With directors from George Lucas to Wim Wenders now making movies on digital video, celluloid runs the risk of eventually becoming the province of the retro-fetishist. But the work of Rosa Barba points towards a third way: a future cinema that's not beholden to the digital, yet which is still capable of exploring uncharted territory just as resourcefully.
Barba uses retro-fitted film projectors as characters that physically dominate her installations, three of which are on display here under the title 'Buckle & Jitter'. Instead of trying to conceal the source of the projected image, she transforms it into the centre of attention through a labyrinth of film loops that slink across the space via a network of wheels and pulleys, physically enveloping the viewer and turning the viscous spaghetti of 35mm celluloid into moving sculpture, more multi-sensory than multimedia: we hear the whirr of the projectors' motors, feel the heat of their lamps and smell the chemicals of the film flittering by our noses.
But unmasking the wizard behind the mechanics of presentation is no mere gimmick. While reminding the audience of their willing participation in the optical illusion of the moving image, this strategy also rhymes with Barba's broader focus on the incidental and the interstitial, on the great weight of everyday smallnesses, slices the filmmaker refers to as micro-stories. There's a kinship here to contemporary glitch music, soundscapes built of accidental clicks and pops, but Barba's glitch cinema is based more on a visual grammar of fleeting shadows and blank frames, analogue analogies to the ones and zeros of the digital. This approach bridges the unseen world of movie magic with the real one: much of the footage is dreamy and abstract, fusing documentary and fiction, but the conspicuous presence of the filmic infrastructure constantly reminds you of standing in a very grounded space. Fittingly, the locales she presents also reside on the margins of the real and the fictive - non-places like the abandoned flats in Budapest that appear and disappear throughout Piratenräume (Pirate Rooms, 2002) or the villages in Spaltenfelder (Split Fields, 2003), which surround Naples' still active volcano Vesuvius, where risk-averse investors fear to tread, yet whose residents live on in a perpetually antediluvian moment. This tension is embodied in the shots of the ageing Neapolitan whose job it is to press the emergency button should Vesuvius choose to erupt again; in Spaltenfelder's grainy black and white footage his scientific tools already look like relics frozen in time.
Barba takes the active role of the machinery a step further in Machine Vision Seekers (2003), in which the projector manically gyrates from its perch on a specially built pneumatic platform, casting on to the wall a film that has jettisoned images in favor of pure text - in this case a sci-fi story about migrants boarding a subterranean spaceship that will whisk them off to a better world. The words are projected at ever-shifting angles, occasionally glancing off a viewer's face or shoulder, turning the audience into co-stars in this Minimal cinema. But unlike the traditional film experience, there's no singular, tidy point of reference in 'Buckle & Jitter': the frames are constantly in motion, becoming colloids of unpolished fragments, often of indeterminate origin and meaning. The soundtracks to these installations are likewise composed of snippets, in this case sprinklings of ambient sound and reworked field recordings. Yet much of what seems arbitrary here is in fact carefully orchestrated, a feat that requires a surprising degree of technical sophistication. Even though the equipment is largely analogue, Barba has programmed many of these projectors using a joystick and bar-coded film, which together determine the direction and speed of the loops.
This fluidity lets 'Buckle & Jitter' expand on the non-linear narrative games of films like Pulp Fiction (1994) as the spools of celluloid can suddenly switch direction, pausing along the way as if to breathe. The use of asynchronous loops throughout the exhibition means there are no clear beginnings or endings, and this granular style of presentation requires more of the audience's imaginative capacities: with instructions on how to watch no longer being spoon-fed by an invisible apparatus, the viewer has to work harder to follow (or invent) the story. Disposing of niceties such as film reels, projection room, seating and screen, 'Buckle & Jitter' disrupts the perfectly oiled machinery of the modern cinema event, but with less a Bastille-storming zeal than a pure fascination for the illusory powers of projected film and the magic it still works.