Italian artist and filmmaker Rosa Barba’s installation films and sculptures often involve aspects of obsolete industry, language, communication or antiquity, weaving these disparate issues into a fictional narrative that sometimes takes off into space to creating a ‘pseudo sci-fi movie’.
The backdrop to many of Barba’s works feature huge infra-structure sites, desert landscapes, or old abandoned buildings where the occupants and/or objects are depicted as characters in a play, and form the backbone to whats known as a ‘narrative film’, where characters act and the ‘story’ is narrated by someone else.
Somnium (2011), a part documentary, part fictional film shot at the huge Maasvlakte 2 container port terminal project to be built on reclaimed land by the coast in the Netherlands, residents were interviewed about the conditions and asked to imagine what the place would look like in the future.
Huge automated industrial and infra-structure machinery that defy human scale, are shown in a barren snow-driven landscape; the only sign of human life is in the voice narration of residents describing whats being shown, amidst strange sounds, apparently emitted by the machines, intermingled with sounds of the elements in a bleak wintery scene.
As the residents describe the environmental destruction caused by the landfilling process, wondering why land needs to be reclaimed in the first place, the container terminal machinery begins to take on a more animated existence, aided by some space-age music.
The film seems to describe the construction as a ‘colonization’ of the original inhabitants, some even had farm animals living here, of having to be forced to move or make do with this new reality, in this part-documentary segment.
Somnium, which is ‘the dream’ in Latin, is also a novel written during the Italian Renaissance about a boy who learns of an island called Levania meaning ‘our moon’ from his sorceress mother, and early attempts at imagining inter-planetary travel.
Barba describes the inspiration this book gave her to make this film, with the barren, lunar-like landscape scenes shown in this film and ends with a narration that there is no absolute location or direction, no absolute up or down in space; that its all relative, and ‘the observer is always located at the center of things’ – implying both the alien nature of the landscape created and the detached, center of reference these industrial machines exert on the existing community.
It is not the first time Barba has used deserts and desolate landscapes as a backdrop for a film; in 2010 she made The Long Road (2010), a deserted racetrack in the Mohave desert, filming it from a helicopter and also driving along its path, and in Time As Perspective (2012), about a vast, sprawling west Texas oil drilling field full of oil pump jacks nodding away. Why would Barba would be so fascinated with deserts or with filming oil pumps and other huge, infra structure machinery?
While there might be some artistic merit in the forms and patterns generated in these environments, it is clear that she is depicting it in from an archaeological point of view, a type of ‘industrial anthropology’, as if one was seeing these once state-of-the-art machines, even race tracks in the middle of a desert, from a future generation, and noting how obsolete they have become.
In 1948 a roundtable discussion titled ‘The Western Round Table on Modern Art’ on the future of modern art featured some of the biggest names of modernism including Marcel Duchamp and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was at first held at a military bunker in the Mojave desert where what was said went undocumented, before doing it again in San Francisco where it gained more exposure.
It is this notion of having a panel discussion, in a time before social media existed, by the some of the most famous leaders of modernism, in a closed, exclusive event, where the general public cannot understand what was being said even if they could attend, that the sculpture Western Round Table (2007), is about. Here 2 projectors sitting on a gallery floor project ‘blanks’ or white light onto each other, and take turns to play sound tracks excerpts from Federico Fellini films, creating the effect of speaking to each other in an undecipherable ‘film language’.
Barba took this concept of projectors talking to each other further in Coro Spezzato: The Future Lasts One Day (2009) where multiple projectors take turns to project sounds and words on a screen, creating a symphony or group discussion of sorts.
In Boundaries Of Consumption (2009) a projector’s main reel is dislocated and placed several feet away with a couple of ball bearings rolling around on top of a cylindrical object. The projector, reel and cylindrical object are all linked together with celluloid film rolling round and round, creating a contraption that occasionally tilts the top of the cylindrical object slightly, moving the ball bearings whenever that happens, whilst the projector beams white light on to it.
While the use of projectors in Barba’s other sculptures usually is meant to represent people, here it represents ‘the system’; we on the other hand are represented by the ball bearings and the cylindrical object is ‘the theatre’ upon which we do our dance of life, and in this case, it is a dance of consumption. So whenever we have had a certain amount of input from the system, and in this case the media advertising apparatus, which in certain cases might as well be blank, it moves us (literally or emotionally) to do some consumption, all of this on bright display on the theatre of life.
Although the subjects in Barba’s films are fairly site-specific, that is they seem to only relate to particular issues of a location, and the techniques of her treatment are contemporary, universal and global, there is always a reference, in her ideological core, to art and architecture history that is decidedly Italian. From Italian Renaissance novels and sculpture, to the monumental, constructivist inspired works of Italian futurism and modern-era rationalism to what might be considered the space-age Italian avant-garde of the 1960s and 70s, there is always a thread to the past historical culture in her works.
As to why she chose this type of retro, space-age music of the late 1960s, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) during the ‘sci-fi’ segment of Somnium (2011) and not something more recent, like from The Matrix is unknown. Perhaps it is to accentuate the industrial anthropological notion of imagining what its like to look back to the present from a distant future generation that is what its all about.