PRINT September 2017


Rosa Barba, Boundaries of Consumption, 2012, 16-mm film, modified projector, film canisters, metal spheres. Installation view, Kunsthaus Zürich. Photo: Jenny Ekholm.

LAST YEAR, sales of vinyl records reached a twenty-five-year high—up 53 percent from 2015—and sales of e-books fell for the second year running, with their print counterparts gaining in popularity. Startling as these developments may seem, neither should come as a surprise to those who have watched obsolete technologies make their way into the gallery in recent years. In the midst of the second machine age—an era of relentless digitization and automation—we have become obsessed with reasserting the value of tactile encounters that stand obstinately outside networks of electronic circulation. We search for auratic, “authentic” experiences marked by historicity and provenance, able to supply an organic warmth missing from the cold inhumanity of the digital and inject a charge of contingency into the monotonous regularity of ones and zeroes.

Take the proliferation of photochemical film in contemporary art, the most significant aspect of a more widespread engagement with superannuated technologies. Artists such as Matthew Buckingham, Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, Ben Rivers, and, most famously, Tacita Dean have developed practices that depend and reflect on the physical specificity of the medium at the very moment of its technological eclipse. These otherwise diverse practices are united by their efforts to reimagine film as artisanal, emphasizing craft and rejecting divisions of labor. Buckingham looks back at the earliest years of cinema, prior to its industrialization, and to the first moments of amateur moviemaking; Gibson and Recoder’s projection works transform film into a performing art animated by human presence; Rivers hand-processes film stock in his kitchen and imagines ways of living off the grid; and Dean gravitates to fragile subjects linked to finitude and ephemerality, characteristics she also imparts to the medium itself.

The Sicily-born, Berlin-based artist Rosa Barba is often mentioned in the same breath as these figures; like them, she is known for an engagement with filmic materiality in which obsolescence is never far out of the frame. And yet the artisanal is conspicuously absent from her practice. AlthoughBarba activates our current nostalgia for old media, she seems acutely aware of the irony inherent within it. Vinyl, printed books, and film began life as products of industry, after all—soulless technological copies, perched on the bleeding edge of innovation. It is only now, when the digital has become allied with speed, circulation, and reproduction, that artifacts of the mechanical era are left to bask in the glow of that quality they once menaced: authenticity. The recasting of film as artisanal thus risks eliding its historical position within a broad spectrum of modern industrial production where it constituted but one of a myriad of technologies for the transformation of the natural world. Barba turns to the medium precisely as part of a larger excavation of twentieth-century encounters between nature and technology—an undertaking she also pursues at the level of content, through images of blighted land and toxic waste. In the many works she has produced over the past decade, film is nothing quaint or fragile. It is a sturdy survivor of one machine age that we encounter from deep within another.

Rosa Barba, From Source to Poem, 2016, 35 mm, color, sound, 12 minutes.

ONCE USED to build locomotives and airplanes, the vast halls of Milan’s Pirelli HangarBicocca recall the activity of urban factory production, long since departed. On the occasion of Barba’s exhibition “From Source to Poem to Rhythm to Reader,” on view through October and comprising fourteen works made between 2009 and 2017, this immense darkened space hosts a clattering parliament of film projectors.Some are put to idiosyncratic, reflexive use, as in Boundaries of Consumption, 2012, a work consisting of a 16-mm projector on the floor, playing a loop of leader that runs through a stack of film canisters and around a reel mounted on the wall. As the film strip moves under the topmost canister, the drum continuously tips back and forth, resulting in the aleatory movement of two metal balls that sit on its surface—the work deploys the physical movement of film itself to produce a visible contingency that would have no place in the automated Digital Cinema Packages that have taken over commercial film exhibition.

Such works position Barba as a contemporary heir to the expanded-cinema practices of the 1970s, which similarly sought to examine the sculptural materiality of the filmic machine. Rejecting the spectator’s absorption in the immaterial spectacle of a fictional world on-screen, figures such as Anthony McCall and Guy Sherwin turned to an interrogation of the actuality of the projected image in space. Like them, Barba anatomizes the apparatus, reconstituting it in an array of sculptural forms: She places motorized film loops in light boxes (Coupez ici [Cut Here], 2012), modifies a typewriter to deboss letters directly onto celluloid (Spacelength Thought, 2012), and creates rhythmic multiprojection installations of flashing light and color (Hear, There, Where the Echoes Are, 2016). Even projectors used to display films in a relatively conventional manner retain a strong physical emphasis. Rather than being hidden away in a booth, they are on view as grand, imposing objects that rival the image in the fascination they inspire. Immense 35-mm projectors fitted with loopers stand prominently, supporting platters on which the entirety of a film lies tightly spooled, awaiting its passage through the gate.

