Pleasantly Unpleasant Mental Journey: Stephanie Barber at School 33

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Nature: will it turn you on or will it turn on you? That unanswerable question haunts Stephanie Barber’s  Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional and Existential Horror by Bret McCabe

Stephanie Barber has come to scare you shitless. The local artist, filmmaker, and writer’s Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional and Existential Horror in School 33’s Members Gallery is the latest iteration of a project that started as her installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the 2016 Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist exhibition. Simply stated, it’s a collection of images and text exploring exactly what the exhibition title promises. And even though she comes out and uses the word “horror,” getting to the place where you realize just how horrifying Barber’s work here is offers one of the more pleasantly unpleasant mental journeys you may ever have in an art gallery.

No, really: Barber’s enterprise with this body of work is a confidently sneaky mix of the comical and serious that inches you toward the void. Her installation choice for the intimate, upstairs member’s gallery is that mollifying inoffensiveness of American retail spaces. A combination of white boxes functions as display pedestals for her small, hand-lettered individual prints, which are about the size of a postcard. A few 30-by-36-inch larger prints are framed and mounted on the wall. A pair of hand-lettered plastic scrolls hang on the wall, too. There’s a gumball machine and some white Viewfinders as well.

A fair amount of the imagery appears in both the smaller and larger prints, changed slightly by tint or color intensity. Entering the gallery feels almost like stepping into a pop-up stationary shop. Twenty-five cents will yield a plastic cased scroll of Barber’s words from the gumball machine. The post-card-sized, hand-lettered prints, of which there are many, run $30 each.

Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional and Existential Horror at School 33

I think this initial, ordinary shopping tone is as specific and intentional as the mundane images and piercing words Barber combines on the prints themselves. In one sense, her images feel as banal as stock photos or the pictures that come with frames when you buy them at Target: a hot air balloon floating in a clear-blue sky; a snapshot of some fancy columned piece of architecture that you might come across in a dad’s photo slideshow of his European vacation; and what I can only describe as an anthropomorphic floppy-eared bunny—or dog or mouse—snowman, prone, as if laid out on a coroner’s table. You wouldn’t pay any attention to these images if they weren’t in a gallery. In this age of people as brands, Instagram this and Snapchat that, Barber’s images here are as peculiarly pointless as plastic coffee stirrers.

Barber pairs these mundane photos with text that feels like it’s coming from some menacingly unforgiving place. Consider a few of the text snippets she pairs with images of the snowman creature: “We construct effigies of our most revered beings, their recumbency an invitation to worship;” “Cave Canem;” “our bodies are sundials;” “sleep and death and sculpture so secretive in sun;” “the arrogant neutrality of motionless;” “the gamma synchrony of meditators organizing groups of neuros like grains of sand.”

As displayed in the gallery and on the exhibition one-sheet, each large print is grouped with smaller prints featuring the same image, and their accompanying text kinda/sorta creates a blank-verse, nonnarrative poem when read through. The order of the lines may change depending on where your eyes go, but your brains tries, or maybe merely wants, to find some meaning in them. You never quite reach an idea you can express in a simple sentence fragment, but the lines effortlessly conjure a foreboding tone and uneasy mood.

Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional and Existential Horror at School 33

These pieces are basically disquieting internet memes, a simple image and text combo to communicate an idea. Instead of online cultural pidgin such as “doge” and “I can has cheezburger?,” Barber’s text feels informed by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Angela Carter, Rachel Carson, Carolyn Finney, Immanuel Kant, Gertrude Stein, and natural history and cognition textbooks. And the more you read through these works the more you want something linguistically and/or narratively from them that they’re never going to deliver. Barber’s using langue and images to provoke a restless morass of turbulent emotions, and that tension pushes you toward the anxiety, fear, and dread of realizing that you cannot know that which you seek to understand.

