No-one works alone: an interview with Bruce Barber

Bruce Barber, Bertrand Russell quote from The Bertrand Russell Reading Room (2018)

"Artists who challenge the model typically are collaborators" - Bruce Barber

With a dozen video works from 1973-2019 now on CIRCUIT, New Zealand/Canadian artist Bruce Barber sat down with Mark Williams for this interview. They discuss a career spent working inside and outside the art world; the link between the 2019 Hong Kong protests and Barber's recent exhibition The Bertrand Russell Reading Room; and rethinking Marx for a 21st century shaped by new technologies and gender politics.

Mark Williams (MW): Let's start with your interest in Bertrand Russell. Could you talk about why he was viewed as such a radical within British society during the early 20th century?

Bruce Barber (BB): Bertrand Russell was one of the first people to contest conscription during the First World War. He had a complicated life in many ways. He was born into a very privileged family. His father was a Lord, and he was very well educated. He was fired from two universities because of his political beliefs, and for his teaching. He was a teacher of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He also began with his wife a very progressive school for children. So he was recognized as a very important academic because of his philosophical investigations, and for his publishing, and his mentorship of some very important philosophers. But when he came out against the First World War and Britain's involvement in that, he was indicted, and was sent off to prison.

MW: What parallels can you see between his situation and the current moment?

BB: We were in Manchester recently, we saw the pro-Brexit and the Remainers protesting. Then later in the same square in Manchester, there was also Hong Kong supporters, Chinese and others. And it was just incredible seeing how many thousands of people had come out to either protest what's happening or to endorse it. Our son is in Hong Kong. He teaches at a university there. During the recent riots he was posting on social media images of his students being chased by police.

We just had Remembrance Day here, November the 11th. Anzac Day is well observed in Australia and New Zealand. And yet, those who contested whatever conflict, war, conscription, are not being acknowledged. We don't remember these people, we don't commemorate their terms in jail.

Are you old enough to remember when there was conscription in New Zealand?

MW: No, not the first conscriptions. But I remember as a child being terrified of the idea.

BB: I opened my letter from the government when I was 18 years old, in 1968. It could have said, as my late older brother’s had, "Yes, you are conscripted. Welcome to the New Zealand Army"

MW: You would have been sent to Vietnam?

BB: Not initially. At first you were simply drafted as part of a general government policy to maintain the armed forces, ready for deployment in whatever conflict emerged. But I could probably have gone to Vietnam had I been chosen. My middle brother’s birthdate was chosen, but he was rejected perhaps because he had flat feet, or some other issue. But my older brother was conscripted, and of course my father and my grandfathers were in the First World War and the Second World War.

MW: In 2018 you presented an installation about Russell at McMaster University in Ontario. How did you address Russell’s ideas in the gallery space?

BB: We built a Brixton prison cell facsimile. In the prison cell itself, we had some letters that Russell had written to the prison's superintendent, asking for more opportunity to have visitors, and more opportunity to write and read. He was working on his mathematics and philosophy book at the time, and actually finished it in the prison during his several months incarcerated there. Many of Russell’s statements that I felt were important were around the wall. I gave out buttons, which had a Bertrand Russell image and a statement, War does not determine who is right…..only who is left.


Installation Shot: Bruce Barber, The Bertrand Russell Reading Room, McMaster University, Ontario, Canada (2018)

MW: Why was McMaster the venue for the project?

BB: McMaster University has the largest world archive of Bertrand Russell. 2018 was the centenary of his incarceration. I follow them on Twitter, and they're always posting interesting material. And on Instagram, there's an international Bertrand Russell group. And on Facebook too I think there's a Bertrand Russell group. There's a lot of people recognizing that his work has plenty to offer this time when conservatism, populist politics as a result of neoliberal policies and so on, are really ruling the day in many different countries, on all continents.

MW: Yes, the US, Brazil, neo-fascism in Europe… this does seem like a good time to be based in New Zealand.

