Coming out of the Arnolfini you said: ‘It made me think how ridiculous writing is.’
The work in reference was Tim Etchells’s City Changes, a collection of 20 framed pieces of A4 containing an evolving and un-evolving text about a city. After sleeping on it, I still couldn’t decide what this work was really about, so I turned to the authority that is the exhibition guide and searched for their description. Compared with the long paragraph on Etchells’s other work, Untitled (After Violent Incident), 2013, the offering is a little sparse: ‘City Changes is a re-worked text about a city which never changes.’ I wonder if that description is even worse than mine or if no one really knows what is going on here.
The 20 texts are created as variants of one another. They are all essentially the same, be it with three or four paragraphs. The changes executed each time are signalled by a change in font colour. To begin with the colours seem to have obvious significance, blue for c/Conservative tendencies and green for newness. Then this disintegrates, but the brain wants to keep things in order and so continues to think ‘well maybe pink is the colour of craziness’ or burgundy that of stagnation.
In the first five one can also detect a pattern in the political changes described, but this too stops occurring. The texts jump between describing a vegetating cityscape to a politically volatile age and back again. Then two in a row will take the same direction of movement, so that the reader is unable to second guess the next panel. The texts are unsettling because you understand that something is happening, or perhaps nothing is happening, but you can’t entirely describe what. At times he is humorous, with great turns of phrase. I scrawl down my favourites: ‘Couples broke up through a legal process that took all the fun out of their acrimony and misunderstanding’; ‘Acrimony, Anarchy and Misunderstanding were the most popular names for kids’; ‘It was a truly carnal city where eating weird food prepared in new ways became an art form in itself’.
The characters, the structure and the fickleness all remain throughout. Perhaps the exhibition notes are correct, it is ‘about a city which never changes’, we only think that it does in each panel, each age as it were. It evokes the same feeling one gets if you spend too much time watching the BBC Parliament channel. After a while you realize it is all the same, no matter which side is saying it. The entrance of the ridiculous advertisers into events makes the ‘you’re kidding yourself thinking this stuff is truly new’ point more explicit and by the final panel I think I have got the point.
Adding and subtracting, creating and editing an arrangement of 26 letters is all a little farcical. It wouldn’t take much to slide new lines in between even Eliot’s old ones or to rearrange Auden. It is a ridiculous little game of arrangement with something intangible hiding behind it. It is my favourite game and I like it even more when someone does it in pretty colours.