Barry Schwartz is a wired guy.
Jittery and manic, the overly hyper artist sounds as though he's practically plugged into the wall as he explains the large-scale electrified installations he's built around the world during the past 20 years. In lightning-quick fashion, Schwartz rattles off factoids about attenuators, ground leads, transducers, and other devices you'd need a knack for electrical engineering to understand.
His megawatt machines, constructed from such components as donated utility equipment and cast-off home electronics, often integrate Schwartz himself. Acting as a circuit breaker of sorts, he manipulates and interrupts electrical flows, producing cacophonous audio and video feeds. It illustrates, he says, the tenuous relationship between men and machines.
"I've physically guided myself as a conduit in my high-voltage devices," Schwartz says. "It's kinda nuts, I know."
Just a little.
For a while, the guy was big in Europe. To wit: One infamous Schwartz installation erected in Germany in 1994 involved 15,000-volt arcs shooting up high-tension steel cables, which he plucked like an upright bass to create twangy thrums. Meanwhile, streams of non-conductive mineral oil rained down upon him into the basin where he stood.
"I'd reach up, refract the arcs through the liquid, and be playing simultaneously while I'm showered with oil," he says. "It's quite an amazing effect to say the least."
Why didn't he become a charcoal briquette? Schwartz was wearing specially insulated gloves, and the juice had high voltage, but was also of low amperage, which does the real damage with any shock. He's dealt with as many as 1 million volts and walked away fine. Still, the artist admits there's a certain danger and power (no pun intended) involved, even with precautions.
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He's obviously learned from his first mishap at age 8, when he got a jolt while disassembling a working lamp.
Schwartz's art has also given his workshop and laboratory, located at .anti_space, 718 North Fourth Street in downtown Phoenix, something of a badass feel. On most First Fridays he'll conduct electrical demonstrations for art walk patrons who stop by. Sparks will arc around his equipment, but some folks stay outside, fearing electrocution.
"People tend to freak out when they see my art because they aren't used to it," Schwartz says.