The Assembly Room, 82 Borough Road, London, SE1 1DN, United Kingdom

Elizabeth Price: SLOW DANS

Assembly Room, London

4 September - 25 October 2020

Review by Kirsty White

In ‘FELT TIP’ (2018), the second video in Elizabeth Price’s masterful trio of video works titled, ‘SLOW DANS,’ the narrator describes a near-future corporate realm where workers are employed to store documents in their DNA. After watching it through twice, my boyfriend says: “At first I thought she was just talking about how we are essentially external memory storage for our workplaces - we have to remember so many different bits of information. But then I realised she was being literal, they were actually embedding data into people’s cuticles.” There’s something about this comment that stays with me. All week at work I’ve thought of myself as a person-sized hard drive, storing information for my organisation. It’s helpful at times—hard drives don’t have emotions, they just compute.

All three videos in ‘SLOW DANS’ similarly connect technology and labour to their effect on, and relationship with the body, presenting imagined near-futures or parallel presents. The first, ‘KOHL’ (2018), is a ghost story of sorts; set within the networks of disused tunnels that remain buried beneath Britain’s now dismantled coal mines. While new buildings pave over the shafts, the ghosts of the mining communities seep into the building’s foundations as a black liquid—the tidal water that now floods the tunnels evokes the fatal symptom of miner’s lung disease, “inky spit,” ‘KOHL’ also hints at the meaning of the exhibition’s title ‘SLOW DANS.’ A pair of feet, steeped in black liquid, fleetingly slow dance between the four projection screens that connect one coal mine image to another.

Next is the aforementioned ‘FELT TIP,’ which provides a short, riveting history of men’s neckties and their changing connotations of class and gender. The video is narrated by the enigmatic ‘Administrative Core:’ a chorus of four synthesised voices, who highlight the link between woven ties and computer data storage which both descend from the Jacquard loom (a mechanical loom that uses punched cards to store patterns). The pacing of the video is excellent. Fast-changing imagery and a catchy electronic soundtrack build to a crescendo and then stop abruptly. Silent, the video focuses on black and white close-ups of ties featuring square or rectangular motifs as the words “memory chips” are typed onto the screen. The visual similarity between the two is obvious, the link between executive authority and technological mastery unavoidable.

Last in the cycle is my favourite video, ‘THE TEACHERS’ (2019). This is the story of a higher education committee that stops speaking shortly after forming. Narrated by a group of four academics who dispute the origins and meanings of the group’s self-imposed silence, it is posited that the ambiguous oral sounds and exaggerated gestures they make when they meet are in fact imitations of the shuffling of documents, the clatter of a keyboard and the click of a mouse. ‘THE TEACHERS’ exaggerates the clichés of bureaucracy, so that academic administration becomes nothing more than the pretence of work, rather than the action itself.

The strength of Price’s exhibition is its plausibility. Rooted in the here and now through its imagery of photographic and textile collections, the futures the artist speculates on feel barely an inky footstep away. Indeed, we’re already engaged in many of these activities, albeit in nascent ways. It’s hard not to think with a soundtrack this seductive that these events just may come to pass.

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