Subtractions: The Convergence of Technology and Materials in the Work of Annette Barbier

Annette Barbier

Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts
Columbia College Chicago

Fig1. Louisiana Parakeet, 2012, Annette Barbier, laser cut feathers, ©Annette Barbier.

Fig1. Louisiana Parakeet, 2012, Annette Barbier, laser cut feathers, ©Annette Barbier. (Used with permission.)

“Landscape” can be a genre of painting, the people who cut your grass, or a beautiful view. In any of these instances, you are at least one step removed from an embodied encounter with dirt, birds, plants, stones, or trees (not to mention mud, thorns, and skunks). The experience of having the woods in my backyard for the past several years has allowed me to come to know the landscape close up, and to experience the hidden violence being enacted on native species every day. What we think of as the natural world has not, in fact, been a true wilderness for many thousands of years. Ours is a land that has been drastically altered by the tide of human history; recent studies suggest that in the first 130 years after European contact, 95% of the indigenous population of North and South America died. [1] These original peoples managed the land extensively through burning off, irrigation, planting and construction. Land management techniques since that time have been much more intrusive and destructive due to farming, industrial technologies and the exploitation of the environment for personal gain. In my most recent bodies of work, I call the nature of our relationship to the natural world into question, using technology as a metaphor for loss. Loss of material through the destructive process of laser engraving, which removes material through burning, as compared to loss of habitat, loss of entire species, and loss of diversity in our native plants and animals.

In the series Subtractions: Falling Leaves, I have engraved the images, bar codes, Latin names and English translations of invasive plant species onto native plant and tree leaves from the Chicago area. These leaves are pressed between two layers of material–either glass or plexiglass–which sometimes are also, laser engraved with the same image as that engraved on the leaf between them. This adds to the readability of the image, making it clear what species is being referenced. It also diffuses the light in a way that makes the work decorative in the manner of light catchers hung in kitchen windows, disarming the viewer so as to deliver the message subversively. The engraving process reveals the structure of the native plants, burning through leaf material but leaving veins, so that the image of the real and that of the virtual (invasive) seem to meet in the middle. This acknowledges the formal beauty of, for example, the Japanese Barberry bush, an invasive, while insisting on its out-of-placeness in the way in which it literally subtracts from the native plant. Brought here in the 1800’s as an ornamental, the Barberry escaped cultivation and creates dense, impenetrable stands and crowding out native plants in–is it too obvious a parallel–much the same way that we as a species with our newly achieved population of 7 billion crowd out most other species.

In Subtractions: Ruffled Feathers, Canada Goose feathers are the substructure or medium for laser engraving information about extinct bird species including the species name in English, Latin, and bar code, as well as the last date and place seen. The feathers–primaries–are arranged in an arc that resembles the curve of a wing, and the whole is encased in a 16” x 12” x 2” plexiglass box. Canada goose feathers are used not only for their substantial size, but also because they represent so well our mismanagement of the environment. The Canada Goose, a (supposedly) migrating species of water fowl, is present all year without fail in many areas of the Midwest and Northeast. Hunted almost to extinction in the middle of the last century, they have now become a pest in many suburban corporetums and forest preserves with lakes, and have become extremely populous year-round residents. Burning into their feathers the names of their fallen comrades transforms them into calling cards, the empty spaces of the letters recalling the void now left in lakes and skies.

Another, related feather series, Noms de Plume [2] appraises our habit of naming species we have ‘discovered’ after ourselves, and uses the same configuration of feathers in an arc with engraved information consisting of: name and birth/death dates of ornithologist, name of species in English and Latin. The top layer of plexiglass on the box is also engraved with two verses from the bible: “And God said to them … have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:28 “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” Genesis 2:19. These verses typify our stance toward the natural world, in which we are master rather than steward, colonizer rather than communal member and participant. In French, “plume” is both feather and (formerly) pen, so there is an irony in using the laser cutter as a contemporary pen since it reduces, rather than adds to, a surface.

A final series in these environment-centered works deals not with any individual species or phenomenon per se, but rather with our habits of mind and how they limit and obscure our thinking about the natural world and literally how we see it. With laser cutting and engraving once again as the primary tool, the process of vision is examined through the use of spectacles, microscope slides, and magnifying glasses. One set of six magnifying glasses, for example, is engraved with a grid of increasing complexity and curvature. Beginning with a simple crossing of lines in the first glass, continuing with lines of longitude and latitude and concluding with the Western Hemisphere, the glasses finally obscure our vision of anything that might actually be magnified, replacing it with our ordered construction of the world. Another glass is filled with an engraving of an enlarged thumbprint. Microscope slides, in diptychs, are engraved with magnified images of feathers, leaves, and finally human skin, to indicate our inclusion in and relationship with what we observe and study. Re-inscribing a partial, close-up view onto the glass slide hints at our confirmed myopia; we may see the trees well but we miss the forest. The very act of seeing gives us a sense of possession, a kind of Manifest Destiny of the eye that foregrounds our own shortsighted interests over those of the natural world.

Ultimately, there is no issue more pressing than the health of the environment, upon which our own existence depends. These works highlight the fragility of the natural world as its destiny entwines ever more tightly with that of the human race. Through the juxtaposition of man-made symbols and technology with natural materials, I seek to underscore the ways in which we have damaged the natural balance through greed, hubris, or inattention.


1. Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Random House, 2005, 2006, 2011), 106.
2. Nom de Plume is translated as “Pen name” in the English language.


Annette Barbier’s work has received recognition in venues including new media festivals and conferences such as the International Digital Media and Art Association (IDMAA) (best of show 2005, featured artist 2011), ISEA, and Ars Electronica. She received commissions (with Drew Browning, ’09, ’06) for installations in Site Unseen, at the Chicago Cultural Center, and in 2003 for Waiting in Line, an interactive installation at the Museum of Science and Industry. Permanent collections include the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art at Cornell University Library, Ars Electronica Center, and the Video Data Bank at the Art Institute of Chicago. She has received numerous Illinois Arts Council fellowships, an NEA Regional Fellowship (’91), and a Fulbright award to India (’88). Her work has been reviewed in Media-N, the Journal of the New Media Caucus in Fall 2011 and in Afterimage Journal, Fall ’06, as well as in several other publications. For more information, see: