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Honours Course Coordinator
Studio Coordinator of
Drawing and Bachelor of Visual Art, Department of Fine Arts
Monash University, Melbourne Australia
Finding a means to describe the human would seem to have been the raison d'étre for art. Whether the Lascaux caves, Plato's famous allegory of shadows on a wall, or the legend of the Corinthian maid, who traced her lover's profile before he left for war, stories of the origin of what we might loosely call image-making have been predicated upon the human portrait. What is striking in all these accounts is the impulse to find or locate knowledge (here, of the figure) through a simultaneously indexical and empirical method: to found understanding upon an absence of comprehension; instead, the assurance of immediate and commonplace experience.
In seeking knowledge from direct observation of those around us, and the construction of an analytic language for this, artists can be placed alongside philosophers and scientists as humanity's primary investigators of humanity. It is no surprise then that their methodologies may at times converge: and in the exhibition Tape 1 Tape 2 , Jordan Baseman carefully positions himself in this shared territory, inquiring into the discoverers and their own, very human concerns (himself tacitly included), as well as their startling discoveries about the nature of being.
These works were developed during a residency at the Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University in 2005; and as part of the project 'Nature's Great Experiment' in 2006, supported by the UK Arts Humanities Research Council as well as the Wellcome Trust. Baseman worked with psychiatrists involved in the TEDS project, the 'Twins Early Development Study', an investigation involving 15,000 families with twins in the UK. The project addresses the three most common psychological problems encountered in childhood: communication disorders, mild mental impairment and behaviour problems.
In the introduction to the video work Tape 1 Tape 2 (referring to the separate tapes for each twin, used to record parents' comments about their behaviour; and from which the exhibition takes its name), Baseman explains that 'TEDS uses a large sample in order to study abnormal development in the context of normal development'. The question of what constitutes normal therefore becomes part of - if not the focus of - the investigation: and throughout this exhibition, we are left wondering at the incredible profundity of what we think of as normality. In the words of Terrie Moffitt, (Professor of Social Behaviour and Development, Department of Social Genetic and Developmental Psychology, King's College London), whose interview responses about the TEDS project form the commentary to Laws of Variation :
'The most valuable thing any of us can have is an appreciation of how wildly different we are, the huge amount of variation in the human world. The tendency is to arrange our life to be with people that are like ourselves, which is more comfortable; but this is also false...Trying to break out of this, to appreciate how different people can be behaviourally, has got to be enriching.'
Fascinated by the extremes of human behaviour on display, Baseman's work places us simultaneously as the operator and specimen of a microscope; in a sense, both director and actor for the video camera. We are drawn into considering our own experiences of such events, both as performer and observer; and further, to reflect upon that act of observation, the subjective reading of an infinite complexity, that we usually defer to the realm of science but which is also our continuous, if unacknowledged, experience of daily life.
Such deferment takes place as Moffitt suggests, in order to remain 'comfortable'; and this is perhaps why science is used as a repository for that which is uncomfortable, the difficult and the challenging. Baseman seems acutely aware of this; and instead shares with Moffitt a concern for 'truth', however extreme. Laws of Variation presents footage from a 1957 film 'Management of Twins in Pregnancy and Labour' from the Wellcome Trust Library, alongside Moffitt's narration. A professional training documentary of a medical technique, we witness the very bloody birth of two sets of twins and the associated procedures then employed by surgeon and midwife. Any shock experienced is in direct proportion to the degree of 'comfort' usual for the viewer; this event is clearly one of great joy as well as great trauma. Baseman's role is simply to draw our attention - to pull focus - back to the wonder and awe of the rough, intimate texture of life.
Horror is of course the sibling of such fascination, and can be found in the interstices of every moment, as Levinas acknowledges in his investigation of 'the sheer fact of being' ( es gibt or 'there is'): 'The rustling of the there is ... is horror'). Similarly, monstrosity is found in the mother's mundane, off hand but chillingly revealing account of the personalities of her four year-old twins described in Tape 1 Tape 2 ; and its corollary, the deprivation Moffitt and her researchers too frequently found in meeting with the 15,000 families of twins in the UK. Here, Baseman again holds our gaze, as we are reminded that the incredible can so quickly run full circle and be folded back into normality:
'We have observed a great deal of violence to children through our study: often neglect of their basic physical needs... Incredible to me that so many people in affluent worlds such as the UK or New Zealand where the studies are taking place are living a day to day life of quiet desperation. It is so commonplace, that they are not shy in talking about it; have lived with it for so long, it has become normal... They have lived with violence for so long, it is not something to be escaped; is how life is.'
