Caitlin Bury: Stories My Family Never Tells I and II
“This whole project is about words, really,” she declares as she sits down. “The words that I say … matter.” Words in many forms—spoken, written, lyrical. As much as it is an immersive visual experience, Caitlin Bury’s project in the Senior Thesis Show is a shrine to words. It’s a shrine to family, too: the bonds tying together her, her brother, her ex-60s girl group aunt, and the rest of the people who shaped her childhood. Fittingly, most of the elements in the show are relics from her past. Media is balanced on vintage stereo equipment and a lovingly scraggly rug, which draws the eye up onto the wallpaper, which is a collage of Bury’s childhood memories, prominently displaying a lot of words. “This is an original song,” one part reads.
We chat lightly about our lives before truly digging in. We both admit that coffee makes us anxious, we both jokingly mourn the characters in our favorite cheesy indie coming-of-age- films. Bury has a particular fondness for Lady Bird and similar strong-willed characters. She explains that they inspire a sense of nostalgic power that only teenage girls can really embody. If their high school experiences, complete with all their flaws, can be meaningful, then couldn’t anybody’s? Bury puts the same perspective on her own past. In the most biographical portion of her project, she documents her own experience as a teenage girl with a more mature eye. Digital cut-outs from her high school theater brochures decorate her collaged wallpaper, polaroid pictures of her with friends are taped down to the right. Bury’s own experience is necessarily central to the narrative she paints in her work.
Of course, the memorabilia displayed in the gallery doesn’t only belong to Bury. This is a story about family as well. Bury was heavily inspired by her aunt’s participation in a girl group as a young woman—the music, the touring, the winking at cute boys. The aesthetic of her aunt’s experience is at center stage in Bury’s work through the incorporation of vintage elements. Lace tea towels cover the stereo equipment and the podium that the audio elements rest on. Bury’s aunt and her band members wave from the collage. Bury ties her own history with her aunt’s, merging the musical highlights of both.
Also featured is Bury’s brother, composing songs and light sibling rivalry through a cassette player and headphones. Bury explains that her experience of girlhood is open to interpretation. One of the tape recordings is cleverly titled “Boys Can Be Teenage Girls,” opening the doors of Bury’s experience to those outside the traditional standards of femininity.
At the same time as she portrays girl-like wonder, Bury questions why the nostalgia it invokes is so powerful. Often, teenage girls are shamed out of their more feminine interests under the guise of maturity. Fads like Twilight, One Direction, and Disney Channel original movies are portrayed as silly and unimportant, often shunning their young female fans. The critique of girlish culture can instill deep misogyny, stifling joy and passion. Bury’s work reclaims these feelings, assigning worth to the experience of girlhood through what she calls “visual pleasure.”
Bury’s project is inspired by a wide range of fellow providers of visual pleasure. The first she cites is New York Times Op-Docs–short documentaries submitted to the magazine by independent filmmakers–particularly their method of storytelling through audio recordings like interviews. This auditory documentary instinct appears through Bury’s recorded conversations with her brother, which provide moments of grounded narrative among Bury’s collage of elements. Literature also influenced Bury, authors like Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath, who are incorporated directly into her work. She also has a taste for female musical artistry outside of her project, and says that a lot of the soundtrack behind her work features women, especially women who speak candidly about their experience with mental illness. Bury draws the parallel that taking inspiration from these women is similar to her lineage to her aunt, as if they are all connected by a thread of feminine musical experience.
This experience is easily accessible throughout the whole project. It ties together the characters, the set decoration, and the musical recordings. Bury’s work might visually resemble a collage, but its thematic through-lines of girlhood conjoin all the separate pieces. Bury concludes that “the way this project is woven together is through my aunt’s past, and also my past, and sort-of-present, and it’s woven together, like each individual string—the movies that I watched in high school, the musicians that I listened to in high school, the experiences that I had and the experiences that she had, all that culminated to these overarching themes of agency.”