Stephanie Barber's new film addresses the quiet risks involved in artistic practice

Stephanie Barber is a filmmaker, a poet, a teacher, and a musician,

but she simply considers herself an artist. Last year, her band Bobby Donnie was named



's "Best New Band" and she published a book,


Night Moves

(Publishing Genius Press), which created a surprisingly moving collage out of YouTube comments on a video for Bob Seger's ode to teenage lust. Her first feature-length film,


, which premiered at an avant-garde festival in New York, screens at MICA on March 27. The first section of the film is a long interview between a journalist (played by the artist KimSu Theiler) and an artist, Dora (played by experimental-theater veteran Flora Coker), who describes various projects, such as a magnetic hotel room, and a holographic movie. In the second part, the journalist is running on a treadmill while listening to a daredevil artist talk on a podcast (voiced by local musician and artist Jenny Graf) as two people, Joan Sullivan (who plays with Barber in Bobby Donnie) and Tom Boram, play squash in the background. In the final part, the journalist returns home and dances to a piece of music that has been recorded in small interstitial bits of the film by a man banging on rocks as Publishing Genius' Adam Robinson sings. And there's a voiceover by the great poet Susan Howe. It is a strange, meditative, haunting, and ultimately beautiful film.


City Paper

caught up with Barber for a wide-ranging conversation about her life and these various projects at a Station North café. After discussing her childhood and youth, Barber chided us for our interest in the biographical details of her life and answered many questions off the record or refused to answer them at all. So we pick up the conversation in medias res.

Stephanie Barber: I feel a little shy. Uh, yeah, so I guess I would love it if we just talked about . . . is that too much to just talk about the work?

City Paper: No, that's fine. So when did you really start making films as a serious . . . ?

SB: Uh, high school. Not quite serious serious, but like the first time I ever shot film with ideas. And not for my dad. My dad and I would make videos, which mostly I just got to be the cameraperson in his kung fu movies.

CP: Oh, he made kung fu movies?

SB: Yeah, which is just like, you know, we got to make a movie! "I just got paid 500 dollars!" That would be a prop, money was always a prop.

CP: So not money to actually finance the movie.

SB: No, I didn't even think about that one! Yeah, I forget about that. So it's just like, open up on the money.

CP: But as a child you thought of yourself as a poet. Was there something that drove you to want more than words, to want images and . . .

SB: Um, no. I mean, I know it sounds like a sort of discussion about genre or a kind of theoretical construct, but I really think they're all the same. So I don't think I've ever been-I don't think any film has pushed away from words. I think our entire way of understanding our existence is-even a painting with no text on it is mitigated through language. And I think that's inescapable. So on a more practical level, many of my films, about two-thirds of my films and videos, really use text, as an almost ascendant element. More than half of the piece you know is about the text, or the conceptual framework, which is conveyed by the text. I think it's an essay film.

CP: In Daredevils, the notion of these people sitting and talking, or walking and listening, is that what being the daredevil sort of is? Talk a little bit about that notion of daredevils and conversation.

SB: I don't think that I had thought about that in that particular way-if what I'm thinking you're suggesting is that the daredevilry is in conversational expression. Which, as soon as you say it, I absolutely agree, and so much of my work is about conversation as a form. I'm so interested in the pattern and rise and fall of conversations. But I was really thinking about the life of an artist is a sort of daredevilry. And when people are good conversationalists, it's art.

CP: And why did you have a journalist involved in the conversation with the artist, as opposed to simply another person?

SB: That's a good question. I think that along with wanting to map out a conversation, I wanted to sort of-through the Dora character, whose real name is Flora-I wanted to present some ideas and some pieces of art in sort of a funny joke, packaging these art pieces that I've always wanted to do, these large-scale art pieces. In a way it's like this backdoor patent machine, the movie land, you know, the movie theater as patent, so now I have made the hologram, the magnetic hotel room, and the holographic installation, holographic walkthrough installation film. Yeah, so they're done. I got them off my plate. And so in order to allow for a non-equal back-and-forth conversation where I could give the artist huge chunks about what it means to be an artist or her particular pieces of work, it needed to be interview or else she would have come off as so-

CP: Self-absorbed?

