Interview with Elizabeth Price
Friday, the 24th of June was a glorious, sunny day. Not that any of The Model staff noticed. We were too busy to be concerned with temperamental Irish weather. Turner Prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price was opening her first solo show in Ireland in The Model, the following day and the air was thick with excitement. While the last few details of the show were being taken care off, Elizabeth Price sat down with our marketing assistant, Rebecca Kennedy, for an interview. For the sake of continuity, the following interview has been edited slightly and condensed. If it weren’t for such edits, the majority of said interview would have focused solely on Jude Law.
You’ve had quite an interesting career. You started out in indie bands like Tallulah Gosh and The Carousel in the 1980’s, at a time when there seemed to be a prominent climate of subcultures. Can you tell me a little of your experience as a musician at that time?
When I was a teenager, I strongly connected the idea of making music with being an artist. Then when I went to art school I became aware of how different those two worlds are. When your eighteen, it can be difficult to know how on earth you can make a bit of visual art and have other people come to see it whereas with independent music, it was really possible to form a band, make a record and distribute it. There was a real sense that you could actually participate and create things. I suppose at the time the art world seemed like it often seems, aloof and impenetrable whereas music seemed to be more accessible to someone of my age and background, who knew no one that lived a life making art. I had no idea how that would be possible.
I felt like I could enter the music world and it was really quite tribal, people demonstrated their allegiance to different ideas of youth culture and subculture through their fashion sense. There were: Mods, Punks, Post-Punks, Rockabilly Punks and Teds, B-Boys and B-Girls. If you decided that you belonged to a certain tribe it wasn’t a casual gesture.
So, it was an interesting time to grow up. I remember briefly trying to go out with someone who was in a really terrible soft-genesis sort of prog-rock band. It lasted about ten days. We were from two completely different tribes and it really finished me off when he bought me a cuddly toy for my birthday and I just thought, ‘we have two completely different idea’s of women within these two completely different genres of music and this is never going to work’. I’m never going to be the type of woman who likes to be bought a cuddly toy. I hung out with punks who would never do that!
Were you happy to be onstage?
No, I was always really shy so I found it vaguely mortifying. We (Tallulah Gosh) kind of started out as an experiment. Being in a band was a way to make friends and to hang out with these really cool, interesting people. Weirdly, we were successful quite quickly. After our first gig we got written up in N.M.E., which was completely bizarre. It went from being a slightly crappy, funny band to having people show up to see us.
We were crap but it was regarded as a virtue. It was a post-punk attitude thing. I could only play four cords at the time; my guitar had cost 5p from a jumbo sale and it made the most terrible noise. It was really quite funny and enjoyable to do it by ourselves; to make these terrible noises and to write these stupid little songs. It was all quite funny until people decided they liked it and they started to turn up at our gigs. Sometimes we were good and sometimes we were a complete car crash.
You’ve spoken out previously about the state funding cuts for the arts in universities and the introduction of Ebecc scheme to the GCSE’s and how that might lead to the arts being something only that the privileged may pursue. How do you feel about that state of arts education and public funding today?
The things I said at the Turner Prize are still relevant. My generation was incredibly lucky in terms of the access to education we had. The idea that we would have to pay for our education didn’t exist to us so we could pursue what we wanted with almost complete freedom. We were young and we would be funded and given the support to pursue the things that we were interested in. It seemed to me to be the most natural thing in the world; I just accepted it like sunshine and spring.
It’s really damaging to see that the relationship between education and economic duress so tightly associated now. The defenders of the fee scheme say that students only have to pay it back once they earn a sufficient amount, therefore it shouldn’t impact students but I don’t believe that amounts to the freedom I had. I certainly think that whilst people will continue to go to university perhaps they will think, ‘I would really like to do art but that’s a crazy choice given the expense of the degree and the fact that I will have to bare that economic burden, so I will do mathematics, science or law.’ I think that people’s natural choices are being influenced or shadowed by the sense of a future economic burden.
When you add the fact that artists are being marginalized by the school curriculum, fewer people will have the opportunity to discover that they are talented at art. When I was at school I was always good at art and English, the so-called “soft-subjects” but it never occurred to me those classes weren’t as important as languages or maths. And I think that not only will students not gain access to art, those who are good at it will think that having artistic talent isn’t of any value. I believe that the changes have made art into something trivial, it’s nice but it’s not really important.
All those factors will conspire and amount to people from working-class backgrounds not becoming artists. That’s bad for not only the individual but for the art world too. Artists make art about their world and their experience. If only seven percent of the population is allowed to study at art school then art will be made solely by a very narrow demographic and that’s just not good enough. I think it’s really important that art is publicly funded. The art world needs to be made up of people from every different walk of life so everyone is represented.
How has winning the Turner Prize effected your career as an artist?