While Barba’s expanded-cinema progenitors foregrounded the apparatus as part of a critique of illusionism, which they aligned with both a political imperative to nullify the ideological power of narrative cinema and a modernist drive to lay bare the material support of their medium, she is invested neither in dismantling dominant cinema nor in purging illusionism. Many of her films, such as Enigmatic Whisper (2017), a 16-mm portrait of the Connecticut studio that once belonged to Alexander Calder, operate within a quasi-documentary idiom reliant on the naturalistic presentation of representational images. And as much as Barba manifests a clear investment in filmic materiality, she never relinquishes a notion of the medium as archive. If conventional cinema aims for absorption and expanded cinema aims for estrangement, Barba rejects both, staging a confrontation between these two ways of approaching the film experience: She couples a phenomenological encounter with the apparatus and a commitment to film as a technology of the virtual, one able to serve as a portal to other places and other times.

Why, then, this attention to the work of machines, if not as negation? Certainly, the romance of old media is there. The mechanism of film projection is discernible through observation in a manner impossible with the mysterious black boxes of electronic media, and Barba’s interventions make it only more so. She emphasizes the thingness of film, its tactility— a quality that has to some extent been retroactively produced by the advent of digital technologies. She does not, however, suggest that this distinction between film and digital maps onto a parallel opposition between the artisanal and the industrial. Rather, her sculptural explorations of filmic materiality serve to foreground cinema as a machine of the mechanical age—a time when factories, trains, pocket watches, and amusement parks forever transformed work, leisure, and the environment; a time when an intensity of historical consciousness emerged precisely as the solidity of tradition began to crumble.

These concerns are foregrounded in the consistent iconography that emerges across Barba’s practice. The subject of Enigmatic Whisper is in fact a slightly unusual one for the artist; more common are landscapes bearing lasting evidence of industrial or military intervention, sometimes in states of ruin, and sites devoted to the institutional storage of cultural materials. (Arguably, Calder’s studio is a loose fit with the last.) Barba’s films tend to be concerned with processes of inscription and endurance, acts that link them not only to the indexicality of film but to the handwriting that appears so often across the artist’s practice. Survival is a concept understood here in all its ambivalence, encompassing the inheritance of pollution and patrimony alike.

Films such as Somnium (2011), Subconscious Society, a Feature (2014), and Bending to Earth (2015) offer a compendium of man-made scars on the earth’s surface. They undertake a filmic writing of what Adorno calls natural history—a concept that posits nature and history not as antithetical, but as deeply and dialectically intertwined fragments within the “charnel house” of modernity, itself an epoch marked by a paradoxical marriage of productivity and collapse. In extreme long shots, Barba presents military installations, fields of solar panels, and reservoirs for contaminated soil: so much material evidence of technological intervention in the name of progress, rooted in the same historical formation that gave birth to the cinema.

Somnium examines Maasvlakte 2, a land-reclamation project in the Netherlands, while Subconscious Society spans several dilapidated sites in England, including a ruined roller coaster and the Maunsell Forts, built during World War II in the Thames and Mersey estuaries. Bending to Earth, which debuted as part of the 2015 Venice Biennale, turns to the alluring geometry of buried capsules of radioactive waste, monuments that commemorate a poisoning destined to outlive us all. Here, the forward march of progress is shown to be inextricable from a spectacle of environmental destruction. These are films that ask what will be kept and what will be lost as the catastrophe of modernity pushes ever onward.

If Barba has a cinematographic signature here, it is her insistent marshalling of aerial perspective. To call this a bird’s-eye view would be to too quickly align it with a naturalism, and in so doing disavow its profound ties to combat and conquest. As Paul Virilio has noted, at the turn of the twentieth century film and aviation joined together in what he calls “dromoscopy,” a technologized form of vision distinctly aligned with both speed and destruction. Barba’s frequent use of helicopter shots offers a panoramic perspective on the industrial structures she documents, flattening three-dimensional space and effecting a defamiliarization that drains detail from the picture. These macroscopic views present the earth not as habitat, but as picture or object. In our present moment of ecological devastation, drone warfare, and satellite surveillance, Barba reminds us that the history of new media and new ways of seeing is also a history of new forms of domination.

If this recognition of the entanglement of progress and barbarism sounds like an echo of Walter Benjamin, that is because the philosopher is one of Barba’s key points of reference. He is quoted directly in Bending to Earth and Subconscious Society. The former cites Benjamin’s work on mechanical reproduction, while the latter invokes the figure of the ragpicker, whom Benjamin understood as a metaphor for Baudelaire’s poetic method, a way of coaxing new meanings out of the refuse of industrial modernity.

We might extend this Benjaminian reading of the ragpicker to Barba’s approach both to the material of film and to the industrial topographies that populate her works. Celluloid itself is scavenged from the scrap heap, becoming available for new uses, open to new meanings—a reflection on the hollow promise of technological novelty foremost among them. At the same time, through mechanical reproduction, Barba situates selected landscapes within a larger consideration of the ways in which the natural becomes artificial and the artificial natural. In a sense, her works evoke the legacy of Land art, but in place of its concern with heroic acts of production, she fastens on reproduction and redeployment. Why should she make vast cuts, orchestrate graphic patterns, or stage entropic ruination, when all are available as readymades to be found and captured by her camera?

