Barry Schwartz: dangerous beauty

Douglas Leonard

Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz

Part showman, part shaman, bricoleur and self-confessed brigand, Barry Schwartz jolted the art world in America and Europe with his high-voltage hot-wired performances. He is now brought to Australia by the Arterial Group for a residency at the Brisbane Powerhouse to collaborate on Electrosonic Interference, a multimedia project for the Centenary of Federation. Belgian artist Bastiaan Maris, a longtime collaborator, has accompanied him as technical director and soundmeister. Here, Schwartz describes the project to Douglas Leonard, Brisbane writer and collaborator on the project.

Half a million volts

The audience is going to see an electrically charged wet environment for starters. The Powerhouse will mirror the process emanating from the sculptural elements with which I work: high voltage energy, liquids that represent motions of hydro electricity or turbines, certain kinds of mechanical impressions which tie in with aspects of the conceptual and visual ideas derived from archival material. What you see you may also think you feel. It won’t be a direct feel, but a manifestation of electricity like translating electricity into sound, the tactile impressions of energy, tangible energy.

Electricity is considered very dangerous. We make it visually user-friendly in a way that it becomes beautiful, so you get this real beautiful danger that people see. Sort of romanticise it in a way. We’re going to take the gantry crane in The Powerhouse and use it to represent a high voltage transmission tower which will move within the space and also within a liquid environment consisting of a basin or reservoir of non-conductive mineral oil. A hydro electric energy waterfall will provide a projection surface to feed in a lot of text and visual information. This high voltage tower will be turned into an electrical high voltage instrument, sort of a harp, which I am going to physically attack and play, respond to and be re-manipulated by as a physical conduit myself.

We’ll also use Tesla coils, high voltage frequency lightning generators, something like half a million volts. The average is something like 60 milli-amps, but it’s the resonant frequency which actually creates the voltage. It will actually charge the room, but I don’t want to get too technical about that because I’ll put my foot in my mouth. I’m more intuitive, you know, a scientist/researcher by trial and error. I don’t read a textbook to get it. I have to consult with somebody for the larger concept.

Sculpting sounds and energy

We channel the sound through our custom built sound monitoring system which will be 2, maybe 2 and a half metres in diameter, large satellite dishes. Because they’re parabolic in pitch they will act as directional speakers which will project the sound emanating from the sculptures. The system ties directly in and the sound will be fed back and projected towards any given person in the audience. The idea is not to import a sound system; it’s all part of the sculptural coherence.

Sources of sound include the vibration of other objects such as a large polished stainless steel disc that creates the impression of a record with a small ice stylus. I create the sound through reactive chemicals such as dry ice and liquid nitrogen and when it hits the plate it causes thermal stress. Minus 200 degrees. The sound actually is almost like a voice, it howls: on aluminium it’s screaming and shrilling; with stainless steel you get deeper undertones. It’s semi controlled and semi random. Like a lot of my sculptures, instead of building up a fully automated robotic environment—that’s not so much my ultimate interest—I like to come in there and intervene bodily. Come in there and disrupt, because then you find other ways to bring about a new process, sort of like experimenting and going through a process in real time.

It’s a body of sculptures that question and answer each other within an environment that I create. It’s like the relationship of matter and energy, how it relates to and influences the next sculpture. I’m also very interested in that intervention process because I have a difficult time with being just cyber-spatial and sitting on my bum. I think there’s a real tactile approach to your relationship with your sculptures and the process. And that’s where the collaboration to me becomes interesting—bringing in other ideas which give you other parameters to deal with the relationship between objects.

Digital divination

Technology has created a lot of objects that most people never get to see and they are actually incredibly beautiful, but they are only beautiful once you take them out of their function and maybe recombine them with other things in ways that they suddenly become very special.
Bastiaan Maris

It’s called the ‘digital divine’, a play on the ‘digital divide’ and not being able to provide computers for certain people, notions of access and lifestyle. Like being a pirate.

I’m very interested in the way things I create are viewed or not viewed, which brings me to other issues, of people who don’t have privileges to see it and, second, I’ve become more active in dealing with homeless people or people at risk in recent years. I don’t just like to be considered as doing a “white male boys’ thing” in terms of having “everything on my plate.” I’ve struggled really hard sometimes to make the work, and had to find my own employment by going out and scavenging materials in order to provide the means. And that became my job instead of having to, say, work in a restaurant like theatre people would.

Strangers on a train

A lot of my work in San Francisco has been in the art context, and that becomes incredibly stale after a while. At one time we hopped a train to Utah from California, completely bareback—a couple of sacks of clothes and shoes and video equipment—and it’s kind of absurd that, because of running out of time, we paid for the passenger train back. We met some young kid there who was really good at picking locks so we had a kind of little party with some candy and beer. And then I look over and I hit this one cabinet that had a VCR, and the VCR was hooked up to the lounge car upstairs so I said, “Hey, pop this tape in.” All of a sudden we had commandeered this train—there were 50 people up there—suddenly they were seeing this raw footage we’d made the previous day—stuff like wires, making sound out of it, tumbleweeds, and counter wires attached to the belly of the train—and I’m sitting there watching everybody and it really hit me, like WOW!, this is such a natural process of showing a different context, and why it’s really important how you present the work.

Electrosonic Interference, Arterial Group, Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts, September 6, 7 & 8 at 7pm, free.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 41

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001