Elizabeth Price (b. 1966)
The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012)
THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979 2012 is a large-scale digital video projection that combines archive footage, music and text. It has a duration of twenty minutes and exists in an edition of three plus two artist’s proofs. Tate’s copy is number one in the main edition. The artist’s preference is for the work to be shown as an immersive installation, although there is also the possibility for it to be screened just as a video projection if necessary. A related work is Choir (Parts 1 & 2) 2011 (Arts Council Collection, London) which, although it contains elements used within THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979, is considered a completely separate work. Price made the work during an Arts Council England Helen Chadwick Fellowship at the University of Oxford and British School at Rome which she held from 2010–11. The video was shown at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead in 2012, in a solo presentation at MOTINTERNATIONAL, London the same year and at Tate Britain, in The Turner Prize exhibition, which Price won.
Price’s installation explores a recent event in social history through a stream of visual and conceptual associations. The video comprises three disparate parts that each, sequentially, establish an auditorium as the setting for drama, a chorus to narrate it, and a tragic event. The three sections are linked by recurring images of hand gestures. It begins with a photographic montage of ecclesiastical architecture and digitally animated plans describing an archetypal choir area in a church. Arcane words and definitions, particular to the institution and extracted from essays on churches, narrate the images like a PowerPoint lecture. This bulleted and didactic tone is punctuated by loud rhythmic claps, finger clicks and sung chords. An animated posture and twist of a wrist of a church floor effigy takes the film into the second part which expands on the meaning of a choir as a group of multiple voices. Internet clips of female pop performances, including 1960s American group Shangri-Las and their song Out in the Streets, focus on gestural arm movements and synchronised dances of singers and backing vocalists, layering and assembling them into a unified cacophonic dance and chorus prophetically insisting ‘WE KNOW’. In the final episode the sinuous gestures of the dancers cut to flames, billows of smoke and images of a trapped woman waving for help through a barred window. A range of footage drawn from public archives of the devastating fire that killed ten people at the Woolworths department store in Manchester in 1979 fluctuates between eye witness and survivor accounts, news reports (the first narratives of the event) and material relating to the public inquest that effected change in fire laws in Britain, interjected with text from the chorus. A reconstruction plan of the source of the fire – a storeroom stacked with flammable soft furnishings – brings the work full circle by recalling the rectangular enclosure of the church choir lined with pews. As the exhibition guide for the installation at the Baltic describes:
The viewer experiences the video in an immersive installation where the choir-like seating and high audio volume is integral to the intensity and persuasiveness of the chorus and in supporting the fictional idea of the choir architecture … The title of The Woolworths Choir of 1979 refers to the disparate voices Price found in the public archive on the fire that convey different, inconsistent and conflicting experiences and knowledge of the event … Price has explained the intentions of her practice and the importance of the archive for her work: ‘My work is about people and histories, but not individuals – it’s about people as collective forces or voices and how we emerge as such through material culture.’
(Quoted in Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art 2012, unpaginated.)
Price’s digital video installations characteristically layer and embed archival image, sound and ideological texts to examine and elaborate on events in recent social history, systems of ideology, consumerism and architecture. To make the videos Price edits all the separate aspects, text, sound and image, simultaneously. This process disrupts the conventional stages of pre and post production, allowing different elements to influence each other and effect the structure of the video. Consequently Price often re-edits her work after initially displaying it; the Turner Prize exhibition gave her the opportunity to reflect on and refine THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979 to its current and finished edit. The earlier video User Group Disco 2009 as well as Tent 2012 and West Hinder 2012 similarly establish an environment or architecture as the location of the action and use a dramatic and insistent chorus to narrate the work.
Elizabeth Price HERE, exhibition guide, Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, Gateshead 2012, unpaginated.
Lizzie Carey Thomas, Elizabeth Price: Turner Prize 2012, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2012, reproduced, unpaginated.