Elizabeth Price’s solo show at Nottingham Contemporary brings together three new works. Each departs from a moment in late 20th century British history: a period marked by the collapse of the organized Left, the systematic dismantling of union power, and the programmatic reconstitution of the working class.
Entering the first gallery, the walls are papered with monochromatic pinhole photographs of female models from 1970s fashion magazines. The figures are obscured, leaving only their dresses floating, ethereal and strange. A large slatted structure resembling the concertina mechanism of a folding camera divides the room from floor-to-ceiling, while the gallery floor is strewn with sheets of paper stating: “GIVE PRISONERS THE VOTE.” These are scattered like remnants of a flyer campaign or a performance. Bodies are rendered invisible, conspicuous by their absence.
In the adjacent gallery, two moving-image works set in an imagined dystopian future look back upon real-world historical events. ‘KOHL’ (2018) revisits the legacy of post-industrial coal mining. As inverted images of derelict collieries flicker like x-rays, disembodied voices describe how the flooding of abandoned mines connected up the subterranean chambers; mine-water – we learn – represents a potential medium for collective resistance. This struggle appears in the re-emergence of ghostly ‘Visitants’, which bubble up through the concrete foundations of new-builds “like inky spit.” Precisely what ‘Visitants’ are remains unclear, but there is the sense their manifestation embodies the resurfacing of suppressed memories or collective consciousness.
In the neighbouring gallery, ‘FELT TIP’, a six-metre high projection, dwarfs the viewer. A voice announces itself as that of the ‘Administrative Core’, an underclass exploited by higher ‘Executives’ to store data within their own bodies. This collective voice describes the convoluted history of men’s neckties, declaring that changes in decorative motifs during the ‘70s and ‘80s illustrate a shift from the historically-landed to the data-driven. There are echoes of Zamyatin’s 1921 novella ‘We’, which describes a dystopian society governed by rationalism in which humans and objects are indistinguishable, reduced to digital nomenclature.
Speculative fiction’s recent resurgence partly represents an attempt to confront an everyday increasingly mediated by technology. Such fictions can subvert or resist, making historic violence visible through counter-hegemonic narratives. And yet, neither of Price’s videos directly exposes the violence of these past histories. Instead, drawing on market-based forms of digital image production – from pop-videos and adverts to corporate presentations and CGI – Price threatens to collapse these specificities into an ahistorical collage of signs and motifs, a post-modern play of surfaces and effects that mirrors the corporate violence it ostensibly critiques. As a result, the works tread a self-consciously fine line between critical resistance and a recapitulation of the language of the culture industry.
In this light, it’s curious that neither tale leads to destabilizing structural conditions. In ‘KOHL’, the ‘Visitants’ don’t undermine the buildings’ foundations. In ‘FELT TIP’, the ‘Administrators’ fail to overthrow the ‘Executives’; instead, the exploited only achieve resistance by re-knotting their neckties in a different fashion – a style they dub ‘longue tongues.’ Perhaps, ‘FELT TIP’ suggests, in the epoch of Left weakness, resistance must retreat into artistic form, an immanent critique enacted through capitalistic idioms and media.