Volume 3, Issue 1
Interview with Barbara Kilpatrick
On September 11, 2011, MiShinnah's company manager, Amelia Saul met with visual artist Barbara Kilpatrick. The following is their conversation:
Amelia Saul: I was thrilled when you mentioned, right off the bat, my favorite book, Memoirs of Hadrian. I don't know how many people I've told, Marguerite Yourcenar will blow your mind. — And particularly the endnotes, where she reveals her process of inhabiting Hadrian.
Barbara Kilpatrick: For me the endnote significance was when Yourcenar wrote: (quoting Flaubert) "Just when the gods had ceased to be and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius when man stood alone." Here I think Marguerite Yourcenar was addressing artmaking process as a kind of devotion — not devotion to a deity as such but rather to the process of internalization and embodiment. Man stood alone but only to become aware of self and relationship to others, or another way of thinking, the artist and his/her relationship to audience. She then goes on to write, "A great part of my life was going to be in trying to define, and then to portray, that man existing alone and yet closely bound with all being."
AS: I associate that with the expression of space. When I think of Hadrian standing alone, I always think of the space around him, the vacancy.
BK: Yes, positive/negative: presence/absence.
AS: Which reminds me of your Camera/Room series. You talk about private and public space, and some of your work is created with very externalized signifiers of space - like the room in the open air. I love that series because it reminded me of the feeling I had when I walked into a cathedral one time in Dresden, and I was expecting to look up and see the dome of the cathedral but I looked up and my whole body seemed to flow upwards because it didn't stop —
BK: …left from the bombing…
AS: It was just the sky above. Your series, Camera/Room creates the same sensation for me.
BK: Well, going back to Yourcenar, I would also say that by inhabiting Hadrian, she's, in my mind, working with private and public. Or that binary of subjective and objective voice. So at the end in her notes she reveals that she is the one who is standing behind the mask of Hadrian and looking at the world through his eyes. We learn this in very personal ways: how she left behind the manuscripts in a trunk in Europe, and that the trunk eventually found it's way to her, etc., and after — I don't know — twenty years? more? she realizes that she has to write the book. And you know, if that isn't an act of devotion, I don't know what is!
AS: When you work, do you switch between remembering there's an audience and all that entails, and alternately forgetting about them?
BK: I think it depends on what stage of the process you're involved with — certainly for me the creation/production phase is intentionally an interior, private act. The editing stages — and for me at present this consists of sorting through still photographs — this stage is very self-conscious, and is aware of audience and art-object-hood.
AS: Which ones are you referring to?
BK: Camera/Room is the series of photographs taken of a room I constructed in upstate New York. It's an 8′ x 8′ x 8′ open-ceilinged "room" with windows or "apertures" facing east and west. Originally I thought of it as a place to photograph my sculpture in natural light, but it grew into a body of work that incorporates sculpture, photography and performance. It fell down in the middle of the night sometime in March 2008 and I continued photographing the remains. I try to imagine what it looked like as it collapsed — unfolded like an origami box — I say in the middle of the night but it could have also been the middle of the day — we mow around it and through the windows, trees have grown! In three years! But to return to your question about audience… I built the room as a cube in deference to the camera I was using — a 1951 twin-lens Rolleiflex, a square format camera. A few years into the series, I began to use a 1960 Graflex, a 4" x 5" large format camera with a wide-angle lens. I found the images became more narrative and more theatrical because the space was organized horizontally. Objects fell in and out of the frame. From the Graflex came two "Performances for Camera"; Venus Hum in 2006 and Keep Sake in 2008. Both work with the idea of a very private, subjective theater that exists for the mind and the eye and by invitation only. The process of their making is for an audience of one — the camera — and the edited version is for a larger, public display.
AS: Do you notice the threads of your conceptual experience and your technological experience playing off each other?
