Anna calls me her sister

Anna Barbara and me

Anna calls me her sister, though I am decidedly not Italian. I’m not remotely southern, while Anna most definitely is, coming as she does from Calabria. (Though I suspect my New York bluntness helps transcend our respective geographical markers.) And after all these years, I’m sure to her frustration—it ’s been almost two decades since we met—I still default to English when we’re together. Yet, it seems entirely appropriate that I find myself writing about the work of Anna Barbara. (This essay is, in fact, a prelude to a book we are planning together.) We are both outsiders in a world of specialists, she because of cultural geography and disciplinary unruliness and me because of academic borders, I have no Ph.D., no deep disciplinary tunnel to mine. This is an only partially exaggerated claim, since neither of us are ingénues in the design community. Still it’s true that for both of us each project is new terrain built on old soil. In our case, it is a process that entails talking, rephrasing, and re-explaining across two linguistic frameworks and, it must be admitted, not always coincident design frameworks.

What we do share is the excitement of thinking laterally.  Nothing is sui generis, and yet nothing is immune from (in my case, as a writer) reconsideration, and (in her case, as a designer) reconfiguration. The resonance I feel with Anna’s work is not just a matter of sharing a suspicion that we are slightly out of place; it also has to do with her responses to that condition. Dislocation for Anna means drawing on the unconsidered elements in her surroundings, finding epiphanies in modest gestures and neglected materials, and creating platforms and spaces for others who are displaced by choice or circumstance.

Mediterranean Gifts, Anna Barbara, 2015

In a time when so many are preoccupied with monetizing disruption, it is rare and reassuring to find a designer like Anna who innovates with cultural cues instead of trying to erase those habits of the past which make us human.  Her poetic projects belong within the framework of the politics of small things. She, like George Perec, questions “that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us.”1 In other words, “that which we generally don’t notice, which doesn’t call attention to itself.”2 

77, (orange and red tights) Anna Barbara, 2000

Anna brings the unnoticed into focus sometimes with material haikus and other times with manipulations of everyday objects in projects like “DEA” (a necklace made from her husband’s broken eyeglasses), “Mediterranean Gifts” (a mesh necklace, filled with bits of sea glass she collected in Calabria), and my personal favorite, “77” (an Italian short-hand for women’s legs and the name of her two-toned tights). This is not to say she is yet another found-object fetishist. Her projects work, often performing menial tasks while giving disproportionate pleasure.  

DEA, Anna Barbara, 2015

Now, at the risk of showing my age, I admit it was Anna’s object-based practice that first excited me. Here was someone who came from 21st-century design culture (as opposed to craft culture) who combined the tangible with the conceptual in ways I’d never quite encountered. So when she first started telling me about her work with the senses, I am sure she thought I was a bit dense, asking her questions about the cloying artificial scents that were then becoming popular in stores and malls. These apprehensions were quickly laid to rest by her book Invisible Architecture: Experiencing Places Through the Sense of Smell. Never before had I considered the 20th-century the dry century, desiccated by air conditioning and smothered in deodorant.3 For Anna, the senses are already present; they are design materials no different from pigment (which, in fact, does have a scent). Smell, touch, taste, sound may be invisible but she makes them perceptible by virtue of her gift for what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible.”4 Moreover, Anna engages with what he would call the politics of “sensory inequality.”5 In her case, the politics of migration stand out most obviously but more subtle and equally affective is her work on giving access to the senses where they are obscured by dint of illness or simply the pressures of daily life that immunize us to their affects. 

Invisible Architecture, Anna Barbara, Anthony Perliss, 2006

Whether working with the visible or the invisible, Anna Barbara operates on the principle that we are stronger when we allow ourselves to be susceptible to foreign bodies. She makes it happen in the molecular friction of a scent or the frisson of unexpected encounters with everyday objects. Contamination—constructive cultural contamination—is the essence of her work.   


1.     Georges Perec, “Approaches to What?” in Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and other Places, ed./trans. John Sturrock, (London: Penguin Books, 2008 ) 210.

2.     Highmore, Ben. “Introduction” and “Approaches to What,” [1973] Georges Perec, in Highmore, Ben. ed. The Everyday Life Reader. New York: Routledge, 2001, 176.  

3.     Anna Barbara, Anthony Perliss, Invisible Architecture: Experiencing Places Through the Sense of Smell(Milan: Skira, 2006).

4.     Jacques Rancière frequently refers to the “distribution of the sensible” in his critiques of aesthetic hierarchies. He does so mostly directly in The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible(London: Bloomsbury, 2006)

5.     Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London, Brooklyn: Verso, 2011) 70.

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