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newspaper 36, March - April 2003

You never know where it goes

Interview with Robert Barry By Raimundas Malasauskas

NEW YORK CITY, 3 MARCH

Before leaving New York to curate the show with Jonathan Monk, Raimundas Malasauskas had a conversation with Robert Barry whose Telepathic Piece from 1969 was the starting point. The show is on view till 26th of April at AD 46.

Raimundas Malasauskas: I found it very interesting to think about your Telepathic Piece (1969), which became a reference point for Jonathan Monk’s show at the project space of Jan Mot Gallery. One could think that the telepathically transmitted message is still out there even if no one has acknowledged that they have received it. Due to its immaterial and open character it could be also linked with the ideology of an open source software, especially after you’ve said “the work is always completed by other people.”1 I wanted to ask you where you did get the message or its idea yourself from and whether you would you recognize it after those 30 years. - It might have been heavily distorted during the continuous transmission.
Robert Barry: Questions how did it start or where did I get the idea from are the most difficult to answer. I am not really sure where I’ve got the idea from. I get most of my ideas just from everyday life, and I just sort of recognize something that could be useful in my work. Sometimes it can be just a magazine article or I hear something on a radio like with inert gas and I guess it just sat in my memory for a while, and then I just recognized that this is a perfect thing for me to use. It just happens that I have developed a certain style, which is a part of my being, it’s part of my way of thinking, and if something comes along that I can work within my style, then I just grab it immediately. It’s always been that way. Telepathic Piece was just a kind of logical extension of what I was doing before that, working with gas and things like that, and it appears logical afterward, but when you do that it’s just a kind of recognition, lucky chance that somewhere I have must have heard about the possibility of telepathy and I just used for a couple of occasions. Would I recognize it? Absolutely, no problem at all.

RM: In the case of Telepathic Piece at Simon Frazer University in Vancouver, you said it was neither image nor word.
RB: Well, it’s basically a feeling, a sense. It’s a kind of feeling which sometimes is very difficult to put into words, because I think it’s the most elusive part of our being. We have those feelings come through us and we are not exactly sure what it is - we cannot put these elusive feelings into words. It was something which I think fits into the basic experience of art, which after all of its intellectual aspects is still based in a personal experience that we have from looking at an artwork. It was not anything mysterious really, just ultimately something extremely personal.

RM: How did it happen?
RB: It was a telephone hook-up in New York where Seth Siegelaub organized the exhibition. At Simon Frazer University there was some set up in the auditorium or some public meeting place, I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember sitting at Siegelaub’s apartment. Siegelaub was there and some of the other artists in the show like Lawrence Weiner, Doug Huebler and Joseph Kosuth. I remember that there was some discussion, there were some questions we could hear via the telephone hook-up and we tried to answer them. I just tried to get my thoughts together about what I was feeling at the time. I tried really to concentrate on what it was and for however long I could do it. That’s basically what it was. I don’t remember whether anybody got it, although some people said they have caught it. How to send things telepathically? I don’t know.

RM: In the interview with Patricia Norwell in 1969 you say that you transmit it unconsciously.
RB: Yes, you have it in your mind. Who knows how you transmit things like that, I don’t know, really.

RM: Well, there are all kinds of books and manuals on the technique of telepathy.
RB: I actually researched it. There was also an Institute of the Telepathy in a building on 57th street in New York City, the same building where many galleries were before Soho. This Institute of Telepathy had a small library and actually I went there a few times. I am always very sensitive when I walk into a room and you have a certain feeling about it, a certain vibration hard to locate. I tried to translate this idea into some of the pieces I did, like the radio wave piece and inert gas. You are going to the room that is essentially empty, but there would be a label on the wall saying that there are radio waves or microwaves or something like that. So it’s based on this idea of being very sensitive emotionally or psychologically to the space that you are in. That it has a way of affecting you in a personal way. And that all of our experience is that kind of personal experience, we just don’t see objectively all the time. So I tried to use this idea in these pieces that I was doing. Natural ability of sensing when you enter into a space. Sometimes it could be quite something. Meeting someone personally, you sort of size them up, trying to figure out what these people are like.

RM: I like to use the category of frequency or intensity.
RB: I have feelings about things or sense things about people, or a bad vibration about a place, I don’t want to go into much detail because it sounds like fore-guessing the future.

RM: What I find interesting about the telepathic messaging is that its addressee is almost always random. It could be picked up by “someone a thousand years from now or someone five minutes before you’ve thought about it.” In some respect it reminds me a bottle in the sea or spam messaging in email channels.
RB: You never know where it goes. You never know about art, you put art into the world, but you never know who sees it or what they are thinking about it.

RM: We discussed where the ideas are coming from, but would it be interesting for you to look at where they are going to?
RB: Only in a very general way. Not to be too specific whom I make work for? There are some people that you know – friends, acquaintances, that you think do understand your work. I cannot say that I don’t completely make work for them, I try not to, I try to make basically work for myself and sometimes I may displease some people. Somebody who has been supporting your work suddenly sees something new and they don’t like it very much. At least that’s my experience, because I am always changing. What I do now in one way is very different from what I did 30 years ago, in another way on a very basic level it’s very similar, I haven’t changed my basic premise very much at all.

RM: Which is?
RB: I suppose it’s a kind of phenomenal way of operating in the world. I am always getting back to basics, trying to get to how we understand things or how we function emotionally, psychologically. How we get through our day. How we move around in space. How we move in time, how other people affect us. I suppose the questions about mind and how things are, very elemental things. My attempt is to appeal to people on the most elemental level that I can think of through art, which I think is a wonderful means of doing this.

