Elizabeth Price artists profile by Giulia Smith
Elizabeth Price’s latest video, Choir (2011), was premiered this summer at Chisenhale Gallery amongst two scaffolding backdrops and panels of acoustic foam. Yet Choir begins in silence, with black and white reproductions of gothic stalls accompanied by scrolling captions: ‘This is the choir / also known as the quire.’ The video is divided into two distinct parts, of which the first one is dedicated to assembling the choir setting with photographs, virtual renderings and encyclopaedic annotations. Here we find Price’s signature style, a hybrid aesthetic of the informational, modelled on PowerPoint presentations to convey a generic sense of institutional dullness, typical of academic didacticism as much as of corporate instruction kits. Her preference for HD digital video fits this paradigm, given that in its current diffusion it serves navigation, as well as training, advertising, simulation and entertainment. Language too has comparable properties and tends to feature in her work as an automatic, anonymous font of information. ‘The term quire / is also used in bookbinding,’ the text goes on un-ironically. But a satire of the institution hovers in the air - until it explodes with the spectral return of the chorus held in store by chapter two.
Institutionalization is the focal subject of scrutiny for Elizabeth Price. Since her adoption of video at the time of A Public Lecture and Exhumation (2006) - a local history lecture, staged by a committee enacting the bequest of an obsolete public collection left by Alexander Chalmer to the London Borough of Stoke Newington in 1927 and ending with the exhumation of the zombie of the donor - she has developed a distinctive format for writing fictional postscripts to received histories without harking back to the paper world of conceptual art, which in her eyes has lost its credibility. Predictably, the effect of her stories is not so much additive as corrosive to the idea of the institution and the archive.
The taxonomy provides the score for User Group Disco (2009), the second video in the ongoing series titled The New Ruined Institute, for which an imaginary and incomplete museum is built on screen, one video at the time. Following Welcome (The Atrium) (2008), User Group Disco represents the hall of sculptures, a room filled not with artworks but animated by a waltz of found objects rotating as if held by an invisible record player. In homage to the ‘surrealist marvellous’ the gallery is ‘littered with rubbish, with all kind of debris, with strange and miscellaneous fragments.’ Price’s trouvailles are far from cathartic though, and the avant-garde’s implicit ideal of redemption through art is reduced to dark comedy. A pornography of the inert is staged (slick surfaces immortalized in lush black and white close-ups) only to emphasize the inescapable analogy with advertisement and commodity fetishism. By extension, the museum is reconfigured as arbitrary, possibly absurd, but persuasive taxonomy in relation to which the audience is at once consumer and consumed.
Ironically in User Group Disco the user group is absent, symbolically displaced by its objects of desire in a demonic production line without the workers. ‘YES / WE ARE THE OPERATING CORE / THE MIDDLE LINE / AND THE TECHNO STRUCTURE.’ But ‘we’ is only the anonymous, collective, yet disembodied subject of the institution. Price always resorts to a bricolage of multiple voices in her videos; it prevents her from perpetrating authority even while mimicking its ways. Sound, like text, serves a polyphonic approach. It has already become routine to state that with Price soundtracks are more then just musical accompaniment (which they always are anyway, of which she is quite aware). But it is always worth emphasizing her fine ear for singling out connections across the jargons of pop culture. The soundtrack of User Group Disco, for example, climaxes with ‘Take On Me’ by A-Ha, a hit that by nature of its quintessentially 1980s sound intensifies the pervasive sense of commercial bonanza. Icing on the cake, in the original video clip a girl falls in love with a comic strip hero, another subtle layer in the assimilation of animate and inanimate.
The book is one of the earliest means of institutionalization and it too is used as a disembodied personage, not unlike the committee. The Tent (2010) takes as its sole visual and conceptual resource Systems (1972), the catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the eponymous British group and a record of conceptualism religiously reduced to ideographic utopia. The camera turns Systems into a self-contained three-dimensional environment that takes its cue from ‘the tent,’ a futuristic habitat designed by James Moyes and documented inside the book. The tent was a model of hermetic social enclosure, conceived for the experience of intense white light and white noise; ideological and plastic at once, it occupied a place where sci-fi disquiet and hippiesque mirage coincide with a patronizing proposal for total control. Reproducing this sense of dangerous excess, Elizabeth Price presents a screen overexposed in whiteness, almost as though the ideal was being bleached out.
To an extent, The Tent is a tribute to the extreme dedication Systems bears testimony to. The same single-mindedness, however, is also parodied in a critique of art-as-enclave, with the artist lost in barren calculations. Irony of fate, at one point white noise is disturbed by the Buzzcocks with ‘Boredom,’ coincidentally broadcast on the radio while Price was recording. Released five years after Systems, ‘Boredom’ brings inside the tent the punk alter ego of 1970s Britain. It is quintessential pisstake, says Price with an excited smile. It is spleen and sarcasm, climaxing in a strident, minimalist guitar solo performed with only two notes. Literally as well as figuratively, ‘Boredom’ plays outside the tent. In fact, it creates an exterior where acoustic reductivism is a vehicle of aggression against middle-class values, against formalist intellectualism and - at least under the circumstances of a fictional encounter on tape - against its ultimate fantasy: a tent.
Groups and groupings have always played an important part in Price’s work. Recently she has shifted her focus, from sociality between inanimate collections of uncanny objects (Price’s trademark to the eyes of many) to something more explicitly social. Choir in particular stars the chorus as an embodied, female agent. Although gender is not the focus here (like class, it is a function of the institution) Price formulates a powerful version of the feminine, indebted in her imagination to a long list of noisy female bands. Indeed, it is something of a badass ladies’ gang that takes over in the second part of the video, dancing to the sound of ‘Out In the Streets’ by the Shangri-Las. The transition from medieval architecture is intentionally abrupt, for now Price seeks to deinstitutionalize her own style by resorting to the heterogeneity of pop video. Even so, on a symbolic level the first chapter ends in anticipation of the second: we see tomb effigies of petrified cavaliers holding their swords half out of the scabbards, an enigmatic gesture that might signify alertness or repose, either way, a solemn sign of kinship.
Then music breaks through and an explosive montage starts rolling in colour. From found footage of dance floors in miniskirt to a shouting activist, an imaginary choreography is put together to accompany the American quartet. ‘We are threefold’we are quatrifold’ chants the text in a nonsensical etymological conflation of sacred marble foliage, bookbinding of quires and female limbs. The chorus is ready and awaits part three (in the making) for a drama to unfold. Its voice has the inebriating effect of a sudden reversal of fate. Finally, ‘we’ is on display. Its body extends toward the audience: a gentle punch in the stomach, collective response to the sound of a hit. ‘I have always felt that music was more accessible than art’, says the artist, confirming the intuition that something subversive might happen after the chorus starts singing. ‘I want my videos to be played loud,’ she concludes.