“Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while? See what happens.”
A review of Alex Billingham’s ICEWORM
Written by Emily Scarrott
I have to confess that I’m a fidgeter. I’m a fidgeter in all things, but maybe I’m most embarrassed about my fidgeting when it comes to art. In pre-covid19 galleries, my standard procedure was to meander in and out of an audio-visual space several times to enjoy a combination of fragments of the artwork, rather than awkwardly sitting still on an uncomfortable bench for a full cycle.
Now that art viewing takes place in our private spaces, I’ve been appreciating consumption in unconventional and non-institutional ways. In particular, the bath has become my favourite place, allowing my attention span to survive a new generation of distractions. A location where fidgeting and immersion can be combined; The body is occupied and calm, whilst other domestic interference can be avoided.
When Alex Billingham’s statement invited the viewer to slip into a hot bath and allow their attention to ebb and flow alongside ICEWORM, I welcomed the opportunity to experience artwork made for my new environment. This prescription indicates how much the artist recognises the significance of the film’s context amongst the pandemic. Initially planned in response to physical complications which could restrict Alex’s live performances, ICEWORM has been born into an atmosphere of widespread immobility, squirming through frozen corridors between portable devices and into quarantined homes. The film’s namesake, Project Iceworm, was a secret US missile operation, publicly covered by Camp Century, an under-ice base publicly promoted as an exploration of remote research colonies. As Camp Century is slowly exposed as global warming causes ice to return to water, so ICEWORM infiltrates the confined corners of contemporary isolation. ICEWORM becomes a deliciously apocalyptic bath bomb, filling the room with a frothing recipe of queer culture and Lynchian sci fi.
The fluid opulence of the queer body inhabits the film, introduced as droplets formed from the cross contamination of steam upon the fabric of a blue Barbarella-esque boot and evolving to communicate with the viewer as a ceremonial being, draped in chainmail. Amongst crystalline formations that communicate via a haunting experimental soundtrack, the figure waits for the viewer, increasing in gesture to beckon them into ICEWORM.
Growing from Alex’s interest in liquid data and the water cycle, the submerged viewer instinctively melts into ICEWORM’s timeline. Whilst there is no narrative structure, the film guides a bath from trickling painterly colour to a rich psychedelic flood of abstracted textures. In the pandemic, bodily interactions with water have become a sharpened necessity for survival. Washing has become a militant activity, framed by ‘jovial’ governmental slogans that are reminiscent of the nuclear survival campaigns of the 1980s that inhabit Alex Billingham’s ongoing research. Amidst the current health crisis, baths become magnificent; A luxurious and eccentric way for humans to collaborate with water, foaming up between regimented exchanges with soap. ICEWORM wriggles amongst the cracks of sanitisation, instead offering a meditative, cleansing apothecary which dwells throughout the senses. The film does not demand that we hurry our way through ‘happy birthday’ twice, it nests where time can dawdle.
As ICEWORM draws to conclusion, the viewer is reminded of the world outside of the bathtub: twigs floating in non-domestic bodies of water, overgrown brambles and plastic piping. This is where the remnants of our viewing experience will go when we pull out the plug. The final frames of ICEWORM envelope us with a ritualistic cleansing of objects, mixed with gentle sway of the tide. The artist reminds us of fabrics, fresh air, and the things that wait for us outside of this room. We trust them. It is time to evacuate.