The virtual world is here and it’s ever-expanding, so much so that these metaverses appear to be making our real world comparatively strange and other. In the metaverse, you can start all over again, buy your own street, have virtual sex or even visit NFT galleries. But, are we reaching to and relying on these places because our real world is harder and harder to face? Have we given up? Can we really teach collectivity anymore? Can we rescue that concept of kindness from all the branded Instagram accounts and inspirational quote mugs? There are so many social issues we have to deal with and repairing our past mistakes is the only way to look to the future. Now is the time to listen to insightful calls to change for our collective future from people like Emily Barker, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, that American architecture and austerity politics don’t accommodate. People like them bring so much to our lives, yet nearly every day: steps, narrow doors and paperwork piles in the way of artists, sportspeople and great friends to get their daily needs met. We say: enough.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 46. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Connection with those around us is an essential part of human life, but neoliberalism, smartphones and Wordle have been distracting some of us so much lately that finding focus is becoming harder and harder. We spend so much time trying to access a decent life that burnout can only leave room for selfish, easy individual pleasure, one that is digital, a fetish served on a silver plate, with a soft comforting pillow to prop up our aching bodies.

Amidst doom-scrolling the latest news, art is what keeps our hopes alive. Contemporary art is the testament and ref lection of each era in history. There’re only a few things more powerful than a striking piece of art that dismantles our too-comfortable beliefs. And there’s always a great mind and artist behind it. Meet Emily Barker (Born 1992 in San Diego, CA). They’re a talented artist in the real world and they experience the everyday in a different (and much harder) way to able-bodied people. Emily’s art denounces the discriminatory architecture of a world built excluding disabled and elderly bodies. They advocate for accessibility. Also, they have been selected by the Whitney Museum 2022’s Biennial Quiet as It’s Kept – alongside Sixty-two other artists, on show April to September 2022. The longest-running survey of American art is showing their piece Kitchen, in an exhibit where personal narratives examine political, literary, and pop cultures to address larger social frameworks.
Emily Barker studied Art at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been a model, actress and artist. Their artistic work emits an effortless ability for intersectionality and a clever yet beautiful depiction of their experiences to raise disability awareness and understanding. “It’s a privilege even being able to understand what’s happening”, they say, when it comes to addressing how numb society is to accessibility needs. Their art has an emotional impact to help people question their own reality and local to global political structures. Far from a minority experience, Emily Barker’s work speaks to the inevitable physical limitations of every human, fragile, aging body and what we should be doing about it.

In the (virtual) presence of this voice of a generation we feel they change us for the better, thanks to their art creations and providing us access to their views on the world. On their experience in this world. We discuss their achievements in the artistic field, social networks, politics, the US and being a generous person.
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Full look KKCO.
Hello, Emily! How are you?
I'm great. 80% done with the install, the hiccups that we had today with some missing pieces got resolved. It's looking just about finished it just has to be hung. I think I’ll have all of Sunday to do nothing which is really exciting.
Your hair looks gorgeous!
Thank you. I spend like six hours braiding my mullet on the flight. So, I didn’t have to brush it or style it while I was here because I don’t have any time. I wake up and go straight to the museum and then come back home and or to the whatever this place is called. I don't know what to call it, a studio.
Okay, is this where you are staying?
I’m in the financial district in New York because I can’t stay in hotels that have carpet. And so, we found this place that has hardwood floors, because my wheelchair can’t get through carpet.
I think I might have read something about that on your Twitter yesterday, probably.
That's funny. My Twitter is a messy place.
 I love it. You know, I have to say that after all the research for this interview I have fallen in love with your art. It has really changed me – in the way that I see some things that I didn’t see before, that I didn't think about before.
That's all I'm trying to do.
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Untitled (Ramp), 2019, Murmurs, Los Angeles. Photography by Joshua Schaedel.
First of all, I want to say congratulations because you’re in the Whitney Museum, preparing your instalment for the Whitney 2022 Biennial. How do you feel about this? The Whitney Museum is such an impressive place.
