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Rachel Withers

Senior Lecturer
Wimbledon College of Art
University of the Arts London 

Author's note: The following text is a work in progress, and forms part of a longer essay scheduled for publication later in 2008. Details to follow.

 

Jordan Baseman's Nature's Great Experiment

Jordan Baseman clearly likes using his ears. Many of his films prioritise language, speech and listening. He listens out for changes in vocal pitches and the stops and starts of speech rhythms. He latches on to off-kilter expressions or pregnant idioms, snips them out, underlines and savours them. Sometimes his films' visual content takes the role of a supplement or accompaniment to the soundtrack. This emphasis on the aural makes Baseman's films relatively unusual in the context of fine art videos. In some works, he transcribes his subjects' speech and streams or stamps the words across the screen. Maybe he hopes to teach his audience to listen with their eyes as well as their ears.

Baseman has a skill for finding voices that possess the vocal equivalent of what French film criticism calls " la gueule" : a certain, arresting quality in an actor's face and screen presence that keeps one wanting to watch . Works such as 1 + 1 = 1 , More Than Religion , or Life All Over It , feature voices (some famous, some not) that nail the listener's attention, both on account of what they have to say and the way that they say it. In the Nature's Great Experiment project, Baseman's judgement and good fortune have held, as regards the voices he's found. Each of the three speakers has a connection to the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS-Environment) project, and all are compelling, though only two feature "natural" human voices. The project's director, Professor Terrie Moffitt, is heard on the last film, Laws of Variation , and the first film, Nature's Great Experiment, is built around the thoughts of TEDS-Environment researcher Lisa Cant; but in the second film, Tape 1 Tape 2 , Baseman's "interviewee" is partly a synthetic construction. The soundtrack originates from an interview recorded not by the artist but as part of the TEDS-Environment study, and the voice we hear is electronically distorted to render the actual speaker unrecognisable. Nevertheless, the original speech patterns persist and the statements constitute real documentary material. Tape 1 Tape 2 makes for arresting, and troubling, listening.

Whilst all three films rely on edited interviews, the relationship between speech and on-screen visual image differs considerably from film to film. At first viewing, each seems to travel out from the common starting point -- the TEDS-Environment project -- towards a different destination. Each, one feels, could stand alone in an exhibition or screening. On examination, though, the cumulative effect of Baseman's sequencing of the films turns out to be very consequential. The viewer is led film by film into increasingly tough subject matter and philosophical problems of increasing difficulty.

Researcher Lisa Cant's words serve to introduce both the TEDS-Environment project and launch Baseman's artistic scheme. Cant offers a rich picture of the delicate and sometimes upsetting work she undertakes interviewing twins and their parents. Indirectly, her account offers a salutary reminder of the goals of the project: to learn what might cause a small child to "kill a pet with a shovel", for example, and parents to accept squalor, chaos, and violence as domestic norms. Ultimately the project hopes to help prevent such things.

But she also voices her own internal debate about its grounds. She observes at one point that "this isn't about ticking boxes"; later, though, she probes the possibility that TEDS-Environment is an "imperfect" experiment: "you can never control for everything." Taken together these are suggestive comments. They tune in to the problem of the unique versus the generic that one guesses must haunt most psychiatrists. For the relations between things to become intellectually transparent (to borrow Thomas Nagel's phrase again), social scientists must necessarily contract complex variety down to (relatively) simple elements. The ticked boxes won't quite disappear. However scrupulous, detailed and nuanced the research data obtained, it must ultimately be organised in the form of comparable statistics and clinical analyses of some kind, or it wouldn't be science; one individual's "anxious temperament" must at some level be classified as interchangeable with another's. And wouldn't an experiment that controlled for absolutely everything end up as the paradoxical " mathesis singularis " alluded to by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida ? Ultimately, surely, it would require a contradictory "new science for each object", cease to be science, and start being a kind of critical literature. Every scientific gain won on the basis of establishing a consistently defined category is achieved at the expense of the particularity of each thing categorised. Nature's Great Experiment dramatises this tension by presenting the scientist's thoughts at a moment when she's "kind of listening" to herself and colluding in Baseman's representation of her reflections in their absolute particularity.

