Social histories and spectral fictions in the films of Elizabeth Price
Social histories and spectral fictions in the films of Elizabeth Price
A friend of Mary Quant, Stanley Picker was a New York-born cosmetics magnate who manufactured make-up with brand names like Outdoor Girl and Miners (slogan: ‘Miners are for moderns!’). Towards the end of the 1960s he built a house, a dream of late Modernism, in a quiet cul-de-sac in Kingston upon Thames, about 12 miles southwest of London. Since Picker’s death in 1982, the house and its collection have been maintained by a trust, which in 2007 appointed Elizabeth Price to the Picker Fellowship. The House of Mr X (2007), the 20-minute video which she made there, is structured – like much of the London-based artist’s film work – as a tour led by an onscreen guide, text flashing up line by line as motion graphics. The narrator entreats the viewer to notice the ‘restrained luxury of the surfaces’, drawing attention to the Tiberian marble, bronze riven slate and polished afromosia floor. Daylight begins to fade and the tour continues. We are led through the deserted house, past a leather Kukkapuro armchair, an Ettore Sottsass marble-topped table, an Achille Castiglione table lamp, a Le Corbusier-Perriand recliner. Modernist imperatives – ‘live without traces’; ‘destroy, in order to create’ – have been forgotten in the house of Mr X. What remains is an eerily pristine, heritage-industry version of mid-century Modernism.
At first our guide seems to be an unusually well-informed estate agent, but narration is never so simple in Price’s work: her initially trustworthy narrators are, like all unreliable narrators, in the habit of giving themselves away. As they become increasingly schizoid, these didactic voices – actually seamless amalgams of different authorities and institutions – reveal their agenda. The narrative voice in The House of Mr X derives from different aspects of a loose archive relating to Stanley Picker’s house: architectural specs, curatorial inventories and details of his cosmetics empire. The measured tones of the archivist are mixed with the fanciful lures of make-up adverts. Flashing over lascivious interior shots, a story of sensual inhabitation is developed as these cosmetics product descriptions – ‘Jacobean shade’, ‘soft-centre candy floss’, ‘starkers glow’ – are gradually applied to the polished finishes of the house itself, as though it were a face. In the final section, following these transformative temptations of ‘pearlise’ and ‘time-machinery’, the viewer is invited to physically blend themselves with the liquid veneers of the house: ‘Make silvery gold & viscous trails / A delightful décor / of lustrous puddles […] To bloom on the lovely surface.’ Price refers to this as a ‘profane denouement’, a transgression of the domestic ideal in that the house itself seems to have quickened into life and ‘inhabits’ the guest.¹ (If this awakening recalls hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s important to know that Price says she approached Picker’s house like a kind of spaceship.)² This sense of a gradual merging – of architecture and viewer (who is both consumer and consumed) – is made more complex by the soundtrack, which in Price’s videos always does significantly more than accompany the visuals: a ten-person choir sings a variation on an excerpt from ‘Mr Blue’ (1959), a gorgeous song by The Fleetwoods. With all recorded choral music, the reverb imprints the acoustic space onto the recording itself; the architecture, as well as the voices, is perceptible. In The House of Mr X, however, the echo is kept to a minimum and the choir that Price commissioned is deliberately inexpressive. We hear the strangely dead-sounding song – a manifold voice that, like the narrator, surrounds or engulfs the viewer – as neither interior nor exterior to the domestic environment, but somehow as an aspect of the imagined space developed by the video.
Price made sculptural work for about 15 years following her mfa at the Royal College of Art in London, but moved gradually from object-driven, process-oriented production to PowerPoint presentations – then later to Final Cut – as a way of bringing together photography and text. While these bodies of work could be seen as discrete, they share an interest in expanding archives, the physical scraps of administration and moribund institutions. (Price’s narrators often ‘speak’ in the Arial font so beloved of local government websites.) The first video that Price made, A Public Lecture and Exhumation (2005), was – like The House of Mr X – produced in the context of a paternalist legacy. This 25-minute work deals with Alexander Chalmers Bequest of around 120 art works given to the London borough of Stoke Newington in 1927. Price both exhumed and added to the archive relating to the bequest, generating new administrative paraphernalia that was added to the original documents. More than appendices, these troublesome additions are intended to corrupt or disturb the extant material, to provide the opportunity to move from social histories to spectral fictions. An odd postscript: every copy of A Public Lecture and Exhumation appears to have been lost, though in this context an unexplained disappearance feels almost fitting.
The narrators in User Group Disco (2009) are endlessly fluent, mangling and mimicking lines from Edgar Allan Poe, management theorist Henry Mintzberg, the Futurist Manifesto (1909) and Theodor Adorno’s essay ‘The Form of the Phonograph Record’ (1934). These borrowings are difficult to attribute, veering quickly from dread-filled reveries and bullet-pointed discussions of technostructures to a visionary, even ecstatic finale: ‘Walk into the shreds of flames / they will not bite into your flesh […] You will understand that You too / are a mere appearance / dreamt by another.’ (The lines are a rewritten version of the final paragraph of Jorge Luis Borges’ 1940 short story ‘The Circular Ruins’.) This strategy of densely patterned accumulation builds one of Price’s central themes – the glut or excess of the last century’s leftovers – into the narrative voice itself. Identifying themselves in onscreen text only as a shadowy ‘We’, the constant malleability of these narrators is part of the threat they seem to pose. They begin to resemble, as one of the lines from Adorno’s essay goes, a ‘missive from the terrible twentieth century’.
