Iain Baxter& &Information – That famous aphorism ‘the medium is the message’ was spouted by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor, philosopher and public intellectual back 1964, when his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, set the stage for my current train journey where I overhear the students discussing their A levels. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Media Studies.’ ‘Oh, that’s useful.’ Some days I think he has changed everything about the world, one of the few truly influential academics and polemics of the twentieth century.
That is what Marshall McLuhan was doing, after all, putting the obvious under the microscope, teaching us to look at the frame and beyond the art
Also Canadian, and a younger contemporary (by 25 years) of McLuhan, the artist BAXTER& took his writings to heart and reapplied the thought to his field of vision, to his fundamental approach to making. Everything he does, it seems to me, thinks about the approach of McLuhan. The puns. The connections. The world of word and speed and time. He does not believe, as a traditional artist does, regarding representation or symbolism but is unhealthily concerned the medium itself. He reflects the space it creates around itself, together with its social effect. This obsession is what marks him out as a conceptual artist. In his visual art, the medium is thick and opaque, always visible. This approach kills art and long live art.
Art is the new lightbulb. It is electricity, purified by this self-analytical gaze. There’s something religious about this self-reflexion. You must never take your eyes of your medium for a moment. If you do, you become unaware, naive. You must consciously keep your eyes on what you are doing, never be fooled by the illusion of painting, of television, of novels. Keep your eyes on the frame of your own self-portrait.
BAXTER& literally made sure he made himself the message in 2005 when he changed his name to from Ian Baxter to Iain BAXTER& by deed poll. It’s a big statement which turns himself into a self-conscious brand. Call it pretension itself. No, there is no point using pretentious as an insult on someone who can never be embarrassed by this idea. So let himself call himself The &Man, creating images of the ampersand. Is it time to stop cringing yet?
BAXTER& claims that the ampersand symbolises the continued collaboration with the viewer, always aware of the social space around the medium (himself). The viewer must join in the new religion and keep the frame of the art within his viewpoint. Don’t forget to look at the frame! Readers, remember this is an article! We are not only talking to each other about BAXTER& and his art but also about the rest of art, about technology, ideology and social organisation!
This exhibition &Information is BAXTER& doing what BAXTER& does. Exploring art as information. Coining words that express his inclusive, expansive idea (do we really need these ideas and words?). BAXTER& is never without a camera, but that doesn’t sound so strange these days as we have all become camera carriers with our magic, multipurpose phones. He has documented and documented going about his daily artist business. Photographs, he has said, primarily act as a memory device and a means to understand the world, predicting the age when they lead to validation on social media.
What photographs have been selected for display in this exhibition, here in London in late 2018? This is an exhibition about landscape, in a way. The titles of the series shown tell us that. The landscape of the universe is infinite, but the titles are specific. There are two series of Polaroids, Reflections of America and Images of America, validating BAXTER&’s road trips across 31 states of the US in 1931. The Polaroid Corporation supplied the cameras, films and even a campervan. Where did he point the camera? The Polaroids have the answer. Not at the accepted beauty spot. Not in the privileged position. The pictures are at odds with the tourist or romantic image of America.
TransCanada highway, near Fort William, Ontario, Canada (1968) is an early work in collaboration with N.E. Thing Co. which illuminates photographic works on a lightbox. The presentation came from the advertising industry and the transparent, light-rich slides of projection.
Keep your eye on the frame! Remember you are in America, you are in Canada, you are in a car. You are sitting in the passenger seat (probably), staring out at the big country. Everyone sits in a car in America. Feel the seat, look through the glass, see what you see, see what BAXTER& saw. Like Jack Kerouac in On the Road, you experience the world through a car, passing through towns and places, observing, privileged, removed. Trapping images on your retina and validating them for your future self through a camera. How strange that they do not look like the world looks like through your eyes at the time. The colours are different. There is a new frame. It’s on photographic paper. It’s a Polaroid. It’s a slide.
But your experience is not the same as BAXTER&. You never went on the same trips as he did. You are not BAXTER&. Yet his snapshots have connected you with him. The art has put the & in BAXTER&. Maybe that’s what the ampersand is. Just art.
The exhibition can easily be called a school of the obvious. That is what it is. That is what Marshall McLuhan was doing, after all, putting the obvious under the microscope, teaching us to look at the frame and beyond the art, learning to see ourselves reflected back in the glass. Do not ask what the artwork is about but consider it in its entirety. BAXTER& never takes his eye off the frame, that’s his thing.
But if you do take your eye of the concept, you see some great period polaroids of 1960s America, full of inadvertent fetish material for car spotters and lovers of the open road. It’s not surprising that you’ll find many things to entertain you as all of life is basically just information. And beneath the blaring pretentiousness, BAXTER& is keen to be the ordinary guy.
‘I can talk to anyone about my art, and I don’t use rarified art speech level. I’m more interested in getting the ordinary guy to change the ordinary guy’s life a little bit.’ (from an interview with Mimi Luse ‘Q+A: Iain Baxter&, Impossibly Canadian, 18 Feb 2011).
Self-conscious, blue-collar America. Of course, it’s about cars.
Iain BAXTER & Information Hales Gallery London 9 November – 20 December Hales Gallery 7 Bethnal Green Road E1 6LA, London, UK