Four Inches from Drowning

12 Jan

Quizoola, one of the two Forced Entertainment shows on at the Push Festival in Vancouver, is a rotating 2-hander, involving three performers. Its structure is simple. The duo performing take it in turns to interrogate one another, drawing from a large sheaf of papers one of them holds (the script). The third (resting) performer sits at the door, looking bored, taking tickets. The questioner asks questions. The respondent replies. It’s basically a take on the game shows the name suggests. There’s a level of improvisation built in– the interrogator at times pursues a certain line of questioning, or repeats questions if s/he feels the reply has been inadequate. At some point the interrogator asks “Would you like to stop?” and if the respondent says Yes— they swap roles and hand over the pile of paper. The script is a list of 2,000 questions written by F.E. writer/ director Tim Etchells. The show was originally commissioned by London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA).

Of this show, director/writer Etchells writes:

“Quizoola! is about the need for knowledge, certainty and definition through language. It is about the questionings of lovers, interrogators, quizmasters, children, philosophers and others – how all these questionings are at the same time different and at the same time the same. It is about the people in the room and what happens between them. It is about the relationship between people and the facts of our lives – history, botany, ontology, language, sex, death, the universe, cities, money – the whole of it. About what is known, thought or felt and how it can be shared. About the nature of language and how it can, or cannot, describe or define or deal with the truth of our lives.” (full text of “An Invitation to Play”)

The show I saw last night was at Ocean Cement, in an industrial workshop which clearly still had a day-job. Tools and machinery and work benches were cleared and ready for the day. Cement floor, wooden walls, sliding doors that opened on to a wharf. Sounds of cars, passing boats, sometimes drunken laughter. This cement factory is an industrial remnant in what’s now a very up-scale tourist and entertainment area of Vancouver called Granville Island (think The Rocks in Sydney). This new development overlays the bones of old industries—fishing, heavy processing. It was very strange to see an aspect of the entertainment and arts that have presumably fueled the reinvention of Granville Island as tourist mecca, returned to an industrial shed that HADN’T been “done up” for tourism. Like the past had been visited by its own future death.

To get to see the show, we hung out next door at another uneasily dual-use space: the Emily Carr institute, a college; and the PUSH festival HQ ( who had their opening reception in a lounge adjacent to the student cafe. Students on ubiquitous laptops, cellphones and ipods sipped coffee next to the machine-produced (see previous entry) rent-a-crowd for the Push opening, who drank wine at the next door bar, the student atmosphere only mildly allayed by the hanging of arty drapes and white cloths on cafeteria tables. Audience members took tickets from a deli-counter style machine and waited for their group (numbers included) to be called. Then each group was shepherded across to the performance in the industrial space— the endangered and fragile environment of actual work.

When I got there, Robin was on the door and Cathy and a young man named Kurt (a local ring-in, not credited in the program— his accent was Canadian or US, not English) were performing. Cathy interrogated the man. I’d seen this show nearly seven years ago in a cellar in Novi Sad, Serbia; I found this current performance strangely both more entertaining and more facile than the Serbian one. The facile quality, I think, was to do with the knowledge the performers had of the game itself (the old hands Robin and Cathy, at any rate) –how to raise danger, how to veer towards and away from truth, how to manage the inertia that sets in inevitably in such a long (6 hour; audience came and went) performance. It was also to do with this particular audience and context being more at ease with the work. There was a “knowing” and grinning, appreciative response. This made it warm and funny but also took away an edge, a sense that the game could get grim. Perhaps we are also that bit further into the pornography of the everyday– audiences are almost unfazeable by content. Form seems to be the only offense. We are used to the reality TV the show spoofs and undermines. Sometimes I think that the ethical sense of “witnessing” which Etchells writes of as vital to the company, has been eclipsed by the society of the spectacle, especially in younger people. Everything is simply something to spectate. I don’t mean to imply any lesser moral fibre–simply that a particular way of understanding being there and the responsibility it implies, is almost completely out-dated.

Seeing a basement interrogation ‘game’ in Novi Sad, where most of the audience didn’t share a first language with Forced Entertainment, and had just emerged from a disastrous war —orchestrated as they well knew, by the manipulation of “truth” and official knowledges— made for a far edgier experience. The fabric of shared cultural knowledge, the assumptions and joins and interweaving from trivial to profound knowledge that make up identity and belonging, had already been pretty much shredded in Serbia. For the audience last night, it was still (it felt) made of whole cloth.

