Film As A Subversive Art

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Marina Vishmidt on Rosa Barba's work, part of Film As A Subversive Art, Saturday 17 Oct 2009

Editorial 16 Oct 2009

Image: Rosa Barba's project at LUX28

Writer Marina Vishmidt discusses the work of artist Rosa Barba, who will be presenting an installation at the LUX's 'Film As A Subversive Art' on Saturday 17 Oct 2009 at Zoo Art Fair

What You Seek is What You See: Some Reflections in Rosa Barba's Printed Cinema


Guided by a taxonomic impulse, it could be said offhand that artist filmmaker Rosa Barba is a species of romantic structuralist. Like the structuralists, she is preoccupied by the immanent aspects of film – the workings of projectors, perception in space, the materiality of the medium as expressed not just optically but in sound and in time.

On the other hand, the romantic part could be justified by her interest in the aleatory and psychic dimensions of the image, the speculative narration that conjures invisible landscapes, landscapes with unseen histories, such as in They Shine (2007), and the characteristic evocation of cinematic narrative through the use of moving, projected text, as in Waiting Hall/Terminal (2006).

She has also devised installations using a record player, field recordings, and panels of text (Who Can Tell if I Am Inventing?, 2005) and one using two projectors, clear leader audio, and an off-site reference to a historic event in Modernist discourse (Western Round Table, 2007).

-- Since 2004, Rosa Barba has been producing publications for some of her exhibitions, festival screenings and, more recently, online projects. These publications have not, as is customary, played a companion role to the event of the installation, undertaking to contextualise or explain a work experienced elsewhere, if at all; instead, they bring the tools of print and paper to bear on her oblique experiments in word-image relations, and transfer them to an asynchronous site.

In off sites (2003), Barba integrated two items of printed matter in one publication, wrapped in enigmatic black and white images of a couple she encountered in Lima who ran a private cinema in an underground parking lot. This black and white, folded, map-like brochure, which includes four essays that are only legible when folded, encompasses the different approaches the author took to thinking about her work.

And the fully coloured sets, based on an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, which brought together a full catalogue of Barba’s works to date, include stills, installation views, and short, factual descriptions. Printed Cinema takes this concentration of filmic strategies in another direction, using the medium of printed matter. These publications are each linked to a discrete film or installation, while also collecting research material and fragments that did not always appear there.

The 10 collected examples, ranging from the first, Broadcasting from Home, to the multi-modal web-based research of Vertiginous Mapping (2008), can still be viewed as documents, after a fashion, but the operation they conduct on the practice of installation is one of translation, in Walter Benjamin's sense (1), of using the space between one language and another to devise an unknown third.

The undertow of narrative, proposed and deflected in the moving image, is here poised between the phenomenological actuality of the installation and the fragmentary record of the film that is dispersed from that actuality. As the book is deemed to be the home of narrative, so Printed Cinema adopts that format only to displace it from its likely paths, reshaping the shards of word and image from the films into a provisional stillness.

Barba's film practice congeals into a fantastical third space. As flows of matter congeal into a crystal, gaining legibility and mystery at the same time, the haphazard journeys of light, place and story, come to be defined but not explained in Barba's films and books.

-- And yet, like a flip-book, there is a promise of motion between the pages. To insert another layer, the editions of Printed Cinema do not always refer just to the work with which they share a title: Printed Cinema #4, Who can tell if I am inventing? also features images from Split Fields (2004), while both #5 and #9 evoke her parable of a drifting Swedish island, Outwardly from the Earth's Center (2007). The third space of printed cinema becomes multiple, like the screenings of different films in the same cinema or like an ephemeral and widely distributed artwork.

So as to best appreciate how film might perform under the conditions of the book, it may first be worth a detour into the reciprocal alchemy between word and image basic to Rosa Barba's oeuvre. MachineVision Seekers (2003), not yet directly evoked in a Printed Cinema (although number seven, Waiting Hall/Terminal follows a similar protocol of narrative suspended in pieces of text that are projected over various surfaces in space) stands as the clearest instance of Barba's scripto-visual film alchemy.

As the modified projector executes its programmed twitches, it becomes the viewer and the viewer becomes the screen for the darting text. Under what conditions, under which kinds of atmospheric pressure, do words and images change state? And in another phase-shift, vertiginous words become the image of motion.

The projector, animated by spiritualising lo-tech, rotates erratically, albeit in accord with its electronic impulses; it pivots quizzically, as if trying to see or understand, and throws the shape of words onto adjoining walls.

The room fills with the sound of its efforts, as the act of projecting and the act of watching fuse together in the most textbook of structuralist idioms. But the structuralist film's ambition to defeat the 'literature' of the usual narrative film image suffers one final irony; the barebones of cinema actually turn out to be words.

The intermedia pathos of the film medium (is film more like theatre, a novel, photography, dance?) is invented again from scratch. Barba explores the artisanal and the industrial processes fused together in cinema with the waywardness of her machines, while the 'cinematic mode of production' (2) that brings these to bear on the attention and temporality of the viewer, is evoked on the small, diachronic and fictive scale of her archives and enigmas.

More about the waywardness of the machines: It can be said that film-concrete practices are always somehow about jumping the species-barrier between that which transmits and that which perceives. In Rosa Barba's case, the mechanism dwells on itself to mimic a reader, trying to keep track of the wandering words and so becoming a projector of the invisible images they carry. The frantic ambulation of the words introduces noise into the feedback-and-forth loop, a parallel track to the ambient layers of found sound and made sound.

