16mm film is captivating. There is something oddly holding you when you see 16, even from a (often) defective projector. Your knowledge of the medium is something heavily scratched, with hollow sound, also staticy, and therefore less than what the filmmaker intended. But you can still feel a power from it, the color is lurid, the grain huge, moving, and interesting, the presence of a world that is the closest to humanity in a captured image. There is an air with 16 that makes you think you are being allowed permission to truly see through someone else’s eyes.
So when you see a collection of someone’s films all on 16mm, it’s an event. I saw Stephanie Barber’s work at Cinematexas 2006. Some things were constant: beautiful color, strong framing of singular images, capturing in-between moments of common day life that resonate. TOTAL POWER DEAD DEAD DEAD (2005) is a 3-minute vignette of a laundromat’s small TV, snack machine and arcade game, bubbling with fake light, as narration asks you to speak certain words out loud. CATALOG (2005) is a group of shots where live people stand silent, reenacting still photos Barber had found. There is constant narration but it does not tell you the story of the people. Rather, you have to choose what you take in when watching.
Some things were different: DOGS (2000) is one long take essentially, of two paper machee dogs breaking down the universe and their existence, playing with the entire notion of innocent wonder vs. academic pretentiousness. You guess at the film’s intent, and then it wins you over because we’ve all said these things out loud.
All of Barber’s films are inquisitive. In a way, they present your world around you as a foreign land to explore.
CINEMAD: What is your output like?
STEPHANIE BARBER: Twenty-three films.
Wow. All 16mm?
All 16, yeah. Well, I have Super 8, too, but I’m not counting that. I have a lot of Super 8 stuff.
That’s pretty rad. How did you get to use Super 8?
I got a Super 8 camera when I was in high school. My mom had one and it even had a sound recorder but I actually hadn’t used it. It was the kind that had mag sound on it. I started making little Super 8s with friends. The Super 8s were a little more narrative in the beginning, or animation that was maybe closer to what I’m doing now, just these strange stories that are pulled along by the mag soundtrack and the images are just things that have been said or maybe haven’t been said but could be considered alongside of what’s being said. You know what I mean?
So you were fracturing the narratives right away?
I guess I was. [laughs] But the other ones were more friends that have underwear on their heads and whatnot.
Was it a natural progression to 16mm after that?
Even though I was making those films, I was really thinking about how I was going to be a poet, because I always had really good professional options – poet or experimental filmmaker. [laughs] But I went to college and I just kind of randomly took a cinema class and it was with Larry Gottheim, and I really fell in love with film.
Was he at Binghamton?
Yeah, also with Ken Jacobs, Ralph Hocking, and Maurine Turim, some real heavy-hitters.
So that was your first exposure to that type of film?
That was the first time I saw anything, and the first one I saw was THE FLICKER (1965) by Tony Conrad. And I started crying, I was very moved. It’s funny because I don’t actually make work like that, but at that time, we really paid so much attention to that.
Were you painting when you were growing up, too?
I painted, but nothing too super-serious. I was going to a performance arts high school for playwriting, so I was sort of entrenched in narrative. And I think my films now do have some strange relation to narrative.
We can go on and on about the terms but it’s not experimental. You’re not just throwing things together and seeing what sticks, it definitely seems planned. Do you like any term for your films?
I go with experimental because it’s easy, but I have that same feeling. It doesn’t really bother me. We know what that means, like, “Oh, you’re in that realm.”
But you do have stories, even if it’s just a short story or a moment in the films.
Haiku, little poems… [laughs]
Do you find yourself doing more filmmaking than anything else? I read that you still have some installations of paintings, too.
Not that much recently, because I’m living in this house that’s constantly needing construction, so that’ll be for another year. We’re knocking down walls and stuff, so there’s nowhere to paint, but I make a lot of music. So music and filmmaking are what I spend most of my time on. And poetry.
So you’re splitting your time between making films and being on your roof fixing holes.
Exactly. That’s what I was doing today.
LETTERS, NOTES (2000).
What home repair skills have you learned from making art?
A high tolerance for tedium and exactitude. So I get all of those jobs where you have to be really careful and exact.
Judging from this amount of work, I guess you’re sticking with 16mm.
For sure. I was working on a video with my friend Randy Russell and we were making kind of a zombie movie.
American Job Randy? [Star of Chris Smith’s 1995 movie.]
But that’s kind of been on hold since I moved here. I have made two videos, and I think I’ll make videos here and there but I’m not going to Hollywood. [laughs] I’d love to make a 35mm film just because it looks so beautiful, but it’s kind of out of my budget right now.
