sure, there were many lies circulating in Quizoola!, but Mark being a postman was not one of them.

Revisiting 12am at this point underscores our fascination with its simple-but-complicated machinery, its comical and endlessly generative way of dealing with story. I know I used to watch it sometimes as a homemade shredder for narrative – a place for the fracturing of story, for the breaking down and ultimate disposal of it. But just as I’d reach this end-point, this feeling of some murderous close-down, something would happen in the fecund combination machine of the piece – in the meeting of one ‘figure’/character and another, in the glimpse of an energetic proposal by one performer or another. In such a glimpse, in just a moment I’d be pulled in again, hooked into imagining and wondering, newly awake to the possibility and opportunities of change both in and outside of the piece. I’d be drawn back by the strange never-ending energy of subjects who both implicitly resist the forces of closure and narrative, and, in resisting it, also generate more. I can’t wait to see the machine kicked back into life again, to see what it brings in its particular dance of the imaginable and the concrete, the creative, the improvised, the accidental.

Tim Etchells