Yeah, I guess when you don’t have any expectations, you can’t really get disappointed, but at the same time it’s really exciting. It just seems kind of mind blowing to me because I’ve only had one solo show. Then I had a museum show at the MMK in Frankfurt over the summer. I just feel like it’s wild to have such a jump. I mean, I've had like a few very small shows, group shows that I was in, but I’ve not shown a lot and I can’t show in a lot of places because of inaccessibility. So, it just feels surreal, and I'm trying not to get that excited about it or I won’t be able to sleep, and I need to sleep. But I think as you start navigating these spaces, it’s really shocking to see how devalued artists are within an institutional setting. So, I’m pretty in love working with Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin, the curators, they’re amazing and I'm so grateful and honoured that they chose me.
I loved what I read in the statement of Quiet as It’s Kept. It says, “It will reflect this precarious and improvised times.” With that in mind, and what we know now about your work, could you tell us a bit about what you're showing?
Yes, all of my work has to do with the sort of built environment and the systemic structures that have this illusion of support, like a kitchen should be built so we can cook and feed ourselves. We have hospitals, surgeries and health care so that we can maintain our bodies and keep living, even with disease and illness. All of my work is questioning the true intent of these structures, the bureaucratic and mundane oppression inherent in concepts of normality. Anyone who exists outside of healthy able bodied, people who can walk and can stand, is subjected to the sort of mundane horrors of being unable to exist in the current spacetime fabric on this planet. Even though human beings have built everything that we currently experience, it is only built for a select few. And it’s getting even smaller, now that we have more elderly people. This sort of ignorance is inherent in our ideology of expecting bodies to be a certain way.
I’m curious to see how you develop these concepts into the visual side of your art, making them tangible. You know, what it feels like to be in the exhibition room and see your instalment, and that made me think of a piece you have already shown in a past exhibition, Death by 7865 paper cuts. It’s very smartly done, in my opinion, because it really made me understand bureaucracy’s unfortunate existence in our system. As you said only a select few people know the extent of the problem whilst other people don’t have to engage with it. It’s worse for some than others. And it’s really disgusting when it comes to, you know, I don’t like to say minorities because I don’t really like that word, but for...
Except it’s not minorities, though, this can happen. I guess my point is that this can happen to anyone at any moment. And do we really accept living in a world that is so incredibly oppressive for everyone? I was a completely healthy, able bodied 19-year-old, I had been running around, riding my bike, everything. And I had this experience of having a really, really horrible accident, but the horror of it and the stress of it wasn’t just the physical experience of the accident. The horrific part was what human beings created in response to what happens to someone when they need substantial amounts of medical treatment and when they need substantial amounts of physical rehabilitation and the way that you get treated after you become paralyzed. It's all manmade. Sometimes I wish that I could create an art piece that is just the previous 10 years of my life since my accident in a microchip to download into someone else’s brain. I think all politicians would need this experience if they were to make decisions for other people, because the fact is, the people making decisions for everyone else benefit the most from their negligence, apathy and from the ignorance of other people. I’m just trying to make beautiful objects that have an emotional impact that will help people question their own reality.
Thinking about all this and seeing your Tweets and your Instagram account, how do you feel about social media, especially now, that we’re living in a moment where there seem to be big jumps happening in technology towards the metaverse or multiverse. People talk about its endless possibilities, but I’m afraid that it will end up being an extrapolation from the current social network we know that, at the end of the day, is controlled by corporations. What do you think about this new step on social networks?
