Sculpting in time – that was how Andrei Tarkovsky famously conceived of his art. The analogy is well-worn but, in the case of Rosa Barba, unavoidable. The Berlin-based Italian is interested in time’s materiality. This relates particularly to the celluloid film that is the raw material of her work (whose steady movement through a beam of light creates narrative or cinematic time) but reflects a more general sensitivity to the way in which time sediments in objects and places. Like light, which is only intelligible according to the surfaces that it bounces off or passes through, time takes shape through the filter of human experience. ‘Subject to Constant Change’, the artist’s two-part solo show split between Cornerhouse in Manchester and Turner Contemporary in Margate, was an investigation of cultural relics, foremost amongst which was celluloid itself.
If film is not a film, what is it? In both venues, galleries were dark; loud with the whir of hulking projectors; heavy with their slightly sour smell. At Turner Contemporary, film was either feeding in endless loops – as in the small but hypnotic Coupez Ici (Cut Here, 2012), a double bluff since the tape, contained within a wall-mounted light box, bears the opposite instruction – or spewing across the floor (Space-Length Thought, 2012). Words or letters sometimes featured, snatched narratives that hurled themselves headlong into bright lights and momentary visibility. At Cornerhouse, viewers were surrounded by the five projectors of Coro Spezzato: The Future Lasts One Day (2009, the first part of the title meaning a ‘broken choir’, a term which comes from Venetian baroque polychoral music). They projected handwritten phrases against the walls, which echoed between the gallery surfaces, repeating at different asynchronic rhythms, impossible to see in unison.
‘What exactly does the future consist of?’ the choir of projectors asked at one point. A new work, Subconscious Society (2013), jointly commissioned by the two institutions and presented in different iterations in each, suggests a possible answer. It was filmed partly in Manchester’s Albert Hall, an abandoned Methodist hall in the city centre, and partly overlooking the boarded-up theme parks and post-industrial flotsam of the North Kent coast, amongst the residue of cultural transformations in Britain in the second half of the 20th century. (Fittingly, it was shot on the last available shipment of Fuji 35mm film.
Subconscious Society imagines a re-inhabiting of these no-longer places in a parallel present or indeterminate future. Unlike in other of Barba’s films, such as The Long Road (2010) or They Shine (2007), where human presence is reduced to its traces – disembodied commentary or altogether mute – the dilapidated interior of the Albert Hall is inhabited by an isolated community. Its reasons for being there are unclear (post-apocalypse survivors? Cult members?). Fragments of dialogue spilled from the surrounding speakers, flickering between memories of the building and unspecified future projects in confused narratives of time and place.
Barba exploits film’s ability to project, to throw forward. There is something almost sci-fi about Subconscious Society, in the way that time dilates and becomes unmoored. And there is a certain otherworldliness to the rusting, hulking shells of the World War II-era Maunsell seat forts built to protect the Thames Estuary, or the aerial shots above the muted greens and iron reds of the scrub-covered sand dunes, cut through with snaking water channels. Obsolescence renders strange: untethered from functionality, things are free to take on a dreamlike quality. Perhaps this is what the title refers to: a collective oneirism relating to things defamiliarized through disuse, our shadowy awareness of things that have drifted out of cultural consciousness.
Initially I was sceptical of Barba’s unlikely pairing of locations and their somewhat lazy stereotyping, which felt like a cheap appeal to those over-determining labels ‘post-industrial’ and ‘faded seaside’. But the films themselves are more subtle than that, beguilingly ambiguous. Long, diaphanous shots allow the locations to bleed into each other in the imagination and become a new place entirely. The contrapuntal installations of this coro spezzato resonated in a complex harmony. Unfortunately, with Margate and Manchester so geographically distant, it was one unlikely to be heard by most.