Like horror, violence can also be understood as an intensity of feeling or expression; an extreme or uncontrollable force, generally of a destructive nature. Works such as Don't Stop 'till You Get Enough describe the play of such 'violence' upon the human psyche, here through the influence of Michael Jackson upon a group of Melbourne-based Jackson impersonators. What is remarkable is that this is effectively a self-violence; perhaps more usually interpreted as love. Many of the recorded interviews, based on questions such as 'Do you ever dream of Michael Jackson?', describe what it is to aspire to be Michael in quasi-spiritual dimensions: 'When he says he is the instrument of God, I really, really believe him'; 'He is the most famous man that ever lived'; 'I live my life according to messages he sends in his songs'. The accompanying sequence of fans' hand-drawn portraits of Jackson, found on the internet, form a testimony to his 'infinite guises', while each individual drawing's calligraphy hints at discreet identities striving for dissolution in unity. This absolute love of the Other approaches an idea also described by Levinas, of an awesome and therefore annihilating passion before the 'face' of God - perhaps the ultimate portrait.
A subtext of the exhibition is the condition of the child in contemporary society and the machinations of power that operate upon them, for better or for worse - from the 'childhood dreams that seem to dissolve as adulthood approaches' as one Jackson impersonator describes; to the child-Jagger of (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, a split screen presentation of two takes of an eleven year-old Tasmanian child's awkward but compelling impersonation of the love-rock-god, performed at the request of his mother; one of the least mediated but most unsettling works presented .
Much of Baseman's material is already on the public record; and it should be noted that the appropriate ethical procedures were completed before engaging with this project to ensure the consent of the authorities, those he films directly, or, as with the contested but finally successful defence of the legendary documentary film maker Frederick Wiseman, the consent of those charged with their legal custody. In an approach that borrows from Wiseman and cinéma vérité in its combination of naturalism and narrative structure (as well as perhaps Big Brother and the Discovery Channel) we are drawn wide-eyed into engagement with a delineation of the already real.
President Truman, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Ghandi are all attributed as saying that society is 'judged by how it treats its weakest members'. Baseman reminds us of that charge; but the knife-edge of this work is the degree to which it judges, patronises or manipulates those it documents. However, importantly, this is the question Baseman ultimately redirects to us , by engaging the viewer in the act of consciously measuring both the scenes presented and our responses. As with the scientist collating data, the surgeon discussing an X-ray, or the film-makers of Italian Neorealism, we alongside Baseman witness the extraordinary but true occurrences of daily life; and, with full knowledge of the procedural, empirical limitations employed in recording them, including our own prejudices and suppositions, attempt to make meaning.
See: The Republic , (360 BC) Plato, Book VII
Emmanuel Levinas, 'There is: Existence without existents', trans. Alphonso Lingis in The Levinas Reader , ed. Sean Hand, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1989, p.31, 32.
Professor Tracie Moffitt, in conversation with Jordan Baseman, 'Laws of Variation', Jordan Baseman, 2006.
'The face 'signifies' beyond, neither as an index nor as a symbol, but precisely and irreducibly as a face that summons me . It signifies to-God (à Dieu), not as sign, but as the questioning of myself, as if I were summoned or called, that is to say, awakened or cited as myself.' Emmanuel Levinas, 'Beyond Internationality', trans. Kathleen McLaughlin in Alan Montefiore (ed.) Philosophy in France Today , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 112.
See: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies , 1967; a controversial documentary film based on life in a 1960s State Prison for the Criminally Insane, Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Banned (outside of educational showings) until 1992 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, that ruled it was an invasion of the privacy of the inmates, despite the prison authorities having granted Wiseman approval. See also: www.subcin.com/titcut ; and, Thomas W. Benson, 'Documentary Dilemas: Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies"', Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.