You want it to be true as much as I do.
An Interview with Gregory Barnett
by Stacy Dawson Stearns
published in conjunction with performances of
Edenic Idyllic: I Can Take You To Heaven, Let Me Take You To Heaven.
Gregory Barnett and I are sitting together in a mountain of pale peach glitter on that warm jade floor at Olympic Spa. The tea is hot, and the treatments have been exquisite. When Meg Wolfe asked me to conduct this interview, I knew it couldn’t be done via text or email, so I booked a flight and did a crazy turnaround. It was worth the double redeye from DC and back. The strangest thing is: when I got back to the East Coast it was the day before I left, and the interview had already come out. This was my little bit of Heaven—yours is yet to come.
Stacy Dawson Stearns: What is Edenic Idyllic?
Gregory Barnett: This dance is about no-strings-attached beauty and about my want to offer it to you.
SDS: That is rare—the beauty part and the offer. Thank you. So tell me. This dance is performed for/with an audience of one. What is the appeal of performing for one person at a time?
GB: Currently it feels like a necessity to perform one on one. My performances/installations have taken a decided departure in this past year, after almost a decade of work that pegged me as a beacon for mourning. I had this romanticized vulnerability hang-up and was convinced that my hurting in front of others was some kind of camaraderie, and it was how I could help them. This inevitably took its toll, and I was depressed and exhausted from believing Paradise wasn’t available to anyone and the best we could hope for was not to suffer alone.
SDS: So what did you do?
GB: I decided that if there isn’t a Heaven, I would make one—because I needed one (or many) so badly myself. I figured I couldn’t be the only one. But of course, this making/giving Heaven territory is new ground for me, and I feel the doses need to be potent for the substantial shift I want to occur. It feels a lot more likely for two people (me and the participant) to concur that Loving may be a worthwhile goal right now, than for me to convince a room full of people it’s a good idea. I want the conversation/subject matter to feel distilled before handing it over to the diffusion inherent in crowds. I don’t want this to be me narrating solely for my own benefit; I want this to be contagious somehow, to generate a critical mass of joy-pursuing and no-strings-attached beauty. This is obviously a lot easier one on one.
SDS: I think I am ready for this. But what if I am on my way to come see you, and I get a little scorpion sting near my heart chakra? What if I become a bit afraid to trust this experience? I am afraid I could cry if I sit in a real moment outside of my daily routine. How will things go if that happens?
GB: You do not have to tell me anything and crying isn’t necessary by any means. These duets are created in an effort to provide solace/hope/affection, with me in the role of lead. The intended angle is a gentle one and the recipient’s/co-Lover’s task is solely to listen, to the extent that they are comfortable.
SDS: I can do that. I think that your audience can do that.
GB: I am offering everything I am able, so that they in turn can choose what and how much they want from this.
SDS: Consensual. Yes. I have worked with you before, and I know what it is like to be within the fold of your attention during performance. Your ability to connect without force is a quality that can’t really be learned—it is something that seems to be a natural part of who you are, and I think this is what makes Edenic Idyllic such a magnetic possibility for the audience of one. But there are others who are making this unique space of performance possible. Can you tell me a bit about Kate Gilbert and Diamondback Annie? I know them both to be uniquely exquisite, soberingly sensual, and goddess-like in intellect and presence. What are their roles in this experience?
GB: Diamondback Annie and Kate Gilbert are both longtime friends and collaborators of mine. Beyond this, they are both absolutely phenomenal artists that I trust. The two take rotating shifts as my “Reception Angel,” and have the task of quietly holding down the waiting room. I am giving them some props and some general work tasks, but I am leaving the specifics of their job up to them (this is where the trust comes in). One thing the three of us have in common is our interest in working with intent/premise over specific choreographed actions/pantomimes. They know their job is to offer comfort/suggest sanctuary, and their hearts and minds are more than competent to pull this off. I am resting assured; I am leaving it to my Angels.
SDS: Wow. Kate and Diamondback are the angels I would want to wait with. It would be worth two visits to the theater in order to spend time with both Angels . . . now my lens is moving outward from you and the Angels, and I am thinking about the specific space of Schkapf. Something that I have witnessed while collaborating with you is the way you deal with the performance space before you use it—a purification or a preparation of the space to make it ready for the event. Can you share anything with us about the way you feel about altars? Is this too personal?
GB: The specifics of the altars are the result of a series of ongoing internal dialogues I have with myself when making art or any decision: What do I want? What do I need? What do people need? How can I give people what they need? Then I write these answers into the objects/exchanges I am using. Every component becomes incredibly loaded for me, and I arrange them with the same care a chemist would use with volatile chemicals. I’m not concerned so much if the specified symbolism of, say, a pile of sweet potatoes placed on a bed of Mylar confetti registers with each person, and I don’t see it as the point. What I hope is evident is that care was taken. I know that’s what moves me most, when someone considers me.
SDS: And now I wonder about your preparation for engaging with whoever comes into Heaven to meet with you. Can you talk about personal preparation—for you and for your audience?
GB: This one is personal. It always involves praying to a smorgasbord of deities. It always involves singing. It always involves imagining gold light shooting out of my mouth whenever I open it (this starts a few days prior to performing, at random). Beyond that I walk in and ask myself to start listening, which can sometimes take awhile if my brain is busy. But at a certain point I give over and follow whatever directions come into my head.
SDS: I just have to sit with this one for a minute and let that image stay for a while. Thank you for letting me in on that. It reminds me of some things you have shared with me about imaging light that I use quite a bit in my daily life. I hope that some amazing lighting designer comes to Edenic Idyllic, makes a connection with your sense of light as a power, and works with you on your next piece to manifest these visions for others (this is a spell, go with it).
And this brings me to this issue that always comes up of “what is next” or “where do you want things to go.” So forgive me for this rude plop into the mundane, but I have to ask: where do you stand in the artist’s quest for funding and presentation support? Are you hoping to be “discovered” by a larger public?
GB: In a “I am doing this because I have an overwhelming desire to be of help to people, and more people interacting with me may mean more people benefitting” way—yes. In a “how much cash can I make by hugging people” way—no. This becomes tricky because I want to retire the starving-artist martyr role someday. It feels downright wrong to ask people to pay for Heaven, which is what I am currently trying to peddle. So the question becomes: Where else can funding come from until the point some benefactor wants to cover costs on a large scale? So far the only answer I have managed is merchandise. For instance, there will be a gift shop at Edenic Idyllic, a small station of related amulets and “Lovers Get Love” t-shirts mostly. This feels good, and the products broaden the reach of the project. Someone who wasn’t there still gets the reassurance that Lovers Get Love when they read a person’s shirt in line at the grocery. There are multiple winners involved.
SDS: Everyone wins in Heaven! And here in our glitter pile on the jade floor. But alas, it is time for my redeye back to the East! So I will pose one more question: Greg. You love food. If Heaven were a meal, what would it be?
GB: Ambrosia. Naturally. And honey.
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Stacy Dawson Stearns is an artist, educator, and scholar whose research centers on image-based forms and the somatic experience within and without performance contexts. Her writings on dance and performance have been published in the 53rd State Occasional, Itch Performance Journal, and Native Strategies. More at impulseintoaction.com.