Artist Interview: James Barth

Interviewed by Meg Slater

James Barth / Wish you were here / 2016 / digital print on di bond / 110cm x 890cm

James Barth is a visual artist who works primarily with painting and digital media. James is currently studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts (with Honours) at the Queensland College of Art. James has the ability to deal with and communicate very complex themes and subject matter including (but not limited to) the feminised body, queer theory, and transgender representations in contemporary pop culture, by drawing on their own personal experience as a transwoman. James and I sat down to have a chat about the challenges associated with their current theoretical and artistic practice, and their excitement about making their debut in the Brisbane ARI scene with In residence for Shift 2.

MS: What are the central themes of your practice outside of the scope of this exhibition?

JB: My artistic practice is focused around transgender critique. I have opted to take an autoethnographic approach. This means that I am looking at myself in relation to a wider cultural phenomenon. I draw a lot of inspiration from magazine culture, specifically how transwomen are portrayed in magazines. There are a lot of negative connotations attached to the artificiality associated with the transwoman’s body. I view forms and methods of artificiality (e.g. HRT therapy and cosmetic surgery) in a positive light because I believe that it gives the transwoman body politics. This idea came about after I read Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto.’ She talks about how we need to reconsider how women’s bodies are changing through technology, and acknowledge the profound influence of technology on the human body in general. I find my experience to be evocative of the cyborgian image that Haraway has discussed within her essays.

MS: So Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ is the theoretical basis for your artistic practice at the moment?

JB: Yeah. Although, where Haraway and I differ is that instead of conducting a cyber feminist critique, and I am conducting a transgender critique.

MS: Are you substituting technology with artificiality?

JB: Kind of. They do overlap. Haraway’s image of the cyborg is applicable for me in both a literal and a metaphorical sense.

MS: Recently you have expanded your artistic practice beyond painting and have delved into the world of digital media. What prompted this change?

JB: It was kind of an experimental, A to B process really. I was reading about the cyborg and wanted to find a way to evoke the ideas of technology and artificiality in my artistic practice. Painting is a very traditional and romantic artistic medium. I found it difficult to get my ideas across by creating paintings. I also wanted to challenge myself a little bit by expanding my practice beyond painting. But I do still go back and forth between the two. The shift in my artistic practice is also tied to the concept of the Gynoid. A Gynoid is something that appears to be female but isn’t. Most commonly we see Gynoids as artificial women, such as robots that look like females (e.g. Osaka University’s Ontonariod). Ontonariods are really interesting because they don’t really have much of a purpose, except to humanise machines. The Otonaroid is basically a telecommunication device that people can talk through. For example, they have been used to read out the news, which is weird because we already try to humanise the news-reading process by using newscasters.

MS: What are the positives and negatives associated with using digital media?

JB: I wouldn’t say that I prefer it to painting. Honestly, these last few projects have been awful and very painful to execute effectively. Beyond the basics, I don’t know too much about how to use computers, and technology is so unforgiving. Painting doesn’t just let you know that there is an error, and then stop working. You can’t accidentally save over a painting and loose everything (laughing). This is not to say that there aren’t aspects of digital media that I really like. I really like the reproduction element. I like that I am creating intangible sculptures.

MS: So this has been quite a learning curve for you.

JB: It has been a huge learning curve. I have taught myself how to use Blender Render via YouTube tutorials (laughing).

MS: I am assuming that another positive associated with the use of digital media would be that it directly links to the research that currently informs your artistic practice.

JB: Yes, of course. There is a strong correlation between the practical and the theoretical.

MS: Do you prefer digital media to painting?

JB: I like parts of painting and digital media. Again, I like that digital media allows me to establish a connection between my research and the visual language of my artworks. But then, I like how paintings are able to engage viewers in a way that other artistic media can’t.

MS: That is so true. Painting is a traditional and relatable art form that people can easily connect with. I find that unless they are executed well, gallery visitors often find it difficult to foster the same kind connection with performance works and video works.

JB: To be honest, I am actually trying to marry the two mediums.

MS: I can really see that in your new work, particularly the three images currently on display at Metro Arts [as part of CrosseXions, curated by Beth Jackson]. They look like digital paintings.

MS: You are currently a part of the Honours program at the Queensland College of Art. What is your area of focus?

