Sammlung Essl / Austria Contemporary

I own a herd, I work with umbilical cords

Karin Altmann, Essl Museum, 2008

This statement of the Feldkirch-born artist Barbara Husar aroused in my mind instant associations with idyllic west-Austrian landscapes and lush green pastures. These associations were abruptly shattered when I was confronted with images of maximum contrast: images of barren wilderness, endless horizons and emptiness. For more then ten years, the artist and modern-day nomad (Feldkirch - Vienna - Amsterdam - New York) has been attracted by the desert. It is the desert of the Sinai Peninsula where she encountered the Bedouin tribe of the Tarabeen with whom she has been linked through a special friendship ever since. But why would a woman from Vorarlberg be attracted by the desert?

The desert is a symbol of remoteness and civilisation weariness, a projection screen for individual fantasies and yearnings. If someone moves from the -civilised and highly developed part of the world to the desert he or she is driven by an inner quest, a quest for adventure, for a counterweight to our capitalist hybrid present, for silence - probably the greatest quality the desert has to offer - and a quest for him or herself. Going to the desert is like an act of cleansing. You decide to leave all comfort, material ties and other ballast in life behind and gain a fragment of personal freedom in exchange. Whether in one s soul or in outer reality, the desert is an incomparably creative sphere, a sphere of existential experiences, even if, in the age of satellite navigation, cell phones and friendly, hospitable Bedouins, the desert has lost most of its terrors and hostile qualities.

Travelling through the desert as an artist means being on a tightrope from yesterday to today and entering into a mental world where one s own horizon is constantly changing; for, in the desert, not only moral concepts change, but also habitual thought structures. While logical thinking and knowledge pale and perception becomes heightened, thoughts fly freely and become manifest in constantly new creative patterns. A vibrating, inspiring relationship develops between the artist and her environment, and this can be clearly felt in the work of Barbara Husar.

The contrast between the archaic-penurious life of the desert and the modern information society awakened Husar s interest in the exchange of data and messages which then resulted in her work DATA EXCHANGE. In the desert it is mainly individual moments and inspirations by the wayside that challenge a persons eyes, mind and sensitivity. In Barbara Husars case it was castoff shoe buckles that became metaphors of data transfer after she had persistently addressed the theme in her drawings. Like synapses (1), which represent an essential part of the brain s network of nerve cells, the buckles became junctions and recurring motifs in Husars work. This repertoire of -symbols of neuronal communication mechanisms- was expanded in 2005 to include chip pans, in which the artist sees -multidimensional networks- and even meteorite traps, and in 2007 to include umbilical cords. The umbilical cord is a communication channel. It ensures the flow of data that is necessary for survival, links the inside with the outside and, hence, completely different life environments.

In 2007 Barbara Husar went on another journey to the wadis of the Sinai with the intention of buying the umbilical cords of goats from Bedouin women. Her idea met with little understanding at first, since the Bedouin women believe that they cannot freely dispose of the umbilical cord. As the Arabic designation -habel surri- (mysterious cord) suggests, the umbilical cord is believed to be the seat of the animals soul. One possibility of respecting that belief but still obtaining umbilical cords from goats was getting a goat herd of one s own. Thus Barbara Husar became the owner of a herd of six goats in the Sinai desert. By acquiring the goats, Barbara Husar built another bridge to facilitate intercultural exchanges between a life close to nature in the desert and a technology-laden urban life; linked by an umbilical cord, so to speak.

(1) Synapse: a specialized junction at which a nerve cell communicates with a target cell. It is a biochemical communication process involving a chemical transmitter substance, a so-called neurotransmitter.

Sammlung Essl / Austria Contemporary

DATA EXCHANGE has been installed

Veronika Hauer, Essl Museum, 2008

In conversations Barbara Husar mentions allegorical symbols she has recently started to use as stamps on her drawings and photographs: Buckles, chip pans, umbilical cords, hammocks. Hearing the words without any explanation for the first time leaves me puzzled as to what to make of them. I have a certain aversion to allegorical symbols.

When we talk to Barbara Husar it turns out that her use of symbols has to do with the pleasure she takes in the witty lyrical connections they include. In 1996, when Husar first met the Tarabeen tribe on the Sinai peninsula, she drew everything around her in the first weeks of her stay. It seemed to her that making drawings was a method of understanding the place and getting a picture of what she experienced. During her trip to the Sinai in 1999 she set herself the target that by the end of the trip she would have produced a detailed drawing of one of the leather shoe buckles that had been left lying in the sand. Therefore the title of this time-consuming picture was ?Schnallen braucht Zeit? (Buckles take time) (2000) a pun on words and allusion to the long time spent in the desert and the encounters with another culture and lifestyle, another life environment.

