A tattoo depicting two doves, spanning the width of a scarred torso, comes to life. Rays of coloured light extend from the centre of this body, merging with imagery of transparent clouds as the birds take flight. This is a body wholly transformed from its first appearance in Jordan Baseman’s A Different Kind of Different (2020). When first encountered, as a static photograph of scarred torso, this body seems resolutely fixed in time and place. With head and limbs cropped out of the frame, there are no immediately familiar points of orientation. A closer look reveals the edges of a shirt, held open to allow the careful and limited presentation of this mastectomy-scarred body to the camera. In contrast, the dove-tattooed body appears without clothing, in a pose much more suggestive of public display and pride.
In A Different Kind of Different, these two distinct moments in the history of an individual body remain spatially and temporally separate: the photographs are never presented together in the manner of ‘before and after’ shots often found in reality TV narratives. The two images, providing material evidence of both trauma and transformation, form part of a flow of experiences belonging to, and shared by, multiple, diverse and mutable entities. The photographed body also never speaks directly to the camera, in keeping with Baseman’s tendency to maintain a slight separation between image and audio. In several of his films, participants and contributors figure solely as voices, taken from audio interviews in which they speak about their present world or describe events recalled from another moment in time. For example, in An Event in the Village (2008) Baseman incorporates silent footage of a music festival, which was shot by a local amateur film-maker in the early 1970s. In a voiceover he is heard speaking many decades later, and his words suggest a kind of secondary detachment from events that were already experienced at a distance by virtue of his position behind the camera.
In each of Baseman’s films Nasty Piece of Stuff (2009) and GLF LSD (2019), moving images are synchronised with an audio recording of the writer and gay rights activist Alan Wakeman. The first film centres on Wakeman’s recollection of a violent sexual assault, which occurred during a time of great vulnerability for him as a young gay man. His words are accompanied by images of a city at night, including multiple long exposures that preserve trails of light left by the passage of bodies and cars. GLF LSD focuses on Wakeman’s subsequent transformational encounters with psychedelic drugs – experiences that helped to radically alter his perception of himself and his environment. The film is replete with images of sunlight, flickering flames and fragments of trees, as well as glimpses of indistinct bodies. As in Nasty Piece of Stuff, Baseman employs ‘subjective camera’ techniques that, in the context of mainstream narrative cinema, are typically used to articulate the psychological or physical vantage point of a single individual. Instead, in both of these films, camera movement, editing and the interplay between sound and image emphasise the presence of, and permeability between, multiple bodies.
To what extent might films such as Nasty Piece of Stuff and GLF LSD, and indeed A Different Kind of Different, be described as portraiture? This categorisation has sometimes been applied to works by the film-maker Ben Rivers, most notably This Is My Land (2006), which features a single individual, Jake Williams, living alone in a remote rural area. Rivers, who made the film without a storyboard or any predetermined outcome, describes it as his first foray ‘into an actual person’s life’.1 Yet he defines it as a construct and a fiction, rather than an attempt to produce a definitive or authentic portrait of an individual. Importantly, Rivers does not frame Williams as an isolated figure, instead This Is My Land documents his interactions with his immediate environment, including plants, animals and objects. While Rivers himself does not appear on-screen, he is clearly sharing Jake’s world, and his own presence is subtly indexed by the movements of his handheld camera. In contrast, Rivers’ film The Coming Race, also made in 2006, is marked by a physical distance from its human subjects, who are depicted as an indistinct collective. The camera remains largely still as these bodies approach, partially emerging from the surface of a mist-covered mountain. Their voices are never heard, but their relentless collective passage is suggested by a dense audio collage, evoking the sounds of bodies on the stony terrain.