We’re going to cheat for a second and take a brief detour through another artist’s work that was recently in actual conversation with Barber’s to provide some context for wrapping the brain around Nature as a Metaphor. Melissa Webb‘s Proficiencies for Living in Ruins coincidentally opened in October around the time when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its obituary for the planet—I mean, Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Now, a fiber artist’s chapel-filling installation of fauna-inspired sculpture may not seem like it has all that much to do with a global team of scientists calmly telling us that we’re all going to die unless we in the industrialized global north radically change how we live, but Ruins—a partnership among Webb, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Baltimore, and the Lovely Lane United Methodist Church where the site-specific installation was located—slyly did exactly that over its two-month run.

Carrie Fucile performing in Melissa Webb’s Proficiencies for Living in Ruins, photo Theresa Keil

The installation itself was a Webbian distillation of thoughtful mirth: Groups of long, green-thread wrapped rods extended out of green-painted concrete bases. Each rod ended about tree-top height in an eyelet, to which a cord was attached. Hanging at the end of each cord was a chandelier-like fern of green fabrics, some with flowers, some not. About seven of these plant-sculptures filled the chapel, giddily transforming the room. You know how you sometimes see an entire tree branch jutting out of the third-story window of an abandoned building in Baltimore? Ruins is kinda what the inside of that building might look like, a reminder that when plant life reclaims the built environment, it improves everything just by being itself.

The installation was visually lush, but it came alive when activated by one of the three performers who took it over during the exhibition’s run. Carrie Fucile performed a meditative, ritualistic action that evoked the feeling of being alone in a forest, nature providing its own John Cageian symphony of random noises. Visual artist and improvisor Tom Boram created a third-eye opening evening of sound and light. Electronics provided a backdrop for Boram playing the chapel’s rich, velvety pipe organ, and he placed a few LED lights in some of Webb’s hanging fern foliage. They would periodically turn on, casting shadows onto the dome ceiling and lighting up the room like military illumination flares to visualize targets at night.

Performance of Stephanie Barber’s “Contemplative Opera,” part of Melissa Webb’s Proficiencies for Living in Ruins, photo by Theresa Keil

Tom Boram performing in Melissa Webb’s Proficiencies for Living in Ruins, photo by Theresa Keil

Barber is, historically speaking, a filmmaker and poet. Not to take anything away from her larger writing and installation work, but I do think the way artists first train informs their thinking and practice in various ways throughout their careers. And, on the whole, Barber’s films explore how we use language—and, sometimes fail to use language—to understand the shared observable reality we see. Yes: that’s a baggy, and perhaps ill-fitting, suit to use to describe one artist’s creative output, but I do think some kind of insistent query of the fundamental dance between words and images runs through her creative output. And when working with still images, films, or even theatric tableaux, putting words in conversation with images is fairly straightforward.

Barber’s response to Webb’s three-dimensional environmental installation was operatic: she wrote a series of six lines, set them to simple melodies, and assembled a choir of more than 20 local artists and musicians, taught them the lines and melodies she’d written, gave them the freedom to improvise new harmonies and counterpoints to the lines, and on the evening her performance, joined them in singing.  It was billed, as the “Contemplative Opera.” Basically, a group of 20+ people decked out head to toe in different shades of green wandered through the installation singing, sometimes in unison with other singers, sometimes by themselves, as people walked among them. And they did this, by rough estimate, for a Herculean 45 minutes. At least.

I was born into and baptized at the Dallas church my grandmother went to, where the congregation was pretty much entirely Mexican-American and the church itself Russian Orthodox. An Orthodox mass, if you’ve never been, is theatrical, visually ornate, and everything is sung or chanted. And seconds into witnessing Barber’s Ruins performance, right after it summoned memories of that mass’ surreal, hypnotic, and menacing splendor.

As the performance went on, an element of disorder crept in. The singers’ volumes rose and fell. Tempos changed. Singers settled into groups, laid on the floor, followed each other around single file, and, in short, splintered. Some semblance of the original melody and sacred mood remained, but it crept ever closer to the edge of going full unruly. Experiencing full-blown artistic chaos itself can be beautiful and even comforting, but the possibility of a chaos yields a jittery tension that borders on threat. A half hour into the performance, you felt like you were witnessing a magical group of woodland fairies, sprites, and sylphs about to go all Lord of the Flies.

