Annalisa Barron’s art in motion: In conversation with the artist

With a background in music, film, and visual arts, Annalisa Barron’s itinerant practice is currently established in Rochester, NY where she is developing an ongoing research-based project called Place Projectors. For this body of work, the artist creates cinematic sculptures made of light, shadow, steel, and glass informed by Rochester’s unique imaging history. I met Annalisa Barron in 2018 at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center where she presented The Molok, a performance and object offering of a 13-foot-tall creature, operated by puppeteers in harnesses and quad stilts and made entirely from re-engineered donations. Both in The Molok and Place Projectors, Barron employs motion as a key that allows her to experiment animating the inanimate and bringing back to life the forgotten of what’s left behind in history. 

Focusing on the importance of recording shared histories, for the past nine months Barron has been working with staff and instructors at Writers and Books (a literary center located in the Neighborhood of the Arts in Rochester, New York) to gain insight into their community and the history of their building. At the end of this residency, she will create a sculpture focused on the mission of the non-profit that will be on display in their exhibition space. To talk about this project, her work, her views on the recent events happening in the city, and how they are informing her practice, I spoke with Annalisa over Zoom and we continued this conversation via email.

Claudia Pretelin: In your practice, you’ve produced both mechanical and sculptural items that involve some kind of motion. Why do things move in your work?

Annalisa Barron: My body allows me to process what it means to be a physical object in space and I try to pull from my experience as a moving physical object when I am in the studio. I didn’t want to limit the potential of my pieces by putting them in a fixed position. In some of my first films, the articulated sculptures were the precursors for a narrative so they needed to have a sense of agency. For example, when you hold a solid stationary object in your hand it has a different presence than something that can move on its own in response to what you do to it.

Annalisa Barron, The Flying Fish, Zoopraxiscope Study, 2017

Making objects that move or machines that move, for me, gives them more potential in your imagination because when you encounter them they “could” do something outside of your control. Movement, as an element in sculpture, becomes choreography, lines drawn in space, and an event that connects multiple gestures into one relationship.

Also, I’ve always had a hard time sitting still

Annalisa Barron. Photo by Adam Schaefer

CP: What is the starting point when you are thinking about making a new project?

AB: The starting point is always drawing and interrogating the idea. I took an architectural drawing course in college and we looked at sketches from the journals of architects and it taught me that if you can’t draw ‘it’ you don’t understand ‘it’. I use drawing as a way to find my own blind spots. There will be two things I want to connect and when I go to draw that particular piece of hardware I will find that I don’t know what to use, though that wasn’t apparent to me until I get to that exact part with a pencil.

I use questions in the same way except try to find the questions that excite me the most and seem the hardest to answer. Those are the ones that keep a project alive– How do you bring a film as far into reality as possible? Or, why is the luster of reflected light so different from light pushed through film?

Still from The Kingdom of Back by Annalisa Barron, 2018

CP: Can you talk about the process of selecting materials for your practice and how they give meaning to your work?

AB: Material is loaded for me, it has to fit just right. I like to work in a way where all of the materials are an extension of the research, story, and experience. For my film The Kingdom of Back, I used wool from a type of sheep common to the Austrian countryside that Wolfgang and Nannerl Mozart traveled through when they toured as children. It was an attempt to get closer to the story itself.

 I work with metal because when you quench a red hot form in water the crystalline structure freezes at a certain size and form and takes a molecular “snapshot” of a moment in time.

When I use found or donated objects I see them as a kind of physical provenance or “proof of life”. I try to be as specific as possible when using them because they need to have lived a certain life or they don’t really interest me at all. I think I’ve always been bothered by things that don’t break down naturally, like plastics, and items that were designed in a computer to be mass-produced. I am looking for visual signs of events left on an object that we can relate to as humans. I, personally,  can’t relate to being an exact copy or existing without being aware I am part of a timeline with a beginning and an end.

CP: In The Molok, a live-action kinetic sculpture, and also in your most recent project Place Projectors, your work encourages some kind of direct audience interaction. How important it is for you to achieve this kind of response from the viewer?

AB: Direct interaction, for me, is a way to let each person have their own time or part in the work where I am not there to tell them what to think or see. The way someone uses a projector can be what I didn’t intend and I realize there are possibilities I haven’t considered. The Molok created a community of participants including dancers, creative professionals, families, and community leaders. Allowing for interaction is like a kind of miracle grow, both for the work and for the participants. I don’t want to create distance or exclusivity in an artwork. I want to put everyone in a position where they get to contribute their own ideas and feel welcome.

