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Interview (October 12, 1969)
Robert Barry

Can you tell me how you developed away from your earlier painting and how you arrived at your present invisible work?

I found that paintings – my paintings were different in the way they were hung or exposed to light. I wanted to incorporate that idea in my art. Also my paintings related always to the edge of the canvas as though I wanted to blend them into the wall. I was not satisfied anymore with staying on the wall. I wanted to get involved with the entire room, the entire space. Also I wanted to get away from the concern with color. The idea is to work with the space in which the art occurs. I did not want to control space variables, I wanted to incorporate them in my art. And I did not want to impose myself on my material or on the space. I was trying to get away from some sort of style.

Would you agree that art is the more extreme the further it gets away from style?

Yes, I agree. I cannot really give you my definition.
Somebody said that style was the manipulation of the space between our emotional involvement with reality and reality itself. The further we get away from reality the more dehumanized art becomes, as Ortega y Gasset said. Whereas I try not to manipulate reality, not to impose my preconceived grid or preconceived system onto reality, I – to use Heidegger’s phrase, let things be. What will happen, will happen. Let things be themselves.

Would you care to tell me your thoughts about Anti-Art?

I think the most beautiful thing about modern art is that it has built into its own potential the capacity for destroying itself. Nothing keeps renewing itself the way art does. The fundamental beliefs in art are constantly threatened and as a result it is constantly changing; and so art and Anti-Art are really the same thing. There isn’t any real difference between them I guess it is the great fantasy of modern artists to be able to make their art – without having to make art.

Does this fantasy account for the problem that the object poses to contemporary artists? Or has this object controversy to do with cultural and psychological despair?

Certainly it is psychological, but we are not really getting away from the object; we are producing a different kind of object. I did not get away from it. I have not produced objects; maybe I found objects. We are not really destroying the object, but just expanding the definition, that’s all. Like art, that keeps on being expanded, that seems to include more and more things.

For example, would you call the dust that artists use in certain works, an “object”?

Why, of course, it is a very materialistic object. These guys are very interested in material and material function. They are interested in the way the material works, how it reacts in a very fundamental way to gravity, and what they produce are objects, tangible things that can be seen, touched, and walked around.

I think what has been deobjectified is the coherence of the object. Doesn’t the concern for the material substitute for the coherence of the object?

Well, the material always seems to cohere somehow whether the artist wants it or not. No matter how the dust is spread around, it all fits together into some kind of grand design. – We are looking at objects from another point of view, so that it seems that art is changing, but I personally do not see a real difference between the new art and the “traditional” art of the object. This may be due to changed emphasis of certain aspects of the new objects that we did not emphasize in the object of the past, like changeability and temporality. Objects may change right before your eyes.

Let us go back to your pieces made of extended wire.

Yes. The wires were so thin and were in certain pieces stretched so high above the ground that it was virtually impossible to see them – or to photograph them. And from that I went to things that could be neither seen nor perceived in any way. My father, who is an electrical engineer and always worked with carrier waves and radio transmitters, ever since I was a kid – helped me out and that was the thing I knew about. I guess it was the first invisible art. It could not be perceived directly. And in the “January 1968 Show” (Seth Siegelaub) I included several carrier wave pieces. One was called 88mc Carrier Wave (FM) and another – 1600 kc Carrier Wave AM. Since you cannot photograph a carrier wave, we had to photograph the place where the carrier wave existed. The carrier waves have several very beautiful qualities. For example, they travel into space with the speed of light. They can be enclosed in a room. The nature of carrier waves in a room – especially the FM – is affected by people. The body itself, as you know, is an electrical device. Like a radio or an electric shaver it affects carrier waves. The carrier waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum of which light waves are also a part. A carrier wave is a form of energy. Light waves are made of the same material as carrier waves, only they are of a different length. A person is also a source of some kind of a carrier wave. Let me call that telepathy. The form of a piece is affected because of the nature of the material that it is made of. The form is changed by the people near it although the people may not be aware of the fact that they are affecting the actual form of the piece, because they cannot feel it.

Can it be measured?

For any transmitter a receiver can be built that picks up what the transmitter sends out. It is interesting that these carrier waves, which go over the radio spectrum, can be picked up on the radio. When I left the carrier waves clean and turned on the radio, the stations went silent where the carrier waves were. Another piece was the New York to Luxemburg CB Carrier Wave. On January 5 I sent the CB carrier wave on a ham radio to Luxemburg. Seth wanted the dimensions of the piece. I gave him the megacycles and watts.
And then there was this piece in Seth’s show: 40 KHz ultrasonic soundwave installation (January 4, 1969). We call it sound wave, I do not know why, because we cannot hear it. Ultrasonic sound waves have different qualities from ordinary sound waves. They can be directed like a beam and they bounce back from a wall. Actually you can make invisible patterns and designs with them. They can be diagramed and measured. I will do a piece for Jack Burnham for his show. I believe in the Jewish Museum. I have to go to the place and work with the walls right then and there.
My piece 0.5 Microcurie Radiation Installation (January 5, 1969), Barium 133 (1969) consists of small radioactive isotopes – buried in Central Park – that emit radiation. Once again we photographed the place. Radiation waves are way up in the upper echelon of the electromagnetic wave spectrum; they are much shorter than light waves. Light will stop at the wall. Radiation will go right through it. A radioactive isotope is an artificial material. It has – what they call Zero time – beautiful expression! That is the time when it is created. On the label of the small plastic vial in which it is contained, its “Zero time” is printed. From that moment on it starts losing its energy. Now the “half-life” in this particular case was ten years, which means that every ten years its energy is decreased by half; but it goes on to infinity, it never goes to nothing. Some isotopes have a half-life of a millionth of a second, some have a half-life of four billion years and some of fifteen minutes: i.e., every fifteen seconds the energy is halved. But it never goes out of existence. They are perfectly harmless. A world of things can be done with this incredible material. And it is just letting them do what they are supposed to do. You cannot change a carrier or radiation wave; you can only know what it is supposed to do and let it do it. That’s enough.

