A New Leaf
Stephanie Barber launches the new series of Los Solos shows with her (relatively) epic piece In the Jungle
Sometimes, the best place to start is in the middle. Sometimes, it's best to begin without the background knowledge, without the contextualizing details, without knowing any of the extenuating circumstances. Sometimes, knowing where you've come from and where you're going doesn't help you figure out where you are. Sometimes, knowing anything at all feels like an exercise in futility. Sometimes, chasing that ephemeral notion of an idea, the truth, feels like the biggest waste of human effort ever.
"I love the idea that people can just lie," says local filmmaker/musician/performance artist Stephanie Barber, and then instantly corrects herself. "I mean, I hate it when people lie, but as a narrative trope it's fascinating."
Sitting in a Mount Vernon coffee shop, the thirtysomething Barber is a half-hour into discussing her latest creation, the performance piece In the Jungle--which she debuts locally this week at the first night of the 2009-'10 Los Solos series--and her whip-crack mind has already run through the various spheres of knowledge that helped shape and form the multi-media work: botanical metaphors of life and death, a fascination with the documentary work of David Attenborough, a fondness for atonal librettos of Alban Berg and the English ones of Samuel Barber, lichens and ferns, and the existential loneliness that, perhaps, runs through her work in general.
And once going, her sentences plop you in a roller-coaster car on her train of thoughts. "I also wanted to suggest that she's not in the jungle at all," she says of the piece's protagonist. As portrayed by Barber, the unnamed plant researcher has to return to civilization from the jungle, where she conducts her research, in order to present her findings to an unspecified board that funds her work.
At least, that's what you're led to believe. "And I love it when a character lies or is mad enough to be an unreliable narrator," she continues. "Like, where we can't be certain of the level of trust we can have in the character at all. I don't know how valuable it is to the art of storytelling to throw those things up at the end, an O. Henry moment, and how many people will think that, but . . . I mean, she's certainly got some real problems. Like, she's saying, 'I'm a snake,' which calls into question the whole lecture. Is she lying to the board to get this money but she's actually a hermit living in some basement?"
And then but so--what? Rewind: In the winter of 2008, Barber was asked to produce a roughly hour-long set at the Stone, the not-for-profit lower Manhattan performance space started by John Zorn. Knowing the Stone's typical curatorial ideas, she knew the piece was going to involve music in some way, and she already had a few performance ideas ricocheting around in her brain. But an hour was considerably longer than any other solo piece--film or otherwise--she had previously created.
Working for a longer format piece was less about altering her ideas than approaching them from an angle of having more time to explore her themes and visual and aural strategies. "Working in that longer format was really exciting and challenging," Barber says. "I really had to work to be clear about pauses, to be clear about timing. Let it relax a little bit and be dramatic. I mean, it's relatively still, but it's dense--intellectually or emotionally. I thought about it formally by reminding myself to slow down the way a longer music piece would be--pauses and repetitions and the things that I don't really use in my smaller pieces--and then through just hanging it on the armature of just really earnestly wanting to tell a story in a new way."
Four and a half months later, she debuted the piece at the Stone, on May 24, and the result is a disarming approach to visual narrative. (This writer saw a DVD version recorded at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.) In the Jungle is divided into three sections, with improvised musical and video projection set pieces that function as transitional journeys set between the first and second and the second and third acts. In each segment, the only character is Barber's plant researcher: In the opening section, she's typing out her research notes, and the lines are projected onto a screen and Barber sings snatches of her entry lines over atmospheric soundtrack. In the middle section, she's clad in dress and wears glasses and presents a slideshow lecture about her research. In the final section, she's back in the jungle listening to a radio show, her only contact with outside world.
But there's something--sometimes subtly, sometimes not--a little off about her. Some of the things she says are a little troubling. She can't hide her fear and mistrust of the so-called civilized world. Her presentation is candidly personal, told in the guise of a scientific presentation on plants. In the Jungle becomes this relatively simple story about a very complex person, realized in a combination of stage performance, multi-media video installation, and music.
And it's exactly the sort of wide-ranging and technically adroit works that Los Solos organizers Bonnie Jones and Jackie Milad hope to showcase with the second season of their series of female solo artists. "I wanted to move out of the Carriage House because I wanted to have a little bit more of a technical theater space to do more technical theater stuff," Jones says. She and Milad are sitting on the back porch of Jones' Ednor Gardens home and as the sun goes down, the longtime curatorial collaborators--they formed the Canton-based Chela Gallery back in 2001--discuss the larger scope of the 2009-'10 season.
"The Carriage House was beautiful, but there wasn't really theater lighting. There wasn't the usual stage setup, even a really great soundsystem, or room to negotiate the space in different ways," Jones continues. "Moving to a new venue means we're able to invite people who had a lot more of a project. I think performance art as it arrow points toward theater--more and more I am seeing what, at one point, people might have called 'performance art' but with the accessibility of tech, these multi-media projects become much more like theater works."
By pairing two artists--one local, one from out of town--Jones and Milad seek to develop a discussion about the work and its ideas that doesn't always happen in collaboration settings. "With solo work you really have a chance to see and hear the voice of that individual," Milad says. "And, for me personally, the opportunity for people to engage in dialog, I think is greater especially between two individual artists. Seeing each other's work and even if it's just, 'I like what you just did' or 'Tell me more about what you're doing.'"
"In the sense that we think of each of these things as conversations, we're putting people together who we think have something to say to each other, or who we think can have a good conversation with each other," Jones says.
That discussion extends to the audience. "One thing we did last year that I still want to try to do this year is we did try to build in room for a question-and-answer period, which I felt was a really nice way to extend this idea that there is a setup here," Jones says. "There's this national artist and this Baltimore artist, and they're usually not the same genre, and we put them side by side. So we make this setup to have this dialog and I like the idea of extending that into the audience to make the Q&A part of the idea that we're all gathering in this space to talk about what we're seeing. And I think with solo work it's easier to have that conversation within the space of the performance. It's not the ad hoc collaborative aspect that Baltimore's really great at. Solo acts tend to be longer development periods--obviously, some of them are improvisers, but their practices is their own."
With Jungle, Barber has found a way to expound on the intellectual anxiety present in her shorter films and create a multi-layered, resonating narrative that piles metaphor and allusions onto facts and feelings. "The jungle has been a sort of symbol of madness in terms of a whole country's madness or in terms of characters," she says. "The 'concrete jungle'--it's a real metaphor for fear and loneliness. I get terrified just thinking about it. There's a line in the lecture, 'This is a picture of a black plastic garbage bag, but it doesn't have a dead body in it. Living in the jungle where life and death is so constantly truly evident . . .'--just this piling up of life and death terrifies me.
"But what she's talking about is worthy of lecturing," Barber continues. "But a board would never want to hear somebody metaphorically musing on the loneliness of existence and how it's reflected in plant life or how that's experienced in the jungle. Brazil nut trees live to be almost 1,000 years old and the strangler figs climb up on them because they need to get up to sunlight, but they necessarily, by being able to live, they wrap around the Brazil nut tree, and they kill them--they both wind up dying. Just that it's that name--strangler figs--and Brazil nut tree are so old and big trees and they're felled by this little parasite. I didn't know about these and they turn out to be these gorgeous metaphors."
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