Burberry is proud of its flagship store at 121 Regent Street. The fashion brand describes the building as a place where ‘the digital world meets the physical’: it ‘welcomes you to try on clothes in front of a mirror that transforms into a screen’, and ‘members of staff all have iPads at the ready’. The building, called Westmoreland House, was built in 1820. Its various uses since that time tell a potted history of London’s changing economy. It has housed a livery stable, a church, a cinema, an art gallery and finally, inevitably, a shop selling luxury goods. Burberry says that this store, with its dazzling array of hi-tech gadgets designed to boost sales, links ‘heritage with pioneering technology and digital media’.
Similar connections were made in British artist Eloise Hawser’s exhibition ‘Lives on Wire’ at the ICA in London. Solo (2015), a film shot on location in Westmoreland House, was based on a ‘cinema organ’ – a semi-automated musical instrument installed in cinemas to provide soundtracks during the silent movie era – that stands in the shop today, protected by its Grade II preservation status. In Hawser’s film, the camera is almost always moving. It glides past rotating mannequins, latte-coloured high-heels, glass cabinets and trademark Burberry trench coats. We are invited to admire the obsolete organ, ensconced in the arched space beneath two converging stairwells. Beside the video was 1600 Peut (2015), a handful of thick copper cables arranged in a haphazard pile. Resistance (2015) repurposed a mechanism from an old cinema organ to automate the colours of LED lights in the gallery’s ceiling, while a second iteration, Resistance (detail) (2015), presented footage of the mechanism on a wall-mounted bank of LCD screens. As a whole, the exhibition traded on surface rather than depth, luxury sheen over historical inquiry. This was presumably intentional on the artist’s part – channelling the numbing glamour of consumerism and demonstrating how a substantial object such as a cinema organ can, like history itself, be assimilated into the fabric of a brand’s identity – yet it conveyed a sense of profound ambivalence towards its subject. Installation art thrives on the production of atmospheres and moods but ‘Lives on Wire’ was a neutral affair, neither cuttingly critical nor seductively assenting.
The installation emerged from an interest in skeuomorphs: design features that have outlived their functionality yet are retained for decorative reasons. Hawser was born in 1985 and, like the rest of her generation, grew up ambiguously poised between an analogue past and a digital future: she has witnessed the extinction of floppy disks and their on-screen resurrection as the universal icon for ‘Save’. Her work often explores ideas of technological transition by using digital technology to investigate the material world. Sample and Hold (2013), a video work shown contemporaneously at Tate Britain as part of the group show ‘The Weight of Data’, applied 3D modelling equipment to the artist’s father to produce a glassy digital shell from his mortal body. In the work, flesh is presented as a kind of skeuomorph, the discardable basis for an infinitely reproducible, and theoretically immortal, image. Here, digital technology is mobilized to comment on ageing and paternity; in ‘Lives on Wire’, however, her subject was not family but the fashion industry.
As such, it was disappointing not to see a more incisive interrogation of the economics surrounding how ‘heritage’ design features are appropriated by profit-hungry brands. ‘Lives on Wire’ featured a vinyl wall-chart detailing the usage of floor space of the Burberry store – the Wurlitzer organ takes up 5.86 m² in comparison to ‘Cash & Wrap’, which covers 38 m² – yet this felt like a concession to politics; a gesture of awareness rather than a constituent element of a larger inquiry. Westmoreland House is no longer a cinema, yet, with its flashing screens and meticulously orchestrated clothing displays, the Burberry store is still an arena of display. Hawser’s emphasis on surface images resulted in an installation that, at times, appeared to re-present a fashion brand’s idealized self-image. In Solo, shots of glass vitrines housing overpriced clothing alternated with close-ups of the cinema organ. Burberry presents the space similarly in a promotional video on its website.