In her performance at the Untitled Arts Society Satellite Gallery last week, Mary Babcock exposed both viewers and herself to one danger after another.
I went to visit Babcock on October 16, the first day of the show. She set a rickety wooden crate down on the floor, across from her own. I took a deep breath and prepared to crash through the thin box into the tangle of bare barbed wire beside me.
Without speaking, Babcock handed me a length of wire, with a piece of silk roving partially twisted onto one end. I watched her for a while before carefully winding the silk around my bit of twisted metal. Her wrapping was perfect; mine was lumpy on one end and transparent on the other, as I’d begun to run out of silk halfway through. When my wire was finished, Babcock took it from me and rose to set it on the floor across the gallery. Then she started and handed me another. This repeated a few times.
After sitting with Babcock for a while, I realized with concern that the spiky, silked twigs were not being neatly and safely re-piled, but rather scattered carelessly on the floor! This is a hazard to both gallery-goers and Babcock herself, who stepped delicately between the pieces on bare feet.
Babcock, an Associate Professor in Fibres at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, should know that a thin covering of silk is not enough to render the wire’s barbs inert. Just what did the silk accomplish?
Piles of plain wire, though intimidating, are an easily-identifiable danger; all but the most negligent should recognize that they must be handled with care. But Babcock’s silky twigs become camouflaged: smooth and shiny, but no less sharp. One might argue that their riskiness is actually increased.
By the end of the 5-day exhibition, wires blanketed the gallery floor. What if there had been children in attendance? What if someone had fallen down?
Luckily, Babcock and her audience seemed to escape the gallery without injury. But soon, I turned my concern back onto myself: In “beautifying” the wires, had I been complicit in masking a hazard? Were other participants and I and just fooling ourselves into thinking we were helping, while only making a situation worse?