The Conceptual scavenger: interview with Orla Barry

Orla Barry’s central concern, like her primary material, is language. Scripting printed matter, video works and live performances, Barry’s poetic narratives are rarely univocal or conclusive. Her journals, monologues or experimental scripts contain several concurrent narratives, further jostled by playful contradictions and structural conceits, whose harmonies and collisions are impossible to predict.

Visually, Barry’s direction, choreography and set design comprise primary movement, colours and materials, the economic arrangement of which complements her carefully encoded written compositions. In an earlier performance and video, Wideawake (2002), a woman finds herself in a vacant auditorium.  Mounting its stage, she finds herself at the base of another elevated platform, this one smaller, red and rectangular.  Again she mounts, and around it she paces, all the while propounding a self-evaluating monologue with a mixture of desperation and fury.  The rectangle, originally a space upon which the character and her voice are projected, becomes a vacuum inside which she is trapped, and the echoing auditorium becomes, paradoxically, unforgiving in its emptiness. Barry’s works deftly explore language’s inherent failures, extending beyond their many conceits into generous and well-crafted observations of social misrepresentation and ontological despair.

In December 2008, Barry’s most recent work, The Scavenger’s daughters, was produced with three actors, Kate McIntosh, Ineke Lievens and Miles O'Shea in a theatre-style auditorium in Tate Modern. Like other works, the performance developed not through ongoing dialogue, but by the impact of one – often isolated – monologue upon another. Between two sisters, a male Chairmaker moves around the stage, re-arranging a mess of mis-matching chairs on which he encourages, provokes and forces the sisters to be continually re-seated.

Sister 1: Sister, please bring me an alternator if I am to continue producing a voice with him around. At this altitude my attitude to him becomes aggressive… let’s try to assimilate the subject of our conversation audibly for a while. Our assignment is to try to speak to one another about an assortment of issues surrounding sisterhood and to use association to bond them.

IH: This speech (above) by Sister 1, arguably, introduces many of the play’s concerns but also its central conceit: using words beginning with the letter ‘a’ to begin and develop the play’s fractured narrative. Appearing as a sort of word game, this conceit within the script creates a playful layer between its audience and its issues. ‘A’ words are brought together and reused at intervals, uprooting logical narrative developments, a movement that resembles the Chairmaker’s ceaseless rearrangement of chairs and sisters. Can you begin by telling me something about your writing process?

OB: Yes, the writing process began with A, which was a way to begin somewhere, to throw a word out into the world…

The text is called The Scavenger’s daughters, referring both to the main characters in the performance but also to the process of writing, the process of beginning somewhere and ending somewhere. I consider myself a scavenger, a driftwood collector, someone who creates images from debris. I pick up stuff from the world’s word rubbish dump as I walk along. By this I mean that the words are scavenged not from literary texts but from writing made for less artistic reasons, like the back of a milk carton or an instruction manual. A few words from these stimulators and I am sent in one direction or another. When I am writing something I am thinking about it all the time and that informs what I pick up from the world around me.

I also take a lot from speech. People talk, they talk a lot. My ‘sketch book’ fills with these scavenged words. They become enclosed in sentences depending on the subject I wish to convey. I write around these scavenged morsels. Sometimes these wanderings transform the subject or corrupt it, hence the scattered feeling in my writing, a feeling I nurture as a direct reflection on the world we live in. The way I write is like walking, sketching a path through whichever landscape my speaker inhabits. I transform this into a kind of convoluted speech that mimics speech yet stays in the realm of recital. It sounds like the sisters are saying one thing while in fact they are saying another. It sounds like a conversation, but it floats in a land of monologue. I do not tell stories to say what I want to say but rather I give a series of images to the viewer that can be shuffled around like a pack of cards. The metaphor is open-ended and the process of interpretation and re-interpretation is very important in my work.

IH: Some of your words are familiar (“we are agreeable agoraphobics from an agricultural background” from Foundlings (2002) and “I am dreaming wideawake” from Wideawake); is The Scavenger’s daughters an amalgamation of previous scripts?

OB: In fact it is not that they come from Wideawake or Foundlings into The Scavenger’s daughters but the other way around. I wrote The Scavenger’s daughters in 1997 as a sound work that never really found its final form. As I was never sure how it would end up, I scavenged from it and took parts out of it that fitted into other works. I kept going back to it and I did this for the last time this summer which was a really interesting process for me, returning to rework a text I had written ten years earlier. It was like going back to a bar where you once spent a lot of time. Some of the characters you spent time with are still sitting around, yet they have changed. They are wearing coloured contact lenses. They have dyed their hair and they have wrinkles around their eyes when they smile, wrinkles that don’t disappear any more when they stop smiling. There are some new people at one table. Some people have died, others have moved on. The air seems to have cleared; everyone has given up smoking. They have started drinking cocktails instead of beer. As you sit down on the bar stool you always sat on, you realise you are no longer part of it. The barman interrupts your thoughts and says “hello, I am the Chairmaker, what would you like to drink?”