The ragpicker’s redemptive gleaning is also a profoundly temporal operation. It constitutes a defeat of the linear notion of technological progress, with its capitalist rhythms of novelty and obsolescence, in favor of a condensation of nonsynchronous temporalities in which new and old, past and future, commingle. In this jumble of time, Barba’s view from above resonates often as a view from the future; this impression is compounded by the artist’s predilection for soundtracks combining white noise, snippets of dialogue, and electronic music. Just as the aerial view effects a visual defamiliarization of the lived environment, this science-fiction ambience unsettles a view of the present. Somnium is named for Johannes Kepler’s seventeenth-century novel, a science-fiction narrative about a trip to the moon that includes a detailed description of the world seen from space, excerpts from which are read on the soundtrack. In Subconscious Society, a narrator recounts, via voice-over, “Following the object crisis of the late twentieth century, the land has been abandoned. A small group of explorers returns to a climatically mutated and unrecognizable continent.” Do we exist after this crisis or does it yet await us? Barba revels in this undecidability, a state Ben Lerner so aptly describes in one of his poems: “Seen from above, exposition, climax, and denouement all take place at once.” Here, actually existing landscapes resonate as postapocalyptic remnants of a destroyed civilization, as photography’s declaration that this has been meets the speculative power of fiction.

View of “Rosa Barba: From Source to Poem to Rhythm to Reader,” 2017, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. From left: From Source to Poem, 2016; Here, There, Where the Echoes Are, 2016. Photo: Agostino Osio.

WHAT WILL SURVIVE the storm of progress? Digitization may have quickly pushed photochemical film into mass-cultural obsolescence, but as a preservation medium its stability remains unparalleled. Archivists fear the unreliability of electronic formats will lead us into a digital dark age, but film will last. Perhaps we will, too, if we can find ways to cooperate and live together. In Disseminate and Hold (2016), The Empirical Effect (2009), and sections of Subconscious Society shot in Manchester’s Albert Hall, Barba finds scenes of collectivity, inhabitation, and adaptation. On the elevated highway Minhocão in São Paulo, in preparations for evacuation in the event of another eruption of Mount Vesuvius, or in the dilapidated grandiosity of postindustrial England, people look for ways to live within and beyond the specter of ruination. Here, in these collected memories of inhabited place, Barba’s practice comes closest to evoking something like hope.

A series of works exploring sites devoted to the storage of art and media is less optimistic. Haunted by the prospect of species extinction, these films find persistence not in humans but in things. In the trilogy The Hidden Conference (2010–15), Barba ventures inside the vaults of four institutions—the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Musei Capitolini in Rome, and the Tate Galleries in London—while in From Source to Poem (2016), she enters the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center at the Library of Congress in Culpeper, Virginia, the world’s largest multimedia archive. These films convene assemblies of objects that survive, forming a thick weave of time by condensing the material of human activity from diverse periods and locations. Whereas the vanitas tradition gestures to the transience of all things, these are structures of a frozen perpetuity. Almost no people appear, and fittingly so, for the temporality at stake is a slow chronological grind that abides by an inhuman scale of measure, invoking processes of accumulation and storage larger than any individual.

Of course, such denials of finitude are inevitably its affirmation; what occurs beyond the walls of these repositories will surely partake of an altogether different economy, a fact signaled by the bleak exterior landscapes included in From Source to Poem. In the Tate archives, the suffering meat of a Francis Bacon figure recalls of the frailty of the flesh amid the impassivity of history. The Audio-Visual Conservation Center, meanwhile, appears as an abandoned bunker. Barba films a copy of the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space in 1977, destined for unknown, possibly extraterrestrial, recipients. Under her gaze, it is a cipher for all the materials of the archive: There is no one present to listen to the “sounds of earth,” which await future listeners who may never appear.

When Barba’s sculptural manipulations of analog materiality are considered alongside these images of poisoned land and museum vaults, seen as if from a science-fiction future, it becomes clear that the artist’s engagement with film stems neither from the debunker’s desire to puncture its pleasurable spell nor, entirely at least, from the fetishist’s sentimental attachment to an imperiled medium. Film figures, rather, as an eruption of nonlinear time that combines the seriality and automation of mass production with the ability to register traces of the world through a relation of touch. Belonging neither to the realm of artisanal craft nor to digital hegemony, it occupies an impure, intermediate position in the history of industrial modernity. It is a magisterial medium of endurance, one that provides a way into a much larger constellation of earth, human, and machine. Rising waters, dying bees, archives designed to withstand a nuclear bomb, and radioactive waste that will last thousands of years: These are phenomena that speak of a darkening future for our warming planet. There were no good old days, this work reminds us, so it is best not to cling to any nostalgia for the past. Better to join Barba in reading the surviving traces of history as a warning for the future.

Erika Balsom is the author of After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation (Columbia University Press, 2017) and a senior lecturer in film studies at King’s College London.