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Double Take / Take Two

Jordan Baseman’s Nature’s Great Experiment

Susan MacWilliam

“The most valuable thing any of us can have is an appreciation of how wildly different people are, the huge amount of variation there is out there in the human world. The tendency that we have to arrange our lives so that we surround ourselves with people like ourselves, that’s much more comfortable but it’s also false and so trying to break out of that sit, endure a little bit of challenge and discomfort, to appreciate how different people can be behaviourally, I think has got to be enriching.”

Professor Terrie Moffitt, Twins Early Development Study – Environment, Institute of Psychiatry, London.

Professor Terrie Moffitt leaves us with this statement at the end of Baseman’s Nature’s Great Experiment. It could easily describe Baseman’s practice. Baseman’s work appreciates and explores human behaviour and personality - it celebrates difference, the person on the periphery or the edge and the person who reflects on humanity through experience and extreme circumstance. Baseman indulges us in spectrums of difference - he seeks the eccentric or the other and in The Dandy Doctrine and The One About The Camel presents compelling portraits and slices of lives. His works consider ideas of normality, the fragility of life and invite us to encounter other lives and experiences, and in turn reflect on our own lives, character and attitudes.

Using interview, speech, image, text, audio and archival and first hand footage Baseman makes video works. Focussing on the scientific research study of behaviour, where comparison is made through extensive studies of twins Nature’s Great Experiment is a story in three parts, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is three works viewed collectively as one. It is like a play. It starts at the end and it ends at the beginning - setting up an infinite loop. ACT I and ACT III present visual image with voiceover narrative and continuous electronic hum. Sandwiched between these bookends and devoid of visuals Act II presents white text on black - a running transcript of spoken narrative.

Nature’s Great Experiment
Electronic hum pervades. An ominous sound, like tinnitus it is there in the background continually, like the hiss of a neon light it suggests ambiguity, an in between, neither fully on or off. It conjures images of late night laboratory experiments conducted under buzzing electric lights, or a fly zapper - it spells danger or anxiety.

A camera observes a town at dawn. It feels un-peopled and derelict, with crumbling paint and glassless windows. The camera focuses on houses and graveyard as narrator Lisa Cant talks of her experiences of interviewing. Baseman interviews - he interviews heavily and edits heavily. Cant’s discussion of interview is enveloped in Baseman’s interview of her. Cant talks about being in other people’s homes, about the trust given her to enter, observe, question and to make of it what she will. This echoes Baseman’s methodology of interview, record, edit. Cant talks about the repetition of visiting a family again and again. Cant’s research is about twins, about the repeat in nature. Each time something is repeated it is different, and it defines itself through comparison to the other. Twins are compared we hear. Constantly. Good twin, bad twin - first twin, second twin – “….in the first two minutes you can tell who has been designated good twin/bad twin.”

There are parallels between Baseman’s methods and that of Cant. Baseman heavily edits his material; his trusting collaborators allow him their words to reconfigure for his purpose. The twin research also aims to produce some form of rendering from gathered and interpreted data.

Against a visual backdrop of graves Cant recounts stories of stillborns, chronic illnesses, deaths. We see graves and gravestones, and wooden crosses. The inscriptions - Aged 2 Days; Aged 6; Aged 7 - indicate that these are the graves of children. The wooden edged graves bear an uncanny resemblance to children’s cots or cribs - an image which will appear in ACT III. As the camera scans it focuses on graffiti – a heart and swastika. Joseph Mengele, Doctor at Auschwitz conducted unthinkable experiments on twins in his study of eugenics and the graffiti draws together in the imagination the current and Nazi fascination with twins.

Cant speaks of factors influencing development and about the vicious circle of life. She talks about the detritus of living, the chaos of the houses she visits and about neglect. Despite a sense of dereliction, there are small traces and evidence of life, of order and organisation in the images Baseman presents - a bus passes by a row of neatly lined up bins and the grass around the run-down graves is cut short. Cant recounts the tale of a child who has killed a family pet, and considers his “empty eyes” and how there was “not really any humanness there” – is she guilty of attributing and reading character in to image? Is this what the job encourages? Has the child already been written off?

In considering her research Cant wonders at the logic of it all, about meddling: “Is there anything really natural about what we’re doing here at this institute…” Cant speaks about the observer paradox, and how observing may influence results and outcomes. She talks about circumstance and situation about cause and effect about nature and nurture, she gives her opinion on what she observes. She speaks with scepticism and judgement. How can the natural experience of twin-ness be examined if the very act of examining disrupts? She questions the approach of the research, the editing, the rearranging, the use of the findings. Baseman also disrupts through his edits, and though it is not obvious, Baseman is editing Cant. Cant is cool and collected and polished.

