Interiew: Bruce Barber
Luca Curci talks with Bruce Barber during THE BODY LANGUAGE 2022, at THE ROOM Contemporary Art Space.
I was first trained as a sculptor and developed into an interdisciplinary media artist, cultural historian and curator. My academic research and writing explore the representation of art, artists and art history in film, television, cartoons and comics, from which I have produced two books. Since 1981 at NSCAD University located in Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada, I have taught courses in media arts and film history. I hold a BFA (1973) and MFA in Sculpture and Art History from Auckland University (1975); an MFA (Intermedia) NSCAD (1978), and a PhD (2005) in Media and Communications from the European Graduate School, Leuk Stadt, Switzerland. My interdisciplinary artworks have been exhibited internationally at the Paris Biennale, Sydney Biennale, parallel ECC exhibitions with the Venice Biennale 2015, 2017, the 49th Parallel Gallery and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in NYC, Walter Phillips Gallery Banff, London Regional Gallery, Auckland City Art Gallery, Artspace, Sydney and Auckland, and have work represented in various public and private collections.
Luca Curci – What is art for you?
Bruce Barber – During this challenging time of a global pandemic, my artwork and writing have become somewhat more concentrated on matters of social use-value. I have begun to look back upon some artwork from the early years of the new millennium when I engaged in several projects titled “Diddly Squat: artist performing 30 hours of community service.” The first Diddly Squat consisted of three performances about money commissioned for the 4th 7a*11d International Performance Festival, Toronto (2002). I worked for 30 hours scraping gum off the sidewalk of Queen Street West in Toronto’s art district. The performance took place from 2 pm Friday 8th November to 8 pm, Saturday 9 November (30 hrs). The second performance consisted of the artist publicly nominating a vacant building in the city as an official squat for homeless people by placing the internationally recognized squat sign on the door and/or a window of the building. The third performance took place at the conclusion of my community service in the gallery, where I read aloud personal identification numbers from bank cards and other documentation held in my wallet. Diddly Squat #2 one year later, was part of an exhibition held in the Gallery at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Three performers engaged in community service work for 30 hours over three days, sweeping city streets and raking the beach; communicating with members of the public and collecting found objects for exhibition at the Gallery which also included a photo and video documentation of Diddly Squat #1 and other works. Diddly Squat #3 exhibited recently in Venice as part of the previous ItsLiquid exhibition is a 9-minute video made over several hours of retrieving discarded personal protective face masks during the present COVID 19 pandemic, the fourth wave of which, Omicron is upon us. This video was made by me from short slow-motion videos and photographs taken as I walked Chloe, our one-year-old golden retriever, through my neighborhood in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I also posted many of the photographs of discarded personal protection masks on Instagram and I think this may have encouraged others to collect and dispose of these properly.
LC – What are you currently working on?
BB – I’m currently working on several writing projects, including a collection of my writings from 1970- 2020. With the assistance of a very able graduate research assistant, I will be submitting this book for publication sometime this year or early in 2023. The contents list includes some published and unpublished writings: Art Texts covering Theory and Practice, Book & Exhibition Reviews, Curatorial Essays, Performance Art, NSCAD, Interviews, and a Chronology of written work over 50 years. I’m also working on one other book project with a colleague based in Guelph Ontario titled Bodily Fluids in Historical and Contemporary Art which consists of 20 essays by international contributors and artists pages. We are still seeking a publisher for this book. My art practice continues with photo and video projects on contemporary topics such as refugees, immigration, citizenship and statehood about which I have spoken in previous interviews. Here are several images from an exhibition about citizenship in New Zealand titled I Swear.
LC – How is your creative process?
BB – I am an interdisciplinary artist and tend to undertake site-specific work when provided with the opportunity. As a media artist who was trained as a sculptor, who believes that no artist works alone, I prefer interdisciplinary projects which are well researched and carefully produced, site-specific installations.
LC – Are your artworks focused on a specific theme?