The show certainly defamiliarizes this ready-made and obvious quality of everyday belonging–at once immanent and improvised–of everyday culture (Raymond William’s beautiful phrase “structures of feeling” comes to mind). But in Novi Sad, questions like “What caused the war in the Balkans”? really felt dangerous. Especially coming out of nowhere, out of the randomness of interrogation; the previous question might have been “What is a tree?” or “Why do they put those metal foil tops on milkbottles”?

A moment that approached that for me last night (and not only because it was politics) was the sequence
-Did the Gulf war really happen?
-How do you know?
-I saw it on TV.
– Why does that make it true?
-Because I saw it on more than one channel.
-If something’s only on one channel, it’s probably made up. If it’s on two channels at the same time, it’s true.

When I walked in, Cathy (interrogator) and Kurt (respondent/ victim) were in the middle of a ‘counting’ sequence. I recognized a Forced Entertainment tactic (which I’d have to call “pushing it”). It went something like this:
-Can you count?
-Can you count really, really well?
-What’s 2 x 2?
-How many people in this room?
– 103.
-How many are men and how many women?
-There are more women than men.
-How. Many. Men. And. How. Many. Women.
– 52 women. 51 men.
-What’s 2×2 x the number of people in this room?
-Um… 412.
– What’s 2x2x the number of people in this room x the number of cars that have driven past in the last half-hour?
– Seven hundred.
-How many people are wearing glasses?
-About twenty.
-How. Many. People…
— What’s 2x2x the number of people in this room x the number of cars that have driven past in the last half-hour x the number of people wearing glasses?
–and so on.

There are rhythms to do with live dialogue which counterpoint the rhythm of interrogation, or rather regularly interrupt it. There are boring flat bits then there are charged bits and nasty bits and funny bits. I’m reminded of Kantor’s insistence on the non-dramatic emotions— boredom, loneliness, apathy and so on— as the only states worth putting on stage– zero intensity states. The Canadian actor doesn’t really grasp this, going for intensity and playing for laughs, and it falls really flat in this context which is relentless and cumulative and has to earn its poetry by accident.

In Novi Sad I was fascinated by the slowly emerging shape of everyday knowledge. Here— not so much—it was much more about the bodies. The sadism, humor, scatology, shame and sexuality that seep through the interactions. Knowledge, sexuality and cruelty are co-productive (Foucault says that much better than me, but Quizoola demonstrates it pretty clearly.)

Another favorite sequence— the Canadian interrogating Cathy (of course he might not be Canadian; he just doesn’t have an English accent.)

-What does it mean to be “out of one’s depth”?
– It means you’re sort of struggling to keep up.
– Am I out of my depth?
-I’d say— you’ve just got your toes on the ground.
– Is my head above water?
– Just. The water’s about 4″ away from your mouth.
-So I’m four inches away from drowning?
-We’re all four inches away from drowning.


3 Responses to “Four Inches from Drowning”

  1. nadia January 12, 2007 at 4:23 pm #

    this was the part that really caught my attention and interest in a general way about what we all strive to do as politically-
    minded artists:

    Sometimes I think that the ethical sense of “witnessing” which Etchells writes of as vital to the company, has been eclipsed by the society of the spectacle, especially in younger people. Everything is simply something to spectate. I don’t mean to imply any lesser moral fibre–simply that a particular way of understanding being there and the responsibility it implies, is almost completely out-dated.

    do you think that there could have been a way to adjust how the performance was presented in the current situation to create a mood closer to the version you saw previously? how would they have done that?

  2. xtine3 January 12, 2007 at 5:22 pm #

    that’s a great question! I do think part of it was having a non-Forced Entertainment actor as part of the performance, and the jarring of different world-knowledges. I think if the FE actors had really pushed the other one, we would have got beyond his comedic attempts into some of what durational performance can do— a cooled down space where audience and actors alike are waiting to see what happens, rather than the audience feeling that the actors MUST pull something out of the bag to entertain them if things go flat or awry. But on the other hand, I understand why they didn’t– it would have been very unkind, given that he stepped in and supported their show as the third actor. IN short the show was more “entertainmnent” and less “forced” in Vancouver. But still really great to be part of.

  3. Kent M. Beeson January 26, 2007 at 10:10 pm #

    Hello, Christine! This is Kent Beeson, the actor that was in Quizoola. I think I met you after the performance of Exquisite Pain, and went to dinner with you and that huge group of people that night. If this is a different person, my apologies!

    Anyway, thanks for the terrific write-up on the show — I agree with your comments. I’ve been writing a post-facto journal of my time at PuSh over at my blog , and I think your comments dovetail nicely with my experience of my performance and my sense of failure about it (which you can find here:

    Hope you enjoy the rest of the FE body of work — there’s quite a bit to see there.

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