Annalisa Barron, Ealy Molok Drawing

Molok is a 13′-tall live-action kinetic sculpture created by artist Annalisa Barron to be brought to life as the human-powered monster in The Molok film

CP: I’m curious about how your work explores the interplay between technology and human memory. Can you talk about this?

AB: The technology I use in my work pertains to the mediation of the senses, inventions that ‘mediate’ our experience of reality beyond what our physical bodies allow on their own. I think that a love token is a form of technology because it keeps the idea of something or someone close even if that person or thing is not. A picture keeps a moment close even if we will never be there again. All of these things reinforce our sense of self and our ability to curate and form our own self-consciousness and the reality we construct.

CP: As the birthplace of Eastman Kodak Company and Bausch + Lomb, how did you become interested in Rochester’s imaging history for your current project Place Projectors?

AB: My interest in Rochester is due to a fascination with Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality which he discusses in Simulacra and Simulation (1981). He says that “Hyperreality is the simulation of something which never existed”.

At 32, I belong to a generation of people that weren’t dependent on smartphones until early adulthood. I still vividly remember the first time I saw one in person. After that point, it seemed like within a year they were everywhere. I remember feeling like I was standing right next to someone but they were not ‘there’ when they were on their phone. More and more conversations dropped off because I hadn’t seen something that existed solely on the internet (like a Reddit thread or a meme for example). Once I had a smartphone it became harder and harder to discern what was real information and what was opinion, what sources to trust, and which ones not to; it was an entirely new frontier of both ‘connection to’ and ‘dislocation from’. One of the key symptoms of hyperreality is a blurring of the virtual world with the real one. For example, your ‘brand’ or online avatar is a simulated ‘you’ merged with a non-existent, curated, and virtual ‘you’. This combination blurs into a hyperreal identity. Of course, now I am entirely desensitized, but my experience of new technology changing my concept of reality has made me interested in other events in history that lead up to this point.

I see the invention of photography and film as the beginning of hyperreality as we know it today. For example, in River of Shadows (2003) by Rebecca Solnit, the invention of moving image devices such as Edward Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope (which showed the first film of a running horse) allowed for the examination of otherwise unseen phenomena. Before this point, the human eye could not see if all four of a horse’s feet were ever off the ground as it ran. But with Muybridge’s fast-moving shutter and the image sequence he captured, for the first time, we could slow time down and have a look. The invention of the camera and devices which captured moving images can only be described as a movement. There were incremental discoveries and advancements made by people in different countries at almost the same time. Ideas stolen from assistants by Edison and other inventors.  The same is true of optical glass used in cameras and eyeglasses.

The unique contribution to history that happened in Rochester is due to Kodak and Bausch+Lomb refining these technologies and mass producing them to make them available to the public. This made Kodak the main supplier of the film industry, and Bausch+Lomb the main supplier of optical glass for microscopes, telescopes, and the military. The materials that were made here changed our culture’s ability to see and enabled a “river of shadows” to flow into our culture through television and movies.

In my work, I try to keep my materials in chorus with my subject matter. The objective of Place Projectors is to make a film with a singular location in space and time, or with ‘aura’. In Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) he argues that mass-produced images lose their aura (location in time and place) because they can be used out of context to create politically-motivated narratives. As a female filmmaker, I want to see if it’s possible to re-invent the cinematic experience using the same materials used in film history and invert the results to create site-specific moving images that cannot be reproduced. To me, this needs to take place in Rochester where film was first mass-produced so the ‘coordinates’ of the pieces are inherently linked through place.

Annalisa Barron, Place Projectors, Rochester, NY, 2020.

CP: This ongoing project has allowed you to show this work in different gallery spaces in Rochester, NY. What else do you have planned for Place Projectors?

AB: Currently, I am the resident artist at Writer’s & Books, a non-profit literary center here in Rochester, and I am creating a permanent place projector for their building inspired by written submissions from their community. I worked with their staff (who are absolutely a joy, to say the least) to design a writing prompt and a call for submissions. I am using the imagery from the written submissions to make objects for the projector. The prompt asked for memories from inside their building and a focus on describing sensations in order to bring a reader to that ‘place’. Right now, they are closed to the public so I am hoping the written submissions will bring us back inside. The structure of the projector itself will function just like a balopticon (the first mass-produced projector made by Bausch+Lomb) and its structure will echo the building’s architecture, featuring motifs by its architect, Claude Bragdon.

