Friday, January 18, 2008

Art Space Talk: Ross Barber

Ross Barber is an installation artist from Australia. He is also the Executive Director of Access Arts Inc. A curator statement nicely describes the work of Ross Barber: "Bodies looking at art, become bodies negotiating architectural space. Rather than expect particular bodies, he, Ross Barber politicizes such an expectation. Rather than ordering bodies, he creates disorder for them to negotiate. Rather than provide solid ground, he leads us to question who makes the ground on which we situate ourselves on, why and for whom."

Quartet four love songs, vinyl wall text, spoken word sound installation with accompanying Braille books. Image from Angela Robarts-Bird Gallery installation, 2006.

Brian Sherwin: Ross, you studied at the University of Western Sydney and Queensland University of Technology. Can you tell us about your academic experiences? How did they influence your later work? Also, who were your instructors during those years?

Ross Barber: I had a great deal of freedom to experiment while at UWS Nepean and while I only jumped ship from the painting strand of the course in my 3rd year and moved to sculpture it felt very natural. I had been a house builder and supervisor on large industrial sites prior to my accident in 1987 so I had a lot of fine and technical skills that had just built up over the years. I found I understood the built environment very well as a location of social/ architectural histories and their politics.

Also the university-- even for undergraduates --fostered independent research and thinking. As long as you were working and processing you got quality time with lecturers which was not pedagogic in nature, but collegiate and of course you find a ready group of collaborators in the student body who are ready to push each other and test ideas and outcomes. Probably the best person I worked with at UWS was Nick Dorrer not a lecturer, but the head technician. Lecturers I had a great deal of time for were Michael Goldberg, Anne Graham, Dr Sue Best and Dr Phillip Kent.

At Queensland University of Technology I was extremely lucky to have the Head of Visual Arts JM John Armstrong as my primary Master of Fine Arts supervisor and Dr Brad Hasman as my theory supervisor. Again they allowed me to follow what was natural my eclectic practice and encouraged my tendency for theoretical bricolage to flourish. John Armstrong was instrumental in my receiving my first major grant to travel and take up a residency in Cooperations Luxemburg. My time at Cooperations turned the world upside down for me. It was there that I learned the true meaning of collaboration and the proper role of an artist in a major social project.

I returned to finish my Master of Fine Arts and while doing that taught drawing to post graduate architectural students and acted as a non-assessing lecturer in the first year undergraduate program where my brief was to incite students to try things they would never tell there formal lecturers about. It was a great joy to see those students hit the ground running in second year.

Matrixs Nature Morte, 1999 - 2006, size variable, multiple configurations. Modules under construction, collected sticks copper wire, cell phones, birdcall ring tones, sparrow screen saver images.

BS: Ross, you are the Executive Director of Access Arts Inc. For those who don't know... can you tell us about Access Arts Inc.?

RB: Access Arts is the Arts/Disability peak body in Queensland. We operate on three levels of activity:

1. Entry level arts workshops and programs

2. Identifying and nurturing emerging artists experiencing disability and disadvantage

3. Employing Professional artists, administrators, and cultural workers experiencing disabilities and disadvantage

I have to say I am an artist who purports to be a manager. I took on the job as Executive Director in mid 2004 and the circumstances around that time were not pretty. While the organisation had had an illustrious history it had lost its vision and I found myself on the first day staring at a previously hidden $40000 deficit. The organisation only had sixty five members left and was threatened by the real possibility of the loss of all financial backing. I told the board of directors that I needed a free-hand otherwise they would be winding up the organisation within a year.

My appointment by the board was not taken too well by the then staff and I felt like I was in the Australian equivalent of Fort Apache. So after a frustrating time fruitlessly trying to get the staff behind revitalizing the organasation, not to put to fine a point on it, I finished their contracts and started recruiting artists and cultural workers experiencing disabilities who had never got the jobs when they had applied to the organisation before. Three years on we now have ten staff who are all artists and about fifteen extra artists working on a range of social and professional Creative Industries projects and we have a membership of 18,050 people.

We have survived a Commonwealth and state government arts sector wide program of budget cuts where fourteen arts organisations lost their funding and a further fourteen were put onto reduced annual funding only. We actually improved our position and will have a recurrent base funding income from government and philanthropic sources of just over one million dollars in 2008. In 2007 we generated about $400,000 into the community economy in wages and in kind through strategic partnerships.

Access Arts proactively recruits and employs skilled administrators, arts workers and volunteers experiencing a range of disabilities. Developing local, regional, national and international reciprocal partnerships and the provision of appropriate training and skill development opportunities are essential elements of our philosophy for staff, volunteers and members. Membership Services staff provide creative support, encouragement and programs for members of the organisation experiencing a disability or disadvantage, which is enhanced by first-hand knowledge of living with a disability. Here is the Access Arts Web address

Still from- She is always walking away....... 1948 - 2006

BS: Ross, one of your most well-known projects is titled 'She is Always Walking Away". Can you discuss this project? What are the thoughts behind it?

