Made In China: On consumption, collaboration and the rules of creation.

Written for Exeunt

Made In China’s Tim Cowbury and Jessica Latowicki share their sentences in the same way they are hungrily sharing a piece of quiche during the get-in for We Hope That You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?) at the Battersea Arts Centre. That is, seamlessly and efficiently. Their work is “like a tennis match” a bubbly Latowicki explains, “where we’re just shooting the balls back at each other.”

Since 2009, when the pair were thrown together at Goldsmiths College, Cowbury and Latowicki have been making shows that are at the ‘juncture of playwriting and live art’. Whilst the initiative was a bold move on Goldsmiths part, this successful partnership was the result of a lucky and unique alchemy. “All of the playwrights had to collaborate with all of the performance makers from two different MA courses” Cowbury says while looking wryly at Latowicki “and I think we are the only ones in the history of, however many years that it’s been happening, that’s ended well. Because I think playwrights tend to be scared shitless of the performance artists…” He pauses and Latowicki continues with a laugh: “and the performance artists don’t want other people writing their words down for them. There’s a big fear that if you don’t write your own words it’s not your work anymore. But I was like ‘Oh look! Someone who writes better than I do! Useful.’”

Their relationship works so well because they do not adhere to these prejudices and concerns, instead finding a freedom in the fluidity of their collaboration. Their ability to defy expectation is perhaps one of their strongest talents; it’s interesting how quickly I find myself falling into the standard idea of how their creative backgrounds will define the roles they play within the company; I automatically assume that the structured nature of their work comes from Cowbury’s playwriting background. In actuality nothing could be further from the truth: “It comes more from Jess as a performance artist actually.” “Me!” Latowicki breaks in, “I really like structure. I think that by having a clear structure you can get away with things.”

And Made in China have got away with things. Their work is full of memorable images: a girl on a bike doing circuit training whilst swigging from a bottle of champagne (the breathless, giddy, slightly batty,  Stationary Excess , which gained considerable word-of-mouth success at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe) or performers dousing themselves in flour and slashing ketchup across their jugulars. While often intensely physical, their work is also contemplative in tone, touching on big subjects (in We Hope That You’re Happy, it’s the idea of human empathy). Rules are a necessary part of this process. “You can be really messy, really loud and do apparently quite abstract things,” Cowbury explains, but the rules give the piece shape and help  it to “make more sense.”

Cowbury and Latowicki’s use of rules is in some ways quite an obvious creative tool: they create a scaffold for bigger, more incomplete questions to hang off. “We just use [rules] really blatantly, so when a song comes on you have to do something and when a song stops you have to go back to what you were doing before.” This use of simple repetition makes the audience comfortable: they begin to understand what to expect; it puts both audience and performer in a position of safety, a position from which they can challenge and ask questions.

Whilst their playful and surreal performance style is the very opposite of worthy, at the heart of all of Made In China’s work is a wish to engage their audience in big social and political questions. “If you hit people over the head with them they’ll run a mile basically and we’re just very conscious of that.” They view this as a challenge, something to be conquered. As Cowbury clarifies: “I like to talk about what you do to the audience rather than what you should show them. It sounds quite aggressive but then you see our shows and it’s not. You want to do stuff to them, you want to manipulate them and put them in positions where they’re unsettled. We don’t want to shock but we do want to unsettle and make them question themselves.” Latowicki agrees, but also stresses the accessibility of their work: “If you make people laugh they’ll listen to what you’ve got to say.”

The idea of consumption is central to their new work. “Consuming and being a consumer is a responsibility in our society, it’s bizarre when you think about it but it’s a real responsibility,” Cowbury says. Latowicki is typically more forthright: “Go out support England, buy more shit.”  This point is rammed home in the piece itself as Jess and co-performer Chris Bailey devour ice creams, beers and, perhaps most eerily, as they stare out at their audience, shovelling handfuls of popcorn into their mouths. With its repetitive dance sequences and glitter balls, the piece is designed to catch an audience off-guard, to warm them up, make them relax, before – finally – making them think.

“We’re not geniuses who have something deeply revelatory to say on these things but we just want to open up a space in which these things can be considered as well as people having a good time and laughing,” Cowbury continues, as Latowicki nods in agreement. “Everyone needs to engage in social issues, it can’t be just people at a certain level of intelligence or power.”

After We Hope That You’re Happy where will the company go next, I ask, anticipating an answer about their next show at the National Theatre, which has been inspired by the London riots. Do they have a five year plan?

Latowicki “Well we’d like to make a show with five Davids”

Cowbury “That’s the pinnacle…”

Latowicki “That’s the pinnacle.”

Cowbury “In 2018…the five Davids – David Shrigley, David Bowie…

Latowicki “David Lynch”

Cowbury “David Attenborough”

Latowicki “David um, David Byrne”

Cowbury “The guy from Talking Heads…”

Latowicki “David Byrne.”

Cowbury “Yeah that’s…

Latowicki “And we’d like to make a show with all of them and it’s called Made In China: The Five Davids. So if any of you are reading get in touch with us.”

They grin, clearly playing with me, but I know that if anyone could pull off such a show, it would be these guys, and it would be silly and energetic and thought-provoking and exciting in equal measure. Now who’s got David Shrigley’s number…

Made in China’s We Hope That You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?) is at BAC until 24th March 2012. For tickets and further details, visit the BAC website.

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