Rosa Barba (Agrigento, Italy, 1972) uses the medium of the cinema, from its devices and materiality to the temporalities it summons up, to explore the mechanisms that articulate our era, when any possibility of rupture can stem only from the recognition of a society where the difference between productive work and creativity is non-existent, and where our dependence on technology and gadgets is almost absolute. Through misadjustments, paradoxes and displacements, the artist reveals the composition of narratives and the apparatuses which make them possible. Her films and installations destabilize grand narratives and propose other perceptions of the real where framing and ciphering technologies –that is, apparatuses– are revealed as an essential part of the organization of our subjectivities, emotions and experiences.
Since her early work of the late nineties, Barba has taken this contemporary condition as the starting point for the development of her interest in an expanded notion of cinema, and in its conditions of production and reception. For her, the projector is just as significant as the film it projects. It is not simply a functional tool but a central element in the narrative. This has nothing to do with the search for purity in a discipline, as proposed by modern American criticism of the mid-twentieth century, but relates to the concept of our environment as a vast social machine. For example, in Western Round Table, a 2007 installation, she arranges two projectors that show transparent films superimposed on one another in a kind of mechanical “conversation”. Barba’s title refers to a symposium held in 1949 in San Francisco, where some of the most influential artists, architects, critics, musicians and art professionals of the period, such as Marcel Duchamp, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Goldwater and Mark Tobey, debated the culture of their time. From that event, she ironically retrieves the framework, the dialogue format within which it was held, and introduces a disruption into the narrative of the historical occasion. In displacing attention from the discourse to the mechanisms that sustain it, she is making a statement: there is nothing outside the device. The conversation held by the projectors lacks a story. It is an indecipherable cacophony that contrasts with the supposed gravity of the participants in the original event. In this way, Barba undoes the binary schemes of modernity and its hierarchical readings in order to show a complex system of relations where the individual is neither separable nor central. While the western subject is founded on the opposition between sensing and comprehending, between the real and the imaginary, her objective is to reconcile the subject with its environment as one more piece in a shared system.
Film is a privileged means to this end because it signals elements and their connections without any need for representation or linguistic mediation, something which Pier Paolo Pasolini saw as giving it an almost animist quality, while at the same time its technologies emphasize the role of the device in the construction of what occurs.
Of course, obsession with machines is nothing new in the history of modern art. Barba’s interest in the operation of the different parts of a particular machine, such as the social or historical body, is close to the fascination aroused by the aesthetics of technology and machinery in certain areas of modernist art from its very beginnings. Francis Picabia is an example. Fille née sans mère [Girl Born without a Mother] is a mechanomorphic poem produced by Picabia in 1915 whose title and structure could be regarded as precedents of Barba’s work. In this and other pieces, the French artist explores a world where individuals and machines are closely bound and fused together, forming a single mechanism. Barba constructs similar dystopias around our relationship with the systems and apparatuses that surround us. Her films The Empirical Effect (2009), Outwardly from Earth’s Center (2007) and Somnium (2011) show stylistic traits reminiscent of science fiction, often conjuring temporally complex scenarios trapped between a past that has ceased to exist and a future as yet unknown. There is something else that the works of Barba and Picabia have in common: both function as diagrams. Although often inspired by photographs of cars, fans, or propellers, Picabia’s drawings of the nineteen-twenties are not representations of machines but their schemata. For her intervention in the Palacio de Cristal, Rosa Barba has created an installation entitled Solar Flux Recordings (2017) that responds to a similar strategy.
It is at once a system of which we are a part, and also its diagram. As its name indicates, it records the incidence of sunlight on every part of the architecture at any moment. To this end, the artist arranges a number of steel sundials on which the sun’s motion is registered, and mounts a partial replica of the building. Windows, columns, arches have their equivalent in her installation. Nevertheless, more detailed study reveals that what we see is actually a cinematic device. Even though its panels preserve the outlines and dimensions of the windows, their colors remind those of the photographic filters used in cinema, but in this case the light comes from the sun rather than a lamp. This reveals how nature functions as a machine, with ourselves as cogwheels.
Barba sets the spectator who enters in the Palacio de Cristal in a specific place. Through the glass panes of the building, the viewer perceives the beauty of the landscape, the trees that surround it, the sky, the clouds. But these things do not constitute a nature that is separated from us. They are part of an ordered global machine whose movements have been recorded on the sundials the artist has positioned inside the building. Viewers contemplate the machinery of the world, but in so doing they affirm themselves and defy that structure and their place in it. The work, which is a system and its diagram, returns us to the world we inhabit, and underlines the bonds which link us to the environment and its technologies.
Persisting in this system is an enigma the artist is keen to maintain. Although the way it functions is accessible, the data it records are not, nor are the potential conclusions to be drawn from their interpretation. In the artist’s works, there is always a certain opacity which she connects with the romantic notion of the sublime. The unfathomability of nineteenth-century landscapes is now to be found in the machine. These days, however, the enigma is not external but integrated in our mechanisms and apparatuses, and only on such basis will it be possible to envisage new forms of organization. Barba places the viewer in this dilemma, unveils the machine that nature is and the devices that support it, and above all establishes our role in it so that we can perhaps start to question it and imagine other possible technologies to relate to. The notion of the fissure, the interruption of the homogeneous, is the tactic employed by Rosa Barba to make us aware of the mechanism we are immersed in and how they can be interpellated, beginning with its recognition.