[TELE]: culture in quarantine

On 23 March 2020, the UK was put into lockdown as a response to the international COVID-19 pandemic. People were told to stay at home and self-isolate, with strict restrictions on going outside and socialising.

[TELE] is a short film and soundtrack made during the quarantine in which a small plastic horse’s head, less than 1cm across, was discovered buried in a flower bed. It was given a series of new physical forms that set it in motion, all constructed using found household ephemera: parts of a cheese grater were bound to bamboo skewers to create airplane wings and bottle tops became engines, creating an audio-visual rumination on desire and escapism, and how travel and the journey run through imaginings of liberation and power.

The equine connection with speed and technology made the horse an icon for the Futurist art movement. As well as being used as a pre-industrial mode of transport, they lent their strength to the development of agriculture and food production, were harnessed as a tool of warfare and military activity, and have historically been embedded within rituals of power and of death.

There’s also the connection with the workplace; their domestication marks them out as one of the few species to be almost universally incorporated into the labour system as working animals (in 1900, there were 130,000 horses estimated to be working in Manhattan, NY). There’s plentiful documentation indicating their historic framing as a technology, a tool (the animal-machine), that overlooks any consideration of cognitive-emotional processes as fellow living beings.

But it’s their connection with travel and the journey that the film hones in on. From as far back as potentially 3000 BCE, there is one of the earliest depictions of a human on horseback (rock art in Somalia, northern Dhambalin) and right up until the invention of the steam engine in the 1800s, the fastest way that humans could travel across land was with the support of a horse. They literally set the pace for us and how quickly we could traverse distance.

A small, old grey plastic toy horse head faces forward, with hand-drawn wings and a wireframe body

At time when we are limited to the confines of our immediate domestic environments, perhaps the re-appearing of the horse is a symbolic nod towards a slower pace of life. As it journeys across the soft inner landscape of blankets and rugs – materials designed for comfort with the allure of touch, the lack of physical contact also emerging as a result of social distancing – the film reflects on the psychological outcomes of travel. Of how when we return, there’s a common experience of seeing the familiar and everyday with a renewed curiosity, the motion of leaving and coming back playing a role in expanding perception.

The soundtrack (released as part of music project Hurrian Cult Legacy) similarly references the comparative inside/outside spaces, with audio recordings documenting sounds heard through the walls of the artist’s house: the next-door neighbour doing building work, drilling, the downstairs flat’s washing machine, ominous banging. The improvised piano providing a dream-like counterpoint that aimlessly meanders, continuously pulling on a different sense of time in contrast to the precise rhythmic structure of the other samples. The malleability of space and re-configured travel when movement is restricted to the confines of a house, and digital networks and channels becomes our mode of transport.