‘Artworks are objects.
This the Foundation for everything
We come to know about art,
How we come to know about it
And for all of its institutions.’
Kathryn Elkin sings as she strums a hesitant G on her acoustic guitar.
These lyrics have been appropriated from Ian White’s selected writings, Here is Information. Mobilise for its launch at the Old Hairdressers in Glasgow. A number of artists and writers who knew the author are invited to contribute.
From the outset, there seems to be some ambivalence about whether the occasion—and the treatment of Ian’s texts therein—ought to be something of which he’d approve. I sense a healthy recognition that to seek such approval after someone’s death is perverse, but an added complication is the intellectual legacy left by a singular artist, writer, curator and educator. This is the product of a robust, challenging, contrary and quite startling mind, fiercely resistant to any form of (what he judged to be) mental laziness.
My first encounters with him came at screenings and in-conversation events I attended in London after moving down from Glasgow in 2008. These were characterised by vehement and vocal challenges from the man I would later learn to be Ian White, as he stood in the audience the minute the floor was opened for questions. He would lambast the speakers, appearing genuinely enraged by their imprecise claims or creative shortcomings. There were no concessions to be made; no accommodation for their insubstantial positions. Bearing witness to this was terrifying, but was also extremely exhilarating. Witnessing other people’s responses to Ian and his work in the Old Hairdressers, it feels as though a gratitude for the thinking he inspired is held in common.
There is little elegiac or reverent about the evening. If there is a desire to honour Ian’s legacy, it comes in the form of disobedience and the wilful probing of what he might have judged appropriate.
Rendering his works in the idiom of the singer-songwriter might be the bluntest way to do so, but Adam Benmakhlouf uses the fragments he reads from the book as cue to introduce texts of his own alongside projected images and videos from his phone. Indirectly he illustrates the ways in which Ian’s writing offers space for participation.
Speaking about his performance work to me in 2012 Ian said,
‘Even at their most esoteric I aspire for none of the works I make to need anything other than a person to look and too listen. You know, they don’t require any extraneous knowledge or anything from outside of that immediate situation that they’re in in order to understand or respond or work with it.’
This confidence in his audience to work with his ideas and the material he brought to them, may be exactly the mobilisation the title of the book calls for. I suspect too that through this he is calling for an investment in performance in general, recognising the activity as a routine and inescapable feature of life for all of us.
As Corin Sworn reads around her experience of Ian’s text, ‘A Life, and Time: Alfred Leslie’s letter to Frank O’Hara + Roland Barthes on Racine’, she moves around the audience. In front and alongside us, she tests the text’s ability to speak from different vantage points, be contingent, protean and live. She is focused, serious and intent.
In contrast Conal McStravick weaves his own experience through the associations and recollections of time spent in Ian’s company. Shrill, hilarious, theatrical camp butts against anger and frustration. Starting and restarting a snatch of Beethoven, he calls upon us to help him ball up sheets of paper printed with text to be tossed into the audience and read aloud. As one we read a rejection letter received by Conal for funding from the Arts Council then fling the profiteroles we have been handed against a wall in defiance.
Ian’s text ‘(I am) For the Birds’ inspires moving image contributions from Charlotte Prodger and Duncan Marquiss. Charlotte’s work counterposes found documentary footage of a woman mimicking a the call of the Great Grey Owl with video of the legs of women as they urinate in various mountain idyls en plein air . The productive collision of these activities in landscape point us towards a radical, exuberant territoriality. It’s very welcome.
Exploring how Ian’s observation that birds have ‘got their own thing going on’ became a prompt reflect on theories of animal culture, Duncan shares more borrowed footage. He lets Ian’s text work against and inflect the courtship ritual of the male club-winged manakin. The little beep that the bird’s wings issue when held aloft, rubbing his unique, club-shaped feather against a second modified feather, punctuate the text. The bird writes into Ian’s words as Duncan reads.
The evening’s most candid and direct offering comes from Luke Fowler. He gives an account of the frustrations he experienced interacting with Ian as a participant on the LUX Associate Artist Programme. The descriptions of the self-consciousness he felt facing the disapproval voiced by Ian at his choices of films for screening and the testing to-and-fro that followed feel like the contribution to the evening least imagining the spectral presence of the author in the room. Luke goes on to explain how hard these difficult interactions were to see beyond, but that he wished he’d had greater access to Ian’s insights about the complex and antagonistic entangling of the mind and body when making work of his own more recently. To conclude he invites Mason Leaver-Yap to read a review of Robert Beavers’ films (that apparently Beavers took great exception to) written by Ian.
And I, among the contributors who knew Ian White least, having had one substantial conversation with him about his work that became the first issue of the zine TALKER, reproduce an act he described then by putting on LPs by Arnold Schoenberg and Kylie Minogue and playing them simultaneously. Doing so this evening, they sound like a harsh, but newly companionable pairing, one dynamic and dissonant, the other compressed, buoyant and relentless.
I am struck again, as we listen contentedly (for the most part) through this sonic antagonism, that performance is probably the important thing. The singular effect of two or more things colliding live and the ways in which this activates us in our various capacities of meaning-making are a consistent theme. As Ian said, we don’t require any extraneous knowledge or anything from outside of this immediate situation, but we should feel very privileged he left us something to read.
Giles Bailey is an artist based in London. He also publishes TALKER, an interview zine about performance