I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
During a train ride from New York to Massachusetts, Rosa Barba and Joan Jonas exchanged thoughts on volcanoes, deserts, and poetry, on film versus video, and the layering of time and place in their works.
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Italian filmmaker and sculptor Rosa Barba (currently based in Berlin) and New York video and performance artist Joan Jonas have crossed paths at exhibitions around the world and have followed each other’s work for years. This conversation began in November 2014 when the two rode a train together from New York City to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Joan Jonas We are looking out at a sunny autumn landscape. Later we will pass the beautiful marshes. I will show you. I was happy to see a rehearsal last year of your Performa piece at Anthology Film Archives and your film The Empirical Effect (2009) at the LIST [MIT List Visual Arts Center] a few years before that. Your films are complex and abstract and they don’t give too much information about where the ideas come from. Though they make you feel that there is a lot of research connected to them and a deep foundation of thoughts. Some of that was revealed in your book White Is an Image, especially in Lynne Cooke’s text about Somnium (2011), where I learned that it was inspired by Johannes Kepler’s science-fiction novel with the same title.
Rosa Barba Yes, Kepler’s Somnium presents a detailed imaginative description of how the Earth might look when viewed from the Moon, and the novel is considered the first serious scientific treatise on lunar astronomy. I am very curious about astronomy and I often use the language of science fiction in my films. Somnium was shot in Rotterdam at the construction site of a gigantic new harbor that will open in 2030. It’s a new hub for Europe and Asia and its mostly artificial landscape has a timeless quality.
JJ There is only one human protagonist—a beekeeper—in the middle of all that construction and futuristic landscape. I’m reminded of Pierre Huyghe’s work. Like you, he doesn’t reveal too much in his visual language, but he navigates viewers through complex and deep layers. It’s an intuitive and poetic understanding, not documentary at all. How do you decide upon the degree of revelation?
RB I like to offer activations with my works, starting conversations through certain orchestrations of image, sound, and text. Of course there are always so many other layers of narrative that come up during my research, other protagonists or places that carry lots of information with them into the film, indirectly. I am not very interested in works that mainly manifest their research activity. I try to reach the point where I feel the information reveals itself inside the imagery.
JJ You deal a lot with questions of geography, with environmental changes and the society that causes them. Your work is not obviously political but it is in another sense—as a sort of after-image. Sometimes you take fragments of sound, performative elements, and text—for instance, a Robert Creeley poem in The Long Road—to construct a narrative. Tell me about The Long Road (2010). Many writers made the connection to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. I don’t really see this because Smithson was creating a sculpture in the landscape, whereas you find and trace it with your camera. You said the oval loop reminded you of an Inca drawing.
RB It’s a whole language, a kind of alphabet of an image engineered into the earth. The film shows an abandoned racetrack that has receded back into the landscape. I am an observer of this record; I am interested in how it relates to reality, not just as a pre-existent form, but as a potential condition or as an imagined object—a part that remains behind or constitutes a break within the narrative.
JJ I like how you end the oval loop movement in the air and how you are then actually driving on the street, positioned at the ground level as the camera circles the test track. After rounding a curve, the camera enters a straight stretch, down which it speeds into the sun. There are shifting elements in the point of view and in the voice. Your editing and the camera movements’ pacing with the framing of images and text in relation to the audio track is really great.
How do you find your landscape subjects?
RB I think we already carry inside what we are interested in. When we get to a place, we look for this specific subject and see if we can find it there. I was invited to Sweden, to Gotland, and that’s when I heard about the island Gotska Sandön. So I developed the film Outwardly from Earth’s Center (2007), which is about an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. That island moves a meter away from the mainland every year by constantly changing directions. I made up a fiction about how a community tries to hold the island in its place. And a year later, at a time when I was in Sweden a lot, I went to Kiruna, which is above the Arctic Circle, and it became the location for the web project that Dia Art Foundation commissioned. I changed the name Kiruna to Alkuna, which means “Nordic myth”; two narratives meet and manipulate each other in this work. The displacement of the town is due to cracks in the earth, which are a result of the extensive iron-digging by a single corporation that dominates the local economy. The crack serves as a metaphor for unchecked corporate power.
