Two people and a camera

Caryn Faure Walker

Each of us continuously acts and reacts. From these elements of ordinary life we create a self. If pressed to describe this person, our first reaction is to rely on words However imagine other ways to record these self-perceptions; invented gestures; your body’s reactions to other people; shapes made from handling things or completing tasks. When we switch from words to this other way, we enter a territory, according to phenomenology, of the ‘lived body’, a province where thinking and doing are integral, and in which the boundary between self and world, subject and object, seeing and touch is obliterated.

Irving Goffman in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) reconsidered the fusion of self, world and other as first put forward by phenomenology. The sociologist proposed that how our bodies express us via sensual language is made explicit in public through acts of performance through which we enact negotiations with other people in order to communicate complex intersubjecive clues. Writer Amelia Jones in Body Art /Performing the Subject (1998) tellingly goes on to situate Goffman’s notion of performance in the context of radical social changes which had occurred in America during the 1960s. The decade spawned not only political activism in the form of demonstrations against the Vietnam War, it gave birth to parallel, live manifestations in which artists and audiences collaborated to re-examine commonly held social values.

At around this time Oliver Whitehead, who then lived in London, was attending Hornsey School of Art (1967-70), a place also caught up- if less directly in a fervour of questioning and social change. Whitehead recalls, that even at this early stage he began to experiment with making live performance that explored body movements in relation to objects; when he painted or made drawings, he also addressed mark making as a correlate of behaviour.

During his period at Hornsey School of Art, Whitehead had also been inspired by J.G. Ballard’s 1960s book , The Atrocity Exhibition,- made in the 90s into the film Crash . The book exemplified for the artist art as a means to evoke intense, tactile, visualisations. Between 1990 and 1993, Whitehead made a series of works that experimented with the polarity between how hand made imagery and photography each communicate violence. Of these works he said:" [When] I paint, draw, or photograph utilitarian objects, I am thinking again about the world portrayed in Ballard’s book where modernism and decay overlay each other. In this world there doesn’t seem to be any difference between utilitarian objects honed to perfection and the transformation that comes of destruction…there is a series of black and white drawings and photographic diptychs, Ritual Behaviour (1990-1992) in which I drew shapes in total darkness. Simultaneously my movements were traced in light and photographed. I also made in the same period a 16mm black and white film, Personal Effects (1991) in which a pair of woman’s hands set out in perfect order a child’s tea service, or the hands also moulded clay into a minute bowl shape. We play to form patterns of behaviour. In turn this dictates how things are designed." (1.)

Five years later, Whitehead was commissioned to make a set of drawings. These were exhibited in 2001 at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, as large scale black and white photographs to celebrate their appearance in War or Heath, A Reader (2002). The book, of international significance, examines from many perspectives the consequences of each individual in society’s choice to favour or reject government’s investment in nuclear armament as opposed to peace. In his search for appropriate images, Whitehead changed his working method. He shifted emphasis away from the formalist aesthetics of composition, was to consider image making as an interactive learning process between people. In Fuse (2002), the series of large scale colour photographs currently on exhibition at The Finnish Museum of Photography this is also where he has placed emphasis.

As the result of this change of direction Whitehead decided to move out of his studio for a period into busy Helsinki neighbourhoods where people could see him in process of working as he drew with chalk on the pavement. Being visible invited questions and participation. The six drawings he made entitled Behind the Lines (1997-2000), seen in situ, were simple outline drawings which differed little from other public sign age, except in their emphasis on the performance of making and in content: Whitehead drew in people’s pathway patterns of signs which comprised simplified pictures of weapons whose scale he adjusted against the size of the neighbourhood’s architecture or street furniture.

When the drawings were installed Whitehead used his camera to move along with people as they walked across the chalk lines. He neutrally recorded some that dismissed his drawings as silly graffiti as they walked with certainty through a minefield of explosive devices. In other photographs, Whitehead employed photography’s technical trickery - long exposure times- to show peoples’ unchanged patterns of walking automatically obliterate them as blurs in the photograph taken A photograph of the simplest drawing he made for Behind the Lines calls to mind a school room blackboard drawing. Two tiny figures are depicted adjacent to the outline of a machine gun, which becomes grotesquely enlarged in the image’s foreground as the result of the camera’s angle. Equivalent to a child’s imagination of spatial dimension, the image shows the dreaded as extra big, the defenceless as minuscule. Not without cause. Research undertaken on anxieties of the young, discussed in War or Health? showed that 80% of children in Finland mentioned war as their top worry. [2.] The most frequent source of these fears was various media presentations of war.

To make his current work Fuse (2001-2002) Whitehead returned to studio based photography where he continued collaborative work. This time he decided to appear as an actor in front of the camera and in order to make the works more personal he elected to work with someone he knew. Drawing was rejected as a trigger, which would prompt chains of associative actions. The artist and his collaborator chose instead to focus action on handling mass produced objects: clothing, cosmetics, or household machinery; what Whitehead identified as consumer fetishes: " [those] designed objects which symbolise not only insatiable desire, but [those which] have been made according to finely tuned functional aesthetics…. (3.)

The two went about performing these photographs, blind, in the dark, unaware at the moment of doing, how they would look in the final image. They enacted two separate sets of movements. One collaborator handled the object, searching for a comfortable use or some relationship to his or her body. The second moved around the first to intermittently highlight this or that movement with a point of light. Due to Whitehead’s use of a continuously open camera shutter, the final images show a series of overlaid. -But not necessarily sequential movements- an attractive woman playing with a toy; using a household appliance; handling a perfume bottle or an evening shoe.

Not unlike consumer billboard advertisements for chic lifestyle, the high colour photographs in Fuse are literally meant to take us in by their glossiness, as their size, which is 110cm x 140cm, is also meant to immerse us in the world of luxury goods; Whitehead intentionally uses both elements as a decoy to seduce. However, once we are attracted to the images, the series proceeds to forefront gestures alien to this kind of ease: clutching where there should be caressing; stabbing when there should be softness and seduction; banging and crushing in place of smoothness. In a word, Fuse, assists us to imagine the lack of fit between representations of processed experience and the potentialities of a multivocal self in process of formation. Umberto Eco applauds just this process and by implication Whitehead’s current work. It is valuable to quote Eco’s thoughts at length:

"The discontinuity of phenomena has called into question the possibility of a unified, definitive image of our universe; art suggests a way for us to see the world in which we live, and, by seeing it, to accept it and integrate it into our sensibility. The open work assumes the task of giving us a sense of discontinuity. It does not narrate it; it is it. It takes on the mediating role of between the abstract categories of science and the living matter of our sensibility; it almost becomes a sort of transcendental scheme that allows us to comprehend new aspects of the world." (4.)


1. Faure Walker, Caryn, "Static Image Travelling, A Conversation with Oliver Whitehead" teoksessa City (International Media Art Prize) Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, Saksa, 2000, s. 52.

2. Solantaus, Tytti, " Children’s Responses to The Threat of Nuclear War, in Taipale, Ilkka ym. (toim.), War or Health, Physicians for Social Responsibility (Finland), Helsinki, 2002, s. 259-265.

3. Whitehead Oliver, julkaisematon sähköpostiviesti kirjoittajalle 22.3.2002.

4. Eco, Umberto, The Open Work, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 1989, p90.