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Nina Toft’s Pursuit of the Unfamous
Bill Jeffries
Does anyone love the paparazzi? Even avid readers of the tabloids who support
the work of the paparazzi through their purchases of newsp
apers and magazines
surely realize that the work they do is invasive and often
reprehensible. In the UK
people have been more critical of their activity follo
wing the notorious car crash
that killed Princess Diana. Yet, since then, a paparazzo
has had an intentional
collision with Catherine Zeta-Jones to force her out of
her car. What the
paparazzi do in their profession is outlined on a Web
site devoted to their craft as
“the hunt”, described as follows: “Paparazzi work a lot l
ike private detectives.
Each paparazzo culls a network of informers to help keep ta
bs on celebrity
targets. These informers can be people who work in busin
esses frequented by
celebrities, such as restaurants, shops or salons. The papar
azzo often pays for
this information. In many cases, people who work for the
star might be bribed to
divulge the whereabouts of their employer.” Not a pre
tty picture, especially from
the point of view of the prey. Nina Toft’s video work
“The one I think I am......”
plays off of the activities of the paparazzi, but in virt
ually every respect she
inverts the intentions, the tactics and the overall strate
gies that paparazzi take for
Nina Toft is originally from Norway and now lives and wo
rks in Edinburgh.
one I think I am......”
is a single screen presentation of a confrontational
minute video Toft shot in an Edinburgh railway station.
She is a ‘hunter’, but her
dogged pursuit is not of the rich and famous, but of pe
ople waiting for the trains
that will take them to work. Her subjects, once they reali
ze what she is up to, are
surprised and sometimes dismayed or irritated at being ‘se
lected’ before they
have had any warning, especially so early in the day, and
perhaps when they are
not looking their best. Hence, Toft’s unexpected attent
ion to unwary commuters
may not bring her subjects any pleasure. But
“The one I think I am......”
references the invasive presence of surveillance cameras in co
society at the same time that it extends the strategies o
f street photographers
and others who have made surreptitious photographs, such a
s those taken on
the New York subway, into the realm of moving images. Th
e dismay of her
subjects usually fades away; after the initial surprise, th
ey often seem to accept
Toft’s invasion of their privacy. Her camera is just one o
f a million in the UK and,
even though surveillance is still a serious issue, the collect
ive acquiescence of
the UK populace to the presence of surveillance cameras ha
s, in a sense,
prepared the way for artists wielding their more selecti
ve, but more obvious and
visible lenses.
The structure of
“The one I think I am......”
is partially determined by the
behaviour of Toft’s subjects. The pursuit of her lens is
relentless while the subject
is unaware of her gaze. When they engage her lens, she
gives them enough
video rope to express their displeasure or surprise, but,
when they turn away one
last time, she too turns to the next subject. As her subje
cts avert their eyes to
avoid Toft’s camera, the artist, having approached her
prey, having seen what
there was to see, then avoids them only in order to rep
eat the experiment with
another “one who thinks they are”. Her approaches are m
et by a full range of
psychological responses, from avoidance to frustration and ra
ge – a perfect
mirror of the daily approaches and avoidances that provid
e the basic rhythm of
humanity’s shuffling through the world.
There are aspects of Toft’s piece that, when combined,
make it a unique work,
although there are echoes of conceptual practices such as Do
uglas Huebler’s
impromptu meetings in some of his
ariable Pieces
. The situation at the train
station is completely familiar to everyone. We have all kno
wn the ‘waiting’ and
the ‘arrival’, the vagaries of schedules, and the minor
triumph of one’s train
actually coming on time. Toft’s subjects are existential a
ctors in the daily
Beckettonian drama of getting out of bed and going to
work. It seems almost
unfair to the subjects to capture their morning reality,
yet, documentary is not, or
should not be, limited to the times of day that are con
venient for art; the world
operates on its own schedule and there seems to be a mo
dest proposal in this
work that artists should work on the world's schedule if t
hey really care about
what’s happening.
“The one I think I am......”
there are several tropes that Toft invokes as
cinematic punctuation marks, one of which is trains cutting
across the lens’s field
of vision. It is only when seeing the train enter the
frame that we realize she is
shooting from the other side of a set of train tracks, a
nd hence, that her
‘confrontation’ is visual rather than immediately physica
l. The risk of a
confrontation remains, however, as an angry subject could e
asily cross platforms
to attack the photographer. This is a response that many p
aparazzi have
experienced, to say nothing of the violence suffered b
y many documentary
photographers while on assignment. Toft has not been th
e victim of any violent
attacks, but that what she is doing is similarly provocative
, and risks similar
Nina Toft’s camera
invasive, but
“The one I think I am......”
is also an
extremely tender video that, in its gentleness, is a cr
itique of the aggressive
behaviour of both the paparazzi and documentarians. Th
e surprising thing about
this work is that its quiet elegance, combined with its a
pparent filling of a gap in
the history of recent video practice, leaves one feelin
g that we have either been
there or seen this before. Yet, so far as I know, no art
ist has previously made a
work that probes the condition of the individual in t
he social world in just this way.
Andy Warhol’s
Screen Tests
come to mind, but Toft’s uninvited attentions create
a ‘screen test’ of an entirely different sort. Similari
ties with the photographic work
of Ian Wallace and video work of Roy Arden will not be
lost on Vancouver
viewers. Arden’s recent video
extends the photo-fictional series of ‘heroes
in the street’ that Ian Wallace has created since 1986
into the realm of a different