Elizabeth Price

By Andrew Maerkle

THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979 (2012), HD video installation, 20 min. All images: Courtesy Elizabeth Price and MOTINTERNATIONAL, London and Brussels.

Based in London, Elizabeth Price is known for her multimedia installations incorporating found video footage, images and other archival visual materials with graphic interventions that evoke advertising and propaganda copy and soundtracks that borrow strategies and samples from pop music. Her work, THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979 (2012), which combines an investigation of the choir architecture of medieval churches with a YouTube clip of the 1960s pop group The Shangri-Las singing their 1965 hit, “Out in the Streets,” and archival footage relating to a fire that took place at a Woolworths store in Machester in 1979, was recently on display at the Tokyo Station Gallery in an exhibition of contemporary art from the British Council Collection, “Private Utopia.” As part of the exhibition programming, Price presented an artist talk in Tokyo on January 25. ART iT met with the artist prior to the talk to discuss her practice in greater detail.

“Private Utopia” is currently on view at the Itami City Museum of Art / The Museum of Arts & Crafts, Itami, through May 25, after which it tours through the end of 2014 and the start of 2015 to the Museum of Art, Kochi, and the Okyama Prefectural Museum of Art.


ART iT: In pieces like THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979 (2012), AT THE HOUSE OF MR X (2007) and USER GROUP DISCO (2009), your films seem to invest a fetishistic significance into objects and gestures. How does the fetishistic mechanism operate in your works, and is it intended to unpack the fetishistic gaze that already informs the surrounding media environment?

EP: When I feature an object in the videos, it’s usually an object that has already been extensively photographed. Often I reference an object entirely though the prism of existing photographs. In THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979, 13th- and 14th-century sculptures appear via photographs that were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, archived in the 20th century, and then digitized by me in the 21st century. There is an evident genealogy of people looking at this object through different institutional contexts and using different technologies. Each look at the object invokes a complex politics, of which fetishism is a part. I would not exclude myself from being part of – and complicit in – that history.

ART iT: How does that apply to a work like AT THE HOUSE OF MR X, for example, which initially suggests a detached look at a man’s life through his possessions, but becomes more than that by incorporating the use of advertising copy?

EP: That film features a modernist house, but also various archives of written materials related to that house, which each narrate it differently. I used all of these to write the script. The archives include the architectural specification for the house; an inventory of artworks and design works contained within it, and which it was designed to hold; as well as documents related to the international cosmetics business that had generated the wealth manifest in the collections and architecture. This business included brands such as Mary Quant and Miners, which were the kind of cosmetics I wore when I was a teenager. I recognized the brand names, as well as the rhetoric, and all the things that went along with it. It invoked the social and sexual world of adolescence for me, and it was interesting to me that these narratives or experiences were part of what could be an account of, or for, that house and all of the artworks in it.
So, as we move through the film, we move through these different languages. In the earlier parts there are sections addressing the materials of the house. It’s a beautiful house and every surface is slightly different; it’s very sensually, carefully made. There’s another section addressing the artworks. Then the script increasingly employs the language of cosmetics to describe the art and design works. And of course the language of cosmetics is all sexual innuendo. It’s not just about appearance, as one might expect – but about sensual experience. It’s about skin and touch and the erotic pleasures of visual transformation, of gender performance, of drag.
The materials of makeup, which are liquid, shiny and wet, or powdery and vaporous, are key to these ideas, and so very different to the descriptive language assigned to architecture and the curatorial language associated with the artworks.
I used this polymorphous, sexual, language of mutability – and of the history of makeup itself – as a way to rewrite the house and embellish its elegant but reductive modernist logic.

Top: AT THE HOUSE OF MR X (2007), 
HD video installation, 20 min. Bottom: WEST HINDER (2012), HD video, 22 min.

ART iT: With regard to both fetish and the use of language, I wonder if WEST HINDER (2012), about a shipment of luxury cars that sank to the bottom of the British Channel, is a companion to the treatment of AT THE HOUSE OF MR X?

