To enter Stephanie Barber’s films and videos is to enter a thicket of words, a tangle of language that overwhelms the viewer’s ears and floods the spaces of her frame with implications and meaning. An artist who works in photography, poetry, music, and live performance, Barber in her video work opens a specific space in the audiovisual field for speech to flourish and even to run wild. Characters converse in dense monological passages, both for us and for their interlocutors, playfully demanding us to tune into their particular discursive register and rhythm.
Screening in “Show & Tell,” Anthology Film Archives’ long-running series devoted to new artists’ work, Barber’s In the Jungle (2017) literalizes this ludic space of language in the verdant space indicated in its title. But raw, unsullied nature this isn’t: Barber’s jungle exists entirely on a stage, a colorful nest of cardboard flora and prop plants against a black backdrop with a screen at stage left, on which are projected jungle views and nocturnal scenes of fluttering moths and bats. The central locale of the film, then, is closer to a Wooster Group–ish performance space — complete with an occasionally visible audience and a few stagehands to move things around — than it is to the backwoods of beyond. Far from an authentically earthy site, it is a fully cooked and phantasmic forest, densely vegetated with ideas. Evocative, wry, goofy, and mysterious, Barber’s jungle is a fake and fabulous playground, simmering with a persistent soundtrack of electro-gurgles; loopy, chirpy sounds; oboe-esque tones; and calliope chimes that, in the final scene, even erupt into several demented pop songs (played on local tropical radio station by DJ M.C. Schmidt, one half of the electronic duo Matmos).
It’s in this mass of sound and shrubbery where we find the Scientist, the video’s protagonist and the principle of its few characters. Some four and a half years into a self-imposed exile — as the Scientist informs us, at the outset, seated at a cartoonishly large typewriter made out of cardboard — she is now ready to emerge to present her findings on animal noises. Festooned in ersatz flora on the dark, green-lit stage, the Scientist — played by Cricket Arrison, of the Baltimorean performance collective Wham City — seems to be suffering from the very particular tropical malady of logorrhea. Words flow from her mouth, through the absurd typewriter, and into the projections to her right. In this way, she is perhaps less a “character” than a medium, a voice and a body through which Barber filters and arranges her ideas of isolation, contemplation, and physical and cognitive renewal.
Soon into In the Jungle, a 360-degree pan of the camera and a tiny band of stagehands occasion a redressing of the scenery from the nameless tropical locale to a meeting of the International Association of Botanists. This draws the Scientist back to civilization, such as it is — a row of unresponsive cardboard silhouettes — and then, later, back again to the jungle. Here, the transhumance between “jungle” and “civilization” becomes more a conceptual journey generated by the artifice of language, performance, and media. Elsewhere, in a more realist mode, such a route out of and back to the jungle might suggest a melancholic elegy for generic concepts: the loss of the elemental, a rejuvenative return to the real. But Barber’s overabundance of language and logos — her insistence on the artificiality and constructedness of the Scientist’s natural environs — positions the jungle as a space of subconscious play rather than a lost paradise. To return to the jungle — to wrap herself, as the Scientist does, in her serpentine sleeping bag and become a snake with her “snake friends” — is about generating a space of comfort and self-care: a habitat.
In the Jungle
Anthology Film Archives