Friday 07 December 2012

An archaeology of decisions: in conversation with Elizabeth Price

Elizabeth Price is the first Artist in Residence at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory's space unit, RALSpace. Working with space scientist Dr. Hugh Mortimer, Elizabeth and Invisible Dust curator Alice Sharp recently presented their thoughts and work to the annual 8th Appleton Space Conference. Elizabeth is also the winner of this year's Turner Prize.

We caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her collaboration with RALSpace, as well as the immediate impact of her Turner Prize award earlier this week. 

Tell us about your relationship with the Turner Prize.

I was surprised to be nominated, because I had only done one show on the scale that you need to do in order to be nominated. I was the outsider, and so it was also a surprise to win. The reason why I had accepted the nomination is because the Turner Prize can really promote and extend knowledge of your work in a number of ways. The public gets to see it, and it's a show that draws in a much bigger and a much broader audience than any of the other shows that you are likely to do. Within your work and internationally, it promotes your work as an artist because you have been recognised. For those reasons, it was an interesting opportunity.

There are things about it that are more difficult to deal with, such as the public exposure, if you're shy and not used to it. That has taken some adapting to. When my name was called out on Monday night, to be honest, my first feeling was one of complete terror. It wasn't until about 10pm, after a couple of glasses of wine, that I started to feel better.


Do you think that, as part of that list of Turner Prize winners, that it might change your outlook on how you operate as an artist and your place within the 'art world'?

I hope that it won't change my outlook on art and artists, and my own relationship with the art world. It will probably change how the art world looks at me. It's very difficult to assess art - to value it in terms of its significance, its beauty. These are challenging questions. The fact that I won the Turner Prize - does that mean that I did the very best art show in the past year by a British artist under 50? I'm very happy that in the complexities of shortlisting and choosing the winner, that under those terms, that my show was selected, but I also know that art is more complicated than that. I'm not demurring from the prize or being happy about receiving it, but acknowledging that it's part of a bigger, and a more complex picture - one that I enjoy about art.


You use tools such as Final Cut Pro and assemble the material for your works into logical folders. Do you think that artists that use technology are starting to be seen as more generally accepted as de facto artists, and the sub-disciplines (eg digital art) are aligning more closely together?

Over the last few years, more artists have moved into video and into visual digital technologies within mainstream art. That's partly because of the increasing availability of those technologies. I can shoot broadcast-quality video on a stills camera that cost £900. The pieces that were nominated [for the Turner] were all shot in that way. I can edit them on a laptop, and produce motion graphics there too. It's all relatively accessible. With Final Cut Pro, I had a 20-minute intro from a friend and learned the rest of it for myself.

The ways in which you can just learn through how contemporary software is designed, through trial and error, takes some time, but it opens itself up to investigation... whereas maybe art produced as "digital art" was framed by a need to more profoundly engage with how the technology works. One of the things that I want to do in the next couple of projects is to think about the elements of the technology that I rely on, and to start to understand them. It's a very contemporary thing - it's possible to produce visually sophisticated work, but to have no understanding of how it's actually working. That may be why it's becoming more of a common language. You don't have to understand programming to make a piece of video art.



What's the process in terms of choosing specific subjects for your work?

I tend to simultaneously inquire into lots of different things. There will be many subjects that I find interesting, and I start to collect material. A project emerges when I am able to connect lots of different things together. It's quite possible that all of the research that I did into the photographs of ecclesiastical architecture could still be on my computer, not having made it into a project. There are many kinds of other material that I haven't done anything with. The point at which it becomes a project rather than research is when I am able to connect it to something else - most particularly, when I am able to connect something, perhaps historical, to the social and political. That's the point when I think that I have the 'end work'. When I thought that I could connect ecclesiastical architecture to the Woolworths fire, I then decided that I had the basis for an artwork. In every piece, I try to have a social, political or philosophical element to the work.


It's an artistic hypertext.

Yes, absolutely. How digital is changing how we think, and how I'm conscious of the relationship between the timeline and the filesystem. It's an experience where I was always feel anxious when I'm editing, because I know that it's not actually there. You could spend a year making this thing and it's not actually there... there are many similar emotional or psychological experiences in terms of how digital is changing how we think, so the kinds of links that are possible on the Internet might be altering how our imaginations work.


 How do you see yourself filling the Artist-in-Residence role at RALSpace?