Baseman's edit keeps Cant's dialogue turning on questions of personal moral responsibility. Participants in the experiment vouchsafe intimate information to her: "they trust that you'll do the right thing". At times she encounters children living in dire conditions and inwardly, despite her scientific perspective, she cannot but blame the parent: "You're responsible for this". She wonders what it would take for someone in such a family to exercise the self-control -- the will -- needed to break the vicious cycle of neglect. She considers the situation of identical twin children as a kind of continual, imposed self-scrutiny -- a burden, because "the person you hate most is yourself". She confesses to her concern over the impact that the TEDS-Environment investigation itself might have on the twins in the study. Her "evil side" plays devil's advocate: what if, one day, the whole basis for psychiatric research into twins turned out to be fallacious?

Cant's thoughts are juxtaposed with photographic images that at first seem unconnected with the subject of twins. Apparently static, they turn out to be locked-off, real-time video footage of locations in a small, run-down town. No one is to be seen. Some of the locations -- cottages not much more than corrugated iron shacks, a burial ground full of ramshackle graves, their markers apparently improvised from wood and metal scrap -- suggest it's a ghost town. But small incidents, such as the driving past of what might be a school bus, momentarily bring it to life. The tumbledown look of the dwellings becomes relative; the viewer begins to spot clean curtains, fresh paintwork, tidied front porches. The meanness of the graves also becomes an unreliable indicator: some of these makeshift objects date back to the 1920s. Are these townsfolk feckless and indifferent, letting things go to seed, or tough grafters succeeding against the odds in keeping a sense of continuity going in their community? Cant's soliloquy and the subdued, almost still, early-morning images combine to form a poignant meditation on human community and responsibility. A paradox emerges, along with a hint of subversion on the part of the artist. His film seems to be focusing tightly down the precariousness of appearances, and on an issue that logically speaking must lie beyond the scope of TEDS-Environment's investigation: the question of free will.

Good artist, evil artist

The second film, Tape 1 Tape 2, grasps the same issues but forces them back at us in a much more confrontational way. We listen to a mother of four year old twins being interviewed about their behaviour and her feelings towards them. One is "alright, I suppose" but the other is described in stunningly negative terms; this twin is "just nasty... aggravating... one little cow... a complete and utter pain in the backside". The alright child earns a few small crumbs of motherly affection, but the other is a continual trial and embarrassment; when this child is away "it's just bliss, heaven". The dialogue dramatises a question for twins research that Cant has flagged in the previous film. Why do some parents of identical twins allocate the role of "good twin" to one and "bad twin" to the other? Is the mother's hostility to the 'bad twin" caused by the child's behaviour, or the child's behaviour a response to the mother's attitude? Is the "bad behaviour" real or imagined, and if the latter, why should the mother imagine it? Questions of genetic or environmental causation aside, the difficulty faced by the psychiatrist in simply teasing out the facts of the situation seems immense.

But trumping the importance of the good twin/evil twin narrative is the question begged by the mother's (apparently honestly expressed) lack of love for either twin. While one is the object of contemptuous dislike, the other is treated to a comparatively benign indifference. We learn that the mother hadn't wanted either anyway. A combination of genetic and environmental causes has propelled her into the mess she's in, we know it -- but we blame her nevertheless. She was careless in getting pregnant, weak not to face her unsuitability as a parent and have an abortion, and now she's adding mental cruelty to the list. The script of the interview scrolls out letter by letter in white text on a black screen, stitching the viewer both verbally and visually into the piece's real drama: the combat in the viewer's own mind between the wish to understand and rationalise, and the drive to judge and blame. Baseman has used this text presentation technique before, in a video built around a yet more extreme document: a sound recording from the U.S. of a man being executed (July the Twelfth 1984, 2002/3). Both pieces have the ultimate effect of directing judgement away from the "wrongdoer" (the condemned murderer, the bad mother) and casting it back on the viewer's own head. It is our own ethical crisis that is under scrutiny.

Tape 1 Tape 2 shows Baseman's preference for forcing his audiences "straight into the middle of life" and exposing them to things they may well wish they hadn't encountered (to paraphrase Lisa Cant). It also shows his way of implicating the viewer; there's almost an element of (non-specific) accusation going on. When Tom Shakespeare observes: "Baseman reveals and juxtaposes and shares, but then leaves us to make up our own minds... We're not sure what he means by the work...we have to work out what's going on, and each form our own personal response", he's absolutely right, but Baseman's self-positioning is not as neutral or disengaged as this suggests . Time and again, his deliberate focus is on situations where that very absence of commentary generates extreme unease.

