Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Q&A's always affirm alterity
Sue Gardiner of Art News NZ in conversation with Bruce Barber
Q1) Can you tell me a little of your activities as part of the recent MIT
A1) At MSVA (MIT) I presented a weekly lecture on related topics such as art and ethics, relational art practice, littoral art and I also had the opportunity to produce work in my Aronui studio in preparation for my forthcoming exhibition at te tuhi gallery which opens on December 13th. Some of my activities involved the reproduction and printing of documents from some key works produced when I was a student at Elam in the early 1970’s. Under the terms of the Creative NZ funded residency I have also toured to each of the major centres Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington, presenting lectures on my work that has proved to be a wonderful opportunity to meet with colleagues and students. I am now in Sydney undertaking a residency in Artspace and preparing for my exhibition titled “Bruce Barber: Reading and Writing Rooms.” Although somewhat different but for the duplication of a few works, both exhibitions provide a selected survey of my work from 1970 to the present that will also be the subject of a book that will be published in 2009 that will contain essays on my practice by Canadian, New Zealand and Australian authors, two from each country. The book will be edited by Dr. Blair French Director of Artspace and Emma Bugden, Senior Curator at te tuhi and now ( I think this is now public) Director of Artspace New Zealand.
Q2) Can you tell me what you aim to achieve with the Te Tuhi exhibition- a
revisiting - re-presentation- re construction and/or development of new
projects? Is this the first major survey ( is it a survey?) you have had in
NZ for some time?
A2) Yes, the te tuhi exhibition is a selective survey of my work from 1970 to the present including a reconstruction of a large untitled 9float/glider) sculpture piece from 1972 which was previously exhibited at Govett Brewster Gallery and in Auckland at a NZSP&S exhibition in that year. This was recently reproduced in my MSVA studio and will be installed in the courtyard of te tuhi gallery.
With the assistance of MSVA students and staff, I have also reconstructed a performance from 1973 titled Projected Performance for a Lake, which is a work I was unable to produce in the 70’s but I wanted to revisit for this exhibition.
Wet suited performers: Anna Scott, Grant Thompson and Jeremy Leatinuu
Anna Scott and Paula Thornburrow (rowing). Photos Bruce Barber
I will also be re-producing a conceptual/perceptual work (1972) that reinforces the arbitrariness of signs(Ferdinand de Saussure).
This sign is 15 seconds and 25 steps away
from the next sign you will encounter
This is a billboard work that will be situated outside the gallery.
The exhibition will also include the following works: Found Situations (1970-1972)(Approximately 20 photographs), now being prepared for digital printing at MSVA); Kiss: An Essay in Exchange (1973), a slide/sound installation; Talking to myself documentation from a studio performance (photo documents), and video (from film) and/or photo documents of Whatipu Beach Performance; Mt. Eden Crater Performance; Bucket Action; Handgame for Artists Politicians, Egotists
and Solipsists and A friend in deed is a friend in need (all produced between the years 1973-75) before I departed New Zealand in 1976 to pursue further graduate study in Canada, which is where I now live.
In one of the galleries will be an installation from 1982 titled Vital Speeches that explores the use of the open and closed door trope employed by speechwriters in their writing of important public speeches for
politicians. I will also include an installation (The Castle) from a 1991 a component of Reading Room III. (Reading Rooms includes documentation from previous Reading Rooms and essays. Halifax, Eyelevel Gallery Publications, 1992). In one section of the gallery will be a version of Novel Squat (1998) “Streaming A Laboratory “Walter Phillips Art Gallery, Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff Alberta includes work from (1998-2006) and this and other website stations and books will be available in the te tuhi gallery Reading Room.
Q3) Emma mentioned a project with the local newspapers...
