Stephanie Barber: Submerged Narratives

Ed Halter

Reviews / 29.07.2010

Stephanie Barber, shipfilm, 1998, 16mm film, 3 min

The first images in Stephanie Barber's 16mm shipfilm (1998), following its partially occluded title card, are an inky stretch of waves, made uncannily solid in high-contrast monochrome. The waves' looping movements are slowed through step-printing, accentuating the dirt and hairs accumulated on each frame. One might wonder if the footage is very old, perhaps from the early years of cinema, a conjecture not discouraged by the film's silence. Its visual severity could indicate a history of duping and re-duping stretching back decades - time compressed into thickening grain - or maybe its grime and darkness are merely effects of the use of now-obsolete reversal stock. After a while, text appears towards the bottom of the frame, where subtitles normally occur, but laid out in a slightly off-kilter line, as if each letter had been rubbed down individually. The text reads: 'they set sail on the tenth of november'. An icon of an old sailing ship pops into sight, surrounded by a tight square that makes obvious its artificial imposition on this stuttering sea. A second line: 'it rained and they were cold'. The waves disappear, and now the ship seems to float on an undulating penumbra of white light. Then the final line appears, in faded text almost blown out by this background, reading 'they had overestimated their abilities'.

Shipfilm calls to mind Tom Gunning's description of the 'submerged narratives' found in the work of a generation of American experimental film-makers slightly earlier than Barber. Writing in the late 1980s, he observes that in the films of Lewis Klahr, Phil Solomon, Mark Lapore and others, 'plots stir just beneath the threshold of perceptibility. The sea swells of these subliminal stories align images into meaningful but often indecipherable configurations.'1 He cites this quality as one tendency of what he dubbed 'minor cinema', taking a cue from Deleuze and Guattari's notion of 'minor literature',2 a new phase of the avant-garde that eschewed the grand conceptual ambitions of the Structural film era in favour of a more gnomic termite-art tinkering. According to Gunning, adherents of the minor see their roles not as members of a vanguard, but rather as artists separate from the rest of cinema, working productively at its margins. 'Stern necessity has bred an affection for the limits of their medium rather than frustration,' Gunning argues, fostering 'an exploitation of film's new identity as an endangered species.'3

Barber's film and video work, which began in the mid-1990s and continues to today, shows that this tendency became a lasting feature of certain strains' experimental production. Barber also embraces a rough minimalism, transforming the materialist gestures pioneered by the likes of Peter Kubelka and Malcolm Le Grice into lyrical, emotive elements, strung together with great care, yet often bearing the seeming offhandedness of conversation's idiosyncrasies. As both a film-maker and poet, she knows that pictures are a language, and words are images.

She writes that shipfilm 'is probably the most heartbreaking film i have made, the pacing is romantic and simple, haiku-esque pauses and inclusions, with the words contrasting this poetry with their factual, disinterested narration'.4 This description echoes 'the halting pauses of human existence',5 a phrase Barber uses in reference to the tempo her own poetry (in this particular case, a series of 'lawn poems' meant to be written in cut grass -words made material in an unlikely medium). And given the last line of shipfilm's narration, one cannot help but think of Sigmund Freud's 'oceanic feeling', his term for the melting of the ego as it contemplates the eternity of a universe infinitely greater than itself.6 Such a reading is encouraged by her text's fragmentary, lower-case humility; smallness leads the way to a feeling of sublime connection with greater powers, like Blake's universe in a grain of sand.

This mode of submerged haiku-esque narrative operates as well in Barber's film flower, the boy, the librarian (1996), composed of three bits of footage in succession: a blossom wriggling in re-edited motion; the head of a boy, looking to the right; and a young woman with glasses, looking left, and then abruptly covered by a red gel that juts into the frame. The soundtrack is that of a man reading what sounds like typing lessons, each letter intoned with a flat rhythm. At first, the letters are meaningless strings intended merely to train the movement of the fingers ('j, m, j, space') but by the film's end they seems to spell out something more significant with the command 'n, e, e, d, semicolon, space'. The semicolon, a means of conjoining; the space, a separation.

Letters, notes (1997) likewise explores the material nature of language, and the emotional density of tiny statements. The film overlays details of old snapshots with blocky, animated Letraset texts taken from found letters. The messages convey a range of purposes: a person asking about a phone bill, a girl writing her own name in various permutations, a mysterious memorandum ('code: reduced / version of lang.'), and a dirty diary entry ('Monday June 2 1991 12:57 pm afternoon Denise lifted up her shirt and show me her plumpteous [sic] breasts. I paid 89¢ cents.') written by what one hopes was a child.