My writing is very image-orientated; it tells more about life as a still life, as a series of pictures. The structure of the performance set is also built up like this with three layers: the backdrop, the mid-field and the front. I guess the meaning in the text is also broken in this way and the relationship between the voices/ speakers. I try not to refer to them as characters as they are not, they don’t have a psychological background; they are voice and body. They are text projectors. I like to use the microphones as a prop because it forces the actors to use their voice and body in a particular way.

I believe as a visual artist, I have a spatial relationship to language or words because I consider them physically; I think about the sound they will make and the actors’ bodily movements as they say them, and the silences they create after they have disappeared. The nonlinear aspect of my writing reflects the disjointed world we live in. In The Scavenger’s daughters the physical side of the writing comes out, the exaggerated use of alliteration, the pauses, the speed, the dyslexic falling-apart of meaning. Certain parts of the text are said in such quick succession that each sentence obliterates the one before.

IH: Will The Scavenger’s daughters become a video work? Is there a distinction for you between making live work and recording work?

OB: I have been toying with the idea of making a video work out of it and I shot for two days during the rehearsal period. On viewing the rushes I think I will not make a video from it, like I did with Wideawake. If I do make a video work from it, I will rethink the whole thing.

I prefer to play this performance live and making it has allowed me to experiment with something fragile and very frontal. The difference with film is you have all these different angles to things and a different proximity to the actors; you can be inside their heads, in front of them, behind them. I built the set for The Scavenger’s daughters like a painting – somehow it has no perspective, the sisters exist in a flat image, their voices exist in real time (I use a lot of voiceover in my films, which places the voice in a zone off-screen). When all the moving of chairs is over and the actors have settled into their place for however short a time, a very balanced image is produced, like a still life. Then the chaos and the moving around begin again.

There is also a balance between the two ‘sisters’; like a weighing scales, they are constantly guided by the Chairmaker, giving him some sense of control in the piece; he sets the scene for their picture-making and storytelling. He allows them comfort, until he has hatched another plan to disturb their efforts at conversing. I like this simplified one-set film, each scene created by a new constellation of chairs. A lot of people mentioned after the performance that they felt it like a film. I felt it more like a live painting. Jackson Pollock crossed with Edward Hopper and a bag of words!

IH: Can you mention any other painters that have influenced you, or feel might have a similar approach?

Painters who have influenced me – not really. That description was more like an analogy to describe the interior energy or formalism at play in my work. Alternatively, it could be like Ellsworth Kelly crossed with Caspar David Friedrich crossed with Barnett Newman. The painters I am interested in have a strong interest in colour and in the formal aspects of their work. These, I would call my subconscious grandfathers along with grandmothers who are not painters, such as Eva Hesse and Hanne Darboven and Anna Oppermann. And great-grandfathers such as Georges de la Tour.

IH: You mentioned that you found your words in haphazard places, but I wonder if you have taken inspiration from previous or contemporary directors or choreographers?

OB: Yes, I would say I have been inspired and moved by the work by many people: Samuel Beckett, Trisha Brown, STO Union, Gertrude Stein, John Cassevetes, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, Miles Champion, ee.cummings, Paul Celan, 16 Horsepower, Robert Smithson, Joelle Tuerlinckx and Matt Mullician, Dirk Braekman, Rui Chafes. But, more importantly, I have been inspired by the landscape and the banter and the psychological movements that went on around me; the language of real life, like that of my grandmother, inspired my greatly.

IH: Why chairs? They are, ideally, a support for seating but can also be uncomfortable and awkward. On several occasions, your female characters are subjected to uncomfortable seating. I am not sure if you are aware and it may be entirely unintentional, but The Scavenger’s daughters is also the name of a medieval torture devise that squeezes a seated subject into an inhumane position, eventually suffocating them. I interpreted the chairs as a metaphor for language, which can either enable or violate its user, depending on its height, material, mass, etc. Language as being potentially violating is often taken up in late-twentieth-century feminist critiques. Do you think the legacies of feminism need to be readdressed and do you do so intentionally within your work?

OB: I consider myself an underhand feminist. This more has to do in my work with never defining roles, allowing both men and women to slip from one stereotype to the next, constantly evolving without ever fully forming, an undefined sexuality floating between male and female, opposing, melting, confining, redefining. I think my work will grow in this respect in the future. Family ties also remain undefined. I grew up in an agricultural environment where the male voice was often held inside the body, the female voice spoke a lot but sometimes without any purpose, just filling the silence. I like to play with this in my work. I think that adoptive techniques might work in my performances, men adopting female language traits and women adopting those of men in order to underline the differences in how male and female use and abuse language.

