Elizabeth Price is a London-based, Turner Prize–winning artist whose first commission for a US museum premiered at the Walker in December 2018. Her exhibition features two new moving image works—FELT TIP and KOHL (both 2018)—that each took as their departing point the architecture and history of the Perlman Gallery. In this interview, Price speaks with Walker curator Pavel Pyś about her new works through the lens of the Walker’s architecture, the sexualized symbolism of men’s neckties, and the #MeToo movement.
PAVEL PYŚ (PP)
I would like to start with the materials that were crucial in conceiving of the work and materials that are referenced in the work. Maybe we could start first with FELT TIP, the related book Sexuality and Class Struggle (1968) by Reimut Reiche, and the collection of men’s neck ties that you started collecting 15 years ago. How did you become interested in these objects?
ELIZABETH PRICE (EP)
I collect lots of things in the hope that they may be part of an art work but which never get used—or, at least, haven’t been so far. What I’m looking for is not a single subject or material that interests me sufficiently, but a way to connect one thing with another. And the objects can’t be united by an obvious shared history: they have to be things that don’t already have a profound or established relationship. So I gather things, in waiting, in the hope of finding another thing that might connect to it in unexpected and reciprocally revealing ways.
As you’ve said, the key connection that led to FELT TIP is between a collection of neck ties from the ’70s and ’80s and the book you mention—or, rather, a particular volume of that book, annotated throughout by a previous reader (unknown to me) in purple felt tip.
She—and I’m convinced it is a she—corrects the text, queries it, and points out its omissions, which in terms of female sexualities, are significant! Her commentary is skeptical, humorous, polemic, and poetic. On the final flyleaf of the book she writes: “a strange mixture of life and death. The sun shines onto her cunt.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but its imagery had a radical impact on the experience of reading the book.
Also, I loved the fact that her supplementary text is made in purple felt tip. Such a brilliantly witty and sensual gesture, with an insolence and a kind of vulgarity to it, a sexual bravado maybe, in taking on some of the puritanical and paternalistic aspects of the text.
Now, in terms of the ties: my interest in them was partly to do with their general symbolism, of masculine executive authority. Ties are not simply phallic, they echo the pen-nib itself, signifying the way executive labor expresses its power: through writing. And I collected these ties, in particular, because they all include patterning and imagery that seems to relate to systems of data transmission and storage—emergent technologies at the time, which were altering the nature of administrative and executive work.
So FELT TIP emerges out of the convergence of these two things: thinking of the tie as a pen (related to writing, authority, memory, hegemony) being imagined as a different kind of pen (a soft felt tip that writes differently with other kinds of social and sexual knowledge), which is only possible to imagine because of the witty FELT TIP supplement in the Reiche book.
The materials that you gather often relate to institutional cultures of collecting and knowledge making through processes such as organizing and cataloging, creating a particular claim for the material. But then others, like the ties and the book, come from more happenstance encounters through looking through secondhand shops.
I’ve always been interested in marginal material and minor social histories. So although I’ve worked with a range of collections from the celebrated to the obscure and informal, I do end up identifying “minor” objects, even in “major” contexts. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has an extraordinary collection, which was great to have access to while I developed A RESTORATION (2016), but tricky to use. So, rather than work with this collection, I decided to work at one remove from it, with images—photographs, drawings and prints—that had been made in the course of collecting, excavating and curating the primary collection.
My preoccupation with processes of collecting or a categorizing is generally focused on the porous boundaries and liminal spaces of any taxonomic system. Because however rational and idealized the organizing principles of a category may be in abstraction, they are always a mess in fact, full of anomalies and absurdities.
And when I collect objects myself I will tend to seek groups that possess hybrid, overlapping or excessive characteristics and functions—hence, ties with computer imagery in FELT TIP or ashtrays and spoon-rests featuring sexualized images of young women in USER GROUP DISCO (2009). These things are hard to categorize because they are full of chaotic meaning, whilst being of derogated significance and low economic value. This makes them available for interpretation in really interesting ways.
You mentioned that you don’t start off by making a script for the work. Instead you drag lots of imagery onto the timeline, and then you start collaging it together. In the case of the collection of photographs of coal mines taken by Albert Walker, did you go to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield to look at these, already knowing that they would become an artwork, or do you pursue research that might become an artwork or might not?
In that instance I went to the Coal Mining Museum wanting to make an artwork, or at least entertaining the prospect of making an artwork, about coal mines, and I was amazed to find that collection, which subsequently drove the whole process.
