Since childhood, Daniel Barrow has found comfort in drawing. It has allowed him to export his internal visions while getting a handle of the world around him. Born in Winnipeg and based in Montreal, he works in projection, performance, animation, printmaking sculpture, and painting. All of his pieces, including sculpture and performance, revolve around his practice of drawing. Barrow is best known for his manual comic book and cinematic narratives, which are performance pieces given by overhead projectors. With these projected animations, he works through themes of fantasy, spirituality, empathy, isolation, and queerness. His installation was featured at this year’s Power Ball XIX: Stereo Vision.
Tatyana Wolfman: Comic books and films are some of your biggest influences. Which have had the biggest impact on your work?
DB: Daniel Clowes is without rival my favorite comic-book artist and the greatest comic book story-teller of our generation. I actually worry about the impact of his narratives on my own work, and try consistently to expand my reading list.
My tolerance for bad film is much greater than my tolerance for bad comic books, so I cast a broader net of influences and inspirations in film. Ronald Neame, Fellini and De Palma are some of my all-time favorite directors. My favorite movie of 2016 was Manchester by the Sea, and the best movie, for my money, of 2017, so far, is Get Out.
Music and literature also have had a huge impact on my work, along with art historical figures like Jean Antoine Watteau.
T: Your work mixes everything from rococo, surrealism, Greek iconography and contemporary culture. How do you choose the periods you reference and what do you hope to achieve with these combinations?
DB: I don’t at all map out how my references come together in my work. Nor do I have an artistic aim apart from following the freedom of my own imagination and making my work “better” in a very general sense. The piece I presented at Power Ball was specifically referencing Magic Lantern “slipping slides,” Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and the clichéd cinematic ways of representing an erotic dream.
T: While big movie studios push to get animation to look as real as possible, you use obsolete projectors to create comic book narratives. Why choose these antiquated technologies to tell your stories?
DB: A lot has been made of the fact that I consistently use “obsolete” technologies , and while I am in many respects a nostalgic person, I’m far more drawn to technologies because they are simple (many of which happen to be antiquated) and I am always searching for ways to expedite my process. I prefer working with a few people as possible – ideally alone. I consider my work cinematically ambitious, but my methods are more similar to that of a puppeteer. I love the idea of perfecting an animated gesture, but I prefer to focus my energies on pictorial depictions and story, and fast-track an animated drawing by manually moving it through a gesture and moderating everything as a live performer. The overhead projector allows me to do all of this very quickly.
T: Is having transparent/demystified mode of storytelling important to you?
DB: Being present in the room to moderate the telling of a story to an audience is important to me. I love the energy of a live audience and the relationship that can develop in real time between a performer and audience.
T: Can you tell us about the two pieces, “House on Fire” and “Learning to Breathe Underwater,” you installed for Powerball?
DB: Learning to Breathe Underwater is a composited, and projected image of a prince having sex with a mermaid on a canopy bed. It is made using three video projections and five overhead projections. The drapery of the canopy bed is projected through dishes of water animated by fans. The viewer uses an aluminum “slipping slide” (based on pre-cinematic magic lantern technology) fastened to an overhead projector to activate the act of intercourse, hence implicating themselves in the obscene gesture.
House on Fire uses 3 overhead projectors to create the image of a large box of tissue. A large mechanized pinwheel suspended over one of the projectors provides a never-ending billow of Baroque tissue rising from the box. There are 10 cardboard-mounted slides piled next to another projector. Each features a 2-frame, “lenticular” animation of a pattern, which is animated only when the viewer drags it across the surface of the projector. The animations were almost all created by taking “compare and contrast” images from books on the history of pattern. Textbooks feature the image of a pattern of a 15th century Roman altar cloth, and contrast it with the image of a similar pattern found in Turkey a hundred years later. I used these textbook illustrations to create simple two-frame animations which then move in the template of the Kleenex box.
T: Buddhism and spiritual transformation finds its way into a lot of your work. How does it play out in your piece Learning to “Breathe Underwater,” which is a re-imagination of Han Christian Andersen’s Little mermaid story?
DB: That’s true. Buddhism has had a huge impact on my life and imagination though I can’t think of a neat link to this particular installation.
T: The tissue box is a recurring motif throughout your work. I immediately thought of cum and tears. What does this object mean to you?
DB: I’m always attracted to images or objects have the potential of many psychological and cultural associations. Recently, I’ve been using images of toilet paper as a template for meaning. The manufacturers of toilet tissue, like Kleenex, seem to want to create an aesthetic that will defend against the function of the product – usually by conjuring notions of quilted comfort and feminine innocence. It’s invariably printed with lacy floral patterns and in Europe it can be difficult to find tissue that is not perfumed. Kleenex is something a viewer could variously associate with any number of distasteful body fluids, crying, illness, comfort and sex. I’m also drawn to the simple contradiction of forms – the unraveling patterned cube with a baroque flourish rising from the top.
T: In the pieces, viewers can choose the pattern of the tissue box and are the driving force for the prince to penetrate the mermaid. Why have the audience get involved?
DB: I think I’m trying to lend my position as a performer to the viewer, while still controlling the gesture. I am always also trying to create a more intimate experience of story and one of the ways I do that is to implicate an audience in a story gesture. The only way for the viewer to see the act of intercourse is to animate it herself – presumably with a live audience watching.
T: Anything exciting planned for the summer or new projects coming up?
DB: I’m currently working on four different stories for projection performances. I have an exhibition at Open Studio in Toronto in the fall which will also launch a new silk screen. I am in the final stages of an animated short and I am also working on a number of new sculptural pieces. I anticipate having a lot of new work to exhibit in 2018. I only wish I could clone myself to get it all done!