Elizabeth Price at the Walker Art Center
by Ryan Fontaine
I’ve got 5-4-3-2-1,
I’ve got a red pair of high-heels on
Tumble me over, it doesn’t take much,
Tumble me over, tumble me, push
In my red high-heels I’ve no control
The rituals of repression are so old,
You can do what you like, there’ll be no reprisal,
I’m yours, yes I’m yours, it’s my means of survival
Lyric by Eve Libertine from Crass record “Penis Envy”
In Elizabeth Price’s brilliant and unnerving, two-channel short film Felt Tip there is a segment in which the obvious joke of the men’s necktie as phallus and signifier of power is analyzed and dissected by a voice-over narration while the dual-screen vertical image of a series of ties are occasionally interrupted by short clips of a woman’s lower legs in high heels grinding on a dance floor to a bouncy, synth-heavy beat. This juxtaposition makes me think of the impractical, old school absurdity of heels as required female office attire that limit the abilities of both fight and flight, but also the role heels play in fashion, in the club and their potential for liberation and subversion. Indeed later in the film we are instructed in how to subvert the necktie, with all of its patriarchal coding and symbology, into “The Long Tongue” by clipping the narrow end, making a conventional knot but not tucking in the fluted end, but rather letting it flop like a lolling tongue. I immediately visualize a subcultural gathering, perhaps at an underground club, where the “Long Tongue” is everywhere on the dance floor, signifying opposition to the “Executive Level”, the term Price uses for “The Man” or “The Establishment” in her near-future dystopia. “The Tongue” specifically symbolizes knowledge of how we got here, the “Long Memory” of class struggle with all of its disappointments and defeats. It can’t be long before some corporation starts mass producing clip-on “Tongues” and selling them back to us, but that must be further in the future.
We are told, in the future, “Things haven’t gone our way, no!” But we’ll always have “The Long Tongue”, or some other strategy of mad style, wild style, bell bottoms, bondage pants, mohawks, long hair, grills, etc., ways to tell the world “I’m not down with all this bullshit, fuck the police!” Besides fashion, we also have our attenuation to slapstick or “The Bad Joke”, in this case the necktie as wearable penis, the ultimate and oft mocked symbol of male authority. We laugh at the buffoon with his extra long red phallus draped around his neck, but guess what? I think he’s in on the joke! Sorry to say, but I think he may be laughing at us laughing at him.
Sadly, the narrator of Felt Tip herself, rebellious tendencies and all, works for “The Man” in the “Administrative Core”, mostly at the task of licensing our bodies as data receptacles, with information etched into the proteins, or keratin, of our lunula, the half moon at the base of our fingernails. This is mainly for very important data. It seems that in the future we have moved on from the role of mere information mines for Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. and become living “Soft Drives”. But this seems so impermanent! What happens when we die? Do they harvest our fingers? Have we become like futuristic bike messengers physically moving data from one downtown building to the next so it is safe from online theft by Russian hackers? So many questions, but the bottom line is that the underlying power dynamics of our present society don’t appear to have improved in the coming years. We have become the “Store” or “Cache”. The companion film of Felt Tip, part of a trilogy, Kohl deals more with an outdated and abandoned version of the “Store”, the coal mine. We have become the new and improved coal mine, the modern conduit of wealth creation. Those at the “Executive Level” remain the same as they always were with their symbols of secret societies and elite clubs, of power passed down generation to generation, built into our architecture, woven into the very fabric of their clothing, especially the necktie. The only really new development is the power umbrella has been expanded to include a certain contingent of nouveau-riche, the upstart billionaire coder or billionaire producer or rapper like Jay-Z or Doctor Dre, for example.
A recurring image in Felt Tip and Kohl, is a DNA helix or fern-like strand that bounces slightly, with unobtrusive wires running through it, at times contrasted against a split view of the “Corporate Level”, symbolized by a desk, a whiskey glass, a phallic (but soft) felt tip pen and a copy of Reimut Reiche’s Sexuality and Class Struggle. Although the narrator never reveals the fact, these spiraling fronds actually are not DNA (the ultimate data storage mechanism) or ferns, but microscopic images of keratin. Until they have suddenly transformed into spiraling strips of neckties! Price’s shifting and layering of images, symbolism, archival history, futuristic world building, analysis of gender dynamics, class struggle and neoliberal global capitalism all within the context of “The Bad Joke” is relentless, efficient and generally spot on. Just the right amount of information and imagery is used to layer an effective and mysterious narrative on top of a plausible and authentic history of programmable data, textile production and information transference as well as a future projection of where we are headed that rings simultaneously true and absurd. Felt Tip paints a funny yet bleak picture of ourselves and our predicament, but offers the kind of hope that visionary art often does. Price tells us that while the “Corporate Level” might be onto us and all the ineffective ways we try to undermine their power, actually we’re onto them being onto us. So there!