It always has an impact but for me it had an especially big impact. I had only just completed my first museum show when I was nominated. Although I had been an artist for ages, I had gotten nowhere and all of a sudden (within two years) my career really transformed. It was completely bizarre for me to be nominated for the Turner Prize. It was very funny, strange and slightly surreal to win it. It was a bit alienating to be frank. It was similar to the shyness I had felt all those years back in Tallulah Gosh. I found it very public.
In terms of my career, it accelerated it considerably. Having only done one museum show previously I now do quite a few throughout the year. When I won the Turner Prize- I felt a bit like I had my foot in the stir-up of a saddle on horse that was galloping away and I was sort of bouncing on the ground on my arse behind it – that’s how much I felt in charge off life and my career and circumstances. It was fantastic but really hard to get used to and only now have I begun to feel like I’m kind of settling into it. All and all it has been fantastic.
Jude law presented you with the Turner Prize.Is he really that good looking in real life?
Yes, yes he is.
Your work is complex and dense. When watching “The Woolworths Choir of 1979” I felt that I had just grasped a narrative before the images cut and it slipped away. Is the narrative intentionally elusive?
In Woolworths Choir there are parts of it when it’s really clear what it is telling you for example you are told about gothic architecture or the Woolworths department fire. The individual sections are straightforward in some sense. The thing about Woolworths Choir is how you can move in and out of these sections. I guess I really wanted to create a film in parts where you can move from one single story to another. In the first part there are all these images of gothic architecture and the second part features images of female performers but it’s really interesting that you end up with pictures of a girl group when you started with gothic architecture.
I wanted it to create a narrative that felt like, as you were watching, the floors would suddenly open out and you would fall in another kind of space that had a different sort of logic and then you move on to another. I was thinking of that it in relation to the folders in my computers. When I am making those videos I go through all the different archives on my computer. The videos are made of entirely different sections that were kind of important and intentional for me. I wanted to make a film about assembly and how we bring people together. I mean that as in an artistic assembly. I think of my films as collages. I mix lots of different materials and make them work together compositionally, formally and narratively, but also I wanted to think of human assembly and the idea of collective voice.
In the second part of the film, I assemble a choir from different materials of female singers making gestures with their hands. I edited it all together and make this chorography of hands and gestures. I thought about building this architecture as a choir, populating it with a choir that had been assembled because it was a chorus, telling you a story or a history.
I wanted this story to be a minor but significant social history. I decided on the history of the fatal fire in the Woolworths department store in 1979, which has been a relatively forgotten corporate disaster. I really wanted to extend the idea of a choir or a voice or a collective of people speaking and singing together to tell that story of the fire. The final section of the film is a narrative woven together from different accounts of the fire by various people, those trapped in the fire, witnesses, (the majority of which were working class boys and girls) the emergency services, journalists and the coroner. In the final section, these people gather and become a chorus, which communicates the story of the Woolworths fire to you.
That’s how I think of it. There is a strong, purposeful narrative to it but there are also deliberate, lurching surprises and changes of context. I think that happens in all my films, they are really rhythmic and change space. I really want them to have an intense dramatic shift. I want to tell these intense dramas that really focus collective history in a dramatic way. It’s actually quite difficult to film and narrate objects. One of the ways you can do it is through melody and music, percussion but also through what I call big formal shifts so a way of proceeding through a film is established and then that turned on its head and then another way of making the film is established.
Have you any advice for emerging artists?
Go to an interesting art school if you can. The most important thing for an artist at any level is to find other artists. When I came out of art school, I got together with a group of artist friends and we persuaded someone to let us use their building in Shoreditch, London. At the time, Shoreditch was a complete dead zone; it was all derelict or ex-industrial buildings. We held lots of shows there. We spent two years doing it, we worked together and we agonized over every decision. It was an amazing education.
You end up building up a network of support, a peer group. So, I think that whether it’s putting on exhibitions, setting up a studio, doing a website or publishing together, I think setting up a network of like-minded people with whom you can make art with really helps you get by in those lean years. Unless you are one in thousands and thousands, there are those lean years where it seems like nobody’s interested and so you find this small community for yourself. You learn a lot and I found it so enjoyable, so exciting and interesting. I think that that is the most important thing, is too find that peer group and community.
I mean obviously there are all kinds of professional things. The Art world is a weird world in which to build a career, where there is no obvious career progression. There are people who are really good at networking, they’re really gregarious and find it easier to socialize, that can be a real asset but many artists aren’t good at that.
I would see other artists and it’s easy to look at them and think “oh no,” because I was always terrible at that stuff but in art you have to use what you are good at, if you find that you not good at some part of it, don’t agonize about it. If you find that you are really good at socializing then go out, hang out and make friends, convince people how interesting you are.
If you’re really not like that then find a close knit group of friends, develop your own projects, work with them and then hopefully, gradually, it takes a bit of luck and a lot of perseverance but things can start to happen. You get a show here and there but it’s not a straight road. It’s sort of winding and wiggly road with a few bumps but I had some great nights, hanging out and being useless at networking. So, hangout and meet up with your mates and slag off the show. Yeah, I had some good times. Now, I’m very sensible and I don’t stay out all night!