Dialogue with Annette Barbier and Drew Browning, of Un-real Estates

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

 Installing Elevator Music (for Site Unseen) 2009. Annette Barbier and Drew Browning.

Installing Elevator Music (for Site Unseen) 2009. Annette Barbier and Drew Browning.

Writings, interviews, and documentary sounds from both the disabled rights activists and the medical community are used to consider the differences between these groups’ differing approaches towards disabilities. The spoken words are processed so that, while understandable, they become musical as well, cloaking what may for some be an uncomfortable message in an aesthetically pleasing form. Located in the elevator(s) adjacent to the grand staircase on the Randolph St. side of the Cultural Center, Elevator Music addressed varying approaches to disability. Documentation can be accessed at: http://youtube/aUBHCB2IkhU

How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?

AB: We live together, so see each other every day, but we both have work that takes us out of the house/studio and even when home are often working on solo things. We work on projects as they come up and frequently these are in response to a call for work or opportunity to exhibit.

DB: Yes, even though we live together we have separate studios within the same live/work space.

When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?

AB: We sometimes schedule meetings just because we have so many things to do, but we also share ideas at dinner, in the car, or during any breaks when nothing else pressing is going on.

DB: We do use electronic communication even when we’re at home for efficiency and shared file space.

Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay?

AB: Our practice is seamlessly integrated with our lives, largely because our work is never outside ourselves but reflects our own values and interests.

DB: Well put.

Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?

AB: No, why would we? It’s fun and intriguing. When we’re engaged in making a piece together, it’s kind of like when you’re looking for a place to live – you start to see everything through the lenses of your need: houses and neighborhoods become places with or without “for sale” signs, life becomes material for the work.

DB: Good example!

When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?

AB: We vary a little on that point. Drew says I was his student (in an electronic visualization class), I say we were both students (in a sculpture class) at UIC. I liked his work and the way he thought about things. It was so long ago; it doesn’t really matter any more.

DB: I think both versions are kind of true. I was the TA for the EV class while we were classmates in the sculpture class. I was her teacher later in grad school at SAIC.

At what point did you start making work together?

AB: When I worked for the Artist In Residence program for the City of Chicago (kind of like the WPA) in the late ‘70’s, Drew got involved and then became an integral part of the projects I was doing (although he wasn’t officially employed as an AIR). The program gave us access to dancers, theater folks, musicians, etc., and we made video/dance works as well as a play for children in which one of the characters was a lissajous figure in a monitor that modulated with the voice of the actor.

DB: I was a video artist making commercials for broadcast TV (mostly animated logos) at a small production company when Annette asked if I would be an unpaid consulting artist to the AIR program. Because of my paid job, I had access to the equipment (Sandin Image Processor and peripherals) we used to make our interdisciplinary collaborative works.

Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?

AB: I think our prior knowledge about one another’s work and our mutual respect helped us work together without too much difficulty from the start. But there was a period when we didn’t collaborate much if at all – during the time we were working towards tenure. The tenure process and academic institutions in general favors singly authored work – perhaps for ease of evaluation – and for a few years we each worked mainly on separate projects, although we always discussed and critiqued one another’s work.

DB: Ah yes, it was our artistic divorce (or separation). I think Woody and Steina Vasulka announced their “Video Divorce” (for different reasons) around that time.

Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?

AB: It really depends on the project – Drew is far more adept technically in terms of programming and physical computing, and while he writes well, I write more easily; I’m more at ease with video shooting and editing, we both do 3D modeling (although I do more animation), and we share the conceptual work. Sometimes one person will have an idea that we stick with, but usually an idea gets transformed many times and finally who did or thought of what becomes unrecognizable and a moot point.

DB: Making art together is like cooking together. Although we both participate in all aspects of the cooking endeavor, meals are often initiated and led by one of us (depending on time and motivation/inspiration). However, in our natural division of labor Annette spends more time planning the meal and preparing the ingredients. She enjoys considering the origins of the ingredients (home grown, farmers market, fair trade, etc.), whereas I more often am the one at the stove interacting with the ingredients, experimenting with new techniques and seasonings, poking and tasting as I transform and shape the elements. We both enjoy the results.

How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?

AB: I keep a sketch book/notebook sporadically; Drew prefers to keep track of ideas on the computer. When we’re working together on a project, we have a file of notes we take and drawings we make whenever we have a chance to talk – in the morning before getting out of bed, or at lunch or dinner. Drew usually does pre-visualization in 3D CG (ending up in VRML) and we use it both to communicate with one another as well as to show clients, funders, juries, etc.

DB: As interactive installation artists our work is often site-specific. Preparation begins with a site visit where we document with photography, video and measurements. Pre-visualization starts with low fidelity modeling based on our site visit. This rapid visualization method lets me spend time with the space as ideas form through reflection. Fidelity is increased with texture mapping, animation and interaction as the project develops, until the model becomes a full-blown realtime interactive prototype. Having gone through this process many times over the years, I have become very fast and have built a large database of pre-built models of our equipment (computers, monitors, projectors, cameras, etc). It is a process that leads to confidence and time saving at installation time.

How do you make choices and negotiate decisions about what direction to take with projects?