SB: Mhmm, yeah. And also I mean, just the interview format is interesting, and I feel like it's rare for people to allow themselves to listen, and sometimes conversation is just people waiting to say their thing in real life. Always the back and forth.

CP: Right, so then the reporter, then she is also a listener again while being the sole focus of the, well, not the sole focus, just the background, but-

SB: Of both times, and then she's listening to the song too. Translating that into dance.

CP: Yeah, so what about her-it's interesting because she then becomes the main character in a way.

SB: Yeah, I guess I hadn't thought that, it's true she's listening and altering, and in a way listening to Susan Howe's voice, the chorus' voice, but I mean, we're all listening to that, I don't know if she's privy to that. Yeah, she is a listener and she is a writer. Her character is as the writer. And I think when she sort of begins to assert her own sense of her own ideas, her own recent struggles, thinking about how to be, she is a little bit shut down. Or not shut down, it's just not the space for that. It's not the space for back and forth. And yeah, I hadn't thought that she's just a listener. So in a way she is-her character plays the role of that thing which through, you know, she's just a conduit. But that sounds so horrible, to create a character that's a conduit. I want to redraft that statement. Where's my lawyer? She is a listener, which is very difficult and a great thing to be. But she's not without affect. You know, her translation of the song into dance, her response to the podcast is a sort of . . . that jogging and [the] micro-gestures that cross her face so beautifully-and then her sorrow in response to that question of choosing not to live basically-is like a huge wordless diatribe on that sort of pain and wondering. Chaplin, a silent film actress.

CP: That's cool. So you just mentioned the chorus part of [well-known poet] Susan Howe. Why did you want her to do it?

SB: Just sort of a sentimentalism. You know, she was a poet that I really was in love with when I was in high school. Sort of one of the first writers that I read who was beginning to alter form as opposed to alter[ing] content. I was really into Genet and Andre Gide, and I don't know, whoever was formally deconstructing work in a way that I hadn't seen. And [Howe's work] really opened me up to a sort of interest in formalism-but not necessarily formalism in the way that it is as a theoretical construct, but the idea of form. Form as expressing something separate from content. Or, excitingly, divergent from content.


CP: And do you think that plays a big role in Daredevils? The diverging of form and content?


SB: Yeah, absolutely. For me at least that's a huge element to a lot of my films and videos. I'm really interested in that. But, I don't think that just because I made it I have the final say on what it's about. For me, one of the things it's about, in terms of content, is conversation. Dialogue. And then it is also about how people organize their lives and how it's a little bit scary in a fun way, in a challenging way. Sometimes I do this exercise video online and it's really really hard and it's like these total micro-movements from these ballerinas. It's really hard. It's a man and a woman who demonstrate it-and when it gets really hard you can see the woman's face steels up. It's such an amazing thing that happens to her face. It's like how incredibly difficult it is. And yeah, and I feel like that about that kind of life, about the woman who's a daredevil [in the film], she's dangling from the San Francisco bridge. Nobody told her that that should be her job. It's just a very, very unusual way to think about organizing our time here, which is, you know, finite.

CP: Yeah, I'm really interested in that idea of different ways of organizing our lives, and you brought it up again now. When you say that, are you talking about some kind of organizing instinct behind your life, or just the way that we happen to piece together, or . . .

SB: I like the idea of being on company manners with life. Yeah, and so maybe I do mean in terms of an overall sense of an organizing principle. In terms of dedicating yourself to a path. But also just-do we decide to live in the U.S. or in other countries? Do we decide to live alone or with people? Do we decide to, you know, like crawl around every day under bushes in the median between highways, or do we decide to live in the sky? I don't know, all the people are doing it so differently.

CP: Does it feel for you like a totally different thing for you to work with another person and play in a band [Bobby Donnie]?