EP: Definitely. They were developed in similar ways. With WEST HINDER the script was almost entirely derived from advertising copy, although in this case I was trying to get this copy to relate events that were completely foreign to it: a narrative of apocalyptic disaster. The press copy for cars is absurdly, heterosexually masculine: it actually didn’t take much sleight of hand to turn that into something hubristically disastrous. The film relates the story of a shipwreck from 2003 in which a cargo ship bearing 3,000 luxury cars sank in the Channel between the UK and mainland Europe. But it is a fantasy, not a social history, and the cars regain consciousness. They are restless and unreconciled. They think and speak in the language of their own advertising rhetoric, as if it were an atavistic memory of the ideology of their own formulation and production.

ART iT: This question probably comes up frequently for you, but to what extent was JG Ballard’s Crash an influence on the development of WEST HINDER?

EP: Ballard is someone I’ve been interested in throughout all of the films, because of the conviction, in his novels, that through the use of “pulp” or popular genres you can make serious art. He doesn’t make ostentatiously literary writing, although it’s clearly very sophisticated art.
I’ve always been interested in the possibilities of pursuing meaningful artistic objectives through popular forms like pop songs or through the science-fiction disaster narrative or the ghost story. AT THE HOUSE OF MR X is a kind of poltergeist movie. USER GROUP DISCO is an apocalyptic science-fiction movie; THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR… is an “undead” ghost story; WEST HINDER is a disaster movie.

ART iT: Certainly with Crash, there’s a parallel between the way that the technical language of the car becomes sexualized for the narrator and the way that you appropriate it for WEST HINDER. In many of your works, you display an interest in special terminology, manuals and technical language.

EP: Different worlds have their own languages. There are a lot of jokes about international art-speak and how the art world talks – quite rightly, because it talks bizarrely – but that’s not unusual. Cultures have their ways of talking. I also work in academia, which has its own arcane terminologies, too. I guess I’m interested in how these languages intensify around technologies in certain ways, and how all kinds of aspects of what people think about through technology – which includes human relationships, sexual desire – start to get mediated by this very particular cultured language. In the manual for a projector, or the sales release for a car, you will find an incredibly expansive document, which is not just a technical document but also a cultural document about pleasure, comfort, work, endeavor, reward. All these things are being played out. I was struck – fascinated and disturbed – by how extensive, refined and coherent the sales information attached to luxury cars is. It was almost like a total work, a way of understanding and expressing the world through the body of a BMW car: not just sexual desire, but all human relationships and social engagement through the shapely yet impermeable contours of a BMW.

Both: USER GROUP DISCO (2009), HD video installation, 15 min.

ART iT: How do you transfer this technical language, which is more libidinal than we would think it is, into the visual realm?

EP: I do not write a script and then shoot material to illustrate it. I gather visual, textual materials, and sounds, and then start to formulate a narrative from and through these things, in the processes of video editing. In this way everything in the composition affects everything else. I may want to use a particularly obnoxious piece of text, so I might mock it with a melody, or aggrandize it further through graphic design, or both! The work evolves through this alertness to how the elements change each other, what they will extort or repress of each other.

ART iT: In a sense, it’s a reworking of the logic of the television advertisement in which the copy, the image, and the audio are all coordinated to have a specific emotional effect on the viewer.

