Barbara Cuerden







Visual Artist




Language breaks down under pressure. Trauma, terror, torture throw us back to pre-verbal vulnerability, and yet these stories of suffering are the ones perhaps most needing to be told and heard. We return to a stuttering childhood when overwhelmed. A lot of art deals with the polarities of ecstasy or terror. Where language becomes inadequate for expression, this is where symbolic language occurs.  Art and ritual reconnect experience to wider realities.  At least, this is how I think about language and art, at times.

I’ve always been viscerally affected by the written word- in poetry or writing that makes the hairs stand up on my arms, my heart beat faster, my breath stop, or that can bring a lump to my throat. Our bodies are involved always in language.

One of the passages that has affected my work for a long time, and still does, is this one:

I mean that the language in which it might be given me not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, nor Italian nor Spanish, but a language of which I know not a word. It is the language which mute things speak to me and in which I will perhaps one day, from the depths of the tomb, have to justify myself before an unknown judge

This is an excerpt from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos’s Letter” which I have carried with me for many years and which surfaced again yesterday when I was cleaning out my studio. Your timely request that I write a few words about my work gave me the opportunity to finally look up Lord Chandos’s Letter on the net, and discover the context in which Hofmannsthal wrote it. It is very interesting in light of the theme you’ve chosen for us to write about – being heard, and being able to be…

Hofmannsthal is writing about the inadequacy of language. When I read this excerpt, it speaks to me of the worlds we inhabit that do not speak human language- the trees, the night, the animals- all of that which holds us and contains us.  My work regarding used lab chimps who have been traumatized through years of shocking medical experiments reflects the trauma of disposability. Their reactions to being tested are thoroughly ‘human’. PTSD symptoms are exhibited and felt, and through their experience we come to recognize our own, and that we are not alone in our fleshy vulnerability.

I studied sign language for a short time, and a few years after this, came upon a video of Koko- the gorilla who was taught sign language  ( . This happened through a visit to my daughter in New York at the same time as there was an exhibit about Darwin at the American Museum of Natural History.  When Koko ‘spoke’ through sign language, I could understand her. This was a revelation to me. She spoke in sentences and made up words.  The ability to write, and especially to write poetry, used to be one of the ways we defined those considered ‘subhuman’ as worthy of rights and privileges- i.e. black people, women, children, all kinds of slaves. Does it not therefore mean all primates ought to be gifted with rights and freedom of expression in what David Abram calls our more-than-human world?

I guess within the twitter-verse I fear some kind of breakdown of language, feeling, and thought. We tweet and chirp, fluffing feathers quickly without gravitas I suppose- like little birds. I love the virtual spaces of the internet- it’s connectivity is a marvel.  However, the loss of the author- ity of learneds, and books, and the closing of libraries by our current Prime Minister Harper, feels like a huge and irrecoverable loss. My most recent project involves the installation of 1,000 or so hardcover books at an environmental art site called the Fieldwork Project ( ).  With fellow artist Karina Kraenzle, I built a monument to the end of bookishness, and we returned the books to the pine forest, back to the gods that made them.  One of our inspirations was Iavn Illich’s amazing book “In the Vineyard of the Text”.

On the one hand I am a visual artist, on the other, my day job is as a back-of-the-book indexer.  ( If you’ve ever consulted an index at the back of a book- (yes!- people do write those things! ), it requires deep reading, and a love of finding the right words for what someone might be looking for.

The quotation from Lord Chando’s’ Letter I first discovered within the bottomless depths of yet another brilliant book, by Maurice Blanchot, L’Espace litteraire.

Barbara Cuerden is a visual artist who works out of the Blink Gallery Collective in Ottawa, Canada.




Angel of History











Still VoicesSpeaking Volumes

An installation of 1,000 books in a pine forest as part of the Fieldwork Project 2014  monument to the end of bookishness




Say the Names







The World is the Veil We Spin




When Yet I Cannot Speak







The Unheard Melody








A back-of-the-book Indexer, member of the American Society for Indexing, and a researcher who works within diverse communities, I completed a Master’s degree in Education in 2010 with a focus in the field of Society, Culture and Literacies.

Recommendation from Dr. David Jardine (see sample index):
As to the index you sent, well, it is wonderful. As the author of this
text, reading this index was like reading a reminder of the text itself
and, frankly, it brought out more depth in the text than I thought was
there in the first place. Amazing! It is so satisfying to read an index
that was written by someone who not only read but understood the text itself. Congratulations on a job well done–clear, careful, detailed, and a pleasure.


M.A. Ed. University of Ottawa, 2010
Digital thesis/library access link:
B.F.A. Honours (magna cum laude) University of Ottawa 1987
Bilingual accreditation, University of Ottawa


• Currently working as an independent Indexer while completing the ASI (American Society for Indexing) Business of Indexing course.
• Creator, writer, administrator, media liaison, and grant writer for Blink Gallery.
• Co-ordinator & tech support for 40 schools nation-wide across 5 time zones, involving 150 schools, ‘Vigil Remembrance Project’ []
• Curriculum Developer, writer, editor, Quality of Course- QC Design School a distance education company offering online courses.
• Research Assistant, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa for Dr. David Slomp’s survey of Canada-wide Literacy Assessment practices in the provincial ministries of education.
• T.A., Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa, for Dr. Patricia Palulis Class wiki-site development and maintenance for Cultural Studies and Education.
• 6 other T.A. and Research Assistantships covering a range of Educational Research projects including Teen Mothers and Education, Counselling for Counsellors, Math Phobia. 2006-2009


2013 City of Ottawa, Blink Gallery Project Grant
2012 City of Ottawa, Blink Gallery, Project Grant
2012 Ontario Arts Council, Visual Arts Project Grant, Blink Gallery
2011 Shenkman Centre, Orleans, ‘ARTicipate’ grant
2011 City of Ottawa Gardener House Studios
2009 Dissemination grant, University of Ottawa


2013 ‘Living Research’ Inaugural conference for Social Sciences building, University of Ottawa
2011 Guest presenter for pre-service teachers June 2010, M.A. Ed and PHD students
2009 4th Biennial Provoking Curriculum Studies Conference.
2009 5th WEEC (5th World Environmental Education Conference) ‘Earth, Our Common Home’. Montreal, Quebec. Paper presentation


Blog administrator, content provider and grant writing for Blink Gallery, Ottawa

Art as Research, project blog

Review, Gail Bourgeois art exhibit ‘Incidental Things’ Ottawa

• On Site magazine, Issue 26, ‘Dirt Bank’ pp.20-24
Review, Bozica Radjenovic art exhibit ‘Newly Knitted Reality’

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