Essex Indexicals: a short story about growing up

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 13.26.01Two projects by the artist Chris Dorley-Brown have launched this month. One is a major digital commission from The Wellcome Collection, entitled 15 SECONDS Part 3. The other is a new book called Drivers in the 1980s, which is published by Hoxton Mini Press as the sixth in their series of collectable books about East London:

[He] spent two summers in the mid 1980s photographing drivers stuck in traffic jams in and around East London. This series was his first on colour film and was created when he intended to document the privitisation of Rolls Royce but instead became fascinated by the faces in the traffic caused by the sell-off in the city. The cars, colours, haircuts and expressions of frustration capture the mood and tone of a unique era in Thatcher’s Britain.

You may have seen Drivers in the 1980s reviewed here and there!

Twenty years ago, Dorley-Brown was engaged on education and outreach work at the Minories (now First Site) in Colchester, Essex. In those early days of the web, and having only recently seen for the first time ‘a row of Macs hooked up to the internet’, Chris began to think about personal online presence, and what the internet might mean for online identity. He devised a project that could work with local schools to create a 15-second video portrait of each of 1,000 Essex schoolchildren. The portraits would initially be shown on public TV screens or as ‘video art’.

Here is the flyer that was sent to schools:



Taking a Sony Beta SP video camera and one of several rolls of flourescent card for a backdrop, Chris set up in a number of school halls and filmed approximately 1,000 video portraits.

In 2004, the Science Museum commissioned Chris to revisit the project as part of their Future Face exhibition. Contacting the schools that had participated, Chris managed to make contact with some thirty-five of the original school children, who by then would have been between the ages of 18 and 21. He invited them to sit for another video portrait, but this time they were also able to watch the footage of their younger selves. A video diptych of these 1994-2004 portraits is now on permanent display in the Medicine Now exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

In 2014, Wellcome commissioned Chris Dorley-Brown to visit the group a third time. The result is 15 SECONDS Part 3, which is now published online. Here is the blurb:

Chris Dorley Brown’s 15 SECONDS Part 3 is a tantalising glimpse into lives of 26 millennials born in the 1980s, and the ways in which their lives have changed between childhood and adulthood. In 1994, several hundred Colchester schoolchildren aged 8-11 were invited to make a video portrait of themselves and experience their ‘fifteen seconds of fame’. Ten years later, Dorley-Brown tracked down some of the individual participants to find out how their lives had progressed; and in 2014 he made a third series of video portraits. Brought together as a digital online artwork, the participants’ three selves now enter into a dialogue with each other. The first set of video portraits were made in an era before the internet became a part of everyday life; the last set were made in the era when self-presentation through social media is ubiquitous. In between are a poignant series of moving portraits that address growing up, thwarted ambition and finding out what makes you happy in life.


Alongside the launch of 15 SECONDS Part 3, I have been commissioned to write a short critical text about the project. I visited Chris in his studio while the work was being edited, and had an opportunity to watch the first cuts of 15 SECONDS in their individual triptych form. The blurb is right, these are ‘moving portraits’, in more ways than one. With the material shot in 2004 and 2014, there has also been an added dimension. Where the very first portraits were shot without sound, the second and third visits have enabled the sitters, who are now in their late twenties and early thirties, to comment upon their younger selves. Chris tells me that he offered only the simple instruction not to offer up any personal detail: ‘keep it general’ were his words.

Watching all of this come together in Chris’s studio, I found myself drawn to the speech patterns and the phrasing being used by the now twenty-nine participants; particular verbal constructions that echoed across the lives and decades. ‘Essex Indexicals’ is the result. It is a short story about growing up.

The word ‘indexical’ can simply mean functioning like—or displaying the properties of—an index, as with my story, which is created from an alphabetised re-ordering of certain utterances made by the subjects of Chris Dorley-Brown’s 15 SECONDS Part 3, during filming in 2004 and 2014. However, ‘indexical’ has a second meaning which is also relevant here. In philosophy, as David Braun explains:

An indexical is, roughly speaking, a linguistic expression whose reference can shift from context to context. For example, the indexical ‘you’ may refer to one person in one context and to another person in another context. Other paradigmatic examples of indexicals are ‘I’, ‘here’, ‘today’, ‘yesterday’, ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘that’. Two speakers who utter a single sentence that contains an indexical may say different things. For instance, when both John and Mary utter ‘I am hungry’, Mary says that she is hungry, whereas John says that he is hungry.


Watch 15 SECONDS Part 3

Read ‘Essex Indexicals’ by Tony White

Drivers In The 1980s by Chris Dorley-Brown. 96pp hardcover, gold foiled,145 x 205mm. Hoxton Mini Press, £12.95

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