Sculptures in time

interview with Gregory Barsamian

Gregory Barsamian is a sculptor, but not an average one. He is sculpting in time. Over the past twenty years he has developed a technique which enables him to present his own unique vision.
Enter a world of stroboscopic flickering, sculptures that circle over at high speed, dark explorations of the subconscious and a humorous comment on the notion of free will.


Starting point for his art is a simple optical device: the zoetrope. British inventor George Horner built the first one in 1834. It was based on the phenakistiscope by Joseph Plateau, but it didn‘t require a viewing mirror and allowed more than one person to use it at the same time.
The zoetrope consists of a cylindrical drum with an open top, supported on a central axis. A sequence of drawn images on paper is placed around the lower inside of the drum. Around the outside of the drum, slots are cut at equal distances just above where the image strip is positioned.

To create an illusion of motion, the drum is spun at a certain speed. The viewer can look through the slots from any point to see a rapid progression of images, an animation. The zoetrope uses the principle of persistence of vision to create the illusion of motion.
Based upon the same principle, Gregory Barsamian is making his kinetic sculptures. Using time, movement and strobe light, he creates the same visual effect as the zoetrope but in a three-dimensional way. The effect is a sculpture that appears to be animated before your eyes. He has refined the possibilities of the zoetrope, but why did he choose such a distinct anachronistic medium to work with?

GB: “I don‘t use it that much differently than the originators of it. 150 years ago, they understood the principle and they tried every conceivable incarnation of stop action, animation. I have no doubt that they had three-dimensional zoetrope‘s as well back then. So I haven‘t really invented anything.
For me it was a combination, a culmination, of a few things that I was interested in. I came at it from sculpture, so I was already a three-dimensional person. Coming out of sculpture from a direction where I appreciate the complexity so long as the complexity all works in one direction and is coherent, has a unity. It then became natural to want to put sculpture in time to add another dimension. With that dimension the amount of information rises exponentially.
From that standpoint, sculpture has already an element of time. The spectator can walk around and create an animation right on the spot. The shape of the object changes wildly on the two-dimensional screen in their head. But that‘s under the control of the spectator and I wished to create narratives that were under my control.

It began when I was playing around with the notion of a zoetrope.
I took some super 8 footage of a friend walking and projected him frame by frame on a wall, traced him and then cut him out. I had 16 little cut-outs of him walking, put them on a wheel, synchronized the strobe light to it and I wasn‘t too surprised that indeed they walked. At that moment it occurred to me that they didn‘t have to be flat, that I could animate three-dimensional objects with fairly compelling allusion. And though there are a lot of limitations to the technique in terms of narrative length and even subject matter, the idea of animating three-dimensional objects in front of you, in real-time, was very exciting to me.”

Although there is a direct link with the world of animation, Barsamian is quite strict in defining his work: it‘s still sculpting.

GB: “It‘s my starting point and ending point. I‘m creating sculpture in time, using an animation technique to accomplish that. I do it mainly to add a dimension of time to my work. It isn‘t really all that meaningful to debate whether it‘s animation or sculpture. I treat it as sculpture, I come from that background. It‘s hard to consider myself an animator, because I have no experience in animation.”

Experiencing his work can be quite overwhelming, as you are actually inside the zoetrope. The direct contact with the sculptures makes it not only a visual but a physical experience as well. It is space, light and sound coming together in creating an environment where sculptures flash before the eye at a rate of 13 sculptures per second.

GB: “I‘m trying to deal with subconscious imagery. The closer you can get to recreating a kind of subconscious state, the better you are able to get those ideas across. That altered reality when it‘s dark, it‘s flickering, helps to put you in that frame of mind.”

Beloved imagination

Gregory Barsamian gets most of his inspiration from his own dreams. He records them with a little tape recorder which he keeps next to his bed.

GB: “The more you are aware of your body, the harder it is to remember. That‘s why I use the recorder, because then I can wake up with moving as few muscles as I can. I just click it on and start mumbling. And sometimes I am recording them as they‘re happening…”

He then mixes them with experiences and ideas that he has been thinking about. It‘s an intuitive approach that is not pursuing a linear progression or goal.