JJ How did you realize that you were an artist and what you wanted to do?
RB I started to work with photography at a young age and spent hours by myself, taking photographs and developing them. I made music, took lots of modern dance classes, and thought that I would like to combine all this when I’d grown up. A few years later I started to make Super 8 films. Some of them were sort of non-information films, white images or black images, which is, in another sense, a lot of information. It was like moving into a different layer of narration, editing a lot of white cuts, breaking the narrative. This became more extreme when the works needed no image at all; then they became more like sculptures.
JJ Yes, like Western Round Table (2009). Two projectors illuminate each other with projected white light. How did you develop this work?
RB It came out of my interest in “The Western Round Table on Modern Art” meetings where a group of men from art, literature, music, architecture, and other fields—among them were Marcel Duchamp, Arnold Schoenberg, and Frank Lloyd Wright—discussed artistic practice. The first meeting was in 1948 in a military bunker in the Mojave Desert and, unlike the next two meetings, it was totally undocumented and there was this sense of conspiracy around it. I wanted to give this a shape, re-enacting the first meeting, in a way. In that sense, the work is more of a sculpture than a film. There are two projectors speaking to each other. I took sound excerpts from Fellini movie scores written by Ennio Morricone and gave each projector a different looping soundtrack. The two projectors present a dialogue, shadows of the meeting’s protagonists staring at each other. This is a bit what we do with history in general—history is like a sculpture we look at.
You did something similar in your work Wind from 1968—a very important work for me, it inspired me a lot. Ian White wrote me last year, after he went to see my exhibition in Margate, saying that I make films about films. I was thinking, now seeing Wind again, that it is, for me, a film about film as well.
JJ Landscape and the elements have always been part of my work, because they are part of the space around us. My concerns are in relation to framing and recording the landscape and then transferring this to the space of the place in which the work is presented or performed. Wind entered as a coincidence. When we were filming Wind in 1968, it was windy and so the wind became a character. I consider the landscape a presence or a character that plays a very strong role in all my work.
RB We share that, having landscapes and natural forces as our protagonists.
JJ I don’t do it consciously, but I deal with all those elements that you could call the sublime and the spiritual aspects of the world. That includes the troubles we are in, without specifically saying it. I refer to the beauty of the natural world, the miraculous interaction of creatures in the environment. But I don’t want to be romantic, you know, so it’s just there without sentimentality.
RB I think these are concerns that are shared by many people. Often problems manifest in the landscape first, before it’s totally clear what’s going on. That is the moment when I feel very inspired to do a work about a particular concern, not trying to offer a solution but to offer different perspectives. By suspending it, putting the concern upside down, I feel there are still possibilities, at least in thoughts.
JJ We know that our audience is mostly with us, so in a way we are not trying to change their minds. I think it’s very important to speak about these concerns. Poetry can be political, of course.
RB In your performance for Reanimation, you carry the poetry with your body into the drawings and into the space. This is very beautiful.
JJ The music—Jason Moran’s improvisation and energy—does that, too. We started working together in 2005. You too work a lot with a composer for your films.
RB I have worked with my husband, Jan St. Werner, for such a long time, that we don’t really have to talk much about it anymore. I hand over my recordings and he starts to offer things and then we modulate it. I like how he makes sounds; he’s not a maker of soundtracks, more like a Foley artist. Every sound is created new on the spot and the editing of the film is a live moment, actually.
JJ You also make kinetic objects where you give more attention to form, but the objects are performative as well.
RB With the objects, I am interested in a specific absence of image and in a balancing act. I use my camera the same way when I record images. I decide for a frame but then, when I point my camera to it, I have no control anymore over what actually happens inside the frame. So the sculptures are situated in the frame I prepare for them, and then they start a conversation with the different parts of the object and with the observer.
JJ This also happens in your piece White Museum (2010) where you point a projected white frame onto a landscape.
