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What’s love got to do with it?

Peter Bonnell

Curator, ArtSway, New Forest


Whenever I think of twins, regardless of context, I’m always drawn to that famous photograph by Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, taken in 1967. Arbus was well known for photographing ‘freaks’ or, more kindly, people who could be described as existing on the edges of society. Yet she also photographed ‘normal’ people, people such as the evidentially normal-looking twins in her most famous image; although I did show the image of the twins to my wife, just before I started this text, and her reaction was similar to my first reaction of almost 20 years ago – that the girls in the photo looked ‘weird’, ‘freaky’, ‘strange’. But, looking past this singular image, my thoughts always then turn to a variety of questions, mainly, ‘who are these kids, where did Arbus find them?’ They’re not freaks, they have no deformities (aside from large, staring eyes), but they do have a preternatural air about them. Perhaps this has been exacerbated by Arbus selecting, as all photographers do, that most judicial shot from possibly hundreds that captured just the right slant of weirdness that she was after. Perhaps it was, as many people claim, that Arbus had the knack of getting under the skin of her subjects, to reveal who they truly were. And this presents a neat link to Jordan Baseman’s practice – he also has an inherent ability, in his short films, to uncover a subject, to get them to unwittingly reveal something about themselves that they normally wouldn’t do.

The question that came first to mind after I saw Jordan Baseman’s three new films for his project Nature’s Great Experiment was, ‘what will the data that the researchers are collating be ultimately used for?’ The research in question, as Lisa Cant – a research worker for the Twins Early Development Study (or TEDS) – revealingly narrates in the film Nature’s Great Experiment, is an incredibly emotive area of research in the extreme; these films are about the lives of very real people, often children who are through no fault of their own are living in circumstances that would make most people (predominately middle class people I would imagine) very, very angry.

According to the TEDS website, the rather vague (but crucial, naturally) usage of any gathered research is to ‘...make the job of growing up smoother for children, parents and teachers.’ My initial and continuing reaction to what TEDS does is one of broad support in what they aim to achieve, although my concerns turn constantly to how this research could be used to effectively help people – particularly children of course – now or in the near future. I’m not aware of any direct governmental support and endorsement, although am not sure if this is ever the right way to disseminate any scientific research and advice – and that is to politicise it (as was the case in 2009 when Professor David Nutt, the UK’s chief drugs adviser to the government was sacked for advising that some drugs should be re-classified). But, this questioning of how effective TEDS research could be used in society is tempered by my realisation that the researchers are, in the main, there to act in a scientific and rigorous manner, to ask parents questions and not interfere. When Lisa Cant describes how one child she was studying was said to have killed a family pet with a shovel at the age of four or five, you feel a frisson of helplessness, and despair.

Baseman also shares another common factor with Diane Arbus, and that is a sourcing of many of the subjects of his films as people ostensibly on the edges of society. His film Inside Man, for example, married found footage from a 70s disco with the story of a mid-level gangster recounting his life and misdeeds, knowing he was soon to succumb to a terminal illness. One of the three films that Baseman was commissioned to make by ArtSway and The Photographers’ Gallery – Nasty Piece of Stuff – featured Soho resident Alan Wakeman and his shocking story of being raped by his first gay partner, his narration set against the streaming neon lights of Soho, with pauses into blackness with each beat between a sentence. These films, like Arbus’ photographs, are neat encapsulations of lives lived, unfettered and no holds barred, although, as I mentioned previously, edited judiciously. However, they serve to pull you into a highly personal narrative, to care about the people that are being examined under the harsh light of the camera lens, or the unforgiving hiss of the tape recorder; they are powerful as images and lasting, although potentially subjective, documents – but not necessarily documentary in flavour.

This leads me back to the question of research – and perhaps to the realisation of research as a powerful tool to enact some form of change. TEDS, although an incredibly useful and altruistic programme, are, in a sense ham-strung by their very neutrality – but the artist is, as often the case, not. Jordan Baseman has stated on many occasions that he is a neutral, an impassioned observer in the films he creates. Yet his constructing of his films – of juxtaposing as in many instances of found footage with recorded narrative (a form of duality that I think lightly reflects the duality of research that TEDS undertakes) allows him to be much more devastating than the TEDS team could ever be. Take, for example, his film Tape 1 Tape 2, a recording by a research worker with a mother of twin girls. Baseman’s artistically brave choice of a black screen on which to contrast the footage speaks volumes for the power he has identified in the very words of the main narrator, the mother. This woman, although no means a nasty person, coolly and matter-of-factly answers questions about her two girls – stating that she likes one of them, but not the other; but not once is the word ‘love’ mentioned in connection with any of these twin girls, a revelation made worse by the mother claiming she never wanted children, a revelation made even more impactful by the fact that girls can be heard in the room as the mother is talking.

So, another person on the margins of society; but, as with Arbus’ photographs, what Baseman has offered up to the viewer is not necessarily a freak, but a person who has a story, albeit one that has the power to repulse us. There is also the concept of, although not knowing the subject of a Baseman film, or an Arbus image, fully – you know enough to make your own subjective judgement. And here is the irony that I feel in the project Nature’s Great Experiment: that the films that Baseman has presented to us have more power and didactic effect than any published data that TEDS, or any scientific institute for that matter, could ever hope to realise.