PRINT September 2013


Still from Rosa Barba’s Outwardly from Earth’s Center, 2007, 16 mm transferred to video, color and black-and-white, sound, 22 minutes.

IN ROSA BARBA’S enigmatic twenty-two-minute film Outwardly from Earth’s Center (2007), the inhabi­tants of a remote Swedish island in the Baltic Sea attempt to halt their home’s steady drift northward. The all-but-inevitable collision with the mainland at some indeterminate point in the future will be catastrophic indeed, yet there will be nothing sudden or unexpected about it. As the island’s archivist—one of a number of “experts” appearing in the film—asserts, the earliest mentions of the island’s drift can be traced to the 1630s.

Like many of Barba’s longer films, and in contrast to her more conceptual projector sculptures and wall works, Outwardly from Earth’s Center conveys a sense of looming crisis, which is underscored by a foreboding electronic sound track (by Folke Rabe and Jan St. Werner). While the communities in Outwardly from Earth’s Center and The Empirical Effect (2009)—the latter was shot in the “red zone” around dormant Mount Vesuvius—are faced with impending natural disaster, the oil fields in Time as Perspective (2012) and postindustrial landscapes in Subconscious Society (2013) make direct reference to the destructive effects of man-made changes to the environment. Nevertheless, a common thread can be found in a larger existential dilemma: A recognition that all things human will eventually disappear subtends our quixotic, inevitably flawed efforts to leave traces regardless. If Barba’s view is empathetic rather than fatalistic, there is a suggestion, however subtle, that any human crisis is a mere blip when measured against the backdrop of geologic time.

Outwardly from Earth’s Center takes inspiration from a real place, the small island Gotska Sandön, north of Gotland, which is actually adrift in the sea, though its shifting dunes are moving at an exponentially slower pace than suggested in the narrative. The artist reenvisions the sandy enclave as inhabited (it once was but is now a national park) and invents a fantastical solution to its geologic predicament. Treading the line between document and fiction, the film sounds themes recurrent in Barba’s work: the contingent nature of historical truth, the divergent methods of inquiry employed in the production of knowledge, and the nature of time. If the underlying sense of dread in the face of a coming calamity inevitably elicits thoughts of global warming, Outwardly from Earth’s Center ultimately strikes a cautiously hopeful note.

The film opens with an aerial view of the landscape, fourteen square miles of sand dunes and pine forests, before introducing the first of the experts. The Lighthouse Keeper is, in real life, just that; indeed, all the experts “play” their actual offscreen professional roles—but their ruminations on Gotska Sandön’s fate are largely fictive. The Lighthouse Keeper suggests that “they”—presumably the islanders trying to stop the island’s drift—are “acting against nature,” while the Archaeologists point out that people have always done so. They cite evidence of ancient “signs” to the gods, supplications for their protection of the island. The Architect, for his part, delivers a quasi-scientific lecture on potential engineering solutions, while also admitting that none of them could do more than retard the process. And the Politician contends that if push came to shove, the Swedish government would have to intervene: “There is not an island I know of that has completely disappeared yet. No!”

Within Barba’s speculative narrative, all of these experts’ stories, proposals, and propositions are equally valid. “What I try to express in my films,” she offered in a recent interview, “is that time is based on individual and smaller collective histories and is a very malleable and flexible phenomenon. . . . I assume reality is a fiction that is based on individual interpretations of real events.” The point is underscored by Outwardly from Earth’s Center’s middle sequence, in which the narrator layers associative descriptions over a montage of shoreline rock formations: “Mongolian dancer,” “lion,” “grizzly bear,” “greedy old woman.” If you look closely enough, the artist suggests, all of these things are here.

Black-and-white photographs are interspersed throughout the film: at first a few shots of the sparse landscape and a lone woman gazing out to the sea; later, numerous archival images of islanders battling the elements (with a few faux-vintage prints intermingled, pointedly undermining the authenticity of the whole). If the first half of the film is dominated by the experts’ testimony, the second half is given over to the inhabitants’ efforts to save their island. People haul icy ropes through the snowy woods to the shore; the thick cords snake along the ground and through trees to the boats that will tow them out to sea, where, presumably, they will be used to somehow anchor the island. There is nothing that clearly situates Barba’s protagonists in the present; the shots of roping and boats are remarkably similar to the historical photographs (although the artist discovered the archival images only after she had finished filming). Such indeterminate settings of time run throughout Barba’s work. She points out that she is always toying with the idea that her films could take place in the past as well as in the future. If her films thus propose a concept of time as simultaneous, or circular, in Outwardly from Earth’s Center it rubs up against the urgency of the crisis, which is born of a linear notion of time.

The final images of the film are again aerial views: Dark lines run out from the shore into the sea while crepuscular rays illuminate the island from above. Whether the crisscrossing lines are ropes tethering the island to some other landmass in the Baltic Sea or a mystical sign addressed to something outward of the earth, the ending suggests that a fragile victory has been won: The island is secured and won’t disappear, at least not yet. Barba recently remarked that her works investigate a particular social or political situation set against larger historical (or technological) forces to posit a “utopian solution to a problem, a kind of magic which stops time.” While this is exactly what happens at the end of Outwardly from Earth’s Center, it may be, incidentally, an even more apt description of cinema—if not of artmaking itself.

Henriette Huldisch is a curator at Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum Für Gegenwart in Berlin.