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I first encountered expatriate New Zealand artist Bruce Barber’s work in ‘After the Situation: Moment Making’ at Artspace, Auckland, in 2007. Arriving just too late to see his Saturday afternoon performance of I Am an other to myself.com, and finding its aftermath—the words ‘no difference without singularity’ scrawled repeatedly in chalk on pavement and building, people milling on the footpath and Barber still in his shaggy arctic camouflage suit—I experienced a twinge of regret at having missed the moment.
Visiting ‘Reading and Writing Rooms’, the survey exhibition of Barber’s work at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Auckland (coinciding with an exhibition of the same name at Artspace, Sydney), was a similar experience. Looking through the remnants and replications of work from almost forty years of practice, I could not shake the feeling that once again I had arrived too late, although this time it was an experience intrinsic to the show.
‘Reading and Writing Rooms’ explored, through a combination of photographic and video documentation, written text and re-staged installations, the development of Barber’s impressive body of work, fromTalking to Myself: Walkie Talkie Tape Performance (1971) and Bucket Action (1973) through to recent situational projects. Now based in Nova Scotia, Barber has only occasionally exhibited in Australasia since his move to Canada in the mid-1970s, so a survey of his practice was timely, especially in light of rising local and global interest in situational practices.
As a self-described ‘littoral’ artist Barber creates a space for the artist as social agent.1 Barber uses the littoral, a geographic term for the shifting zone between sea and land, to describe the possibility of an artist acting between the institutional art world and the socio-political sphere. This engagement is best demonstrated in recent projects such as Diddly Squat (2004), represented at Te Tuhi by the box of gum the artist removed from the pavement during thirty hours of community service, or theNovel Squat projects undertaken in various cities between 1998 and 2008. The original squats were created in art spaces as functional living spaces for a homeless person, giving them the time and resources to write. At Te Tuhi a small room contained the elements of the original squat—a bed, desk, computer with web access and printer, along with plants and caged canaries—however this squat was uninhabited. Devoid of the activity and opportunity that gave the other squats their meaning and power as interventions, Novel Squat within this context felt more like a museum diorama—a reminder of the distance between the visitor to the exhibition and the active engagement of the original work.
This sense of removal emphasised the difficulty of encountering such situational and performative work in retrospect, through documentary fragments and re-creations. Barber’s is a practice that is deeply grounded in theory, and it is through his writings that the shape of his practice can begin to cohere. Augmenting the Te Tuhi reading room were a selection of Barber’s publications and bound notes, including specific texts designed to both support the physical work and stand independently as political or philosophical statements.
Barber’s ‘Reading Room’ installations, originally inspired by Alexander Rodchenko’s 1925 design for a worker’s club, are part library, part study, each installation providing visitors with materials drawn from corporate advertising and news reporting, to explore a subject, such as representations of masculinity or the Vietnam War. Rather than recreating one of these installations at Te Tuhi, the whole exhibition required the audience, making their way through selected materials, to become active readers of Barber’s practice.
One work stood out for me as existing beyond this retrospective experience. Worker Rule/Work to Rule (1980) is a row of ten identical doors built into a white wall that cuts across the main gallery space, dividing it in two. Painted across the doors are two slogans. On one side in red are spelt out the words ‘Worker Rule’ while on the other in black is ‘Work to Rule’—slogans representing socialist and capitalist views of labour placed back-to-back, yet with the doors allowing communication between. A recurring symbol within Barber’s work, the door, is theatrical and metaphorical as well as a pedestrian bit of architecture, freighted with notions of continuation or conclusion, inclusion, exclusion and transformation.
Barber’s discussion of the piece, however, focuses not on the metaphorics of the built space, but on the painting of his text, indicating that the main point of the work lies in the working relationship formed between the senior and apprentice sign-writers employed to complete the work, and on issues of labour and exchange. Seen in this light the piece becomes, like the gum box, a relic of action. What is not acknowledged, but what made the work so successful for me, is its effect of turning the audience into performers. In an image of Worker Rule/Work to Rule’s first installation in Toronto in 1980 the work stands in the centre of a room, an object which one can walk around.2 Built across the main gallery space at Te Tuhi, this piece is pulled into functionality, visitors required to perform it by choosing a door, opening and walking through if they are to satisfy their curiosity about what lies beyond. The work takes the action that, in many of Barber’s other pieces, is the preserve of the artist or of dedicated performers, and places it upon the visitor. We can no longer be simply a spectator but must choose or refuse.
The format of multiple doors in the one wall draws heavily on the staging of Absurdist theatre, whilst invoking the slapstick chase scene. Both funny and poignant, this play of doors sparks a dizzying circle of irresolvable questions: In or out? Front or back? Open or closed? Arriving or departing? Where much of the show made me feel as though I had missed the main event, Worker Rule/Work to Rule was always ready, waiting for me to arrive before the action could begin.
1. See Don Simmons, ‘Littoral Practice: An Interview with Bruce Barber’, http://www.imageandtext.org.nz/pdfs/Bruce_Barber_Interview.pdf
2. The image accompanied a 1981 interview with Bruce Barber by Wystan Curnow in the publication Reading Rooms, Bruce Barber, Eye Level Publications, Halifax, 1992.