Winnipeg-born, Montreal-based visual and performance artist Daniel Barrow, winner of the 2010 Sobey Art Award, was recently awarded the coveted 2013 Glenfiddich Artist-in-Residence Prize, valued at over $20,000. VoCA contributor Catherine Toews had a chance to speak with Barrow via e-mail and he was kind enough to share his plans for the residency, insight into his creative process, and advice for emerging Canadian artists.
Daniel Barrow in performance with overhead projector. All images courtesy Glenfiddich.
VoCA: Congratulations on winning the Glenfiddich residency. What are your plans for the Glenfiddich Artist-in-Residence Prize? How do you envision your three months in Dufftown, Scotland?
Thanks a lot. I have so many ideas that have been simmering on the back burner. I don’t want to commit myself too much to any specific idea because I would like to let the work blossom within the context of the residency. Too often I have entered a residency with a looming exhibition deadline at the end. I spend the whole time rendering ideas that were preconceived at home in Canada. I hope the work I create in Scotland will be in direct response to the landscape and community surrounding the distillery.
VoCA: I’m curious about where you find inspiration for your work. The Glenfiddich Artist-in-Residence Prize encourages artists “to find inspiration from the pastoral setting in the Scottish Highlands.” Are you challenged and/or excited by this suggestion?
I am very much. I can’t remember the last time I was so looking forward to summer. I grew up in Manitoba where the beauty of landscape was subtle and understated. The landscape of the Highlands epitomizes the melodrama of natural beauty. I would love to create a piece that reflects my love of landscape, as well as my love of landscape painters like Charles Burchfield and John Robert Cozens.
I’m not conscious of any particular “prairie gothic” sensibility in my work, but perhaps it is there. As a kid, my exposure to culture was extremely limited, but I was fascinated (and still am) by the idea of the “cultural refinement”, and its relationship to class distinction. In creating the score for my recent installation “Learning to Breathe Underwater” I asked Greg Goldberg (my musical collaborator from the NYC band, “The Ballet”) to imagine a small-town gay boy’s conception of the cultural elite – a score for champagne toasts, Faberge eggs, and expensive therapy sessions. I realize now I had an extraordinary amount of support in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg community really rallies around projects to ensure that they happen. I do miss that.
VoCA: Can you describe how you found the experience attending the University of Manitoba for your BFA? Did you find your style and preferred work methods there or did they evolve later?
It was a great time to be at the U of M. I had some great instructors (notably Sharon Alward and Alex Poruchnyk) but also was lucky enough to graduate with a class of outstanding peers. There was an atmosphere of healthy competition. We wanted to impress our professors, but impressing one another was even more important. Art school was intense and at times grueling. I felt obliged to be innovative and ambitious because my classmates were enormously talented. Most of my working methods were developed long before art school. Drawing and story-telling, for example, have been, since childhood, inextricably linked in my mind. But it was in art school that I first began creating overhead projector performances. My first performance was a parody of an art historical/religious lesson that included narrative and pictorial elements.
One of Barrow’s projections.
VoCA: While we’re talking about style, your work is very distinctive. What informed your interest in cut-outs, projections, etc.? Have you ever felt pressure to do work that is more in line with what others are doing?
My primary inspiration is cinema, and comic books. In this regard, I feel my work is adequately in line with what I perceive others to be doing. Occasionally, I do feel that perhaps my work could more neatly conform to what is currently celebrated by the contemporary art world. But ultimately, I can only make the kind of work that I make. My only real artistic aim is to follow the freedom of my own imagination, and for the most part this is an automatic process.
VoCA: Have you benefited from the guidance of mentors over the course of your career? If so, who? What three tips would you share with emerging Canadian artists?
I feel that I have really lacked mentors in my life. Of course, people did step into that role at various stages of my life, but not in the way that I really yearned. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I never allowed anyone to be a close mentor to me. I was a very misguided kid and young adult. I feel like in so many instances I was left, inappropriately, to fend for myself. One of my primary ego identifications is that of the “individual”. I’ve used the title “NO ONE HELPED ME” a few times. I’ve used it as a title for a couple of solo exhibitions, and my book that came out in 2010. It’s both a tragic and prideful statement. This is a duality that has become very familiar to me throughout the course of my life.
