Two days before it closed for good, its winner long since announced, I finally saw the Turner Prize exhibition in Tate Britain. Or, at least, half of it: I was told by a makeshift bouncer that Luke Fowler’s 93 minute video, All Divided Selves, was oversubscribed, and, visiting as I did late on a Friday evening, Spartacus Chetwynd’s den was vacant. But never mind: the race for the prize had always been between Elizabeth Price’s video installation, The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 (2012), and bookie favourite Paul Noble’s technical drawings of his fictional, post-apocalyptic city, Nobson Newtown. Despite the charms of Noble’s monochromatic graphite dystopia – which are supplemented in the gallery with totemic marble sculptures of the pulpy scatological shapes found therein – the hypnotising presence of Price’s piece makes her a worthy winner indeed.
The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 is a tripartite video collage that splices together infographic clips about ecclesiastical architecture, images of undulating female dancers and singers, and news reportage of a furniture fire on the second floor of a Woolworths in Manchester that left ten dead. The connection between the three themes may seem spurious at first, but it has the distinct logical trajectory of a bell curve: to put it reductively, it deals with stacked furniture haunted by the presence of death; a choir with decorative curving shapes (first architectural, then musical, then narrative); and, finally, stacked furniture haunted by the presence of death.
The piece mirrors itself aesthetically as well as thematically. The visual language of the clips, which are often already doubled using a split screen, is repeatedly echoed throughout. Most emblematically, they are linked by a serpentine curve of the right wrist that unites sepulchral sculpture, the gyrations of the chorus of women, and the emotive gesticulations of the grieving interviewees. The images are sutured together to make a cinematic fractal that whirs by so quickly it invokes a hypnotising, almost subliminal, power.
Despite the modest origins of its source material – the clips are culled from YouTube, old news reels, and static photos from books, among other things – the piece quickly becomes more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, its forceful presence comes from the immersive experience of watching it in the gallery: of sinking into the dark room and submitting to the scale of the wall-sized images and the overwhelming use of sound; first of silence, punctuated by the smack of a click or a clap, then the ominously rising post-traumatic ringing, and finally the crashing, explosive crescendo of the chorus itself, with a booming bass-line that seems so rooted in your own body it must have flushed out your bone marrow. By the time the plumes of smoke appear on screen, you can practically smell them in the room.
Indeed, for all the intellectual rigour of Price’s video, for all its semiotic and iconographic mirroring, what is most striking about it is its sheer visceral potency. It exerts a tangible force, one that tingles through the spine and under the skin. For some indiscernible reason, unrelated to narrative or even imagery, the installation awakens an oddly pleasurable sense of fear; there is something, perhaps, in the surrender to rapid-fire stimulation over which one has no control – both visual and aural – that makes one feel tremulously powerless. In some ways, it feels like a peaceful, academic demonstration of A Clockwork Orange‘s Ludovico technique. For almost twenty minutes, the viewer gives themself completely to each jolting smack, bang, and clack, each of which seems to drill into the brain some kind of ritualistic code. It is thrilling.
Much has been made of the work’s relation to structures of knowledge and education, particularly in the wake of Price’s Turner acceptance speech in which she criticised government cuts to arts funding. Certainly, the piece does raise potent questions about how information is presented, consumed, and appropriated, especially in relation to historical events. The most powerful point made by the installation, however, is its almost scientific demonstration of the tangible, physical effects of the disjunctive and distracted way we consume media, our attention spans ravaged by hours of numb channel-flipping and rapidly accumulating mental tabs. Mindlessness of this sort is never truly mindless: instead, it is a submission to the constant stream of media that floods our daily lives; a surrender which, as Price’s piece so eloquently proves, has the power to alter us, both mentally and physically, in ways of which we are neither fully aware nor in control.