Take, for example, the video The One About the Camel. It features two male shopkeepers talking to the artist from behind the counters of their about-to-go-bust gift shop. Around them is a stock of unsold and thoroughly undesirable looking "novelty items". One man seems friendly but a bit of a misfit; his companion clearly has what a psychiatrist would term a personality disorder. The artist has apparently come upon this hapless establishment and this frightening man by chance, and the latter is probably still out there "in the community" right now. Mid-way through the film he gloatingly describes his plan to get a knife and slit the throat of "that bitch" (we guess, the shop's former manager) from ear to ear. Oh yes: he really, really means it. He's visualised and plotted it step by step, we can tell. It's a horrible moment. A trapdoor suddenly drops open and exposes a ghastly dark mineshaft: a damaged mind. It's compelling but one watches with difficulty, feeling voyeuristic (one has no business looking and judging), guilty (over one's revulsion at a person who's obviously mentally ill; also over the discovery of glimmerings of blacker-than-black comedy in the pair's situation), and impotent (these people need help!). The experience is dimly reminiscent of the common childhood or adolescent experience of being led into borderline or wrong behaviour -- something that feels unsavoury, immoral or dangerous -- by a fellow child whom one doesn't know well, or doesn't know as well as one thought one did. Baseman compromises his viewers, makes them accomplices.

For some viewers, sections of the film that Baseman recycles in Laws of Variation prove unwatchable, full stop. The material is taken from a medical training film of the 1950s dealing with the delivery of twins. We see footage of plump twin babies identically kitted out in sweet old-fogey '50s woollies; pyjama-ed mothers-to-be slumped on beds in states of drug-induced passivity; a stern male obstetrician and bespectacled nurse, masked, gowned and ready to go to work; and close-up sequences of vaginal deliveries, including episiotomies, the use of forceps, a breach birth, the clearing of newborns' airways, the expulsion of placentas and the cutting of umbilical cords. For the less squeamish viewer it's quite an education. It's certainly a shock reminder of standard birthing practices prior to the rise of the Natural Childbirth movement. Baseman has suggested that it is also strangely beautiful; but for most viewers, the film's visual material is likely to be hard going.

The surgical images also seem intended to fight with the soundtrack, which features TEDS-Environment's soft-spoken director Terrie Moffitt reflecting on issues in her area of research. Her address is humane and engaging. Her comments range from ideas about the possible impact of close physical resemblance on identical twins' sense of self, to the phenomenon of altruistic cooperation between twins, to an expression of sadness and anger at the deprivation and violence present in the lives of some of the children she studies. Her words have the character of a summation. She concludes by asserting the value of difference: we should resist the urge to " surround ourselves with people like ourselves", "endure a little bit of challenge and discomfort" and take on board "how wildly different people are". Meanwhile, though, the immediate challenge to the viewer, the discomfort, is visual. We see real human flesh being cut and real babies being pincered and twisted out of their mothers' wombs. One can watch or listen, but not do both.   This is perverse. What is the artist up to?

Maybe a good science/evil science drama is being enacted here. Terrie Moffitt's sympathetic, sensitive vocal presence is pitted against the scary, masked 1950s surgeon with his inexorable forceps, and anaesthetic syringe and dreadful slicing scissors. (Baseman isn't above being a little hokey when he feels like it: see here the sci-fi-style "digital unscrambling" effect used for the title and credits on Life All Over It , or his liking for what Tom Shakespeare neatly labels "electronica" to generate ambient soundtrack effects.) Yet the powerful attention-grabbing film images simply undermine Moffitt's summation, and in addition the ethical roles in Laws of Variation aren't so clearly settled. Killing pain and saving life, the obstetrician also represented perfectly good science back in his day. Is Baseman contrasting his scientific protagonists, or comparing them?

These clashes and ambiguities back up our hunch about the duplicitous character of Baseman's intentionality. Sure, we can readily picture him in the role of the responsible, intellectually serious artist-academic, collaborating with scientists to introduce big themes and difficult subjects through his work -- but by now our suspicions about the integrity of his motives are reinforced. Good artist, evil artist: Baseman "reveals and juxtaposes and shares" with apparently good motives in mind, but he also manipulates, implicates, exposes and inflicts. Delivering this severe, literally visceral, shock to his audience, for example: is this something he gets a weird kick out of? Is he in control?

Determining one's Determinations

Before responding to that, let's look at some background evidence. Firstly, there's Baseman's abiding interest in Truman Capote's famous 1965 experiment in literary journalism, In Cold Blood. (Baseman has a habit of crediting either Capote himself or key individuals dealt with in the book, at the end of his films.)