One of the things that I'm really interested in is, as an artist, entering a situation that I know nothing about. That's a position of great limitation, but also of great freedom. If you know nothing, then people are incredibly tolerant and gracious [!] Most places that you go into and say 'I know nothing'... they're not angry with you. If they love their job, and many do, then people will evangelise and say 'Yes - this is what it's like and what this means'. I find it so interesting in terms of institutions and disciplines.

Hugh has showed me an instrument used in order to reproduce aspects of the sun in order to test out new instruments that he's working on. It's called the Blackbody Source. I had no idea what, semiotically, what object these words were connected to. It was immediately poetic... what could a Blackbody Source be? What does this mean? That sense of a slight confusion, and the other suggestions that emerge, when you don't know about a discipline, when its terminologies haven't been connected to objects, concepts or to ideas, is interesting. You connect it to an idea, then realise 'Now I know how it's this thing' but you also remember that it was all of these things as well, and they remain associated.

The sense of finding out what things mean, but also their volatile state in terms of being suggestive, allusive, metaphoric... it drives me to work with terminologies. I think that I'll be looking at the language, and not just processes, or artifacts. You find out what it means in scientific terms, but then actually you use that language to talk and to make connections outside of science: to something social, political, or philosophical.


What ideas do you currently have in terms of the work to be created in your residence?

I'm starting off by looking at the sun, but I may not end up there, because if you know nothing, then you don't know where to start. They are pretty amazing images. In my experience, what usually happens is a process of digression. You go to look for one book, and the book next to it on the shelf looks more interesting. It's a non-systematic working method... a systems digression. That's also how you find your way through an institution that you don't really know. It's not by working systematically, but by working elliptically. You are going to a different place. This is where I'm at - I have gathered some material, and I'll be re-photographing some of the glass-plate photographs of the sun from the late 19th and early 20th centuries on a lightbox.

What I do right at the beginning is to put it all into the timeline. I don't storyboard, I don't plan out what a piece of work is going to be like. I build a place, but I don't know always know what, precisely, that will be. I put it all on the timeline, then I sift it there. It's a workshop. That's why there are so many layers in the timeline; it's a set of superseded fragments. So many of the visual elements are not visible [in the final work] make it an archeology of decisions. There are around five visible objects on the timeline that make the edit, and around 15 that are not. That's how I work: building, changing, cutting, moving. If you think about industrial film production where you have a storyboard and know every shot to make, then this is completely the opposite. I do everything myself - shooting, editing, graphics - and that's because every element is live. I'll be shooting something while I'm editing, then I'll look at the edit and think 'I should shoot it like that' so I'll go back and shoot it, which may then change the narration, content, and script. You can't direct someone else to do that. That's why it takes me a year to make each piece. It's just me in my studio, and I often have the objects in there too. It's very much a studio-based practice, which is unusual for video.


Your acceptance speech passionately described the situation in terms of arts provision and funding in education. The same accusations have been levelled at science. Do you think that we are now looking at a major future problem, in terms of the critical understanding and applications of art and science in society?

Completely. My sense in art is that with its marginalisation in the Ebacc, with funding at university level... the chances of somebody from a non-privileged background making their way through all of those economic hurdles, then establishing a career, will prove to be very difficult.

For students undertaking science degrees, then the fees are also substantial, and enough to deter anyone. If you want to have a career as a scientist, then you need to be a postgraduate, and it's a long time before you can maybe see yourself building a private life, having a family, all of those other things that people want to do. It seems incredibly depressing that people will not even begin to consider even engaging with these subjects, and by taking such a commitment will place you in such a financially vulnerable position. Becoming a province of the privileged means, in terms of art, that it only speaks about a particular social experience.

Since the Second World War, public policy in arts, science and education has deliberately worked against that, to incredibly positive effect, but also with huge social benefit. It's so depressing to think that this emancipatory project, where knowledge might be available to anyone that has an appetite for it, will be over, and that it isn't being protected. Even if it is diminished, there doesn't seem to be much of an endeavour to protect what we can of it. It is being abandoned with reckless vandalism. The project to build it back up again seems so impossible, so unlikely. My undergraduate and postgraduate courses were funded; if they were not, then I would not have studied art in the first place, because I didn't think about its application as a job. I chose art for its subject, not for its utility value. The prospect is, now, that people will start a postgraduate course with £50k of debt. There aren't many people that will be able to do that. It's incredibly depressing.


Elizabeth Price is Artist-in-Residence at RALSpace; the role is a project of Invisible Dust. She is also a Lecturer in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art, University of Oxford.

An exhibition of all of the Turner Prize 2012 nominations is at Tate Britain until 06/01/13.


Main image: Elizabeth Price

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