In conversation with Sacha Barker

To cite this contribution:
Eaton, Jeremy and Fliedner, Kelly. Interview with Sacha Barker. ‘Memory Bank’. Currents Journal, Issue Two (2021),

Download this interview  ︎︎︎PDF

Sacha Barker’s course of study: Masters by Research, Fine Arts, University of Western Australia

Image ^^^ Sacha Barker, The Fear (SWS 3). Photographed by Daniel Grant.

Sacha Barker [SB]: I was really excited when you mentioned that this [conference was] about memory and archives because that's something that I've thought a lot about with my practice, particularly as many of my works build upon each other. For instance, the Spider Web works contain messages that were submitted by past participants... they are wrapped orbs that contain all of the handwritten submissions that I've received beforehand and become a web that belongs to the place where the messages were collected. I’ve done these works at many locations: one outside UWA in a high foot traffic area, one near a school, next to a playground in Applecross as well. In these places it just says, ‘share your fear’ on the box. That's all it says.  I've been really humbled by the generosity and honesty of the handwritten submissions I have received. I copy the handwriting into embroidery and then wrap and work them together. Only small parts of the full message are revealed to the audience after the process of making the work is complete. A small revealing of vulnerability. A memory of the submission is only partially legible. So the weight of that submission, the memory of it, the archive of it, is actually physically in the web. I’m interesting in the idea of collapsing and bringing back and moving around, working with what I’ve already made and what I’ve already collected. 

Kelly Fliedner [KF]: Yes, I love those works. You said that the location of them was an important way of categorising each one and you're interested, obviously, in destabilising a sense of the author as the most significant subject of cataloging a work or a project and so I was just thinking about this  process of archiving. An archive within an institution will always have these categories that are attached to items within them, like an author, location, date, time, medium, events, whatever. The author is often the most significant way to categorise a work. But perhaps including other things like ‘feelings’ or just slightly shifting the emphasis so that ‘location’ is the most important thing is interesting. Maybe institutions should be classifying works by ‘emotions’ or ‘season’ or ‘location’, perhaps it needs to be more specific, not ‘Australia’ or ‘Western Australia’ or ‘Perth’ but ‘Boorloo’ or ‘Kings Park’ or…  

SB: The Web work wouldn't have happened without the handwriting of strangers. There isn’t really any way of knowing who will respond to the box, or what they will say or how they will react. There is no way of knowing the quality or quantity of the submissions. There is no way of predicting what I will receive and submissions are completely dependant upon the space where they are collected, and so as much as anything the work is inextricably linked to place. I’m definitely not the author. The place is as much the author as I am. In my thesis, I talk a lot about vibrant matter, which speaks to collaboration, working with an object or location rather than using it. Rather than approaching a material like, ‘I'm going make a horse out of you and you're going to do this’. Instead, I think about the material and if I were to use wood, for example, you look at the wood, you work with the wood, you experiment with it. You have a conversation with it. How does it respond? Perhaps it says ‘no, I don’t want to be a horse. It's actually really good being this other thing.’   

KF: I love thinking about objects or materials or locations as co-makers. It’s just a small shift in the language but it feels significant. It opens up how we might think about our day-to-day interactions, all of them, even something as simple as the time you spend in your car. How does my car effect how I'm traveling through the landscape?  

SB: The experience of your journey with your car and how your car responds to you and how you're interacting with other cars. I mean, if you had a different car you would have a very different journey wouldn't you?  

Jeremy Eaton [JE]: Thinking about this idea of vibrant matter and energy, makes me think a lot about the installation of your work in the masters exhibition. The objects themselves have a tangible, emotional weight to them, that feels conferred to them by the individuals who submitted their emotions or fears etc. which are rapped and embedded internally, enclosed and inaccessible… and yet they have this energy about them.  

I'm glad that you get a sense of that because there is very much an energy or weight that I wanted to convey through them. They are completely dense. I had the experience of a woman coming to see the work when I was installing. Completely by chance she'd come to drop off something at UWA. She had seen the box before out by the cafe on campus and had written something in it about two years ago. And she asked about it, and I said, ‘oh yeah, that's everything that was posted in there. I've embroidered the words’. I was busy threading needles and finishing up so my mum showed her around the room and showed her the box that she wrote in. She was really happy to know the whole process and what it became because I don't tell people what it will become. All the work is at that early stage is a box. She didn't know what it was. Didn’t know if it was an artwork or a survey or anything. She didn’t know what it would become and then to know after all this time was really exciting. She took photos of each piece. 

Yeah, it's actually really beautiful. I feel like the success of the work comes from that leap of faith from the participants… that whatever action they're doing does have some kind of purpose or consequence. And that is what we’re all doing all the time. Small acts, small gestures to the universe. And in turn the installation of all the objects has a real universe or outer-space feel. Floating, hopeful gestures in space.   