BB: New Zealand stands apart actually. The tragedy in Christchurch of course drew attention worldwide. I received several condolence notices from colleagues at NSCAD and around the world. They knew that I would have been very upset, and I was. And I know New Zealanders like to say, "Well it was an Australian right winger." Of course, New Zealand had many right wing groups, and still has many right wing groups.

I think Māori in New Zealand are supported more than Aboriginals in Australia and First Nations people here in Canada. Some First Nations groups are better off than others, but typically the marks of the colonial project are still evident.

MW: Were Māori art and Māori world concepts taken very seriously at Elam when you were a student there in the 1970s?

BB: It became so, just around 1975. July 1976 is when I left. I would say yes. But it took a while before they had introduced Māori culture fully to Auckland University by establishing a Marae, which is common in many Universities throughout New Zealand now. But to have a Marae -indigenous spaces - actually within the University; that's only begun to happen in most Canadian universities fairly recently.

MW: Could you talk a little bit more about ‘giving’ as a motif in your practice? This seems to have been a constant gesture in your work for decades.

BB: In the '70s, I had been undertaking collaborative work, which really developed out of my interest in performance. And then I realized that as an artist, no one works alone. Even painters in the studio work with canvas and paint that's been produced by someone else. Paints, paintbrushes, you can even point to places in China where all of this is made these days.

When I realized that collaborations were important, I started making videos for my colleagues, of their work. Jim Allen, I videotaped some of his work. I did some unpaid work for a gallery director Peter Webb, interviewing other artists with a colleague doing the camera work. I didn't distinguish my role as an artist or as a developing historian or critic, because I saw myself as (occupying) several roles.

But then, I started doing some research on giving, and the gift, and the political economy of giving, and what that could mean with respect to the art world, which is a Ponzi scheme with payers, players and prayers.

But artists who challenge the model typically are collaborators. They collaborate. And I started to meet groups. I attended three conferences, one in Dublin, one in Venice, and one in Sydney, all on collaboration. This happened in the '80s. And then I wrote a book (Littoral Art & Communicative Action (2013)) from a collection of essays. I developed an interest in the term ‘Littoral’.

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Bruce Barber, Party without Party (2006)

MW: You’ve probably been asked this a million times before, but could you explain Littoral Art for the newcomer?

BB: It describes work that happens both inside and outside the art world. The art world is self-constituted of galleries, institutions of learning, training, et cetera, et cetera; museums and institutions that are bound by certain kinds of rules about behavior and how one engages with learning and so on. And outside of that is where people engage with, to use a hackneyed term, ‘the real world’. There are power dynamics of a different kind, where capital rules the day, where some people are subordinated to the ideas, powers of others. And some people are denied opportunities for whatever reason, through their birth, or through their class, their sexual orientation, their gender or what have you.

MW: Who else was operating in the field of Littoral practice at the time? And how did the concept play out in their practice?

BB: Ian Hunter was one of the first people to introduce me to that term. I also found Jurgen Habermas, who is a conservative in some respects, who didn't like Harold Szeeman's When Attitudes Become Form exhibition in Bern, in 1972 when it was shown. But I respected him as a philosopher, because in some ways he was a bit like Bertrand Russell. He acknowledged that public discourse was important for educational purposes; to change the minds of people who were thinking very conservatively about some issue, or are beginning to exhibit negative values towards others, whether they be migrants, or refugees, or what have you. The sort of thing that's happening around the world now.

I began to investigate various groups. For example, a group like Wolfgang Zinggl's WochenKlausur, meaning ‘a number of weeks of enclosure’, in Vienna. REPOHistory, a famous group led by Greg Sholette reproducing the invisible histories of, for example, anti-war, or anti-nuclear activities, racist activities, slavery, and all the rest of it. All of that history was being reinterpreted and re-exhibited in various major communities. For example, the 1929 stock market crash, where people threw themselves off buildings because of the stock market crash. Photographs, posters, and so on and so forth. Wolfgang Zinggl in Vienna was doing work that explored how refugees could be educated, and how schools could be developed in places that had been struck by war. For example, in the former Yugoslavia, in Serbia, and Croatia, and other places where many people had been disenfranchised, lost their homes and cities in some ways.