A3) Yes, this work is titled Novel Exchange (2004) and I have included the description below
Novel Exchange (originally produced in collaboration with the Australian artist Anne Graham). Advertisements were placed in the local media (newspapers and radio) announcing a “novel exchange” that took place in the Gallery of the Newcastle University School of Fine Arts and the Newcastle Regional Art Galleries. The “top 100 novels from the past 100 years” a very gendered, American and Euro-centric collection was arranged on a long bookshelf attached to the gallery wall. Adjacent to the shelf was a coffee table upon which were placed a tea service and biscuits provided for individuals who brought their novels to exchange with those they chose to replace from the collection. The space also provided visitors with a comfortable armchair in which to relax and read among some native plants and in the company of two budgerigars in a cage.
The advertisement I have requested to be placed in local papers is below
A novel experience for readers and writers to enjoy.
100 X 100
(The top 100 novels from past century)
Take a few minutes to drop in to the NOVEL EXCHANGE at the Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts over the next few weeks (December 13th –January 4th), and you can enjoy a refreshing cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit in the company of fellow readers and writers who will discuss the merits of their favorite novels, the 100X100 list and why more New Zealand writers should be included! Perhaps you have a novel to exchange with one in the collection, or you may just want to relax on the couch in the midst of the native plants and budgerigars.
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts 13 Reeves Road Pakuranga, Manukau City
Contact 09 577 0138 /
Q4) Given your long time premise of the artist being an agent for social
change, how have you seen this concept change over the years you have been
involved with this type of art project? Have you observed a growth in this
form of art practice, a change in emphasis, awareness, world events, issues,
more politicized...? I suppose I am wondering do you remain energized by the
possibilities for art and artists to affect change? And where do you locate
this notion of change/transformation - at an individual, institutional,
community, cultural, or theoretical level for example...
A5)Since the late 1980’s there has been a major growth in the number of artists who have engaged in categories of cultural practice that have been referred to variously as ‘relational’, ‘dialogical’, ‘interventionist’, ‘operative’ and ‘littoral’ art projects. A number of theorists and historians among them: Wolfgang Zinggl, Grant Kester, Greg Sholette, Nicholas Bourriard; Miwon Kwon; Claire Bishop, Erica Sudenburg, including myself, have discussed such work. My sentences and paragraphs on littoral art --- detournements of American artist Sol LeWitt’s sentences and paragraphs on conceptual art from the 1960’s --- elaborate some of my thoughts concerning a socially committed and ethical art practice. In my paragraphs on littoral art (1997), for example I wrote: “In littoral art political engagement (praxis) is arguably the most important aspect of the work. When an artist engages in politics, it means that all the planning and decisions may be undertaken in the process of engagement and/or dialogue with the site, whether this is an institution, a geopolitical, ecological or community context. The terms of dialogue and levels of engagement with the site may determine the form and duration of the work. This type of art practice is not necessarily theoretical or illustrative of theoretical positions; although it may be deeply philosophical and engage its subjects in a multiplicity of intellectual pursuits. Littoral art is dependent upon the skills of many actors and agents both within and outside the perimeter of the work. One of the objectives of littoral art is to stimulate both active and less active participants to engage with the work in process. There is no reason to presume that the littoral artist is out to alienate his/her subjects. It is only the expectation of the reproduction of various modernist practices that would deter viewers from actively engaging with this work on a multiplicity of levels.
Littoral Art is not necessarily interventionist in character. The politics of a littoral event/action may transcend the means and suspend its potential for social change. Interventionist strategies may be used to camouflage the real intentions of the artist that are to lull the viewers into the belief that s/he understands the work in its paradoxical entirety. The field(s) of discourse need not be complex. Most dialogical processes are disarmingly straightforward. Successful communication is not inevitable. In terms of the dialogue the artist is free to even surprise him/herself. Most littoral projects that are successful are dialogical and communicative in form. Littoral artists may be surprised by the final outcomes of the processes they have set in motion. Political praxis is often arrived at dialogically. Once set in motion, the communicative or dialogical process is open to the participation of all, including the artist(s) whose critical apperceptions may have been the original stimulus.