I don’t understand why any of us are paying attention to any of this when food and gas prices are skyrocketing, when we’re facing climate catastrophe, like the only reason they’re pushing these things is because they know that we’re all going to be living in oxygen tubes hooked up to a computer screen because the outside world is going to be extremely uninhabitable and scary. I’m sure the metaverse or whatever Zuckerberg or anyone comes up with is only going to be a new way of mining people for their money. I just think it’s absolutely bizarre the values that we have these days and the things that people get excited about. Really, we’re facing impending climate catastrophe. And you’re going to have Kim Kardashian say we all just need to work harder. Like okay, wow, yeah, there’s nothing more important than a new lipstick line or fragrance right now. I think people really need to be careful with thinking that there’s anything positive coming from these multibillion- dollar corporations whose best interest is to keep us with the worst quality of life for the highest costs.
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Kitchen, 2019. Collection of the artist; image courtesy the artist and Murmurs, Los Angeles. Photograph by Josh Schaedel.
We live in times where visual languages are changing so much; now when you see a picture like a black and white picture of a demonstration, or a poster with a with a communist-like aesthetic, you know, or this kind of simulated live videos they have a completely different meaning. Their political content messages are having a hard time to get directly to the spectator because they’re already being used by corporations. How does this affect the way you manifest or protest? Can you just say the things you want to say?
I steer clear from using words like revolutionary and using the term activist, and I steer clear from a lot of these words that have been co-opted by razor companies for women or whatever. I think we really need to start focusing and what I’m trying to do with my platform, and with the art that I’m making, is have people look back on themselves and on ways that they can actually start doing things in a material way to change the world. I don’t want anyone to see what I’m doing and be like, I want to be a model or an artist. Like, that’s not the point. What is the most effective way for you as an individual to produce any sort of change in consciousness? For me, being in a wheelchair, art is a very accessible way for me to do that. For instance, today, I can move my entire piece around by myself. I can rivet it and put it together by myself, with the exception of hanging it. In the conversations that I'm having, conceptual work, anyone can make work about these things, but I mean, obviously it’s not going to be very deep or very interesting if you haven't had a personal experience with the topic. I do not blame any of this on individuals without power because everyone's just trying their hardest to survive and I think it’s bizarre that people think that everyone should have the time to learn about all of this or think about all of this because most people are living day to day and barely able to get by. So, it’s a privilege even being able to understand what is happening.
Agreed. I’d like to talk about a book, The Power of Cute by Simon May. We live now in a world where every visual discipline has a constantly changing meaning, but it tends to be nice, cute, fresh or harmless. It made me think about capitalism and the colonization of visual languages in fashion and other disciplines. I wonder if they have taken a toll on important social issues. I wanted to know what is your take on the fashion of cuteness. Especially in the world of art and also, why do you think it's so difficult to value political art, like your own?
Well, I think that can easily be explained in art history, when the value of art has been based on what can amass the most money for rich people. I mean I have a very idealistic opinion of art. For me, good art can be a beautiful painting or just a piece that creates an emotional impact due to its substantial beauty. But I still think the best paintings are the very political ones. Historically I think it starts with Goya, but then again, Bosch’s paintings were always so important to me, like Picasso’s Guernica, these are the sort of paintings that I think have been the most powerful throughout history. But when a large amount of the art world is focused on profit margins and money laundering for rich people, why would they value like cumbersome, large objects that are forcing a new perspective, that are making people question their privilege, art that is maybe even doing something uncomfortable? I mean, a big inspiration for my work is sort of like Félix González-Torres’ Candy Piece because it really makes you face the reality of the AIDS crisis any day of the week. In a gallery, you are faced with the literal weight and the loss of the AIDS crisis, even though you didn’t live through it. And I think that is the most powerful type of art – it sticks with you, it haunts you. That’s what’s important to me. But I think what’s important to the art world in general is the economic value that can be found in art and is in the price or ability to sell it. So, I think there are a few artists who’ve been able to get around that and who have been able to pierce through the sort of shallow financial aspects or selling aspect of art, but you know, art has always been something that rich people get to put on their walls, and I don’t like that. I like making work that is accessible to the public and can affect the public.
What you just said is very generous, that you want to make accessible art, when you yourself have faced a lot of inaccessibility.