I used to do a lot of dense hand-painted, hand-collaged work, and that would by necessity end up being really short because every single frame was super manipulated. The longest of those is a film called IT FELT POSSUM, and I think that’s six minutes.
How long did you spend working on the text for DOGS?
Consciously for two years or off and on?
Pretty consciously. There would be like a month where I wouldn’t work, but yeah, a long time. It seems crazy. The general ideas were all right. What was difficult was making it seem like a viable conversation, putting in “um”s and “oh”s. Every single one of those things are scripted.
There were some other places that the dogs went and I kind of chopped all that up and I was going to make this film Dogs II. [laughs] In Dogs II, Pocket goes over to visit Spike and Spike is listening to this piece of music by Samuel Barber called “Opus #19.” It’s really an excellent piece of music. So Pocket is wanting to chat and Spike is kind of into it but he keeps interrupting and saying, “Wait, just listen to this part, don’t talk.” But their conversation is supposed to follow the exact arc of the piece of music. So I had to take all of that out and put it aside for Dogs II. [laughs]
I thought it was pretty great because it did sound totally conversational, to the point where I thought, “Yes, I had all these same thoughts, and yes, I felt totally annoyed by other people talking this way.” Yet it’s not like they’re doing something that I don’t do.
I know. People are very weird about that film. For a lot of people, it’s their favorite one that I ever made, and actually not filmmakers but painters and other people. I guess its the pretentious thing that people don’t like, which is goofy because in trying to make that sound like a viable conversation, I felt like I nailed a lot of that out.
I guess in other ways, it’s more pretentious, because it’s forced to try and sound natural. There’s this little thing that happens, and it’s a really specific thing that was also really difficult to work on with the writing, which is that about six minutes in – and you know that first two or three minutes is really awkward to watch, you feel kind of embarrassed for the filmmaker – Pocket says, “You know, I’m really interested in making wrong choices.” And he gives an example and says, “No, it’s something a little more obvious or sentimental.” He’s commenting on what happened in the first few minutes. He says, “If I were a chess player, I’d make a chess analogy.” You know, like a wrong move. Do you play chess?
Not since 5th grade.
I’m not good enough to do this sort of thing but you can imagine. And you kind of have this thing that happens where you believe in the characters, where you’re not even thinking about it anymore, you’re just kind of listening in on a conversation after that. I’m not sure if people would say, “Oh, it’s because you sort of owned up to the fact that that opening move that you made as an artist was the wrong move,” thereby hopefully making the whole thing better, and it kind of has this fulcrum at the six minute mark where it pulls away from itself.
It’s just such a different film than something like SHIP FILM (1998) or CITY AT HEART (2003) with those hands playing foosball. Those are like nice, in-between moments that seem to resonate, but if you do that with DOGS, it just wouldn’t work. You actually have to sort of beat people down. It can’t just be this one-note joke. You actually have this narrative effect over this long scene with these ups and downs. It’s interesting.
What’s crazy is that I never saw MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981) until after I made that and somebody gave it to me. I really loved it and after watching it, I would ask people about it. And a lot of people hate that film, too. [laughs] So then I felt okay. But it all comes down to your suspension of disbelief and whether or not you really like to listen in on a conversation.
The voices you picked for DOGS sounded college age. It seemed like college kids discussing things at the point where they’re realizing that they’re not the ones who are going to change the world, yet are still hopeful and aren’t stupid.
I think somebody else said that, too. I wasn’t even aware of that. Both of those men that read were both probably 35 when they read. They’re both super amazing artists, Paul Dreucke and Nick Frank. The thing that I was afraid of and kept trying to keep out of them was like an Ira Glass thing, like, “Don’t NPR it.” It never dawned on me that it would sound college-y but people have said that, and I don’t understand that. Maybe because they sound young, or maybe that’s the last time that people have conversations about work they’re making or love?
With TOTAL POWER DEAD DEAD DEAD, you simply cruised in somewhere and saw that set up?
Yeah, the laundromat by where I lived. It was really amazing. Isn’t it so great? Everybody’s like, “Look at me!” It has so many connections to CATALOG, all these little things that want to be looked at.
You just took your camera in there…
No, I had to go back and get my Super 8. I lived about half a block away. So I shot it on Super 8 and then printed it on 16mm.
TOTAL POWER DEAD DEAD DEAD (2005).
Where you have the audience talk, was that something you had been wanting to do for a long time or did that just come out of seeing the images?
I think it came out of seeing the images, watching the Super 8. That’s an interesting question. I don’t really remember, but I would say that came after.
Had there been times when you were showing your films that made you want more crowd participation?
