My Barbarian
Night Epi$ode (2009)

In the pilot episode of the group of videos that make up My Barbarian’s The Night Epi$ode, the three protagonists—curators who are locked in a room reviewing slides of artworks in order to select works for an exhibition—interrupt their discussion of what constitutes the most interesting and original art to ask: “Are you frightened by an unexpected knock at the door?” “Does your heart pound when you get mail from the government?” “Are you hiding something?” Tense, anxious, and weary, these three characters embody the current national, if not global, malaise that has resulted largely from the recent economic collapse and lingering recession and the innumerable repercussions of this state of intense instability. The news lately has been full of strange stories linked to the recession: A nurse in Wisconsin was laid off while assisting during a surgery. An employee of a restaurant in Florida was ridiculed and then dismissed from his job after placing a slice of tomato on top of the meat rather than directly on the bread. Airlines have started charging for pillows and blankets, and some have even considered a fee to use the restroom. Condom sales are up as couples forsake nights on the town in favor of intimate dates at home while nonetheless trying to avoid expanding their families. Simultaneously, and ironically, rates of domestic violence are on the rise. City morgues are grappling with an increase in unclaimed bodies, as families cannot afford to bury their dead. While the general trends are the predictable outcome of a slowed economy, many of the related anecdotes sprinkled throughout the daily news are borderline surreal—like fantastical horror stories or the petty banalities of a soap opera. This confluence of real life and dreamlike parody informs The Night Epi$ode, which plays with the genre of science fiction television series by linking narratives related to the economic collapse with bizarre occurrences.

Through their work, My Barbarian earnestly and consistently ask what role art can play in a democratic society. In The Night Epi$ode, the economy reigns supreme as both a shared unifying experience—everyone seems to be suffering, unable to sleep, and desperate for a break—and a site of conflict and competition in which people are solely out for themselves. The pilot episode, with its jury of curators, humorously satirizes both the extreme measures that artists will take to get noticed and the casting of judgment and sense of importance that accompany curatorial decisions. But this meeting of curatorial minds extends beyond the perceived insularity of the contemporary art world by calling attention to the economic and political aspects of culture. The arts become a stand-in for the equalizing force of a bad economy. Everyone is struggling, has been violated, or has sacrificed. One woman covers herself in marijuana and lights herself on fire as an artistic protest; an artist takes people into his home only to be robbed of his most important work; a woman from the museum’s education department is dying and cannot be saved; artists have vanished, imprisoned themselves, become vampires. 

In this play on art-world practices, the paralysis and fear that economic hardships instill are equated with the anxieties of being an artist. And yet My Barbarian’s work is decidedly optimistic. Despite the curators’ proclamation in the pilot episode that everything is now about the individual and that collectivity has failed (one curator hilariously pronounces that “half a person would be more interesting”), My Barbarian embraces and truly believes in the power of collaboration. Performance can be a model for the acting out of dissent, a continuous process of political participation, a space where, as they claim in a song about the mandate to participate principle, “our lives will get respect.”

1. See Art Lies, no. 60. -- Anne Ellegood

Originally published in the UCLA Hammer Museum catalog for My Barbarian: The Night Epi$ode, 2010-11