Media Artist Carries Suicide into Public Realm

Video art project asks how we can communicate when language is lost

Release Date: January 13, 2006

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Media artist Chris Barr has produced a unique performance piece dedicated to his brother, who committed suicide at age 20.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It is estimated that one person in the United States commits suicide every 17 minutes. Three years ago, one of them was Anthony Barr, the 20-year-old brother of media artist Chris Barr.

Chris Barr, a student in the Department of Media Study at the University at Buffalo, has produced a unique performance piece and video blog titled "17 Minutes," in which he invites visitors to consider one of the worst losses possible.

A video blog is one in which the content is principally video. In "17 minutes," the visitor is drawn into a virtual space where he can download dozens of ritual performances related to Tony Barr's death. Although the imagery is specific to a particular event, the rituals are minimalist in form, leaving room for whatever the viewer brings to the experience.

On Nov. 2, 2005, Tony's birthday, and every day since, his brother has made a videotape of himself standing alone outside next to a tree at different sites. At the end of 17 minutes, the artist falls to the ground.

In America, another suicide has taken place.

Each tape is dated and logged into the project blog site at http://www.chrisbarr.net from which it can be downloaded. There are 34 such tapes posted so far and a new one will be logged each day through mid-February.

Barr says, "Using time as a signifier, this ritual offers a place of reflection, the time between, and deals with the specific circumstance of my own brother's suicide. As a reenactment it aims to be reminder of the life I am engaged in. The project utilizes the diaristic nature of Weblogs to move personal moments into the public/political sphere."

"Ritual is the reenactment of a myth," says Barr, "and my brother's suicide is, for me, in some sense, a myth. I wasn't there. I didn't witness his death. So this ritual represents the fiction I've constructed about how his death may have occurred.

"It doesn't attempt to answer the question of why Tony or anyone commits suicide, but offers viewers a place to consider what it means, why it happens, how it affects those left behind, how it even may have affected them personally.

"Many suicides might be prevented if we had less shame about emotional pain and could talk about it openly and deal with in a healthy way," says Barr, "and that's what I hope this project provokes -- consideration, discussion, awareness.

"The imagery of the tree in each ritual is deliberate. It may conjure images of Buddha and cycles of life," Barr says, "but it also refers specifically to the site of my brother's death," Barr says.

"He left a note saying we would find him in the woods next to a tree where he and our father had carved their names.

"The structure of this project, and the fact that it features a setting like that of his death might lead some to think of this as a memorial piece," Barr says, "but that is not its purpose. Although for me, the piece is about Tony, it is a public project, and for those who didn't know him, the significance lies elsewhere."

Although there is no spoken narrative, the individual rituals are not performed to silence. Barr points out that because the setting is always public, each tape is replete with the background sounds of life -- road sounds, leaves rattling, car horns, sirens, dogs barking, trees moaning in the wind, passersby talking. In the 16th minute of one tape, the carillon of the chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery begins to chime.

He says, "When performing the ritual on a hill near my family home in West Virginia, the sound carried so clearly that on the tape, you can hear members of my family at the base of the hill, asking one another what the heck I'm doing."

If the sounds of life in the background alter the ritual meaning of the performance (contradicting the suggestion of metaphysical isolation), the rituals themselves have changed the artist.

"Standing alone in silence a few hours a week can alter your consciousness. It always takes me somewhere 'else.' When I fall down at the end of each ritual," Barr says, "it hurts, but that little bit of pain brings me back. It grounds me. It reminds me that I'm in a body; that I'm here."

He says the silent ritual has brought back personal memories of his brother that weren't available to him before.

"Besides that, when people who knew him learn about the project or see it, they talk to me about him," Barr says, "they tell me what they did with him or how they remember him, so my understanding of my brother expands."

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