This is very important. Vibrations having substituted for thinghood. Could it be said that you made an art form of vibrations?

Of energy.

An art form of energy?

Yes everything is energy. There is not anything that is not energy. You may say of a Minimal sculpture that the object itself is the art even though it may emit these energies. I would say it’s the energy that’s my art. Then it seemed to me that the object that was producing the energy was getting in the way. Isotopes, transmitters, etc. I chose to work with inert gas because there was not the constant presence of a small object or device that produced the art. Inert gas is a material that is imperceivable – it does not combine with any other element. Here is the place where the gas was released – the Mojave Desert. It goes “from measured volume to indefinite expansion” – as it says on my poster. That is what gas does. When released, it returns to the atmosphere from where it came. It continues to expand forever in the atmosphere, constantly changing and it does all of this without anybody being able to see it. In the desert we released all kinds of gases: Neon and xenon, the so-called noble gases. The gas is purchased in glass flasks or tanks. The label on the Pyrex flask might read “2 liter xenon” – yet you see nothing. You have to trust the manufacturer. When we released a tank in the desert – in the middle of nowhere – it made a whistling sound. That’s all we know about its being there. Later I got involved with energy without an object-source of energy. I did that using mental energy. I did a “telepathic piece” for Seth Siegelaub’s exhibition [1969] at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. In the catalogue it states “During the exhibition I shall try to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts; they are not applicable to language or image.” I guess this was the first work I did that really did not have a place to be photographed. There was nothing visual that could be tied to it.

How do you feel about the missing aesthetic aspect? How does it affect you having either transcended or pushed aside the visual experience? Did you feel a sense of loss, as though you gave something up?

No, not at all. I like the word “transcend.” I think you have to see it in those terms. Making art is not really important. Living is. In my mind art and living are so closely interlocked. Trying to be involved in living and in the world around me makes this satisfactory. It seems to me that you have to give up something for an advance you are making. For any new truth that you discover for yourself, you have to discard some favored old belief. I would like to get away from calling things art. Robbe-Grillet has a beautiful line: If art is going to be anything then it has got to be everything. Fortunately – in recent years – the term “art” has lost any solid meaning. I guess if I call something art, I am saying: “Look at this thing, consider it carefully and that is all it means.” Does that mean that the act of perception per se might constitute the art? No, you cannot get away so easily. I am using art to draw attention to something. I much rather use the word “something” or “thing” or “What I do” than the word “art.” If I call something “art,” I am using the expression instead of saying: “Look at this.” Yet, in a certain frame of mind man can perceive anything as art. In the ideal state of mystic perception, Blake described it “Everything is seen for what it really is: infinite.” Then there is no need of drawing attention to art, is there? The mystical experience is closed to us. It is now, anyway. It is probably very close to revelation. Every once in a while the defenses of the mind break down and infinity rushes in. Then it closes up again. Would the intentionality of the artist be necessary when infinity rushes in? Yes, it is very fundamental. We talked about the world, we talked about things, but we avoided talking about people and how we relate to them. We cannot isolate ourselves. Art is an effort to relate to others. And in relation to other people it always has to be that way. To understand my art, you do not have to understand any system that I developed, but you have to understand the category that I selected to call art. I did not really try to change something, I simply selected. . . .
I got involved with things intangible and immeasurable, physical, yet metaphysical in their effect. I wrote a letter to Charles Harrison of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London to include in any printed material for his show the idea for my piece: “THERE IS SOMETHING VERY CLOSE IN PLACE AND TIME, BUT NOT YET KNOWN TO ME.” This was not just a title, but a feeling about something. Another piece went to the museum in Leverkusen, Germany, also concerned with something, which was searching for me and which needs me to reveal itself, but is unknown to me. Lucy Lippard’s show in Seattle [1970] consisted of 100 index cards. So it was just on one of the index cards. There were quite a few pieces that tried to get at something. Yet because of the nature of something, it cannot be dealt with directly.

Would you care to tell how critics and collectors deal with your art?

There are no collectors, for there is nothing to collect.

And how does your work relate to the whole spectrum of contemporary art?

I feel it fits quite comfortably. Is there something that is not art? I must admit in my own mind, it’s not really outside the stream, but in the riverbed together with the rest of the water.

What are your plans for your coming exhibition in Amsterdam?

My exhibition at the Art & Project Gallery in Amsterdam in December, ’69, will last two weeks. I asked them to lock the door and nail my announcement to it, reading: “For the exhibition the gallery will be closed.”


Interviewed by Ursula Meyer