I Don’t Believe It: Shattering the Illusion in the Work of Paula Barrett

by Imelda Barnard, 2009

Art, ars, means “deception,” and…the artist (suspending disbelief) must participate in his own illusion, if it is to be convincing. He must fool himself. – Paul Barolsky

The work of Paula Barrett does not give much away. Talking to this artist, however, it is clear that such simplicity is deliberate, an attempt to say a lot by saying very little. And yet the work’s apparent minimalism exists in stark contrast to the artist’s initial practice of consuming a maximum of material: this is a practice very much informed by theory. This is not without its problems.

Often the relationship between art and its inspiration can appear laboured, with the art itself becoming a mere shadow of the works that have influenced it. Barrett’s work, however, manages to eat the theory and then spit it out into something entirely new, fashioning it, more significantly, into something less weighty and more playful. Referencing Ranciere, Plato and Kierkegaard does not initially suggest a jaunty or humorous strain, and yet the works that Barrett presented for her MA ACW show were, on the surface, very much removed from the heavy throb of political and philosophical discourse.

The two video works, The Will to Suspend Disbelief, displayed side by side, disrupted their sleek and ultra hi-tech presentation through their unashamed DIY aesthetic. Taking their cue from the ubiquity of home-made videos and the rise of the amateur, everyman TV star via such public facilities as YouTube, these works laugh in the face of artistic seriousness, the artist herself assuming the central role of both untrained actor and crucial participant.

Whilst the playful aspect is revealed in this staging of the artist as unheroic protagonist, it is more obvious in the way Barrett presents her material. Mimicking the chatty nature of such home videos, the artist’s attempts at acting naturally merely heighten the very artificiality of the process itself, as well as hinting at the sheer absurdity of what the viewer is invited to watch. The content deserves elaboration: composed of two videos under the same title, one shows Barrett, assuming a mock-serious tone, demonstrating how to perform the simple act of levitation, with the other a step-by-step account of how to defy gravity and create the illusion that objects are capable of free-floating in space.

Centred around the suspension of disbelief, ironically these how-to guides function by revealing their own construction, suggesting rather that we must suspend the will to believe, with the shattered magical illusion mirroring the artless, synthetic staging of the artistic process itself. This inference of art as somehow manipulative, an elaborately deceptive production that involves the removal of certain forms of disbelief, gestures more significantly towards Barrett’s own, self-professed cynicism towards the very act of artistic creation. Consequently, Barrett seems to partake in a personal suspension of disbelief towards the artistic process by fooling herself, artfully engaging – and obviously participating – with her material at an artless distance. 

Rather than this scepticism becoming a form of paralysis, the work itself is borne from this frustration, its mock humour and light-hearted teasing being transformed into moments of thoughtful, theoretical, engagement. Such lighthearted methods do, however, belie a practice that continuously questions. The Will to Suspend Disbelief, by exposing the tricks at the heart of magical illusion serves to make suspect the wider tricks that prevail in our dealings with reality. Indeed, Barrett talks about employing magical motifs because they express the ‘often illusory nature of the power of knowledge’, with the videos highlighting the human desire to overcome the laws of nature through rational explanation. 

This perhaps explains Barrett’s Duration Pieces, which are based on the arbitrary measurement of time, itself hinting at ‘the constructed nature of human systems of objective order’. In a similar vein, Barrett’s videos ‘aim to interrogate the limits of knowledge and rationality’, the use of the home video indicative of the mass diffusion of often useless, yet easily accessible, information. The implication inherent in this willed suspension of disbelief, that the audience submit to the rules of the game in exchange for entertainment, is also tested as a means by which the non-rational is rationalised. 

Going further, Barrett questions the need that enlightened audiences still have for explanation, for the unveiling of certain illusory practices, such as those rooted in mysticism or religion, that unhinge our rational commitment to the world. Although the unknown is here rendered absolutely visible, Barrett suggests that non-rational methods of dealing with the present are somehow enabling, granting a certain amount of control, despite the subject submitting to rules that exist outside of the self.

This is revealed in a further component of The Will to Suspend Disbelief, which confronts the viewer through its placement immediately on entry into the gallery space. Urging a degree of involvement by suspending a pair of 3-D glasses from the ceiling – the apparent levitation of which echoes the image to be looked at – this work consists of a projection of the artist, feet raised slightly above the ground. Back turned, arms wide open, the conjured image of a crucifix is only revealed as an act of levitation when the 3-D glasses are worn, again suggestive of the malleable border between real and fictional, belief and disbelief. 

Barrett describes this piece as ‘a reflection on systems of human knowledge and ways of seeing, which are inescapably linked to our physicality’, the need to create certain frameworks in which to situate our experience of the world. In this context, the cruciform that is manifested in the artist’s stance indicates this pervasive urge to have faith in something beyond reason. Referencing Kierkegaard and his suspicion towards faith in God from any objective, truth-based dimension, Barrett instead highlights the subjective as favouring belief rather than proof. Rather than merely observing, Barrett seems to conjure motifs of visibility and subjectivity in order to make significant the practice of embodiment, of individual ownwership in a world that is increasingly distant by virtue of its overloaded, informatised knowability. 