BK: If anything is purely accidental, which I doubt, by the way, the room's demise coincided with the discontinuation of the film I was using for the large format photographs — Polaroid 50! I chose Polaroid specifically to spontaneously stage sequence; not only was I able to check my light exposure and composition but could also unfold or "choreograph" the movement/narration as I went along. The appropriateness of the camera for this project was right. Now it's time to move on to something else.
AS: Right. The film stock makes the work look 'antiquated', but also indicates the point in your artistic biography, where you reference the past.
BK: I think this may also be true of historical fiction, perhaps more, let's say, of George Eliot's Adam Bede than of Yourcenar's Hadrian. Eliot writes about a period of agricultural life in rural England, which is already disappearing, and she wants to capture it before it is totally erased, reshaping it, perhaps romanticizing it, creating a kind of nostalgia along the way. It's a kind of historical fiction when you're using old film. Most of my friends have been using digital media for some 15 years and yet I persisted in this antiquated format — there was something appealing about this while working on a time-based piece.
AS: Did your process involve using film?
BK: I mean shooting film stills as opposed to digital images. As the series Camera/Room unfolded I found that many of my contact sheets looked "filmic" in that there was a slow change from one frame to the next. What I'm doing now is to find these sequences and to "animate" them…or should I say, "activate"? But keep in mind, this is not a digital camera; each film frame is manually cranked forward in between shots, so the movement is very slow and deliberate. For example, one day early in the series I had strung a curtain across the room, which the wind caught, toppling over my standing fiberglass sculptures. I'm looking down into this box and cranking…and now when it's edited digitally it looks like a sliver of moving film! Unknown to me at the time — my background is in drawing, painting and sculpture — cinematography begins in this great box, "The Black Maria", Dickson's studio! People of interest to me now are Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, the French cardiologist, and Aby Warburg, inventor of iconography, as we know it.
AS: How separate do you keep your solo work from collaboration?
BK: That's a really interesting question. I began my practice as a painter. Twenty years ago I began to make sculpture and more specifically, three-dimensional standing wax figures. Fifteen years ago I began to collaborate with dancer/choreographer Vicky Shick. Five years into our shared work, I built the room upstate as a way to clarify my own vision and to satisfy my own desires for the kind of work I envisioned with Vicky, but also to create boundaries between my voice and hers. I also saw the project as a way to work through ideas that had come up in conversation but weren't possible choreographically for one reason or another. My ideas tend to be more whimsical and maybe a tad too dolce or ephemeral so I needed a place to try them out and anchor them down. But what happened — and I'm joyous that it has — is that there became a real floating dialogue between the room and our collaborative work. There are a series of photographs that relate directly to some of our performance work, and there are performances whose roots go back to Camera/Room.
AS: Do you generally define the boundaries by medium? — e.g. Elise does sound, you work on the way it looks, and Vicky is doing choreography? Is it medium specific?
BK: Each piece has a different model, but in general we do stick to our boundaries through medium. When we didRepair, the three of us sat down two years in advance and thought we would like this piece to center on a costume that served as a nexus for sound, set and choreography. We wanted our disciplines to be united from the onset of the creation. For Glimpse, created and performed in Budapest, we adapted a more traditional format. I constructed décor and Elise composed a sound composition after the choreography was in place. So our collaborative model responds to the conditions of each work.
AS: That's a really magical example of collaboration, I have to say. And I can't tell from the research I've done on these pieces, where things come from and how that works. It's bold. And probably difficult to 'market'. Sometimes collaboration is not encouraged because it's not necessarily very viable in a monetary art world.
BK: Necessarily? — Ever!
AS: When you apply for a grant, for example, it seems critical to name a single artist. It makes something that should be creative and fluid into a question of money.
BK: How the audience sees the work — including grantors — is dependent on the focus of the venue. I think we are still connected to the who and the where more than the substance of the idea.
