On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces

On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces
by Rosa Barba. Reviewed by José-Carlos Mariátegui

Hatje Cantz, Hamburg, Germany, 2021
160 pp., illus. 40 b/w. eBook, $25.00
ISBN: 978-3-7757-5028-8.

Reviewed by: 
Jose-Carlos Mariategui
August 2023

There is something fascinating and enigmatic about film projections and their apparatuses, as they captivate us and expand our perceptions of reality. The indescribable feelings they cause happen when we experience light reacting with the photochemical medium to produce a sort of “life” in the form of moving images. These ethereal images can expand our mental imagining into new worlds that look unreal but at the same time seem familiar. Not surprisingly, the same photochemical principles are used by scientists to decipher and reveal the complex paragons of matter in space and time.

Rosa Barba’s On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces is a book that combines intellectual insights that have evolved throughout her artistic explorations since the mid-1990s when she began her cinematic installation work. Partly based on her doctoral research at Lund University’s Malmö Faculty of Fine and Performing Arts, On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces takes the reader on a voyage of multidisciplinary enquiries, ranging from the history of science, history of artifacts, media archaeology, scientific phenomena, cinema theory, philosophy, and above all, Barba’s own work developing speculative artifacts that perform unpredictable imaginaries.

On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces complements Barba’s various research interests, showing how her works are orchestrated into an interrelated network. By building a framework for understanding her own artistic endeavours as an “inventory of cinematic spaces”, concepts are linked with artistic projects, assembling webs and sub-webs of propositions and knowledge in pursuit of creating new alternative discourses and “modes of communication for thinking and acting”. Such a framework provides timely combinations for expanding the traditions within media arts and media archaeologies to respond through the analogue medium to the current explosion and massification of digital images in contemporary life.

Paradoxically, the more technologies and tools we have at our fingertips to create high-quality movies using our smartphones, the less apparent and more restricted the sources that provide creative freedom. Such elements had been reproduced for decades as part of the Hollywood machine, and now they are due to streaming platforms and the data-driven analysis of every aspect of our human experience by Silicon Valley’s technology companies. Barba responds to the commodified and thoughtless consumption of images by creating spaces of ambiguity that revive our cognitive potential and desires, aiming at reconfiguring the technical artifact to challenging and imaginative possibilities. Her work aims at breaking the moving image status quo that dominates our consumption habits and our perception of reality in pursuit of an anarchic temporality based on a cinematic thinking.

On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces is composed of four chapters. It also serves as a toolkit filled with resources to help us explore audiovisualities in a less linear fashion, with mind maps and brief side explanations on terminologies as well as a list of Barba’s works.

The first chapter, Speculation on Astronomy and Cinema, depicts in an intimate manner the particularities of the cinematic process and its close relationship to astronomical discoveries. Here, Barba elaborates some of her works in direct relation to scientists and scientific archives. Astronomy and cinema’s photochemistry have much in common, as both use light and colour to get close to the properties of matter. Such is the case of the filmic sculpture, Send Me Sky, Henrietta (2018), based on Barba’s research of the photographic glass plates of Henrietta Swan Leavitt from the Harvard’s Boyden Station that was installed in Arequipa, in the south of Peru from 1889 to 1927. Through photometric techniques, Leavitt discovered the Cepheid Variables, a type of star that pulsates at a regular rate, helping to calculate the distance between our solar system and other stars. Henrietta Leavitt’s work resembles the work of another female scientist, Marietta Blau, the Austrian who pioneered the development of photographic emulsions capable of reliably and quantitatively imaging high-energy nuclear particles and events, including reactions induced by cosmic radiation but who was, nevertheless, unfairly treated in what was at that time a male-dominated discipline. Barba used Leavitt’s astronomical photographical plates to translate film colours as a sort of notational system onto different surfaces, such as in the case of Colour Studies (2013). The fact essential to both astronomy and cinema is that light can only be perceived by contrast to the darkness around it. Barba’s cinematic apparatuses bridge gaps of research through speculation, offering possible explanations that baffle scientifically informed phenomena.