1. Not many artists will be able to sustain a career in the art world without an intense work ethic. This is something I continually stressed to my students. Art requires a significant commitment and sacrifice.
2. Change your name. Having a name that people like to say repeatedly is an incredible asset in the art world. I wish I could go back in time and change my name. It’s too late now.
3. Don’t rely on a single source of income. Diversify your practice so that you are accessible to many audiences and sources of income.
Installation view of Emotional Feeling at the Art Gallery of York University, 2010.
VoCA: I was lucky enough to experience a few of your narrative overhead projection performance pieces in Winnipeg. Do the performances evolve over time after repeated stagings?
They absolutely evolve. I have never premiered a performance that didn’t change dramatically over the course of months and sometimes years. It takes many stagings of a performance for me to understand the rhythm of a piece. I also work rather slowly so I’m rarely actually finished the piece by the time the premiere deadline arrives.
VoCA: Can you please describe how winning the 2010 Sobey Art Award affected your career?
I’m not completely aware of any significant changes, although I’m sure I have gained more general recognition and my audience has expanded accordingly. The Sobey award was introduced as the new brass ring for young Canadian artists at the exact time that I launched my career as a full-time artist. When I accepted the award, I wanted to do so in a way that acknowledged all young artists at every stage of their personal aspiration and achievement. Before this win I had been nominated but not long-listed, long-listed and not short-listed, and then in 2008, I was short-listed and lost. Finally in 2010, I had won. But that moment didn’t feel celebratory. I felt relieved. Less like I had won a competition, and more like I had narrowly survived yet another tragedy. My first impulse was to proceed immediately home, by myself, and have a bath. Instead, I made a short and simple acceptance speech and spent the rest of the evening redirecting all of these sentiments inwardly. It was a defining moment for me as an artist, and has had an effect on the way I am perceived as a career artist in Canada, but more significantly, the way I view myself. In winning I felt like I was no longer destined to self-identify as a loser, or a martyr. And importantly, I can no longer deny that someone has acknowledged and helped me. This has been demonstrated publicly. But I have felt entitled to that much at least since I was a small child.
Daniel Barrow, Kiss Me Before I Die, 2010. Mixed media collage.
VoCA: What has your experience been working in Canada as your career has become increasingly established? Do you feel any pressure to move to a larger art market like New York, London, etc.?
I am ambivalent about success. My career emerged out of the culture of Canadian artist-run centres and this has been immensely rewarding, but it has also meant that my career has been stationed in a small, primarily insular and specifically Canadian network. Of course, I want many people to see and experience and acknowledge my work, and I definitely do not want to experience decades of sleepless nights worrying about my financial future. But when I ask myself who I want to be, I conclude that I want be a creative person who deeply experiences life in the present moment. I don’t view art as any kind of key to immortality. I want to cultivate meaningful relationships now, and become the kind of person who generally makes others feel great about themselves. These goals are more important to me than conquering the world art market. I’ve lived in New York and absolutely loved it. But ultimately I decided I do not want to live in a city with a “Succeed or DIE!” motto. Montreal is a city that makes culture a priority before commerce. I love it and, at this stage, am happy to call it my home.
Daniel Barrow, Mirror Bouquet, 2012. Mixed media collage
VoCA: What’s next for you after the Glenfiddich Artist-in-Residence Prize? What direction do you want your work to go in over the next few years?
I’m an idea person. I have a pretty extensive backlog of ideas, and usually I’m working years behind my process of conception. I have three scripts in process. I want to devote more time to crafting my skills as a drawer, and expand my familiarity with various media. I’m loving chalk pastel right now, but it’s messy and perhaps harmful, so I want to find a more appropriate studio. I have many ideas for sculpture and printmaking as well. I am constantly juggling the comparative worth and urgency of various ideas and projects. I can only hope my best ideas rise to the surface.
Daniel Barrow is represented by Jessica Bradley in Toronto. Find here HERE.