sym profile: behind the photos with Barbara Weissberger / by staycee pearl


We recently sat down with acclaimed visual artist Barbara Weissberger to talk about her collaboration with Staycee and Herman Pearl in sym.

sym is our latest dance project and is inspired by Fledgeling, a novel by African American Sci-fi writer, Octavia Butler. sym explores the symbiosis which exists between the Ina, a vampire race and their human symbionts. Look out for Barbara’s work, which will be incorporated into the costumes and set designs as well as through projections during the performance! Below, Barbara shares some of her sym photographs and the story behind them.

sym premieres at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater April 12 & 13, 2019. sym was commissioned by the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Pittsburgh, PA. More information and tickets here.

I, Manatee , 2017; Barbara Weissberger ***The above work was not created for sym.***

I, Manatee, 2017; Barbara Weissberger
***The above work was not created for sym.***

“My practice is very studio-based. The studio is a very important part of it, and I think of the studio as place of eccentric invention where the inner life is externalized. I manifest that by making very  improvisatory installations in the studio, and they're completely temporary. They get broken down, parts of them are recyclable, and they include sculptures that I make and found objects. I make them to be photographed, and then the installation disappears, and the photograph is the artwork that goes out into the world.”


“sym is the first time that I have worked with dancersin fact it's really the first time I've worked with other people. I do sometimes insert parts of my own body into my photographs, usually in a way where they’re somewhat slightly camouflaged. When I do my other work, I work very slowly and very methodically, so this experience couldn't be more different than thatespecially when all four dancers were moving in front of the camera. It was very fast and very spontaneous and an incredibly dynamic and active experience. Working with them I felt as if I was sort of welcomed into the choreography of the four dancers because I also had to move around with them with my camera. It was a really exciting and new experience for me. It was also interesting to watch how quickly all four embodied the work. As soon as they were in front of the camera, the movement began and I could see the symbiotic relationships from the book take shape.”


“Coming out of the book and thinking about symbiosis in the book, I was really struck by the interdependence of the characters, and also by the way that interdependence is hierarchical. It’s something that I talked to Staycee about quite a lot. We discussed how through these relationships, the book talks about power in a really complicated way. One of the images in the book that really struck me was the way that the Ina and the symbiots live collectively and just the sense of the intimacy of their shared space. It seems to me that there's a physical closeness among the characters that really reinforces the interrelatedness of all of their complicated cross relationships. That image really carried through for me when working with the dancers to make the photographs.”

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“The other thing that I thought a lot about in making the photographs was the vampiric theme of the book. Part of the imagery that I've created, which will be used as projections are photo collages that I’ve made by printing the photos on very thin paper and sewing the paper together. I thought about the sewing and the way that the thread pierces the paper as a kind of vampiric gesture. Some of the thread is red or dark purple, and that also has a visceral quality and an intensity that has kind of the right resonance for me. There's some fabric in there but all of the images of of Jessica and LaTrea are all printed on paper. That's why the holes are so visible because when you poke the hole with the needle it really leaves a mark which is sort of great in thinking about the vampires.”