In "Double Agency," the three members of My Barbarian play secret agents who take on new identities for the purposes of art world infiltration. Their missions rely on fantastic gizmos, like a camera that can stop time and glasses that can read codes in paintings. It's art world commentary wrapped in hyper-stylized adventures that recall mid-20th spy thrillers.
"Because we do a lot of performance work in the museum, sometimes we feel like spies," says Malik Gaines, one of the three artists who forms the core of My Barbarian. "Where only paintings and sculptures go, sometimes we get to go."
Commissioned by Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the occasion of the institution's 50th anniversary, "Double Agency" came to its rousing conclusion at a recent event structured like a live television taping. My Barbarian and collaborators performed in a gallery as though they were moving from stage to stage. Three cameras filmed the battle between mod spies and ninjas. Their performance popped up on monitors that corresponded with the cameras in use.
In 15 years, My Barbarian has evolved from a theatrical project to a band then to a performance art group.
Gaines and Segade attended UCLA together and met Gordon through mutual friends. Segade recalls that, around the time they met, Gordon was working on a piece that involved "leprechauns and Tron."
"We were young, energetic, artistic, cross-disciplinary people," says Gaines, and they wanted to get their performances out into the world. "We had been doing theater and realizing that you had to put a lot of money into a production to be able to do it for a six week run," says Gordon. They had an idea: "What if we had access to a stage and got paid for it rather than having to pay?"
In the early 2000s, My Barbarian was perhaps best known as a band. Like so many other bands that came up in Los Angeles, they played Silverlake Lounge and Spaceland. Their shows weren't typical, even in these tiny, dive-y joints the performances were theatrical. "That was where we really started to develop our voice," says Segade.
The crowds were ready for My Barbarian too. In those early years of the new century, there was a wave of groups combining music in art, like Fischerspooner in New York and Chicks on Speed in Germany. Los Angeles at that time was blossoming with DIY events and people pushing the boundaries of music, art and fashion. It was a perfect time for My Barbarian to carve out its own niche. "It was really great to have the context for bands for experimenting in the early 2000s moment in the city here for us," says Segade. "We were really lucky to kind of hit that moment because it was, sort of, anything goes in someways. Everybody was trying some kind of band."
My Barbarian's work has often delved into pop culture points of fascination. In their early career, the long-running trio stepping into the world of role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons for the popular video "Unicorns L.A." More recently, "Counterpublicity" took a look back at seminal reality show "The Real World" and its portrayal of late AIDS educator who died shortly after his appearance on the show's third season.
"They are extremely talented and adept at being able to take a kind of curiosity about a genre, whether a musical genre or another genre from popular culture, and completely throw themselves into it," says LACMA curator Rita Gonzalez about My Barbarian. With "Double Agency," the group took inspiration from a campus that reminded them of a television lot and architecture that reminded them of shows like "Mission Impossible."
Initially, My Barbarian had intended to curate a show of masks from the museum's permanent collection as well. Instead, they made replicas of masks that could be used in the making of "Double Agency." Jade Gordon describes the experience as being spy-like as well; she was able to enter the museum's storage space to investigate some of the masks in this collection. A museum photographer shot the masks from all angles and Gordon, with help from a faux finisher, to mimic the historical works. Alexandro Segade of My Barbarian says that the masks do more than just move the plot forward in "Double Agency," they highlight one of the themes of the project-- "they aren't what they seem," he says.
Gordon adds, "They're doubles. They're aliases."
While music remains a part of what the trio does -- Gaines composed the score for "Double Agency"-- their performance style morphed again, with an emphasis on videos and working with galleries and museums.
Their creative process has changed as well. Gaines and Segado have since moved to New York, while Gordon remains in Los Angeles. "We used to spend a lot of time just hanging out in the studio together," says Gordon. "Now, our work is more project-based where we come together to work intensely for a few weeks on a project and then go away and do other things or go away and work separately."
Gaines says that the move has made an impact on their output. "In those days -- even when we're all here together -- we do one crazy thing every month," he says, "and now we're really deliberate."