GB: “I try not to be linear. I try to treat my sculptures like music. For me the reason that we make art is to take advantage of that bandwidth of consciousness that is the subconscious. It is much larger than our conscious bandwidth.
There is a wonderful book called “The user illusion: cutting consciousness down to size” by Tor Norretranders. A lot of his writing inspired my work and dove tailed into it well. He chronicles how consciousness works and how limited it is. The speed of consciousness is about 15 bits per second. At the same time the senses are bringing in 20 million bits per second and acting on a lot of it… You know what it is like to drive to work and don‘t remember how you got there, that you actually did it in an unconscious state. You can do amazingly complex things through the unconscious.
There is this kind of chauvinism of consciousness. It is sitting beside this mild wild river of information flowing by and tipping and fingering here and there, sampling just the tiniest amounts and claiming to know what‘s going on in the river. Sometimes, with further conceit, claiming to be in control of the river. That‘s absurd…

In a large way our intuition has a much better grasp of it. The record of those things is in our unconscious and in our dreams. It‘s the only conduit we really have to it. For me that‘s why we make art: to communicate outside of this very plotting 15 bit per second linear conduit and to employ that segment of your mind that can grasp enormous amounts of information in a single instant.”

This clearly points to a strong affinity with themes and ideas that originated from surrealism. The idea that understanding is dictated by thoughts, without any control by the rational, and, as a consequence, is outside any esthetical or moral preoccupation. Barsamian makes a comparison with the way music operates.

GB: “We don‘t ask explanations of music, it simply travels into our minds and moves us enormously without any real conscious thought going on. In this way, I don‘t expect people to be able to explain the images that I make.
They begin intuitively for me, I put them in front of another person and their response should be intuitive as well. It‘s about an experience, it‘s an atmosphere. It is many different channels of information, an impression that acts on the intuition and recreates the dream state. I adhere to the whole union notion of commonality amongst our subconscious impulses. There is a common language that‘s not written down anywhere.”

Technological challenges

His sculptures are bigger-than-man time based mechanics that sometimes consist of hundreds of other small sculptures. They can occupy a whole room. There is the sound of machinery and sometimes an accompanying soundtrack. You could find yourself trying to find out how these complex constructions are working.

GB: “The technology is very simple. I use minimal electronics just to make the shuttering of light easier. I like to keep it as simple as possible. I came at this particular technique through sculpture and then through time based sculpture using different techniques. The temptation is to get more and more complicated. I recognized early on, that I could get lost in the technology and that it would be interesting. But it‘s not what I consider to be art and not what I wanted to do. I try to keep my technical act down, so that I can put it on autopilot and simply concentrate on my images.”

This doesn‘t mean that he doesn‘t consider the technique an important aspect of his work.

GB: “This technique has been very fortunate for me. It has a kind of compelling nature that has allowed me to get a lot of exhibits. If I pursued more static work or other time based work, I might not have had nearly the opportunity that I‘ve had working this way. In that way it‘s been great. It‘s a kind of a crossover medium that bridges the fine art world with more popular forms of art. And so it contacted more people. If you can overcome your elitism and snobbery and see that as valuable, then you can be happy and that‘s what I have been.

I have enjoyed placing pieces in science museums as well as Madison Avenue galleries. On one hand you have your 500 overeducated people who come to your opening and on the other hand you have everybody under the sun. I get some of the most amazing responses from all sorts of people. So, the technique is exciting to me because I got to animate 3 dimensional objects and use the power of animation to attack subconscious imagery and as well as just giving me all these opportunities.”

In the use of machinery and electronics, Barsamian sometimes feels a connection with digital artists. But he remains critical towards their fixation on the technological aspect of their work.

GB: “For many it‘s a very obvious game of technical one-upmanship. People are challenging the medium and try to advance it and get out of it what they can. It‘s interesting, it‘s definitely interesting. They‘re doing very difficult things. It‘s often so demanding just getting it to do what they want, that the content is often not as interesting as they would like. It‘s just another technique, another palette, the electronic media.”

There‘s nothing Nietzsche couldn‘t teach ‘ya

If Gregory Barsamian uses his technique like a canvas to write content on, what is this content than about? Having studied philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, he has an interest in both Jung and Nietzsche. This interest is apparent in his work, in which he combines fundamental human dilemmas with suggestive narratives and a dark sense of humor.

GB: “There are psychological studies that have proven that consciousness of something, of an act, lacks a half a second behind your mind. In other words: if I decide to pick up a cup, my subconscious knows that my body is actually preparing to pick up the cup a full half second before I‘m conscious of having made a decision. You really don‘t know what to do with that, because it screws with the whole notion of free will… (laughs).”

A lot of his work is built around the acceptance of the restriction of free will. In the installation “Cake Walk”, the mastery he has achieved in his art is undeniable. A small figure is walking in the empty space left by a slice removed from a cake. It grows until it‘s suddenly flattened by a truck. After showing me a videotape of the work, he comments sardonically: “And then they say that there is something like a free will.”.

Niels Van Tomme.

Link: Gregory Barsamian