Fusebox Festival 2010, Austin
April 25, 2010
by Katie Geha
Daniel Barrow; Photo: Sonia Yoon
Twee: the nauseatingly sentimental phenomenon that has taken the oompf out of indie music is quickly moving into the visual arts (Mark Ryden’s little girls with huge eyes, for instance) and now, with Daniel Barrow’s Every Time I See your Picture I Cry, the performing arts. The term, which originated in England and is baby talk for “sweet” can be used to describe any number of self-consciously cute forms—from Sufjan Stevens and his angel wings to Wes Anderson and his mannered stage sets. Think Precious Moments with a knowing glance. It is often overwrought with emotion, pathetic for pathetic’s sake, and, in the case of this performance, transparently manipulative.
Using an overhead projector and transparencies to slowly scan drawings across the light, Barrow tells the story of a loser who has bad eyesight and is creating a phonebook that dedicates a detailed information page to each person. It’s his art, he says, while he criticizes every aspect of life and wallows in the cruel nature of the world. Throughout the story, largely comprised of small vignettes, he rummages through his neighbor’s trash, looks over the stalls in public bathrooms, and weakly pulls at his penis hoping for something larger. Barrow delivers the story in an affected This American Life voice. “We are all in pain,” he says. “I don’t care,” he says.
And why should we care? The most redeeming quality of this clichéd story of a loser is the visual choreography of Barrow’s hands, which move each transparency in relation to another. The images show slightly surreal drawings in pastel colors and work like the frames in a comic book, creating visual cues and pushing the narrative along. Some of my favorite images depicted floating hands, hands that mimicked the actual hand of Barrow moving the transparency along. The movement of these images, and especially the short video montage at the end, displays a craft and ingenuity that the narrative is sorely lacking. Without the story, the moving drawings, with the tinkling music in the background, would create an immersive, dream-like experience––an engagement that would allow for a broader interpretation. However, this story kept telling the audience what to think and how to feel. Pure didacticism with nothing to say.
One could argue that Barrow’s brand of navel-gazing is entirely intentional: a type of mannered twee that pulls all the sickeningly sweet shots, even going so far as to cheaply recall Helen Keller as a metaphor for blindness in the world. In fact, there is one point in the performance where the protagonist states, “I’m not trying to manipulate you.” Pointing out your contrivances, however, doesn’t make them any less empty. Any protestation to the contrary does nothing to rescue a story, that in the end, adds up to little but forced affect.
Katie Geha is pursuing her Ph.D. in art history at The University of Texas at Austin.