The artist Stanley Schtinter spent his pandemic in the English countryside watching EastEnders. He missed London, and he missed the pub. The Queen Vic, the stately corner boozer and community centre of Albert Square, began to look more inviting with each episode. Before long, it was beckoning him inside. 

Starting with the first episode of EastEnders, broadcast on 19 February 1985, Schtinter began to carefully stitch together every scene filmed inside the Queen Vic, from brief vignettes of Lofty pulling pints to full-blown barneys between Den and Angie Watts. After a year of editing, Schtinter stopped and gazed upon his creation. The result was a seamless durée of pure pub, a television artwork that, at 96-hours long, entered the top 20 longest experimental films ever made. It could only have had one name: The Lock-In.

As the pandemic dissipated, Schtinter went on a charm offensive with the landlords of east London. Over several weeks and several hundred bags of dry roasted peanuts, he managed to negotiate an 11-pub tour of The Lock-In across June, each screening taking in a whole year of EastEnders. Averaging at around 10 hours of film per event, the tour closes this month at The Gun in Homerton, before bedding down in the public spaces of the Barbican Centre.

EastEnders (1992)

The project has drawn wry comparisons: “Warholian” said Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, while the curator Gareth Evans declared Schtinter’s events had put Duchamp’s “urinal back in the toilet”. There are other precedents for these extended durational edits: Christian Marclay’s The Clock, Anthony Wall and Emma Matthew’s versions and versioning of the Arena documentary archive, even elements of Mark Rappaport’s collage essays on old Hollywood. 

But it is The Lock-In’s screening programme that animates the work. It contains all the absurdist sociality of a Schtinter project, an artist-organiser engaged in ways for groups to assemble around concepts and ideas. In the context of Schtinter’s past work, which include 2021’s Important Books (or, Manifestos Read by Children) at the Whitechapel Gallery and the infamous mass re-enactment of Princess Diana’s funeral at Salford’s White Hotel in 2018 (described as “grotesque” by the Daily Star), The Lock-In is activated by being shown in the pub. It is a project unconcerned with the personal, instead taking its cues from art concerned with producing communal environments – a hungover relation of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Soup/No Soup.  

The Lock-In is claustrophobic. You feel pissed just watching it. A ceaseless travelator of carpet, soft furnishings, polished wood and the clink of pint glasses, the viewer never leaves the Queen Vic pub. At first this is a comfort, then vaguely disconcerting, then it becomes impossible to remember your life from before. Attending a Lock-In screening, if done ‘properly’, is a potent experience. It is Falstaffian expanded cinema: beers are passed round freely while people keep one eye on the screen to see if Ian Beale will apologise to Cath for stealing from the laundrette. Grant Mitchell scowls at newcomers from behind the bar while the landlord of the Palm Tree in Mile End does the same thing in real life. 

Many attendees are absorbed by the unappreciated skill of soap-opera writing. The Lock-In is not linear; it presents a beery mosaic of life on Albert Square, but the scenes are compelling and capped with witty, knowing dialogue. We are reminded that EastEnders itself is truly endless – four episodes are produced a week. One job even more unsung than that of the writing team is the programme’s archivist, whose job it is to fine tune the writers’ scripts so they adhere to Albert Square’s intricate lore. Perhaps those archivist’s files can also explain which bit of the East End it is where hedge fund managers haven’t bought up all that prime Victorian terraced housing.  

EastEnders (1991)

I managed to find Schtinter up a ladder in the corner of the Wentworth Arms. He was fiddling with the back of an old television so the assembled audience of drinkers could half-listen to Pat Butcher tell Frank she got her purse nicked down Walford Market. He descends the ladder and addresses me with grave seriousness: “The Lock-In is an answer to the neoliberalism that surrounds Marclay’s Clock. That work has come to be appreciated as a celebration of time – but as we know, time is money and money is time – time is the oldest ideological construct. We are imprisoned by clock-time, and The Lock-In liberates us from that.”

It is both a liberation and a prison sentence. The Lock-In concerns itself with the shared experience of time and, in a moment of communal bevvied ecstasy, the collective will to destroy it altogether. It is against time, anti-time, utterly affronted by appointments, shifts and deadlines. There is only the pub: where Schtinter places his subjects under public house arrest. 

EastEnders (1990)

He continues: “The Lock-In is also the logical conclusion to the moment I started creating the film and my longing for the pub. It emerged from that moment of utopian thinking we all went through in some form or another at the beginning of the pandemic – where we all thought that the world would change, something new would come from it, a new kind of time.” Schtinter is gesturing at a new kind of post-pandemic resignation – not the ‘great resignation’, the supposed mass-abdication of work in 2021 – instead a deeper melancholic resignation that after two years of putting society on hold, we just booted up the machine again, and with it our utopian thinking melted into air.

There is a poignancy to this, as time really is beginning to collapse. There is increasingly little contrast between the dreary patina of Angie and Den’s world and our own. Britain faces the fastest drop in living standards since the 1950s, a Conservative government refuses to listen to striking workers, and the world is gripped in a vast Cold War with Russia. Next time Schtinter could just screen some CCTV so we can stare back at ourselves. 

The Lock-In will have its final screening at The Gun, E9, on 1 July. It then runs in the Barbican Centre’s public spaces for the rest of the month.