American artist Jordan Baseman discusses challenging the death penalty in his experimental 2004 film
Jordan Baseman is renowned for making ‘experimental portraiture’ and ‘creative non-fiction’ works through film. He is also Head of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London, and a current Lincoln Voices Artist in Residence at Lincoln Law School.
Baseman has been described by the Guardian as ‘the video art boundary-pusher’. His 2004 animation July The Twelfth 1984 shows us why. The artwork features the actual recording of convicted murderer Ivon Ray Stanley’s execution by electric chair in the State of Georgia, 12th July 1984. The dark audio is accompanied by an aptly black video screen, with bold, white text documenting everything said and done by the ‘execution team’ throughout the procedure.
The artist’s intervention is deliberately overshadowed by the original document, as the voices are allowed to monopolise our ears and eyes. Their language, which is by turns clinical, bureaucratic and buoyant, makes the work’s simplicity its greatest source of power.
Baseman spoke to us about the film, and about his current work commemorating Magna Carta in Lincoln.
How would you describe July The Twelfth 1984?
July The Twelfth 1984 is a tragic document depicting government-controlled murder. We hear the voice of Willis Marabel, an assistant to the warden at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. From a small room adjacent to the death chamber, Marabel watched the execution of Ivon Ray Stanley through a one-way mirror and described exactly what transpired over the phone to officials in Atlanta. We see his words flash before us as we hear him dispassionately describe bearing witness to the death of a human being.
Why did you decide to create an artwork about the death penalty in America?
I have always thought that the death penalty is cruel and inhuman. As an American living outside of the United States, I often feel that I am placed in the position of trying to explain or contextualize the actions of my country’s government. There is no way that I can reconcile my nation’s continued execution of its citizens with my own feelings and views.
Which procedures did you have to go through in order to make July The Twelfth 1984?
I was first given the recording in 2001 by the producers of WNYC, New York City’s Public Radio station. I then conducted research in order to obtain permission to use the material to create the work.
What stood out to you about Ivon Ray Stanley’s execution?
The execution of Ivon Ray Stanley was illegally recorded by the State of Georgia. Ironically, the recording was made in order to prove the letter of the Law was followed, should any issues arise. The recordings were secretly smuggled out of the Georgia State Correction Facility by an anonymous prison guard. Of all the recordings, the one documenting the execution of Ivon Ray Stanley was the most descriptive.
What was your inspiration behind the minimal yet precise visual aspect of the film? The ‘subtitles’ include every ‘uh’ uttered, every ‘g’ dropped…
Once I acquired the recordings, I soon realized that I couldn’t provide any visuals for the audiotape. The material was too powerful in and of itself. The language struck me as banal and matter of fact: highly detailed and precise, but unembellished and straightforward. In order to understand this better I transcribed the recording, and I decided to use the text itself as the visual material.
Talk to us about the title – it simply documents the date of the event, which seems to me a powerful coupling with the routine, callous way in which the execution is carried out. What was your inspiration behind it?
You’ve previously said that In Cold Blood by Truman Capote has had a profound impact on your work as an artist. How so?
The entire making of In Cold Blood rests in the execution of the Clutter family, and of their killers Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith. These murders introduce and conclude the narratives. The fictionalizing of this account of multiple killings is told with such skill that at times the reader, however briefly, has some empathy for the Hickcock and Perry. In the film version of In Cold Blood, the Clutter house was used to act out the killings in their original locations. In fact, all the 'real' locations in and around Holcomb, Kansas were used in the film, including the reconstructed gallows at Lansing Prison, Leavenworth, Kansas. The townsfolk played themselves as extras. This inversion of fiction and non-fiction interests me a great deal.
July The Twelfth 1984 is clearly distressing to view. Is there any other effect you hope it will have on the audience?
My intention was to make something powerful, meaningful and brutally honest. I am trying to make work that that creates a lasting impression.
What is Lincoln Voices? How do you feel about it as a project?
Lincoln Voices (not my title) is an artist residency that is hosted by the University of Lincoln in celebration of the Magna Carta. Emma Rushton, Derek Tyman and I will produce artworks in 2017 under it. In preparation for this, I have been conducting interviews around the subject of criminology. I have been asking questions such as, ‘How does the law determine our human rights?’, ‘What is the relationship between crime, popular culture, literature and the media?’, and ‘What are the boundaries between Free Will and greater social responsibility?’ Over the past year at Lincoln I have had the pleasure of getting to know some of the most inspirational, intelligent, articulate, interesting, creative and open individuals that a person could ever hope to meet. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been selected for the project.
Can you tell us anything about the artwork you are going to produce after your research is completed?
You’ve previously said that ‘art is necessary to try to understand the complexity of being alive.’ Do you think art, and particularly work that engages with serious social issues such as July The Twelfth 1984, can inspire social change through the greater understanding it brings?
Out of respect for Ivon Ray Stanley and his family, July The Twelfth 1984 is not available to view online
July The Twelfth 1984 was exhibited as part of the Freedom Lies exhibition at The Collection, Lincoln from October 2015–January 2016
For more information on Jordan Baseman’s work, visit his website