JB: My area of focus is myself and transgender women like myself, particularly in relation to Haraway’s image of the cyborg and the concept of artificiality.

MS: Why did you select this focus area?

JB: It started with me wanting to re-evaluate the relationship between artificiality and the transgender woman’s body. Often people think that I am just a feminine, gay boy, which I totally understand. But I don’t think that transwomen should have to conform to conventional notions of femininity. So I suppose that it is interactions like this that prompted me to select this as my focus area. Plus, I’ve been interested in technology and robotics ever since I was a child.

MS: Your paintings and digital media works are inherently personal and self referential. Why do you think it is important to integrate your body into your works?

JB: I think that self representation in art is really important. This is not to say that I represent all transwomen. My work is about me and my experience as a transgender woman. I don’t know anyone else’s lived experience as a transwoman, nor would I be able to understand it or make assumptions about it, so it just makes sense for me to integrate my body into my works. I can’t talk about anyone but myself.

And it's important to draw upon your personal experience in your creative practice?

JB: I think it’s good to tell stories. Stories are relatable and could potentially be a source of validation for others. I think the subject matter that I address in my work is a point of interest for people. I am also aware of the fact that drawing upon my personal experiences can be detrimental, because I am putting myself under a microscope. I am exposing myself and making myself very visible for audiences to scrutinise me.

MS: Would you say that you recreate images of yourself to affirm your own place in the world? Possibly to make sure that you do not become ‘displaced’?

JB: Yes, definitely. I make these images of myself so that I can recontextualise contemporary culture to suit my needs. I also like being able to use research to understand my place in the world. The expectations associated with being a transgender woman have a displacing effect. You are treated as an interesting object to be studied or scrutinised rather than a human being. You turn heads, but not for the right reasons (laughing).

MS: Who are the main theorists and artists that inform your artistic practice?

JB: The theorists who influence my artistic practice at the moment are Donna Haraway, Julia Serano, and Sandy Stone.

MS: What about artists?

JB: I don’t actually look at the work of many artists. I refer to draw upon examples of artificiality and technology from pop culture instead, such as Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis and the latest Louis Vuitton SERIES 4 print campaign, which features Lightning from Final Fantasy. There is one artist who really fascinates me, because she incorporates language into her artistic practice - Juliana Huxtable. She is a DJ, spoken word poet and model. She’s everything.

MS: What work will you be showing in Shift 2?

JB: I will be exhibiting a digital sculpture of myself that I have made using Blender Render, which will be projected onto a wall. People will be able to interact with the work by using a mouse to rotate the image and see it from different angles. I would also like to do a small, A4 size painted portrait of myself.

MS: How will your work respond to the exhibition’s overarching theme of displacement?

JB: In the context of this show, a lot of the displacement that I feel comes from the fact that am dealing with new territory - I have never displayed my work in an ARI exhibition, and I have never displayed my work in a residential setting. I’m used to the commercial gallery space. I will also be addressing the themes that are central to my practice, which we have already discussed, and which are inherently linked to the theme of displacement.

MS: What is your ideal place to exhibit?

JB: The cyborgian aesthetic that I am exploring at the moment is better suited to a commercial gallery space. I think that this links to the idea of the ‘white cube’. Commercial galleries are so sterile and clinical, which aligns with the conceptual framework that I am currently working within.

MS: You have never displayed your work in a residential setting. What kind of impact do you think that this change in locale will have on an audience’s reception and understanding of your work?

JB: I think that because the residential setting is such an intimate space, people will feel more comfortable engaging with and having conversations about my work. I am also excited about testing out some of the new digital processes that I am exploring at the moment.

MS: What are your thoughts on the growth and development of Brisbane’s ARI scene, particularly in the past couple of years?

JB: ARIs seem to keep popping up everywhere, which I love. I like the social aspect of ARI shows. You are able to have conversations about art in an informal context.

MS: What can we expect from you in the future? Are there any projects in the works?

JB: In the future, I would like to be able to integrate digital media and painting, and present the two art forms in a coherent way. I don’t like practicing as two different artists.

MS: Will you stay and pursue a career as an artist in Brisbane?

JB: I’m not too sure at the moment. I’ve been thinking about moving, but I’m happy in Brisbane.

View more of James' work here.