The chairs and the microphones are props; they support the voice and the body just as the backdrop creates the picture into which the ‘whole’ fits. The chairs represent comfort and discomfort, the place from which we talk, in which we are interviewed, on which we relax. In this performance, they are the space from which the voice is projected (that is clear in the last scene, where you no longer see the actors but only the chair and the voice). It is the male character that offers this space of comfort and also the one who removes it. In this way he exercises a certain power over the sisters, yet they resist. They use the chairs for there own ends. They use them as a stage from which to perform, to taunt. They reverse the Chairmaker’s efforts at controlling them. He is never allowed the space of comfort. He stands throughout the whole performance. The chair is a way of joining the body to the voice. Allowing the physical to be very present beside the writing, allowing the physical to direct the speech, to make pictures from the speech. The chairs become the room, the landscape, the train, the rock, the beach, the love triangle! They become a complicated messy choreography and in turn they create order when it is time to have order.

IH: Monologues, voiceovers and sound effects – these seem very important to you. Many previous video works have been very attentive to the voice of your performer, constructed with monologues (Wideawake) or with voiceovers (Portable stones, 2005). There is fracture throughout; with the monologues we are addressed yet not in conversation and with the voiceovers the characters do not address us nor their counterparts on screen, they remain silent throughout the performance and in both Wideawake and Portable stones this allows for the isolated characters’ further detachment. In The Scavenger’s daughters, the actors’ voices were often interjected by landscape sound effects or popular music. This again created a fracture. Can you talk to me about your use of sound(s) and voice(s)?

OB: The voice is the path to the soul. To me it is something that seems to tell us about an inner landscape. I am interested in inner landscapes. I like to listen to the timbre of somebody’s voice, how they physically manipulate it, how they breathe. I have made many sound works; in fact The Scavenger’s daughters started life as a sound work. I think that voice and sound are my favourite tools. I love radio as an art form. I like to listen to someone like Alistair Cook (Letter from America), who once said he wrote “for talking, putting writing on a page with the same syntactical break-up and normal confusion that is normal talk.” I think I also write for speech.

I am interested in a voice aging; think of Leonard Cohen’s voice now and his voice in his twenties. Its the same with Alistair Cook or when you listen to Johnny Cash’s breath in his last recordings; it makes you think of the fragility of life and somehow you can see into his physical state. I think of my grandmother’s voice and breath as she whispers lucidly in an effort to speak after three weeks not eating, as she tries on her own terms to let go of life.

My use of monologue has to do with performance itself. A monologue implies the performing speaker, performing for effect, speed, clarity, and drama. It is a form that can be removed from life, so it allows the distance you so rightly underline in your question. These voices speak about emotion, yet seem removed from the emotion they are speaking about. In The Scavenger’s daughters I use multiple monologues, or you could see it as a triangular monologue, a monologue with three corners. Sometimes this speaking verges on conversation, yet the subject seems to slip enough to never allow any kind of real conversation to take place.

The voiceover in my video work also has many functions; first of all it allows me to work with people who are not actors. It allows me to choose faces from real life and give them remote-controlled detached voices. I am interested in giving a person a written personality that is not their own, without them having to act. One of the people I worked with a few years ago said to me, “I feel like a prop,” and it was a good observation. They are a prop for the attached voice, a decoration for the voice, something the eyes can think about as the voice enters the ear.

In both performance and video the use of the microphone as a musical instrument with which to work on the voice is really important. As I do a lot of voiceover for my own work, I have found that my voice becomes someone else’s voice through the microphone and I can then manipulate it both in recording and in editing afterwards. I have so much to say about voiceover and monologue that we could make the whole interview about only that. Think of the voice over in Casino shared by Ace (Robert De Niro) and Nicky (Joe Pesci), or a real voice such as at Charles Bukowski reading; even if I am not a big fan of his poetry, his voice offers an incredible view straight into his soul. It was great to work with Kate, Ineke and Miles on the rhythm, speed, loudness and intonation of their voices: that’s my music.

IH: You say that the performed work allows a fragility that perhaps a video work might not and also an open-ended process of interpretation and re-interpretation. Reading the script after seeing the work live, I was more conscious of the structure of it and of your writing process, whereas initially I had to intuit the whole work together. Would you consider publishing the script of The Scavenger’s daughters and how would you feel about its production by other artist/ directors?

OB: Yes, I will publish The Scavenger’s daughters. I am starting work on a book at the moment with all my texts. There will be sound recordings with it, so there will also be both the written and the physical experience of the voice but with no images.

I don’t know how I would feel about somebody else directing my work. It would be a strange experiment, one I would not be opposed to trying…

IH: In some of your more recent works, such as Portable stones and Bastardstown blagger (2007), the rural (or coastal) and the urban were shown in contrast to or in conflict with one another. In The Scavenger’s daughters, the backdrop of the stage was a map of a fictional land, and I wondered whether this represented a reconciliation of the two?

OB: It is a fictional island, an island away from the city. I think there is no reconciliation to be had between urban and rural.

Isobel Harbison