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Representing Light as Fertile Territory

Two or three things that I thought about while watching Stephanie Barber’s Daredevils by Bret McCabe

1. “You are waiting for a story, like we all are really.”

She is running. She is running in place. She is running in place and listening. She is running in place and listening to a recording. She is running in place and listening to a recording of an interview. She is running in place and listening to a recording of an interview with a stuntwoman. She is running in place and listening to a recording of an interview with a stuntwoman while at the gym. She is running in place and listening to a recording of an interview with a stuntwoman while at the gym on the treadmill. She is running in place and listening to a recording of an interview with a stuntwoman while at the gym on the treadmill. She is on the treadmill.

One hour into Baltimore-based artist Stephanie Barber‘s debut feature Daredevils a writer (artist KimSu Theiler) is seen in a medium shot. She runs on a treadmill; behind her a man and woman play racquetball. While running she listens to an interview with a stuntwoman, who talks about being a stuntwoman, her life, her ideas. The writer maintains a pretty brisk pace for 12 minutes. She sweats. The effort registers on her face.

This is what we watch for an extended period of time. Twelve minutes—that’s a blink in real life. Consider: if it only took you 12 minutes to get somewhere—work, the grocery store, to a friend’s house for dinner, to the parents for an obligatory family something-or-other—it’d barely feel like traveling at all? Onscreen, 12 minutes is epic. We watch. We watch her, the writer. We watch the writer listen. We watch the writer listen while she exercises. We, the writer and us, listen to a woman talk about the work she does that puts in body in peril. The body. “I’m hard on mine,” the stuntwoman says, “but I guess there’s other ways to be hard on your body, right?”

How we say the things we say is a choice. When we say one thing we’re not saying something else. Order matters. So do omissions. Words have stories, histories, feelings, associations, memories. So do we.

2. Just a consumerist action against mortality.

Since Barber moved to Baltimore about eight years ago she’s created an intrepid body of work—short films, poetry, installations, performance, incisive combinations of all of those which she has performed/installed/screened around the country—that is as intellectually rigorous as it is visually striking. All of her work betrays her philosophical and scientific inquisitiveness: it looks, feels, reads as though there is a considerable amount of thinking behind it. Not thinking as in “smart,” somebody trying to prove how much information one has consumed. It’s the more vulnerable but generous thoughtfulness: you get the impression there’s a poignant and possibly agonized over reason behind every decision that went into what is seen in the work itself. Every piece has a story. Those stories form a bigger one and, more importantly, articulate an argument, a way of looking at and understanding the world. In Barber’s oeuvre, the medium through which we understand the world—or at least discuss an understanding of the world, is language.

When she explores her ideas in film, they are, for the lack of a better term, “experimental.” The production quality of footage is often intentionally low-res. The effects—puppets, animation—are modest. The feeling is bedroom intimate. The structure is formally astute. Sound compliments still and moving images, which compliments text spoken or superimposed on the images.

With Daredevils she’s expanded her shorts’ rigor into a narrative feature. It both looks like conventional feature film and isn’t. Shot by cinematographer Matthew Thompson, Daredevils is 85 minutes of gorgeously photographed, glossy work. It even has that social-media-shared teaser that everything from books to music albums to corporate brands have these days: a trailer.

Daredevils, however, not only continues Barber’s pursuit of knowledge—at least, a form of knowledge, an understanding of self and its surroundings—but congeals into one of her more heady and emotionally potent documents. It’s an audiovisual ontology with a disarmingly moving kick. Barber’s lemma.

3. The more an artist’s work is widely written about or collected the more chance it has to be approached rigorously.


a) Barber was a 2011 Sondheim Prize finalist, and for her finalist exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art she moved her studio into the galleries, making a film a day during her literal residency in the museum, and inviting museumgoers to participate in the project. It turned into “Jhana and the Rats of James Olds or 31 days/31 videos.” She was not the 2011 Sondheim Prize winner.

b) At the 2012 Whitney Biennial performance artist Dawn Kasper moved her studio into the Whitney’s third floor gallery and worked during the exhibition’s run. A few people—Spin, the New York Observer, the New York Daily News, Art 21, The Atlantic, and more—took notice.

c) Last year, 2013, Barber released Night Moves, a book of poetry that was composed entirely of comments that appeared on a YouTube page for Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s 1976 single of the same name. It was critically well received and the Small Press Distribution named it as one of the year’s Top 50 best sellers in all genres.

Only speaking for myself here: I was fascinated by how genuinely, well, moving Night Moves could be. But as a conceptual demonstration-qua-commentary on the commercial potential of copying, the entire gesture of the book is hilariously profound.

4. Question answer, question answer.

I mention the above only to bring up the comic elements that are often slept on in Barber’s work. She’s serious about her art, but you don’t get the impression that she takes herself so seriously that she’s humorless. In fact, humor anchors some of the seriousness in Daredevils.

