Rosa Barba: Changing Cinema

Melissa Gronlund, Ben Borthwick

Reviews / 12.11.2010
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Rosa Barba, The Long Road, 16mm film installation, production still

Printed Cinema is an ongoing attempt to reveal and unravel the cinematic organism, stressing the ephemeral nature of the image's surface by remaking it as printed matter.

Rosa Barba has been publishing Printed Cinema alongside her film projects since 2004, as a kind of secondary literature, sourced from film stills, text and photographs. The publications are intended not as companion pieces to the installation event that they coincide with, but rather as a way to set experiments in word and image alongside cinematic still-image relationships, transferring them to an asynchronous realm.

The book is acknowledged as the 'home' of narrative; Printed Cinema adopts its format, only to direct us down other possible paths, reshaping the fragments of text and images from the films into a momentary stillness. The result is intended as a 'free screening' wherever it is found, as it slips through (and is edited by) the viewer's own hands.

Here, Barba adapts this format for the web, working from an edition that was published for her current show, on at Tate Modern through 8 January 2011. Taking images from the show, curator Ben Borthwick and writer Melissa Gronlund reflect on Barba's practice as well as on the difference in experiencing projected, printed and digitally published images.

Rosa Barba, Stating the Real Sublime, 2009, and The Indifferent Back of a View Rather Than Its Face, 2009, 16mm film installation and felt drapes. Installation view, Centre international d'art et du paysage de l'île de Vassivière, 2010

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. Her exploration of cinematic nuances and codes alludes to obscure points of reference in the history of cinema as well as to the history of film as a medium for exhibition. But it is not the literal fact of film being a time-based medium that is the focus of the works in this essay, but rather the ways in which temporality is spatialised and visualised by the different types of 'filmic' work on show.

Barba's spatialisation of temporal conditions is most pronounced in her 16mm projector sculptures which sit on the floor, hang from the ceiling, are tucked in corners and in each instance assume a sculptural quality in how they occupy and define space. These are obsolete machines showing films shot on obsolete equipment requiring knowledge of obsolete techniques and access to processing facilities that only a handful of labs still provide. They are hard to maintain and dependent on depleting resources, moving gradually towards the point of extinction. Quite apart from the textural qualities of a film shot on 16mm, and from the ways in which the mechanism's rich sonic palette inflects the experience of space, the fact of this medium's entropic status as a relic of the twentieth-century machine age is equally important in the way Barba creates meaning.-BB

Rosa Barba, The Long Road, 16mm film installation, still

In Barba's film The Long Road, which bisects the gallery space at Tate Modern, 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 that cars, here absent, describe. When the track is in use it becomes a grand act of landscape-size writing, a feat that sits in potentia in Barba's film. Indeed the work as a whole - the plane, the North 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. In taking cinema's paraphernalia of projectors, film and light - as well as the debates and manifestoes that comprise its history - as its subject, her film here traverses not only the ground of California but also the art-historical ground already laid by Smithson in many ways. Specifically Barba examines how art history impacts on present work in an almost material fashion: 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, read and printed in the pages of books. -MG

Rosa Barba, Stating the Real Sublime, 2009, 16mm film installation. Installation view, 'Rosa Barba', Tate Modern, 2010

The 16mm projector is no longer a given when it comes to displaying films shot on 16mm, which are more commonly converted into digital files and played on digital equipment. Barba's placement of the projectors in gallery spaces articulates, instead, an engagement with historical display practices that is certainly fetishistic - and Barba engages with this desire directly. Her projectors are not simply there as the functional means by which the image is projected, but instead invert the relationship between subject and object by which the projector becomes the end in itself.

A work like Stating the Real Sublime (2009) is an astonishing object, completely fetishistic and irrational in many different ways - 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. Sometimes it is installed to illuminate a square on the wall, at others it casts an anamorphic streak of light across the floor. 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 untidily 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.

While the materials are exclusively filmic, an encounter with a room of these works is a multisensory spatial experience. Beyond the machines occupying space in a highly choreographed manner with projections hitting various surfaces, the buzz of the projectors mixes with soundtracks of clips of electronics, industrial drones, 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.

