Stephanie Barber is a multi media artist who creates meticulously crafted, odd and imaginative writing, films and videos which incorporate music, literature and video. These films and videos have screened at MoMA, NY; The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; and The Tate, London among others. Her essays, stories and poems have been published by Publishing Genius Press and Bronze Skull Press and have been included in various other books, magazines and anthologies. In Afterall Online, Ed Halter says this of her work: “Barber (more often) approaches cinema as a philosophical toy, intimately small, in which the play itself generates both pleasure and insight.” You can read more about her Baltimore Museum of Art show at Charm City Current and at HTMLGiant. You can read more about her films and videos at Artforum.
Michael Kimball: Most video artists just screen their videos on the wall of the gallery. You’re doing that with two beautiful and haunting pieces of work—Dwarfs the Sea and Bust Chance—but you also installed your studio as part of the show. Could you talk about that decision and also tell me what a museum-goer might see through this glimpse into your studio?
Stephanie Barber: My initial desire was to make a video every day of the exhibit—a sort of game and meditation. For many years in Milwaukee, I ran a “Make-a-Film-in-12-Hours” contest—because I started and organized this game I was never able to take part in it, so in a way I am getting a taste of my own medicine. Also, my friend Xav Leplae shot a 35mm film in a gallery and that was an inspiration for this show as well. I was interested in playing a very intense game with myself. Desiring a hyper-focused time that was solely about making new work. The decision to move my studio into the museum was a sort of materializing of this initial concept. The “game” of the game is put on display in an inversion of the usual museum-going experience. The majority of the space I take up at the museum is filled with computers and keyboards and lights and cameras and paper and printers and books and feathers etc.—all the tools of my trade. Then on one wall is a 42″ monitor, which displays the work I have created the previous days. So I think it’s funny, the show is the product—the videos I have created, yes, but, more than that, it is me sitting at a computer editing, animating or writing or asking passersby to read some dialogue or sing for me. It is boring and it is exciting just the way the work of art is. There are heroic moments and there is time spent calculating bit rates. I’m throwing a spotlight on the banality and euphoria of creation.
Michael Kimball: I like the way you talk about your show as a game, the amount of play that can be part of making video art. Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned Oulipo games as an inspiration. Could you talk about how you use those games or constraints in the daily videos that you’ve been making?
Stephanie Barber: The constraints are that I have to make the entire piece in one day using only the materials I have at the museum. The construct of the show is the game. I cannot leave the museum to gather sounds or footage and I can bring in very limited additional material at just a few times throughout the show. (This last constraint was placed upon me by the museum. I need to have a proposed list approved by the board a week before bringing in additional material. My original list of what I would need to work was excised thoroughly, whittled down to a skeletal studio structure.) Also, the galleries in the museum are not wired and so I have no access to internet either–this is another pretty wild constraint.
While this might seem terribly strict to anyone who has ever made a video—even short pieces like mine can take a long, long time—the fact that so much of my work is language oriented has allowed me an imaginative expansion where the visuals are tightly held down by the physicality of the camera. So that yesterday’s video is a slow crane up of a ripped out photo of a grassy field while animated birds fly across it the soundtrack, a dialogue I wrote between two women, read by two lovely museum-going friends, pulls us to the story of where their conversation is taking place. Words are passkeys.
Michael Kimball: I love that: “Words are passkeys.” It makes me think about the title of the show: “Jhana and the Rats of James Olds or 31 Days/31 Videos.” I had to look up “jhana” to find out that it is a kind of meditation based on “profound stillness and concentration.” And I knew James Olds discovered the reward center, but, okay, here’s the question: Could you talk about jhana and James Olds as passkeys to your work, to your approach, etc.?
Stephanie Barber: I’m interested in Jaak Panksepp’s interpretation of this part of the brain (the lateral hypothalamus–what James Olds coined the “reward center” or some people refer to as the “pleasure center”) as actually not producing pleasure but the want to find or seek. This area, he proposes, has more to do with curiosity and want than it does with the satiety associated with “pleasure.” Or it is a pleasure we receive from foraging, searching, wanting. I am foraging through my imagination for ideas and solutions to creative and technical problems each day and the focus and dedication this requires feels akin to a meditative practice. Working this way echoes the drudgery and rewards of meditation, the almost palpable control you can feel yourself acquiring through its practice. Each day has been a miniature intellectual marathon with aesthetic doubts and triumphs and seemingly insurmountable technical issues and the ever-present passing of time. Like meditation, there are invisible battles and symphonies and jokes and tragedies. This state actually, this making state or trying to make or being in the midst of making, is jhana, for me and, really, for everyone in their different manifestations of what they find fascinating to work on, what gets their brainy motors revved up. This is why people write books about “flow” (though for some reason that word and concept embarrasses me) and this is why artists in movies only exist in montage accompanied by music.