AB: It’s pretty organic.

DB: Yes, it usually flows well. If not, we compromise.

Does your collaboration ever involve more people? If no, why not? If yes, then when and how does that work?

AB: We used to collaborate with others a lot more – the past few years we’ve worked mostly just with each other. Maybe it’s the path of least resistance.

DB: When we do, it is usually decided by or proposed by others. Working with others can be fun and rewarding but requires working out new social understandings. This can be frustrating and time-consuming. Working with the same person or persons many times lets you get down to work quickly.

Will you describe a project that didn’t work out or you didn’t follow through on? Can you describe something that you couldn’t agree on or you didn’t feel like you were both “into?”

AB: We did a piece last year that was interactive using physical computing, and the mode of transmission/communication was audio only rather than our usual aural/visual. It was created for a particular space, and we’ve been asked to mount it again in another location. Drew wants to add a visual component, and I’m overwhelmed by the complexity and amount of work involved in doing so, as well as discouraged by the likelihood that we will not be able to travel the work or show it elsewhere (so, for me it’s not “worth it”). So I would say we’re a little stuck on that right now.

DB: Yes, Elevator Music, although successful, was a huge technical challenge. It was only up for one day but worth the effort to me because of the potential spin-off pieces I have in mind for the specific “captive” audience in elevators. I’m concerned that audio, especially spoken words, can quickly become annoying if the work is up for an extended period of time, so I wanted to try a visual/text only version. I would say we’re in a situation where we haven’t found a compromise yet.

What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?

AB: I’ve been working in photo and video with ideas about place, about traveling, about our ability or propensity to transpose one reality on another (part of not “being here now”). I have a prototype for a piece about being still that involves video shot in Vietnam, Beijing and Shanghai in process. I’ve also been doing a lot of work with natural materials like leaves and feathers that comments on how human interference has compromised the environment. This hasn’t directly entered into our collaborative work, although I do take ideas and processes about interactivity from the work we do together and use them in my individual work.

DB: My individual work about identity, disability rights and point of view does occasionally find its way into our collaborative work but my interest in the formal properties of the medium is always part of our work.

Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?

AB: We are not always equally moved by the same factors and have some ideas that are better suited to individual work. My most recent work has been about environmental issues while Drew’s has been about social justice.

DB: My work about social justice feeds my activism and vice versa.

If you maintain an individual practice as well as a collaborative practice, have you run into conflicts of interest, time-management/priority issues, or experienced communication problems due to multiple focuses at any point? How is this resolved?

AB: When we’re involved in a collaborative project, we generally agree that that takes precedence, partly because there is usually a deadline associated with its completion.

DB: I agree.

What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?

AB: Strengths – in sharing and discussing ideas, we complement one another and deepen the work. Drew has wonderful insights, and we take the work much farther than it might otherwise go by working jointly on it. Challenges – we don’t always agree, and sometimes the deadline-driven nature of the work becomes quite stressful.

DB: Annette is really good at seeing the big picture. I’m really good with details. Together with we make a cohesive whole. The problems arise when we need to compromise our individual goals for sake of the collaboration.

What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively? Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?

AB: Our collaboration springs from a deep personal empathy and understanding.

DB: Coming from similar family and educational backgrounds as well as political views certainly helps our working relationship.

If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?

DB: My experience with collaborating gives me the skills and confidence to encourage group projects in my courses.

AB: Collaboration involves developing insight into someone else’s way of working, which is always useful in understanding and helping students advance their own work.

If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?

AB: Our only experience in teaching together was a recent experience in teaching Public Art in which we taught interactive techniques including programming in PD/GEM and the background and context of Public Art. We each brought different strengths and bodies of knowledge to the class, and although we did help the students accomplish a major public project, we were continually running short on time.

DB: When I have co-taught courses in the past, I found it to be very difficult. Like collaborations, getting used to a partner’s teaching style, personality and social interactions takes time. Co-teaching with an established collaborator cuts through most of that.

Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.

Our most recent collaboration, Elevator Music, created for Site Unseen ’09, is thoroughly covered and documented in our blog here: http://unreal-estates.blogspot.com/. Also, our website http://www.unreal-estates.com documents many of our joint work and links to our individual websites.

Annette Barbier is an artist whose work began in sculpture and moved through video to new technologies including computer animation, virtual reality, and net art. Her work addresses home, domesticity, and the ways in which identity is bound up with one’s environment. It has moved from an emphasis on the personal to a consideration of the global, looking at ways in which home has come to be defined more broadly as populations shift, and as our interdependence becomes increasingly clear. Barbier graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA. She has exhibited widely and won numerous awards since 1974. More detail may be found at:


Drew Browning is an electronic artist/designer whose work began with the video art movement of the early ’70s, including interactive video installations and video performances, and now focuses on interactive digital media and virtual reality. His work is centrally about creating dialog about the issues of difference, about using the power of technology to challenge viewer perspective, about calling attention to what makes us human, and the human condition. He is also involved in research and development of technology for persons with disabilities and universal design. He is an Associate Professor of both Electronic Visualization and Industrial Design and Director of the Design Visualization lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago.