Katya Babikova talks with +/- Project Space artist Itziar Barrio in her Lower East Side Studio about her work and upcoming projects. Barrio’s performance, The Perils of Obedience will take place from May 25 – May 29, 2016, with the accompanying exhibition opening on June 1, 2016 at PARTICIPANT INC., NYC.
Katya Babikova: You just had the exhibition The History of the Fist here at SOHO20. How did the idea of exploring the symbolism of the fist emerge?
Itziar Barrio: The History of the Fist actually started in 2013. It was a commissioned piece for 3 museums in Europe (Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade (MoCAB), ARTIUM Basque Museum-Centre of Contemporary Art). They were looking for artists who somehow work with violence, but not obvious; more invisible violence. That was actually the name of the show, Invisible Violence. So, I started to elaborate on that idea.
In my practice, I usually work with signs and symbols, sometimes very specific icons, signifiers, or references to pop-culture, but in this case I wanted to focus on the fist and deconstruct the meaning of this icon. A big part of the project was research of its history, which is how it became an idea of actually creating “The History of the Fist”. I was analyzing social, sexual, and political aspects during that journey. I collaborated with the historian Lincoln Cushing, who is an expert on political representations of the fist in propaganda to political art. He became the non-fiction part of the project. I also collaborated with Dia Felix, a writer based in NY to create a narrative fiction element around the fist.
KB: It seems that the symbol of the fist is also a unified, internationally understood symbol. You have traveled a lot and lived in different countries. Does the meaning of the fist actually differ from culture to culture?
IB: I think it is like any other kind of icon – it has a global aspect that gets bigger and bigger. These days we exist under a big umbrella of meanings. That is kind of sad in many aspects, but the good part is that we can actually be more understanding, and our communication can be more fluent. There are always connotations that are global, and the same time connotations that are pretty local. In the case of the fist, especially when it’s being analyzed politically, the meaning is very common, because the whole purpose was to create single unique symbol to unify people. I also analyzed it from a historical point of view and this brought me to learn about prehistoric paintings in caves.
KB: You turn towards videos and performances a lot. Are they the main mediums that you work with?
IB: Video or the moving image is probably my main medium, but there is always room for other mediums in terms of a project.
KB: You also tend to explore psychological aspects of behavior, different social patterns that people follow.
IB: That is true. There is an anthropologic element in many of my projects. That is one of my interests. The main idea of my work and my practice in general is exploring language, how we create thoughts through it. I am obsessed with signs and symbols and how we use them to create associations in order to understand each other, but also in order to oppress. I’m always trying to find the way to break this norm following ideas of permanency and repetition. The only solution is to find the way that does not repeat the same pattern.
KB: Your work seems to be influenced by movies. You used a scene from the Robert Bresson film Pickpocket once. How movies correlate with your work?
IB: I’m very interested in the film mechanism, specifically the process of deconstructing it based on my interest in semiotics. I use the mythologies of pop culture and film culture, especially really iconic ones that are part of the mainstream. Like, the idea behind Pickpocket is maybe robbery can be good for society, in the case of someone who is really talented, or who has a ‘good’ mission. I choose the scenes that are revealing against the norm or open new possibilities for understanding something. I also find it very seductive to say that the idea of stealing from someone’s pocket is very intimate and related with sexuality and desire. All of this is related to how power works in the context of subjectivity, and my current project The Perils of Obedience actually deals with all these ideas.
KB: Can you talk about the current project you are working on – The Perils of Obedience?
IB: It’s about making a movie in a real time. I work with 4 performers, a theater director and a dramaturge; they are creating one scene that hasn’t been scripted yet. They are creating it while, at the same time, the crew and I are filming. Sometimes, we have an audience when filming. It brings up ideas of fiction, nonfiction, and film mechanisms, in order to show film production as a performance. We have very specific roles that performers should follow: there is a leader who wants something, an anti-leader who is there to make it impossible, a soldier who helps the leader, and a navigator who goes in between. So the conflict becomes almost unresolvable and eternal.
KB: And also presents a conflict between fiction and nonfiction.
IB: Yes, there are the performers in real life in addition to the role they have to play. I also used a in a previous iteration references from another iconic movie, Basic Instinct, and Accelerate Manifesto (2013 by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek), which brings up the idea of what is happening today in society that has been accelerated, and what would happen if this it is taken to its extreme. I also use reference to a historical event: The New York City Riots in 1863. I look at these specific things because of how they deal with the idea of subverting, projecting and reacting against power.
KB: Like The Milgram experiments, about obeying authority or figures in power?
IB: Right, I also researched them to reveal why we act a certain way. As Hannah Arendt would say “Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think. ”
KB: You’ve been working on the deconstruction of social codes throughout your artistic career. It’s not easy to destroy the traditional social establishment and roles that are put upon us. Have you yet reached any conclusions about it?
IB: It is difficult to get out of these rules and roles. I do not have any definite answers, but I keep researching. My background is also in psychology; the psychological aspect is always for me almost an excuse just to start working on a project. Exploring a situation within a certain set of parameters, when the outcomes are always different depending on its place or condition, is the starting point for me to address a range of ideas that I’m interested in from identity to desire to space travel.