Future Rewind #1 - Michele Barker + Anna Munster — Experimenta

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Michele Barker and Anna Munster are media artists whose work pull featured in Experimenta Make Sense. In this first interview of our new series Future Rewind, we caught up with Anna and Michele to revisit the past, take a look at the present and seek some advice from the future

If collaboration is an art form unto itself then Michele Barker and Anna Munster are masters. Together they have a history of over twenty years producing works across a broad range of media forms including video, audio, sculpture and data visualisation. But the artists are quick to point out it is not the media itself that is important, but the inspiration that comes from the underlying theme that runs through all their collaborative work.

 “We’re interested in relationships between bodies and the ways in which they move in the world, through time and space,” Anna explains.

“We try to create environments for our audiences to experience that movement in new ways that will reawaken their relationships to those bodies – to water, to the land, to their own bodies, to their own senses.
We call it embodied relations to media.”

– Anna Munster

Michele notes, “In challenging the media itself, we’re trying to challenge the concerns that we’re discussing, particularly around duration, time experience and the fact that these things are not set – that they’re slippery and they move based on experience and relations.”

Their mission as artists is to together find a way to infuse this sense of time and perception into the moving image and acoustic environments of their work.

THE PAST> Reflecting on pull

Created in 2017, the artists’ multi-channel audiovisual installation pull consisted of two screens – one showing cinematic images of the intensively slow movement of a large wave forming under the water and the other, the animated form of a bubble ebbing and flowing based on GPS data reworked as a digital visualisation.

Video still from pull (2017). Image courtesy the artists © the artists
Video still from pull (2017). Image courtesy the artists © the artists

“pull was a bit of a deviation from where our works had been up till then. It was the first time we considered water as a sort of a driving force and mechanism for discussing our concerns,” says Michele. “It’s a really simple premise in a way, that feeling of that moment of submersion, and capturing a transformation that is so fleeting.”

The team paired up with big wave cinematographer Chris Bryan, who spent days filming under the dangerous reef break to capture the high-speed footage of the breaking wave.  Michele then manipulated it into a seemingly endless moment.

“It was about the idea of actually drawing out that moment indefinitely. Hence also why it never finishes. That’s a bit of trademark I guess, of our work – that they are sort of seamless infinite loops.”

-Michele Barker

For the data visualisation component, they used GPS data gathered from the cinematographer’s surf watch as he was filming, mapping his movements underwater. What struck them most was this movement was not him moving himself around but the currents and movement of the water. 

“We thought, wow, this is great, because what we’ve actually got is not simply some person wilfully and intentionally moving around, but we’ve got somebody being moved by another force,” says Anna, “And that was what we were really interested in visualising.”

Video still from pull (2017). Courtesy of the artists.
Video still from pull (2017). Image courtesy the artists © the artists

Working with 3D graphics expert, Karen Kriss they imported this data in CGI simulators, but these programs were designed to capture the movement of waves, not something that was moving in relation to the waves. The biggest challenge was how to visualise it in a way that wasn’t just another typical movement tracker.  “So I came up with this idea of a negative space,” says Anna.

“We then worked with the negative space of a bubble moving against water – this little bubble in this huge sea of CGI animated water. Part of that is this idea of vastness – of the ocean against this tiny speck of the human”. 

– Anna

The incorporation of sound through song and vocalisation was also a new area for the duo, with Anna’s interest driving this component. “I started improvising, using some early music scores through various kinds of digital processing. The feeling for me is that the voice is really to literally pull out a kind of a yearning – almost like the feeling of a siren, which is obviously associated with the sea as well.”

'pull' by Michele Barker and Anna Munster. Experimenta Make Sense, Plimsoll Gallery TAS (2018)

The audience reception the work as part of Experimenta Make Sense tour was incredibly pleasing. Most crucial to the artists was the fact it was seen as being a non-threatening and mediative experience rather than confrontation, as could be associated with submersion in water.

