Rosa Barba’s latest body of work is presented in two connected but ‘unrelated’ exhibitions taking place simultaneously at Manchester’s Cornerhouse gallery and at Turner Contemporary in Margate. There’s something generous about the unrelatedness, an acknowledgement of the physical distance between the two locations and acceptance that seeing one might be enough. Meditating on the real-time processes and duration of the analogue – namely, of celluloid film passing through a projector – Barba’s practice seems to restore a sense of patience needed to imagine a parallel show in the other location.
The show in Manchester is divided between two floors, with two multiprojection film installations – Coro Spezzato: The Future Lasts One Day (2009) and Subconscious Society (2013) – and single wall-based work, Time Machine (2007). Barba describes Coro Spezzato..., first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2009, as an early example of her ‘complex filmic performances’. Five 16mm projectors mounted on shoulder-height tripods and arranged around the horseshoe shape of the gallery form a rattling chorus of machinery. The projectors start off in sync, casting fragments of handwritten sentences on the walls around the gallery. Read together, the message warns of the compression of knowing and understanding into a single viewpoint, flattening together ‘days and nights/machines and people’. Then, visually imitating the polychoral singing of the original Venetian cori spezzato (spatial choirs) from the Renaissance, each projection breaks away to ask its own questions – ‘What or whom/do we want/ to become,’ says one, ‘What do we want/to project/these images onto,’ posits another. Although silent, the effect of the constellation of films is polyphonic, a spatial experience mirroring a concert hall, a sensuousness Barba states is unavailable through the simple focus of the digital. There are echoes of Charles Atlas’s video installation Glacier (2013) (concurrently on show at the Bloomberg Space in London), an impressive panoramic choreography of floor-to-ceiling HD projections that I thought engaged with the proposition that the hypermateriality of the digital has become inextricable from how we perceive, but Barba’s is an eloquent yet ultimately defensive statement.
Made from the last remaining Fuji stocks of 35mm film, the large-scale installation Subconscious Society embodies this current moment of the medium’s obsolescence. Barba managed to salvage objects to use as props from the recording studios at the BBC North building near the gallery before its operations were relocated away from the centre of Manchester to Salford’s burgeoning Media City. The interior sequences of the film were recorded in the former Albert Hall Methodist Mission, its ten-metre-tall pipe organ and shiny parquet flooring long since left to ruination under layers of dust and debris. Barba worked with Mancunians with living memories of the hall to create a performance in which the group spent their time uselessly sorting through the modern relics, underlining Barba’s point that, in the new digital temporality of the constant present – without a sense of time passing from one click of a mouse to the next – the past only exists in reference to itself. The scenes outside the hall were filmed in Margate across the dilapidated pier and empty Dreamland arcades – cinematic landscapes synonymous with nostalgia for bygone collective experience. Towards the end of the film, one of the characters burrowing in the hall considers how he might have to leave the group soon, to save himself from going mad, which I read as the only concession to an otherwise unapologetically eccentric memorialisation.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.