Barbarita Polster

My current body of work (image, language, and object-based) questions the role of the unassimilable or not-easily-categorized as a site for production of new thought - drawing loosely upon my own multiethnic upbringing, I’m interested in the usefulness of holding tenuous relationships with ideas/situations, rather than strict or reductive conclusion. I most often generate speculations and propositions about physical space as a model for this type of questioning. 

Ultimately, I’m thinking about inaccessible systems – what happens when there is clearly a complex logic to an experience or situation, but this logic isn’t made available to the “experiencer,” when our sensory or empirical observations provide misinformation. Is it possible to leave an audience in a position where they are destabilized enough that they begin to feel comfortable in this unfamiliar system rather than reductively writing it off as ambiguous or impenetrable - or worse, miscategorizing and presuming? I’m thinking of this work as a call for nuance, for an admission that with human scale often comes an inability to “see the bigger picture,” whether in terms of physical space, culture-at-large, or the political. Ultimately, if we admit that our perspective is limited and elements of the world are difficult to grasp due to their complexity, an ability to hold and be comfortable with this indeterminacy can be taken as a jumping off point for new ideas, new modes of problem solving, new understanding. 

Dr. Hannah Higgins once referred to my work as a sort of “tuning system” – I like that. And Dr. WJT Mitchell observed that the line from my video work, a film to read while being spoken to, that reads, “I can’t think of a synonym for the word ‘word’ and it upsets me” is emblematic of my entire practice – I like that, too.


Barbara in the studio.

Barbara in the studio.

Interview with Barbarita Polster

Questions by Sidney Mullis

Hi Barbarita, can you tell us a little bit about your background and what lead you to becoming an artist?
Well, what lead me to becoming an artist is quite different from what keeps me as an artist today. Originally it was straightforward – I loved to draw; anything I could render from observation was fair game, especially architecture. I drooled over the lines. It wasn’t until completing some of my formal training in Cleveland that I realized that artmaking could also be a way to merge simultaneous interests, whether they be philosophy, the theoretical sciences, my own multiethnic experience, or formal concerns. Anymore, artmaking has become a form of both building and wrestling with epistemologies – testing their malleability.

Can you describe this phrase “objects, language, tasks” that appears on your website and in your email signature? How does this phrase operate for you?
In a sense, this speaks very much to my means of wrestling with these aforementioned epistemologies. I mean, putting “artist” in an email signature seemed so… trapezoidal or something. As did the somewhat parallel “sculpture, writing, performance” – those words seemed to separate my work from the “real world,” so to speak. And as my practice tends to encompass object-making, language-based videos, critical writing, prose, scripted actions, performative readings, objects intended only for photograph, etc., “objects, language, tasks” seemed like a means of specifying without putting edges on anything. Each of these processes tend to be a different face of the gemstone that makes up one studio inquiry, multiple angles into the same question.

In your statement you mention the intent to hold tenuous relationships with ideas/situations rather than attain strict or reductive conclusions with them. With this in mind, is it important that you feel this way about the particular content of each piece you make or is it important to mainly translate this experience to your viewer? In other words, do you find you must have clearer understanding of content/compartments that will become the piece in order to effectively provide a tenuous relationship to your viewer?
I love this question, though I find its answer to be somewhat elusive! Ultimately, I am indeed very particular and intentional about the systems I’m employing/engaging with in my work. It’s always my intention that the viewer feels as though the work is well-wrought, even if the work itself stays a little slippery. Keeping hold of the reigns from the maker-standpoint is vital to preventing the viewer from feeling as though I just “reached into the signifier box and pulled a few things out” (to quote a former professor and extraordinarily astute artist, Adrian Wong). There are moments, however, where I do allow the content to be vulnerable, even for myself. Writing will often do this – the subjects of my writing are often things that I find elusive to begin with: how the planes overhead seem to hang in the sky when opposite the velocity of a train, the physicality of American Sign Language, the perception of the curvature of the earth, etc. When this is layered with other works* or even other components within a series of works or a single work (other faces of this gemstone), they tend to vibrate, even for me, though certainly differently than for the viewer.

*This is why I tend to find it difficult to delineate where my projects begin and end. I often give multiple “pieces” the same title, I change the titles after the fact to alter their internal relationships, I rearrange past works in relationship to newer projects… I’m an art historian’s nightmare.

What’s your relationship to American Sign Language?
My relationship to ASL is… cautious. From a linguistic standpoint, I’m interested in the physicality of the language – movements, gestures – and also in its iconicity and symbolism – what feels to me like a relationship to image. Not being fluent (yet!), however, I want to make sure that I approach my engagement with this complex language with sensitivity and accuracy. I have a couple mentors with whom I’m consulting who are fluent in both the language and the questions I’m raising in an art context. I feel very lucky!

