Featured Artist: Ali Barker, Four Dimensional Colour

Ali Barker, Four Dimensional Colour at dot-art - image credit, dot-art

Featured Artist: Ali Barker, Four Dimensional Colour
, 10th-24th September 2016

Ali Barker’s synaesthesia hasn’t always been with her. What has though, is her music, and her astute perception of senses surrounding her everyday life. Four Dimensional Colour at dot-art, is an invitation into a very personal account of something I’ve never really seen owned before; everyday sounds.

From the drilling screams of coffee steamers to the rumbling whirrs of a washing machine drum, the noises we choose to ignore appear to Ali Barker as colour – though she was particularly sure that it was still not necessarily a visible thing. The artist is working at dot-art gallery until 24th September, continuing to catalogue one sound a day as part of an ongoing calendar of sounds for 2016.

I’m not going to try to explain synaesthesia – I wouldn’t know where to begin. Seeing Ali’s work isn’t about understanding synaesthesia though, it’s about engaging with it, through her catalogue of sounds. Half way through this exhibition, I popped in to see Ali and find out more about what makes her paintings so easy to enjoy.

What is synaesthesia to you?

There are short dictionary definitions, but research in the last thirty years shows that synaesthesia is something where the senses cross over in some way. For example, in my case, colours and music, and maybe some sounds cross over, but there’s many forms of it. In some cases it’s visual; so numbers are colours; or vowels, days of the week even. There’s lots of different forms of it. Some are more common than others.


I say see, but it’s difficult to describe what I mean by see. To me, when I hear music I hear different notes as different colours. I hear the same note, and it’s always the same colour, but different people with the same condition, and the same type, will see different colours to me. They’re not the same between different people.

Occasionally non-musical sounds will trigger the colours too, if they’re very distinctive. But that doesn’t happen all the time. Usually for me, it’s when I’m listening to music rather than playing it too.

So the synaesthesia comes through when you’re listening, not when you’re playing?

Not for me, no. I’ve very rarely had an issue of it happening when I’m actually playing the music. I play violin, in amateur orchestras across Liverpool and Merseyside. I’m not exactly sure when I first noticed this was happening though. I think it happened many years ago, a bit. But at the time it seemed odd to people so I just ignored it.

It was about seven or eight years ago I really started to explore the colours in my art work. Then I started to research it, and understand what it was. I didn’t understand it fully until a few years ago. So it’s all developed since then. It’s more noticeable to me now, since I’ve noticed what it is and when I listen, usually if I’m just listening and relaxed, colours become visible.

It’s difficult to explain. I can’t exactly describe where they are. I see them, but I couldn’t necessarily explain where they come from. Somebody sent me a link to a YouTube video that they’d made in Australia a few days ago, and the descriptions those people came up with, tries to explain exactly the same thing. It’s very hard to explain what I mean by seeing. They had exactly the same problem trying to explain it.

But yes, I have a musical background, and when I’m playing, I’m doing too much mentally – particularly in an orchestra with lots of other people concentrating very hard on playing the instrument – I just think that over takes. So I wouldn’t generally see something when I’m actually playing the music. If I have a gap somewhere in the concert, and I’m just sitting listening, then yes. Possibly. But mainly when I’m just sitting quietly.

What sets these works about Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Elgar apart from the calendar pieces?

When I work in this style I tend to refer to them as instinctive, synesthetic response works. In these I’m using time, sitting listening to a piece of music – or if it’s very short, listening to it over and over again. And at some point I will see certain colours, or a theme within that piece of music; one particular instrument; what they’re playing; something like that; it really varies. But the colours I see in that piece of music, I start to apply them directly onto the canvas, and start manipulating the paint directly on the canvas. Directing the paint, using direction and shape to represent the music. Perhaps the way the music rises and falls through various layers. Possibly using some of my musical background to express that.

So the shapes and the format vary quite widely, depending on the actual piece, or the section of the piece I’ve represented. And it’s quite unpredictable in exactly how it will end up. I can direct part of it, but I can’t determine the outcome. Hence, I refer to them as instinctive responses.

How do you choose which pieces to do?

Generally, I would choose pieces form the orchestras I play in, or it might be pieces I like to listen to. There’s a bias towards classics because I’m involved in playing them so much. But I do listen to other pieces of music. From different genres. I’ve got quite an eclectic taste.

If I’m working to a commission for a client, it might be that I work on a piece of music that’s their choice, their favourite piece. So I would then listen to that and work to what they’ve chosen. In this case, the eight grouped paintings in this show, represent one piece of music I’ve played in the orchestra each month, this year, so far.

How do you go about responding to commissions if someone gave you something you’d never heard before, or something really odd? How would you approach that?

I think generally, with something like that, having not known the piece, or if it was something that wouldn’t appeal to me, I would just treat it in the same way as the others. I would spend time researching it and making sure I’ve got the right one, and putting myself in the same situation as I would if I’d chosen a piece. Giving myself the time to listen to it.

It’s a purely instinctive response, so to some extent it’s the person’s choice. Some pieces I would work with ripping bits out, and working with them as a background and working instinctively over the top. So with that there’s an element where I can see what it would look like. But I would just treat it in the same way. The chances are I would still have some response to it, but it could still be quite varied.

There’s a big difference between the musical pieces, and the everyday sound works. They’re responses in a more immediate way, in a more expressive way. The calendar works seem more specific. You almost get to mull over the sound for a while.

Well it would depend on what triggered it. What the sound was that day. I started recording at the beginning of the year, and chose to start recording one sound each day. Something that prominent or just something within the house. It could be something outside, like a car engine, or car horn, or house alarm. It could be any number of things. Inside the house, coffee cups together, or out in a café, the machines buzzing up your ice coffee. As you can see on the list there’s quite an eclectic range of sounds that I’ve recorded through the year.

Because I’m always playing at concerts too, I chose to record the first note, of the first piece of music I played at rehearsal. Some sounds may be very distinct, some might be very brief. I note them down at home, or wherever I am and make sure I keep that record.

And you’re here for two weeks, responding to the same thing; to the calendars and daily sounds?

Yeah, I’m here for two weeks, carrying on with these. We already have up to August and I’m working on a much larger piece which is a combination or the calendar grids which is leading to the much larger work of the entire year.

The year piece, and September’s are being continually worked on through the exhibition too, by adding sound from the day before, coming into the gallery in the morning and building them up. When I started the exhibition in September there was only a few days on it, and it’ll be fairly complete by the end of the exhibition.

Has being a dot-art Artist helped your practice? What support comes from dot-art?

I did some research obviously, before I joined dot-art, and I liked the opportunity to showcase my work on the internet through their artist members’ portfolio. The opportunities they have and the contacts that have built over the years have been brilliant with the style of work I do.

I had work in the first exhibition here, when the city centre gallery opened earlier this year, and this exhibition came from an opportunity for members to put a proposal in, and I’m very pleased that Lucy picked me to exhibit.

So now we’ve got this exhibition, and I’m enjoying working here daily. It’s really interesting working here daily in the space, because of the time based nature of this work, and watching it build it up every day. It’s been nice to come in and keep building that up, knowing the work will have changed through the exhibition.

What’s happening to it when this show’s over?

Well some work has sold, and there’s been some interest in a couple of months too. I will continue to make the remainder of this year in the month forms, some of which have sold even before I’ve made them.

The year grid is going to be continued right through to the end of the year too. And September’s will be completed, and obviously October, November and December will be finished in the same way, and all of the remaining works will be available through dot-arts portfolio website.