RM: Does that mean that art could function as a tool of living, at least for an artist?
RB: It just does automatically if you are an artist. Normally you cannot avoid that, and I am just talking about myself, I am not talking about other people. Everybody has got a good reason for making art. Everybody has got a story of where it comes from and what it’s about, whatever it is. They are all legitimate reasons for making art. Art can come out of anything anywhere. The thing that distinguishes the artist from I suppose a philosopher is the reason for making your work. The thing about art is a very elusive part that is hard to control and that part really comes out of yourself. It’s really not very intellectual, it’s very hard to write about, it’s very hard to get a grasp on it.

RM: Another thing in your work which I find very important is some sort of info-ecology. As we know there’s much more information being produced than being consumed in the world nowadays. Therefore I find the operations of erasing, suspending and canceling more relevant to the situation than mere visualizing. If I think of your closed gallery or… Robert Rauschenberg erasing the Willem de Kooning drawing…
RB: If he did a whole series of that it could be interesting. If he developed that idea into something else. There are examples of those things that artists do some things that seem out of the character of their work. Looking at one piece can be interesting, but I want to know the broader context.

RM: In this sense is the notion of formula important to you?
RB: Not at all, I am a very intuitive artist. As I said before I sort of developed a style or a style has developed me, however you want to call it. I just naturally follow this way of thinking about making art, but I think it’s closely related to my basic thoughts about life. I am not trying to tell stories or anything like that. Whatever I come across that seems to fit in the style, I grab it. There’s a connection between style and life, style and your way of your being. This is the way you feel comfortable to operate in, part of your way you think about the world or the way you view your world through art.

RM: Is it interesting for you to follow how your ideas are being translated into other artists’ works?
RB: Not really. I don’t really care what other artists do. I mean there are artists I like very much, but I don’t want to be responsible for all lousy art that’s out there that is made by artists who seemed to have looked at my work and took some ideas and then build a career on it.

RM: You mean avoiding the reference or just simply ripping things off?
RB: Just making crummy art. I don’t care if they rip me off, there’s nothing I can do about that. The only thing that I don’t like is when they cheapen it. I’ve done certain things which I see coming up in commercials on TV or popular media, and it’s just sort of cheapens what you do, it distorts the way we see it. But I am always changing anyway.

RM: What are you interested in now?
RB: Now I am doing videos, they are a continuation of the projections, but with all the new things that you can do with video projection and working with a computer in terms of changing color and overlaying imagery and manipulating of time. The mechanics of a slide projector are quite limited but with video you can extend time and change it, introduce color and all kinds of things that simply are not available at a slide projector. It’s very intriguing to me and that opens new areas of expression. And also mirror pieces. Instead of putting words on the wall, they are put on mirrors. They are floating in space and become part of the space. I see these as an extension of my concerns with space and the room particularly. The actual reflection of the space and yourself in a mirror gives an extra richness, an extra dimension, an extra complication and implications of my ideas. It lets me take my style to other areas I am interested to explore. These are the two things I’ve been working on now.

RM: Are these videos based on found material?
RB: The first ones were completely computer generated words and colors and time sequencing. Then I got myself a digital video camera, but I’ve been taking pictures all my life, so I started taking videos of different kinds of scenes and incorporating them into the projections.

RM: By the way, do you find European context more open for this kind of conceptual work?
RB: They seem to be, but I have not shown any in America yet. I will soon.

RM: Jonathan Monk brought a short-wave radio transmitter to the gallery for the show addressing the destiny of your telepathic message. Visitors of the gallery could discuss it on air.
RB: The thing that I was interested in doing radio pieces was not sending words, it was sending just the signal from the radio station, an empty carrier wave. My father, who was an electrical engineer has build these little radio transmitters for me, and the first ones had a signal on it, just some sort of whistle. If you came in the gallery and if you had a portable radio, you could hear this whistle, and if you went out of the gallery into the street, the whistle would disappear. …

RM: Constructed by your father?
RB: Yes, he made several. They were all radio pieces. I had the idea and he made them for me. He could make radios, there was also a TV set he made in 1949. The idea for radio pieces came when we were listening to the radio with a friend of mine. Suddenly he said ‘Radio Moscow is coming on now!’. Radio Moscow’s transmitter was so powerful that when they turned it on and it was heating up, it would block out everything on that frequency. So you would turn to the frequency of Radio Moscow and you would hear all those other stations and suddenly it would go silent. I thought that was a great idea I asked my father to make all these little transmitters. If you were down the block from the gallery and you turn your radio to a certain station, you would hear people talking or music, but as you got closer to the gallery, the radio would go silent. The radio would be silent at that spot on the dial, because the carrier wave was so strong that it would overwhelm everything else.

RM: Did Radio Moscow broadcast in English?
RB: All languages. It was very funny to hear it, it was all total Communist propaganda.

RM: In Lithuania in Soviet times we could hear The Voice of America, my grandparents would have listening sessions every night. It would develop a certain double sensibility, because it was opposing to the official propaganda.
RB: Radio Moscow was very entertaining, it was ridiculous what they would say, but the English was perfect.

RM: Perhaps the famous British art-historian turned spy Anthony Blunt did some job.
RB: I don’t know (laughs).

1 – Interview with Bob Nickas, Journal of Contemporary Art, Vol. 5., No 1 Spring 1992.

The show of Jonathan Monk, During the exhibition the gallery will be open, lasts till Saturday 26th of April. With thanks to the British Council.