Beyond my residency at Writer’s & Books, the next step for Place Projectors is making the sculptures more available to the public, ideally in an outdoor space. Before COVID-19 I was working with Amy Vena, the archivist at Bausch + Lomb, and we proposed a re-imagining of Lomb Memorial Park that would create artworks that can be enjoyed by the visually impaired. I proposed a Place Projector that functioned as a light table made with optical glass from Bausch+Lomb. I am really hoping this idea becomes a reality.

CP: During your research and your time living in Rochester, what are some of the things you’ve learned about the history of the city that have surprised you the most?

AB: What has surprised me most is how the city represents itself as the home of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas, the last stop on the underground railroad before reaching Canada, and champions playing a vital role in the fight against inequality, yet there is more racism and inequality here than any other city I’ve lived in. The public schools that serve people of color are grossly underfunded. Just last year due to budget cuts teachers lost their jobs in the middle of the school year. Neighborhoods that are just a few miles away from downtown are in dire need of support but are systematically neglected. Communities of color are policed heavily by officers that do not live in and are not part of those communities.

There is a vibrant and active grassroots community here that I’ve grown to admire and love. A large part of the population is actively trying to draw attention to these issues and I am learning from them exponentially. As a researcher and as an artist in the community, I have been most surprised by how hard it is to simply ask the question “what happened here” because inevitably it leads to what is still happening here.

Ray Ray Mitrano is a social artist whose work centers around community healing and equity and I find myself needing to ask him for advice regularly in order to learn how to be more sensitive. I’ve learned more about my own privilege and blindspots doing this work than any other time in my life and I’m thankful for that.

CP: How are the socio-political events in Rochester and the health crisis worldwide informing or changing your practice?

AB: I can’t answer this yet, but I can tell you what I’ve been asking myself lately. How can I put my energy into creating something new rather than focusing on critiquing the past? Is this the time to make work in the studio or is this the time to work to support others through activism? Can we, as creative workers, create jobs that are not part of the gig economy? Is this country fundamentally different from what it was a year ago and how will I respond if it is? How can I encourage unity in my work and in my life? How can I use my work to remain centered and focused amidst constant unknowns and change?

I learned during lockdown that my lifestyle was not conducive to growth. It was in service of momentum. So how can I make room for experience, relationships, and exploration like I did before I committed myself to the studio? Who are my mentors and how have they reacted to uncertainty?

CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?

AB: My favorite instrument of memory is handwriting (preferably in pen). Your body will ever so slightly change your mark-making when you shift from one emotion to another and you can see (and accept) mistakes because you can’t erase them. Unintentional information often builds up in the pressure and speed of thought to paper. My students handwrite their written assignments so that they will experience processing information in a physical sense and their handwriting is one of my favorite things. When I am researching I look for handwritten notes and when I find them I feel a sense of connection to a person that was handling the same document 40 maybe 50 years ago.

I have a few birthday cards from my grandmother (mother’s side) and can see her grace and elegance, even into old age, in just a few words. I keep them on display in a cabinet to this day.

Write by hand whenever you can, it is drawing.

Thank you, Annalisa!

Annalisa Barron’s cover photo by Adam Schaefer. Images courtesy of the artist.

Annalisa Barron is an artist and filmmaker currently living and working in Rochester, NY. She graduated from Penn State University with a BFA in Painting and Drawing in 2013 and with an MFA in Sculpture from the Pratt Institute in 2017. Her short films include The Kingdom of Back (2017), E.V.E.:ERECTUS VEGETABILIS EVITANEOUS (2013), Incarnate (2013) and Chair Man (2012). Her work has been exhibited at the Cooper Union, University of Rochester, Southern Oregon University, BunkerPROJECTS Gallery (Pittsburgh, PA), U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua, NO/GLOSS film festival (UK), and the Anthology Film Archives (NYC). Her most recent film, ‘The Kingdom of Back’ (2017) was featured in GRRL HAUS Cinema’s 2018 European tour. Currently, Annalisa is starting an art based film studio, Big Al’s Flying Films, which focuses on empowering young artists to work with their hands and learn to represent themselves as professionals.

If you are interested in learning more about Annalisa Barron’s work, check out her website or follow her on social media @annalisa.barron From September 28 to October 2, 2020, don’t miss Annalisa’s takeover for the Instruments of Memory Instagram account!

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