Proper Trouble

A posthumous publication of essays by artist and film theorist Ian White argues that the collective experience of cinema is more relevant than ever

For weeks after the November 2016 US presidential election, I kept the selected writings of Ian White face up on my desk at home in New York. The book – edited by Mike Sperlinger and published at the end of 2016 by LUX – had arrived through the post on election day. Its title, delivered on the book’s cover in white serif type against a soothing teal background, felt like a spell to ward off the urge to surrender: ‘Here Is Information. Mobilize.’ For those of us who are today what White was before his untimely death in 2013, at the age of 42 – artists, teachers, writers, curators, fellow travellers – this exhortation was a mission brief from the beyond. Produce, discuss, analyze, argue, distribute. Isn’t this what we do well in the art and film communities? Isn’t it also what we need to do? It’s what White certainly did.

White was a friend to many in London during the 1990s and 2000s. For me, the detail of the punctuation in the title of his book – the full stops that create an arch dramatic beat following ‘Information’ then emphasize a call-to-arms after ‘Mobilize’ – bring his voice back to life. Fierce, political, pedagogic. (Pause for thought.) Warm, funny, generous. (Full-stop. No com­promise.) White was quick to laugh yet distrusted sentimentality and he could be caustic in his criticism. In conversation, he could tune his line of questioning to the deadly, searing frequency of a laser beam, exposing subtexts to your attitude, behaviour or work before you knew them yourself. (Following the 2006 screening at London’s Cubitt Gallery, of a short film I’d made, White told me he had found it ‘off-puttingly macho’. At the time, it was crushing, because I respected his opinion so much; now, over a decade later, it occupies a constructive place in my mind and attitude.) Yet, White was never afraid to put his own vulnerabilities on the line. Take, for instance, his 2008 solo performance at London’s Horse Hospital, IBIZA: A Reading for ‘The Flicker’, in which he recounted an excruciatingly personal story as Tony Conrad’s 1966 film The Flicker strobed behind him, or his 2004 collaborative work with Jimmy Robert, 6 Things We Couldn’t Do but Can Do Now, at Tate Britain in London, which included an attempt to perform Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A (1966). White may not have been a great dancer – he moved in awkward synchronicity to Rainer’s video of the dance – but the attempt was fundamental to the way in which he walked the walk, placing himself in the same circuits of production, criticism and display as the artists he taught and talked about. In his thoughtful introduction to the book, Sperlinger cites a talk that White gave at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art in 2011: ‘White addressed how he inhabited the roles of artist and curator. He speculated that, while there are valid reasons for distinguishing them – biographical, economic, ethical – ultimately “[…] they are both the means by which I am personally able to get through life, to navigate, think, be – they are processes of negotiation […] They are indivisible.”’

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Emily Roydson and Ian White performing Interim at Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2010. Courtesy: LUX, London

Emily Roydson and Ian White performing Interim at Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2010. Courtesy: LUX, London

This indivisibility is clear in the LUX publication’s selection of texts, which White began to work on with Sperlinger before his death from cancer. The subjects are wide-ranging. White addresses historical figures such as Peter Gidal, Stuart Marshall, Rainer, Jack Smith and David Wojnarowicz. He writes about his contemporaries: Emma Hedditch, Mark Leckey, Emily Roysdon, A.L. Steiner. The forms his writing takes come in a range of shapes and sizes. He pens an open letter to actress Tilda Swinton, politely yet efficiently demolishing comments she’d made expressing generational nostalgia for British experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman and ignorance of his legacy. A report about a dry academic conference on ‘Experimental Film Today’ becomes a rousing polemic against the historicization of avant-garde film. A savagely funny press release for a 2007 show by Oliver Payne and Nick Relph (still working as a duo at that point) at Herald St, London, reads like the narrative to a lost Patrick Keiller film. Towards the end of the book – in particular the pieces ‘First, Six or So People’ (2012), ‘Division’ (2013) and ‘(I Am) For the Birds’ (2013) – the topic of White’s body, friendships, disease, hospital and silence enter the frame and become his final pictures for us to consider.

There’s a significant unruliness to the book’s selections. Some of White’s most important ideas crop up not in essays written for film journals and art catalogues, but in reviews, personal blog posts, gallery press releases and film-screening programme notes. The work existed in diffuse, rather than directly distributed, form; as likely to turn up on a folded piece of A4 paper that you’d find in your pocket, days after visiting an exhibition, as in back issues of Vertigo or Untitled. The messy daily tasks of work, helping friends or finding places to publish explain this to an extent. Yet, hindsight allows us to understand it embodying White’s scepticism of institutional authority and a belief that our political agency can be found in many places – if we know where to look for it.

Film, art, writing - for White, it happened everywhere, in between the screen, the gallery and the page.

Crucially, this diffuse pollination of White’s ideas across different channels mirrored his definitions of cinema – arguably the medium at the centre of his life and work. Cinema, for him, existed not just when the lights went down and the projector whirred into motion, but was in the way you carried yourself through the foyer after a screening ended and how you behaved in the pub afterwards. His essays ‘The Projected Object’ (2004) and ‘Performance, Audience, Mirror’ (2012) make complex distinctions between moving-image work created for galleries, TV and commercial cinema, examining the ways in which distribution systems, types of auditorium and screening conditions produce different kinds of audience. In these careful, theoretical texts, White pays close attention to social context in his attempt to define what cinema is. ‘Look at a reel of film, a tape, a hard drive and you cannot see with the eye alone the information’ he writes in ‘Foyer’ (2011); it’s not this data but our experience as bodies in a room that make cinema. A more direct description can be found in the 2003 essay ‘Palace Calls Crisis Summit’. Here, White recounts a screening at the London Film Festival of Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002), which ‘re-creates (with some concessions to hair and make-up) the abuses carried out on women in Ireland punished by their own society’s adherence to an extremist Catholic doctrine’. He describes the director and cast Q&A after the film has ended: ‘From the floor, something incredible is happening. A series of women stand up. They lived through this experience, for real. They are grateful for the film, but their memories are insufferable and they are listing the actual abuses carried out against them which go much further than narrative […] Suddenly, something becomes clear. This is absolutely vital, watching the film together.’

Film, art, writing – for White, it happened everywhere, in between the screen, the gallery and the page. In her afterword to the book, artist Josephine Pryde writes how White ‘must have had the capacity to know that the talking, the visiting, the texting, the thinking, the loving, the fucking could be part of working, and perhaps part of daydreaming, but he must also  have had the ability to know not to relinquish any of it too easily […] He could make proper trouble, in a real political present, and that meant he sensed as he worked that he was going to have to fight to prevent relations being converted too simply into resources or units of business.’ Here, in White’s example of a highly principled creative life lived, is the information that we need. Watch the film together. Mobilize.

Lead image: Ian White performing Black Flags at daadgalerie, Berlin, 2010. Courtesy: LUX, London

Dan Fox is co-editor of frieze and is based in New York. His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, and Coffee House Press in the US.

Issue 186

First published in Issue 186

April 2017

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