EP: The components of the pieces I make are at certain points the same as the components of audio-visual advertising, although in fact they are often more straightforwardly related to reprographic advertising like posters, as well as art, such as Pop Art and the Pictures Generation, that has appropriated image and text from advertising. I also make reference to things like academic lectures or corporate Powerpoints and other “persuasive” uses of media.
Indeed, I’m interested in how the combination of image, music and text has complex and divergent histories, rather than a singular provenance. I’m highly conscious when I am working that I am bringing together different cultural and technical histories of sound, image and text. Certain aspects of what I do are derived from the history of film – particularly melodrama – but also I draw on the history of publishing or reprographics, both in terms of advertising, but also political propaganda and the graphic history of protest; as well as all the ways of arguing or persuading through image and narration that come from advertising, or perhaps the pedagogic lecture (which indeed many adverts mimic).
So over the course of the film I can move from something that formally resembles a Powerpoint or corporate presentation to something that feels like a melodrama, or digress into lecture form to talk about architectural history, for example. I’m interested in those migrations. I’m also interested in how this traffic in form already exists in these parallel histories of art, popular academic and corporate history. For example, I would cite conceptual art’s appropriation of modes and aesthetics from social science, and cultural/bureaucratic administration.

ART iT: Do you have an ambivalent relationship to the technology you use? There’s no reason to have a critical viewpoint on Powerpoint in and of itself, but it’s also associated with a particular form of information sharing and ideological apparatus, whether corporate or academic.

EP: Absolutely. Powerpoint originated for use in corporations and is now ubiquitous in academia. I’m very aware of these trajectories of power, and deploy them variously as dark comedy or even tragedy. But, I’m wary of the terminology of “being critical” and “criticality,” not because it isn’t an important history, but it’s too easy to bandy around and so is rather exhausted as a meaningful artistic objective. Many artworks that claim to be critical are actually just proselytizing received wisdom: “We all agree Powerpoint is bad, but let me point it out to you.” What’s the purpose in reiterating a political value upon which there is likely to be consensus? It would seem at the least to be a waste of everyone’s time, and at the worst a pious proof of my/our political virtue.
I’m interested in the exhaustion of critical projects in art, and one reason I use the language of disasters, ghost stories and apocalyptic events is because I think projects such as institutional critique and conceptual art – these politically driven attempts to revolutionize art – have just become style. It is so hard to discern any remaining aggression towards the institutions of art in the continuations of these projects. There is no searing wit. There is no rage or disappointment, no ugly protest, no grief. Just the polite and ponderous rehearsal of the same old moves.
For me, part of the purpose of the fantasy genres I use is to explore the afterlife of these histories. In the ruins of these exhausted critical projects, there might be angry or disconsolate ghosts, and through satire or even sentiment you could maybe summon them up. And also fantasy is a provocative, irreverent riposte to the rather prim vernaculars associated with these projects.
Notwithstanding all this, I do try to make art which does have moments of cognitive, critical address. I seek to reference what is interesting and emancipating in those histories: ways of thinking about what art is and what it does; how our relationship to it is shaped by institutions and technologies.
But along side these objective and analytic episodes, there are others which are affective, sensual and emotional. These incite relations to objects that are not “critical” in attitude. Delight, love, intoxication and euphoria, rather than cool, skepticism take over, for a little while – and all the sensual pleasures of the audio-visual immersion are emphatically deployed to this end.
So in the course of a work, there is a sense of moving in and out of being critical, abandoning it (or it abandoning you) and then returning to it. This seems to me more candid about what it is like to live amidst political, social and technical forces you can barely identify the contours of.

ART iT: To the extent that so-called critical art has become academicized, I think we still need room for the expression of resistance across all facets of culture. In Japan recently we have seen Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party railroad through parliament against popular wishes fascistic policies such as the State Secrets Law, in addition to continuing support for nuclear energy. It seems there is very little hope for opposition. I think this parallels technology and the way it shapes how we communicate and what we think: Powerpoint, iPhoto – all these applications that promise users access to their “innate creativity” also have a very controlling aspect to them.

