The Small Failures

by Tim Etchells


Apologies and Un-Made Shows

Together with his colleagues he’d developed an on-going inventory of shows ‘thought of’ but almost certainly never to be made. Half joke and half the residue of many desperate hours of rehearsal room discussion, impromtu improv and simple time-wasting this repetoire of thin shows, ridiculous shows, nihilistic and aggresive shows, silly shows, and impossible shows was at the same time a performative graveyard for failed, unproductive and unworkable ideas.

They included; the show where the lighting states are introduced one by one at the outset, pre-empting the ‘suprise’ atmospherics planned for later, the show in which the audience, having paid once to enter, are bullied for more money before the performance will commence and then for futher payments as the evening progresses (with a series of downbeat and evidently reluctant performers paid on-stage by the ‘bit’), the show where the audience are invited to record sound effects for use later in the performance (leading to a whole show comprising cruel and unusual particpation and ‘help’ from the audience), and, perhaps best of all ‘the apology show’ which would be nothing but a long and complicated apology for the lack of a show.

It was this last that provided the most amusement. They spent many hours when stuck on other shows improvising stuff that would one day make the apology show. As if each actual show were only a rehearsal for that one, the big one, the apology one.

False Organisation

When working through a list of tasks – things to do around the house or the office or whatever – he was always pissed off by the act of accidentally remembering (and therefore doing) other tasks not actually included on the list. In reaction to this feeling of annoyance (work has been done but without the ‘payoff’ or reward of crossing off an item from the list) he often adds such newly remembered and then completed tasks to the bottom of the list, simply to have the immediate satisfaction of crossing them off. As if the point of doing things were not to have done them but rather to have crossed them off.


Some kind of identity crisis or failure keeps gripping him when he writes his signature. Signing credit card slips (pretty well the only time he writes his signature in any case) he often has something like a freeze, a blankness or a crisis of confidence when he reaches the middle part of his surname. In these cases the first few letters flow easily but are followed by a micro-second pause and then an erratic jumble of pen movement which bears no relation to his signature at all. Oftentimes he is left shaking his head as he completes his own signature – self-conscious that inspection by a shopkeeper or till operative will quickly prove him to be a forger of his own name. The shaking of the head is of course the beginning of a self-excusing performance, a non-verbal ‘Sorry I am not really with it today’. Sometimes (after an especially bad signature) the head shaking is accompanied by an audible exasperated laugh and in very extreme cases he even feels compelled to follow it by saying ‘Sorry. That was a bad one’, a statement that draws puzzelled or unamused looks from till-girls and shopkeepers alike.

The problem with his signing his signature is compounded by the fact that one of his credit cards now bears no signature on it at all, the laminate strip which once held his name having worn down to its foundations – a white printout reading VOID-VOID-VOID – with no trace of even the faintest pen marks. Endless times he has faced enquiry from shopkeepers or till operatives about this card and endless times he has replied that the bank are ‘sending him a new one’. But in truth, for some reason (more than laziness?) he never tells the bank about the card, never asks them for a new one, continues to carry the blank one. Periodically, when especially nervous about this card with no signature, or at least unwilling to face being asked questions about it, he takes to withdrawing cash from the Cash Point and using that to make purchases for which he would normally use a card. Despite the fact that this process makes shopping much more complex than it should be he never requests a new card and at the same time never quite gets over his embaressment at using the card without its signature. He stays in this limbo, apparently unable to release himself from this circle of minor discomfort.

A friend writes that her mother has some strange magnetic property to her body that wipes the information on credit cards, library cards and bank cards, rendering them useless. The bank have replaced her cards many times but they soon become unusable. Now the bank say they will not issue further cards to her. He tries to imagine this life: an existence locked in isolation from electronic data that is so often required to prove an identity.

Forgetting/Failure to Forget

The strangest thing happened one day when his recently ex-partner was away - a caravan holiday in Cornwall with the children for a couple of weeks. He was at home alone when the phone rang, he picked it up and there was no one there. From the other end he could hear movement, ambient sound, nothing more. Hello he said, hello, but still there was no answer. He recognised the sound as that kind you get when a mobile has called you by accident - switched on in someone’s pocket or bag or something like that. Hello he said, hello.

He guessed instantly and simply knew by intuition alone that it was her (his ex-partner’s) mobile and, he knew also for a fact that this being an incoming call, there was no way for him to disconnect it. Hello he said, hello. The noise of movement he could hear was regular, an easy walking pace and as he listened to it he could soon pick out other sounds. In the distance he could hear birds and the occasional car. Once, when the footsteps stopped he could clearly hear voices and then he was sure it was her. He could make out the voices of his son and his ex-partner, his son asking something, her calling to him until he answered and then the walking continued in its silence of footsteps and birdsong.

He called the mobile service from his own mobile to see if they could disconnect the call to the landline but after much discussion it seemed that they could not. He rang off with the mobile and still the sound of her walking in the great distance continued on the other phone pressed to his ear. He sat quiet for a moment or two and later wept a little at this unwanted window onto their lives without him, feeling strangely privileged, charmed and at the same time utterly chilled by the sound, by the silence, by his own absence from this tranquil scene.