That power is knowledge is here rendered obsolete, precisely because the spectator is as much a part of the deception as the artist. Consequently, The Will to Suspend Disbelief emerges as a study into the illusion of rational knowledge itself, the pieces themselves offering alternative ways of overcoming the material and undermining the frameworks which act to control our environment. Yet this presentation is not without ambiguity. By shattering the magical illusion, and by using a piece of ice as a symbol of the disappearing future (in Duration Piece II), Barrett also suggests the ultimate futility of trying to control the uncontrollable, the impossibility of knowing the unknowable or seeing that which is invisible. Our attempts to grasp it will merely melt away.

The extent to which the playful and sincere exist concomitantly is further exposed in Kairos Captured I & 2, a piece which all the succeeding work appears to emerge from. Divided into fifty, hung on the wall, and presented behind sheets of clear plastic, this is composed of 100 scratch cards, some of which have been scratched out whilst others await their fate behind what feels like a closed door. Using the plastic as a shield between viewer and object, the temptation to touch the scratch cards is exaggerated, transforming the profane into something potentially sacred. 

This is a theme that runs throughout: in the way that the videos from The Will to Suspend Disbelief shatter an illusion, turning the mysterious into the mundane, the unknowable into the fathomable, Kairos Captured I & 2 does the opposite, privileging instead the transformative possibility inherent in the cards themselves. This is thus a moment of heightened potential, poised between the actual and the possible, forever caught in a moment of becoming. Furthermore, like the videos, the rules of the game are suspended, highlighting the effects that such illusory preoccupations inflict upon the viewer: frozen in time the scratch cards freeze certain emotional reactions – racing hearts, quick movements and thoughts of the future as opposed to the present. 

This idea of time as something laden, caught as it is between now and then, is a central motif in the work Barrett presents here, and so it is unsurprising that the title of the scratch card piece – Kairos Captured – contains this idea of suspension within its very fabric. Understood in ancient Greek terms as the opportune moment, kairos is a reference to time, ‘a momentary break in the determined narrative of chronological time’. (Barrett) Consequently, unlike the linear chronological nature of chronos, kairos is based on contingency, on time as something closer to chance, to in-between moments that can’t be quantified. This sense of kairos captured thus suggests a moment caught in the act, the scratch cards themselves emblematic of a gap in time. 

What heightens this privileged moment is the fact that chance as a motif is inscribed in these small, rectangular, paper-thin objects: there is a fifty-fifty chance that we will win or lose, the percentage itself mimicked in the presentation of the piece in two parts. Such apparent equilibrium also exists at the level of artist and spectator: ‘For this piece [Kairos Captured I & 2] I was trying to form an equal relationship between the artist and the viewer’, itself questioning the broader participatory dynamic at work between artist, spectator, and artwork.

This participatory dimension is made more manifest when Barrett talks about considering kairos itself as ‘a participatory event’, the caught moment emerging as an event in the terms described by Alain Badiou, as a happening ‘that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in ‘what there is’’. This idea of a break with the ordinary also implicates the subject and it is unsurprising to learn that ‘the experience of the audience is always a major consideration’, indicated by the centrality of the audience in the creation of the illusionary tricks in The Will to Suspend Disbelief. 

Central here is the reference to Ranciere that seems to inform much of Barrett’s thinking around participation: highlighting the Aristotelian notion of the citizen as he who partakes in the fact of ruling and the fact of being ruled, Ranciere suggests a being who is both the agent of action and one whom the action is exercised upon. Moving away from the association of participation with community, Barrett instead emphasises the possibilities for individual empowerment, the subject emerging as a being who is both ruled and yet capable of ruling. Although the artist – or author – herself appears as the puppet master pulling the magician’s strings, Barrett continuously structures her work around relinquishing a certain amount of authorial control, emancipating the spectator by allowing them to enter into the joke. 

However, in the way that Italo Calvino in his If on a winter’s night a traveller actually draws attention to the author through his masterly control of the reader, Barrett risks a similar omniscience. Yet this is somewhat dispelled by the work’s materiality, and its emphasis upon democratic modes of engagement and distribution. Privileging the use of emancipated social networking devices, and common items such as scratch cards, Barrett prioritises the freedom of the participant from the traditional artist/viewer relationship. In Kairos Captured, for example, the artist is as caught up in the suspense of the piece as much as the spectator, just as she is bound up with the deception of the magic trick as much as the viewer.

Additionally, Kairos, as a rupture in time’s narrative, represents ‘a significant and decisive moment of empowerment’ (Barrett), so that while opportunity and chance encounter are inevitable in our dealings with everyday life, in order to be effective they require an element of agency on the part of the player. The frozen action that these half-touched scratch cards represent is thus the possibility for this inactive event to become active, its presence conjured through the participatory action of choice, complete with both the desire, and the will, to alter one’s reality. 

What is most real about this piece – and, indeed, The Will to Suspend Disbelief – is its absolute static, imaginative, nature: if one’s world is going to change it can only occur through an imaginative leap of faith, captured as these cards are behind a plastic barrier. Kairos Captured, for all its gestures towards contingency, chance, fate, and participation, is a work that essentially privileges imaginative wandering over experiential experience, existing only in the mind of the spectator.

Imelda Barnard October 2009