SB: I basically feel like all art is the same thing. With a band, maybe it's a little different or maybe [it] feels different because Joan [Sullivan] and I are different people, and yeah, it's always interesting in bands because you are considering another person and where they are. I really like the sort of exercise of writing those songs, and having to try to sing and play drums at the same time is a really kind of fascinating brain yoga that I've never really experienced before. I think that the lyrics are sort of playing with this notion of sentimental finality, which is something that I'm pretty interested in. And formally I'm excited about the songs because most of them are just chorus, chorus, chorus, or not even chorus, just part, part, part. And they don't have this sort of traditional, you know, rock verse-chorus-verse format. I like that sort of expectation of that, but we don't do that, we don't make those kind of songs. And they're sort of simultaneously funny in a sort of falling-down, just-about-to-break machine way. But the way that Joan and I play and the sort of hope for the grandeur, and you know, expectations for a rock song which we never really achieve . . . it's like invading pop music with something that feels soulful or funny but doesn't, it's like a gentle upset.

CP: What are you doing now?

SB: So what I'm doing right now is I just started spring break so I'm totally partying, I'm totally wasted right now. Do you wanna see my tits? I'm totally wasted and about to go to Texas, which I'm really looking forward to, do a bunch of screenings in Austin and Houston. And I'm excited because I'm going to drive from Austin to Houston and back. So then I'll go there for a week. And what I'm really doing in terms of making something is making a video that's about boxing. Sort of working with imagery and appropriated phrases from sports writers on boxing. Like thinking about the way that sports-writing can see all of this thought and nuance and muscle mastery that we can't or I can't-maybe you can-but, for me, it's really just not something that I'm trained in.

CP: So you have this interest in athleticism and extreme sort of tests on the body-

SB: I like to do things with my body. I like to dance a lot, and I dance at home a lot, and I do a lot of yoga. And I did a lot of ballet as a child. And I, yeah. I always think people that are athletes are basically, you know, athletes and artists are so similar, this sort of dedication to this life that's, well, less obvious, maybe more difficult. I mean, this thing about you being against yourself in sports and competition is maybe more clearly seen. And maybe some people think that in art, competition is clearly seen, but I don't exactly believe that. It's sort of you and yourself and the whole history of everything ever invented being expressed or having been expressed.

CP: That was one of the things that I thought was so cool about the movie, was that conversation really was exciting in it. And just listening and jogging was really exciting.

SB: That's really what I wanted. I feel like the weight and the temporal ascendancy of that first [interview] chunk is sort of counterbalanced by the emotional prowess of that last [dance] chunk. So it almost feels like three equal parts, with this jogging as the fulcrum balancing these different ways of thinking about art.

CP: What else should people know about the movie?

SB: The movie opened at the New York Film Festival, I'm showing it in Texas coming up . . .

CP: And you're showing it here.

SB: And I'm showing here! See, I'm not good at that marketing! I'm showing it here and that should be good or scary. I'm actually absolutely terrified of it. But, no, I love the movie, it's so good, it's the-yeah, I'm such a freak. I just don't want everybody all up in my grill! But I so desperately want to show it.

CP: I find your reluctance interesting and kind of moving-


SB: Well, I may be wrong with this, but I feel like there is a way-forgive me, this is not supposed to be an attack, I don't think you have done this, or I don't know your work well enough to even judge-but I think there's a way that people write about women's work which has to do with who they are and what they're thinking about and about their psychology, and men's work just as an object to be considered work. And if I were like a great personality, I would probably be a politician, but I'm a great artist, not a, you know, my job is to be an artist and that's what I feel like sharing. Not stories about my incredibly bizarre and fucked-up childhood, not stories about me being cute or neurotic. It just seems like a way of infantilizing the process. I signed on in this life to be judged only by my work. It's all I'm good at. All right.

CP: I was hoping that I would be slightly manipulative so we-

SB: You are! You're killing me!

CP: -so you'd be talking about this process in your movie-

SB: But if you notice in the film, and it's very pointedly so, the interviewer doesn't ask the artist about her childhood, about her motivation, about her . . . she at one point offers a sort of review of her psychological state, but the interviewer wasn't asking. She's asking about the decision to move to Florida came about. She says specifically, "Was it for the work? Or for some other . . . " and then [Dora] decides to share the part of the internal psychology of what was happening. But it becomes a generative statement about about how it relates to the artwork. I feel like that interview is very respectful and she lets the artist stay there in that space of being a subject merely as a creator, not as a person. ?


screens at MICA's Falvey Hall on March 27. For more information, visit