Above pic by Imogen Frost / Below words & pics by Ed King
“Vodka bottles and cupcakes; one symbolises what people think you are, and one symbolises what you really are.”
Kirstin Barnes explains the ‘girl next door’, a persona she felt when “I was leaving a school and everyone was expecting this that and the other from me,” and one of the four characters in her new project, StereoMe.
“When I started (StereoMe) I wanted to look at the different stereotypes that women fall under,” tells Barnes, talking to me at the end of TwoReflecT’s opening night at Vivid Projects, “especially through dating games such as LovePlus, where you ‘groom’ a girlfriend. The premise of the project was to look at how people can now go ’OK, I don’t want to have a real girlfriend; life would be easier if I had a computerised girlfriend. And now I can choose her.’”
StereoMe invites its audience to do just that, asking you to choose one of four Kirstin Barnes characters from a mobile phone touch screen – with the selected persona then projected onto the walls of a secluded room.
Three of the characters are personifications of stereotypes, identities Barnes has felt both herself and women have been surmised by: the good time girl, the career girl, the girl next door. The fourth option is ‘me’, a character based on her current and self perception. Once chosen each character evolves a story, with Kirstin Barnes featuring in series of static poses amidst further audio and imagery – reaching out to the audience through soundscapes and 3D mapping.
“I was looking at Japanese dating games,” explains Barnes, “and the fact that pregnancy levels have dropped (after the release of LovePlus) to the point that it’s now considered a national problem. Most of the characters you can choose are in school uniform and aged between 14-17, so now you’ve got 60 year old men in ‘relationships’ with a digital schoolgirl. From that I began to look at how people can choose a stereotype.”
One ‘gamer’, known by the username Sal9000, even married his LovePlus digital partner in 2009. And if you need further reference points to this relationship dystopia, beyond the snowballing world of virtual reality Vs insanity, Google ‘man marries’ and see what comes up. But are these not isolated instances, albeit abhorrent and headline worthy, and just an unfortunate manifestation of modernity?
“I started with Darwin’s theory that men will look at a women as a fertility object,” continues Barnes, giving further background to StereoMe. “It may not be their intention to do so, but they (men) ask is she young, is she nubile, has she got child bearing hips, is she going to be a potential mother?
And now we have all the social stereotypes. So the ‘girl next door’ is more likely to make a great mother, whereas the ‘good time girl’, the same woman – fitting under a different stereotype because of the way she’s been socially viewed, might get put on the sideline as a potential mating partner.”
The content of StereoMe is a clear challenge to one of the biggest divides in gender politics, perception. But the narrative remains just as clearly personal; Barnes proffers candid snapshots of her own life to illustrate her point. Every character seems to carry a double edged sword too, outside the confident imagery of ‘me’, as the surface perception masks both the woman and potential turmoil underneath.
“And now we go to ‘good time girl’,” introduces Kirstin Barnes with a slight laugh. “This is the girl that’s at every party, is seen everywhere, seems to be having a wonderfully fun time but actually, I was ready to implode.” The jumps from first to third person continue to pepper our conversation. “That’s why there’s little fire balls; it’s like a time bomb ready to go off. Although there’s this fun exterior inside I’m probably my most miserable.”
“And this is when I did what everyone wanted me to do and got a proper job,” describes Barnes as we select ‘career girl’ from the handset, “I earned loads of money and was really not happy. That was also the main time in my life where I wanted children, but because my boyfriend earned lots of money and saw me as a money earner too, I wasn’t seen as a potential mother.”
As we run though all the characters, StereoMe begins to feel more cathartic – a way, perhaps, of Kirstin Barnes owning something that once owned her. Reassuringly the ‘me’ character is by far the strongest, where hearts symbolise finding love in oneself and another. But whilst StereoMe is rooted in a much bigger debate, its immediate power comes from the inescapable self analysis. Is it hard to be so candid, to put a life so literally on display?
“I think it’s actually just the easiest way for me,” admits Kirstin Barnes, “I think my art is my own therapy. It’s my way of going through stuff and saying ‘oh, this is why I did this, this is why I’ve done that, and this is why I’m here now’. A lot of my stuff is more personal and confessional.
And I put myself forward as the stereotypes because by putting someone else in that shoe box I would be stereotyping too; I would be picking someone out and going, ‘you’d fit just perfectly as the ‘good time girl’’, ‘you look like you could run an office’ or ‘you look like you’ve wanted kids for years’. If I did that I’d be just doing what everyone else is doing.”
The gallery has shut, TworeflecT‘s opening night being a two hour window and the start of a three day run. I still need a picture to run alongside the interview, and with gun-to-a-knife-fight embarrassment all my (writer’s) pics are “horrible, you can get better. Higher up, no chin please.”
Mercifully, for all involved, Imogen Frost eventually takes the camera and responsibility of representation out of my hands. As something usable gets taken, I ask why, especially after baring so much soul in her exhibition, Kirstin Barnes can still be self conscious whilst having her picture taken.
“Of course I’m still self conscious,” she responds with another laugh, “I’m still human.” And there was me thinking an ‘artist girl’ wouldn’t be camera shy.
StereoMe features as part of the TwoReflecT exhibition, alongside work from Imogen Frost. TwoReflect runs at Vivid Projects in Minerva Works/Warwick Bar, on Fazeley Street (Digbeth) until 2nd Jun – open between 12noon-5pm.
For further info on TwoReflect, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/765696583538472/
For more on Kirstin Barnes, visit http://www.kirstinbarnesphotography.com/
For more on Imogen Frost, visit http://imogenfrost.com/
For more on Vivid Projects, visit http://www.vividprojects.org.uk/