Stephanie Barber at the BMA

by | Jul 5, 2011 | Events

Stephanie Barber has installed herself at the Baltimore Museum of Art. There is a large plaque with her name and bio on it. Here is the best photo I could get of that before a guard cut me off:

“No pictures in this gallery,” he said. I glanced around. Stephanie Barber had cameras all over the place.

Everyday she sits in a large white room, at a massive wooden desk balanced on a pair of sawhorses, in front of two iMacs. Across from her is a huge green screen, where she films museum patrons who say, “I love you.”

Off to her side, behind a short wall, there is a projection of two videos she made previously, my favorites (of many favorites), “Dwarfs the Sea” and “Bust Chance.” “Dwarfs the Sea” is available to see in her book/DVD, these here separated to see how they standing alone, from PGP. It’s an amazing and well-loved piece.

All around her are things you’d find in her regular studio: not just editing equipment, but keyboards, a vintage toy piano, scissors (safety scissors, per museum guidelines), a yoga ball, and plenty of external harddrives.

Colorful pictures torn from books are affixed with tacks to the museum’s walls. There is a long collage of forest scenes, and a group of interior home shots. Barber shot these pictures and uses them as source material for some of the videos she’s making. She’s making a video every day for 31 days.

The show is called “Jhana and the Rats of James Olds, or 31 Days/31 Videos.” The words “Jhana and the Rats of James Olds” are printed across a large-screen TV stand. The television shows the work she’s made so far.

In a fascinating article at Urbanite, Cara Ober explains the show better than I can:

Lots of contemporary artists say they value the process over product, but in Stephanie Barber’s case, this puts it mildly. Barber’s work, in the center of the exhibit, is a makeshift studio and production house. For each of the 31 days of the exhibit, Barber will create an original video utilizing a variety of props, digital editing techniques, and random passersby. The videos will be screened on a monitor adjacent to the production area. Although her section of the exhibit will confuse and confound some of the visitors to the museum, her warm persona and willingness to interact with strangers is the strength of the piece. “I want visitors to be able to see the successes and the failures,” she says of the new body of work she will create here. Part performance, part intervention, and part studio, Barber’s work is the most risky of the group, as well as the most contemporary.

She’s been there for seven days now, so there are seven videos showing on a loop.

One thing I wonder about, though, is whether Stephanie values process over product. While she has thrown back the curtain on process, there’s no indication that she’s any less concerned with the outcome of her work. I found that the videos are still excellent, and more than that, they follow the same line of thought that I’m accustomed to in the Barber repertory; they are visual (and literal) poems constructed of found footage and highly intentional soundtracks.

That said, I imagine that if she had more than the museum’s seven hours of operation to work on each one, it would be different. And in that way, the concept of “Jhana and the Rats of James Olds” becomes about more than just the 31 individual videos.

I kind of see it as an underdog story; art is competing against time.

So it makes sense that so much of the work is built from images that are several decades old, as if to question the effect of time on their relevance. One video, which is very vivid, takes as its source half-century-old 16mm footage from what seems to be a vacation across Europe. Headings that identify locations interstice the imagery filmed on the vacation, so that the headings become a poem and the real, meaningful content of the video. The repurposed film, by contrast, is ancillary to the text. That’s an inversion Barber is keen to make.

She has also used passersby to record voiceovers for the videos. I’m amazed at how good some of the acting is.

Another video features a shot of a sailboat moving across the water, with a rosebush in the foreground and an island rock in the background. Then the image freezes and gets animated out of the picture as if by Photoshop. After it’s been completely obliterated by painting over it (digitally, so I’m reminded of Corey Arcangel maybe), random letters begin to fly across the screen. Some of them rotate around and finally spell “SUCK IT,” an unsympathetic gesture that seems new to Barber’s work, in some ways, but not one that’s ill-considered. I’ve watched the video several times and chuckled at each pass. A docent watched it and said, “Ha, that’s pretty good.” It contrasts the quietness of the piece sharply.

There are 24 days to go for Barber, and 24 more videos to make. It’s an incredible show, and I am impressed with the BMA for facilitating it. I was just thinking that I wish I could see documentation of the project the way MoMA set it up for Marina Abramović, and then I realized that Barber is making this documentation herself in the form of the “I Love You” piece, which will show the participating museum patrons. I can’t wait to see that, not just because it furthers the questions raised in Abramović’s show, but because I expect it’s going to be as heart-rending and great-to-look-at as everything else Barber has created.