SB: Thank you. Yeah, I guess because the rocks were all floating too.  

JE: Seeing images of the work it did look as though it had this almost atomic, cosmological, visual floating energy. 

SB: Oh, that's really beautiful.  

KF: And actually that makes me think of the spider and how the digestion of food or nutrients becomes the threads of the web. Who was it? Carl Sagan? Who said we’re all made up of star stuff? Stars are the continually digested matter that makes up everything. A kind of composting, digestion, consumption. An alchemical flowing in and out.  

SB: Another thing about the spider is about trust and distrust. The actual paper that people write on is never seen. I keep everything but I never share them. I traced them with tracing paper several times. They get digested. The second one I did was within walking distance from my parents home where I lived at the time. I didn’t want anyone to see me there. So I would walk there in the dead of night. Then after opening the box and collecting the submissions I would walk back home along Stirling Highway. I couldn't read them in the light where the box was located, so there was this real sense of anticipation and excitement to get home. You don't want anyone to see it and you don't want to be recognised. You don’t want anyone to know that it's your box because then that'll influence what people put in there. I didn't technically ask anyone for permission where I put my boxes either, so I didn't want to be caught opening it.  

Are you ever disappointed by the things that you find in the box? 

SB: Not disappointed. Because everything is a type of sharing. Unless there was nothing. I was a bit sad sometimes when there had been no submissions. Sometimes there would be two days in a row. The box itself is quite engineered because at the beggining I was paranoid that people were going to scratch it, put cigarettes out on it, use it as a rubbish bin or put drinks in it. So it's very hard to break and is made from stainless steel. Once, I found two lolly wrappers in there. That’s is. The fact that it's been out in the public for probably collectively over a year, that's really amazing. No one has ever put a cigarette out on it or done anything mean toward it. None of the bolts have ever been unscrewed or anything. So, I’ve never been disappointed. I mean, some of the submissions feel like they're, you know, taking the piss a little but that's still an interaction. They have still given me their handwriting and made themselves vulnerable by standing over this box and writing to it. 

KF: There is a kind of fluid nature between that person leaning over the box, the location and your midnight missions and it’s made me think of our previous conversation with Ash. We were talking about repatriation of objects. I'm interested in how you engage afterwards with those co-makers, besides the serendipity of that lady dropping something off at UWA and remembering the box… have you thought about how you might take the objects back to those places? 

SB: I have thought about that but it's hard to say who the object belongs to. It’s really tricky. Likewise, it’s tricky thinking about an author of the map work I made. I was in the mindset of vibrant matter when I made it, and it's derived from all of these flawed maps, that show one thing very well. Like, maps that are used for mining purposes. They really home in on something specific, details in the landscape and because of that specificity they are obscure to the lay eye. You might need an education to understand or know what is being conveyed.

And I'm assuming they have ulterior motives, political or social or otherwise.  

SB: Absolutely. There's one that I'm thinking of that just shows ‘well’ across it. What it is actually mapping is the Canning Stock Route, but it simply shows the location of ‘wells’. Locating ‘well’, ‘well’, ‘well’, ‘well’, ‘well’. It’s from a time when we hadn't done so much research, understanding and respecting of the history of the people that were there before and are still there, and the fact that they just labeled ‘well’ really shows you, you know, what they were interested in was a stop on the way. Extracting and then moving on. Knowing now the horrible ways that the wells were made, it makes working with the maps quite loaded. 

In terms of co making with the maps. I try to respect the fact that they're flawed but also I want to highlight the fact that they are flawed. I’m co making not only with the map as an idea, but with the map physically, copying the lines, playing and manipulating the text. In that way, I'm not really an author. I had an idea, and then I collaborated with things to make something. Thinking more about ownership, in the original collection of these maps, there are many that are confidential, so no one is really allowed to look at them. So what does that say about ownership of a place and ownership of knowledge?

It really describes a particular political history and cultural memory that defines that aspect of place. And there could be things within those other maps that expose something. Just as scandalous, or you know negative, about a perspective that people had about the kind of country that they were working on. 

SB: Yes, and then the names of mines, I don't know who names mines. I'm talking about small mines, old mines, but they've got some really weird names.  

JE: That's so interesting. 

Those names are often violent. It’s also hard not to think of insidious “wellness culture” within the context of that well map. Language and naming can be violent, even through banal expressions.  

SB: If you didn't know anything about what we've just discussed in terms of the history of Australia and WA, you might look at it from a European perspective and see something like reprieve. You’re going to have a totally different perspective that's alien to ours.  

