Power Dynamics: Itziar Barrio Interviewed

BOMB Magazine

April 1, 2022

Dissecting the archives of artist Itziar Barrio’s meticulously documented and slowly unfolding research-based practice has—beyond bestowing new life on me—underscored the value of ineffable artistry. Her work deconstructing topologies of power, filmmaking, and social artifice displays a directorial vision that eschews the fantasy of the monolithic artist in favor of a collective consciousness that is greater than the sum of its parts. On the occasion of the opening and premiere of the twelve-year, multi-site project THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE and its accompanying archive, Barrio and I spoke about allegories of labor, social order, and the imperatives of capital.

—Elizaveta Shneyderman

Elizaveta Shneyderman: Congratulations on the culmination of ten-plus years of research and work on THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE! I know we have been working intimately together on its curatorial archive, but I wanted to ask: How does it feel to be on the other side of such a long deep dive, and how did the project first come into fruition?

Itziar Barrio: Many thanks! It is very exciting seeing everything coming together. This project started as an ongoing inquiry, and the idea of not having a narrative was part of its main investigation. Because I wanted to work in reverse to how a film is usually made—by first filming scenes and then scripting them—this process challenged the conventional role of the screenwriter in terms of independent creative production and in time structure. In this way, THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE brought together a series of media and cultural references to generate a movie in real time, all the while exploring power dynamics, subjectivity, and labor. The audience simultaneously witnesses a performance and the making of a movie. Actors worked with scripts from their respective cultures, including iconic movies like Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Sergio Cabrera’s La Estrategia del Caracol (1993), and Accattone (1963) by Pier Paolo Pasolini; excerpts from the Accelerate (2016) and Cyborg (1985) manifestos; and a narrative about the 1863 New York City Draft Riots, among others.

Installation view of Itziar Barrio: You Weren’t Familiar but You Weren’t Afraid, 2022, three-channel digital video, ninety-eight minutes, PARTICIPANT INC, New York City. Photo by Daniel Kukla. Courtesy of the artist and PARTICIPANT INC.

ES: Walk me through all the components that comprise this complex undertaking.

IB: At the start, I wanted to create its narrative based on a constructed situation or experience. In 2010, the first performative part of the project began in Spain produced by the Bilbao Theater and Contemporary Dance Festival in collaboration with theater director Juanjo Otero. At this stage, called The Pilot, we started working on a scene from scratch without the use of existing texts or scenes. The project then grew to include iconic scenes, songs, manifestos, riots, etc. The first time this happened was at Abrons Arts Center in 2013. I teamed up with director Niegel Smith to conceive a casting call as a live performance. Actors auditioned for four full days, with the final two days viewed live by an audience and the entire process recorded, to be included in the final film. In 2014, Smith and I moved the project forward into the realm of rehearsal. The four actors selected during casting were then invited into a rehearsal process that was also conceived to be a performance.

For the last stage of the film in NYC in 2016, the project moved beyond casting and rehearsing into the black box; we shot a “final scene” in the white cube of the gallery space at PARTICIPANT INC, directed by theater director Charlotte Brathwaite. Following the performances, which also were video-recorded, the scripted environment of the set became a site for an exhibition of multiple sculptural elements, revealing underlying structures, grammar, and processes that comprised the field of operations of this time-based project. These stages with small variations also ended up taking place in Bogotá (Espacio Odeón and Museo del Banco de la República) and Rome (Spanish Academy in Rome).

ES: What are other modes of working for you that complement the long-scale research works, and how do these relate or feed into them?

IB: In between these complex productions involving different collaborators and institutions, I go back to the solitude of the studio. It is in this practice of making sculptures, assemblages, and prints where I generate my ideas. There is also a cross-pollination which happens between media mechanisms. For example, after using the iconic scene from Basic Instinct (1992)—with Sharon Stone uncrossing and crossing her legs, subverting the power dynamics in the room with a minimal gesture—at the casting of THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE, I started cutting the original dialogue at the studio in order to make a first-person monologue and quasi-manifesto. This culminated in a print and performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, curated by Paul B. Preciado.