As many of these letters indicate, Barber is interested in language not so much as a formal system but rather as an event of communication, whether person to person or back to the self from one's own past. This aspect is most pronounced in two works that are structured as dialogues: the 16mm film dogs (2000) and the video the visit and the play (2008). In the former, Barber acts out a philosophical discourse on the nature of art, emotion and individualism, its profundity undercut - and then magnified - by the fact that her interlocutors are two papier-mâché dog-head hand-puppets with sad eyes. 'The art-making process,' muses one dog, 'or the desire to make something at all, is always marked up with excitement and sadness. The desire to communicate an idea or emotion in some way, successfully or not, I think it necessarily points to the solitary nature of our existence. It's somehow desperate.' Standing in for two lonely artists, the dogs are manipulated by the arms of the same puppeteer, and appear starkly in the film against a black background. The visit and the play involves two pairs of speakers, each of which is having a contentious conversation. The first pair, unseen as the camera tracks a photograph of a crowded pool, represent two women, one of whom has claimed a 'new career as a world famous psychic'. 'I'm sensing feelings of hostility,' she says to her partner. 'That's talent,' responds the other. The second half of the video is a play the first pair attend, enacted by two knotted clumps of hair in a pile of wigs, displayed on a television made of snow. The wig-clumps likewise debate, now quoting Valéry and Hume in the course of their observations. Like shipfilm's journey, these conversations are poignantly failed events, each speaker never quite responding adequately to the language of her cohort, at times verging on nonsense.

The photographs scrutinised in letters, notes and the visit and the play exemplify another of Barber's concerns: the effects of transposing one form of media into another, whether through still images seen within moving ones, or in the interplay between digital and analogue sources. This is done to unnerving yet moving effect in the film Catalog (2005), in which actors create tableaux vivantes whose lighting and composition imitate the precise formal qualities of everyday snapshots, and total power, dead dead dead (2005), which employs 16mm footage of an arcade videogame's screen during a prompt for audience interaction -- a gesture towards a more perpendicular dialogue, that is, one extending beyond the screen itself. But this interest becomes most pronounced in her video work, only emerging in the last couple of years. Dwarfs the sea (2008) presents a series of photographic portraits of men, as an artificial voice tells stories of their personalities and relationships with one another, again cut through with tales of loneliness. (They are described as sailors, and one could fantasise that they are the unseen crew of shipfilm's doomed vessel.) The images seen in inversion, transcription, evening track and attractor (2008) are reproductions of photos by known artists - Uta Barth, Candida Höfer, Deborah Willis and Kohei Yoshiyuki -- achieved through intricately hand-made collages of white-on-white cut-outs. The accompanying soundtrack consists of 25 or so theoretical statements on photography, spoken by yet another computer-generated voice. Mirroring the visual opacity of the images, the narration's inhuman pacing and intonation, and occasional glitches, make full comprehension impossible. A long quote from Susan Sontag, for example, is articulated without pause between words, flowing together into a dissonant torrent of synthetic phonemes.

The serial investigation of photography and the formal deployment of language elements have ancestors in a number of works typically associated with structural film, particularly Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) (1971) and Morgan Fisher's Production Stills (1970). Such a comparison, however, underscores the difference between the concerns of that moment and Barber's own. She seeks to reveal more about human nature than the nature of the cinematic apparatus. One tendency of Structural film, at its most overweeningly rigorous, was the testing out of logical operations through precise formal patterns. Barber more often approaches cinema as a philosophical toy, intimately small, in which the play itself generates both pleasure and insight.

  1. Tom Gunning, 'Towards a Minor Cinema: Fonoroff, Herwitz, Ahwesh, Lapore, Klahr and Solomon', Motion Picture, vol.III, nos.1-2, Winter 1989-90, p.4.

  2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

  3. T. Gunning, 'Towards a Minor Cinema', op. cit., p.3.

  4. Stephanie Barber, Stephanie Barber 6 films (program notes included with preview DVD), n.d.

  5. S. Barber, For a Lawn Poem, Baltimore: Publishing Genius, 2007, p.9.

  6. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey, New York and London: Norton, 1961, pp.11-21.