I faced inaccessibility because people do not think that they are allowed to live easily, or with basic human rights and I think the pain of others is what causes me to lack the care that I need daily to exist. The other night I got into the studio, the hotel- ish place and the concierge refused to open the door for me even though I had this bulky, assistive device on the front of my chair or being scared to stay alone with the taxi driver when he’s bringing my stuff as I’m opening the door to my hotel room. That’s not something that a disabled person should have to experience but my thoughts are: what happened to this concierge and what is going on in his life or his past to make him such a miserable and hateful person with no care? I think that I am not just trying to change the world to benefit me and change people’s minds to benefit me. I want people to think that they are allowed to have what they need so that they know that I’m allowed to have what I need because until everyone thinks that they’re allowed to have what they need, which they don’t, people get off to their own suffering, they get off to their own stress, they get off to their own lack. They get off to their own struggle, they get off to their own oppression.
You just mentioned Félix González-Torres. I read this passage of his that says: “Individual autonomy is a myth. Recognition of a mutual dependence, however, can help us rethink society.” If I’m correct, you shared a space with him in a collective exhibition at the MMK (Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt). How was this experience for you?
Susanne Pfeffer, the curator at the MMK is amazing and an incredible person, she is very sweet, very dedicated. And my art being in the room with one of my favourite artists when I was 29 years old at the time is just pretty mind blowing. None of this I thought would ever happen, or never had I planned for this or could have anticipated all of the opportunities that I would get. Someone sending me an email being like would you like to be a part of this? I don’t ask this; I don’t go to gallery shows. I don’t go to art shows, I don’t network. And to be in the show with so many artists that I just really love like Jesse Darling and Park McArthur, but especially Félix. I don’t think it’s a time to just be only making things that have no deeper meaning, that just exists on a visual as shapes and colours. We’ve already done that for so long. I just don’t think there’s room or time anymore for that. Beautiful paintings can also say something important; the most beautiful pieces often do. I recently started painting again. I was an oil painter before and I was hoping to keep on painting, but it was so difficult to carry all my stuff around that I just stopped. Now I’ve drawn these utopian places I just want to live in. I think we need to respect the general public more and ourselves.
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Land of the Free, 2012/2021, Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt. Photography by Diana Pfammatter.
How does it feel to be painting again?
It’s fine. It’s charming or something. It’s just for myself. I need things right now that are just for myself and that don’t have so much larger content involved in them.
I wanted to ask you about the rise of populist narratives and right-wing parties, because I know this is this has been going on for a long time now in the US, but also, in Europe. You know, currently the events we were facing with the war in Ukraine, all over the world, basically. And by populism, I refer to this strategy of ‘Divide et Impera’, to suppress any trace of collectivity. Mark Fisher says in Capitalist Realism that Donald Trump was an example of “class without class consciousness”. And it made me think how much these people in charge are part of the problems we’re facing?
I love Mark Fisher. He’s one of my favourite authors. I don’t think there’s any difference between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. This idea as a new phenomenon is complete bullshit, it's fascism. The Nazis got the ideas that they had for concentration camps from the ways that we treated migrant workers, disabled people and Black people in the US. Donald Trump, all populist presidents, and all people who think this way are simply a symptom of this environment that we have created, and systems that that benefit people who think this way because they are able to scapegoat and blame minorities. They gaslight their way into thinking that they’re right and that because they are suffering, everyone should have to suffer too. And I don’t think much has changed. We have not been able to learn from the actions of our past and I find it extremely embarrassing.
This reminds of something SOPHIE said, do you know the music producer?
I was friends with SOPHIE.
We all loved her and her amazing music. I found an interview where she said she wasn’t going to state her chosen pronouns, because that wasn’t her problem to solve, so it wasn’t going to be her decision. She said, “It is the world that needs to figure out how to refer to me, I’m not going to fit in its categories.” I found it powerful because it places responsibility on solving collective problems. How have people in your environment reacted when you’ve used the term able bodies?