Michael Kimball: I like that all of this gets at the idea, the actuality, of the artist working. And I’m wondering if working under your daily constraint, working that quickly, has changed how you think about the finished product, that perennial question of process versus product.
Stephanie Barber: There is certainly a change in the way I am thinking about these videos. Whether this change will apply to future work I can’t yet say. The first day of the show, since I had not yet made a video I constructed a simple, moving, informational animation explaining what I was doing. It said:
Today is the day I begin working in the museum.
Creating a new video everyday.
I will show them on this monitor.
Some will be good and some will be bad.
That is the nature of a project like this.
Don’t worry for me.
I think, more than informing the museum-goers about my process, this was in some way a reminder to myself. It has become something of a situational mantra. Because time is so strict I have to really limit my doubt. The day I came closest to not finishing a piece was because I kept doubting an interior I was making in Photoshop to bring into After Effects. The idea for the video and all that needed to be shot and all the sound had been recorded, so it was just this one element and the hang up wasn’t about the coming up with an idea or the making of the image but the liking of it or the letting it go out with or without my liking. I finally had to accept the image, which I still don’t like, and that has been interesting for me as a human, the cringing when I see this one pop up on the monitor. Whether this is good for me as an artist is a whole other question. I’m not so sure I need to learn to accept making art I don’t actually like–or finishing something quickly whether it is “good” or not. For this project it is absolutely perfect, but how will this new muscle be used in my future work, I don’t know. I hope it is not like a giant bully bicep rushing me on saying, “Aaahhhh, don’t worry about it, it’s done, finish, finish.”
I am generally more interested in product and this piece is still, really, about product, but it is also about the recognizing of the process needed to attain the product. About letting that awareness of construct and design seep into the experience of the product. It is perhaps about (or one of the things it is about) sidestepping that product v. process and question and accepting that they are inextricable.
Michael Kimball: If somebody were to come to the BMA and watch you work all day, what might they see that would give them some insight into your films and videos?
Stephanie Barber: What a good and hard question. I guess one aspect of this question is very broad and can apply to all artists. This person who would come and watch me work all day would really be committing to a work of art, and from commitment things just unfurl. When we give time and effort to any work of art, it expands and begins to wrap itself around our larger concerns–the real human concerns like “why are we here and what are we supposed to do with all this time?” and it also simultaneously gets less precious so that we can bat it around like a joke or play with it–stick our arms through sculptures or turn the sound up and down and up and down on our favorite album. Art is one of the ways we grapple and the more we grapple the more we are enriched and the more grapple muscles we develop, so that soon our grappling is the most sublime and amusing play. So staying and watching an entire video be created from initial idea to tedious exports and compressions would be a way of getting to know that piece and getting to really know just one piece would provide the confidence to get down with some of the others. But this is the general answer, which applies to all work.
What someone could learn about my work by sitting with me all day is to read the work as simply pieces of art and erase the notions we have of what a movie looks like or how a poem is read. I find that people are much more moved by my work when they let go of the expectations that medium and genre impose on the way work is received. Almost everyone is ready and open to a joke or a small sad or not sad story. And most anyone can take a few moments to watch a sailboat float around and be erased. Or fly away. What trips people up with art–and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, watching people day after day in the museum—watching how they will or will not approach a piece, will or will not give themselves to it–what pushes them away, I think, is all of the expectations they have been taught to have or taught that they are not savvy enough to have. Many people approach art defensively and this, as we know from all our fraught social encounters, never works out too well. So, perhaps by sitting and watching me work they will hear me giggle when I pet a picture of a cat with a feather and realize, “Oh yea, right, that’s funny, I know funny.” Or read the words, “It’s scary that we are going to die” and think, not––”Oh this is some heavy piece about death” but rather “Yes, that is quite frightening.”
Michael Kimball is the author of four books, including Dear Everybody (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”) and, most recently, Us (which Time Out Chicago calls “a simply gorgeous and astonishing book”). His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and he is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard). His new novel, Big Ray, will be published by Bloomsbury in Fall 2012.