Although Rivers’ film depicts movement, it is marked by an overwhelming sense of stasis, as these pilgrims seem to be engaged in an endless struggle. The mist that clings to this mountain is fixed in place, unlike the free-floating clouds that often appear in Baseman’s films. The cloud is a long-standing emblem of mutability, inviting interpretation but also resisting classification.2 It is precisely this quality that can make the cloud useful in understanding the capacities and properties of bodies as unbounded entities. In the realm of science, living beings are understood to occupy and emanate individually distinct clouds of microbes, so that they chemically extend into their environments. From a different perspective, affect theorists such as Brian Massumi emphasise that the body is always ‘in passage or in process (to the extent that it is dynamic and alive).’3 Noting that humans routinely respond to stimulation before it is consciously perceived, Massumi characterises the body as radically open; it continually ‘infoldscontexts’.4 As other theorists have observed, affect accumulates both in ‘relatedness’ and its interruptions , involving ‘ebbs and swells of intensities that pass between “bodies” (bodies defined not by an outer skin-envelope or other surface boundary but by their potential to reciprocate or co-participate in the passages of affect).’5
Baseman’s film Gendersick (2018–19) forcefully articulates the affective consequences of thinking of the body as bounded and fixed. It incorporates a monologue delivered by an unnamed narrator who reflects on the lived experience of asexuality, and a profound feeling of bodily dissociation. This speaker viscerally articulates a sense of self that does not conform to normative definitions, communicating a deep longing for an identity rooted in motion rather than fixity. Their voice is accompanied by a montage of rapidly edited images, including artificially illuminated fragments of plants and trees, and streaking car headlights, emphasising motion, stimulation and sensation. At times, however, the pace slows with the appearance of colour-saturated clouds, drifting at a distance, removed from the constraints of social and physical boundaries.
If in Gendersick the ‘cloud body’ exists as a kind of ideal form, it has other applications in relation to A Different Kind of Different. It might, for example, describe the temporary assembly of multiple experiences, and affective intensities, manifested by the central character of Alicia. Baseman’s script was shaped by the testimony of numerous interviewees, and the character design process also included input from multiple participants and advisors. Importantly, there is no uniform aesthetic in the character design; instead, Alicia’s world is populated by entities drawn from entirely different visual registers and archival sources, amplifying the sense of disjunction and dislocation she articulates with regard to her own unruly body. Alicia’s deceptively simple form, almost sausage-like with spindly arms and legs, is unstable and subject to rapid shifts. This is a body that sags and bloats, and expands and contracts, without warning.
Other characters in A Different Kind of Different are closer to faithful representations of individuals interviewed by Baseman, such as Inga Duncan Thornell, a historian who carries a gene for breast cancer. Inga had a prophylactic mastectomy, followed by an elaborate tattoo that she co-designed. Her filmed image smoothly transforms into an animated line drawing, retaining a suggestion of three-dimensionality that is absent from the other entities. Alicia’s world also includes an anatomical diagram of a woman with a half-dissected brain who announces that ‘symmetry is fundamental’. This anatomical figure exists as a reminder of the limits and biases that have shaped the practice of medicine, with particular consequences for those with limited social power. Several other entities in the film resemble children’s drawings, ranging from simple stick figures to a bizarre pink creature with the huge eyes of a My Little Pony toy. These characters owe their forms partly to research undertaken by Baseman for an earlier work, Tape 1 Tape 2 (2007), which features audio recordings made by the Twin Studies Research Team at the Institute of Psychiatry, London. There are no images in Tape 1 Tape 2, only subtitled audio in which a mother describes her twins separately, betraying a very definite preference for one over the other. The archive also includes children’s drawings, which Baseman (with permission) referenced when developing the characters for A Different Kind of Different.
Alicia is voiced by an actor with a Northern Irish accent, but the experience she articulates does not belong to a singular place or journey, even if there are moments in her story that seem to anchor her to a specific generation. Describing the unexpected consequences of cancer treatment – her previously straight hair grew back in tight curls – she summons an image of ‘Justin Fucking Timberlake’ in support of this claim. Filling the frame, Timberlake’s face is rendered with much greater realism that Alicia’s own – he has a nose, which she lacks – but the image is outdated, since his curls are long gone. His floating head is a fragment of once-popular culture, but within the world of A Different Kind of Different it also functions as part of Alicia’s own unstable form: a body made up of parts, which is simultaneously physical, cultural and social.
