File Note 118: Ian White - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Kirsty Bell



Being Present Images References Quote Biography Credits

Being Present

Ian White described one of his earliest works, The Neon Gainsborough, as “Gainsborough’s paintings (slide show) read as psychotic by a gay hysteric.” First performed as part of a series of events at London’s Cubitt Gallery in 2002, it combined this slide show of Gainsborough’s paintings with a home-video of captions set to a soundtrack of Chaucerian English, and blown-up pages from the Transsexual-Transvestite News, to present a radical counter-reading of Gainsborough’s work. Though florid and hilarious, the work is as much about this act of counter-reading, and the effect that contingent materials can have on interpretation, as it is about Gainsborough’s taste for petticoats, or middle-English story telling per se. 

The Neon Gainsborough’s overlaying of several channels of diverse material came to provide a template for White’s subsequent solo performances, and is testament to the roots of his work as an artist. This evolved from a first-person engagement with artists, film makers, curators, writers – initially as a curator of film and writer himself, and later as a teacher. It developed through friendships that grew into collaborations (or the other way around). But it was also an engagement with other things in the world – paintings hanging in the National Gallery, journalism, TV shows, gay cruising websites – and the structures that govern their appearance. There was nothing that would not be questioned.

White’s work as an artist not only adopted the format of live performance, it examined the fragile nature of liveness itself. The rehearsed gesture and the presence of the performer were, for White, only a “false promise” of the live, and yet liveness was still potentially to be found in the broader contingencies of the event itself – what else was happening in the room and, most significantly, the “corporeality of the spectator.”1 (This was something he examined closely in his work as a film curator, developing a theory of an “expanded cinema” that could take account of these extraneous facts.) The transposition of his essentially performative practice into the diffused space and time of an exhibition presented many challenges, not least the still-raw loss of Ian himself as their inimitable protagonist.

For 6 things I couldn’t do, but can do now (2004), the first of several collaborations with Jimmy Robert, their joint exhibition in Tate Britain’s Art Now space alluded to the process of collaborating on the performed work, and “the idea of spending time together.”2 One of the works included was a large collage covered in fields of black squares titled Seven Years. From 1997 to 2004, White filled the pages of an A5 notebook with squares and rectangles blacked-out in ink, photocopies of which were collaged together to form this piece. Though it becomes a kind of anti-diary in its apparent redaction of content, it nevertheless describes the passage of time. A storyboard of empty screens.

These blacked-out squares are a trope that reappears throughout White’s work. Are they windows? Flags? An abstract representation of matter in space? Or the result of layering image after image over each other, in the visual equivalent of white noise? They could be read as a suppression of information – the concealing of anything that doesn’t fit within conventional frameworks – but maybe they rather redefine the framework, to make this the starting point. For an event White staged in a pub in London in the late 1990s, he described how he “blacked out [the pictures on the pub walls] as if they were censored.”3 His subsequent compulsive blacking-out of pages is a similar as if censorship. White often used frames to create such as if scenarios: as if we were in the theatre; as if this were a film screening, or a lecture; as if these movements were dance. “Content isn’t anything more than looking and seeing and being present,” he said in 2012.4 If this definition of content were reduced to an image, would it be the blacked-out square? A ground-zero of interpretation?

Black Flags is many ways of saying nothing – ways that in order to say nothing are dependent on each other”, White wrote about his 2009 performance, which included a Powerpoint showing images of the blacked-out pages of his notebooks.5 This “nothing” is not a void: it is the result of a determined strategy of excess, the setting off of multiple vectors that result in an active cancellation. It is mechanical, like the alternating black and white screens of Tony Conrad’s film The Flicker (1966), which White screens in IBIZA: A Reading for ‘The Flicker’ (2008), its visual assault obliterating the personal text he is simultaneously reading aloud. Or like the competing channels of information in Democracy (2009), where White performs a series of exaggerated gestures and a radio broadcasting BBC World Service provides a readymade soundtrack, while another Powerpoint suggests an obscure narrative connecting Elizabeth I and her formal garden at Kenilworth with Berlin’s TV Tower, a painting by Francis Bacon, and personal snapshots of the aftermath of a sexual encounter.

