A Little Present to My Friend Columbus

letters-notes-stephanie-barber.jpgLetters, Notes, 2000

Stephanie Barber’s films and videos are concerned with the content, musicality and experimental qualities of language. In Letters, Notes (1997), the artist uses old snapshots overlaid with texts fragments taken from found letters that include messages ranging from the mundane to the mysterious. Her more recent works often revolve around a philosophical inquiry which she approaches with playfulness, emotion and wit. Seemingly less concerned with the formal structure of language, Barber explores the act of communication, with oneself and one another, and the ways it interacts with society and culture.

In December 2009, Close-Up presented a selection of Stephanie Barber’s works followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.

Question: One theme in your work seems to be the relationship between reality and its representation in words and photographs. There's a line in Inversion, Transcription, Evening Track, Attractor (2008) that says "photographs have an appeal regardless of their aesthetic merit," but photographs are not reality?

Stephanie Barber: But they really are. Well, the photograph is something in reality. I guess the answer to that question is that whole video. Maybe it's just me trying to work it out. To think about, or not settle on, what I think about it, but just to flesh out every idea I have about the relation of photographs to reality.

Q: In Dwarfs The Sea (2008) you're apparently talking about real people who you knew and encountered but actually you found those pictures and built up stories around the faces. The question of reality is asked of the audience.

SB: This leads into a complex question of what is reality. If a photograph exists in reality then it comes down to semantics. Inversion, Transcription, Evening Track, Attractor is trying to define reality through an attempt to define photographs and their emotional presence. What is more interesting than trying to define whether or not the photograph exists as a reality is trying to define what is, or where is, the emotion associated with the image and what is that emotion's reality.

Q: In Letters, Notes (2000), you use real found letters. There are some very troubling moments: one line in an otherwise ordinary letter reads "Mark's in hospital and has six months to live." I think you express the inadequacy of words to contain the chaos of the totality of life.

SB: Well, I just think that that's a really beautiful reading. A lot of people really love Letters, Notes and think it's funny... because you guys aren't a laughing audience. The phrase "plumptuous breasts" usually gets a laugh, but to me, God, there are really dark undertones all through it.

Q: That particular note you mention end with, "I paid 89 cents." It's extremely troubling to see it written out.

SB: Code... reduced version of language...

Q: Similarly, Dwarfs The Sea is narrated by a computer voice, a cold voice, telling very moving stories of sailors. It's an interesting juxtaposition.

SB: I feel like sometimes I'm making these cheap jokes. Like when Bashō says – Bashō is a haiku poet – when he says: "achieve enlightenment and then return to this world of ordinary humanity." The computer woman [in Dwarfs The Sea] says, "5 x 7 inch prints at Walgreens." 5 x 7 inch is a haiku reference, five, seven, five syllables... Haiku is supposed to be the most banal, naturalistic comment which references the entire plate of existence.

Q: It made me think of Laurie Anderson's ‘O Superman', which is like a modern lullaby sung in a computerised voice. It's a paradox of the format or the medium used...

SB: ...and the ideas expressed, yes...

Q: ...and the feeling you get through how it's being expressed. It's extremely American for me, this way of using language. Hal Hartley is a different example, he has his actors speak emotional dialogue in monotone.

SB: Sometimes we're removing the character from the speaker, whether by using text on the screen or a computer voice. This can be more effective emotionally because it's universal, without the specificity of one body holding those emotions. It's implicatory, implicatory, implicatory [laughs], that we all have to be feeling the dark sorrow that I'm always feeling.

Q: In Total Power Dead Dead Dead (2005) the audience is supposed to participate...

SB: You guys didn't do that

Audience: I did.

SB: You did?

Audience: Well, I did it quietly.

SB: You did it in your heart? You did it a little bit? You muttered it? Or you did it in your head?

Audience: I muttered it, yes.

SB: That's good.

Q: Does the audience often participate?

SB: I don't usually stay in the room but I do ask and usually, no, they don't. If there are a few people doing it, then the audience does it. It just takes one or two people to do it wholeheartedly like saying, "I love you." Then people do it.

Q: Could you explain the order of the films in tonight's programme?

SB: It's pretty much chronological. Maybe a lazy person's way to organise. That doesn't mean I am a lazy person, I sometimes wish I was, it's just a combination between chronological and flavour. And that one [A Little Present (for my friend Columbus the explorer), 1997] is nice at the end, because it's like a little lozenge.

Q: With Christmas lights.

SB: And Christmas. We turned on the Christmas lights.