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When does a subject become a person, or stop being a person?

Laura Simpson

Assistant Curator, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee

Within an artwork or a piece of research, how and when does a subject become a person, or in fact, stop being a person?

Because of the focus of Jordan Baseman’s hosts, the Twin Research Unit, on child development and the formation of personality, the question ‘how and when does a subject become a person, or stop being a person?’ seems especially important. This extends to thinking about at what point does that individual become a statistical unit of a larger society and at what point does an artwork start to consider a universal theme.

In watching Baseman’s Nature’s Great Experiment you have to begin with something more fundamental; from what viewpoint do you consider these questions? As the trilogy progressed, I found myself uncomfortably swinging between understanding and empathy with subject, scientist, artist then pulling myself back to the realisation that I was an audience member. The role of onlooker is involved to some extent in all four of these positions and manifests itself in expressions of lack of control from the mother we hear interviewed.

In considering this trilogy within Baseman’s whole oeuvre, an analogy can also be drawn to question how much of the scientist, and in Baseman’s work, the artist, is revealed in the work. This takes us back to child development and how much of the other onlooker, the parent, is revealed in the child?

Jordan Baseman’s trilogy-in-one-work, Nature’s Great Experiment, contrasts acute points of information; visual, aural, textual, emotional, scientific, archival. He works with conceptual and formal contrasts within the films in a way which draws attention to the oppositions inherent in the societies which have produced these points of information. The experiences of the Twin Research Unit, although carried out gently and thoughtfully within the films, have a harsh honestly which is matched by the final visual element, a gruelling and bloody film drawn from a surgical education archive.

In Nature’s Great Experiment, the first section of this trilogy of the same name, we see a confusing, other worldly, timeless landscape, desolate and embellished by tattered child-graves. The audio, where we hear Twin Early Development Study researcher, Lisa Cant, speaking about her work, is in some ways quite unrelated but as a viewer it’s impossible to read them separately. The audio, more than the video, sets the scene for the work as a whole.

In Tape 1, Tape 2 an emotional, oral interview between Lisa and a subject / mother is played to us and recounted in corresponding text on screen. No other visual stimulous nor a blank screen for your imagination to play out on, is given. Instead we are railroaded into studying the words in black and white. We shall hear later that the words, presented twice for us in this section, are not the content. The opposing but friendly sides work together to bring out the truth. The subject, inevitably, is unable to do anything more than present a clear message which reveals the complexity of her life.

In Laws of Variation we experience again mother vs. professional this time within the visual element, archive footage of surgeons birthing twins in the 1950s. The camera’s aggression matches the extreme metal intervention of the surgeons’ tools. The mother is a bloody, unconscious and faceless vessel to be emptied. The audio in this piece, if you can manage to listen to it without being overwhelmed by the visuals, is at once comfortingly informative and positive while being too honest in its description of the permanent harm which often comes to twin babies during the dramatic labour and subsequent competitive duality of living with a twin.

The duality referred to here mirrors the challenges of processing Nature’s Great Experiment as a viewer... sight - sound, words - emotion, objective - subjective, witness - witnessed, observed - observer, subject - object, personal - professional, honesty - pretence. The splitting and offering up against each other of content is the artist’s method and the research professionals’ concern: the focus on a subject always affects that subject.


The following is an interview conducted in preparation for screening Nature’s Great Experiment and ‘in conversation’ event with Baseman in early 2010.

LS: How did you come to work with Twin Research Unit at The Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London?

JB: I was commissioned for a project to work with a scientist and was introduced to Terrie Moffitt  who leads the Twin Research Unit. When the initial project funding fell through I realised I wanted to keep developing a relationship with Terrie. I was really interested in her work, especially because the interview process seemed to be at the core of so much of what she does. I applied to the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and the Wellcome Trust for funding to make the work.

LS: Is this the first time that you have worked with scientists? 