The world inhabited by Alicia has no edges or boundaries, to the extent that her interactions with other characters appear to take place in a void. At one point, the characters mingle as though making small talk at a party, but this festive setting is never visually delineated, only evoked by audio. The early history of animation demonstrates its capacity to transcend the limits of the physical world. During the First World War the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, resulting a massive loss of life. In the absence of any photographic evidence of this event, the animator Winsor McCay created a ‘record’ of the sinking, rendered in the graphic style of newspaper illustration. The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) closes with scenes of tiny bodies falling from the burning ship into the sea and, in a moving image that could only be created through animation, a mother and her baby drown, with the camera ‘following their helpless descent’ into the watery depths.6
More recently, science communicators have often deployed (usually hyperrealist) animation techniques to visualise far-distant planets, or speculate upon forms of life prior to the emergence of humans. Animation has also provided artists with the means to reflect upon the changing concepts of personhood and consciousness. Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s collaborative project No Ghost Just a Shell (1999–2002) involved the purchase of a manga character, AnnLee, for use by many different artists.7 In Huyghe’s animation One Million Kingdoms (2001), AnnLee seems to silently reflect upon her status as data as she walks through a lunar landscape that is apparently being determined by the peaks and troughs of the voiceover. Synthesised from recordings of Neil Armstrong, the speaking voice is familiar but impossible to place. No longer belonging fully to Armstrong, it has been manipulated to recite passages from Jules Verne's 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The animated series The Midnight Gospel (2020), created by Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward, also features a central character who travels through space. Each episode includes audio edited from Trussell’s interview podcast, in which host and guest engage in free-flowing conversations about consciousness, psychedelic experiences and philosophies of the self. In The Midnight Gospel their conversations are transposed to fantastical worlds. Despite the absurdity of their adventures, these animated avatars remain resolutely focused on their dialogue, articulating relatively consistent and coherent positions. The opposite, however, might be said of Alicia and her world, since she is an unstable (and implicitly collective) construct, continually transforming while inhabiting a purposefully undefined space. Even though her mutable body is a source of constant frustration, she seems nonetheless to command her world, claiming and asserting a kind of power that stems from change.
The connection between mutability and power is integral to the cloud as a cultural object. In the realm of computing, the ‘cloud’ has come to signify a resource that is unlimited, sustaining everyday modes of living, working and socialising. Tung-Hui Hu describes how the cloud icon was first used in computer network administration, around 1970, to situate accessible and familiar networks ‘within the same epistemic space as something that constantly fluctuates and is impossible to know.’8 In the decades that have passed, cloud-based computing has become ubiquitous, expanding to the point that it places wholly unsustainable demands on limited physical resources.9 To imagine a body (or indeed multiple bodies) in the form of a cloud does not mean embracing a fantasy of power beyond the limits of the social and physical world. Rather, it offers a way of understanding how mutability can be a source of power. Through the character of Alicia, and the assembly of entities that share her world, A Different Kind of Different demonstrates that bodies are always in passage, and capable of power even when they are subject to change.
Maeve Connolly is a writer and researcher based in Dublin, where she co-directs the Masters in Art and Research Collaboration at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology. She is the author of TV Museum: Contemporary Art and the Age of Television (Intellect, 2014) and The Place of Artists’ Cinema: Space, Site and Screen (Intellect, 2009). Her recent publications include contributions to Expanding Cinema: Theorizing Film Through Contemporary Art (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), Everything Is Somewhere Else (Paper Visual Art, 2020) and Artists’ Moving Image in Britain since 1989 (Paul Mellon Centre and Yale University Press, 2019).
- Ben Rivers quoted from ‘The Cruel Radiance of What Is: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel and Ben Rivers in Conversation’ in Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, eds, Documentary Across Disciplines (Berlin and Cambridge, MA: Haus der Kulturen der Welt and MIT Press, 2016), p. 43.
- Lorraine Daston, ‘Cloud Physiognomy’, Representations, vol. 135, no. 1, Special Issue: Description Across Disciplines, (Summer 2016), pp. 45–71, https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2016.135.1.45.
- Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 5.
- Massumi, italics in original, p. 30.
- Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’, in Gregg and Seigworth (eds), The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 2.
- Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1989–1928, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 117.
- Tom McDonough, ‘No Ghost*’, October, 110 (Fall 2004), pp. 107–130, https://doi.org/10.1162/0162287042379829.
- Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), p. X.
- Hu, p. 124.