“They Invite the Audience to be a Part of Them”: An Interview With Colleen Louise Barry

Colleen Louise Barry

Colleen Louise Barry is a Seattle-based artist and poet whose latest project COLLEEN is more glittering web than stereotypical poetry book. Published by After Hours Editions, a small press run by Eric Amling and Sarah Jean Grimm–who for the last several years have consistently put out gorgeous cult poetry books–the book’s cover draws you in with its coy retro rodeo font. And COLLEEN’S charms don’t stop there. Barry’s expansive practice involves inviting other artists to work in response to her poems, which take self-representation, celebrity culture, and self-actualization as their themes. We discussed the book’s aesthetics and evolution over Google Docs in the winter of 2022.

I’d love to hear when you first conceived of COLLEEN, and how the project evolved over time. Was it a long slow burn or did it come more quickly?

I have honestly never been a poet working towards a book. I write poems for a long time and I take big breaks in between bouts of writing. The first poems were made about seven years ago and the most recent just before its publication. In this way, my poems have a kind of diaristic feeling to me. They chronicle the private or otherwise not communicable parts of personal growth. 

I thought, well maybe there’s a book here, not by looking at the poems themselves, but by some kind of feeling about my own development. One of the reasons that COLLEEN is named COLLEEN is because that’s really the glue of the whole thing. That and humor. 

That’s interesting the poems came through a private impulse over years as opposed to a strict concept. When I read the book, it felt a lot like an adventure or a journey, so that makes sense that it was written over a long period of time. 

I also remember you telling me that you also wanted to play with the concept of celebrity, and saw the work as spilling beyond the poems into other art forms. I looked up the original email you sent me about it, where you said it’s “working a lot with the performance of publishing as a construct. A huge inspiration for the book are albums by pop singers named after themselves, like Britney by Britney Spears and Cher by … Cher. Also Danielle Steel’s author photos. The back cover of the book will be a giant photo of me, and I’m working with a few different artists to create COLLEEN commercials, ads, and posters that mimic other media and poke fun at the way things are sold to us … COLLEEN as a perfume, a video game, a horror movie, a sports drink, etc.” Can you talk a little bit about the constellation of the book–where you see the book beginning and ending?

The idea of commodifying any personal journey has always been so fascinating to me, and, I would argue, everyone else. That’s the pull of the Kardashians or Britney Spears, for example. There’s consumables: music, make-up, a TV show. But the real buy-in is the character’s journey. Can they overcome? And by extension, can we? It’s ultimately all narrative. 

I thought, why can’t my book of poems do this, too? It feels so self-aware, declarative, and also vulnerable for a musician to name their album after themselves. It blatantly ties the realities of their character as “artist” to their art. They invite the audience to be a part of them. 

I wanted to see what would happen if I applied this idea to a collection of poems. The poems in COLLEEN do not themselves directly or intentionally deal with this idea; the book is about this idea. It’s specifically applicable just to the object, the one that I’m asking people to buy. 

I’ve been working with a constellation (I love that word here) of artists to create things that help round out this idea. This is where the book project moves into my art practice and becomes a visual experience alongside the writing. My art and writing practices have always been inextricably tied; they inform each other in essential ways. In collaboration and cross-disciplinary processes I find that my work becomes more solid, whole. I often start with some wild notion and feel almost like I’m inviting others to make it better, or to run with it. It was so important to me that others engage with the idea in COLLEEN, too ~ that makes the character of COLLEEN more artificial but also more complete. It’s less just me and more them. 

Here is an amazing example by Chicago-based artist Gage Lindstein, who imagined COLLEEN as a sci-fi movie poster from the 70s:

Colleen alternate cover

I love this! It reminds me of old book covers from the 70s, in addition to movie posters. That whole vibe kind of spread across all media at that time.

Yes. The 70s. I have been thinking so much about the 70s ~ “The Me Decade” as it is sometimes called ~ as a decade that echoes into the now. The 70s were so much about fads: mood rings, aerobics, disco, bell bottoms. Commodification of personal style, conformity sold as creativity. And also about depression: an oil embargo, economic decline, the restriction and anxiety of capitalism and war. I can’t help but see parallels in the way these things translated to popular aesthetics then and now. What a let down the 70s were in some way ~ after so much collectivity in the 60s, it amounted to what? Individual people still had to live and define themselves. The pendulum is always swinging. 

Speaking of self-commodification, the back cover of the book is amazing. You collaborated with Mary Anne Carter on it, and it’s your death mask. What drew you to having your own death mask for the cover? 

