The world held its breath, watching two suited white men compete for the title of the USA President 2020. Repeating the narrative of choosing between bad and worse is as worn-out as the looping song of the socially under-privileged, the lament of zero-hour contractees, and the breathless ballad of feminists. Now that air has re-entered our lungs and everything begins to recalibrate, will the lyrics of history continue to be written with an old hand?
Last week, Fugitive Voices hosted a second guest: the Turner Prize-winning media artist, ex pop-singer and provocatrice Elizabeth Price, who persistently plays the minor key of “worn out and uncool” subjects like sexism and class. Much of the conversation revolved around her exhibition Slow Dans, in which three multi-screen videos—Kohl, Felt Tip and The Teachers—featured archival material from the National Coal Mining Museum and her own extensive collection of men’s ties. Elizabeth became interested in how the emblem of the tie alluded to a social memory, and how in the mid 1970’s-80’s, heritage crests on ties were replaced with imagery which alluded to technological memory, or the capacity for memory. This apophenic reading of minimal, geometric tie-patterns as microchips professed a technological revolution, which would rewrite the history of coal-mining. However, apart from the extraordinary collection of tacky, BIC-swinging ties, little else about the montaged attire fitted the old-fashioned norm. Ghostly negatives of coal mining complexes hung upside-down from the “ceiling” of the screens, accompanied by a typed myth about an underground network of water spills and inky spits, occasionally interrupted by flashes of hairy, stillettoed (women’s?) legs authoritatively turning on their heels. Flinging puns and euphemisms like “floppy disk, sloppy state”, the narrators (to whom the hairy legs might belong) criticise and laugh at the “administrators” by hijacking the syntax of the inventory that defines the managerial class.
“The narrators claim the memory chips, and decide that they are going to use them as a record of their own experience,” Elizabeth Price tells Film and Video Umbrella in 2018. The artist was inspired by a second-hand book on Sexuality & Class Struggle (1969), where, in response to its Marxist views that still privilege men, an unknown reader (probably female) had scribbled commentary all over with a purple felt tip. Her argumentative and even petty tone of voice is what seems to reverberate through the narrating choir of Felt Tip. I recalled my own unedited response to Slow Dans watching it at Artangel the Sunday earlier. Laugh out loud moments also triggered flashbacks to scribbling away in my notebook during corporate meetings, inflicting violence onto the page in order to suppress my desire to fling the pen across the room.
The artist’s Anglo-Catholic upbringing and a stint in an indie band, Talulah Gosh, reverberate through the filmic fabric of Slow Dans (2020) and The Woolworths Choir Of 1979 (2012) as gothic hymns and choral unisons. Elizabeth noted that she wasn’t performing her Catholic background, although she admitted that the textured voices are sediments of the past. She shared how creating the witty, computerised choir in Slow Dans felt like rehearsing her own terror of being spoken to by institutions and bosses, and “finding analogs and proxies for how these voices might speak”. Price insists that a document of trauma can and should be experimental, however she cautions taking this risk without deference: “I don’t have a presumption to be entitled to speak about it, or exercise disrespect for which there is no institutional basis.” Woolworths Choir Of 1979 (2012) uses the “concentric arrangement of the choir to the traumatic event” to echo a sinister pattern of victim demographic killed in the fire at the Woolworths department store in Manchester in 1979—working class females. Most voices never had the platform of archives, and could neither hold weight nor authority of a published document. “When traumatic experiences cannot be expressed or acknowledged to the record, they are carried in the person. It is both amazing and terrifying how long and enduring these memories are. They are silently carried.” Reading between the laughs, Elizabeth’s chorus is acting out grief. “The chorus opens the way”, declares Saidiya Hartman in the final chapter of Wayward Lives, which pieces together voices of everyday black women living between Reconstruction and Harlem Renaissance. Both artists acknowledge how collective voicing to the record paves the way to healing trauma.
Before Elizabeth joined the Q&A Zoom session in person, the class watched a pre-recorded tutorial in which she had unpacked and generously shared the process behind making Slow Dans. And yet, her voice somehow seemed to echo the narrators of Felt Tip: speaking so clearly as an educator, was she poking fun at the institutional format of a lecture? Like blue collar conforming to the visual codes of white collar (or the white cube), teachers too have institutional standards to meet and a reputation to uphold. She confesses catching herself inhabiting a new voice when talking to colleagues, and thinking: “Why am I not talking how I talk? Why am I not being how I am with friends?” What immediately sprung to mind was a dystopian piece of advice I once overheard given out by a senior manager, “If you learn to talk less street, you might get the job”, and my own experience as an immigrant child, learning to mirror the social class and the institutional-speak that surrounded me, whilst erasing my own. In turn, this mimicry translates into a negotiation with institutions.
During the Q&A, Elizabeth described her career in academia as “a love-hate relationship”. This state of tearing between “a sense of love and responsibility for what we do and a profound level of internalisation and suppressed rage” is a fracture many academics today experience. “I sometimes have to rehearse the humiliation and violence in my head.” Looking around in academic round-table meetings, Elizabeth catches herself thinking: “Does it have to be so desiccated?” Vis-a-vis speaking into the dry, institutional silence that Ifeanyi Awachie talked about a few weeks ago, Elizabeth felt that absurd situations deserve to be treated with a profane reaction, and often wondered at which point she should stand on a table and “show her bare arse” in one of these meetings. “I get a psychic relief from a joke: humour is not a lesser form of observation; it sends waves.” Her process of making videos, like humour, is fluid, non-reductive, and unfinished—she adds bad jokes, lives with them for a bit, and then sifts and takes them away. Video bricolage is a good medium for gathering lots of material, and “wrestling” with it in editing software.
Responding to the shared feeling of exasperation, teachers and students alike joined the discussion, and we felt real heat from the passion in a virtual room. The amplified voices gracefully digressed and devolved the conversation. This felt like an exercise in dismantling the formalised rhetoric and unwinding the layers of academic-speak right down to the raw, rude rage. Meanwhile foul-mouth language joined the Zoom-chamber grievance orchestra, this felt like much more than complaining. Loosening our ties, we could finally address the subject of fugitivity directly, and even strip it down to the flesh of: why do we make art? What do we, as artists and designers working on the peripheries of the art world, have the power to communicate? Elizabeth notes that students often under-appreciate the importance of bringing their own subject matters and “parochial histories” to art spaces, whilst she believed that art’s primordial function is to memorialise: “the closer you are to trauma, the more profound your reaction will be”. It became clear that Elizabeth’s narrators of Slow Dans “ventriloquise” her own voice. It felt equally important to memorialise this moment in time, as the artist agreed that it was possible that, as time goes by, her work will lose an autobiographical account, and become a more detached institutional critique.
Art is not just an outlet for the feelings that you can’t pray away or bury—it is a means of escape from the vices of the canon. But what about the administrators? What about “the art world”? Here, Elizabeth’s friend Lucy Clout’s reply seems very fitting: “The art world? There are 19 people in it—your 19 friends.” Speak to your collective of friends, not to globalised institutions. Whilst the institutions are busy trimming bushes, Elizabeth invites you to “unprune yourself”. Transgress in any medium that works for you; find your way to articulate, express, shout and provoke, use the texture of your voice(s). Tell bad jokes. Whether you vote polka dot or stripes, don’t decolonise the institution—fuck it.
Maya Gulieva’s unpruned response to Elizabeth Price’s talk, kindly edited by Kelly Macbeth Mackay and Laura Gordon.