No, I never watch my films when people are watching. Too scared. [laughs] But I just like that there’s something unbelievably lonely about speaking to a movie. I mean, there’s the obvious situationist dialogue about the massive amount of two-dimensional images that we interact with each day, and then just giving up and being like, “I love you!” Really intimate things like, “I love you” or “I’m gonna die” or “We’re at war.” And then just trying to make people lick their hands, just to see what you can do.
It’s pretty amazing to see who in the audience is gonna go for it. I think when people hear that, they feel trapped, like the film knows what’s going on and they don’t want to admit that they’ve been a willing observer.
Seems like it would be pretty awkward.
You have to pay for the art, not just in the ticket, you have to do some work.
I wanted to have dance moves, have people do the splits or something. “You, on the left rearranging your bag full of bags!”
How do people usually respond to that?
My friend Carl Bogner was the first person that I showed it to, and he’s this really great curator from Milwaukee, the kind of person you want to show everything you’ve ever made and talk to about it for hours because he’s such a good watcher and thinker. I was in the projection booth and he was in the screening room, and then he came in and said that he cried. I thought that was really perfect.
Was it from pain or happiness?
I think just from the touchiness of it. The final title page is an image of a man wiping his eyes. It’s from an allergy commercial so it looks like he’s crying. I think that one is what got him. But then again, it’s also really different to see something alone in a movie theater, where the bitter sadness of it would be a lot more recognizable than the awkwardness of, “Say hi to your neighbor.” That kind of makes it a little more giddy.
One time I was in Mexico City and I went to this cinema arte, which I guess I didn’t realize was a porn film, and I figured I might as well stay and watch the movie. And I was in the upper left hand corner, there was a guy in the upper right hand corner, one guy in the lower left, and one guy in the middle, and I was just like, “Man, this is just the best thing ever!” Just something about the five of us in this really big movie theater watching this Swedish porn film in Mexico…
That sounds like something you made up because it’s so great.
I loved watching it in that situation. I mean, I mostly I was thinking of how great our positions were, like we should just start a musical. [laughs] It seemed like, “You guys, we could do anything we want in here! Our parents aren’t home!” [laughs]
And then what happened when you guys all had to walk out?
I think we all walked out without looking at each other. I don’t even remember walking out it was so uneventful. Maybe people left before it was over. I don’t know that they liked a woman going in there. There are a lot of bars that are for men only.
So I’m not gonna count DOGS as having actors, but pretty much everything else is found footage, photos…
A lot of found footage, a lot of found photos, things that I shoot that look like found footage, like CITY AT HEART is shot. The hands are shot and the airport is shot but not the kids, that’s found.
So then what made you make the jump to CATALOG, using only actors?
That was an installation that I did at a museum where I had five rooms and I actually had live actors. It was probably better for the actors than for the people that came. I was actually kind of jealous of them because everybody had really different experiences. Actually, one of my friends who was in it is here right now. She’s outside painting the house – I’m not gonna interrupt that. [laughs] But her scene was - she was Teresa Columbus and she was on a beach with those chairs – Meredith Root and Teresa Columbus. So there were bathing suits and somehow that really got a big reaction.
With people walking around them?
Yeah, and there was a kid in there at one point who was trying to touch their boobs. [laughs] So that was going on, and Randy Russell was there, who was the guy with the computer. And you know, they would have breaks where the lights would go off every 15 minutes and they would shake it up for a minute and then it was back open.
But the last hour of the opening, he didn’t take any breaks, he just went into this zen state and it was in the middle of the gallery. Other people had their own sections and he was in the middle of the gallery at a desk with no computer, just his hands there. And it seemed like it would be a really great thing to have done, so I kind of wished that I had done that.
People were just walking around and trying to touch them and stuff. And I wanted to make that into a film because I liked the idea of doing that on film, which was sort of unnecessary. [laughs] And because I always make films like that anyway, of just shooting a photograph, so I thought that would be funny. They’re each from found photographs and then they’re repositioned. Instead of shooting a photograph, I thought I would shoot the people freezing, and then the nice little moments with them blinking or the wind rustling things. Like the one where they’re at an outdoor table and it’s lit like it was a flash photo that had been taken.
Was CATALOG created from the fascination of recreating stuff or was it this overall thing you were trying to pull together from common experience? There is constant narration as well.
When you’re making something, you’re thinking about every different thing, but with both of those things – the installation and the film – it was mostly about trying to find what was so poignant about the stillness, poignant or funny. I like that it’s both really funny and really sad at the same time. And the text is a lot about time travel and about photographs and about rooms. And it’s really, really dense. Usually I need people to listen to every single word of what’s being said in order for something to work, but for that piece, I love that it’s purposefully dense and I love that you can’t stay with it.
