Event Date: February 2
Location: The Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario St.
This Thursday evening, Brit Barton, The Club’s first Artist Fellow, enacts a work about interdisciplinary practice, site, permanence, and documentation entitled Sitting Ovation. The annual Visual, Literary and Performing Artist fellowship was awarded to Barton in August of 2016, and the upcoming program will be the first showing of her work at The Arts Club during her fellowship. Initially planned as an artist talk in the gallery, Barton’s event rapidly evolved into something much more, and at the same time something much less. In her site-specific work, Barton engages with the idea of absence…absence of the artist, absence of explication, and absence of a commodifiable art object. As instructions for attendees of Thursday night’s Sitting Ovation enactment, she offers the following:
Immediately, the onus is on the audience to be self-aware. We have a task. We’re not coming to the gallery to watch something happen as much as we’re coming to have an experience during which we remain conscious of ourselves and our reactions to whatever might be surrounding us. Barton’s Sitting Ovation is a carefully-crafted environment, and we, the audience, are its inhabitants.
Earlier this month, Barton was interviewed by artist and curator Max Guy about her work. Read on to learn more.
-Jenna Lyle, Programs Manager
MG: In a past life you were a photographer, what types of photos did you take?
BB: I was interested in images, and still am, that document empty or minimally inhabited space.
Towards the end of college and again in graduate school, I started looking closer at architectural typologies that were basically spaces designed for temporary encounters. So, initially, I thought a lot about hotels and the suspension of disbelief they encourage. The quality is negotiable. This is your bed, your bathroom, your space, for as long as you are willing to pay for it.
I realized quickly that my interest in temporality within liminal space was rooted in an institutional critique of academia. I let some time pass, but ultimately came back to thinking about site and the body more critically through media beyond photography.
In general, I think I am interested in architecture and documentation while being entirely suspicious of them. My work is about that suspicion.
MG: How did you come to work the way that you do now?
BB: The majority of my practice deals with space and time that is site-specific. There was a turning point when I refused to make any more object work, like sculpture or painting. In other words, I realized that I am not a “studio artist” per se, and I embraced that fact.
What I’m interested in, and what I keep coming back to in my moving image, sound, or action-based work, are the principles of photography, i.e. optics, seriality, or mechanics. But it is never bound to the notion of sight entirely; there is a tension to other senses like hearing or touch that I am drawn to. I think especially about artists like Lygia Clark, who created things to hold or wear to be manipulated or complicated, walking a fine line between spectatorship and participation.
MG: You often use ambivalent language speaking of “gestures,” “machines” and “synopses” as a way of eluding disciplines and genres. How much of what you do is a project of defining and setting these terms?
BB: I am controlled about language, especially when it comes to writing. It is the framing of the work that I won’t compromise. I use the term “gesture” as opposed to “performance” because I am not a performance artist. I am an artist and I use whatever is the best strategy to convey an idea.
I think that the word “gesture” is aligned much more with drawing and the notion of a sketch; it’s brief, done in 5 minutes or less, a little gritty and unrefined. The delivery is slower to interpret. Waiting is involved. You may have to see a few over time to realize the bigger picture.
MG: You document your live works through “synopses” the day after they happen. Would you elaborate on that term in relation to your happenings and their scores? What liberties does writing in retrospect allow you as opposed to instructive text?
BB: A synopsis indicates an account that is often brief but inevitably biased. It is just as much apart of my work as the gesture itself in it’s matter-of-factness. Leaving some time between experiencing the gesture and evoking it gives the writer a chance to elaborate on the unexpected moments.
For instance, during October Piece (2015), I was walking with a microphone dangling at my feet. I could not have anticipated that I would trip or that at one point, the cord would snap with the tension and produce an intense and sharp feedback sound, unsettling the audience. In another work, I accidentally cut my hand when I was transporting a heavy piece of granite with a jagged, unpolished edge. I didn’t realize until I was in a freight elevator with the audience that I was and had been bleeding, leaving smears and marks along the way throughout the building and in the snow that stayed for days after.
There are details that seem pertinent to include in the documentation, that are better expressed in retrospect as opposed to a .jpeg.
MG: But a .jpeg is also experienced retrospectively. Do you mean to say that the written anecdote can account for spontaneity/chance?
BB: Right. A photograph encountered digitally is completely inadequate as documentation for the work I do. I will document the materials and installations I work with, but I hold the written accounts of those who have witnessed something first-hand to a higher regard.
MG: Individual works of yours involve physical reverberations, accumulation and entanglement; how does this inform your understanding when producing a series of works?
BB: I know that my work, like any other artist’s work, is better negotiated with a historical structure behind it. But, my structure is a little more messy, not as easy to purchase or display. Each work builds on the work preceding it.
MG: Is a work ever finished to you?
BB: Maybe once or twice, but not usually, no. I’m skeptical about finality.
I’m interested in how things turn into drafted versions of themselves.
MG: I couldn’t help but associate your video work “Making Knots” (2016) with Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966). It seemed quite clear that both pieces embrace absurdity, but it felt significant in your video that the absurdity of your film involves the use of string and the introduction of a second hand to play Cat’s Cradle. Adding them into the mix seems to make the film personal in a way that differs from the singularity of Rainer’s hand. No longer a movie about what one does (Hand Movie), but what one does with oneself (your work).
All this to ask: In what ways does your work feel personal? From what part of you is this work conceived?
BB: There is a larger argument to be had over whether one’s work is always inherently personal or whether the viewer automatically projects that it is personal; this question is fundamental to the experience of abstraction and maybe even contemporary art in general. Such is life.
One of the biggest misinterpretations of this work is the assumption that the hands are my own. Some might suppose upon seeing female hands and realizing that I am a female artist, I must’ve been the subject. Does the knowledge that it isn’t me change anything? I’m not sure.*
The Rainer reference comes up a lot, as does choreography and minimalist dance in general. I think that we are told what to do with our bodies every day, sometimes through instruction, or expectation, or through an unconscious sense of obligation. It’s possible I was considering those things as I was making the work.
Max Guy is an artist and curator based in Chicago Il. Max co-hosts Human Eye, an occasional podcast on art and life with Miranda Pfeiffer. He has collaborated on projects such as Szechuan Best, Spiral Cinema, and Rock512Devil in Baltimore, Maryland. He received his M.F.A. from the Department of in Art, Theory and Practice at Northwestern University in 2016.
Brit Barton is an artist and writer. She is the inaugural Artist Fellow at The Arts Club of Chicago and a Post-MFA Fellow at the University of Chicago.
*See art critic Solveig Nelson’s 2016 text, “A ‘spectacle of entrance, exists, and changing coalitions” from the MFA thesis exhibition catalogue, And No One Fish In The Middle ; noting of Making Knots (2016) that the video “thematizes the ways in which artists have courted proximities to and staged distance from the objects they produce. The mark of the hand signals authorial presence but also departs from fantasies of face-to-face contact.”