I recently had the great pleasure to speak with visual and performing artist Andrea Barr, currently working in Berlin, Germany. Among our many candid conversations have been the current political climate, youth movements, and Black Bloc tactics in Germany. We have also been talking about hospital rooms, bad internet connections, bourgeois love, and good sex. I count myself lucky to know such a mind, and to know her work. These conversations produced a series of questions which you will find us exploring below. It gives me great pleasure to introduce her work to a new audience, and bring it into a dialogue of revolutionary art practice.
Though these conversations have been paused, the artist and I remain in close contact. Checking in, informing of the various ills and pleasures of our current work, and loves- always exclaiming that the other’s absence is felt. She has a way of making the most visceral, raw, bloody subject matter seem light, lovely, and rendered with doting affection.
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Brit Schulte: What is your relationship to the arts, medical sciences, and psychiatric pathologies, and how do they overlap or intersect in your work?
Andrea Barr: My relationship to art is that of both the one that stands vulnerable and nude under a spotlight as well as the one behind the easel analyzing and sketching the model as if she were a still life set up on a pedestal. My relationship to medicine is that of both the one that sits vulnerable and ill in a hospital bed or at the desk of a physician as well as the one hovering over the cadaver in a lab coat.
Although I am acting simultaneously as observer and observed, my work is neither a direct representation of my sociopolitical position nor that of the biomedical imagery that inspires me. It is is a free, indirect discourse between these three things — meaning they touch edges here and there. Each one of these topics I address does not serve as a mere analogy for experience or place holder where the other fails to fill a hole in discourse. My work is not merely a dialogue but a creation of a new way of seeing things that cannot be reduced to a single path or apparatus.
More concretely, my art lies at the intersection of two separate trajectories of psychic experience as a material force and science as an immaterial, socio-historical collection of knowledge.
On one hand, because science has a theoretical and immaterial basis, it must produce material images or visualizations in order to legitimize its power over the body. As soon as a scientific phenomenon is visualized it becomes objectified and naturalized to serve an ideological and questionable political agenda. I try to capture science at its most visual and phenomenal by drawing from my experience in histology and anatomy labs, as well as gaining inspiration from illustrators like Andreas Vesalius or Frank H. Netter. My interest is at the aesthetic level of such images and the beauty they produce in the moment before they are captured by power, as much as this is possible.
Lived experience on the other hand seeks expression in the abstract, such as when a patient suffering from delusions and intense panic seeks a diagnosis in order to find relief. In the same way that I attempt to catch science at a visual level, I attempt to catch physical or psychological experience an abstract level before it is recaptured by science.
BS: What personal experience and interdisciplinary research has contributed most to your practice?
AB: My relationship to psychiatry and medical science at a corporeal level is influenced by my personal experience in hospitals — such as time spent studying in anatomy and histology labs as well as my own experience of being institutionalized — and has contributed to my form of expression. In addition, I have spent much time researching visual histories of disease and historical genealogies of medicine and madness on my own time as well as in group settings. An example of the latter was a reading group I started surrounding Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which was composed of theorists, medical students, artists, and friends.
BS: How do you work through issues such as the necessary coping or distancing that medical study entails?
AB: Medical imagery, as most of us know it, implies a cold and detached gaze that separates us from what we are really looking at: a human body and its operations and imperfections, textures and odors, fluids and secretions, pain and personhood. The distancing of oneself from the affective truths of the body is a coping mechanism for those whose job it is to cut, carve, and categorize it. My fixation is on the subjective experience within and surrounding the hospital or lab — one that is intensely visual, tactile, and olfactory. My practice distances the distance that scientific images produce in order to generate a proximity or closeness. I not only refer back to medical imagery, but transform it in order to bring about an expression or beauty previously left unseen or untouched.
BS: Do you feel like there is an urgency to your work? If so, how would you characterize this?
AB: Sure. My work allows science to be seen and felt subjectively and demands a response from the viewer. From a scientific perspective, it compels scientists to see the aesthetics they produce despite themselves. From a personal perspective, my work satisfies an affirmative need to create in order to negotiate my own lived experience. But it is also a response to a need imposed upon me by medical disempowerment.
In an upcoming exhibition I will be doing a performance and displaying work in the anatomy building of a teaching hospital where I have gone to receive treatment as well as to sketch and observe dissections. I will be presenting myself from the position of both witness and outsider as a sort of “final product” of medicine to doctors, professors, and medical students — those who are at a germinal or reproductive stage within it.
BS: What (if any) is the role of the artist revolutionary in our political moment?
AB: I think we should all shift our focus from “political art” and ask ourselves why we are creating in the first place. Hopefully the answer is not "to send a message". If so, the revolutionary potential of the work has already been lost. I believe that the decision to make art (unless motivated by capital gains or used to propagandize) can, in itself, be revolutionary. Art has the potential to evade pure utility, yet communicate and express a concept or sensation in a way that nothing else can. This is not to say that art should not "take a side" — in fact I think it is crucial to do so — but it should also allow for many potentials rather than exist as a one-time-use object.
I think the most important art being made in this moment is neither representative nor representational. By not being representative, I mean that art should not have an agenda and should avoid being dogmatic or moralistic. By not being representational, I mean that art should not stand for something that already exists. This is not so say that the goal is to create the "entirely new" or "never before seen". The point is that the research, references, and underlying messages that influence artist should not be the focus of the work. The process as well as what happens when it is shared or viewed are even more important factors than the intention of the artist. I think that truly revolutionary art forges a space for dialogue, allows for new possibilities, and ultimately builds new worlds that would not come into being without its creation.
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Andrea Barr is a Berlin and Chicago-based artist. She received her BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently studying under Thomas Zipp at the Universität der Künste Berlin.
Brit Schulte is a Chicago-based activist and writer. She is a Masters candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is on the editorial board of Red Wedge.