Lucy Lippard wrote a book in the 60's which had an enormous influence on me "Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object". The commodity market of art goes in cycles, I suppose, and right now artists are desperate to engage in an art practice that can pay the bills. But I do wonder about the fetishization of the art object, which is, after all, just a souvenir of the art-making process. I do think there has been way too much emphasis placed on the buying and selling of art objects as a measure of an artists' success. And certainly my own ambivalence about the commercial gallery scene made me more attracted to the temporal realm.
AS: And can you expand on why you continued to make work parallel to your collaborations?
BK: I think that's why I created my own theater in part, because I wanted to be able to tell my own story, to place emphasis on certain characteristics or ideas. Its intentionality was as a visual art object, not as a backdrop or accessory to choreography and sound.
AS: And the idea of commodity and The Dematerialization of the Art Object, connects perfectly to why I think Elise created MiShinnah. As I understand it, she wants to make it possible to make work that doesn't necessarily have an object connected to it. That's why I think it's such a great idea — it's modeled a little like the film world, because there are performance projects that need to have money invested in them. You also apply for a lot of grants, and it seems like this is an area of the art world that has a lot of, it has a totally different set of problems than the so-called commercial side (and a distinction is largely for sake of conversation, anyway) — but I AM glad that it's there, because it just creates a completely different type of work.
BK: My understanding of Elise's desire with MiShinnah — she had it for years before it was a 501c3 — was that it was an egoless umbrella organization that could show support for artists and artist endeavors without having it being one person's responsibility. This was a very new and admirable concept for me! Another idea I learned from Elise was the variety of collaborative models. She taught me the necessity of clearly defined perimeters for each project, and the need to have one director in charge. I think it gets very muddied if everyone is voting on whether to add oregano or Chinese ginger at every tasting!
AS: Yeah, I was just thinking about the connection to relationships — if you're ever going to sign over a part of a project to someone, you must believe they are excellent — that they're good enough to deserve that segment. You have to love your collaborators and admire them.
BK: In collaboration it's the job of the "director" or originator to know one another's working ideas and capabilities. Then the perimeters and responsibities of each member are defined and once the commitment is made, you give up individual ownership. It's all about trust at that point. I don't think one can create "full-out" without this kind of acceptance.
AS: One famous model of collaboration is, of course, when Rauschenberg painted a set, Cunningham choreographed, and Cage composed the music. The legend goes they never see or hear it together before the premier —
BK: Well, that's the myth about the Cage/Cunningham/Rauschenberg collaboration and I don't buy it. Cage and Cunningham were life partners and they knew one another's working ideas intimately. And Cunningham knew Rauschenberg's process as well. Remember, too, that Cunningham referred to Rauschenberg's set-pieces as "décor" which implies to me that he was definitely the director of the collaboration in the dance venue, that is. It's very pleasing to see Rauschenberg's set pieces as sculpture in museums — I'm all about this duplicity. I'm reminded too of the Trisha Brown/ Rauschberg collaborations, and of one particular incident. In 1987, Trisha Brown Dance Company was scheduled to perform Lateral Pass with Nancy Graves' set and costumes at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. The set was held up in customs and Rauschenberg, who happened to be attending the performance, offered to create a set out of found objects in less than two days. He worked backstage up until the curtains went up without the dancers rehearsing through the new spaces created by the metal and sometimes sharp-edged set! The photographs are stunning — all of the work was later sold as sculpture — and I bring this up to demonstrate the total trust between the two collaborators that somehow this would all be OK.
BK: During Perestroika, a friend of mine was in Poland meeting with filmmakers who were unable to make work due to the lack of available materials. To keep their ideas alive, they would meet once a month, taking turns describing screenplays, camera shots — what their films would look like if they had the supplies they needed. And hearing this anecdote was important to me for a variety of reasons. I'd like to think that the human urge to create is stronger than the latest HD camera, or the next Guggenheim retrospective, and that it serves a purpose far more necessary than the buying and selling of an object. I also like to imagine a room that feels safe with the imagination in full-play, during times of profound disarray, and how this could provide sustenance and meaning.