Nature: will it turn you on or will it turn on you? That unanswerable question haunts Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional and Existential Horror. And it haunts the exhibition because it takes you a while to realize what you don’t see in this body of Barber’s work. You don’t see any in the image of the rabbit (dog? mouse?) snowman. You don’t see any in the image of a building with columns. And you really don’t see any in the image of the hot air balloon, even though you know they have to be there, even though your brain assumes the little shadow of a smudge of color in the basket must be one. A human.

Barber’s two-dimensional pieces in Nature as a Metaphor are dispatches of a ghost world devoid of people. Even though a few names appear in the text she hand-letters onto the images, the work itself makes you suspect people are like the painted advertisements on the sides of old buildings, a proper name little more than a reminder of what used to be. In fact, the more you look around and read through Barber’s pop-up shop like exhibition, the more you think it’s not that you can’t completely understand the text found in her work, it’s that it feels incomplete. You’re standing among what was left behind from a civilization after its demise. Ours.

Detail from Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional and Existential Horror at School 33

The UN’s Climate Change report included a lengthy glossary that defined a number of terms used therein. Some of those are scientific and jargony; some are more conceptual. One is “coping capacity,” which the report defined as: “The ability of people, institutions, organizations, and systems, using available skills, values, beliefs, resources, and opportunities, to address, manage, and overcome adverse conditions in the short to medium term.”

In my mind, Webb’s Proficiencies for Living in Ruins sounded a hopeful alarm, a creative reminder that we need to, and can, retrain ourselves to live with and among the natural world. It recognizes a dire situation and believes that we, as a people, can overcome the adverse conditions of the planet in the short to medium term, we’ll just have to do it despite the federal government.

Barber’s Nature as a Metaphor offers a sneak peak of how grim reality will look like when we don’t. It’s not a future we can shop our way out of, despite however companies try to convince us that we can. And nowhere is that real horror show more apparent than in the short film included in the exhibition, “Palace of Pope.” If you’ve seen some of Barber’s solo performances over the past few years, you might’ve caught her working with found photos, an image projector, and her voice. The projector shines the photos onto a screen, she can move them around making a real-time visual story, and she narrates imagined storylines that work with, or counter to, the people who appear in the photos.

The film is as discombobulating and troubling as her still photo and text combinations and, toward the end, plunges straight into the creepy as fuck.

“Palace of Pope” is a short film version of a such an image and sound collage, and Barber’s developed a wicked gift for suggesting scenarios without ever stumbling into something as clumsy as a plot. The film is as discombobulating and troubling as her still photo and text combinations and, toward the end, plunges straight into the creepy as fuck. “Pope” concludes with a series of snapshots of the same towheaded young boy sitting next to a teddy bear in front of a Christmas tree. This same wallet-size photo appears one after another in a pile, as if Barber came across somebody’s discarded holiday photos taken at a mall portrait studio.

Now, in commercial cinema we’ve seen no shortage of films released under the guise of being “found footage.” They’re usually horror films, and “Palace of Pope” is a radical, virtuosic update variation of the form. Like in so many found-footage horror flicks, the real threat—the Cloverfield monster, the demons of The Last Exorcist or Paranormal Activity, the whomever of The Blair Witch Project—remains almost entirely unseen until near the end, when it is sometimes revealed. With “Palace of Pope” Barber makes explicit what merely lurks in the background of her Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional and Existential Horror project. It makes clear what remains unknowable in the still photo works: in nature’s found-footage horror film that our stream of images is leaving behind, the threat to the planet looks a lot like us.

Stephanie Barber performing “Contemplative Opera,” Melissa Webb’s Proficiencies for Living in Ruins, photo by Ryan Stevenson

Stephanie Barber talks with poet Buck Downs about Nature as a Metaphor for Economic, Emotional and Existential Horror at School 33 Saturday, January 26 at 2 p.m. The exhibition runs through Feb. 2.

Photos by Ryan Stevenson, Theresa Keil, and XX

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