But in other instances, such as The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012), my preoccupation with the Shangri-La’s hand gesture (as seen in their music video for “Out In the Streets” (1965) was something that I had no idea of ending up in an artwork. I was so interested in the gesture, but I couldn’t quite imagine how I could make an artwork about it. I didn’t know what it meant. I suppose that was my interest in it. But because I piled it up on the timeline, along with loads of other things, I found a way to make a sense of it through the connective process of editing.
I think this also relates to my attitude to archival materials. I’m not interested in just doing cultural history. I want the cultural history of the materials to have some expression in the work, certainly, but that is not the point of the work or of using the material. I’m looking for a way to make the materials mean something else, as well, in addition. I’m looking to supplement the historic meaning. And that’s why stacking up materials in the edit is so important. Through this promiscuous and disorganizing approach I have a chance to discover relationships between things that will augment their existing meanings. So in FELT TIP, for, example I tell a political, social history of the ties within the piece, but I also try to get them to mean something else, in addition to that history.
By relating them to the felt-tip pen, I try to propose a notion of authorship defined by a female erotic, invoking the tongue and the clitoris. This is obviously part parody of the phallic symbolism of the tie. But also more. I want to use them to raise the notion of a female sexual history of the office, which includes some emancipation and freedom of expression, of course, but also loads of abuse. This history has little record, so I try to get the ties (as symbols of the pen and of memory) to bear that burden.
Your works frequently begins with setting up an architectural space in which a narrative unfolds. Often that space is defined by the narratives that you’re already looking at, but for FELT TIP you’ve constructed an executive space which is entirely fabricated, furnished and with a few items strewn across a desk, such as Sexuality and Class Struggle and Office Girls. How did you create this imagined space?
I suppose it was partly influenced by the images of the old director’s office here at the Walker which used to be located in the upper level of the Perlman Gallery, where the CGI image of the office in FELT TIP is actually projected. So, to some extent, it is still related to a specific architectural/institutional context, just one that doesn’t exist anymore.
Also, the architecture of the Walker influenced the definition of the lower space, too. I was fascinated to discover that the Walker collection is held below the galleries, in subterranean spaces. This really shaped the start of my thinking about the two projections and the relative spaces they depict—the lower one being related to matter, the body, waste, the subconscious, the computer cache, and the upper being related to executive authority, the computer desktop, language etc.
So you were looking at images of our offices?
Yeah. I took one away from-
From our visit with Jill Vuchetich, our Head of Archives.
Yeah, those photos are really great! The offices are stylish: they have clean lines, empty surfaces, suggesting rational, maybe slightly austere order.
There’s also a wonderful photograph of the Walker Art Center Information Desk, taken as some point in the mid-1950s. The image shows a woman sitting at the almost entirely empty desk.
It’s extraordinary—the frozen tundra of that desk. A sheet of ice! Just think of the necessary repression. Maybe that’s what triggered the work?
And we view the office in FELT TIP on the eye-line of the desk. The surface of the desktop is the threshold between the repressed, messy stuff and the ideal of order. But the office I created is not stylish! It’s based on the ubiquitous office of academia, and I guess that’s the kind of executive work I’m thinking of.
FELT TIP and KOHL are two parts of a trilogy. The third, unfinished work will be called txtʃərz, the phonetic transcription for “teachers.” Can you describe the trilogy and the interrelatedness of the three works?
FELT TIP is conceived as the central mapping work. In this we encounter the narrators and the geography of the three works, which takes place on two levels, a subterranean level of matter and storage and an elevated level of executive order. And using the two projections we see both of these all the time, as if viewing the cross-section of a building: like a basement and a ground floor. So, FELT TIP runs vertically between the two strata, includes them both, and describes the nature of both. Whereas the first work in the series, KOHL, is only located in the subterranean, and the last, forthcoming work, txtʃərz, is only located in the executive section.
KOHL is concerned with manual or industrial work, so a connection is made between subterranean architectures, the cache of the computer, the geological origins of coal mining, including the ancient buried carboniferous swamps. And this latter, the swamp, is also perhaps a metaphor for an irrational, unconscious realm. Meanwhile, the upper space is a space of language, of executive authority, a kind of clean space.
Through the three pieces I wanted to move from manual work in an industrial context through administrative work (in FELT TIP) through to executive work or so-called thinking work.
I decided to situate this final part within the realm of academia. This doesn’t really matter at this stage, but I conceive all the narrators of FELT TIP as being administrators in some kind of corporatized academic institution.
There is imagery that is shared among the works: both FELT TIP and KOHL show the movement of the legs, the twirling and movement of the ferns. How important has it been for you to use that shared imagery to tie the works together?
I wanted to create the sense of these different locations and strata but also the possibility of images migrating from one to the other. I’m always interested in a sort of heterogeneity or a porosity of categories.
