SIX QUESTIONS with Bruce Barber

UNITED TECHNOLOGIES “WRONG ROUTE TO PEACE”, was published in the Atlantic magazine, Vol. 249, No. 3, March 1982. UNITED TECHNOLOGIES frequently places such advertisements in the Atlantic and other liberal/conservative magazines with wide circulation in North America and Europe. The purpose of this advertisement is to allay the fears of the American public to the growing anti-nuclear movement in Western European member countries of the NATO alliance. The section beginning “The Soviet’s opportunism…” (second column) is a ‘paraphrasing’ of a section from a speech delivered by a hawkish Democratic U.S. Senator, Henry M. Jackson, in 1971. Titled “The Strategic Balance. The Future of Freedom”, the speech was published in the journal Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol . 42, 1970-71, p.484. Senator Jackson’s version reads: “I have likened the Soviet Union in its foreign policy to a burglar walking down a hotel corridor trying the door handles. When he finds one unlocked – in he goes.”



* Artworks no longer available through IOTA

Precise Distance for Viewing are 6×4 postcards of larger image texts assembled from among the most reproduced and decorated (i.e.awarded) images in the media each year from 1990-2000.  The images were ‘excised’ and ‘taxed’ (detourned into silhouettes) according to the  principles that I outlined in my Reading Rooms aphorisms “Excision, Detournement, and Reading the Open Text” (pp: 90-91). As I wrote, #4 “Excising is a form of image taxing that allows the absence of certain levels of signification to confirm some of the latent meanings within the image or text as a whole.

The absent referents allow the reader to footnote the image/text with his or her own information, and this further reinforces the inter-textual nature of reading as writing (as production), and the position of the reader as a political subject.” And #5 “Excisionism is a form of negative montage that renders the meaning of the image transparent and permits the reader to move beyond  a structured reading of a closed textual world, to (re-negotiate) the meaning possibilities within and beyond the frame.” The verso of the cards offers several numbered points on the veracity of photographic (reproduction)  in the digital age and the impossibility of finding truth in a single image, thus echoing Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Author as Producer” (1936) that “What we should demand of the photographer is the the possibility of adding a text (caption) that will tear the print away from modish commerce and provide it with some revolutionary use value.

Books by the artist:

Bruce Barber is an interdisciplinary media artist, cultural historian and curator whose research and writing explores the representation of art, artists and art history in film and television and literature, performance art, public and littoral art. He is best known for his performance work, neo-conceptual reading and writing rooms, Squat projects and his theoretical writing and practice with littoral art, cultural intervention and other relational art practices.

Barber’s interdisciplinary artwork has been exhibited internationally at the Paris Biennale, Sydney Biennale, 49th Parallel Gallery, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Whatcom Museum, Walter Phillips Gallery, London Regional Gallery, Auckland City Art Gallery, National Gallery of N.Z., Casula Powerhouse, Te Tuhi Gallery, Artspace, Sydney and Auckland and is represented in various private and public collections. His critical essays have appeared internationally in numerous anthologies, art journals, and magazines. Barber’s interdisciplinary art practice is documented in the publications Reading Rooms (1996) and Bruce Barber Work 1970 2008. (2010). For full biographical information please visit:



You have analysed the negative portrayal of artists in film in your book Trans/Actions: Art, Film and Death (2009), you have written extensively about cinematic subversion and The Situationist problematic, as well as engaged with notions of the fourth wall in how you have challenged the audience-to-performer role. What is the relationship of your performances to film and cinema?

Bruce Barber:

It may sound somewhat prosaic but a famous playwright once wrote that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts….” Increasingly this ‘stage’ is one that is subject to mediated representation, that is through cinematic, video and photographic documentation. The ‘selfie generation’ engages in performative acts on a daily basis that are recorded and then uploaded for the world to see. If he were alive today, Shakespeare probably would be highly amused by our digitally [re-] mediated existence(s) and would instinctively recognize the performative impetus for self-presentation. Guy Debord and the Situationists were among the first to recognize and provide a critique of the spectacular conditions of everyday life, arguing that the death of cinema was imminent, or in Debord’s case, a necessary prelude to social reinvention. In Debord’s theses, the IS applied the term spectacle with its various connotations (simulacrum, sight, play, theatrical presence), to all aspects of socio-cultural relations under monopoly capitalism. At its most incisive the term represented the hegemonic tendencies sustained/subsumed under, and reproduced by capitalist ideologies.[1] As many contemporary commentators have acknowledged the spectacle is even more integrated now – a “spectacular phantasmagoria” – than it was in 1960’s, that as philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes, “makes the implacable lucidity of his [Debord’s] diagnosis all the more remarkable.”[2] For the Situationists, the antidote, or, in terms less psycho/physiological, and more contemporary — the counter – hegemonic agents – (the loci of resistance), became the adventitious ‘construction of situations’, which from the beginning involved the notion of intervention.[3]

