Interview by Lesley Guy.
As Anna Barham’s residency at Site Gallery in Sheffield draws to a close, I caught up with her to talk about the ideas that lie behind her work.
Lesley Guy – So we are here in the Site Gallery, in this really beautifully constructed space. Can you tell me about the residency and the work you are doing here?
Anna Barham – Yes, I was invited to come and make some work in the gallery, which is different to the normal residency set up where you are hidden away and then produce some work at the end. I’d just made the video Liquid Consonant (2012) and that was the first time I’d worked with a digital animator and with this substitution of sound for language, so I felt I could use this time to build on that. I wanted to open up to other voices in my work, so rather than me working on my own I wanted to create a much more social exploration, hence the reading groups and the discussions that we’ve had.
LG – What have you been reading?
AB – For the first session we read three chapters from a book by Brian Rotman called Becoming Beside Ourselves, which is about the alphabet as a technology and what affect that technology has had on our whole western culture, on our sense of self and subjectivity.
LG – This is a space for you to carry out research. Apart from engaging with people through the groups and events what else have you been doing?
AB – There’s a certain amount of reading going on, mainly in preparation of the events. Then I’m testing things out because what I want to do, ultimately, is make a new video work. So this (points to projection) is a little snippet. The letters are meant to appear on the screen in correspondence to where they appear in the soundtrack. This passage was taken from the Brian Rotman book. It is projected on its side because I’m more interested in the rhythm of the piece than in the viewer being able to read it easily.
LG – That’s interesting because knowing what words might be being said seems less important than something else, perhaps you could say it’s an aesthetic reaction.
AB – Yeah, maybe. I’m thinking of a Marshall McLuhan book we read in the second week, The Gutenberg Galaxy, which Rotman draws a lot from. The position is that we’ve disembodied ourselves, the written script privileges the eye and creates this very ocular society. The culture that we live in, the invention of perspective has come through that. I feel that that is true, we do live in a visually biased culture and I think a lot of the work that I make tries to disrupt that and bring back some other kind of pulse or a different way of looking with your eyes – not the gaze but the flicker – or to highlight sound.
LG – I guess that leads on to the main video piece. We are looking at an animation of what looks like the inner workings of a mouth. It looks like it could be your mouth, it is very female looking, and I wondered if you had scanned your own head?
AB – (laughs) People have said that. No, she is generic. I was interested in the idea of a mouth and in speaking. I do live readings from things that I have written and often, because I write using anagrams, they are quite hard to read, very unlubricated in a way, and it feels like I’m chewing the words. It is a physical effort to speak it. That made me think about how in general it is amazing mechanical apparatus and the control that we have over it so seemingly automatically, you can just say what you want you don’t have to think about how to open your mouth or where to put your tongue. Also, mouths can be really erotic or really grotesque and disgusting. I was quite keen to emphasise this sensuality of the mouth. That’s why I chose that particular model; I found her face to be sufficiently soft and alluring.
LG – You are interested in words and language and the way that those things correspond to the sounds that represent them and perhaps the world that they represent? You use an example from Plato’s Cratylus.
AB – Yes, really weather those things have relationships. So do those sounds represent the world? In the Cratylus the discussion is about whether language has an intrinsic meaning or whether it is just through convention that we agree to use a specific word for a specific thing. What interested me was that he isn’t talking about the sound that is produced but about the way that sound is produced in the mouth, being the thing that gives the link to what it might mean. So the rolled ‘r’, because the tongue is really agitated in its pronunciation, Plato suggests that that might be a good way of imitating motion because you’re very in motion in its pronunciation.
LG – I quite like the idea of using logic as a strategy for making artworks. It can be quite liberating to set rules, would you say it frees you up in some ways?
AB – Yes, I would! Someone who had written previously about my work referred to it as a paradoxical freedom. I get quite stuck now if I try to work without these constraints, because that is where the freedom is. Being able to use any word in the English language is far too hard! (laughs)