RB: I'm not sure how to explain she is always walking away as it is in reality a work in progress and shall always remain so. It is probably best for anyone interested to read about it on my site

There are layers that keep being exposed-- sometimes with a sense of delight and other times like raw nerves that hurt like hell. And of course this is about identity and memory where I have some concerns of being locked in a representational impasse and shall never escape it. I began to explore the work after a conversation with Michael Goldberg in 1993. He was encouraging me to begin writing. I had disclosed the experiences of being in a coma for 11 weeks after my accident which even to this day are so much more 'real' than everyday life in terms of clarity.

One experience in particular is where I returned to the Chinosorie garden of my childhood to find the ceramic doll I had found at about four years old and named Rosa. This doll that I had abandoned at about five years old had grown old in the garden and was clearly not happy that I had abandoned her. Rosa had been my secret companion and of course representative of my unformed femininity. I now understand that her name is derivative of my first signature attempts that I wrote in special books in my grand parents library at the time, RosA Barber.

There are a number of other parts of work that I have derived from that period in the coma state, as examples-- I'd kill for a cup of tea lagoons and Quartet four love songs which I believe is the shortest version of the Odyssey written.

Concept image- Lagoons Installation

BS: In your opinion, what are some of challenges that disabled artists face in the art world?

RB: I can only speak about the situation in Australia which is very concerning. There is a systematic devaluing of people experiencing disabilities across the socio/economic system in Australia. You can see it in the ongoing losses of basic services and support. This has led to great difficulties for artists experiencing disabilities to get into the vocational training that they need in the equivalent of your art colleges or in universities. Only .03% of people experiencing disabilities are succeeding in vocational training because the lack of either the will or awareness by colleges and universities to meet the access needs that people experiencing disabilities require.

Unlike Access Arts, the commonwealth and state disability arts sector organisations who are supposed to advocate for and develop emerging professional artists, do not employ artists, cultural workers or administrators experiencing disabilities except in very tokenistic ways. As I said in my Something is rotten in the arts and cultural state of OZ. There is a dearth of ‘disability’ arts and cultural policies at a national and state level, which underpins the lack of opportunity.

BS: Ross, tell us more about your art. Is there a personal philosophy behind your work?

RB: I value all that has come before and the work of contemporaries, but I reserve the right to challenge them-- some times respectfully, sometime playfully, and sometimes with a touch of irreverence. Similarly, I like to challenge the very ground that we situate ourselves on culturally and politically. There are things that have to be said about our contemporary world and I hope I will always be honest enough to say them at the least through my art.
Two bored workers wishing aprons, each made with 7 sheets of A4 paper covered with text, one in 16th century korean characters roughly translated means, “I would rather be eating soybean curd than planting soybeans in the field“ and one in english saying : “Some other body someplace else", 2003.

BS: What is the message you strive to convey to viewers of your work?

RB: I guess in the milieu of reception theory there can be an enormous difference in what I am trying to convey and what the viewer reads in it. All I can try to do in terms of the installation work is to try and create an immersive environment that will engage and challenge the viewer. Somehow I feel that I would like the the viewer to become a co-producer.

Recently, at a Pecha Kutcha Presentation, a young performance artist responded to a work of mine titled In the winter of 68 -- a text based work that was being displayed on the screen. She just got up and performed it moving through the audience reading off the screen with a empathy and cadence that I could never have anticipated. People were stunned and not sure what to do when she finished... all I could do was applaud, it was very moving. I am hoping she will interpret some of my other prose works.

BS: Can you tell us about your process of creation?

RB: A fair description of my practice would be eclectic installation and multi-arts in form, to say the least. I liken the maintenance of my practice to the use of the analogy of the plumber’s bathroom, all the taps leak. Even in this very demanding job of executive director at Access Arts, and because of the job in which I am surrounded by very creative people, I manage to continue my work and write lots of crap prose to describe my arts practice/work relationship .
There is a story about French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who was out fishing with fishermen from the village he was born in and he spotted a shining object floating on the sea ( it turned out to be a jettisoned sardine can). One of the fisherman noticed him staring at it and said to him, "Ah you see the shining object the object sees you, I see only what it is". Sometimes a work comes into mind and is just there, 'a thing in itself'. Others will take many years to come to a reasonable state of being and then each one starts working back to me... a process of reviewing, refining, and shifting layers of meaning that cause new works or forms of the work to emerge.
Consuming Cambells Soup after Warhol, 2006

BS: Do you have any exhibits planned for 2008?

RB: I just keep making work-- the shows come and go. They are of little consequence. This year seem to be shaping up for me. I'm engaged to do a number of presentations of my practice, mainly at universities and for state arts bodies. I have applied to undertake a PHD and if accepted I will start mid-year.

BS: Do you have any advice for emerging artists?

RB: Keep investigating that myriad of shining and not so shiny objects. A close friend of mine, who is now very well known, complained to me that she no longer had the time to really look at what she was doing. She was torn between supplying the market with what she had got a name for, instead of what she loved playfully experimenting with. She felt she was always running, but stuck in one place. "Of course it is up to you", I said. "but you have to make up your mind on what it is you can live with and be happy."

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

RB: I am very grateful to have had a life where I have been able to have the basic means to make art and to meet others on a similar journey. It is a gift.
You can learn more about Ross Barber by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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