What the littoral work looks like isn't too important. The work and/or process do not have to assume a physical form and may actually be invisible. No matter what forms it may ultimately take, the littoral artwork must begin from an acknowledgement of (political) potentiality; even of necessity; of means without ends. The artist is initially concerned with the process of social engagement. Once the process is begun, the work is open to interrogation by all, including the artist. I use the word interrogation here to mean the negotiation of the terms of and for the work, whether this results in qualitative and/or quantitative analysis or various hermeneutic (interpretive) procedures. The littoral art work may be perceived as incomplete; in a process of becoming - im potentia -, even at a recognized termination point of the process. Duration is privileged.
Some projects are orthodox in their original articulation and others are paradoxical in performance. What various elements of the littoral art project look like isn't too important. It may require visual elements if it has some material existence in the lifeworld. Not matter what forms of processes result from an intervention it may result in a concrete presence. Littoral art that is not overtly concerned with visual representation is social not simply post-visual. This would include many so-called political art forms: interventionist, oppositional and/or littoral art projects.”
I am aware of hundreds of artists both here in New Zealand and in other parts of the world, working on contemporary issues that have some social and political relevance. In a world that is filled with pessimism about the future, in a phrase, I remain optimistic about the role(s) that artists can play in fomenting (fermenting) a better world.
Q5) Are you able to explain your relationship to protest? I suppose I am
trying to understand your position with regards to overtly political,
protest statements/art, maybe in comparison to a community action for change
which proposes (maybe in ways that are more positive or constructive - you
mention in an essay the ideal of the "the good and the true life.")
alternatives rather than protesting against the status quo...
A5) Yes, this is an multifaceted question that requires probably more space to respond to than we have here. I have published a number of essays on these very topics such as “Notes towards an Interventionist [Performance] Art Practice” in which I argued that the exemplary (spectacular) example of protest was often counter-productive (reproducing the very (power) structures that it was determined to change) and that a more subtle communicative approach (in the best Habermasian) sense was necessary for potential change to occur. In a short essay I published titled "Performance for Pleasure and Performance for Instruction" I prefaced my discussion with a lengthy quote from Brecht's 1936 essay, "Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction," part of which included a paraphrasing of Marx's famous broadside aimed at Ludwig Feuerbach and the Young Hegelians – that, up to then (1845), philosophers had only "interpreted the world... the point is to change it!" In substituting, after Brecht, the artist for philosopher, the central argument, I proposed in this essay was that seventies performance had reached a theatrical impasse and it was necessary to consider the restraints, social and cultural, which had deterred the formation of an authentic politically engaged performance practice. Some of the contemporary forms of art practice meet these challenges. My mentioning of “the good and the true life” is a challenging reference to some of my ‘philosophical teachers/’centurions’: who through Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida, Badiou and Agamben (among others) who identify Plato for inaugurating the debate about what a ‘good life’ could be… identifying this as the foundation – the only true basis for human (political) community.
Q6) Many people in the broader more general art audience struggle with the
more open ended definition of art and cannot see beyond the commodity, the
collecting, the value based economy and I encounter a lot of questions when
I take art groups (as I often do) to exhibitions such as the recent one by
Rirkrit at Auckland's Artspace for example. After many years working in this
field, do you feel you have moved beyond the need to define your activities
as art? I notice in your writing, in one essay I read anyway, you put speech
marks around the word art - ...and I wonder what your response is to the
word, the label...
A6) Yes, art as a commodity often gets in the way of art as community not to mention a vital experience that can be truly pleasurable, mind challenging, if not life-changing and behaviour altering in the best senses possible…. which arguably could be, and often is, the result of a satisfactory experience with art. Does it enhance your experience of a work of art if you know that someone just paid 10 million dollars for it? Perhaps, but I think that many people would like to have a different ‘experience’ that they could call art or whatever! But I detect a cautiousness on your part about Rirkrit’s ‘work’ which although I admittedly only witnessed a few days of the events he ‘orchestrated’ I value what he is intending to do… which is provide some opportunities for those social outsiders to (be)come cultural insiders. On one level his task is to conflate gemeinschaft (community) with gesellschaft (society) thus providing opportunities for dialogue between different social groups. But I would argue that the gallery is not often the best institution to provide a venue for this.
Hope Sydney treats you well...
So far so good!!Best regards,