When asked how the work holds up retrospectively through the eyes of 2023, the pair are positive and philosophical. “It was important for what it did for our practice, at that moment in time precisely how it is,” Michele says.

“I think it’s really important that you have to be true to the piece that you did at that moment. That’s what the technology was that we had. That’s where we pushed it as much as we could push it at the time.” 

– Michele

THE PRESENT > Witnessing a changing climate

In an extension from what started with pull, Anna and Michele are now focused on a large project called ecologies of duration, seeking to challenge and bear witness to our changing climate. 

ecologies of duration : Yuin Country. Video still courtesy of the artists.
ecologies of duration : Yuin Country. Video still courtesy of the artists.

Anna describes this project as “a kind of witnessing of environmental disaster” but is quick to point out their goal it not to produce withdrawal or guilt within their audience.

“We are trying to actually create empathetic and sensitive relations to land, geology and geography. We’re very much centred within the climate crisis and trying to work out ways to re-experience environment.”

– Anna

To do this, the pair have sought new perspectives to reframe the experience. “We started working with an aerial drone around the time of the black summer bushfires,” explains Michele, “Instead of using drones as this big aerial or God’s eye view of the events, we started doing what we call terrain hugging, where we’d go really close to the ground.” 

In this way, the intimate perspective of the drone becomes a kind of “affective witness” to the environment landscape, rather than a distant overview.

ecologies of duration : Yuin Country. Video still courtesy of the artists.
ecologies of duration : Yuin Country. Video still courtesy of the artists.

In June 2023, Michele sailed around the high Arctic region for two weeks as part of an art of science residency called The Arctic Circle.

From Svalbard in Norway the ship sailed around the topmost land ice mass in the high Arctic, where Michele set to work capturing some of the fastest melting glaciers in the world using both aerial and underwater drones.

“When I was in the Arctic it was very challenging, but also amazing going right up to the edge and mapping around the terrains of those glaciers, and letting the air currents move the drone around.”

– Michele

“Then going under water, attempting to go under icebergs and film around them. Again the currents were so enormously strong and the icebergs change it, they have their own little microcurrent – so that would buffer the underwater drone around.  So again, we had to accept and start to move with that movement.”

The underwater glacier footage produced during the Arctic trip is breathtaking. “It’s incredible,” say Anna, “And you actually see the bits of ice that have carved off it, melting from underneath. So, it’s very poignant.”

ecologies of duration : Arctic.
ecologies of duration : Arctic. Video still courtesy of the artists.

The arctic footage will become part of a two-channel piece from the aerial and the underwater drones. A third channel will also be developed using AI and scientific imagery to generate a speculative scenario about what that environment will look like in 2035.

“We are interested in that, because that’s also about this machine speculating based on it’s training data”, says Anna, “and what we as artist are feeding in as prompts. We’re not looking for a realistic landscape. We’re looking for this kind of weird, altered kind of odd and uncanny landscape.”

ecologies of duration : Arctic. Video still courtesy of the artists.
ecologies of duration : Arctic. Video still courtesy of the artists.

FUTURE > Advice to your future past self

As part of the Future Rewind interview series we are also asking artists to imagine themselves in the future looking back. To wrap up the interview we ask our artists, “Imagine it is the year 2030 – what advice would you give to your younger self?

“Oh, I’d have two things to say,” replies Anna, “One would be don’t waste so much technology in your work. I feel like I’ve got an office full of old e-waste! The other thing I would say would be ‘Go for it a bit more’. I feel like I’ve only recently really given myself the permission to experiment. So, I’m sort of making up for it now!”

Michele agrees, “Like many others I can doubt what I’m doing, so I think it would be nice to look back and say, ‘just believe in what you are doing’. It sounds corny, but at the same time it’s true.  I think every artist worth a grain of salt should question themselves but not necessarily to the point of not doing.”

“So be critical but still keep going, and have confidence.”

– Michele

Find out more about Michele and Anna’s work on their website and follow them on Instagram for regular updates.

Words by Santana Sandow