Go back to article: Technologies of Romance: looking for ‘object love’ in three works of video art
Elizabeth Price’s K
© Elizabeth Price
Stills from Elizabeth Price’s K, showing text and images featuring vintage footage of 60s pop singers and a weaving machine
Elizabeth Price’s K
Initially Elizabeth Price seems to eschew revelation of any intimate self that might be operating within or behind the scenes of her video art. In K (2015) she juxtaposes grainy found footage of 1960s pop singers against a digitally animated image (whose provenance is unclear) of an apparatus for weaving stockings. These two very different images – the former undeniably historical, the latter so new and unfamiliar that it appears inaccessibly futuristic – may at first seem incongruous, but as we watch the video and listen to its soundtrack (which includes some vaguely didactic lines of text spoken by a robotic voice) we can slowly come to feel that a synthesis of the two is possible.
Unlike Carr’s video (or certain elements of Song’s) there is little sign of humour here, but there are entertainments of other kinds. We are asked to consider the possibly ancient cultural roots of the pop singer’s shamanic role. Price’s text invites us to see her performers as ‘professional mourners’ who perpetuate a ritual function, both for the society of their heyday and for our own age of the digital archive that enables their resurrection. The fact that the singers in K are not contemporary but part of the past and possibly already dead and mourned themselves, is part of their sensual appeal. The past casts its particular spell over these images and thus over the viewer, by means of artfully chosen clips and sophisticated edits enhanced by carefully composed and captivating sounds, words and music.
Price’s video subtly suggests that we fetishise the past as an object, along with any particular object of or from the past. The outcome is an unrequited longing that may just be another form of ‘object love’. We treasure what we find in the past as a valued connection to and compensation for irretrievably lost time itself, and in this way each historical image or object becomes a fetish, standing in for time that we have lost and for which we quietly and perpetually mourn, just as for a lost love or a loved one. It is perhaps worth noting at this point that the traditional museum, displaying treasured objects isolated at arm’s length within secure, transparent vitrines, exacerbates this notion by setting up serial scenarios of loss, desire, partiality, unattainability, distance and denial.
Any ‘object love’ we might feel for surpassed image technologies and the images produced by surpassed technologies affects us in Price’s K by triggering an inescapably passionate response at the sight (‘or site’) of the physical evidence of the loss of a time. This is a time that we might perceive as ‘ours’, and thus presume to own, a ‘popular time’ that accommodates popular history and a history of popular culture. Though dwelling in the twenty-first century we remain closely connected to those earlier modern people depicted in Price’s video, born like us into with the modern age of highly technologised, capitalist, and consumerist democracy.
The archival imagery assembled and deployed by Price maintains a strange allure, seduction and sensuality. However, like a twenty-first century museum’s display of early modern technologies, they do not so much confront us with a radical otherness (or alterity ) that might result from the vastness of time that separates their original moment and culture from our own (as might be the case in, for example, the Egyptian section of the British Museum), rather, they inhabit and embody the lost time of our own lives, our own lost youth, and the passing of recent forebears. Such objects and images are thus imbued with the time of modernity, to which we feel not only intrinsic, formative attachment but also loyalty, responsibility and obligation.
Walter Benjamin, in his late work Theses on a Philosophy of History referred to this when he stated that:
The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. (Benjamin, 1968)
Here we can find an understanding of our implicit responsibilities to time and history. Benjamin’s words explain a slightly mysterious task set before every one of us to, in one way or another rescue, retrieve and redeem what will soon become the past in order to make the future available to unknown others. The simple but profound words ‘our coming was expected on earth’ seem to underline the fact that our own present was previously prepared for us by others, who made it available for us, delivering us our own time in the world, and at a time when we were wholly unknown to them other than as people-to-come. For the purposes of this article it might be seen that this is akin to a constant, un-self-conscious or unwitting act of love, a paternal or maternal act of caring for and safely preserving and delivering the world, its history and its future, for the sake of as yet unknown others.
If Benjamin’s words remain elusive, abstract and esoteric we can also apply them more materially to our museological and archival activities, where we again provide the past with a future and use objects as vehicles by means of which we hope to rescue, retrieve and redeem the past and make it available to a future populated by unknown and unknowable others. If we do not have objects that represent every aspect of early modern experience then we might at least have photographic, cinematographic, or earlier forms of video image that today allow us to peer into the times of our childhood, the lifetimes of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, a time when modernity was less advanced and complete and yet perhaps more novel, more imbued with hope, wonder, confidence, belief and adventure than it is today. By means of what Benjamin called ‘mechanically reproduced’ images we can connect with early modernity in different ways than we do with pre-modern and pre-photographic eras. The history of art and of humanity is thus divided into two distinct phases: the photographic and pre-photographic.
