Interview by Alison Hugill in Berlin 77 Friday, Nov. 27, 2015
Berlin-based visual artist and filmmaker Rosa Barba was recently awarded the Prix internationale d’art contemporain (PIAC) for her cinematic tour de force ‘Subconscious Society, A Feature’ (2014). The PIAC is a prestigious cash prize awarded every third year to a work of contemporary art, and the artist is selected by a jury of highly regarded art professionals. This year, the nominees included three women artists with their practices based in Berlin: Rosa Barba, Katie Paterson, and Natascha Sadr Haghighian.
After learning more about Barba’s work at the prize ceremony in Monaco this month, we caught up with her in the final throes of her exhibition set-up at the Albertinum in Dresden. The solo show is Barba’s first in a major German museum, having exhibited extensively in other European countries. Spaces for species (and other pieces) shows some of her latest cinematic explorations of time and memory, as well as a series of accompanying sculptural works.
Alison Hugill: Your films have been described as ‘industrial cinema’. Can you talk about how industrial processes inform both the content and the form of many of your films?
Rosa Barba: My films are deconstructing and re-contextualizing social and economically loaded topographies. I am trying to emphasize marginal details through sometimes radical reinterpretations in order to create some kind of “psycho grammar“of the inscribed signs. These are landscapes or buildings, which I see as cultural psychological documents of society that need to be read in many ways. My research is, in this sense, never accomplished and the deconstruction of the presentation methods engage with the narrative structure.
It is a whole language, a kind of alphabet of image often engineered in the earth. I am an observer of this document. I suppose I am interested in what a document is, how it relates to reality. In some sense, there is this relation to the document, not just as a pre-existent form but as a potential or imagined object: the part that remains behind, or the break within, the narrative.
AH: You were recently awarded the PIAC prize for your film ‘Subconscious Society, a Feature’ (2014). While filming these post-industrial, disused spaces in Northern England, what was the importance of using local and community memory and how did you create that dynamic?
RB: The community memory is another layer which helps me build the narrative. The characters are strongly connected to the places I am shooting. I see them as “documents” as well. Most of the characters in ‘Subconscious Society’ have never been on an airplane, never left the UK. I am interested in this perspective of the landscape and their buildings.
By juxtaposing seemingly disparate material, the viewer activates the gaps and develops new layers of reading in terms of social or political issues. I hope the film offers “activations.” My protagonists are trying to form a new society in this environment, inspecting the future and past and getting rid of objects. In-between, the film cuts into other exterior landscapes: a prison, a river in the desert, the landscape under the sea etc. I am interested in the architecture of a movement or a history in the landscape. My associations are the investigation of those mental states inside the landscape that is around us and where we leave our objects. The sites and voices represent a mental state of suspension. It’s a space where you see and think from a different time-perspectives and it unfolds into details.
AH: Your current monographic exhibition Spaces for species (and pieces) at the Albertinum in Dresden looks at cultural storage areas and archives. What is your fascination with these spaces and how can they shed light on human coexistence, both with other species and with objects?
RB: I’m interested in the self-organization of the pieces that coexist in cultural storages. Invited in 2010 by Lynne Cooke to the Reina Sofia in Madrid to curate a personal selection from their archives, I became fascinated by the idea of the archive itself, of how the artworks continue to exist, contributing to our visual language despite being concealed from public view. I began to explore the invisible connections between the different artworks in storage; the web of links that create a collective idea of a consistent space which is a permanent carrier of cultural value. I am especially interested in the storage shelves and in how they create an elaborate memory system. I want to capture the different compositions on film – how the works are arranged and how another layer of existence is created by these pieces being placed next to each other. The whole idea of art in storage, of the works secreted away from the light, is fascinating to me. What is the intrinsic quality of art that is unseen? Do our memories and associations with an artwork define our perceptions of it more than the sight of the actual object? It strikes me that an artwork stored in a major archive is like something finally brought to rest, as if in a deep sleep after the exhausting process of a change of ownership; the communication, negotiation and complex transactions of the art market. And then there’s the question of how the new acquisition introduces something new to the collective memory of the whole archive. When we search our own memory for a word or a name, it’s strange how some seemingly arcane or random association might help us recall it.
AH: Your works often cross-over architecture, geography, sculpture, performance and film. Is there an inherent congruity between these media and, if so, how do you bring them together in the final exhibition of your work?
RB: Each final exhibition asks for its own presentation. The way I film with my hand-held camera is a performative action. I draw with my body following drawings in landscape and architecture. Some layers of histories, I like to manifest in a single sculpture (like for example ‘White Museum’) The fragmentation into sound or sound becoming plastic also often results in performances or enigmatic sculptures. The document is a performance that never ends.
I try to construct a work so that you can always examine its parts, technically as well as semantically, sensually and historically. Together the parts form a song, a story, or an image, which in turn forms an idea. So the parts act as a starting point for examination and associations that lead far from the actual piece. The viewer uses time as a personal chaotic discipline or technique, to connect the works to each other. The works are looped but every visitor will experience a different “play” of all these coinciding factors.
Alison Hugill has a Master’s in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London (2011). Her research focuses on marxist-feminist politics and aesthetic theories of community, communication and communism. Alison is an editor, writer and curator based in Berlin. www.alisonhugill.com