When sound was introduced into cinema, the electric theatre organ was made defunct. Once the life-force of the silent screen, the organ became outdated, sometimes left in situ, embedded in the building. Due to the complexity of removing these organs many remain as a reminder of silent cinema’s past and, unlike an outdated piece of hardware, they often still work. Reliant on the technical competence of its user than its technology, there is still life left in many of these old organs.
Eloise Hawser’s exhibition, ‘Lives on Wire’ at the ICA, explores the bodily attributes of a theatre organ and its various afterlives. The title references a passage of text in a silent documentary about the John Compton Organ factory in London with particular reference to the cabling section of the factory, a reference most directly envisaged in Hawser’s work, ‘1600 Peut’ (2015), which consists of oversized stretches of cable on the gallery floor.
The centrepiece of the exhibition, ‘Resistance’ (2015), is a large kinetic sculpture composed from industrial parts and found objects. Its black and rusted metal structure suggests an experimental process of haphazardly soldering discarded mechanisms or junk together. The parts move slowly and purposefully with bobbing armatures and a pulley system powered by a generator, which is visible on the outside of the installation. The machine’s internal workings are left bare for scrutiny.
This theme is further explored by Hawser in ‘Burberry Wurlitzer’ (2015), a film depicting the organ and its comparatively short lifespan in an environment that suggests equal ephemerality – the shop floor. The video scans the space of the shop, rotating and winding through panelled wood corridors. UV light from a screened video of models on a catwalk highlight the space of the shop – an element further emphasised by the statistical dimensions of the shop floor displayed on the opposite wall of the gallery.
The format of ‘Burberry Wurlitzer’ mimics that of split screen in store fashion videos - an effect further replicated in ‘Resistance (detail)’ (2015) where the structure of ‘Resistance’ is projected onto an LED screen split into six parts. The LED panels are displayed alongside the projection further exposing and unravelling the components of different technological formats.
On the floor next to ‘Burberry Wurlitzer’ is ‘1600 Peut’, an installation of piled-up, oversized, copper wiring. Cut at varying lengths they are encased in plastic and visibly dirty. Used-up, chunked, they slouch over each other resembling tired bodies or entrails, brought to life only by the shimmer of iridescent paint highlighting their plastic cases.
The works in this exhibition are stylistically different and dense with formal references to other artworks and periods. They cross-reference each other throughout, referring back to the central theme of outdated technology and the body. This is all brought together by the use of the ICA’s Lower Gallery lighting system, mimicking the ‘attributes of a variable electronic resistor’ – once used to illuminate the organ’s surroundings during performances. The combination of these elements is theoretically and physically immersive – the synching together of Hawser’s expansive exploration into a little-known history with the exhibition space itself.