In Rosa Barba’s film The Long Road (2010), projected onto a screen bisecting this space, she surveys a car racetrack in the California desert from a plane flying overhead: the long oval scratched into the arid landscape, a looped road going nowhere for cars to trace, or, literally, to describe. When the track is in use it becomes a grand act of landscape-size writing, a potential that sits in wait on Barba’s film. Indeed the work as a whole – the plane, the American setting, the focus on the land – brings to mind Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), the large scale sculptural intervention in Great Salt Lake, Utah, that was Smithson’s own attempt to inscribe art into the landscape.
Barba’s films, installations and publications all raise the question of cinema as a kind of writing, and how other forms of inscription and recording inform film’s literal, and literate, background. Her work takes cinema’s paraphernalia of projectors, film and light – as well as the debates and manifestoes that comprise its history – as its subject, and in this way her film here traverses not only the ground of California but also the art-historical ground already laid by Smithson. Specifically, Barba examines exactly how art history impacts on present work – that is, the fact that history is mediated through words and textual references, and The Long Road’s association between Spiral Jetty and the act of writing acknowledges not only Smithson’s importance but how his importance manifests itself now.
Barba’s interest in the affinities between art and language comes as no great surprise to anyone who has reflected on the title of the publications (as here) that she distributes in her exhibitions. Each edition of Printed Cinema reflects the process of making each of her films: in this way they precede the finished work, but they also endure after the exhibition more concretely than the images from her projected films. They ask what it means for film – a visual language of shots and connections – to be overlaid or mixed with text, and the reordering of the hierarchy between word and image that this implies. Can reading be cinematic: the pages turning, the images and layout edited together? Can an illustrated book act like a film, or is film more than the passing of images? Roland Barthes wrote that, unlike with photographs, one cannot study images on film for as long as one would wish: they pass by according to the speed of the projector, not the viewer’s rate of contemplation. For Barthes, these images remained in some way unknown, or not to be trusted, and Barba’s translation of film onto the printed page seems to question this desire to know by seeing and holding. Knowingly, she feeds our desire to grasp onto things, to exert control over them as they exist before us, and to retain them, at the price of clutter and desk disorganisation.
While the projected image is one sort of ‘unretainable’ image, a second, more ambiguous example is that of the digital image: a picture one can see indefinitely, but not physically hold. This edition of Printed Cinema is a collaboration with Afterall Online, which has been working with different artists to explore the interactions between image and text that a website allows: a non-linear arrangement, or one of a deep structure of links on the page; a digital refreshing of the page’s content rather than what we might call an analogue movement from one page to another; and the possibilities for ownership (and legal problems) brought up by images and text on websites.
In the translation of this Printed Cinema into an online version, Barba updates previous collaborations between artists and publishers that also sought to examine the relationship between image and text – Smithson, again, springs to mind, in particular the photo-essay Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan that he published in Artforum in 1969. There Smithson placed mirrors in the landscape to destabilise the image that could be made of it: not a picturesque view of trees and bramble but one broken by a rectangular reflection of the sky. He published the images in Artforum magazine to suggest a hybrid of man-made and ‘natural’ landscape views; The Long Road follows in these footsteps by attempting to see the landscape not as a set of views (as Smithson also argued in another photo-essay, The Monuments of Passaic, 1967) but as a written site, a site made into a ‘race-track’ by the paths of cars. In this way Printed Cinema and its online iteration aim to locate writing within the image: that is, cinema and image-making as a form of writing. On the web, text and image function differently – images can be pulled off, saved to a desktop, printed out and held. Suddenly writing is the immaterial form, and Barba’s cinematic images assume physical objecthood.
These references to Smithson indelibly bring up the question of art history that contemporary art is so often occupied by. With the web publication of these texts and images, Barba looks at alternate ways of organising the building blocks of art history (the text, and the images that illustrate them). She highlights the fact that the writing of art history – the republication of images, events and hearsay – is so inflected with its form that it should not, like cinema itself for Barthes, be trusted. The racetrack she depicts is the empty sign of a track: a random shape made in the ground. It waits for the cars to come inscribe it, activating it as a racetrack by their use of it. What’s still is perhaps not enough. Turn the page, or refresh the image, and the writing is wholly different.