The movie’s first scene is an interview between the writer and an artist named Dora (played by actress Flora Cocker). This scene is the movie’s centerpiece. It’s an hour long broken up by snippets of a musician (played by Adam Robinson) who is making field recordings in the natural world: banging limbs together, jumping on concrete, scraping a small rock on a bigger one, tapping a rock on a fallen log, running a twig over a concrete block with a serrated edge, rustling the leaves on a felled branch.

For most of the hour, however, it’s simply the writer and the artist talking. The writer is interviewing the artist for a Q&A piece for publication. Barber structures the scene using conventional narrative film grammar: There’s an establishing shot in which the writer sits down at a table, then the artist arrives and sits. And then there are the over-the-shoulder shots of each speaker: the artist from the writer’s point of view, the writer from the artist’s point of view. Throughout the conversation Barber uses these vantage points: shot, reverse-shot, broken up with medium coverage shots of the pair.

This is the conventional shot sequence for mundane conversations onscreen. Barber, however, seems to cut this exchange at atypical rhythms. The cuts come slightly off expected speech patterns, or at moments that change our relationship of the conversation. And through this slightly different rhythm you start to zero in just what the pair is talking about.

They talk, but don’t. Well, the conversation meanders in that way conversations so often do but rarely do in movies. It’s awkward, it’s revealing, it’s earnest, it jumps around. The writer asks the artist about scale and the artist responds in a roundabout way. The artist asks another question. The artist counters, “I don’t think that I’ve answered your question about scale,” that opens a rippling wave of ideas that run from class to power to gender to the commerce qua commodification of creation.

They talk and talk some more. Eventually, the artist says, “I do mean to get to your question but this is a really massive concept . . .”

This is a howling joke if you’re paying attention: talking about “scale” as a “massive concept” and then slaloming through a string of big ideas. This interview is at times a satirical implosion of artist’s interviews, highlighting how the Q&A process is an artificial conversation, offering the patina of information exchange without always actually conveying meaning.

And Barber plays with this imprecise exchange of linguistic meaning using one of the most conventionally staid tropes of film language. Conversations aren’t event plot points in feature films today, the padding that gets the plot to the point where the super hero does the super-heroic thing or the romantic leads arrive at romance. Daredevils makes a casual chat the epic event in her feature. And that invites you to wonder what Barber might be driving at with this conversation.

5. Eating, shelter, and then what? We set out to make ourselves actual in our landscapes—words, actions—but we have this death sentence over our heads.

The bolded lines that begin a few of the entries here come directly from the conversation between the writer and the artist. Daredevils opens with an outdoor shot of a forest with the sound of something clicking a rhythmic cadence on the soundtrack. The title “daredevils” crawls across the bottom of the screen, right to left. Eventually, poet Susan Howe’s voice reading about the monarch butterfly occupies the voice over, and she talks about the extinction of an idea, a hope, of a species. “You are waiting for a story, like we all are really.”

The movie eventually discloses that the rhythmic sounds we hear come from the musician recording sounds. This entire title sequence feels like a calibration invitation to reading the movie: we’re going to be giving sights, sounds, and words then we’re can put them together in some way to find a meaning. Yes, that’s the process of reading art in general—anything, really—but rarely does the work provide a key right from the start: We’re waiting for a story.

And as the voice over confirms, we all are, pretty much all the time. Jen-Luc Godard’s 1967 film 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle ( Two or Three Things I Know About Her) probably isn’t the first narrative release as cinematic essay, but it’s the one that kept returning to my mind while watching Daredevils. It’s the fragmented portrait of a single day in the life of a woman in a post-industrial Western city. It’s also an indictment of how a state’s economic and political policies splinter the individual. Daredevils in some way is the movie’s formal antipode: It’s a synthesis of fragments into a emotionally holistic whole that might exist only for a moment.

The movie’s final 10 or so minutes follow the writer, now clad in a red dress post workout, as she enters a home, removes her shoes, and strolls through it. The musician is working on a song there, singing along with a beat created out of the rhythmic textures he previously recorded. The writer keeps walking, the camera following her, and eventually the camera settles on a place where it peers out a window. A screen door is heard opening and closing. The writer emerges into the backyard, a single light illuminating a nimbus of on the grassy lawn. She enters this halo and begins to dance. The musician is heard singing, and one repeated loop of lyrics goes:

You want to be in love
just so you can tell yourself
you’re not going to die
but you are gonna die

Don’t let the meaning of the words by themselves here fool you: in the context of the song and film this is a catchy and uplifting little ditty, and you may find yourself singing along. It is, after all, good advice. One reading of the film is that it’s a “metaphor of an artist’s life and work as daredevilry.” That’s the logline the film’s own press materials offers. I think that sells the film’s quiet majesty short. The way Barber has orchestrated this adventure she does explicitly mine the creative process, but the holes she pokes in language suggest that birth makes us all daredevils jumping out of airplanes. Language is merely the parachute of meaning we cling to in efforts to make sense of the world as it rushes by. And we reach for the ripcord when we talk to each other, hoping the inevitable landing is soft and gentle rather than the abrupt stop we know is rushing toward us all too quickly.

Daredevils screens at MICA’s Falvey Hall March 27 at 7:30 p.m.

* Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.

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