The mechanically produced photographic image has evolved, even during this author’s lifetime, into the video image and the digital video image, thus allowing and inviting an exponential increase in the number and accessibility of archived images of the modern past. The digital age, initially so associated with the future, turns out to have an archival quality. Today its identity as a technology of the future has been diverted into the service of attempts to comprehensively record the past in the form of digitised museum collections. Such developments might be seen to extend both André Malraux’s photographic ‘museum without walls’ (1967) and Douglas Crimp’s postmodern theorisation of ‘the museum’s ruins’ (1993) and lead us to a reading of our own epoch as an age of the digital, image-based archive.
Meanwhile, this great increase in the availability of digitally archived images might balance the otherwise disorientingly futuristic, intangible and inhuman qualities and quantities of the digital and data realm. As our digitised archives grow, and as they themselves begin to age under the ever-present threat of being surpassed by yet newer technological processes, so the proximity, prevalence and pathos of the past becomes an increasingly defining aspect of our twenty-first century environment.
Such an increased prevalence of the reproduced past renders the present, by comparison, all the more effervescent, ephemeral and difficult to evaluate. For a society habitually attuned to the fractions of seconds of iPhone scrolling and photographically influenced lifestyles the present is reduced to the finest crest of a constantly breaking temporal wave that nevertheless denotes the foremost limit of an increasingly voluminous past, swollen with archived images and other recordings of passed time and events.
Correspondingly, our future becomes strangely void, a vertiginous no-go zone into which twenty-first century humans peer in vain, a future from which humans feel already excluded, though we might suspect that some kind of future may yet be visible to, or known by the digital itself as a realm of generative code and predictive text, artificial intelligence and the robots currently queuing up to populate it.
However, it is there, it seems, in a digital future apparently uninhabited by humanity, that Elizabeth Price’s digitally contrived image, in K, of a strange stocking-making apparatus, whirrs-on. The machine works away often occupying one screen of her two-channel video, a diptych that balances evocative glimpses of the ‘popular past’ (O’Kane, 2019) with this strangely unpopulated vision of the future. The machine works relentlessly, tirelessly, all but effortlessly, with no apparent need for human assistance or interference, even as its purpose is to produce and package articles of clothing apparently intended for living, breathing human bodies.
The written, and robotically enunciated spoken text that accompanies Price’s assembled images refers to an ‘Orphic gloom’ that seems to pervade both the realm occupied by this machine and that from which video clips of 1960s pop singers simultaneously emerge. But this ‘gloom’ might also correspond to the darkened space in which the video K is actually displayed (according to strict installation parameters set by the artist), a particular gloom that extends the subtly shamanic, ritualistic, and hypnotic atmosphere of the video into our real and actual environment. As this ‘gloom’ becomes a central and pervasive reference in the work, relating its content to its mode of display, Price’s compelling rendition of the contemporary possibilities of video art places the audience in a quasi-religious scenario, like worshippers at a darkened shrine, humbled by the magic of an electric beam of light as it produces dancing images that we are invited to decode. Mathilde Roman (referred to above) might then be prompted to consolidate her thesis and concur that the age of video art is an age of hallowed, mysterious, dark, ritualistic, and perhaps even strangely ‘ancient’ spaces that provide a balance to those increasingly bright, modern ‘white cubes’ that typically provide for the contextualisation of much contemporary art (though these are also quasi-religious, or church-like in their own way).
Towards the end of Price’s K, a single stocking is thrown-out by the machine that weaves it, as if the machine were playing now a salesman proffering a sample or a perhaps a stripper enacting a teasing routine. Like the finest of gauntlets this single (virtual, digital) stocking falls before the audience, and in doing so makes a subtle provocation. Its singularity, a lone object that invokes detachment from a pair, calls upon the individual subjectivities that make up the video’s audience, appealing to each of those singularities and thus to our innate fear of disconnection or detachment. The stocking emphasises the empathic quality essential to any fetish, and a single stocking must surely be regarded as a kind of arch, ur, or quintessential modern fetish of the Freudian kind.
If there is any ‘object’ to be ‘loved’ or empathised with here it is, however, neither the individual stocking nor any specific experience associated with it. Rather the individuated fetish of the single, ejected stocking seems to act as a relay for, and to, all of the sensory promise that might be enfolded within the past and all of the past that can be retained in a sensual object. The flourish with which this single, typically fetishistic object is flung before the audience might therefore call upon us to rescue, retrieve, collect and unpack the past anew, and to always do so. If so, then the strange machine weaving away in Price’s K comes to represent the process of history itself, revealing it as a machine that weaves from threads and strands of some mysterious base polymer that may be time itself, various fetishes capable of linking us to passed and lost times and events.