JB: No, I worked with the heart surgeon Frank Wells, in 2002, at the Papworth Hospital Heart and Lung Transplant Unit in Cambridge. I made two works from that experience: Under the Blood and 1 + 1 = 1. Under the Blood is made from over 100 hours of open heart surgery that I recorded over three months. The soundtrack is based on a sermon from Billy Graham that I have heavily edited; mainly removing a lot of the god things, and added music to... it is like an art horror movie!  

LS: You have used archive footage within past works, is this the first time that you had access to a distinct collection which was created specifically for research? 

JB: No, I made work using the North West Film Archive in Manchester. In fact two of the films now at the Baltic use materials from that source. Although the material used in those works are not as directly connected to the narration as much as in Laws of Variation.  

LS: Do you have any specific connection to twins? Are family dynamics and nurture over nature of particular interest to you?

JB: I have no connection to twins. I am not a twin (a singelton!). A lot of my work is recorded in people's homes or in a domestic place. I am really interested in the interview process. Asking questions and then never being able to anticipate the answers or the meanings that transpire. Of course I then re-edit those interviews to focus on what I find interesting which is often different to what the participant finds interesting...

LS: I can see how your work with the Twin Research Unit is similar in some ways to other films of yours but also different. I had the impression from other works, like the ones filmed in the confectionary shop (The One About the Camel ) and the burger van (Born to Run), that your direct relationship while filming with the subjects was key to the process. In ‘Nature’s Great Experiment’ there is, at times, a separation between you and the subjects – through archive recordings for example. I can see how this separation is passed onto the viewer, for several reasons, through voice alteration and using audio rather than visual information. Even the fact there is no eye-contact from the speakers. The Baltic brochure which speaks about your recent show there entitled The Most Powerful Weapon in this World, uses some emotive words to describe the work you show there. For example, the piece The Inside Man is described as a ‘story of criminality, pride and shame’.  There is a pathe within your works which is often at a point of tension. I have at times felt admiring, nervous of and sorry for your protagonists all at once. I was wondering if you have certain human emotions in mind when making your work, or have realised over time that some elements of the human condition naturally come through repeatedly? 

JB: I'm trying to make work that is entertaining, challenging and rooted in an emotional response to the world. Obviously I am also trying to make work that operates intellectually too because it is so constructed. All of the narratives are not what they seem to be. They are edited from hours of material into brief monologs. I try to let the smallest amount of material say the most. Each work is different and distinct from the next. The interviewee brings everything to the work and from that I fashion something. But I want to illicit a response from an audience and I want that response to be in art an emotional response, not entirely intellectualized. 

LS: Looking at your body of work, it seems in a way that you are drawn to ‘characters’ within society. Would you say that you are a people person, does your personal life centre on human contact? 

JB: I sure hope so! I spend a lot of my time with others but also a lot of time alone. Through my work (teaching and art-making) I am often in very social situations but I also really value my time alone. I am very social but also intensely private. I I have three brothers and we all shared a bedroom when I was growing up so I never had much time alone except out on my bike!  

LS: Very little of yourself is evident in your works – just the odd question from behind the camera. How much do you feel an affinity to the people you work with? 

JB: Although I don't appear in the work and you don't really hear me too much I am there all the time. Through editing I am present: I only let people say what I want them to say, only show you what I want you to see. Not that this is malicious or anything. I like to think of the work as portraiture; my interpretation of people and/or events, not always what is presented to me. 

LS: To me there is compassion in your work, but it could be seen to lay bare that individual’s personal circumstances. Sometimes the individuals don’t seem quite compos mentis and I was wondering how you approach people and whether you ever don’t show publicly work you have made, even if there is approval from the subjects.  Do your subjects tend to want to, or do you facilitate for them to see the films? 

