Andrew Tibbles’ Immortal offers participants a chance to leave a message behind to be heard once they can no longer say what they want to say. The subsequent exhibition allows viewers to explore a variety of statements and see to what extent their opinions are shared. Andrew spoke to Talking Heads reporter Kirstyn Smith about the project.

Can you tell us more about Immortal?

It has a couple of different avenues, but the one that’s going to be shown at Summerhall is going to be a performance piece with an installation afterwards. So in it, I’ll be talking one-on-one with people about what they want to be heard once they can no longer say it. I use that terminology because at some points before you die you might not be able to express yourself fluently. So, it’s a little bit longer, but more correct.

We usually start off with me asking: ‘would you want to be immortal?’ and usually people say no, which is always helpful for the piece. At that point, they have to recognise that at some point they do want to die. From that, we progress to: ‘what do you want to exist beyond your death? What kind of things would you want to tell people that you’ve learned? What pieces of advice or memories would you like to leave behind?’ And I help signpost that. I don’t want to direct them in any particular route except for asking them what they want to say. So I try and keep to that because it’s something they can have control over, rather than starting to think about what’s going to happen in the afterlife or life after death. It’s slightly practical, but hopefully it’s a good performance piece as well.

How did you come up with the idea?

My background is in product design and in my honour year degree show, I designed an underwater burial system. I needed lots of help from different scientists to get together and ask a lot of questions: ‘How would it be done?’ ‘Where would be the best place to do it?’ ‘What kind of material would be environmentally friendly?’ ‘What are the ethics of it?’ ‘What’s the best way to degrade a body underwater without damaging the sea environment?’

After I did that, I designed the graves. I needed to put names on them, so I asked people who’d contributed to it if I could use their names and, if they got to visit the graves, what would they want to hear from it? So it was borne out of that kind of thank you.

It was always really interesting to see what people would say, because it really reflects their personality and how they perceive themselves. I worked on the format for a couple of years, working out what’s the best way to draw those kind of feelings out from someone in the most natural way. And that’s going to be the Immortal project. A confession-style booth screen was the best way, I found, to do it. If you leave people alone they don’t know what to say and they panic. If you’re in a group, people piss about and they don’t take anything seriously and they don’t express what they actually feel. Doing a one-on-one, face-to-face didn’t work, because they’re always looking for approval from me. So I built a screen where they knew I was there and I could help their thought process and signpost them, but they could talk a lot more freely.

What kind of things do people say?

Everyone is really different and it does reflect on each personality. Some people will want to talk to a large audience, thinking about their aspirations – what they would like to leave behind is usually on a grand scale. You’ll get other people who are more personal, where they feel their family are integrated into their personal life and they would much rather talk to a couple of individuals rather than a broad societal range. Now and again there’ll be other people who just want to give a small piece of advice that they’ve learned to anyone who will listen.

Do you think as a society we’re capable of changing the way we view death?

I believe we are shifting away from the traditional Christian burials, where it’s all very resting on tradition. The talking about it beforehand is more of an issue. But with things like Death Cafes, which I’ve been helping to run, these kind of neutral spaces really help. They either help solidify someone’s thought path and opinion if they have it already, or people will be very interested in new things and discovering what can happen that they didn’t know about. It’s a bit informative and a bit philosophical; I find those spaces really encouraging. A lot of the time, we tend to fall back on tradition. It’s something that we think about so much that when someone dies, if we’re not prepared, we go for traditional things, rather than anything unorthodox. We wouldn’t fall back onto a natural burial – that would be something the person would have to express beforehand.

What are you hoping people will get out of Immortal?

For the one-on-one piece, the idea of it is that what people record is actually their property, and I’m using it as next-of-kin information that will be passed onto them. So, in that way, it’s a bit of a service, but at the same time I’m hoping they’ll have a clearer reflection on how they’re living their life. You can see death as an end point, so what do you want to achieve by then, and what kind of things do you want to express? It could be professional or personal, or it could be something they’re not quite sure of, but they’ll start to discover it as they’re talking about death as a perspective lens, rather than something that has to happen. It’s looking through the lens of: ‘I will die at some point, so I do have a limited amount of time to do certain things I’d like to do.’ I’m hoping people will have a nice, clean feeling afterwards. That they’ll be able to enjoy their life and be able to look around a bit more.

That first part is where it all happens. The second part is that I’ll ask the people at the time if it’s alright if I use their recordings in the exhibition, with desensitised information. We take out names, dates, locations, anything that could be recognisable to that person. What we’re doing is setting up a speaker with each recording down in one of the basement halls and I’m hoping it’s going to be a general murmur of voices all talking at once, so you’ll not really be able to hear any one of them unless you focus on one of the speakers. You’ll get to hear people’s life aspirations and you’ll get to see if there are any similarities with yourself and how you’re viewing your life, and then you can take a new stock of things.

by Kirstyn Smith


Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death is at Summerhall, 28 Oct-27 Nov. Click here for full listings of the exhibitions, performances and events taking place as part of the festival.