Karl Marx reinterpreted the ancient function of the fetish as having been translated in modernity into commodity form, wherein it exacerbates desire and cultivates the salivations of consumerism (Marx, 1954). Meanwhile, that other guru of modernity, Sigmund Freud implied that fetishism in and for a modern society, morphs from a religious object associated with the magic of shamans and gods into a memorial object whose mystique and power is derived from modernity’s new and crucial relationship to the past, against and by means of which modernity necessarily distinguishes and defines itself (Freud, 1927). Here, the past becomes modernity’s overarching, omnipresent and omnipotent other, and the modern museum supplants temple and shrine to become the tabernacle of history – modernity’s core belief system.
Weaving away in the gloom, Price’s ‘history machine’ suggests an uncanny and inhuman sense of mechanical autonomy, reminiscent of history’s famous ‘spiritualisation’ by Hegel (1975), subsequently materialised by Marx and now perhaps virtualised by theories and theorists of the digital hurriedly preparing for a coming age of artificial intelligence, robots, and self-servicing museums. Indeed it seems possible that before too long museological archives might only rarely, if ever, be seen directly by human eyes, having been roundly rendered by digital photography or photogrammetry, before being housed in remote spaces that are more like those inhabited by huge computer servers that enable museum collections to be seen remotely than the current nineteenth century cathedral-like buildings we visit today in order to see the past contained in an object under glass.
Once thoroughly digitised, a historical object or collection might of course be seen from anywhere in the world and at any time, even virtually handled and examined in detail by experts, tourists and casual internet surfers alike, as well as virtually set and reset in an infinite number of contexts and combinations, rather than established for years within a certain vitrine and/or in a certain juxtaposition with other objects with which it is tied into a particular historical narrative.
The peculiar and particular objects made by Price’s machine are acid green stockings, shown here as highly commodified, brand-new, and provided with crisp packaging that features seductive graphics and the intriguing moniker K (the brand-like title of the artwork itself). These are all seductive devices with which consumers are familiar and which we find it hard to resist. They exacerbate desire, tempting us to obtain, unseal, and thereby claim a commodity as our own. Popularly regarded as an arch image of a certain modern mode of erotic fetishism, sheer stockings of the kind represented by Price mark themselves out today as quintessentially modern, even while consciously and unavoidably referring to an earlier stage of modernity. They may thus be an example of the kind of ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ object capable of charming and reassuring our own accelerant time by confidently making reference to and valuing its increasingly archived past.
The antique eroticism of the stockinged, gartered and corseted (Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, etc.) eras of women’s wear and underwear spans the rise of the modern (bourgeois) culture that Sigmund Freud is credited with liberating from its debilitating, unsuitable and anachronistic sexual repression. The persistence of the stocking (despite being surpassed by more modern, functional, newly technologised vogues for various ‘nylons’, ‘tights’, ‘leggings’ and ‘hose’, throughout this dynamic period of changes in fashions and textile technologies) renders it an arch modern fetish that inevitably becomes untimely and uncanny, thereby also taking on the ‘revolutionary’ quality located by Surrealist André Breton in ‘the outmoded’ (as suggested by Walter Benjamin).
…[Breton] was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the "outmoded", in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them. The relation of these things to revolution… (Benjamin, 1978)
In Price’s video, the classic or vintage stocking not only survives decades or even centuries of modern fashion history but lives on as a fetish into a depopulated digital future gloom, a post-human future place and time of the digital, a crepuscular archival realm that accommodates an increasingly unwieldy and voluminous past, a realm in which all that has been made for and by the human no longer has a human to witness, use, or enjoy it. Thus, any affective pull, or feeling of ‘love’ for objects or images that we might sense while watching Price’s K simultaneously becomes a ‘work of mourning’ as described by philosopher Jacques Derrida (2001), mourning for lost time itself but also for the loss of the direct, real and actual sensual experiences of objects and images that are increasingly ‘lost’ to the voracious futuristic regime of digitisation.
Ultimately our response to Price’s video might then be a form of ‘gloomy’, melancholic resignation that allows us to begin to accept the implications of a post-human future in which ‘history machines’ (in the form perhaps of silo’d digital servers) work away in remote, unnaturally and inhumanly gloomy spaces, contriving and processing virtual fetishes that stand-in for, relay, and signal more tangible forms of ‘object love’ that we might justifiably fear losing, both to the inexorably passage of time and history, and to the exponentially growing realm of the digital. Twenty-first century human culture thus becomes a shrinking candle, burned away at both ends, by past and future alike.
Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191209/005