“The construction of situations can only begin to be effective as the concept of the spectacle begins to disintegrate.”[4]

My art practice, particularly where it engages with notion of intervention and the documentation of performative acts (act texts), has been stimulated by some of these notions, and in early work I frequently included video apparatus in the work itself; from closed circuit video recording in the 1970’s in works such as Lead Performance (1973) to streaming video directly to the internet with Novelsquat (1998). Other performance works were documented with still photographs, film or video. In an early artist statement I wrote that viewers could be considered either or both “active or passive participants” and my Audience Arrangements structurally defined viewers, spectators, audience members as participant performers in the event.


What is an agitational lecture, and how does it function within the context of the institution/art space?

Bruce Barber:

You are probably thinking of my AgitLecture: Wrong Route to Peace at the Banff Centre for the Arts in the Performance as Resistance series. This was a slide-illustrated lecture, performed strategically by me sitting in an armchair ostensibly reading the Atlantic Monthly in an engaged, somewhat dispassionate manner as a form of active resistance/ protest. On the long wall of the gallery were posters outlined in the form of a cruise missile, the type that was being then about to be tested with Canadian and provincial government permission across the wide plains of Alberta. While I was lecturing, copies of the wall poster “Wrong Route to Peace” (an advocacy advertisement) with my critical footnotes added, also a key aspect of my deconstructive reading during the A[d]git lecture, was being rolled into mailing tubes by an assistant. The tubes were then provided with return addresses and given to audience members (active participants) to mail to the Corporate Headquarters of United Technologies in Hartford Connecticut.


Can you tell us about your recent exhibition Spectres of Marx at the Palazzo Mora and Bembo exhibitions organized by the Global Arts Affairs Foundation, a collateral exhibition of the 2015 Venice Biennale?

Bruce Barber:

Thank you asking this question about my recent work which is on view in Palazzo Mora until November 22nd. I can best answer perhaps by quoting from my statement in the exhibition catalogue.

Spectres of Marx has its origin in a small work I produced in 1983 to commemorate the centenary of the death of Karl Marx. This consisted of a postcard which I made with a détourned logo from the journal of the CPCML (Communist Party of Canada Marxist Leninist) that originally showed Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, whom I excised/erased as a result of his going out of favour globally for his dictatorial policies, the Gulag and forced starvation of millions. What’s interesting for me is that all of these figures, including Mao and Gramsci, wrote about art and artists, the role of culture as both a conservative reproducer of ideology and potential agent of change, if only, in Stalin’s case, to propagate/propagandize his social-realist ideology!

My subsequent reading of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International occurred in the late 1990’s and I was very much taken with his evocation of Marx’s hauntology “A spectre is haunting Europe” and his notion of an international movement that will counter neo-liberal ideology. The tripartite process for producing [my] “Spectres of Marx” is indebted to and parallels Derrida’s process of deconstruction which in his text is a process of submitting Marxism to sous rature [under erasure] specifically to engage the continuing possibilities of [Marxism] challenging hegemonic capitalism, after the fall (of the Wall). His discussion of the spectres haunting Europe, the work of mourning and the new international, I borrowed as a model for my [performance] – existential gestures in time and space, art without art, party without party and revolution without revolution.

The preliminary drawing in the installation was therefore a tracing of the reflection/projection of the iconic figures of revolutionary Marxism followed by black on white painting/tracing over the trace, followed by a sanding of the surface to remove slight protrusions and finally an over painting/erasure, white on white — perhaps ‘white washing’ (also documented for this exhibition on video) that nevertheless leaves the spectral forces somewhat evident and intact, with the spectral image of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci added, that to my mind continues the deconstructive process of “haunting” that Derrida perceived to be a necessity for a critically engaged and radical project of reinvention. Hence my endorsement of a key paragraph on the character of the New International proposed in Spectres of Marx:

