Elizabeth Price’s video works keep you at cyborg distance. They don’t register entirely as the product of human endeavour: more as attempts to make contact from inside the machine, using shards of existing digitized material as means of communication. Deft little works of science fiction, they evoke, whilst never fully explaining, near-future situations that relate to our lived histories.
Kohl and Felt Tip (both 2018) are part of a new trilogy, to be concluded later this year in the artist’s retrospective at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. The films allude obliquely to the industrial and technological changes of the 1980s, and to their social impact. Both works are projected across multiple screens and communicate through text in a retro pixelated font accompanied by keyboard clicks, as if typed using a simple electronic messaging system. (Any suggestion of simplicity here is a slick illusion: indeed, Price’s complex multiple projections refuse to synch up in time for the exhibition’s opening.)
Kohl and Felt Tip occupy the second of two chambers set with floor-to-ceiling shutters and screens. These spaces feel machinic, as though we might be inside a camera. In the first chamber, ghostly figures cover the walls: 1970s fashion silhouettes re-photographed using a pinhole camera. Their fuzzy, spectral presence echoes the indistinct narrators of the two videos: as in Price’s The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012) and K (2015), the stories are told by chorus.
Kohl (the title a play on ‘coal’) describes the appearance of a sinister black liquid, bubbling up ‘like inky spit’ from the depths of newly excavated subterranean structures. Like an alien entity from a Stanisław Lem novel, this dark ooze is referred to as ‘visitants’, as though it possesses social intelligence or purpose.
Above the clattering text, on the upper portion of Kohl’s four screens, dangle upside-down images of mine-head towers, suggesting the unseen architecture of the mines themselves. The influx of ‘visitants’ is likened to groundwater flooding into the mines when collieries were shut down. The typing narrators remember when that water spilled through seams and shafts, connecting one network to another in a ‘big wet grid’. They cite traditional beliefs that this liquid was a medium of communication, relaying sound over great distances. ‘You can have a laugh in Wath at a joke cracked in Ackton,’ an old saying apparently goes.
In Felt Tip, the fiction moves from industry to management, and the narrators speak with robotic voices. Our storytellers rent out space in their DNA for information storage: human interfaces between the data cache and the executive. Files are stored in the lunula – the white crescent at the base of the fingernail. As a group, they fetishize historic forms of soft storage, including the arcane mode of communicating social status by way of the executive necktie.
Felt Tip occupies two long screens, one above the other, down which images of dangling ties occasionally flap. Our narrators offer a brief history of the coded language – emblems denoting allegiance to an elite school, private club or military regiment – by which the old school tie network distinguishes its adherents. They explain that, in the 1980s, the managerial class expanded to include workers outside this network: their high-street neckties echoed the designs of old school ties, but were unreadable, like a form of rogue code.
Price is skilled in constructing inviting surfaces: apparently simple stories, crisply edited percussive sound. Machine-cool the works may be, but not alienating. Once you’re in, they yield deeper oddness and affinities.
Within are themes of exploitation, control and physical damage. In Felt Tip, bodies have become information storage facilities: barely farfetched in an era when wearable tech harvests physical data and algorithms track workflow. The image of ‘inky spit’ in Kohl hints at lungs diseased by coal dust. The subterranean developments in which ‘visitants’ appear are associated with gentrification and the information economy: wine cellars, gyms, car parks and data centres. There is a sense of terrible, sickening damage being done to the body of the earth, and a struggle to ignore it.
Both Kohl and Felt Tip are haunted by outmoded communication: replaced by newer, slicker systems, neither the old networks nor the information they carry disappear. The tunnels and fissures beneath the earth remain in place, as do the watery connections between them. Data is still there, even when no interface exists to retrieve it. It is only when things go horribly wrong that we look back in search of answers.
Elizabeth Price, 'Felt Tip' runs at Nottingham Contemporary until 6 May 2019.
Main image: Elizabeth Price, KOHL (still), 2018. Courtesy: the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam/New York