At thirteen-months old, my youngest son rises from the floor with great effort by pulling himself up on the coffee table. After pausing for a few moments to feel the still-new sensation of his feet flat against the floor, he tests gravity by releasing his grip. Still upright, wobbly but stable, he looks ahead. Checking his balance, he lifts one leg—false start. He tries again, and this time manages to pull that heavy leg up and then plant his foot back down in front of the other one. He continues, two, three, four, five, six steps—with focus as sharp as if he were walking on a tightrope. Like the tightrope walker, he’s propelling himself forward by learning to be comfortable with being out of balance—swerving and jerking, but finding abstract steadiness in the forward, upward and downward flows of motion.
As an artist, I am very interested in ongoing slips and slides between balance and imbalance. While balance may be the goal, imbalance is often the reality. This tension reveals the human desire for order, stability, and certainty, and the nearly impossible struggle to maintain these states. I work primarily with digital photography and video, and am inspired by the Realist tradition and its intentional portrayals of ordinary people and everyday life. But I also embrace the legacy of late 19th-century spirit photography, as it exposed a faith in the technology of the camera to reveal something otherwise unseen. I’m not hunting for ghosts, but instead for images of desire, fear, longing, trust and connection, among other things.
In my photo series, Grandma (2020), I play with the materiality of paper cut-outs in a way that points to ideas about absence and presence. I made this project during the time of almost total shutdown at the height of the pandemic. My mom lives 500 miles away, but long-distance travel at that time felt forbidden. In this series, my four-yr-old son plays with life-sized paper cutouts of my mother’s hands. The cutouts were printed from screenshots taken over a video chat call.The image quality of the printed hands is low-res and pixelated, the colors of her skin are muted and have that tell-tale video chat bluish tone. Yet, my son tries to interact with the stiff paper hands as if they are human, as if they might return his embrace. During the photo-shoot, I framed this interaction over a white backdrop to contextualize the action in a non-place—like the virtual spaces of neither here nor there where video chat platforms transport us. The Grandma series explores states of imbalance between the realms of virtual and “IRL” social spaces, as over and over I ask myself: how do remote social technologies shrink and swell the experience of distance and longing over time? In what ways do relationships change and evolve when we can’t touch each other, or make direct eye contact?
The way in which the Grandma series questions the mediation of human spaces and experience through digital technologies has roots in an earlier project, Ann and Video Ann (2014), a live performance with video projection. In this piece, I perform a repeating narrative with my life-size video double. As a character, Video Ann exists as both a mediated version of me, and also as an independent presence. Throughout the performance, the visual symmetry of the two figures clashes with the material imbalance of a live person versus a prerecorded video projection on a screen. I challenge Video Ann’s virtual image with my physical presence, but her effortless loop and immortality are a foil to my physicality. Throughout the performance, Video Ann shifts from a seemingly independent character, to my mirror image, to a vacant looping video. The merging here of a live body struggling to understand herself through a video clip explores relationships between photography, representation and the blur between self and self-image.
Last year, I revisited some of the formal and material elements of Ann and Video Ann in a new multi-media performance, Remnants (with pianist Steven Pane, 2022). Inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Remnants considers the cyclical compositional structures from Variations 25 and 30, and applies these concepts of repetition and counterpoint to imagery from nature and the routines of everyday domestic life. During the live performance, short films are projected onto Pane as he plays the piano, dressed in a painter’s coverall suit. While the painter’s suit promises protection from a messy activity, it also serves to transform his body into a projection surface. Throughout the performance, the pianist disappears and reappears beneath the projected imagery which includes wrinkled bed sheets on the clothesline, piles of neon orange Kraft Macaroni Cheese, whipped cream fading into puffy white clouds, a landscape flush with flowers and a forest of shadows passing over the snow. In several scenes a young toddler, who towers over the pianist, barrels across the stage in his diaper, his steps wonky but confident. This non-narrative flow of clips reveals granular remnants of everyday life that bring texture and materiality to the passing of time. Here, the exploration of balance and imbalance continues beyond the threshold that separates virtual and physical spaces to include scale and time, and also embraces the unconventional pairing of a highbrow classical piano composition and the grittiness of everyday life—mac’n cheese, droopy diapers and all.
My most recent video installation, Duet (2023), carries forward the juxtaposition of formal classical music with quotidian imagery. Duet presents two flat silhouettes, one shaped like an ornate teapot and the other like a spray bottle for cleaning products. These silhouettes serve as surfaces for video projection. A teapot and a spray bottle are similar in utility, both vessels are used in the home to hold and disseminate liquid in very specific ways. However, fancy teapots are for serving guests, and cleaning products are for the work done before the guests arrive. The projections displayed on these silhouettes host a fluid stream of video imagery depicting interior and exterior domestic spaces, chores around the home and children at play, all to the tune of a harpsichord prelude by Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. This piece of chamber music was played in the court of King Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles. Its contextual history haunts the unpretentious video imagery with echoes of hyperbolized formality and the performance of status, while also nodding to the exceptional feat of Lady de La Guerre’s achievement of professional success as a female musician in the 17th century. At the center of this video installation lies the tension between chaos and order, public and private activities, and routines of labor and leisure.
Thinking about my studio practice through the lens of balance and imbalance helps me identify the many dichotomies at play in my artwork. Occupying these spaces between opposite conditions brings language to the desires and anxieties of everyday life. Through the contexts of virtual connection, self-representation, social technologies, and domestic environments, I consider balance as a momentary, rather than constant state. As an artist, educator, and mother of three young children, strains between domestic responsibilities, professional duties, social commitments, and personal ambitions often demand that I not walk but run across the tightrope. There is some pleasure then of slowing down in the studio and exploring these realms through photography and video, mediums where I can capture time, pause it, freeze it into a static image, or rewind and replay, frame by frame, over and over, indulging my fantasy for time to become elastic.
Image at top: Ann Bartges, Grandma I, digital print, 18 x 10 in., 2020.