EP: I completely agree, but I would differentiate certain hermetic preoccupations and manners of art which are largely irrelevant, and indifferent to the wider social politics, in spite of all their apparent rhetoric. My point is that much art that looks or acts like or claims that it’s political, is not – it just looks like it or acts like it or declares it. And this is a rather big problem.
I don’t think my own work as an artist is optimistic, politically speaking, but perhaps its occasional moments of optimism, its short-lived, emancipatory moments relate in part to experiences of making art, and above all the possibility of invention in art, which I experience as intellectually vital and joyous in its radical promise. Outside of this, of which I am the primary beneficiary perhaps, I wouldn’t claim political virtue for my art – but would assert a very keen political attitude and desire.
I think this shapes the social specifics of my work: gender, social class, local or institutional history, generational knowledge – it is the articulation of these things that drives my work much more than a satire of advertising, or an analysis of the commodity fetish. The “commodities” featured in USER GROUP DISCO are a highly particular category of objects within that group. Much like AT THE HOUSE OF MR X, USER GROUP DISCO features luxuries, but these are the derided luxuries of a different social class, and that is a crucial distinction. The camera doesn’t mock them or view them with opprobrium – it delights in them, for a while at least. They are viewed as art, projected on monumental scale – and indeed they manifest the same formal invention, wit and – ultimately, in the final section – misogyny, as more celebrated artifacts do.
Indeed the engagement with technology my work articulates is not abstract or objective, it is rooted in specific, social experience. At the moment digital technologies are clearly transforming all kinds of prior historical materials, and at the moment I think this allows for a slightly disturbed, fluid, place of contingency where these histories can retain vital differences. But I agree it will be short-lived. The impact of the ease at which people can access information and disseminate images does have emancipating potential, but it’s limited, and I think the destination is one of homogenization.


ART iT: This leads me to THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR…, which juxtaposes medieval church architecture with video clips sourced on YouTube. I don’t know how representative it is of your other works, but with this piece it was interesting to note how the three different sections sit together so precisely and yet precariously at the same time. How did you connect the aspects of the choir and the Shangri-Las and the Woolworths fire?

EP: In the beginning I didn’t know that the section about the fire would be included. Indeed, when I started working with the photographs of church architecture, I didn’t even know I would use the Shangri-Las track. What I did know was that I wanted to make a piece about the principles of artistic assembly: how you connect things, how you join two things together. I’m talking literally here, as in sculptural assembly, the idea of something like bricolage wherein separate objects are assembled to make a new thing, another image – but can still be individually distinguished. They are not consumed in the transformation.
In addition to artistic assembly I was also interested in archival assembly, or the assembly of collections: how objects and documents are organized and differentiated. And also social assembly, the assembly of people, or how people assemble.
I started out with all of those things in mind, which is why I started out looking at the architecture of the ecclesiastical choir, because it’s an architecture that defines and organizes community. It comprises a partial enclosure from the rest of the church – from the congregation – for the members of the choir, and then it organizes hierarchical relations between them, through fixed, tiered seating.
The first part of the film is a kind of reiteration of what I found out in my research on church architecture. It uses an archive of 19th- and 20th-century photographs, organized so as to figuratively construct a choir within the video, and to communicate and translate the particular terminologies assigned to it. This was straightforward for me – a communication of the object and culture of the choir, as I found it, which would then be the basis for some action or intervention. Then, during the process of making this section I made a connection between the material with the church architecture and the Shangri-Las.
Separately, I had been repeatedly filming a YouTube clip of the Shangri-Las performing “Out in the Streets.” I tend to work promiscuously, gathering loads of different materials without any initial sense of how I’m going to use them. I had been filming this clip of the Shangri-Las, fascinated by the fact they were doing this somber, enigmatic dance. This included pronounced hand gestures, which didn’t seem to have any relation to the lyrics of the song. What had these meant, what did they, could they mean? At this point I was working with photographs of sepulchral effigies – life-size, recumbent human figures – carved from stone, located on the floor of the choir, all demonstrating a twisting wrist gesture, so similar to that of the Shangri-Las. Moreover this particular gesture was highly significant to the ways in which these sculptures have been narrated and understood – or rather to the story of their ongoing ambiguity. The gesture is intriguing because it is not clear whether the figure is falling into sleep or death, or waking from sleep or death in a state of alert. Moreover it is not certain whether the gesture had any further symbolic value related to the biographies of the particular human subjects being depicted – whether they had died in battle, for example. In my reading, I discovered that one art historian had speculated that perhaps the gesture articulated the emergence of a self-conscious, secular, land-owning class. And it is his description of the figures and the gestures that appears in the script at this point of my film. I was very interested in the suggestion that this gesture was about the emergence into a state of class-consciousness. I decided that I would use this twist as a formal and conceptual pivot for the piece, which would allow me to assemble the human choir, and to move to a different archival source – the Shangri-Las – to do that. In this way it could be a narrative and formal twist, but also a way of binding things together.
That was the basis for putting the whole middle section together, which I then did incredibly quickly. Normally with the films I make about a minute a month, working slowly, but that was like a romp – it even felt like a dance. And then again the wrist was the connection to the third part of the film. This relates the events of the Woolworths Fire, the archive footage of which features a similar gesture. I remembered these images from the news coverage of the event at the time. Indeed, I wondered whether this explained why I was so fascinated by the Shangri-Las’ gesture, because it reminded me of the images of the trapped shop-worker waving out the window. So the piece included three very different bodies of historical material, primarily connected to each other using these images of hand gestures

