Aideen Barry, an interdisciplinary artist from Ireland, believes that art in public spaces can have a great impact on our understanding of the environment, and make us feel proud of it. Inthe following interview, the presenter of the upcoming international conference “Modernism for the Future” dedicated to the architectural heritage and hosted in Kaunas for the first time, shares her experience of participating in public art projects, the challenges she faced working on them, and the benefits they bring to the community.

Besides working with lots of different medias, you are also addressing a variety of subjects, such as anxiety, feminist critique, body and environment, etc. How do you choose themes to work on?

The work emerges from my lived experience. In particular, my experience of being ‘Other’. I use myself in my work, I am the protagonist, the cinematographer, the director, the editor, all simultaneously. Largely this is down to being resourceful, as I cannot afford to employ these people when creating the works, but also it is a comment on control. I have full control when shooting and deciding how the image is created. I also use remote-controls to command the camera, the whole thing gives an impression of effortless magic. In reality, it takes a kind of madness and commitment to accomplish the one photograph in the thousands needed to generate the film. There is a kind of labour of love that goes into the making of these extraordinary works. But then I think women own the word Labour.

I am particularly drawn to historical figures who have been erased in the canon of history and in visual culture. I present myself often as these figures, restating or reimagining how they would behave out of context of time and space. Particularly I am interested in focusing on female characters/figures who have suffered at the hands of historical “amnesia”. The raison d’être is to reconsider the certainty of historical fact, causing the viewer to reconsider what is in reality a fragile truth.  I choose these areas to focus my attention as a way of addressing the imbalance in the world and questioning preconceived notions of gender roles and identity.

Your works are usually described as uncanny and phantasmagorical. However, even when approaching serious subjects, you seem to do it with a sense of humor and irony. Why do you choose to talk about things that matter to you in a slightly humorous way?

I used humour as a way of disarming the viewer. In a way, some of the subject matter of the films relates to issues around the abused, mental health, and death. Humour kind of throws the viewer off guard and provokes the viewer to reconsider these issues. I would say my work employs a technique called cognitive dissonance; in that it can initially attract or seduce the viewer, but then it can unsettle them, destabilising the initial premise of what was proposed in the work, and in the viewer’s experience of the work. I think the work often takes on the roles of an anti-depressant, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” is kind of the Beckett-ian mantra that persists in the work.

Occasionally you work on public art projects that are literally changing the environment, even if only for a while. What is your personal relation to the environment you live in? And in what ways do you reimagine it in your art projects? Could you give us some examples?

I love a challenge, and I particularly like the idea of working in the realm of public art, where the challenge is to create something ephemeral, in that it may only be present for a short time but in that time,  it can capture the imagination and the lived experience of the public who encounter it.

For me as an artist I am also particularly keen to see art happening beyond the white cube of the gallery space, it is important that art meets new audiences and engages in debates about visual culture and its role in our society.

In the 2014 commissions for ‘Changing Tracks’ ( www.changingtracks.eu), I was asked to respond to locations in three EU countries: Mayo (Ireland), Northamptonshire (UK) and Catalonia (Spain). The sites for these temporary site-specific residencies were of former, now redundant, railway lines. For me it was important to respond to the hidden histories of the 3 locations while also reimagining them through the lens and line of the long-forgotten writer, suffragette and professor of economics Lillias Campbell-Davidson. For this public art project, I brokered with the community groups, schools, historical societies, charity organisations, planners, city officials, to make interventions into former railway infrastructural sites and architectural features, to become locations for the film shoots, installations and temporary exhibition locations along the now rejuvenated greenways (which was how these railway lines were now being realised). It was an immense project, which largely relied on communities and the public to embrace it, and it was an astounding success. The legacy of this interventions that I made during that time are still manifesting and it has been a joy to see how a temporary project made such an impact in the living memory of the public and communities that supported it.

What challenges do you face while working on public art projects, if any?

The challenge can be in making a project with a non-art audience, but it can be the making of any project. Developing a trusting relationship between artist and community is key and assuring then that you will respect their cultural heritage, whilst at the same time making something that can present new ideas of visual culture to the wider world.

In most cases, the biggest challenges are convincing local governments/authorities that what you are doing is of value and will live on in cultural memory. It is also extremely important that the community is on board and not abused in the process of creating the work. A kind of social contract is something that must be agreed from the outset so that everyone benefits, everyone is challenged and yet the artist is respected in being an artist and not a social worker that solves the ails of the community.

Increasingly it is becoming challenging to create ambitious works of art because the budgets are just not big enough, and it is kind of expected that the artist can do everything and then not take a fee. I have been involved in a number of projects where it was almost heresy to budget for a wage/commissioning fee. I think the greatest breakdowns happen because there is a perception that an artist is doing this because they love being an artist but in reality, artists too have to live, pay the bills, buy shoes for their children. Art is something to be valued and it does not just happen in a vacuum. So, the greatest challenges I have faced on any project have been in relation to expectations and realities.

Do you believe that art can make people value their environment more and comprehend its historical meaning?

Yes, I believe art, when it captures the imagination and interest of the public, can be the greatest activator of historical debate, interest and cultural pride.

You have some experience in working with communities as well. Could you tell us a little about your community-based artistic practice? Why is it important for you as an artist to work with communities?

I would say that all my work is considering the audience in which it is being presented. It is also at times created in conjunction with a community. Sometimes the community engagement is key to the manifestation of the work. I believe that art should not be an exclusive thing, I believe that art should be accessible beyond class limitations. I believe it is our human right to access art and to be creative.

For me it is important to work with communities that are often marginalised in society or those who are doing really interesting things, but their voice is not being heard. I am interested in how art can activate those communities in the creation and indeed ownership of the engagement progress and ultimately the creation of a unique work.

You will present in the first international conference dedicated to modernist architecture ‘Modernism for the Future’. What we could possibly expect to hear there and why is it worth coming?

I think it will be a unique opportunity to hear exciting thoughts around the presentation of ideas of visual culture, especially in the lead up to the European Capital of Culture in 2022. Some of the greatest examples of Modernism and Modernist ideals and philosophies came from Kaunas and this is a chance to hear some of the most exciting minds and artists speaking and presenting on these ideas and reimagining those proposals for a new future. It will be particularly interesting to hear how communities will be engaged and how Capital of Culture extends a sense of ownership of this incredible world to the marginalised: young people, people with disabilities, senior citizens, refugees, and what that says about culture and who we are as Europeans and as human beings.

Conference organisers: “Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022” and Lithuanian National Commission for UNESCO