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Bruce Barber, Spectres of Marx (2014-15)

MW: I wanted to ask about another historical figure, as seen in your work Spectres of Marx. In the video, you paint over Marx and several other figures from history. It seems to intimate that we should remember those figures, but perhaps not get hung up on them, or create our own figurehead to help guide us through to the next phase of our evolution. Is that a decent reading of the work?

BB: Exactly, that's the reading that Derrida has in his book of the same title. The figure that is left after (at the end of the overpainting/erasure) is Antonio Gramsci who wrote The Prison Notebooks (1929-35). I read them when I was in Auckland University. They were very influential, because he didn't use the word Marx or Marxism, or Communism in many of the pages of those notebooks. Partly because he was writing them during the Fascist period, and he was imprisoned; he could talk about labour politics, he could talk about union politics, et cetera, but he couldn't extol the virtues of either Socialism or Communism.

I've read Derrida since I was introduced to The Truth in Painting (1978), back in 1980. But if you read the first chapter of Spectres of Marx (1994), it's all about recognizing that Marx and Marxism has a kind of ghostly presence in European politics (which was) always identified, and then disavowed. In that sense, he (proposed) that in order to recognize social democracy as a potential source of government that would be productive for everyone, some of the distinguishing characteristics of Marxist thought had to be subordinated for the contemporary world.

MW: Which characteristics?

BB: For example, world revolution. Marx never said that. Marx never said he was a Marxist. He didn't identify with all of the ideologies that others associated with Marxism. So he was more interested in - when you read Wage Labour and Capital (1847-), the use of capital to encourage those to live a life that was worth living. When he started talking about artists, and leisure time being creative time, he lost a lot of people. People like Derrida, I think, who recognized that artists were engaged in worthwhile activities and not simply the embellishment of people's walls with paintings, or their living rooms with sculpture, or their kitchens with ceramic ware. And I think that Spectres of Marx gave an opportunity to rethink Marxism, but first you had to erase some of the edifice around Marxism, and challenge some of the outstanding beliefs that it obtained.

And I think contemporary Marxists, Labor politicians, Social Democrats, so on and so forth, have had to recognize that some of the truth values espoused in Marxian philosophy have been challenged by thinking around the integration of technology, the acceptance of people from other countries, people with different languages, different belief structures, to acknowledge that just canceling out people's spiritual values and telling them all to become atheists is perhaps not the best way to win people's judgment.

And so, to recognize the complexity of social relations I think was something that Marx did, but he didn't go far enough. And I think that post-colonial discourse of many, many authors for example Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, Indian authors, and so on, recognized the importance of acknowledging some of the foundations of Marxian thought around equality, for example, equity. But also, recognize that with feminists, there has to be a gender appreciation, with queer theorists, there has to be an acknowledgement of transgender identity. Those politics were never there when Marx was writing. Marx and Lenin, for them…. it was thinking of autocracies.

MW: I understand that 2019 was your last year of teaching. You’re retiring?

BB: I retired at the end of 2019. But I may be working with a post-doctoral fellow who's applied for money to come here from Montreal. She's a Russian Canadian. We will give her a short-term teaching position, and I'll be supervising her post-doc work, and hopefully assist publication. So that may mean I'll become a Professor Emeritus by that stage. I don't know, but I'll have access to an office for continuing research.

MW: That's great. You can still remain involved.

BB: Yes. As one of my colleagues, the late Gerry Ferguson once told me, "Artists have a job for life." Part of that notion is that you were born with some kind of creative gene, which I would dismiss. I sort of believe Joseph Beuys who said, "Everyone can be an artist, or everyone is an artist." That is…everyone can be creative. But then again, there are certain structures within the art world that endorse some and not others. What Greg Sholette said about the ‘dark matter’(i) which supports the very few at the top, the 1 or 2%, I think that's certainly there in the makeup of the art world.

MW: Indeed. The artist has to create their our own set of values that are achievable, will sustain you.

BB: Exactly.

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(i) Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Pluto Press 2011 by Gregory Sholette (Author)