You can’t get every single phrase from it, because…
You’ll be ignoring the image if you’re listening.
Yeah, and the image is so simple, it’s right there. So it’s a nice contrast – the soundtrack is so labyrinthine and they’re talking about these physical rooms, labyrinths, time travel capsules, and royalty, also. And the whole thing about the traitor is really good, and the implicatory tone of the reader. “You who have heard this story so many times…”
Very different than your film METRONOME (1998), where the audience laughs completely from the style of voices, obviously being playful instead of just being one person saying things.
Yeah, that’s really super playful, but morose… She’s gonna cut his feet off. That sucks. [laughs] And he fell in love with her, and that sucks for her. [laughs] I just talked to my niece about that film because she came to the show in New York.
How old is she?
She just turned seven. And I said, “Oh, did you like the film?” And she’s like, “Yeah, I have some questions. You know on that one [sings a little], did you want it to sound, you know, kind of messed up and silly?” And I said, “Yes I did.” [laughs] But it felt like she was kind of worried for me, like she had to be the one to break it to me, like nobody had told me that I wasn’t singing too good.
I think I’ve watched CATALOG four times and I still couldn’t tell you every word that’s in it. I’m just like, Oh yeah, that little thing in the background.
The decorative pink basket?
Yeah, I’m assuming all that stuff was pretty set up.
It is. I have a friend who’s a philosopher, Seth Goodman, and he likes to transcribe the text so he can kind of “get it.” [laughs]
He wants to enjoy it on another level?
He’s a logician, a very specific person.
Did he come up with any conclusions that you didn’t expect?
Oh yeah, he’s super brilliant, he always says really great things, mostly about DOGS, he was really interested in that. I don’t know if he’s transcribed CATALOG yet. But I have the text for it.
Let me know what he thinks. Are you oing to give him the text or would you rather him transcribe it?
I think he likes to do it, because I think that’s how he’s internalizing it. You know how sometimes when you’re trying to memorize something, you write it out and it helps? I think he’s trying to grapple with it.
Do you just have a shitload of old photos around?
I have less now. In Milwaukee I had glued maybe 2000 of them to my floor and then put a whole bunch of polyurethane over them. But I still have a lot, it’s really kind of pathetic. I used to move a lot, and when I’d move, five or six of the boxes would be full of other people’s photos. [laughs] But that’s why I glued them down. I was like, “I’m not doing that anymore.”
It’s a fascinating subculture. I just found out that there’s conventions just for people selling other people’s photos. And they’re packed with people, and judging from the footage that I saw, it didn’t look like it was all artists.
I kinda felt a little bummed out when I found out it was such a big thing, but because I’m into it, I can understand anybody wanting to look. It’s so great to just look at a photograph, and one of the reasons why I think I use them so much is that I’m always trying to figure out, like, what is it? Is it about time travel? Mortality? Like if I could look at your face or at a photograph of you, I’d probably like to look at your face, but I could sit around and look at a photograph of you for a really long time. And I think most anybody can. There’s something about that separation – and I don’t know if it’s wonder about time, or if it’s like immediately nostalgic, because the only things that are still are things that don’t live… I don’t know.
I often think about while everybody was dressed this way – something that’s quite a bit different, like in the ‘40s where everybody had to wear a suit to get on a plane.
So for you it’s more like time travel. Like they don’t realize that they’re in the ‘40s and someone should tell them. [laughs] When I was a kid, I would do this thing where every time somebody would take a photo of me, I would make a regular photo face but I would do my hands weird. And that way I would know exactly what I really felt then, like I would be smiling but my hands would be saying, “Actually, my sister is a jerk.” [laughs] Or whatever I was thinking about at that moment. But I had these little hand signals for talking to my future self, but I don’t really have any chart of what they were so that kind of failed.
I was just at the antiques store looking for fans but at every antique store has seven boxes of photos. And they’re all of families and it blows my mind that a family would get rid of that much history.
Yeah, I don’t know. People die.
I guess so, and there’s nobody left, or no one left that cares. It’s insane. Do you have more of other people’s photos than your own photos?
I probably do. That’s pretty bad. I have a lot of my own but it’s close to equal. I guess if I died, I wouldn’t mind having them thrown away or sold at a yard sale. It’s kind of like shaking it up, because everybody that I know can just remember me, or die themselves if they so choose, but everybody who didn’t know me should get a little something. [laughs] It’s sad, but sometimes I don’t think it’s that sad.