Ian White and the artists’ cinema: thirty-nine essays by the late critic-curator.
Here Is Information. Mobilise., by Ian White, edited by Mike Sperlinger, LUX, 350 pages, £22 at www.lux.org.uk
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In October 2012, critic and curator Ian White began a blog after receiving a diagnosis of lymphoma, the disease that would end his life, at age forty-one, mere months later. Titled Lives of Performers (after the 1972 Yvonne Rainer film), the blog chronicled both his newly medicalized condition as well as his continued encounters with the London art world. One entry skewers an exhibition of artwork by prisoners, curated by British artist Sarah Lucas; White calls it a show that “constructs the visitor as a character who you, Sarah, want us to be while having a laugh at us for being so.” But, he continues, “right now, I couldn’t care less about fighting any kind of art-ethical war over these things, about art as social work, rehabilitation, the ignorant lauding of personal experience or whatever else and all the fucked-up other lies the framing of this show spews . . . I can’t be bothered/haven’t got time.”
This moment crystallizes the reflexive, acerbic criticality and weaponized hauteur that typified White’s character. It’s one of the gems of Here Is Information. Mobilise., a selective compendium of thirty-nine essays by White, arranged chronologically by publication from 2002 to 2013, that initially appeared as journalism, catalogue commissions, blog posts, lectures. White’s hyphenate career circled around questions posed by what the British like to call “artists’ moving image,” a clunky but tellingly broad catch-all for the formally adventurous and intellectually provocative art work that emerged from the legacies of experimental film and video of previous eras. That the period covered by Here Is Information constituted one of the UK’s most fertile moments for such activity is one crucial benefit of this collection: it is a first draft of recent history, in the words of a central participant.
The most dramatic shift for experimental cinema during this time was its belated embrace by the greater art world, and the subsequent emergence of a new generation of moving-image artists who came of age in this scene. A field that had long been positioned as a counterpoint to mainstream entertainments now found itself entangled in a new matrix of power: a rapidly expanding system of commercial galleries and major institutions. White grapples with this issue early on in “Romantic, Beyond, Impossible and Heartbreaking: An open response to Tilda Swinton’s 2002 Vertigo address ‘In the Spirit of Derek Jarman’” (2003), one of the earliest pieces in Here Is Information. As its title indicates, White’s essay takes the form of a response to the actor’s talk at the 2002 Edinburgh International Film Festival, in which Swinton stated that “nothing an eighth as mad bad and downright spiritualized” as Jarman’s work was then being made in the UK. White vehemently disagreed. “What I want you to know is that there are pockets of resistance,” he counters. “That the terms have changed. That in fact we’re finding alternative structures, not completely free of the institution but much freer of the film industry than you seem to think possible.” One of the prime examples he gives is his own work as film programmer at the publicly funded Whitechapel Gallery. “What we’re trying (and I should emphasise, trying) there is to build an artists’ cinema,” White declares. “A place of questions, of new work, old work, but a site where things can happen, shifts might occur. It doesn’t always occur, but that’s the beauty of the effort that is shared and made with an audience.”
Issues prompted by film’s place in a reordered cultural sphere reverberate throughout Here Is Information; elsewhere, he refers to “a sector adrift” and “the current anxiety surrounding the battle of exhibition spaces and their (socio-economic) structures.” For White, problems of this new artist’s cinema can be understood by examining the sites of installation and what he refers to as “the auditorium,” a term that emphasizes the move away from self-contained movie theaters or cinematheques in favor of multi-purpose halls situated within larger architectural structures. In “Recording and Performing: Cinema as a Live Art/Becoming Object” (2008), White describes his contemporary situation as one in which “space is impermanent, where filmshows happen at different locations each time.”
White suggests that this diasporic situation has the advantage of revealing once again cinema’s inherent liveness, in the uniqueness of each screening: “This is an event culture of non-standardisable forms,” he writes. “Even when artists’ film and video is shown in the permanent auditorium of an institution it becomes an event, equatable to a live work by its determining material factors: that the screening invariably happens once only, possibly endorsed by the presence of the filmmaker, the print or tape possibly having been imported from abroad and unlikely to be shown again before enough time has passed to re-amplify the rarity value of the occasion.” In its non-standardization, White argues, artists’ film and video resists both the “guarantees of quality and quantity” that typify the feature film industry, as well as the archival “collected permanence” offered by museums and abetted by the editioning of moving-image works by art dealers.
White was an essential participant in this ongoing conversation, and those who encountered him in life can affirm that his public persona is echoed here in all its unabashedly queer glory: saucy, bitchy, and eager to overturn conventional pieties. The sharp discriminations and arch poetics of these “texts,” as he prefers to call them, is testament to the dynamic and restless nature of his mind. Yet for all their oppositional vigor, White’s arguments, in aggregate, tend to offer sly critiques of how to maneuver within the art world system, rather than propositions on how to build something outside of it. When a more utopian vision emerges, his statements turn gnomic. Analyzing Oliver Husain’s video-cum-performance Purfled Promises (2009), White fixes upon its final image of “a deliberately refined and wrecked auditorium,” locating within that scene a vision of as-yet-untapped possibility: “Cinema, actually, remodelled, almost without us noticing, into a model for a new society.” More beautifully enigmatic is his encounter with Thomas Steffl’s installation Helikopter (2003). “I leave the room convinced of something. I’ve changed. Social change. Change beyond that which occurs through information,” he writes. “This is where I began writing, from a position of rethinking . . . Choosing in fact to enter a space marked ‘x’ for crossroads.”
Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York, and Critic in Residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. His writing has appeared in Artforum, The Believer, frieze, Mousse, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.