Rosa Barba is an artist who might work in a variety of media but whose work is invariably about one medium in particular: industrial cinema. Rather a distillation of the form than a structural analysis of its component parts that those filmmakers of the late 1960s or 70s might have been investigating, her works are beguiling and elemental. Informed by a social and cultural research, the re-presentation or her subjects is more akin to the construction of peculiar monuments than the pleasure or celebration that would otherwise seem to be the surface qualities of her films, sculptures, installations and publications. Western Round Table 2007 is paradigmatic:
Two projectors, close together, face each other on a small plinth that raises them slightly from the ground. Their lenses poke into the air with modest defiance, as if to accuse each other. They speak at the same time, projecting loops of clear 16mm film that sit on top of them like hats and carry optical soundtracks of feint chimes (one base, one melody) that sound like the clanking of old machinery, the industrial past or modernism's back catalogue, emblematic of the machines producing them. The light of each projector's bulb throws the silhouette of its opposite large onto the gallery walls, their shadows looming like characters in the alleyways of film noir, the immaterial motif of a depleted genre made sculptural. But the title of this work (one of three in Rosa Barba's recent exhibition, "They Shine" at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, all of which were developed from research in and around the Mojave Desert, California) points to the future of a future: Western Round Table 2007. As such this work becomes an already-antiquated memorial sent back from a future without words, figured by the epochal past of the early twentieth century, of derelict (modernist) form.
In 1949 the California School of Fine Arts organised The Western Round Table on Modern Art in San Francisco. A group of men- from art, literature, criticism, music, science, philosophy, architecture, including Marcel Duchamp, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gregory Bateson - publicly and privately discussed contemporary artistic practice, its modernist legacy and a modernist future. Is the implication of Rosa Barba's 2007 -round table- that this conversation was at once already archaeological, cultural dereliction its subject, modernism itself defined as a kind of predictive memorialisation? Certainly the symposium might be read into Barba's work even if it remains exterior to it, in the field of the viewer's independent research. But Western Round Table 2007 is not necessarily about (or enacting) a bankrupt aesthetic discourse. Instead it distils what might be its source material into an abstract outside of space of time that defines its terms as a monument and an enigma. If it stands for 1949 it might also stand for a generalised situation of seemingly impotent negotiation (of politics or contemporary culture) - a debate trapped in an endless loop, the echo chamber that defines its (our) condition as ridiculous and unresolvable. Self-contained and timeless it is a simultaneously open and closed object, a key to Barba's practice.
The film They Shine (2007) is informed not by a symposium on art, theory and the future, but by urban myths and personal hypotheses. From outside a perimeter fence endless rows of semi-circular mirrors slowly revolve, reflecting their surroundings. Sinister and chameleon-like - a militaristic science fiction - they occupy the whole of the frame. A man's voice is heard, his tone that of a particular kind of American cinema; introspective and mythic, meandering and omniscient. But his words are not a generic narrative. Rather, they are a composite of stories told by local people projecting onto the strange machines that the image documents, understanding their existence through imagined truths: "It uses the light of the sun and the heat coming off the earth and the power of the wind to maintain an invisibility cloak."
Far from the working class dialects that T.S. Eliot replicates in his poem The Wasteland, which the participants of the 1949 Western Round Table discuss, the viewer of They Shine has little sense of who might have once spoken these transposed words. But like The Wasteland this new story, as does Barba's work in general, edifies the fragments from which it is composed through the aesthetic that also obscures them.
In Panzano (2000), made with Ulrike Molsen, a group of older people are observed (and orchestrated) living in an impoverished, rural home. They perform a series of oblique characters, speaking isolated sentences of personal melodrama, in a fiction of their own making. The film defies as much as it documents these people's mistreatment by the Italian mental health system that remains as exterior to the film as any psychological diagnosis of its subjects while explaining aspects of its content or its disregarded genesis.
Printed Cinema is a series of modest publications, each of which is a unprojectable film in the form of a pamphlet, published in large editions and distributed for free, rivalling the distribution of an actual film in their accessibility. The transcript of They Shine is reprinted in Printed Cinema #8: The Waiting Grounds, interspersed between location stills and other images. Watching a film is different from the act of reading: printed cinema can be flicked through in any direction, read at any pace, deliberated over and returned to. This book-made-film finds a parallel in Barba's films-made-text. In It's Gonna Happen (2005) and Machine Vision Seekers (2003) words float in space against black backgrounds. In the latter, an installation, the projector itself is animated. Sat on a plinth facing three walls it judders from one position to the next, collapsing spatial disorientation onto a semantic one, the half-sentences of an otherwise absent screenplay onto the film that we start to imagine. Something has been taken apart that we immediately put back together. As with Printed Cinema, the narrative of these works is in the (albeit metaphorical) hands of the reader.
Perhaps there is one almost-exception to prove these co-existing strategies of edification and liberation. Outwardly, from Earth's Centre (2007) is a documentary and a fiction. It describes the real situation of the Swedish island Gotska Sand?n, which is drifting gradually towards the North Pole, facing its own disappearance. Barba interviews some of its inhabitants who we know - as in a children's story - not by their names but simply by their professions: The Lighthouse Keeper, The Archaeologists, The Archivist. At the same time a group of actors are positioned and photographed against the island's stunning landscape of Bergman-esque desolation, like the friends and performers in Joan Jonas's Wind (1968) leaning against the elements, or the members of a melancholic pop group on a promotional shoot. Against a theatricalised list of possible ways in which the island might be saved they begin, ritualistically - aesthetically - to enact its anchoring, first driving wooden stakes into the beach and then dragging thick ropes out to sea on small boats. In the final, aerial shot, the shadows of lines radiate from the island across the sea and sun beams break through the lowering clouds. Simultaneously we see fact and fiction, an actual island and its imagined, impossible rescuing. It is not literally that this island is now anchored, but through this work that fixes it in the time and space of its form - an extraordinary cinematic collapse of tense, time arrested.
Barba's predictive memorialisation is not without political intent. It is the edifice of cinema radically reinscribed.
Published in Camera Austria 101, 2008