He yelled a few times, picturing the mobile in his ex-partner’s pocket or bag, trying to imagine that his voice might be heard when, apparently, it could not. Later he put the telephone by the radio and turned up the volume, blasting the mouthpiece with bursts of music, voices and static in hope that these unexpected sounds might register or penetrate the ether, all to no avail. Then he shouted again but it came to nothing and still he could hear his ex-partner and his sons walking together in the far distance like figures in a strange minimalist radio play.

He wondered if the future would be like this – that they would always be walking in some fields distant from him and that he would be always condemned to hear them, confusing the situation with metaphor as he always tended to do. There was nothing he could do, no action to take. He sat on the couch and listened to the distant scene with its footsteps, birds and occasional voices until the battery on her mobile ran down, until he had a kind of silence once again. Then he went out for a walk.


He remembers once visiting an academic somewhere in a small office in which the table was completely overloaded, smothered with piles of correspondence, books, photocopies and papers spilling and slipping in every direction. Whatever document the academic was looking for could not be found, and as a last resort the computer had to be switched on and searched for an electronic copy. The thing he noticed as the computer came on was that the chaos of the guy’s physical space was replicated in the electronic one. The computer desktop (the screen itself rising from the sea of paper detritus on the table), was awash with a preposterous swirl of icons, buried documents, overlapping word and image files, application icons, electronic post-it notes, the desktop pattern itself as buried invisible as the physical table on which the computer stood. Something beautiful in the migration of the problem (or the symptom) from one space to another. That the virtual desktop suffers so easily the same fate as its physical namesake.

His own house is frequently in such a state of disarray, disorganisation and his own computer desktop not much better. He takes some digital images of the desktop – examining the drifts of documents and icons as one might look at strata of rock formations, or the build up of snow in a landscape. As a joke he imagines a screensaver or desktop picture which might replicate this picture – a chaos of random documents – not so much a desktop as a misleading virtual document swamp – a constantly shifting quicksand of fictional files - an image of chaos over which the user’s own documents would be expected to sit, a deliberate doubling of the problem.

False Organisation (2)

A lover confesses the habit of keeping lists in which a lot of items have been crossed off – effectively as ‘ongoing’ trophies which boast of her achievements. These aging lists are confusing – full of additions and triumphant crossings out – and often the ‘dead’ space of them (crossed out items) far outweighs the useful (undone) contents of the list. But still she persists in keeping them ‘live’ (carrying them with her, keeping them in prime position on the desk or desktop, stuck as a post-it to the outside of her filofax).

Incomplete Narratives

At the airport he buys a new bag to replace the trusted rucksack thing (now splitting at the seam) that has held his laptop, notebook, camcorder, diary, reading book, walkman and whatever else gets thrown in there on daily travels for the last few years. Sentimental about the old bag he has the notion of emptying it whilst still at the airport, transferring its contents, and dumping it at Heathrow somewhere. It seems like a good end to the bag – a litter bin in Departures, or in some Terminal 3 toilets will be a perfect symbolic nowhere of a place to leave this thing that had done so much travelling with him. But despite nearly an hour sitting with his friend as they say goodbye he does not find time to empty the bag whilst at the airport. Boarding the train back to the city he still carries the new bag in its wrapping and the old bag containing all of his stuff. He fantasises that the train might be an even better place to leave the old bag – that would mean leaving it in motion after all, discarded in a place where it would spend the rest of the day, and possibly longer, travelling backwards and forwards from central London. But of course within seconds of this idea arriving he’s realised that a discarded bag on a train like this, even an empty one left in one of its litter bins or toilets, would quickly cause a security alert. He empties his old bag onto the seat beside him, unwraps the new one from its plastic, transfers the contents. When he leaves the train twenty minutes later he is still carrying two bags, only now the new one is full and the old one is empty, held bedraggled and awkwardly in his right hand. As he continues the journey to the house where he will spend the night he goes past several more places in which he thinks it might be perfect to discard the old bag, all of which might have some resonance to the object and its place in his life, but, typically, in each place finds reasons not to leave it at all. The bag is still in his hands when he arrives at his destination. His final thought is that the bag would be good discarded in the rubbish bin at this house (the transistional space of so many of his travels and adventures), but in the morning, rushing to leave, he forgets about it and the old bag simply remains behind, abandoned on the floor of the room in which he has slept.

Untidiness (2)

In the real world the systems he invents to organise objects in space seem to project another life, a different life for some other person, tidier than himself, a person with a luxurious amount of time to spend on arranging or returning them to their proper place. According to these plans there are shelves, folders and drawers designated for particular objects and papers, systems for the sequence or place in which all things should be kept. But in reality these systems he invents are never adhered to for long – temporary structures that fall into oblivion in a matter of days. Consistent in his failure the archaeology of any aspect of his house would be a history of abandoned structures or organisational plans. Example: a small collection of maps and guidebooks is gathered lamely at one end of a bookshelf, the relic of a once systematic attempt to centralise such items. But a quick look at the shelves elsewhere in the house reveals more maps and guides dispersed all over the place, the itinerant ones outnumbering those correctly gathered downstairs.

