There is a sense of drive in Rosa Barba?s work. It is a drift that occurs through the smallest interstices and folds that constellate her narratives: a series of lateral movements and digressions that build up spaces that seem timeless and almost invisible.
Barba?s oeuvre spans over film, sound, and text. It is almost as though film ? the artist?s favorite medium ? was dismembered in its very components, such as words, soundtracks, images, and pure light. Sometimes it is only one of these ingredients that is captured on the celluloid support, as it happens in a series of films in which the artist uses only just that runs like the subtitles of a movie or the lines of a film script, like in Machine vision Seekers, for instance, or in It?s gonna happen, to create a sort of imageless cinema. Other times, sounds and images are combined, evoking suggestive stories and atmospheres. But even when woven together, the structural elements of cinema always maintain an individual existence in Rosa Barba?s work, becoming almost characters themselves, acting as strange presences in a surreal tableau. Her films are mechanical ballets in which the narration unravels through fractures and ruptures, highlighting the dialogue between factual events and imaginary consequences.
Often, the subjects of her films are remote architectures such as abandoned houses (Pirate Spaces) or futuristic hangars that disappear under a certain light conditions (Parachutable). It is as though the location itself became the real protagonist of the film: places as isolated as the villages situated on the slopes of Vesuvio (Split Fields), or as mysterious as an island that inexplicably drifts one meter a year (Outwardly from Earth?s Center) take on almost a mythical dimension when scrutinized by Rosa Barba?s lenses.
Always shot on film, Barba?s work captures the instant before a decisive action, before an imminent, yet unsaid collapse, leaving the viewer with a sense of incompleteness, or with a gap that must be filled by one?s own fantasy. There is always a sense of pending menace, of something that is going to happen, but that doesn?t find a climax in the film itself, leaving to the viewer the role of an accomplice in completing the narrative. That?s why Barba?s film works often evoke a vertigo of displacement, where familiar elements are juxtaposed to create surprising analogies and absurd connections.
The short film Western Round Table (2007), for example, depicts an abandoned site in the Mojave desert in Western United States. A relic from the Forties, when US Army used this place for bombing tests and military simulations, this military camp stands forgotten in the middle of the desert like the exoskeleton of some prehistoric creature. Abandoned for many years, the bunker is now covered with graffiti and almost eaten up by the sand and the erosion. Barba freezes the building in a moment of suspension, of a-temporality, which is underscored by the music ? the sound of a broken organ composed by Jan St. Werner. The notes prolong the agony of the relic while at the same time emphasizing its hovering between construction and destruction, between immobility and a potential explosion.
The same Mojave desert is also the setting for her new 35mm film titled They twinkle, they blink, they wink and move (2007). Thousands of enormous solar panels punctuate the vastness of the American desert as part of a program to implement this wasteland. The panels ? shiny, mirrored machineries slowly changing position according to the sun ? rise in the desert planes like a wall behind which another world unravels, as it is imagined by the inhabitants? fantasy. The film intertwines scenes of the movement of the solar panels ? a sort of slow dance or a refined choreography ? with voices of people from the local community who express their thoughts about the future and talk about the images evoked by these strange machines. "The twinkle, they blink, they wink and move", one says; "There is a huge town being built behind them, with streets, dormitories, storehouses", a fellow follows; "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", another concludes.
Barba?s stories seem almost to materialize some of Italo Calvino?s Invisible Cities. Just as in Calvino?s masterpiece of dystopian literature, the characters in Barba?s films ? whether cities or landscapes or people ? always appear on the verge of disappearance, hidden by futuristic technologies or engulfed into the whirls of archeological memories. There is a sci-fi sensibility in Barba?s approach to cinema that results in a strange distortion, as though reality always had a hidden meaning, a secret parallel side, in which documentary and fiction could perfectly overlap. Something similar happens to the sense of time in Barba?s films that seem undecided between the past and the future, as though the artist was taking us on some sort of time machine.
The dimension of time in Barba?s work is of great relevance. It is an altered temporality, which subverts a linear diachronic conception of time to favor a suspended, but yet dynamic, moment, trapped between the language of history and the mirage of the future, between decay and evolution. Her films open up a space, or, better, a slice of time inhabited by voices, images and texts that proceed by interruptions and hiatuses. They take place in a frozen moment when potency is passing to act, although Barba never takes us over the point of irreversibility. It is almost an entropic movement that drives her camera: she films objects and people that are about to disappear or to become invisible, swallowed into the countless folds and wrinkles of history.
Published for the publication related to the soloshow of Rosa Barba "They Shine" at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Amsterdam (Nov 07- Jan 08)
Cecilia Alemani is an independent curator and art critic based in New York.