White performs a “balletic-ridiculous walk with his trousers round his ankles” that eventually leads him out of the space, but this absence is not a void and is also not the end: the radio carries on playing and the slide show continues for another fifteen minutes.6

“Nothing” here is a wiping clear of the slate that cancels the usual protocols (of the written page, the spoken word, the performed gesture, the institution) to open up a non-proscriptive space for interpretation. White’s works demand that interpretation become an action, rather than the passive acceptance of material spoon-fed into the receptive mind. Just as his own production was concerned with the process of selection from various ready-made systems, in handing the onus of interpretation over to the audience so explicitly, he proposed an equivalent process for each audience member. 

White’s final work Trauerspiel 1 (2012), performed on the grand proscenium-arched stage of Berlin’s Hebbel-am-Ufer theatre, was his most opulent and radical in its breaking open of conventional structures. Commissioned by Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art as part of its Living Archive programme, White took the opportunity to transform the format of the film-screening into a theatrical event comprising spoken text, a dance-like choreography, a naked man knitting, and the theatrical apparatus of curtain and lights made visible. “It is the experience of an interpretive field,” White said of this striking, memorable, one-off piece: “a space for change.”7

White’s works are about the act of making choices, where making choices is about deciding to be free. They ask us to finally see ourselves, each other, the things around us, where we are. In this sense, the as if censorship of his blacked-out pages is not annihilation but a call to action. To drop preconceptions, move beyond the comfort-zone of predetermined hierarchies, and start from scratch, equipped with nothing but a body and a mind.


1 Here is Information. Mobilise. Selected Writings by Ian White, ed. Mike Sperlinger (London: Lux, 2016) p. 258.

2 Ian White in Talker #1 (London: Giles Bailey, 2016) p. 13

3 ibid. p. 6.

4 ibid p. 16.

5 Ian White, Ibiza Black Flags Democracy (Berlin: DAAD, 2010) p. 80.

6 ibid. p. 86.

7 Ian White, from unpublished notes.

Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (New York: Verso, 2009) 

Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly. The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) 

Douglas Crimp, ‘On The Museum’s Ruins’ in On The Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995)

Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems (Berkley: University of California Press, 1995)

Henrik Oleson, ‘Pre-Post: Speaking Backwards’ in Art After Conceptual Art, ed. Alberro & Buchman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006)

Yvonne Rainer, Feelings are Facts (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013)

Lis Rhodes, ‘Whose History?’, in Film as Film (exh. cat.) (London: Hayward Gallery and Arts Council, 1979) p.119–120

Dorothy Richardson, Close Up, 1927–1933 Cinema and Modernism, ed. James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (London: Cassell, 1998)

Ian White, Here is Information. Mobilise. Selected Writings by Ian White, ed. Mike Sperlinger (London: Lux, 2016)

Anthony McCall & Andrew Tyndall, Argument (1978)

Rosa von Praunheim, It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971)

Yvonne Rainer, Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980)

'Some things are included, others are not. But what is selected is often borrowed. It can be seen, and how it can be is important: what makes it noticeable might be an unnaturalistic pause between sentences as a text is read, a staged accident, risks or mistakes, contradictions, a proscenium arch. Any frame is a thrown voice.' Ian White, “Statement for Appropriation and Dedication”, 2013


Ian White (1971–2013) was an artist, curator and writer. His performances – both solo and collaborative were staged at venues including Tate Britain and Tate Modern, London; the Chisenhale Gallery, London; Jeu de Paume, Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. White organised many influential screenings, events and exhibitions for venues including The Horse Hospital, LUX and the Whitechapel Gallery, London; Kino Arsenal, Berlin; and the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. He taught extensively, holding positions at Goldsmiths’ Department of Art and the Dutch Art Institute amongst others, and was leader of the LUX Associate Artists Programme (2007-13), an experimental post-graduate programme for artists working with the moving image.


Kirsty Bell is a writer who lives in Berlin, and co-curated Any frame is a thrown voice with Mike Sperlinger.

Thanks to Ben Cook, Emma Hedditch, Jimmy Robert, Josephine Pryde, Polly Staple, Jackie and Pete White, and Catherine Wood