A few years ago, in a previous job, I commissioned a number of projects with artists using SMS as a medium. One of them was Tim Etchells, a writer and co-founder of Forced Entertainment, a performance group who have produced some of the most innovative and exciting theatre I’ve seen over the last 10 years. I was really eager to get Tim to consider SMS as a medium, as his writing is very epigrammatic, and his subject matter devoted to the random poetry of urban life. The project he came up with was ‘surrender control’, a series of instructions sent as text messages to subscribers over a number of weeks that cleverly traced narratives of desire, trust and intimacy.
As part of an essay I’ve recently written on the project, I asked Tim some questions about ‘surrender control’. I really wished I’d found some way of sparking a debate about this project at the time, as it touches on so many issues about narrative, privacy, intimacy and technology that have become even more important as ‘social software’ like friendster have gained popularity. Surrender Control explored the darker shadows of communication technologies, illustrating the umheimlich twin of the shiny, happy world of ubiquitous connectivity that we are always being promised (look at those smiles on the Friendster homepage! Everyone’s having such a rad time!). So, rather belatedly, I’m putting this Q&A session with Tim up here, and hope that it sparks some comments. Also, read Jill Walker’s blog for an excellent description of what it felt like to participate in the project.
TIM ETCHELLS ON SURRENDER CONTROL:
“Surrender Control is somewhere between a game and a set of dares. The instructions that people will receive vary enormously – some are orders to think about particualr topics, others are invitations to look at the world in a particular way, other instructions are for actions, demands that people behave in particular ways or that they carry out particular tasks.
What interests me about SMS is the intimacy inherent in the form – messages go direct to the phone of an individual, direct to a ‘place’ which is normally occupied by that person’s friends, family or lovers. To create an art work for this context is an invitation, one could say, to whisper in the ears of strangers as they go about their daily business. Surrender Control tries to explore and push the boundaries of what is possible or even permissible in this context.”
Matt Locke:How did you find writing for SMS as a delivery medium?
Tim Etchells: I liked it in the sense that I really enjoy working to limits – the technical limits (text only, a certain number of characters) as well as the limits of the context – one’s expectations of the place and time that people would be receiving the messages. Once I know what the edges of a form are (be it SMS or theatre or video) then I’m happy to play with and disrupt those edges!
ML: What kind of responses were you expecting from participants in the project?
What role did they play in the narrative?
TE: I didn’t have a definite idea of what people would do.. I thought that some would obstinately do nothing! And that some would obediently do everything.. and a lot of middle ground.
There are certainly many instructions where the participants need to make their own decisions about how far they’re willing to go. To me that’s a part of the project. The instructions are proposals, invitations – but there’s undoubtedly an element of flirtatiousness and temptation in what I propose – people have to make their choices about what they’ll do and what they won’t do.
In fact it’s not even that important to me that people follow the instructions. Perhaps what’s just as interesting is to sit in a bar with friends, or ride the bus home or sit with familly in front of the TV and just consider for a moment what it might mean to follow a certain instruction. I think a powerful sense of what the world is, and what our boundaries for acting in it are could emerge from that…
ML: Surrender Control was designed as a one-way project – how did the lack of feedback effect your experience on the project?
TE: I can’t really imagine it working with feedback – it was so solidly built on the fact of none. Feedback would only be interesting to me if it was an interactive piece for ONE phone user at a time (now that would be something to pursue!) ie: response from user is followed by a real response from me and so on. In that sense the piece was a broadcast work – a one to many piece, not a peer to peer piece. But any one receiver always gets their instructions/msg alone.. so it can still feel very personal. I think I constructed it so that the ‘voice’ of my text/instructions could appear personal and one-on-one but also so that it could switch to something more machinic/unsympathetic/relentless.
ML: What kind of narrative structure did you use for the texts? Was this influenced by the limitations of SMS as a medium?
TE: I think the structure was one that developed more musically, or in terms of
increasing demands and dares… It had a ‘pull to excess’ or a pull to the edges of the game that was established… The texts become more and more insistent, stranger, more intrusive and at certain times more frequent or at anti-social times of the day. I tried to make it develop whilst at the same time avoiding any sense of it starting to cohere around a single narrative idea. It’s something I say or think about a lot of my work in a lot of media – I don’t want it to collapse into a narrative, I want it to stay in that state of suspension where narratives are possible, but not confirmed. In this way I’d say I am interested in juggling the elements of story, but not really in telling them! Of course this also connects very well to the context of SMS – as a writer I can’t control the context of receiving, so however much one wants to ‘control’ the meaning of what one writes/sends it is always changed/reinvented/reassembled at the other end. I embrace this.