Installation view of Itziar Barrio, THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE (PREMIERE), 2022, PARTICIPANT INC, New York City. Photo by Daniel Kukla. Courtesy of the artist and PARTICIPANT INC.

ES: I am interested in the element of parafiction in the construction of power for your subjects-actors. I understand you provided actors with coexisting fictional and nonfictional parameters as source materials, blurring the boundary between scripted and unscripted work. Can you tell me how you did impose parameters toward the making of this space of parafiction, if any?

IB: Yes. In fact, this part of the process was especially revealing at the casting phase at Abrons Arts Center. Because this phase was already a few things at the same time—a job interview, a performance, and the making of a film—seduction became a very relevant feature of the work. By exploring this construction of realities, identities, and the making of contemporary myths—casting as a performance, filmmaking as a performance—the line between scripted and non-scripted became really blurred. This became clear when the performers were called to the mic to answer a set of questions. Sometimes the questions were directed to their character; other times, it was directed toward them. Identities became merged. How much is the character affecting the actual performer and vice versa? This question became a speculative idea in the final film. How much does the character become something equally real to the person performing it? Are characters autonomous entities themselves?

To illustrate this idea: In the final film, You Weren’t Familiar but You Weren’t Afraid (2022), we see the same character, Stella, navigating through different bodies, cultures, and languages. It follows the journey of Stella, a revisited character from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). She leaves New Orleans, Stanley, and their abusive relationship and starts a new life in Bogotá among the sub-proletarian characters of La Estrategia del Caracol where her polyamory causes conflicts. Later on in Rome, Stella is a sex worker and the ex-lover of the dissident character of Pasolini’s Accattone. This passage of bodies, languages, and characters through movies, cultures, and architectures is an exploration of how identity, labor, class, gender, and others are the subtext of social negotiations. The narrative is being constructed in the exchange between all agents involved. You Weren’t Familiar but You Weren’t Afraid articulates an agency based on bodies, on the fluidity of identity, and on the emancipation of the economic roles imposed by society.

ES: How does the work consider allegories of labor, particularly when it comes to the agency of everyone involved in the project?

IB: One of the main aspects of the project and in my work in general is revealing the means and modes of production. Labor and class are also always present in my work. The audience sees the omnipresent conditions of making a film, from the cinematography, to the casting, to the stage direction. In this way, THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE shows the usually hidden mechanisms involved in labor—filmmaking, in this case—including its power dynamics. While this happens in any form of labor, seeing it in an artwork that is itself about the construction of reality uniquely adds another layer of meaning and signification. There is also something choreographic and poetic about this process in relation to the means of production, domination, and the technology of the bodies. THE PERILS gives agency to the performers by allowing them to be outside of the scripted. By rewriting the scripted stories, we reveal their hidden messages and limitations. Even viewers become part of—and thereby help shape—the next chapter with their presence and gaze. The constructed situations—film production as performance—suggest the extent of human action and labor and find agents of participation in all.

Archives installation view of Itziar Barrio, THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE (PREMIERE), 2022, PARTICIPANT INC, New York City. Photo by Daniel Kukla. Courtesy of the artist and PARTICIPANT INC.

ES: What’s next for you?

IB: Since 2016, and in parallel to THE PERILS, I have been working on a trilogy of multi-disciplinary projects (Drones, Failed Stars [2019]; ROBOTA MML [2019–]; and Particle Matter [2020–]) analyzing the intersection of technology, labor, identity, and matter, and involving collaborations with different experts: astronomers, scientists, an anthropologist, a bodybuilder, and an engineer in robotics, among others. The final pieces include videos, installations, and robotic-based sculptures. The last two years I have been a member at the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC researching all these topics. These are also research-based, long-term projects rewriting dominant narratives but in this case around technology, the construction of scientific knowledge, and the importance of the indeterminate and nonvisible. Beginning in 2023, the entire trilogy will premiere in a solo exhibition in NYC. I will be feeling then as I do now: concluding a long journey.