User Group Disco is, along with Welcome (The Atrium) (2008), one of the first stages in ‘The New Ruined Institute’, a planned series of propositions for galleries in an unfolding, incomplete museum. They are filled not with Modernist treasures but with unexpected sequences of noirishly lit junk – such as, in the latter video, hubcaps and the gleaming innards of ventilation units. Text flashes up a line at a time, as when the location and date is established in high-tech thrillers. At the beginning of User Group Disco, the committee-like narrators pledge: ‘We shall designate this place […] a Hall of Sculptures / though nothing in it / would really deserve that name / it is littered with rubbish / with all kind of debris.’ Amidst gleaming monochrome and streams of bright motion graphics (‘yes! we are the operating core’), surplus production feels sinisterly rampant. A series of items indicative of the chrome-plated workplace are presented: putting machines, executive toys and revolving tie racks lurch into life, each object placed on a turntable and rotating past the camera. ‘let’s start taxonomising / let’s see where it takes us’ (in red Futura Bold, Barbara Kruger’s font of choice). Why would anyone bother ordering and archiving these ‘accumulated domestic monstrosities’? Selection and categorization are, of course, never neutral activities, and in User Group Disco they prop up the creaking machinations of institutional power. While classification is the subject here, it is not the video’s operation; the narrators, in their eagerness for definitions, are bound to fail, falling short through the mountain of brand-named debris they hope to catalogue.
The soundtrack for User Group Disco, produced by artist Jem Noble, is oppressively loud: it opens with a synthetic beat and a tough synth bassline, moving through a heavily compressed Desmond Dekker song and ends in an absurd, melancholic ‘disco’, the low-rent objects becoming unmoored from their horizontal rotations, pirouetting upwards and seeming to dance to a tinny karaoke backing track for a-ha’s 1984 single ‘Take on Me’. Karaoke depends on presence and participation but – in its literal translation as ‘empty orchestra’ – is also predicated on a mournful kind of absence. In Price’s videos, architectural spaces lie empty (but somehow impeccably maintained), forgotten objects are animated and the voice is always precarious. ‘The Ruined Institute’ comprises an attempt to constitute a flexible container for the excessive production of the 20th century, for what she Price called ‘unredeemed, sensual debris’.³ But the sense remains that these fragments can only ever be partially shored against the narrators’ ruin.
In Price’s videos, technology lurks on the brink of sentience. In December 2002 a cargo vessel, the Tricolor, sank off the southwest coast of England, taking with it its load of 2,862 luxury cars. This area of the channel, known as the West Hinder Traffic Separation Scheme, is uncovered by either French or British radar and lies outside of any state jurisdiction. It’s a blackhole; in legal and surveillance terms, it doesn’t exist. Currently in production, Price’s video West Hinder maps an imagined subaquatic autopia of the Tricolor’s submerged cargo. The cars themselves – BMWs, Audis and Saabs – provide the narrative, their script derived from the fantastically eroticized blurbs and technical specs in dealerships’ brochures (‘A supple environment […] An interplay of convex and concave curves […] cool, sculptural surfaces that recall Modernism’). The traumatic experience of sinking seems to have caused the cars’ repressed memories to surface: they recall the moment of their immersion and gain an atavistic memory of their own production; they try to propel themselves back to the surface. As with User Group Disco, the video will culminate in a dance of sorts, this time based on a synchronized swimming routine by Hollywood director and choreographer Busby Berkeley. The soundtrack is being produced by Brian Reitzell and My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields. The unlikely source is Genesis’ ‘Follow You Follow Me’ (1978), the lyrics of which – as Phil Collins’ songs sometimes do – offer a queasy imbrication of devotion and stalking. The threat is submerged: a ghost ship rises from the depths, bringing with it repressed memories and dealing again with the desires of the deceased.
Shot in a studio and using a small amount of CGI, West Hinder deliberately conflates the underwater location with the medium of video itself: its shifting brine is no more than a pulsing digital tide of compressed and condensed pixels. Price calls the blacked-off space she often films in ‘a subterranean space, a storage space, a data space’.4 From this she has developed a flexibility of scale and a remarkably fluid architecture that can morph from a submerged shipwreck to a fictional museum space. The Tent (2010), which at the time of writing is nearing completion, is also filmed using this method but, remarkably, almost all of the imagery and sound are ‘extracted’ from the slim catalogue for ‘Systems’, a touring exhibition about the Systems group that opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1972. The extremity of Price’s focus here resembles a self-imposed test, probing the end-point of what can be wrung out of source material and represented on video. Pages are rifled through, bleaching and fading, suggestive of spaces rather than surfaces. From the apparently endless material organized in User Group Disco, Price reduces her focus to a single catalogue (institutionally funded and endorsed, it should be added).
In the past 20 years there has been a sustained critical and curatorial interest in the significance of the archive, though the way in which these discussions are angled is now more than familiar. Hal Foster, for example, characterizes the orientation of much of archival art as more ‘institutive’ than ‘destructive’, more ‘legislative’ than ‘transgressive’ (terms he borrows, respectively, from Jacques Derrida and Jeff Wall). 5 In Price’s videos – which work with, as well as produce, archives – such binaries seem problematic to say the least. The legislative is eroticized and made to feel slippery or sensuous, a kind of disturbance that – if it is doomed to never fully refigure the institutional taxonomy – offers a materialist basis for a departure into ghostly fantasies.
1 Conversation with the author 21 July 2010
2 Email to the author 12 August 2010
3 'Mad Love', Elizabeth Price interviewed by Paul O'Neill, Art Monthly 326, May 2009
4 Email to the author 12 August 2010
5 Hal Foster discussing the work of Tacita Dean, Sam Durant and Thomas Hirschhorn in 'The Archival Impulse', October 110 (MIT Press, Cambridge Mass), p.21