In mutating the terms of the projector's function, Barba destabilises the relation between the projected image and the mechanics of projection, setting up a series of stages, each of which requires the suspension of disbelief. On first glance the suspended projector is the dominant object, defying expectations and gravity like a prop from a B-movie hanging by clearly visible clear cables. But soon attention moves to the film strip that supports this floating projector: it seems unbelievable that a mere loop of celluloid can support this machine without it crashing down, especially over the course of a four-month exhibition. At this point it becomes hypothetical, and the primary reference is the genre of speculative fiction where dystopian futures repurpose machinery from our present for their reality. Missing parts require new solutions, no matter how irrational they may seem to current conditions. Through loss of technology and knowledge, this transformation opens up the space of myth and ritual. -BB

Rosa Barba, Printed Cinema #10, 2008, booklet cover

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, perhaps vainly. -MG

Rosa Barba, The Indifferent Back of a View Rather Than Its Face, 2009, 16mm film installation and felt drapes. Installation view, Centre international d'art et du paysage de l'île de Vassivière, 2010

Barba's series of felt drape sculptures address the issue of instability even more emphatically, as in them the object's status as narrator or narrative is blurred further still. These works create a circuit of elements in which each alternates as the locus of meaning. Like others in the series, has a stencilled text that has been cut out. Its shape makes clear reference to the familiar proportions of a screen while the thick felt evokes the materials of post minimal sculpture. It is suspended in front of the wall - far enough to peer behind, but close enough to prevent anything but the most oblique view. A bright spotlight illuminates the black surface, casting a dark shadow onto the wall behind, within which the cut-out text is illuminated. The drape's materiality is highlighted by the spotlight which, simultaneously, negates its legibility: a moire effect is created by the interplay of light and dark, positive and negative space, foreground and background. The text is only legible where the two layers - material and immaterial - do not overlap: a couple of lines can be read through the felt surface at the top edge, and a couple of lines of shadow at the bottom, and the words at the edges of the shadow. By placing the text in clear view, but encrypting it through a series of aesthetic strategies, the artist undermines any notion of the act of reading as an unmediated experience of knowledge: certain positions will offer fragments, but the whole is elusive and can only ever be made legible through a painstaking process of deconstruction and reassembly. The uncertainty of the status of the text is mirrored in the object's form by making the drape function simultaneously as negative, projector, and screen: it is a contradictory 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' (meaning 'there is no waste in a pig'), every scrap is used; Barba has kept all the cut out letters, presented as a pile on the floor. This is not a heap of language in which an accumulation of words reveal the archaeology of an idea, it is more a random pile of letters, an archive of negative spaces where linguistic possibilities are so broken down that it would be impossible to reconstruct their origins. And at the same time, this mass of letters offers an incalculable range of possible narratives composed from the raw ingredients of language and spot-lit by the beam of a projector. -BB

Rosa Barba, The Long Road, 2010, 16mm installation, still

Barba's 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. These are juddering and handheld, more connected to the representation of memory, documentation and investigation than the gliding spaces of fantasy in narrative cinema. This is the image of empirical observation familiar from military reconnaissance, or Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, in which a particular feature of the landscape is circumnavigated at a sufficient distance for it to embody myth.

Like Spiral Jetty, Barba's The Long Road is set in one of the deserts in the American West, continuing her ongoing fascination with this landscape that articulates the geographical and psychological limits of North American consciousness. There is no sign of human habitation, although the landscape has a history of military experiments from which a bounty of myths and conspiracy theories spring. From the aerial point of view it is not immediately obvious what the track is: the shape is a paper-clip oval, perfectly symmetrical, with a doodle inside it. For while Spiral Jetty is built up into the existing landscape, this structure seems to have been gouged out of it. If Smithson's choice of the spiral links his monumental work to ancient hieroglyphs, The Long Road points towards the futuristic industrial myths of science fiction, its otherworldliness reinforced by the aerial shot's familiarity as a visual code for military suspicion. Nonetheless, 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 of the ground. After a 180-degree sweep there is a sudden cut and the shaky handheld aerial perspective is replaced with a view that glides along a road, sweeping left and right along the same surface that has just been shown from above.

The film, shot in 35mm, has a strong relation to the projector sculptures. Each medium carries with it a sense of obsolescence, as if the purpose for which it was created has been surpassed by other technologies, and this divestment of responsibility, in turn, opens up a new range of possibilities for both film and projector that are seemingly divorced from their original function. In an exquisitely self-referential turn, both image and objects narrates 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 means by which most films shown in a gallery context work. The celluloid, image and projector's function are spatialised in a way that enables it to go round and around, seemingly without end - the splice that folds beginning and end into each other is only evident upon close inspection when the film is not playing. But within this image of taut controlled symmetry there is also a splice, a join where a unspooled coil of road connects to the outer loop, as if to indicate that no matter how perfect the form appears, there is always 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 intrude on a world of intention and forms. -BB

Rosa Barba, Vesuvio Recording, 2009, ink on paper

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. 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. -MG