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Q & A with Barbara Rosenthal
(June 2008)

Clare Carswell*



Clare Carswell: What are you doing in Berlin?

Barbara Rosenthal: Presenting Existential Interact, a series of live and video street performances involving interactions with passersby, utilizing elements from a case I drag with me, about battery-powered videos, ventriloquism, button pins, artists' books, spontaneous caricatures, slogan cards, logo images, handouts and free money. I'm on the sidewalk in front of Kunst-Werke, Berlin's premier space for avant-garde art, and where the Berlin Bienniale happens to be on exhibit now.

Some of the pieces that I'm showing on a laptop strapped to a garbage can are:

Barbara Rosenthal Contemplates Suicide
How Much Does The Monkey Count
How Much Does The Monkey Remember
I've Got The World In The Palm Of My Hand
Words Come Out Backwards
Nonsense Conversation
I'm A Dog You're A Dog.

Some days I hand out Provocation Cards that say things, like:

Time Plays Tricks
Put It In Writing
Are You Jewish
Don't Try It Again
Don't Ask
You Are Participating In Live Performance Art
God Is The Idol Of Science/ God Is The Icon Of Science.

Every day I wear about a dozen of my Button Pins, like:

I Am Not Myself Today
Bird Hands
World in Palm and
Brain Scan
Some are visual, some are text.

CC: Why?

BR: I guess I want to make people realize what I realize: that identity can't be pinned down easily, and that the universe is a big place with lots of room.

CC: Why are you outside Kunst-Werke rather than in it?

BR: How can I do sidewalk performances if I'm not on the sidewalk? Anyway, it's a lot easier for anyone inside to come out, than it is for anyone outside to get in.

CC: Why do you make so much stuff?

BR: The stuff makes me make it.

CC: What can you tell me about the puppets?

BR: There's a monkey, an alien and an artist. The Monkey is a large hand puppet that wraps around me. He has appeared in several videos and live performances. The Alien and The Artist are relatively new marionettes who haven't learned to behave.

The monkey puppet was originally a toy that my brother had bought for my first child. The marionettes I'd originally bought for my grandchildren; there were no grandchildren at the time, but I figured that some day there would be and that they'd be as complicit in my work as my daughters had been. Many, many of my ideas came while playing with [my kids] and their toys, and the kids themselves are in some pieces, too.

CC: Who do you want your audience to be?

BR: I don't know if I can answer this easily. I make work with the idea that God (which I mean metaphorically) is watching.

[I've] studied art-making formally ... since I was 14. But the epiphany of what it's all about came one day in Boston, looking at a roomful of Mark Rothko paintings, when I was about 20. I was completely transformed, lifted into heaven. I want my audience to be people I can transport to heaven— I don't care who or what they were before they entered my sanctuary.

CC: Who is your audience?

BR: Anyone swimming by who stops to tread water and look up.

CC: Why are you presenting this project as part of the New Life Berlin festival?

BR: I'd originally planned this independently. But when I tried to find out if I needed a street-use permit from the city of Berlin, a German diplomat in New York familiar with both art scenes, Johannes Scharlau, of Geothe House, proposed my project to the festival sponsor, Wooloo, which is an artist-run organization I'd... been a member of anyway. When the festival's press contact here, Katrine Dyrebye Clausen, e-mailed me to please include the name of Wooloo in the display ad that eMediaLoft New York ran for it in Flash Art International, I understood this to mean that Existential Interact [my show here] would be adopted by the festival. That was okay with me as long as no one would try to interfere with my project, and no one did. The director, Martin Rosengaard, even provided me with housing. As for why Berlin itself, I wanted to be in Berlin this year because of its art dynamic.

Abroad, I do a different one-month project in each city. This is the first live performance series. Last year in Moscow I showed Existential Cartoons at the L-Gallery. In 2006 in Beijing, I hung Self-Devolution: huge mylar prints of my logo-images, distorted and roped up, from the 22-foot ceilings of the Pickled Art Center. And wherever I am, of course, I show video, which I've been making since 1976. [I'm a] disciple of Bill Creston, a performative video pioneer so original and irreverent he's too hard to categorize for curators to have given him the reputation he deserves.

CC: Are you making Performance Art?

BR: That's what I sometimes say. But it's easy to take issue with. It depends on whether you define performance as "an act," or whether you believe that whatever an artist does in public deliberately, (or maybe even not deliberately, and maybe not just artists, and maybe even not just publicly,) is performance. I say anything is what the artist says it is, but maybe it's not, if the critic says it's not. The practitioners of these separate fields define their own territory and say what can grow there and what can't. I realize that that concept, because of the words "can" and "can't," would take a lot more words for me to parse adequately.

Roselee Goldberg invented a wonderful new idea, "Visual Art Performance," and developed the Performa Bienials based on it... I fit into her stated concept so well that I "volunteered" to do street performances called Taboo or Not Taboo during the first one. "Volunteered" means I wasn't asked, I did them anyway, you know, like crashing—Milton Fletcher marvelously dissected some thoughts about this in his review of it in NY Arts.

Anyway, something can be and can't be the same thing at the same time, in my universe... My work has roots in Allan Kaprow's wonderful concept of "Happenings"; I staged my first Happening in my parents' basement when I was 16, in 1964, as soon as I read about Kaprow in The Village Voice.

CC: Where are your energies right now?

BR: In progress and being shopped around are the following:

a) Installation, Unfashionable Art, using my clothing, saved since the 1960s. [A] wall-work which just went up recently for auction at White Box Bowery.

b) A novel, Wish For Amnesia, which has a trunkfull of nearly three decades of drafts. It's about the son of Holocaust survivors. I've reworked it again, and I'm now again trolling for a new literary agent. There had been a wonderful agent in the 1990s, Gunther Stuhlmann, the editor of Anaïs Nin's Diaries, who unfortunately passed away before getting it to a publisher.

c) Two short stories. One is "Haunted House," about a mother on pot, and daughter on science and literature, who have a car accident in the countryside around Princeton. The other is [untitled]. It's about an American woman in late middle-age, who travels to China on business and has an affair with a 23-year-old Chinese soldier.

d) Landscapes On The Horizon, a series of 3' x 5' color and BW digital prints from 35mm photographs, in the tipped style of my piece Five Houses On The Horizon, from the early 1990s.

e) A review or profile of the sensational artist Alexandra Dimentieva, who makes funny, and technologically brilliant, interactive video installations.

f) A half-dozen video shorts.

g) Books of journal-text and photographs, including Performance and Persona and Cold Turkey at the Dog Run.

h) Circulation of my father's Outsider Art, watercolors of Americana. My dad was Leon Rosenthal, a prominent mid-century architect in private practice on Long Island.

i) Editing and circulating my father's Wartime Diaries and his Memoirs.

j) And... I have to find a new art dealer. My beloved Monique Goldstrom died unexpectedly of a stroke about three years ago. I haven't done much about seeking one, though. Art makes me make it, and completes itself when I do.

CC: Where do you most need your artwork to be?

BR: Most of my work that's been purchased is in museums or public collections. Much in private collections has been sold through Printed Matter, the artists' bookstore in Chelsea and online. But most in private hands I've given free, and most of that in trade for artworks or health services. You see how life and art are, in reality, if not inseparable, truly intermixed and interdependent.



*2009 WOOD COIN: Help Like Kelp Issue: Carswell, “Q & A with Barbara Rosenthal (June 2008, in Berlin)”