Ben Borthwick

It may seem superfluous to assert that Rosa Barba’s practice is, at its core, engaged with issues of temporality: her primary medium is film and all her other forms relate in some way to filmic practices, histories and genres. But it is not the literal fact of working with a time-based medium that is the focus of this exhibition; rather, the ways in which temporality is spatialised and visualised by different kinds of works that fold multiple registers of time and space into each other.

Barba’s spatialisation of temporal conditions is most pronounced in her 16 mm projector sculptures which sit on the floor, hang from the ceiling or nestle in corners, each assuming a sculptural quality in how they occupy and define space. These are archaic machines showing films shot on archaic equipment requiring knowledge of archaic techniques and access to archaic production facilities that only a handful of labs still provide. Hard to maintain and dependent on depleting resources, these relics of the twentieth-century machine age are moving gradually towards the point of extinction. Nowadays, films shot on 16 mm are converted into digital files and played on digital equipment. Barba’s placement of the projectors in the gallery therefore articulates an engagement with historical display practices that is knowingly fetishistic. Her projectors are not simply there to project an image, but instead invert the relationship between subject and object by which the projector becomes the end in itself.

Rosa Barba Stating the Real Sublime 2009

Rosa Barba
Stating the Real Sublime 2009
Installation at Tate. Photo: Tate Photography © Rosa Barba

Stating the Real Sublime 2009 is an astonishing object, most strikingly in that it is a heavy piece of equipment suspended from the ceiling by the diaphanous loop of film that spins through its system, casting an anamorphic square of light that stretches across the floor and up the wall. The film it projects has no image, other than the dust scratches that breed on the surface of the celluloid, slowly accumulating over the course of the exhibition. The power cable slumps to the floor beneath the projector in a disorderly coil, as if to contradict the taut rationality of the loops above it, implying the projector is invested with alchemical powers to transform entropy into order unless, of course, it is the other way around.

An encounter with a room of these works is a multisensory, spatial experience. The projectors occupy space in a highly choreographed manner, beaming light against various surfaces. Their mechanical buzz mixes with faint soundtracks of electronics, spoken word, melody, and field recordings. There is the smell and taste of static from heated lamps and overworked machinery, the temperature slightly raised and atmosphere literally charged with electricity.

As to the question of why such mutant apparatus should come into existence, the primary reference is the genre of speculative fiction in which dystopian futures scavenge and repurpose machinery from our present. Missing parts require new solutions, no matter how irrational they may seem to us. Through loss of technology and knowledge, this transformation opens up the space of myth and ritual.

Barba’s series of felt drape sculptures address the issue of instability even more emphatically. The drapes are suspended from the ceiling and gathered in a train on the floor. A bright spotlight illuminates the surface, casting a dark shadow onto the wall some distance behind, within which a stencilled text cut out from the drape can be discerned. The drape’s materiality is highlighted by the spotlight that, simultaneously, negates its legibility: the text can only be read clearly on the wall. In this way, Barba makes the drape both screen and projector, a tautological object that defines itself by the presence and absence of light on its surfaces. In common with the culinary principle ‘del maiale non si butta niente’ (‘there is no waste in a pig’), all of the cut out letters are piled on the floor. The felt’s materiality is composed of the elements that constitute the text, but rather than a heap of language that retains its own narrative sense it is here distilled to a point beyond reconstitution: nothing more than individual letters from which no origins can be deduced, an archive of another artwork’s negative spaces which, simultaneously, offer an incalculable range of potential narratives.

The aesthetic of empirical enquiry runs throughout Barba’s practice. The projector sculptures occupy gallery space as if they are individual specimens under close observation in the lab, while her recent films tend to focus on large-scale landscape phenomena. The Long Road 2010, The Empirical Effect 2009 and Outwardly from Earth’s Centre 2007 are all framed by long aerial tracking shots. Juddering and handheld, they bring to mind military reconnaissance footage, or conceptual art strategies in which a particular feature of the landscape is circumnavigated at a sufficient distance for it to embody myth. In the case of The Long Road, it points specifically towards the futuristic industrial myths of science fiction which are most frequently enunciated through the aesthetic, social and cultural codes of pre-modernity.

Rosa Barba Outwardly from the Earth’s Center 2008 (film still)

Rosa Barba
Outwardly from the Earth’s Center 2008 (still)
Courtesy of the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin and Gió Marconi, Milan © Rosa Barba

Rosa Barba The Long Road 2010

Rosa Barba
The Long Road 2010
Installation at Tate. Photo: Tate Photography © Rosa Barba

The Long Road is set in one of California’s deserts in the American West, continuing Barba’s fascination with a landscape that articulates the geographical and psychological limits of American consciousness. There is no sign of habitation but the landscape is dominated by the vast form of a paper-clip oval, perfectly symmetrical, and a random doodle form contained within. Viewed from on high it has the quality of a drawing or sculpture, held in place by a geometric lattice of straight lines that criss-cross the surface. After a 180 degree sweep there is a sudden cut and the aerial perspective is replaced with a ground view of the same surface, sweeping left and right as it glides along a road, the visual codes of memory and suspicion replaced by the smooth flight of dream and fantasy.

Although this is a 35 mm film, it has a strong relation to the projector sculptures. In an exquisitely self-referential turn, both image and objects narrate the means by which the other constructs its meaning, while simultaneously allegorising the artist’s methods and concerns. On a purely formal level, the road is a graphic representation of the loop, the mechanism that allows films to be shown continuously in a gallery context, going round and around, seemingly without end. But there is always the splice, a join where an unspooled coil of road connects to the outer loop, as if to indicate that no matter how perfect the form appears, there remains the possibility of its coming undone. So it is with this racetrack, a large scale industrial mark on the landscape, abandoned within weeks of its completion, an industrial scale epitaph to the way reality can ruin a beautiful idea which can, in turn, be reinstated by memory.