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Rosa Barba, ‘They Shine…’, installation view, 2007

Thierry De Duve notes that Modernism would never have been necessary if the artists then had felt they had some connection with their audience. Instead, as the period played out, artists turned towards medium as both subject and witness. This in turn presents a unique problem in film, which holds its audience as a central component of its apparatus. Without an audience, film was reduced to its individual components by the likes of David Lamelas with his reductive single light beam, ‘Limit of a Projection 1’, 1967, searching for an autonomous purity within the machine.

But the search for a film disconnected from the living beholder produced new limitations. It was as if the machine itself refused to submit fully to the artist’s rigorous confines. Rather, it seems the machine dreamt of a future of film, and it dreamt of its own time: past and present.

Excavating these dreams as if the film camera was a time machine itself, Italian artist Rosa Barba turns her lens on to the strange dead zone of the Mojave desert, a space used by the US Army for bomb-site testings and battle simulations. Moving through a space resembling a retro science-fiction film set, which Barba captures in the similarly anachronistic 16mm format, works such as ‘Waiting Grounds’ explore the landscape as if it were a relic of Modernism itself. Barba’s observations are deft and occasionally wry: the technological scrap heap of the desert speaks, particularly in her ambitious 35mm ‘They twinkle, they blink, they wink and move’, 2007, of utopian technologies that occupy a similar place in current digital imagination. And yet their status as discarded junk make them unstable and unquiet reliquaries of a past military rhetoric.

The scope and visual form of the work also leaks into more metaphysical deliberations. The striking visual form of ‘Waiting Grounds’ is particularly hypnotic here, and often seems reminiscent of the desolate island setting of Michelangelo Antonioni’s mysterious L’Aventura, 1960. Barba evokes the physically and emotionally barren solitude of the Italian neo-realist’s architectural compositions. Certainly, at the time of its debut, L’Aventura was noted for its strange landscape shots, where characters would seem to enter or abandon the frame unexpectedly, their absence beginning to permeate protracted shots, leaving the cinema audience to search the rocky outcrops and empty frames for missing or dead characters.

But in ‘The Waiting Grounds’, figures haunt the collapsed monuments of the desert. They appear as nuclear apparitions, failing to activate the structures around which they wander. The landscape, buildings, and figures all seem to be coincidental to one another, congealing together only at the points where the narrative gravely relates anticipated futures, and ‘places playing places’.

Barba’s synthesis of medium and image slides elegantly across the traditional cine-form, at times allowing the casual observer to find thoughts that snag on a visual phrase or a series of words in the filmic narrative that occludes the straightforward dissemination of filmic projection to audience reception. And it is in these moments of hesitancy, where the audience lags behind, that the machine seems to be dreaming of the future.

Isla Leaver-Yap is curator of MAP’s ‘Visible Cinema’