Nina Toft’s Pursuit of the Unfamous

Bill Jeffries, curator at Presentation House Gallery

published in the exhibition catalogue  ‘The one I think I am.........’ Nina Toft
in relation to Toft´s solo-exhibition as part of ‘UK Today:
a new view’ at the Presentation House Gallery in Vancouver, Canada


Does anyone love the paparazzi? Even avid readers of the tabloids who support the work of the paparazzi through their purchases of newspapers 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 following 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 like private detectives. Each paparazzo culls a network of informers to help keep tabs on celebrity targets. These informers can be people who work in businesses frequented by celebrities, such as restaurants, shops or salons. The paparazzo 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 pretty 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 virtually every respect she inverts the intentions, the tactics and the overall strategies that paparazzi take for granted.

Nina Toft is originally from Norway and now lives and works in Edinburgh. “The one I think I am......” is a single screen presentation of a confrontational twenty-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 people waiting for the trains that will take them to work. Her subjects, once they realize what she is up to, are surprised and sometimes dismayed or irritated at being ‘selected’ 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 attention to unwary commuters may not bring her subjects any pleasure. But “The one I think I am......” coyly references the invasive presence of surveillance cameras in contemporary society at the same time that it extends the strategies of street photographers and others who have made surreptitious photographs, such as those taken on the New York subway, into the realm of moving images. The dismay of her subjects usually fades away; after the initial surprise, they often seem to accept Toft’s invasion of their privacy. Her camera is just one of a million in the UK and, even though surveillance is still a serious issue, the collective acquiescence of the UK populace to the presence of surveillance cameras has, in a sense, prepared the way for artists wielding their more selective, 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 subjects 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 repeat the experiment with another “one who thinks they are”. Her approaches are met by a full range of psychological responses, from avoidance to frustration and rage – a perfect mirror of the daily approaches and avoidances that provide 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 Douglas Huebler’s impromptu meetings in some of his Variable Pieces. The situation at the train station is completely familiar to everyone. We have all known 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 actors 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 convenient for art; the world operates on its own schedule and there seems to be a modest proposal in this work that artists should work on the world's schedule if they really care about what’s happening.

In “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, and hence, that her ‘confrontation’ is visual rather than immediately physical. The risk of a confrontation remains, however, as an angry subject could easily cross platforms to attack the photographer. This is a response that many paparazzi have experienced, to say nothing of the violence suffered by many documentary photographers while on assignment. Toft has not been the victim of any violent attacks, but that what she is doing is similarly provocative, and risks similar reactions.

Nina Toft’s camera is invasive, but “The one I think I am......”  is also an extremely tender video that, in its gentleness, is a critique of the aggressive behaviour of both the paparazzi and documentarians. The surprising thing about this work is that its quiet elegance, combined with its apparent filling of a gap in the history of recent video practice, leaves one feeling that we have either been there or seen this before. Yet, so far as I know, no artist has previously made a work that probes the condition of the individual in the 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. Similarities with the photographic work of Ian Wallace and video work of Roy Arden will not be lost on Vancouver viewers. Arden’s recent video Citizen extends the photo-fictional series of ‘heroes in the street’ that Ian Wallace has created since 1986 into the realm of a different sort of hero altogether. Arden’s ‘citizen’, a street-person marooned at a busy vehicular intersection, is not unlike Toft’s ‘heroes’ even though the circumstances in which the respective heroes find themselves could not be more different.

“The one I think I am......”  also has a parallel in Jill Magid’s Evidence Locker which was a key work at the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. The ‘shooting’ of Magid’s piece was sustained for 31 days, during which she worked with the powers that operate the Liverpool CCTV system to record her perambulations through the city. Liverpool has 242 CCTV cameras and Magid exploited this in some components of her piece by walking from one camera field to the next, uninterrupted, never ‘off screen’, in other parts by having the camera operators direct her movements as she walked ‘blindfolded’. Nina Toft’s piece is in the same field of public watching as Magid’s, but it is dedicated to the condition of others, as opposed to Magid’s scrutiny of herself as a representative subject of the system of Liverpool’s all-seeing eyes.

The public domain is filled with private individuals, each of whom assumes a right to a private and personal space even as they navigate through the crowds in the urban miasma. Photographers have been capturing images of those private/public persons since the invention of photography. Artists will usually treat their subjects with respect, realizing, as they should, that those members of the public are people not unlike themselves. The paparazzi are something else, even when it comes to their approach to the ownership of what they have stolen, as we can see from this legal statement on the Web site of one of London’s key paparazzi staking his claim to all the reproduction rights of images that have effectively been stolen.  He effectively says “I can steal, but you may not steal from me.” Nina Toft never had the opportunity to obtain the names of her subjects. They walk away or their train arrives, her view is blocked, and then the train departs revealing an empty platform. She has not undertaken the more extreme measures used by paparazzi – the climbing of trees, and the renting of helicopters, for instance. What she has done is to elevate citizens to a level of importance, each with an individual way of being. In the end maybe that is what her piece is about - being, about each of as sentient being, each of us as an ontological package that could be writing philosophy or making art, but is, instead, waiting for public transport to take us to work. Toft’s people are not exactly replicating Kant’s walk to work in Königsburg, but maybe it’s as close as we can get in the 21st century.