The death mask was a big collaborative effort. I have been very interested in mold-making since the pandemic started. The idea of artistic reproduction in tiny, pain-staking processes presents a lot of interesting conceptual dichotomies and just technical challenges from a material stand point. I knew I wanted to make a mask of my face for some time, for all the poetic reasons: the memento of self, the death of self, the editioning of self, the obsession with self. I have also been thinking a lot about Walter Benjamin and the aura ~ the idea that a reproduction of an original artwork lacks the aesthetic presence of the original. I think of myself often as a process-based artist, someone who is much more interested in the dialogue and performance of the moment than the final result, and so love to think about the process of reproducing something as a challenge to the preciousness of any kind of ‘aura’ a final object might possess. It’s that question speculative work loves to ask: if we cloned ourselves, would we be two or one? The death mask is also not inherently art. I like taking it from its various historical contexts and placing it in the weird world of COLLEEN. For example, the Egyptians made funerary masks to protect the person who had died in the afterlife. Since the later Middle Ages, Europeans made death masks to preserve the likeness of the person, with the oldest known mask dating back to 1377. So much of living and dying as a human is just trying to make sure someone can see you, no matter where or when you are. 

What was the process like for making it?

The contemporary process of mask-making involves mixing silicone and then applying a layer to the skin with a protective additive. The silicone dries, and as it does so, you create a kind of tray of medical bandages. The vibe of the whole thing is very sci-fi nose job. Once the silicone has dried completely you can peel it off and then pour any casting material into it to recreate a version of you. 

The first cast I made of our mask mold had this very slight distortion of my features, which gave it this incredible uncanny feeling. I learned that this isn’t an uncommon feature of death masks, in fact it is sometimes possible to identify portraits that have been painted from death masks because of the characteristic slight distortions. And because of that, various death masks from all over the world, spanning centuries, have become characters in and of themselves, and amassed huge value, both monetarily and from an art historical perspective. 

The treatment of the mask for the cover was all Eric Amling’s design magic. Melissa Kagerer took the photo of the mask itself one very fun day in my apartment.

“Sci fi nose job” might be the best phrase ever.  The death mask definitely adds that uncanny quality to the cover, which of course works with the ideas you are exploring regarding multiplicity of the self. When you read the book back now, does it feel like the poems are all from different selves? 

I love imagining plastic surgery becoming this exponentially strange rite of passage as certain ideas get normalized … a nose job is nothing, a face lift is nothing, oh you’re 40? Time to do the thighs, etc. It’s not terrifying until either getting or not getting it becomes stigmatized.  

I know that there’s a million simultaneous ways to be a person but I think the process of living allows that to feel simultaneous. It’s like we can’t know what’s happening while it’s happening. We just have to show up and do our best. Writing these poems leaves a record of me attempting to do that, so that now when I look back at them I can see myself as that voice or person or time period. It’s like rivers flowing into the same ocean. The book gives me a bird’s eye view of it that I would otherwise never be able to imagine. 

Changing topics, your work is aesthetically considered on multiple levels, which has me wondering if the writing process is an aesthetic process for you at all? 

When I’m writing poems, I like to think of the words as little pictures. I’ll break a line so it looks a certain way, not so it sounds a certain way. I love poets who write to read out loud but that’s not me. I write so that people can look at poems. 

Sometimes I’ll write poems that can only be read visually. For example, in 2019 I had a show  at The Factory (RIP) in Seattle called The Trophy Room. For this show, I papier-mached an entire two rooms, floor to ceiling, to look like Pee Wee’s playhouse version of a cavernous trophy room. The shelves were consequently packed with papier-mache trophy sculptures. Each trophy, instead of an award, had a line from my poem “The Trophy Room” written on it. The idea was that the trophies could be picked up and read and replaced somewhere completely different within the exhibition, making the poem infinitely rearrangeable. Each trophy sculpture was also for sale at an arbitrary price, which we decided to include with it in the book itself. 

“The Trophy Room” poem was also published in Taagverk as a randomly regenerating digital poem, without the prices. So it has had all these lives. But now it’s in the book, static on the page. It’s pretty funny. 

Another poem in the collection has had a similar start to its life: “Ball Pit” was actually originally literally a ball pit. Each line (plus many more than what made it into the book) was individually written on 100s of  ball pit balls, and then placed into a ball pit / parade float / sculpture tub that I made of out of wood and chicken wire and papier-mache. Ball Pit was up at Seattle Art Museum for  one of their Remix party nights, and people could jump into it and literally play with the poem. 

I love ball pits–they’re so 1980s McDonalds. What are you working on now?

Currently in my art practice I continue to be really interested in sequence and accumulation and movement; I’ve been making these giant squishy 1-of-1 artist books. The insides have some short poems but are mostly poster-size pastel works. I’m trying to make 200 of them so that I can have a show called “Library”. 


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