In 2007, after a respectfully nursed friendship had developed through numerous stays with the Tarabeen, Husar was looking for another allegorical image for the flow of information and found it in the umbilical cord of desert goats, which seemed to her to be the greatest possible contrast to urban neurotic connections. For her DATA EXCHANGE project she wanted to try and install the umbilical cord as a new trading item between herself and the Bedouin women. A trade that was to communicate the primordial data strands of this culture to a western context and also support the networking between the local women. Husar soon learned, however, that under no circumstances would the Bedouin women sell the cords, even if the remuneration seemed lucrative to them. Together they thought up an alternative to expedite Data Exchange. Today, Husar owns a herd totalling eleven desert goats that are watched over by an old Bedouin woman when she is not there. So far she has collected nine umbilical cords, but it will take a while until she has enough for making a hammock (her current plan). Looking at the dried cords, they appear like memorial items to the vital function they once fulfilled. A somewhat alien presence in a flat in Vienna. Barbara Husar says that in her work she wants to collect cultural data of the women whose ancient tradition is about to change drastically. She makes it very clear that what she intends is not an objective collection and documentation of the habits or life contexts of - the other. Her current film ASTRALSKULPTUR (2008) is certainly not a documentary that conveys its meaning in any immediate form. On the contrary: Husar is not afraid of creating in her work multi-media organisms that do not engage in the practice pursued by many others of producing quickly digestible data about foreign cultures. Instead, in pieces such as astralskulptur she celebrates the subjectivity of experience and invites the viewers to get engaged at a point that seems vital to them. For me, the gateway to her universe is the graphical link-up between the levels of experience. The point where Xeroxed photographs, that have been postedited by drawings, colouring, stamps and handwritten notes, suggests the multilayered character of this story and the temporal levels of Husars multi-media organism. In December 2007 Husar wrote the following comment: data exchange has been installed. I have exchanged seven umbilical cords for grants, a golden ring and plastic tarpaulins. I have acquired a herd and this impulse is now procreating in the most uterine sense of the word across the pond and it can be perceived as a living organism whose data flows I will henceforth document in a process-oriented manner.


data exchange

Information sources & symbolical resonance

by Tobias Noebauer 2007

Imagine the following ensemble: A Viennese artist (Aida Galactica) flies to Sinai with an airbus A320, trades two laptops (CISC x86-32 bit, 90 nm CMOS) for a two-wheeled trailer, drives through the wadis together with a local friend (Salama Farrag, 38 years) and a rhythm-therapeutic Arabic-interpreter (Milena Gartler, 32 years) in order to meet nomad-women and to exchange tent-tarpaulins, golden rings or home-brewed eau-de-Cologne for umbilical cords of sheep which she requires for her work-cycle about the flow of information. Furthermore included on the tour are flying dragons with hand-knitted red strings, a Swarovski-catalogue with various knot-patterns, sandals made of West-African waste-tyres and cigarette-paper. 

The Viennese autonomic system for the promotion of network-art and network-culture ( has already decided to support this project financially before. In the meantime there appeared certain (not to be taken serious) assumptions on the list (by GNU, Mailman, Python), whether or not the laptops would benefit terrorists or fundamentalists, which could have been the case anyway.

Wanted: The number of the reality-abstraction-layer, on which this ensemble steps into symbolical resonant self-interaction and proves itself as meaningful natural form. Through the umbilical cords of the nomad-sheep, the entire blueprint for new sheep is delivered. They are broadband-cables and intimate body parts at the same time.

In the beginning some nomads are uncertain, if Allah allows them to accept this new definition of the umbilical cord, turning it into a symbol for non virtual data packets, as before they had already been giving their own spiritual meaning to it apart from its biological importance.

However, in personal, concrete exchange models can be found which enable the artist to become a midwifery data-flow herself with the cords in her hands. Through Data Exchange Barbara Husar succeeds in creating a surreal sculpture out of extended information sources, life-forms insensitive to hype and the reciprocal dependence of tool and myth, the oscillation of symbol and object. Her fearlessness when it comes to trans-cultural communicative catastrophes is well-founded in humour; her vocabulary and inventory are extensive, her stories inspiring.


communicative mechanisms
information transfer
data exchange