Ian White (1971–2013)

Left: Ian White at the Arsenal: Institut fur Film ind Videokunst in Berlin. Photo: Emily Roysdon. Right: Emily Roysdon and Ian White, Interim, 2010. Performance view, Chisenhale Gallery, London, April 22, 2010. Emily Roysdon and Ian White. Photo: Alessandra Chila.

TIME IS MOST ACCURATELY NAMED A FORCE. Yet to name something is to have power over it, and we have no power near time. We only know it through its effects. How it transforms subjects, objects, sounds, institutions, interests, friendships, bodies, and ideas. The force of time: dispersed and sensed. Ian White is a force. A particular combination of wit, integrity, intelligence, generosity, and ferocity that accumulates into force, a force with a smile. A force now known through its effects.

The last time I saw Ian we talked a lot about time. Not because he was stricken with terminality, but because we are always talking about performance. There were several themes in our conversations that never abated: the pleasure in a limit (he later wrote “limit as material”), an economy of means, construction of audiences, and the curatorial collaborative. These ideas would appear in different guises in different projects, but they were part of what attracted us to each other’s work. And that’s how we met. Emma Hedditch showed Ian my first video, social movement, 2003, and my memory of his response, albeit through Emma, was “this is weird, oblique, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” A sort of “just strange enough” to keep looking, looking at the twenty-four-year old-lesbian New Yorker.

I see now, in this retrospective activity created by his passing, October 26th around 1 AM, I think Ian was one of the first people who paid attention to my work who wasn’t my friend. He knew it before me. And I see that since 2007 Ian and I have always had a date in our calendars. Always a bridge to an event for a conversation that turned into long-term collaboration. In the early years it was he organizing screenings with me. In 2009 I was able to commission a new performance from him for the “Ecstatic Resistance” show at Grand Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. On and on, every variation of working together, reciprocal invitations, top-bottom processes, and camaraderie.

The new performance he made in 2009 was called Democracy, and the first line of the obligatory statement was, “Democracy is about not having a choice, obviously.” For this performance he stood on one leg while the BBC played live from a nearby radio. Soon started a slideshow of high British gardens: manicured, prescribed, natural. Ian waited a bit, took his pants down to one ankle and proceeded with a structured walking gesture that he continued until the legal end of the property. In Kansas City that meant he gestured through a parking lot and to a downtown street corner. In NYC, it meant out onto the sidewalk of the old Dia on Twenty-Second.

When Ian was diagnosed with cancer he started a blog, a little something for his fans. “Lives of Performers” it was called, after the famed Yvonne Rainer film. “Lives of Performers” punctuated his chemo treatments and his days about in London: at the National Gallery with Gainsborough, films with Mike and Rachel, piano recitals with Grace, in Brighton with his love Harry, at the treatment center in Dagenham with his cackling swollen-ankled neighbors of yore. Ian faced his cancer with candor, saying, “For one thing, life is always lived under some condition or other. But what’s more is that [the perspective ‘life plus cancer equals minus life’] would be too much like not doing anything at all even though ‘minus life’ is no more ‘death’ than life without the minus is ‘liberation’. I am not experiencing either of these right now anyway.” He suffered as we all would, he wanted to live and I felt that so strongly, but the force of Ian pushed on, present in the struggle. Educating doctors who are “absurd because they have logic on their side and that’s always kind of humiliating and disorientating.” Continuing to work, to write, “writing as the theatre itself.” Theorizing liberation and not looking for redemption. Occupying the margin of form, of institutions.

The last time I saw Ian luck was on my side. He had invited me to be a guest in his monthly Associate Artists Programme (AAP) meeting at LUX; a participating artist would present and then the guest, one hour each. The presenting student called in absent and to my complete delight Ian took the charge to reflect on his own method. “The work I’m interested in, and making, subjects to time what might not ordinarily be so. This is political.” His method was to “accumulate without an attempt to persuade,” to provide a “chance for re-ordering.” The gaps, questions, affiliations, and permissions that emerged from his forms, these were the theater themselves.

On this harmonious day when we once again shared a vocabulary, Ian brought all the present working and writing and years of curating into the fold of his reflections. He went first, I after. And our presentations zippered together like the black and white keys on a piano. I was theorizing “discompose” and minor theater, and he suspension and a theater of separation. I have six pages of handwritten notes from that day. I have Ian’s typed preparatory notes. I have what I heard, and what he said. We hadn’t talked work in a while, a long time, and our dialogue was as tuned and intimate as ever. We hugged about our symmetries over a beer, he put me in a cab, and hopped on the southbound bus.

I fell for Ian’s challenge and integrity. There was no escaping with him, no redemption, no cowardice, and nowhere to hide. I felt embraced by this fact, this force of realism, this impetus to glorious survival. Ian had a matter of fact-ness about struggle and complexity, of course, and so, nothing to do but do things right.

In the end you cannot name a force.

I can only acknowledge the effect it has on me.