Tape 1 Tape 2

Tape 1
- Horror – She’s a cow - She’s very disruptive - She’s just. I don’t know, Just horrible - Horrible – Nasty - she is one little cow -

Tape 2
- more loving - but she’s um, a wobbler, like me - she’s more confident. She’s more interested -

Baseman doesn’t provide visual footage in ACT II – just white text on black. Our imagination might fill the void, like the non-specific visualisation that occurs when listening to radio. Perhaps not a precise picture, but a sense of ‘stuff.’ We are set up to fill this blankness, this void. White text appears on screen as it is spoken with incumbent ums and yeahs, displaced thoughts. Fractured sentences appear. Baseman is playing with ideas of rhythm, form and structure. Narrative overlays blankness like a radio play. The speech in ACT II contrasts the articulate and precisely edited Cant in ACT I. Without background image or fuzz the words are given extra resonance.

The strategy of white text on black imageless screen is employed by Baseman in ‘July Twelfth 1984’, in which we hear the description of a state execution and the mechanics of the final moments of life. It is stark and absolute, evidential and uncluttered by distracting images.

In the introductory titles of Tape I Tape II we are told that the woman’s words are entirely unedited but the recording is manipulated and distorted to make anonymous. The middle sequence of Baseman’s three act ‘play’ sets up a narrative about relationships. We hear the voice of the mother of four year old identical twins interviewed by a TEDS researcher. She characterises the children as good twin, bad twin.

In Tape II a child enters and interrupts the conversation, attempting to get her mother’s attention. Like an unexpected and unplanned extra she breaks the conversation. Mother and interviewer share an uncomfortable, nervous laugh. It is a startling moment. Twins are the interruption to the normal flow and this mother’s life has been interrupted by two children she didn’t plan. The mother’s descriptions of her children are uncomfortable to hear and it is left to our imagination to wonder whether the interloper is good twin or bad twin.

Laws of Variation

And so it begins. In contrast to the graveyard images of ACT I, ACT III gives us the beginning. The camera frames the mother in an image reminiscent of Courbet’s The Origin of The World. We see repeated childbirth in full technicolour glory and the eerie sci-fi hum returns.

After the empty black of ACT II Baseman thrusts image at us. Brutal footage insists physical response. Mothers’ bodies are abstracted, flesh is cut, and we see academic images of childbirth. It is red and bloody. Footage is slowed and lingered over, making it all the more horrific. Baseman’s insistent repetition of the mechanical process of childbirth with cold steel instruments and injections is alarming and relentless and a deliberately shocking formal device. Repeated childbirth is punctuated by frames of black, and saturated ‘Kodachrome’ colour images of twins in matching knitted outfits. Sleeping babies in cribs invert the graves of ACT I. With her soothing voice Terrie Moffitt, the third unseen speaker in Baseman’s trilogy speaks with optimisim as we watch nostalgic post war images. Then back to childbirth.

Image and audio elicit different responses. With reassuring tone Moffitt guides us past Baseman’s disturbing footage, her calming voice transcending its horror as she speaks of humanity and survival as we endure the visual of life’s first monumental struggle. Moffitt considers our relationships with others - how we see ourselves and how others see themselves, how we compete and assist. “We need to know that every human being is unique and individual and some piece of evidence that that’s not true – always surprises us, over and over again.” I am reminded of a television programme, perhaps Horizon from the early 1980s: middle-aged identical twin sisters share a house in the tailoring district of London. Like Baseman’s three act sequence I recall three images. Image 1: the sisters vacuum – together holding an upright vacuum cleaner they make stiff back and forward movements. Image 2: using the other as a mirror they simultaneously and precisely tie their headscarves, adjusting each till exact. Image 3: the sisters travel silently by train to their parents’ home - stand behind a hedge looking into the house and then leave - a journey repeated weekly. The shy and reclusive sisters’ twin-ness has isolated them and it is hard not to imagine and worry over one’s individual survival without the other.

In its analysis of twins Nature’s Great Experiment repeatedly asks us to consider the image and the effect of/encounter with the image. We are encouraged to look, observe, consider and judge. In a work centred on the notion of the visual at no point does Baseman allow any of his narrators be visible. Instead we must paint further pictures in our mind’s eye. Through cut and splice and iteration, voice and text, image and blankness Baseman explores strategies to gather and present forms of evidence, anecdote and opinion. Act III’s instructional childbirthing footage reinforces the idea of the observer and the act of observation running through Baseman’s triad.

Nature’s Great Experiment ends in the beginning with a bookend, an echo, a twin, an other. The finality of the children’s graves is countered by the potential of new lives and experiences set up in ACT III. Playing with the form and format of the interview Baseman considers science, control and judgement as he frames the observed of ACT II with the observers of ACTS I and III. Baseman leaves us to consider our sense of self and how we quantify and see ourselves in relation to others. With full circle and loop Baseman has created something epic which talks of life and death, about independence and dependence, about individual, familial and societal struggles.