The ones we thought we were…
essay by Shane Danielson
Artistic Director of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2005
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
In Orson Welles' film The Stranger, the director, practicing the darker shades of moral ambiguity he would perfect just three years later in Carol Reed's The Third Man, makes a boast which may seem to us today more anachronistic, more truly out of time, than
anything else in this otherwise unexceptional movie. When a bystander snaps his picture, apparently by accident, Welles' kindly Professor Rankin seems unreasonably perturbed: "There's not a photo of me in existence," he mutters darkly, to a bemused and altogether too-trusting Loretta Young. They are soon to be married, despite the mounting suspicions of her friends and family. It is Connecticut; the year is 1946.
The film is, for the record, a more or less straightforward example of post-WWII propaganda (evil former Nazis attempting to subvert the hallowed purity of small-town America), yet that one comment serves to render it, to the present-day viewer, as impossibly remote as a Norse saga, or the Book of Leviticus - since it is all but impossible, in the first decade of the 21st century, to conceive of the absolute anonymity of so undocumented a life. To exist without a photograph, in this day and age, is barely to exist at all. Certainly not in the First World, with its fickle and restless curiosity, its apparently insatiable appetite for spectacle - even in its most mundane and debased forms – to say nothing of its equation of reticence with worthlessness and its utter disrespect for privacy.
Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it is one of the basic tenets of our daily lives that our images are each day captured more times than we can possibly know. That Even the most apparently innocent public space is actually a maze of focal lengths, frames, exposures. Artificial eyes that miss nothing, and never sleep. One recent statistic claimed that, in the UK (at present, and for whatever reason, one of the most densely-scrutinised countries in the world), the inhabitants of major cities are caught on CCTV and surveillance cameras an average of twenty-six times a day. Entering
banks, yes, and in shopping malls and on train platforms - but also inside buses and taxis, in parks, even standing innocently on the street. A vast library of images, to be either filed away or discarded, noted or ignored. But captured and - for a moment at
least - held. The end of the process is both obvious and inevitable: a society in which everyone is visible at every moment.
An eloquent as well as provocative example of video art, Nina Toft's “The one I think I am...” interrogates the implications of this technological shift on individual behaviour. A single-screen installation, shot on in Edinburgh's Haymarket station and lasting approximately twenty minutes, it depicts a succession of men and women waiting for trains. The filming took place during the morning, and as such, reveals people either on their way to work or otherwise commencing their day. There is an air of sleepy
resignation to their stances, a slack equanimity on many of their faces. For some time we watch, unobserved. The alchemy occurs when they notice the camera. All at once, the illusion of voyeurism is shattered, and we as spectators are still naïve enough, still
sufficiently grounded in the conventions of narrative cinema, to find it startling and somehow almost improper that someone should look back at us in this way. Should we break down the Fourth Wall with such impunity - and in so doing, dispel the notion of our own omniscience. If we can see, the work seems to say, then we can also be seen. An obvious conclusion that seems, nevertheless, to possess the force of a revelation.
It's their reactions, though, that are most telling. Most try, in what can only be called a very British way, to simply ignore it. To proceed with their day as if nothing untoward has happened. Perhaps some are not even surprised; like many of us, they simply submit -
not entirely happily but by no means outraged, either - to their capture in their lens. (One photo more or less, who really cares?) However a few responses are interesting. Like the woman in a beige mackintosh who peers back steadily, her lip curling in what might
almost be distaste, before finally looking away - and at that very moment the contact is broken, Toft cuts: the exchange is complete. Her expression has been difficult to read, but not so the man in the green flannelette shirt, who stares at us with a lazy,
come-hither sort of insolence - then looks determinedly away, at everywhere but the camera that is still fixed squarely upon him. As if embarrassed, suddenly, by his own candour.
Together with its comment on the ubiquity of surveillance culture and, by extension, the increasingly problematic relationship of viewer to text, Toft's piece also acknowledges the increasing democratisation of the artistic subject - a phenomenon noted by a
number of video-based artists. The reason is not so difficult to divine. As mainstream (i.e. Hollywood) cinema has moved further from engagement with anything resembling ordinary life, the task of social representation has fallen, not only to the small-screen -
via reality-television, which blithely abolishes the distinction between celebrity and aspirant - but more ironically, to the very realm of conceptual and video art that a great deal of the public believe is intended specifically to baffle and/or exclude them.
Seeing it “The one I think I am...”, I am reminded of another, very different work, by the great Australian photographer Bill Henson - a series of large, B&W photographs of crowds of people in the street, either waiting at traffic lights or proceeding en masse down busy sidewalks. The scale of those photos, coupled with their grainy, distressed textures, invested their subjects not only with a kind of monumental grandeur, but with the solemn veracity of the newsreel; studying those shots, it was possible to forget that these were simply shoppers in some of Melbourne's busiest city streets – they looked instead like middle-European refugees, displaced from their homes, their families; swept up in the tides of Communism or Fascism.
Toft's approach, though, is very different. For one thing, her subjects do not dominate the frame, but are depicted as isolated elements within it. Her lighting is naturalistic, her compositions almost rudimentary. In this way, the simple fact of looking is emphasized, with no overt imposition of ‘style’ either to distract its viewers, or to lend succour to its subjects. It is highly discomfiting, as it should be.
In proceeding so overtly, the artist adopts both the methodology and the persona of the paparazzi: contemptuous of privacy, she zeroes in unflinchingly upon her targets - yet the images which result could hardly be more dissimilar. Her subjects, for one thing, are neither rich nor famous, nor are they especially beautiful. They are simply ordinary people, whose anonymity is first challenged and subsequently overturned by the confrontational power of the camera's gaze. The piece can, in this sense, be seen
as an extension of the aesthetic of reality television, yet another manifestation of Warhol's prophetic "fifteen minutes." But it's also, in its quiet way, a condemnation of what we have allowed ourselves to become: an angry indictment of our own, weary