BB – Since the early 1970s I have worked across performance, installation, film, video and photography developing propositional and situational works that engage and question social and political regimes of power. Originally from Auckland where I studied at Elam School of Art in the early 1970s in the influential experimental sculpture and intermedia program, I have been based in Canada (Vancouver, Toronto and Halifax) for over three decades, working internationally, yet retaining strong professional ties with New Zealand and Australia where I have been fortunate to have had two major survey exhibitions in Sydney and Auckland (2008-2009). The largest exhibitions to date undertaken on my practice, encompassing the full range of work from photographed found situations, performance actions and video work of the early 1970s, through to the interdisciplinary Reading Rooms (1-5) begun in the 1980s and Squat Projects (Writing Rooms) of the 1990s and beyond, culminating in a “Situation Room” project regarding immigration, citizenship, identity politics and alterity developed in-situ whilst undertaking a visiting artist residency at Artspace. From early conceptual performances using the body through to the new projects, my art practice demonstrates the potential for art to engage in communicative action (Habermas) towards social change. I am based in Halifax, Nova Scotia where I am currently Professor Emeritus of the Media Arts Division at NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) University. I have exhibited and published internationally since the early 1970s; the editor of Essays on Performance and Cultural Politicization (1983), Conceptual Art: the NSCAD Connection 1967-1973 (2001), NSCAD: The 80’s (2000), Condé and Beveridge: Class Works (2008) and co-editor, with Serge Guilbaut and John O’Brian of Voices of Fire: Art Rage, Power, and the State (1996). A two-volume set of my writings published as Performance, [Performance] and Performers: Essays and Conversations 1976-2006 edited by Marc James Léger and the most recent book Littoral Art and Communicative Action was published in 2013. I was characterized by the eminent American critic Lucy Lippard many years ago as “the quintessential dissident theorist/artist” a title which I have attempted to live up to for many years, and occasionally, even if I dare say so myself, achieving some degree of success.
LC – Which is the role the artist plays in society? And contemporary art?
BB – My book Littoral Art & Communicative Action describes in detail the role the artist could, should play in society and provides the reader with many excellent models of art practice. My “Sentences on Littoral Art” were published many years ago, and they still have major relevance for my art practice and those of many others.
LC – What do you think about the concept of this exhibition? How did it inspire you?
BB – I am always inspired by contemporary themed exhibitions, body and performance-related work which is prescient, politically relevant and pleasurable, which is an important distinction we should seek from all art forms.
LC – Can you explain something about the artworks you have in our exhibition?
BB – The most recent work in the ITSLIQUID Venice Festival exhibition is a very short video titled Breathe in Breathe out which is the most basic aspect of Body Language that has also been of crucial political interest with the tragic death of George Floyd who “took the knee” and sparked the recent and continuing global protests for #BlackLivesMatter. In this recent video, breathing in and out is matched by the ocean waves arriving on land and can be – should be – a means of relaxation and also time to reflect on the multiple meanings of this most basic living performance of body language. Breathe in Breathe out also has these common meanings which are appropriate for regular reflection on life itself.
Breathe in, breathe out, repeat
Breathe in breathe out, move on
Breathe in breathe out, let it be
Breathe in the future breathe out the past
Just breathe in and breathe out
Breathe in, breathe out, no fear, no doubt
Scientific and sociological research has also revealed, and certainly, the past 2 years of social isolation during the Global COVID 19 pandemic has demonstrated, that spending time in nature has the capacity to increase mental wellbeing. The short video Breathe in Breathe out reflects indirectly upon the impact of widespread urban morphology, its effect on the environment, climate change and the integration of nature for increased wellbeing.
LC – What do you think about ITSLIQUID Platform?
BB – It’s very useful for artists who wish to obtain more international exposure for their work. Not everyone can be chosen to represent their country in major Biennales and the ITSLIQUID platform provides the opportunity to exhibit in the company of some excellent artists with the assistance of very professional curatorial and preparatory staff.
LC – Would you suggest a collaboration with us? What do you think about our services?
BB – As you are very professional in your communications and dealings with artists I would be happy to collaborate at some time, perhaps when the Bruce Barber Writings compendium, and/or the Body Fluids book is launched.
LC – Do you think ITSLIQUID GROUP can represent an opportunity for artists?
BB – Yes, the opportunity to work with very professional curators and exhibit in some extraordinary spaces. The Artist of the Month is an excellent plateau towards which many participants aspire and has promoted some excellent work by international artists. Thank you again for this opportunity.