Elizabeth Price at the Walker: Ties, Thatcherism, and the digital era make for a wild ride

Elizabeth Price, 'Kohl'

Elizabeth Price, 'Kohl'

Did you know that modern computers were partially based on the invention of the mechanical loom?

Elizabeth Price

Walker Art Center
Included with museum admission

Way back in the 18th century, there was a French textile worker named Basile Bouchon who wanted to figure out a way to speed up the weaving process. Basing his idea partially on the mechanisms that made pipe organs work, Bouchon invented a machine that would automate weaving, controlling the pattern through the use of perforated paper.

It worked in a way, though it wasn’t perfect. His assistant, Jean-Baptiste Falcon improved upon the invention by introducing punch cards containing the pattern for the design, which ripped less easily than the pieces of paper.

The mechanical loom was finally perfected by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804, when he came up with what is now known as the Jacquard Loom, which, interestingly enough, paved the way for the invention of computers.

British artist Elizabeth Price draws on this fascinating social history for Felt Tip, her multi-channel video installation now on view at the Walker Art Center.

A former singer in the 1980s twee pop band Talulah Gosh, Price is far better known as a contemporary European artist. Felt Tip, along with a second film installation, Kohl, mark Price’s first commission for a U.S. museum.

Elizabeth Price, 'Kohl'

Elizabeth Price, 'Kohl'

Price says Felt Tip originated from a collection of ties from the 1970s and 80s she’s been gathering over the years. The ties were made with Jacquard technology; it wasn’t until the 1990s that the tie-making process became digitized. However, digital imagery reflecting the growing prevalence of computers decorates each of the ties.

“This whole period is kind of surprisingly eloquent artifact of a number of different seismic changes,” Price says.

Looking back at older technologies is a common theme in Price’s work. “It’s very hard to understand your own moment,” she says. “When you look at these things that have passed through different technologies, you can see the artifact — the dirt. You can see the scratches on the negative. Every technology has its artifactual traces but we can’t spot it in the ones we exist in. We are so amazed by the spectacle or the verisimilitude of them.”

Price weaves her extensive research into a science fiction story. “The story is a kind of medium or glue that allows me to connect the different things,” she says.

She often uses narrative to tie things together. In Felt Tip, a chorus of digital female-sounding voices, who are apparently administrative workers, speak about how they are employed to hold the data of the executive in the DNA of their fingers. “If you think of a story as a vessel,” Price says, “science fiction can have some really improbable things in it.”

Shown on two vertical screens packed on top of each other, the setup takes advantage of the incredible height of the Perlman Gallery, which before the renovation in 2005 had held two floors: the director and curatorial offices above, and security offices below. Through the use of architectural makeup of the room, Price creates a sense of the hierarchical structures that are referenced in the film.

You might not pick up on all of the history and symbolism Price packs into the film on first viewing. There’s a whole lot of research and layers of imagery, not to mention storytelling, that go into the eight-minute video. But even if you’re going into the film without knowing much about it beforehand, it’s engaging to watch, especially in its use of retro technology as the overarching aesthetic.

Kohl takes on the history of coal mines in the UK. Where Felt Tip, is is stacked vertically, the vertical screens in Kohl are placed side by side so it’s more wide than tall. In that film, Price sources archival mine photographs taken by an amateur photographer and miner called Albert Walker (no relation to Walker Art Center’s founder).

Like Felt Tip, Kohl is rich with imagery -- not just that you see as a viewer, but in the imagery evoked by the digitally voiced narrators. They describe a black inky substance that runs underground from Newcastle to Nottingham. There’s also political history that echoes current events; the coal mining strike under Margaret Thatcher has reverberations today with Brexit and the rise of populism in England and elsewhere.

Eventually, Price says she plans to make a third piece, creating a trilogy. Where Felt Tip addresses administrative work, and Kohl covers industrial work, the third piece, which will be shown in the UK, will be concerned with executive work, held together by a science fiction story about a contagion where people refuse to go to work.

In the meantime, there’s a lot here at this Walker Art Center show, but you don’t have to absorb it all the first go round. There’s plenty of references and threads that will hit different people in different ways, and you may want to experience the two short pieces more than once.