AS: You can get so sidetracked by your gear. Sometimes technology is very inspiring, but sometimes it's just a pen. A pen is not going to tell you what to do with it — unlike a camera —
BK: It's open-ended.
AS: So what are you working on right now?
BK: I am currently building a studio. I have no idea how this will affect my life and my art, but I'm looking forward to it because it's the first studio that I've had that feels intentional. And there is a lot of storage —
AS: Wow! I never have had adequate storage for my work.
BK: No! It's kind of extraordinary. I mean, it's never adequate. It will maybe be so for maybe ten or five years. So much for ephemerality! But being fallow is good, too. Writing about The Waves in her journal, Virginia Woolf wrote: "As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall." So I'm hoping that some of these ideas I've been working on for the last ten or fifteen years can be contained. The stronger ones will stay and the weaker ones will dissipate. I'm also trying to get Camera/Room edited and seen as an installation and photographic essay. I don't know what this will look like yet. I want to be very open on how it will be presented and I think this will change according to its venue. There are probably a gazillion ways to curate it. I'm now editing over 400 photographs and try to imagine all the possibilities of how they can be seen.
AS: That's a very interesting process.
BK: And meanwhile [laughter] the room is no longer there. Some of the film is still available, but the paper is no longer is — at least the kind that was used originally. So it continues to change its shape along with my understanding of photo history. I'm hoping it's not locked in time and become fossilized. I'm thinking of Whitman and Leaves of Grass (not comparing myself to Whitman, please!) but just how a work expands with the living around it. I'm reminded of a review by Holland Cotter, on Florence Pierce, age 88, on her first one-person show at the Howard Scott Gallery. He wrote: "So wisdom comes with age after all. And what can you tell young artists ready to dash out of school? Don't just do something; sit there. Art takes time. Let your brilliant career have a midlife, and a late period, and an end. Let it be long."
AS: The elephant of waiting around for fruition is Marguerite Yourcenar. [laughter] — You know, a decade of not working — I guess she got pretty melancholic and depressed for a decade of her life when she was just teaching. But, um, she also says, and she didn't even become famous until her late 50s?
BK: I think it was something like that.
AS: So she had the kind of artistic voice that develops with age and experience. She was not about flash-in-the-pan or youth. My favorite artists are always the ones that get to work the longest. I really love late work. Edward Said wrote On Late Style, and in part of it is he says, that older artists don't necessarily solve the problems that they've been battling with, but they reach a sort of limit system of perfection, battling at very edge of having solved the problem.
BK: Look at Matisse. You know? He's bed-ridden; he gets out a piece of charcoal on a long stick and a pair of scissors and makes the cutouts, the late, great cutouts. And it was only through years and years of work that, what seems at first glance so simple is also so precise. And so elevated. I don't know if you've been to the Chapel in Vence*? In a way, it's like your cathedral in Dresden without the ceiling — it's like (breath intake) only someone who could distill for a lifetime could produce that precise line. Very holy.
AS: A perfect loop back to the beginning of our artistic process discussion. Art at the time when man stood alone. And what that would be.
BK: I was very traumatized when I lost my downtown studio to developers. I'd been there ten years and I decided to put my things in storage and take a pause and wait before I found another. I had two young children at home and thought I should try to make my life and art merge and work wherever I could. I had really interesting reactions from my artist friends. They were horrified. What is an artist without a studio? One thinks of Duchamp, who secretly had a studio although he pretended otherwise…but you or my friend Ken, an MFA student who asks, what would it mean not to make art, not out of laziness or lack of ideas, but rather the conscious decision not to create? And what happens eventually, I think, is that you get to a deeper and richer place with it. Camera/Roomcame out of a place of suppression so that eventually I began to realize that I had to build this room. This goes back to what you were saying about Yourcenar — holding on to something and letting it germinate.
* The Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican Nuns of Vence, France. Consecrated in 1951.