Untidiness (3)

At a micro level he becomes aware of the tendency of objects to accumulate in particular, if surprising, places and in the frame of particular narratives or circumstances. An example: he often works on the laptop whist seated on the sofa. During these times papers, books, crockery and other items accumulate beside him. Growing tired during his work his habit is to clear the items from the sofa and sleep on it. The drifts of books, papers and other stuff right by the sofa are the testament to many such instances.


He remembers, (as a teenager probably although he cannot date it at all precisely) the painful and somehow compromising ‘realisation’ that his father was not everything he’d said or implied he was. He remembers in particular the discomfort of his father pretending to be still quite the hill-walker, mountaineer and cross country runner whereas clearly the most frequent aspect of his physical regimen was the odd round of golf. Or his father’s lack of real or practical knowledge about cars, or other mechanical items, despite his attempts to claim otherwise. And how it seemed at the time that his father must have pretended so much of his knowledge or prowess in these things and that there was something of a betrayal in the pretence, in it all not quite being so – a hurt in the truth that his father was flawed, busking it, ridiculous at times.

And he remembered lodging somewhere in his brain a plan to 'never' do that if he ever had his own kids – to never pretend.

In the years during which his own kids became nine and three respectively he stored this notion in the back of his mind, attempting to live by this rule of ‘never pretend’ as one lives between endless partial pieces of advice and fragmentary contradictory ‘rules’ developed over time. With all this in mind he attempted to be straightforward about his own incompetences; the many deficiencies of his knowledge, skills and abilities. Admitting freely and with a joke: can’t drive, can’t excel or push too hard physically (a heart condition), not too good at maths, hopeless more or less when it comes to household stuff, bad at sports and not even especially interested in them (and so on).

But then, one day, with something of a naive shock he realises that this policy offers only false protection. Clearly the things that his own sons will see through in him won’t be the wiling sacrifices he makes to his own absurdity but rather those self aggrandisements and between-the-lines claims of which he is hardly aware. Indeed the things he lets slip, the secret bricks with which he builds the self he presents to them are precisely those things which in the end they will see through, as teenagers, or before.

He becomes mellowed to this process of being 'found out', understanding that it is inevitable, perhaps - a condition of parenthood. At the same he thinks again about the ridiculous judgement he once made on his own father, who is absurd, as all fathers are, but who acted out of love - busking it and stumbling as he tried to make a car work, or understand foreign currency exchange or any of those activities which somehow reveal most of us in our transparency and unduckable nakedness.

A friend once told me, insisted in fact, that parenting is inevitably a kind of abuse. I think I'd duck that idea, but I could think very definitely that fatherhood is inevitably a kind of failure.

Incomplete Narratives (2)

Angry and distraught at the loss of a particular lover he gathers together many of the items she has given him – books, clothing, cds, pictures. He puts them in a box along with the letters and photographs from and of her. He makes mental lists of other items currently at use in the house and which he thinks ought to be in the box too (presents from her or objects associated with her in any way - including two Sabatier knives, a box of picture pins and a glass vase). The plan is to return these items to her. To erase her from his life and confront her with the evidence of her own flight, leaving her to dispose of the remains; these now poisonous signs, tokens and gifts. He is especially keen to return the art catalogue in which she has written the inscription

“May 2000, for Tim. Because you were there for me in Paris. Hoping that I can be there for you someday too.”

An inscription whose performative emptiness now seems infinite. He debates with himself not whether but rather when exactly and how exactly the items will be returned - together or piece by piece and at what intervals? Above all the timing seems important and he makes plans according to significant dates in their now-ended affair, according to forthcoming dates in her calendar and forthcoming dates in his own. Some of these theories are ‘perfect’ so far as he can make out – ideal opportunities to perform his contempt for this much-promising and quickly-exiting ‘love’ - but always the date goes by without him acting. Time passes. He does not either return the items or unpack the box and return them to the landscape of his life. The box remains in the cupboard accumulating meaninglessness, a set of objects quarantined from the world and destined never to be returned to it but which, nonetheless, he cannot, apparently, throw away. Perhaps the neat closure of returning the items is ugly to him but the destruction of the objects would be ugly too. He’s dogged by the thought that his lack of closure is not strong or determined - it is simply indecisive.

Apologies and Unmade Shows (2)

The apology show improvisations, developing in fits and starts, year in, year out, were detailed explanations of stunts, dances and texts which ‘had not really worked’, miserable and comic accounts of rehearsal injuries, debilitating illnesses, fractious scenes between cast and director, director and composer and actor turned against actor, descriptions of set designs that had proved calamitous, grand schemes of significane and possibility that had collapsed and come to naught. In one sense they imagined that every show they made, every stuck-process, every rehearsal room cycle of debate and problem and solution was leading them in only one direction: the apology show. It might take them twenty years, but in the end they would get there. It would be their monument, a marking of their own idiocy, their own indecision, incompetence. It might take them twenty years, or longer, but in the end they would get there. They’d stand on a large empty stage with nothing but the word SORRY to hide behind.

- Tim Etchells, Sheffield, 2002.

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