“The ‘New International’ is an untimely link, without status … without coordination, without party, without country, without national community, without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class. The name of New International is given here to what calls to the friendship of an alliance without institution among those who … continue to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx or of Marxism. It is a call for them to ally themselves, in a new, concrete and real way, even if this alliance no longer takes the form of a party or a workers’ international, in the critique of the state of international law, the concepts of State and nation, and so forth: in order to renew this critique, and especially to radicalize it.” (Jacques Derrida Spectres of Marx)


Since your early subversive use of the poster and relationship to the worker in a contemporary art context, (such as in: Reading Room, A visual analysis of corporate advertising, Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, Halifax, (1984) and 49th Parallel Gallery New York (1985), capitalist tools have completely assimilated into our everyday, often making the class struggle less apparent. How do you think discussion on classism and propaganda has changed in the contemporary art world after the digital age?

Bruce Barber:

I’m not sure whether the class struggle is less apparent, though it may have taken different forms in everyday life that we experience as both prescient and historically constituted. Think of many events taking place in the world today –the struggle against ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa, the plight of religious and classed refugees in the Mediterranean, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean reinforcing the notion that classism, racism, sexism and propaganda (the conflicted propagation of beliefs in the struggle for hegemony) have been further facilitated and exacerbated by the so-called ‘digital revolution’ in social communication; but so too has the capacity for surveillance and control (Snowden) that has become the subject of much media and scholarly attention, and the focus of work for some artists today. My work that you cite: Reading Room: A Visual Analysis of Corporate Advertising involved the collection of dozens of corporate advertisements, print and video, that I argued were forms of soft propaganda that were even more insidious that hard propaganda because they were unconsciously assimilated by readers/viewers; confirming as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that ideologies are “legitimating discourses” operating with a great deal of complexity and contrariness. Bourdieu acknowledged moreover, that these discourses and the institutions from which they emanate provide the sites within which our understanding of ideological effects, influences and power must be located. As he wrote: “The most successful ideological effects are the ones that have no need of words, but only of laissez faire and complicitous silence.” Hence I would argue the dangers for our personal sovereignty.


You have been an active artist, writer, theorist and professor since the late 60s. There is hardly a question that hasn’t been asked of you and about your practice. Is there an element of your work that hasn’t seen engagement or dissection in critical arts discourse?

Bruce Barber:

I have been fortunate to receive some very challenging questions, increasingly about some of my early work from the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s that are very satisfying to receive and fortunately I am still able to remember back that far, although I may have trouble with some details about people and dates. I enjoy questions about my recent work and writing, including the book Littoral Art and Communicative Action that was recently launched.


What’s next?

Bruce Barber:

I am fortunate to have enough work: teaching, writing, editing and exhibiting to keep me very busy both in the immediate future and also for the next few years. And after that, I hope to continue my interdisciplinary practice as an artist and writer. Thank you for these excellent questions and your continuing interest in my work.

[1] The influences on Debord’s writings of Andre Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Georg Lukacs and Henri Lefebvre, particularly the texts of the last two authors mentioned: Lefebvre’s Critique de la vie quotidien Paris 1947 and Lukacs History and Class Consciousness (1922, 1960*, 1971) have been explored usefully by Peter Wollen in his essay “The Situationist International” NLR March/April 1989. Wollen also discussed the intellectual relationship between Asger Jorn and Debord. * French translation by K. Axielos and J. Bois, Paris Les editions de Minuit 1960.

[2] Agamben, G. The Coming Community. Minneapolis, Theory Out of Bounds, Vol. 1. University of Minnesota Press. , 1993 Shekinah VIII: 1 and passim.

[3] I have previously explored this notion with respect to the theory and practice of performance. See Barber, B. “Notes Toward an adequate Interventionist [Performance] Practice The ACT Vol 1 No 1 winter/spring 1986 New York pp 14-24 and Barber, B. Reading Rooms Halifax, Eyelevel Gallery 1992

[4] op. cit.6 p.13 from IS No. 1, 1958 Knabb Anthology, op. cit. 1 The translation of this passage differs quite markedly in places. However, both retain the overall senses of the original. See the full series of IS journals see International Situationiste 1958_1969 Paris, 1975. The original essay appeared in Les Lèvres Nues #8 (May 1956) a Belgian surrealist journal

Bruce Barber is an interdisciplinary media artist, cultural historian and curator whose research and writing explores the representation of art, artists and art history in film and television and literature, performance art, public and littoral art.