So the hairy legs travel from one place to another and, to some extent, they stand for the narrators, moving through the spaces of the work, telling us about them, connecting different materials, etc. I also want the movement of images between the spaces to convey the sense of the influence of the flows of work and of the forces at play within the whole trilogy.
I guess I always think of a projection “screen” as a kind of figurative space. It always acts a category or a location for me—a place in which images are put, are held—and so I guess the way in which imagery moves between the work speaks in the first instance to the sense that always I’m interested in how materials might migrate between different contexts and categories. The ferns are used to indicate the geological origin of coal in the carboniferous swamps, but they also elude to the flooding of the coal mine architectures that occurs after the mine is abandoned. I also use that dark swampy imagery to signify an unconscious realm. And the forms of the ferns, which are rather stylized in the work, also echo the shape and the patterning of the ties, but inverted, upside down.
These ferns are also used to create a drifting, listless image that holds the screen, say of KOHL, while FELT TIP is playing. They act as a kind of screen saver, indicating a kind of computer sleep.
And you know, I’ve been talking about dragging loads of clips onto the timeline, but they’re never really located on the timeline. What I drag onto the timeline is a proxy for the clip and an instruction for the software to go and find it in the cache. They’re always still in the cache.
When the cursor runs along the timeline it triggers that process. It finds the clips and plays them—wakes them up and they become visible.
Pulls them forth?
Exactly. They always remain organized in the file system of the computer, completely unchanged. I suppose the ferns in that context, then, speak to this idea of this residue of latent information. A kind of sleepy, dark space of stuff which may be disturbed and enlivened.
You have described your narrators as “likely female.” In FELT TIP, I was struck by their sense of humor: they satirize the ties and, by extension, their wearers. I was also struck by how relevant FELT TIP feels today, given the narrators’ recollection of a long, long memory of workplace relations. FELT TIP gathers a salience at a time of the #MeToo movement.
Well, yes. The ties I use in FELT TIP were originally worn to symbolize the long memory of male power. The images of computer chips woven into them occupy the precise place in the design, previously held by a crest or insignia. These crests would indicate your social provenance: aristocratic family or elite school, etc. So the crest was used to remind you that the wearer comes from longstanding institutional power.
The chips supplanted this symbol with a sign for memory capacity instead. Data memory capacity is available for any kind of information, of course. So, this seemed to suggest the possibilities of other memories, other social experience, being inscribed in the long memory of the tie.
This makes sense in terms of a widening of the managerial demographic to include working- and lower-middle–class men. But of course, in being rooted in exclusively male dress, the suggestion of this memory capacity being extended did not reach women. And that was the purpose of the work, for me, to make the ties speak and write the memory and experience of women. I wanted to insinuate a gendered sexual history of the office—what going to work meant for women, in terms of access to platforms of representation, economic independence, certain social and sexual freedoms.
So, it was always serious. But ties are funny, right? Lots of jokes to be had. So it started out being a comic endeavor and was conceived as a satiric work. I devised this dramatic chorus of funny, sarcastic administrators who are probably, mainly female, and they have a certain kind of attitude. One of the ways I imagine them is as the backing singers in a girl group. They have a certain kind of personality for me…
Describing them as an “ADMINISTRATIVE CORE” relates back to the idea of the narrators as backing vocals of a girl ban. They’re not the main protagonist but are instead in the background, not fully empowered.
They’re commenting on, they’re an aside, they’re something in the margin, they’re like the FELT TIP author. It’s a supplement. It’s as if they’re clapping in the background, or they’re saying “yes” or “uh-huh” in the “call and answer” form of the girl group—but sarcastically!
They are always having a laugh, when they do this, always mocking. When they finally shift from mirth and mockery to anger and despair they say, “NO!” And that shift of tone is probably related to things that happened while I was making the work.
I mean #MeToo wasn’t news for women. We already knew this stuff on a personal and a local level. But, it was extraordinary to witness the coalescing of all these private and local experiences. They all emerged together and, for the first time, a historical record of the shared experience was created. One of my own impressions of that process was the palpable sense of the long, long memory of injustice. Even though these experiences did not have a means of expression at the time, or any route to justice, they didn’t go away. Of course they didn’t! From the minor injury to the major trauma, they were remembered over decades. Because it’s hard to forget.
So, in the final stages of making the work the significance of the idea of a long memory of the office crystallized for me. I wanted to détourné the ties’ symbolism of a long, long memory—to imagine it could be made to remind you, to warn of a different set of memories being carried round. I suppose it started out as a satire, and it ended up as something where there was an emotional revelation, a release. in the course of making the film, which changed its tone.
I think the work manages to strike both tones. You have described your narrator or chorus in relation to the backing vocals of a girl band, in relation to administrators. But, they are also synthetic and you think of them as being disembodied? That’s an interesting duality—to describe them as people, as the backing vocals of a girl group, but also as nonphysical things.