JB: Usually people see the work on their own or with me before it 'goes public'. It is essential that people are okay with it all. I have had one person become very, very anxious about being in a film because she feared for her life. I withdrew the film before scheduled the exhibition and it was never shown. People aren't always pleased with the results because I think their understanding of what I am doing and what I am doing are often different things no matter how much I prepare them. For me it is essential that people see my work beforehand so they know what they are getting themselves in for. I don't show them work that will deter them though, I am strategic about it. But the work online shows a breadth of activity so that they can see it is not a straightforward thing. It is all pretty complex negotiating with people towards the end result.    

LS: What’s been your experience of bringing your own artist’s ethics together with the social or medical research based ethics which the scientists were using.  How has this project informed subsequent work? 

JB: Ethics are a big deal. How do you respect someone's life and still make the work that you wish to make? Some people think I am not at all ethical. To be honest that does upset me. I try real hard to inform the participants as much as possible about my process and how and where the work will end up. In working with the Institute of Psychiatry (check)I signed up to their ethical policy as well as Wimbledon College of Art, the AHRC and the Wellcome Trust policies. It was interesting to say the least and not easy but it hasn't informed anything that I do really. I didn't have to change my working methods at all. I now always get people to sign a release form. I started to do this about 9 years ago just to protect my copyright of the material as much as anything else.    

LS: How did you make choices around the material to use? 

JB: To be totally honest it is almost entirely instinctive at first. Then I re-shape that initial encounter with the material and keep shaping it until its final form.   

LS: Is this the first time that you have made video works as a triptych? 

JB: Yes. I often make multiple works but this is the first time that they have been connected as one. I wouldn't show them as separate works. The compounded effect is essential especially as they all three stem through an interview process and that reflects the work of Terrie's team.

LS: How do you see the suite of work, does each inform the next, does understanding of the first build through seeing the second, can you only understand the information fully through seeing all three? 

JB: Ideally they impact on each other in an accumulative manner. They build up to the final work. The entire experience is pretty intense. From the first work and the self-questioning of the twins studies at the end of that to the mother speaking about her kids (with them playing in the same room!) to Terrie and the awesome multiple births.  

LS: In viewing the triptych, I found that at several points I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. I found myself trying to place the footage of the houses and graves on a strange continuum of time and country and rural vs. urban references, at one point thinking is this a mining town in Wales for example. The scenes in that sequence are also very abandoned feeling so it would be interesting to know a bit more about them. Could you describe the material you have used in each of the three films? 

JB: Nature's Great Experiment: it is a mining town in Tasmania. I went there specifically to film those homes and those graves. I love the look of the place as it is so rich in its abandonment. It is a real surprise when that school bus with kids drives by. The town is still inhabited although it is poisoned and nearly forgotten. It is a tragic place where the environment has been so trashed for gain. It is an emotive landscape yet people live there and it is still home for many. The deprivation seemed a good backdrop to Lisa Cant's narration. The whole thing was loosely inspired by the film Wisconsin Death Trip. 

Tape 1 Tape 2: I felt that interview was so potent that I couldn't use images with it. It is much more powerful to imagine the person and her surroundings. The transcription of the text becomes the work and her language becomes reinforced through the speeding text. 

Laws of Variation: the title refers to Darwin. The archive material is re-edited from an original 57 minute film that teaches medics about multiple births. I used the material as a counterpoint to Terrie's narrative. She speaks of the difficulty of twin-ness and the inspiration that she has seen in their problematic lives. I used the film because it is difficult but it is also miraculous. It is a wonder that any of us survive that astonishing and beautiful birth process. I was also interested in that footage because of how passive the mothers are and how aggressive the camera is. The twins are delivered to camera.   

LS: I am not that squeamish but did find the twin birthing-manual footage difficult to watch. I think it was partially because of the invasive (probably necessary) doctor intervention, especially with the metal implements. It really put me on edge, particularly in combination with the voice over about problems such as cerebral palsy due to oxygen starvation. It is rare to see such a practical and straightforward piece of instructional footage and it makes more sense when it is understood as instructional. 

JB: I know, it is not an easy watch at all. It does have moments of real beauty to it. I wanted you to feel like you have been through something.