The second chapter, The Immaterial Medium that Articulates Space: The Camera as a Drawing Instrument, is related to the idea of the camera drawing mechanism, which amplifies – through film – its performative ability. The camera is a heavy weight machinery that affects how long a shot can be, thus determining what gets filmed. Inspired by Maya Deren’s choreocinema – which emphasizes how human bodily motion guides the visual narrative – in Barba’s films, the aerial views are captured through the suspension of the camera, producing a loose sense of time or scale. These shots open onto infinite, wide-open spaces, or what Barba calls “spatial multiplicity” – a kind of boundary between past and present in which time is suspended –. Works, such as The Long Road (2010), emphasize memory states from a language that was articulated in a different time. Here, an abandoned racetrack is recorded from an aerial viewpoint. The space is thus reconfigured as an imagined object that breaks the narrative becoming an inhospitable space – an unreadable scene that has lost track of time.

Today, algorithms constantly shape our perception of culture – the entire horizon of our cultural perspective is shaped by black-box filtering mechanisms that curate our news feeds, rank our search results, and prioritize our mailboxes. Perhaps the most profound changes are in the realm of images, where the previous technical knowledge required to produce photographs has been eclipsed thanks to the “creative automation” software in our smartphones. But images have always been malleable and therefore subject to broad interpretation. Along this line, Barba calls for a work to surprise us by creating fissures in which the new can emerge. Algorithms are great for extrapolating past information, but they lack human creativity when it comes to radical interpretations that cast us into the unknown. So far, they are much better at identifying and replicating patterns than producing them. In that sense, the analogue practices used by Rosa Barba are not aimed at nostalgic longing for a pre-mediatic past but rather are used as instruments to achieve new visual forms. The camera is a drawing instrument that works in dialogue with the erratic decisions and the expressions of the non-actors in her films.

The third chapter, Collective Performance as Embarkation: Activating the Subconscious, describes the way she works with non-actors. One of her first films, Panzano (2000), is a good example of this. In Panzano, Barba spent six months as a student, during which time she developed the methodology to use the camera as a drawing instrument. Filming unscripted performances to be edited afterwards adds to this conflation of fact and fiction, which is supported by the instability of the characters, their emotions, and the geographical context. The participants in her films are ambivalent about being both active participants and observers, blurring the line between audience and participant, which also translates in different levels of understanding the film.

Barba’s films and installations demand a level of attention that is particularly ambivalent and multisensorial. To exemplify this, she cites Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and the importance of involuntary memory. Involuntary images and memories are far richer and reveal more about the past than voluntary memories. Barba’s work draws from this concept and deals with the performative aspect produced by involuntary encounters on a performative stage permeated with history. This is particularly relevant in times of massive digitization which is creating new modes of abstraction by collapsing the categories of time, space, and materiality. While digitization has made archives widely available, enabling quick access to knowledge while at the same time democratizing it, the digital medium is also a notoriously unstable medium, unlike 35 mm film, which is one of the most durable archival forms. The film Subconscious Society (2014) proposes a world in which material technologies exist as memories and where materiality has been superseded by a culture of immaterial communication.

The fourth and final chapter, Materiality and Machine: Looping and Fragmenting to Create a New Auditorium, investigates how the ensemble of the celluloid strip and the projector expand their intrinsic attributes and mutate into new mechanical objects winding the concords of cinema into new forms. By unfolding or separating an element or creating a new one, Barba produces abstract cinematic machines that open new mental spaces for the audience. This is achieved by not only unscrewing and reconfiguring film projectors but also by suspending the machines, hybridizing them in peculiar ways that bring to mind kinetic sculpture. The instability of these machines generates a tension between their elements – a kind of phase between what Barba describes as a “balancing act” and a “magic trick”. In Wirepiece (2022) the white light from the projector does not show film but rather luminously instantiates a small theatrical performance in which a musical film string creates a slight vibration, increasing the possibilities of the film to play the string. According to Barba, “white” gives a framework to ideas, as it contains all the colours and is therefore a universal metaphor for light as a sculptural medium.

On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces is not a typical publication. It is structured as a “fictional library”, which Barba dissects as a collection of sources, knowledge and experiences that are then re-assembled. Accordingly, as with Barba’s other editorial projects (such as her Printed Cinema series), On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces also expands the linear writing in the form of speculative, inventive, and etymological side notes. These notes expand upon selected topics that are also supplemented with relevant quotations and historical images. What interests Barba is appreciating cinema as a dream machine, a kind of visual and cognitive experience that encourages and enables open-ended explorations, probing, testing and immersions. These qualities are combined in a publication that is transdisciplinary, thus potentially attracting the attention of scientists, architects, museum professionals, and artists. It serves as a good example of how an artist can develop unconventional interpretations about their own research.