KF: And so the co-making practice is part of who the audience is as well. 

SB: That's something that I find really interesting because I’ve been so wrong in my assumptions about audience. You really cannot judge an audience. I've learned a lot from the audience. They've taught me everything.  

JE: It’s a similar attitude when working with materials. I feel like you can learn things, define a sensibility or an attitude through the objects around you. Maybe I should take more care when I move things around my house. There's some really interesting writing by Karen Barad on this about how the effect changes the things around us.  

SB: I find that really interesting especially in terms of trauma. How trauma can change both the thing, place or person that enacted the trauma and that which is affected by the trauma. They both contain a mark that's not necessarily visible, but there was an exchange, I like that idea of the exchange.  

So when you're moving things around your house, Jeremy, you are making an exchange with yourself and the environment. Then things that you put next to each other. You think, oh, those elements are speaking really well to each other or they're fighting. That kind of language. It's really interesting. 

JE: Definitely. I think because they're physical and everything on this molecular level of exchange leaves a mark or a trace. And it goes back to how we were talking about energy and that  movement of the text into the fabric, and there is this element of trace that kind of inhabits your work. Similar with the maps, there is an indexical process of making a map in the first place, which is kind of strange, and it leaves a bizarre mark on the physical place itself. You could see this as a type of violence that occurs by defining or packaging it in. Then you shifted it into a material space again, which begins to unpick that violence.  

SB: Violence is a really interesting word to use because it is. It's a lot of about voyeurism and the colonial gaze as well as the human gaze. There's a lot of voyeurism in it, especially as the audience has a privileged view of a place without the consent of that place and without having physically gone to or interacted with it. You can then make a judgment about a place we're going to do XY and Z to that pocket of land. 

Because I've looked at the map and I reckon we should do this and it's going to make X amount of money and we're doing that. Even though I am never going to step foot there, I can look at this map and make that decision about its future. I can make all those judgments just from the map. 

I asked one of my mentors who was a prospector for many years about the process of making these maps and whether the people who made them had been to the land. He said yeah, most of them had, surveyors etc. But he also said there's a type of machine now that surveys land, and it’s like a giant magnet that hangs from a from a plane, in the sky. A very big floating sheet of magnet that passes above the land. It hovers about this perfect land that's hardly been touched, and it somehow sees through the surface and records the earths composition. It feels like such a false exchange to me. 

Those maps are incredibly sad. I was planning to go to Lake Ballard, so I was looking at archival photos and we were planning a trip there and I was getting really amped up looking at Google Maps, the colours and reading about people who have been there and then I found these maps by chance that showed that place. I ended up not being able to go there, so I just have my memory of the research that I've done and the information from those maps, which are very lacking. The line work is beautiful, but I don’t get any picture of my body in the space. There is no scale. They are insufficient and flawed but there is also no alternative really. 

JE: And we live through and by maps like Google. We trust them and believe them to be a true representation of the landscape. A few years ago I went to Morocco and Google just at that stage hadn’t mapped any of the old towns. It was actually quite liberating to not constantly defer to Google to define the way I navigated or walked through space. It really altered the way I experienced that place.  

SB: That's very empowering to the people that live there as well, because you now have to ask them in order to get around. And then sometimes you might have to first learn the language and then you'd have to speak it. At least it would be on their terms. I think that would be a really beautiful idea that you'd have to go to a place, respect the people there absolutely and to engage with them directly, instead of Google.  

KF: Maybe we could return to the institution of the university, which is also a process of co making as well. You have entered into relationships with people within the university like your supervisor, but also the other people that are there in your cohort that you're studying with or researching with at anyone time. Or other people who have moved through that space. 

SB: Yes, the relationships that you have at uni with your supervisors and your colleagues. Those that you have spent meaningful time with. They are important relationships. In a way they are not essential to your actual work, but they shape it through interaction and exchange. They’re so important to help you understand your own work.

About Sacha Barker:
Sacha Barker is an artist, working in sculptural and textile medias. She is interested in narratives concerning the body, politics and culture of our human environment. Barker lives and works in Perth, Australia. Her work is graphic and dynamic. It takes shape across recycled materials, fabrics and found objects.

Currents  is a collaboration between the Centre of Visual Art (CoVA) at the University of Melbourne and the School of Design, University of Western Australia, and is funded through the Schenberg International Arts Collaboration Program. The Advisory Board and Editorial Committee are comprised of staff and graduate students from across the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia.
Currents acknowledges the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land on which this journal is produced—the Boonwurung and Wurundjeri people of the Eastern Kulin Nation and Whadjuk people. We pay our respects to land, ancestors and Elders, and know that education involves working with their guidance to improve the lives of all.

ISSN 2652-8207