Let’s talk about your most recent piece Speaking While Reading (see link below). I got stuck pretty quickly once the sound was introduced over the text. My attention rapidly jumped from text to sound (never grasping full sentences) reaffirming my sensitivity to listening over reading. Having recently shown the piece at Critical Practices INC (New York) in June, could you speak to experiences that some of your viewers are having? I’d imagine you are effectively making us all confused. :) Are you finding a common coping strategy among your viewers? Are your viewers, after some time of learning the piece’s code, able to stick with its complexity?
Overwhelmingly, your experience with the language-based performance of Speaking While Reading seems fairly common, though I have found that certain people cling to the text, favoring reading over the sound. Either way, I was excited to find that most viewers seemed to leave with a sort of affect of the video, a sense of it, but almost never a confidently clear picture of either text. This, to me, was successful on a number of levels, not the least of which was because it allowed the viewer to sit with the complexity while refusing easy reducibility.

Speaking While Reading
Script for for Speaking While Reading

Video for Speaking While Reading

Could you speak to how Speaking While Reading came about?
Speaking While Reading happened not long after reading Dr. David Getsy’s essay, “Refusing Ambiguity,” in the Spit! Manifesto. Though Dr. Getsy’s writing engaged more directly with LGBTQ discourse, I found in this essay an extraordinary parallel with my own multiethnic identity – issues of being “ethnically ambiguous” or passing or on the receiving end of incorrect reductive assumptions about my experiences. I’m not ambiguous – my identity is actually quite particular; it’s your inability to classify me. In speaking about the unassimilable, Dr. Getsy positions “particularity as a challenge to systems of knowing.”

Speaking While Reading, as a whole, was born out of frustration. I’d spent a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to make determinate work about this subject of indeterminacy. Speaking While Reading has been one of the first bodies of work I’ve made where I really feel I’ve successfully allowed the complexity and layering and multiple systems to just stay that, whether or not its logic was accessible. I wanted the viewer to learn to be comfortable with an inability to easily reduce these systems for the sake of digestibility.

The script, although purposely interrupted during delivery, is so lovely and engages more than just my sight and hearing, but my entire being. The end bit about impressions that you leave on another…the impressions that you are under…and impressions that begin patterns, make me think of pressure, weight, and survival. In other words, the language totally engages my subjectivity. Will this written component (that is spoken in Speaking While Reading) have another iteration? Would you allow it to be read on its own? Perhaps you have effectively shown my brain’s desire to want to dismantle the complexity of the piece for the satisfaction of reading beautiful prose. :)
Thank you so much for these kind words! Your observation about the desire to dismantle the complexity is in fact my own concern for a more fixed iteration, such as a printed book or screenplay. Printing the texts (performed and subtitled) side-by-side in book form is an idea I’ve been kicking around for some time now, but I actually keep circling back to whether it’s my own desire to sort of pin down the prose that drives that impulse. I think I still have to keep kicking it around for a while..

But that said, the piece certainly has an iteration in object form, in that my object-based work always uses imagery from tangential projects as material, including subtitled film stills. The iteration of the work in the exhibition, Truth Claim, at Carrie Secrist Gallery in Chicago is directly built from subtitled video stills from the performance. Using documentation or stills from other studio projects as material also gets back to the foundational material questions of “objects, language, tasks.” If I handle project documentation as what it is – a photograph or printed image on board or web image – what else can it tell or remind the viewer about the assumptions one might make when taking for granted the presentation of information?

What is X.?
X. is a brand new language-based project that I’m really excited about! It will foreground two components: experimental language performances and online unscripted art writing. Focusing on the capability of language to enact criticality as opposed to just describing it, X. aims to push the conventions of readings, performance, and critical writing to vibrate through other vocabularies, whether it be gonzo journalism, fiction, loose critical writing, screenplay, a combination of several approaches, etc. The performances will be texts that not only can be read aloud, but those which benefit from the performed aspect – in this case, think the Speaking While Reading performance, for example. Keep an ear to the ground! It’s still in the works, to the point where I can’t specify which, but the goal is to team up with a nationally recognized art venue to host the performances. ::Fingers crossed::

You mentioned writing is a huge component in your practice. When did you come to this realization? Has writing’s involvement in your practice evolved over time? Do you write through out the entire generation of a piece, say over sketching or model making?
You know, I’ve always written, but only recently came to see it as an active, fore-fronted element in my work. For over a decade now, I’ve done my studio brainstorming as sort of a modified “spider diagram” – the kind you learn to do for creative writing in elementary school. It wasn’t until I was well into my MFA program that I began taking the writing more seriously as a medium. I was having such a challenging time; I’d thrown myself into systematically taking every element of my formal studio practice apart and examining the conventions I felt I’d been taking for granted. I found it difficult to “make” in the studio at that point, so my instinct was just to start writing. I’d write these short little essays on artworks that had left an impression, sort of inspired by Tacita Dean’s Book Two of her Seven Books Grey series. That led to several things, including a novella, a series of critical writings, X., and the language-based performances. With the addition of the performances, writing began to infiltrate more stages of the work than just the initial brainstorming.

Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I currently have work in the exhibition Truth Claim at Carrie Secrist Gallery in Chicago through August 18. After that, I’m waiting to hear back about a few other exciting residencies and proposed exhibitions – so nothing official at the moment, but hopefully! My current goal is to be able to exhibit Speaking While Reading with both the language-based performance and objects in the same space in the future, alongside newer developments of the work. I’ll let you know :)

Thanks so much for sharing your work. It was lovely to engage with it. 
Thank YOU! I’m so excited! 

To find out more about Barbara and her work, check out her website.