ART iT: There is an interesting rhyme logic at play in the work, obviously through the substitution of “fire” with “choir” in the title, but also, say, between “choir” and “chair” and “char,” and from “choir” to “quire” to “enquiry”; between “enclosure” and “parclose.” This is in addition to your use of doubled images, while the comments of the fire witnesses also become lyrical: the statement “Smoke was in our eyes” evokes the song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the car-crash ballad genre of 1960s pop music.

EP: In all the films I’m interested in finding multiple manifold connections, through the language, the vocabulary, which then might change and pun, so you get this constant shifting of elements to allow different correspondences, which also operate as counter-forces in the works. I try to build subplots that are contrapuntal to the main plot. In bombastic works like WEST HINDER or USER GROUP DISCO, there are things I try to build suggestively as connections or echoes that move through the piece.
Certainly in THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR… it was about stitching different things together and finding manifold ways that things could echo or reiterate, but slightly differently each time. In the first section we have an architectural choir, and then in the second we have a human choir – an assembly of singers and dancers. They sing and dance, but they also “use” the vocabulary of the architectural choir to describe their dance. This vocabulary is already associated with the imagery of flames, established in the terminology of the architectural form of the “ogee,” which is commonly described as looking like stylized flames. So, the dance of the human choir refers back to the architectural choir, and also prefigures the event of the fire. Indeed, I edited the dance section to be a dramatization of the fire and the escape from it.
In the third section, the fire is explicitly narrated for the first time, using the testimony of the witnesses and escapees, and their gestures are intercut with the gestures of the dancers that we have already seen, which reprise in the order in which they first appeared. So it is the same dance again, albeit very different in mood when explicitly related to the events of the fire. In the final phase of the whole film, the fire is described all over again, but from a forensic rather than experiential perspective. At this point we return to the authoritative, pedagogic form used in the first section dealing with architecture. Other links are made too: the partial enclosure of the furniture storage area in which the fire started is related to the parclose of the architectural choir, and so on.
All the way through, things occur again and again – but always differently and with cumulative import. It looks like there’s a narrative arc established from the building-up of the choir, to the burning down of the shop, but it’s more cyclical. And of course the work is a loop, and short enough to be viewed repeatedly.
I was so preoccupied with echoing and reprising throughout this work – but always slightly differently – to build up a composition like a song of many dissonant parts. At the opening of the work, the narration rather authoritatively declares, “This is a choir.” But then it says, in relation to the same object, “This is a quire.” Then it says that a quire is not only a choir, but also the assembly-fold of a book…and so on…Each assertion is qualified, adapted, or augmented in its echo.

Elizabeth Price: The Ballad of Echo and Narcissus

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