Most people struggle, like the concept in and of itself is able bodied or temporarily able bodied is all very silly to me because the reality is most people live with disabilities. With that being said, if you don’t experience needing to use a mobility device, needing to have caregivers, if your disability or chronic illness doesn’t affect your life in significant ways, I really hope you don’t want to take up a lot of the space in the conversation happening because people with the most needs have been consistently pushing the boundaries. And so, I really agree with SOPHIE that it’s other people’s problems to start coming up with these solutions. I find it awful that first of all as disabled people and marginalised people we’re expected to educate everyone. Secondly, we’re expected to come up with all of the solutions to solve our own problems without having any power to do so, with no help. Whilst also trying to survive systems that actively want us dead, that are doing everything they can to maintain that we have nothing or to criminalise us for trying to survive. All of it is silly, all of these labels are fucking silly because these things are social constructs, just like gender. I don’t get a choice to identify as disabled or not.
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Land of the Free, 2012/2021 and Death by 7865 Paper Cuts, 2019, Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt. Photography by Diana Pfammatter.
I wanted to talk about your work in fashion, I’ve seen and read things you’ve said about your experience in that industry working as a model. I’ve always felt like the fashion industry, or the way it was portrayed maybe in the 90s when some of us were growing up, was very superficial, but then you have fashion as an artistic expression. It’s really interesting that the artistic creation of a designer is always the centre of the commentaries that overshadows some issues about the bodies that literally wear the clothes. Do you think this will ever change for the mainstream fashion industry? Is inclusivity with disabled people just a way to rebrand themselves, in some cases?
Yes, I mean, everything is so complicated in a way that there’s a bunch of people that want to buy things because it makes them feel like they’re a good person. A lot of brands capitalise off that. Then there’s stuff including Marcella or Calm, I don’t think they’ve ever used a disabled model once or really give a fuck about diversity or inclusivity at all. But I love their clothes, and everyone loves their clothes just because they’re so edgy, and people are going to still buy them. What’s more annoying to me is when a really ugly designer – some brands that I’ve done modelling for like early on in my very small modelling career – would just make the ugliest clothes and then it was like a complete tokenisation campaign, and they would only pay you like $200 for an entire like twelve-hour shoot. Or it would be free for like a six-hour shoot, but you’ve got like, all the different types of people showing up for free to be tokenised to sell some ugly clothes. I know the fashion world. I mean, it’s just I'm not even that interested in it because it’s so unaffordable for the average person to participate. It’s not even a discussion that I even care about with my friends. Everyone cares so much about appearances. I think it’s really important for there to be disabled models and for us to be able to participate in these things because we’re one in four people and we’re a large portion of the population. The hard thing is, it’s impossible, the sets aren’t wheelchair accessible. It’s so hard to get a hotel that’s wheelchair accessible, like I stayed in two inaccessible hotels, and the entire built environment is impossible for disabled people to navigate. So how are we supposed to even show up to a shoot or to a runway show or to anything when we can barely get around?
 In your interviews, in your social platforms and posts, within your work, right now, you normally talk about the issues you must face daily. Do you get to disconnect from thinking about this and feeling like having to say certain things?
I mean, first I’m shocked, I’m in a state of shock even after 10 years. I’m still shocked at how cruel people can be and how heartless people can be. It’s amazing to me. I’m really lucky because I have really incredible friends who literally treat me the exact same, who understand my needs, they don’t make me feel like a burden. I’m really lucky that as I get older, I’m eliminating people from my life who make me feel like a burden, or who expect me to push past what’s actually physically impossible for me to do. But no, I mean, it’s really bad for your health. I think being a disabled person, especially one with signif icant mobility disabilities and a chronic illness – it’s untreated. You live in a pretty constant state of rage. It’s extremely traumatising to live in a world that just completely ignores your basic capacities to get around and like ignores the the mobile device that you use and at the same time it’s extra insulting because you’re struggling to navigate this environment that is oppressive to you.