The initial critical reception of In Cold Blood apparently turned on the issue of "objectivity" or "subjectivity", set out in a relatively superficial sense. Was the book a fine example of journalistic veracity, or did Capote embroider the facts and sacrifice truth for novelistic effect? The question is clumsy, and it misses the most striking aspect of the book -- the thing, one guesses, that keeps Baseman returning to it for (if this is the right phrase) moral support. This is the chasm of existential uncertainty that In Cold Blood opens up. The text consistently denies the reader any sense that the murders it documents could really be causally explained, or that the two men who committed them could definitively be judged, either as morally responsible, or as victims, in their turn, of genetic and environmental determinants.

Furthermore, it's clear to any insightful reader that the resolution of these uncertainties would ruin the book. Such a resolution would completely undermine a crucial, although invisible, creation at the heart of the text: the author "Truman Capote". Simultaneously paying respectful tribute to, but also belittling and patronising American family life and Christian values, and treating the various killers in the narrative with a peculiar mixture of disgust, pity, fainter-than-faint hero-worship and subtly queer attraction, "Capote" achieves an implicit self-identification with the killers upon whom he refuses to pass final judgement. He recapitulates the dilemma of ethical control and pathological compulsion that is explicitly broached in relation to the murderers of the story, but this time in relation to the act of writing.   

    

As a second piece of evidence we should note how frequently Baseman's films focus on expressions of creativity that seem to exhibit a strongly symptomatic dimension. Cactasia! , for example, offers a glimpse of the idiosyncratic lifestyle of Gordon Rowley, a delightfully eccentric gay botanist (a cactus expert) whose jumpy manner and exuberant vocal outbursts suggest he has Tourette's syndrome. In 1 + 1 = 1, Patrick Wilkins, a heart transplant patient, compellingly describes how he's haunted by terrifying dreams that, he hints, might have been implanted in him along with the alien organ. Don't Stop Till You Get Enough is built around the adulatory narratives and drawings of a group of Michael Jackson fans. The pathos of the fans' adoration of their star is almost excruciating at times, and the drawings, all evidently transcribed from publicity photographs, suggest stereotypical, obsessive behaviour. In addition, the face of Michael Jackson -- the living document of the singer's attempt at surgical self-reconstruction as a white girl starlet -- represents a facial transformation so extreme and disturbing that it's hard to conceive as a form of willed, self-controlled expression. In both these ways Don't Stop Till You Get Enough seems to open the door to the possibility of providing clinical "explanations" of creative activity.

In the introduction it was suggested that the self-reflexive dimension of Baseman's project directs questions at both artistic and scientific paradigms. The preceding pages will, it's hoped, have fleshed out that suggestion. Nature's Great Experiment starts out by pointing out a free-will-shaped aporia within TEDS-Environment's project, but later, contrariwise, it needles the anxiety that artistic creation is nothing more than a clinically analysable "behaviour", maybe even a kind of perversion. Yet the introduction also states that his films reassert the irreducibility of artistic forms of life to the particular frameworks of understanding provided by science. How is this?

The answer lies in the films' subtle self-pathologising tactic, which sets up a perfect circularity. It's a willed creative device inviting the viewer to interpret the work, at one level, as compulsively motivated, and with this the reflexivity of the artwork is fully achieved. No wonder the artist acknowledges the importance of In Cold Blood ; Capote's lesson has been well earned and ingeniously adapted. Baseman chooses what his symptom will be, hinting at a kind of causality in the work in such a way that the suggestion of determination is simultaneously undercut. We might think of it as a concrete demonstration of Zizek's circular formulation of the exercise of free will: the application of the ability to choose or determine which causes one will allow to determine oneself.

Susan Sontag comments on this in relation to the actors used by Robert Bresson. See The Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson in Against Interpretation , Doubleday, 1990 pp. 177-195.

Barthes, Roland: Camera Lucida TKTK 1980 p. 8

Shakespeare, Tom: Untimely ripped: how Nature's Great Experiment challenges our views of children and society details TBC

Baseman's screenplay SHUP, a possibly autobiographical "true story" about two teenage boys, develops a narrative along these very lines (Bookworks, 1998).

See e.g. Mass, Mark H.: Capote's Legacy at http://list.msu.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0101b&L=aejmc&T=0&P=7693 (visited January 2007)