Alterity: a cinematic story told through words shamelessly inserts itself where visual pleasure is sought, and proceeds to flee. Allegory: an allegorical treatment of words and alegorical treatment of images, with symbolic and material layers constantly switching place. Solar panels rotate languidly, creating a shield of invisibility for a new reclusive civilization by reflecting nothing back at onlookers but their desires (They Shine, 2007).

The Swedish landmass is prone to inherent vice (Vertiginous Mapping, 2008; Outwardly from Earth's Center, 2007); it is also making a dash for it, terra fugit, with stoic inhabitants who try and tie it down (a primeval myth), or it’s cracked by diamond strip-miners, Urban Future Organisation (UFO) (a capitalist myth).

The recasting of landscapes as futuristic parables and land as congealed time, accelerating and braking, the use of film stock that lends a dense, dreamlike appearance to each frame, while Vertiginous Mapping, a web-based project, presents a concatenation of speculative objects, including photographs, maps, and archival film, adding a literal dimension to the poetic means whereby reality is displaced in the other works.

Each of the Printed Cinema pieces summons the image of a monad: the artwork as a coherent self-decreed universe composed of relations, which both provides a lens for what is outside itself and makes that reality volatile and opaque. 'Through form, artworks gain their resemblance to language, seeming at every point to say just this and only this, and at the same time whatever it is slips away'(3).

There is also the degree to which plausibility as ‘world’ and as ‘work’ is anchored in this slight adjustment of relations, which, henceforth, we can only almost recognises this is the messianic, the same but somehow different, the subtle transfiguration just before time re-starts on other terms, as Agamben writes in The Coming Community (4), having been redeemed.

The artwork as monad need not be so much critical as elliptical; what is compulsive about it is its undecidability, its seductiveness as myth; after all, the slight adjustment is as linked to the appeal of new commodities or the special vision of the artist as to the vertigo of a specific encounter.
The artwork is an allegory of the world it is separate from, as well as being an allegory of that separation. Cinema shapes this separation into an estrangement of vision, and in Rosa Barba's work, that is where the vertigo comes in. Cinema as a specific prosthesis that enables such an encounter can redeem reality and shift it slightly, and that elasticity of the actual can then have an impact on the viewer's conditions of experiences? in They Shine, the condition of seeing is to be dazzled and not know what you are looking at, while the text fragments weave a plausible world hidden behind the glare.

Waiting Ground, number 8 of the Printed Cinema series, presents these fragments along with images from this film and from another film of the same visit to the Mojave Desert, The Waiting Grounds (2007). The intertext here cannot help but be Robert Smithson's Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan, where 'matter eats up light'. Thus, in Barba's cinema, time and space are disassembled and refigured, printed and not ; narrations weave in and dissolve, a drift of attention or maybe an island.

-- Then, under what conditions do images once again jump register, shift phase, opt for a new 'layer of mediation' or 'technological substrate', and become words? Every film, or almost every film by Rosa Barba, is also a book(let), just like industrial cinema is rendered as the book of the movie. These books do not explain anything, but they remember the film differently.

Like the fleeting forms projected onto the senseless interior tableaux in Pirate Spaces (2002), which appear entirely at the pleasure of an erratic projector; the publications adopt a form suited to periods of time that cannot be experienced within the work. As if the light, bright, yet classically depraved and irrationally joined spaces in the film (the skewed spaces moulded into a baroque decor recall the Viennese interiors in Valerie EXPORT's Invisible Adversaries, 1976) get drawn on, and thus accede to a further layer of fiction.

Where do these publications stand, pretending to print cinema beyond the cinema print? Not only do they exceed the time, but they also extend the site of the screening; they are mass-produced and readily available, within reason. They are more accessible than the installation or the screening, and yet this access is to a missing object. This is where the publications start.

In enacting a film-format using paper and ink, they accentuate the fact that there was never a film-object to start with, much less a film experience; there was just a state, once observed and displaced onto film stock, then onto paper. Such media agnosticism is a red herring, admittedly; the whole premise of Printed Cinema is the difference between varieties of filmic experience, not their flattening.

It is also another route through the materiality to which the commitment to film, prepared projectors, film-stock configurations in gallery space, and astutely collaged sound, testify. If words can become moving image why can't moving image become paper? Paper, note, not word; there are few words making up the total components of the booklets. But it is as possible to imagine a film from paper as it is to imagine a film from words, it would seem.

With these sparse parameters already lending themselves to so much re-description, perhaps the intricacy of research and fictionality in Vertiginous Mapping (at the Dia website) takes us out of the frame. The nature of the image is to make the world disappear, to make it implicit.

Notes: (1) Walter Benjamin, 'The Task of the Translator' (1923) in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed., Harry Zohn, trans., New York: Schocken, 1968. (2) Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006. (3) Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Robert Hullot-Kentor, ed. and trans., London: Athlone Press, 1997, p. 120. (4) Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Marina Vishmidt London, October 2009

Marina Vishmidt is a writer who works mainly on art, labour and value. She is doing a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London on 'Speculation as a Mode of Production.' She has published in Mute, ephemera, Afterall, Texte zur Kunst, A Prior, and Vertigo, among others. She is at present working towards collaborations with Ruth Buchanan and with Cinenova, both of which will partially happen at The Showroom, and with Binna Choi on the /Grand Domestic Revolution/ programme at Casco.