Is there a moment or a place mentally where you can go in these moments? Escapism sometimes is a multi-sensory experience.
Thankfully, I'm pretty quick to go through emotional responses and I end up just feeling sorry for people and their hatred. I feel really grateful for my life and my ability to enjoy company. Tonight I’m hanging out with someone I love so much and who’s been a great friend to me since I was in school aged 17 since before my accident. Their attitude towards me did not change at all or become weird after becoming physically disabled. I’m very lucky to have that because when people are able to see you as the same that you’ve always been you’re able to rely on personality traits to get you through these sorts of things, but I really try not to give my power away. I have like silly, small sort of ritualistic things that I do, like I make my own chai powder with all of these like adaptogenic mushrooms. Also, I love reading. I have really good friends and I have a lot of fun hanging out with them. I love to work out, do yoga and these small silly things that keep me busy. I love cooking and building stuff. So, I don’t really have a problem with coping, I never really break under the pressure. I’ve learned to be kinder to myself, and that’s helped a lot before I used to blame myself for other people’s ignorance and blame myself for the way the world is built. Thinking that I am responsible for changing it, but I physically can’t and I’m doing the best that I can to. I have two dogs, they help a lot. I think micro-dosing mushrooms helps a lot. I had a ketamine prescription for a while for my pain disease. I did IV ketamine. I tried to be very in touch with my emotions and my trauma. I’m grateful for this experience because it has taught me how to honour my experiences, my emotions, and my own struggles in a way that I hadn’t before. I honestly wouldn’t change. I’m a much happier person now at 29 years old, in a wheelchair with a the most painful autoimmune disease in existence.
By talking about these things, you’re already helping a lot of people no matter what the situation. So, you cooking is something you really enjoy. What is the dish that you think you cook the best and why?
Either slow roasted chicken, it’s very juicy with sage, butter and lemon, or seafood. I really like lemon and butter together, seafood lemon butter, cauliflower, gnocchi... They're both very easy to make. I’m hoping to have a kitchen that is wheelchair accessible for me in the next year, but currently it’s very difficult for me to use my kitchen so I don’t cook as much as I would like, and I mainly eat steamed broccoli. So, I’m hoping that I’ll have a lot more recipes. I love to make custard like dairy free custard and pudding. So those are my favourite things, but it’s pretty hard to cook when you can’t use the kitchens in the places that you're renting.
I think now I understand why you came about creating your piece Kitchen (originally shown in 2019 at Murmurs and currently showing at Whitney Biennial), but how was the process of its creation?
Oh, lovely. I gave a talk at the space about that. I was introduced to Tomasz Jan Groza, who went to the Cooper Union for architecture and worked with the vacuum formed pieces that I made. I got to work with someone who really believes in my practice and my work in a way that was extremely thoughtful. He paid a great attention to detail and really cared about the work. Working with a gallery was just not as easy as working with the museum. Working with Tomasz to build that piece was so fun, and the first time it was installed I pretty much riveted it together myself and installed most of it myself, but he vacuum formed it for me. So, it was a joyful and easy process. I designed the form and then he made the moulds and vacuum formed it so we just made a new piece that he helped me fabricate. I’m really grateful to have Tomasz in my life and for him to help me with these larger vacuum form pieces. It makes my life much easier. He also understands that I’m not allowed to make any money and that I live on SSI so funds are really short. I end up most of the time not receiving income that will kick me off my Medicaid and HSS. I can pay him the artist fees that I get. The austerity laws in the US means we’re not allowed to own any money or have any money without losing our Medicaid and our caregiving, so we’re not allowed to have any jobs or earn any extra money. It makes my life really hard. But other than that, everything’s great.
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Jacket KKCO, top and jeans MAISIE WILLEN , necklace YOUTHFUL METAL.
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Tulle dress KKCO, top and leggings MAISIE WILLEN, bootleg tabi boots and necklace custom YOUTHFUL METALS.
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