Yeah. I think it’s important that they are heterogeneous, they’re made up of many things. They don’t exist in any embodied way. They speak in synthetic voice, are visualized only in CGI. Their attitude is expressed in the graphics as well as the synthetic voice, and also in the percussion and the music. So, I think of them being made up of these attributes.
But, as I put those attributes together, I’m trying to create a relatively coherent, but slightly disorderly, entity. Its probably mainly female: a deliberately, muddy category.
There has been a shift in your work, in terms of how you work with language, which is that your earlier work very strongly pulled from existing language that you would appropriate and manipulate. Then, in recent years, you have started writing the scripts yourself from scratch. The scripts might reference literature or a particular style of writing, but less directly as in the case of works such as USER GROUP DISCO. How did you approach the writing of the scripts for FELT TIP and KOHL?
Well, in FELT TIP the process of making that script felt very lively to me, and it emerged quickly through the process of editing, as I’ve described.
Before I started, I did have some subjects I wanted to address: specifically, the impending data storage crisis and the confusion that exists around branding like “The Cloud,” which persuades you to believe that data storage has dematerialized, when it’s just been moved out of sight. There is still a literal hard drive; it’s just somewhere else. And because the literal resources necessary for this hardware are limited, while the demands for storage are increasing exponentially, a crisis is looming. One possible solution is to store digital information in DNA. This has been done. But, it’s still too expensive for commercial applications.
Along with thinking about that, and about increased mechanization and the current uses of implantable chips to surveil employees’ use of time, I decided to develop a futurological fiction in which administrators were employed primarily to be the physical mules for huge amount of data they didn’t own and, in some cases, couldn’t access.
But there was never a whole written script that existed prior to it being composed, sentence by sentence, through the text-to-voice software. It was written right into the voice, to hear how it was enunciated. The main voice in FELT TIP is a younger female. I mean, it’s a synthetic voice, but they’re categorized by age, for example, and it’s described as a young woman’s voice, of 21 years.
I use science or ghost fiction as a structural tool to allow an accelerated move from one category of knowledge to another. What I mean by this, is that all fiction is promiscuous, right, in the way you can have many kinds of things in a story: things can be discovered, surprises happen, arrivals, events etc. Obviously this scope is even wider in supernatural fiction, where you can break laws of science, not just probability. So, the science-fiction story allows me to raise certain subject matters but not to be limited to them, to connect them to other ones, weirdly or inventively. To some extent the story doesn’t matter in my films. It’s a sort of MacGuffin. It’s not what the work is for, but it’s a medium used to hold very different things within it. It offers an initial connective rationale: it gets the different things into a single world for a few minutes so we can think of them together. I think of it as a kind of conceptual glue, a form of assembly, of collage.
So I use the story as a way of connecting elements and making those elements available to the imagination of the viewer. The first time they watch it, they hear the story. The second time they watch it, they know the story and that’s when something else happens.
FELT TIP was co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Nottingham Contemporary, and Film and Video Umbrella, and to create the work you collaborated with Spencer Fenton, who designed the font; Andrew Dickens. who you worked with on the music; Anne Haaning and Gabriel Stones, who created the CGI; and Rose Goddard, who created the physical props, recorded the live sound, etc.
It was a great process. When I first spoke to Film and Video Umbrella, they said, “Oh, we really encourage people to do new things,” Generally what that means is a more elaborate production: multi-camera or something, and I’m really not interested in that. So I went away thinking, “What am I going do to take on this really generous invitation to do something different, in a way that’s meaningful to me?” The thing I came back with was to work with typography, to create a specific font for the work, which would exist only for these films and would be part of the visual expression of the “narrators.”
It was such a joy to work with that font. And defining that helped me to determine the musical aspects. I first worked with Andrew in the making of A RESTORATION, and we worked pretty closely on that. But maybe in FELT TIP, it really settled down into a method. We would work together a few hours every week, and then I would experiment with what we produced, treating it really elastically, stretching it, reversing it apart, cannibalizing things, breaking them up and putting them back together. This was all done right in the edit alongside the emerging narrative and selection of images. Then we would meet up a week later and work through that, rejecting some changes resolving others and so on. You need a good relationship with someone to take what they’ve made and—
And slow it down to 30 percent, as you did with the soundtrack composed for FELT TIP.
Exactly. So that confidence, tolerance, and trust is really is part of the process. And I work in a similar way with CGI. I don’t really commission it. The designers work with me. Anne moves her computer into my studio for the project and works on the CGI there, so I can be part of every tiny decision, can get to understand the process, its possibilities and limitations—to use it as precisely as possible.