RB In the white cinema light, something opens up—another image experience of this landscape. On the island of Vassivière in France, they submerged a village into the surrounding lake while building a dam to power the island. There is a window in the local museum that was designed to frame the perfect view from the island. In my exhibition at that museum in 2010, I put a 70mm projection of white light out of this window framing the landscape.
Everything can be photographed to become a representation. Celluloid just shows what it is—it’s neither past, nor future, it’s just this little excerpt framed by light. This piece, over the years, evolved into a site-specific work, which I installed in different locations. At Turner Contemporary in Margate, it was framing a part of the sea by low tide at night and it revealed what looked like an abstract painting. The work was shown alongside J.M.W. Turner’s perspective studies, which I chose.
JJ Maybe you can talk a bit about where you see your works situated in time, their relationship to time, and how you see film as a time-based medium?
RB I’m very interested in completely losing a sense of time and scale with my images. Time for me means a kind of deep geological time, like a time exposure in a photograph, but taken in a way that the image doesn’t blur—instead you see the depth and structure of a movement or a history, with all its changes. I think of time as a layered slab, with periods stacked on top of each other, rather than as a single stretched line. I often feel that you need to find the right angle to look at that slab of time in order to see it. Using my film camera allows me to be synced with or to be close to time, especially when I film in wide-open spaces where time seems to exist endlessly in every direction—it’s almost three-dimensional. Looking through the camera, I often feel that the process of capturing time requires a specific perspective. I’m very interested in film also, because you never really know when the film actually happens. Does it happen when the light hits the camera lens? Does it happen when it is developed? Or does it actually happen when it comes out of the projector and is thrown into a space?
JJ Yes, that’s an important question. Well, technology is changing; time in film has different implications from time in video. For instance, for me the story or the source might come from another time, like Halldór Laxness’s book Under the Glacier, which was written in the 1960s. But I always bring my pieces into the present time—in this case I refer to the glaciers that are now melting. But these are poetic rather than political statements. I think also the audience experiences the time of a performance in one way, which is very different from the experience of time in a gallery, where you are more or less in your own time, and you can look as long as you want, walking and pausing.
Your film The Empirical Effect (2009) made a strong impression on me, especially its subject. There is something about the way you make the work that is quite distinct from a lot of other artists. You work with groups of people and you engage them in a way I find very unique. You also have great titles. Why did you choose The Empirical Effect?
RB The film was shot around the volcano Vesuvio, in Naples, and the older protagonists in my film are people who had survived the last eruption of the volcano in 1944. These are inhabitants of the constantly endangered, so-called red zone below the volcano. We shot inside the old observatory (Osservatorio Vesuviano) in Naples, which is situated near the crater. I used the observatory as a scenographic platform because it alludes to a performance that unrolls within a theater of memory. A small group of older people move around the seismographic machines. Sheep too walk around the observatory and stare. They occupy the place with the actors, and everyone walks upon a large map of Italy that is on the floor. We are observing a piece of an unstable relationship between the society and politics in contemporary Italy. It’s an empirical observation guided by experience and experiment. That’s why I chose the title.
Later in the film, I staged an evacuation with a whole town (the best-known mafia town) since an official test evacuation had been postponed for many years.
JJ We share a fascination with volcanoes. In my work Mirage from 1976/1994, there is a projected documentary film of a series of volcanic eruptions. Later in 1985, I made a video called Volcano Saga in Iceland. I think in our sense of structures, we have a lot in common, but the structures themselves are different. I work with narratives in my films, and in the installations, I use other kinds of narratives that are similar to your type of construction and fragmentation—like what I experienced at your rehearsal for Subconscious Society last year. As people entered the space, they were surrounded by the work, or parts of the piece.
RB I do a lot of filming in the desert as well. I try to use my camera as a drawing instrument and I look for inscriptions in this barren landscape, like in your piece, Reanimation. Your camera is a kind of witness to something you look for when you film as well, or is it something that happens later?
JJ Usually, it is something that happens later. But sometimes I draw for the video. For Lines in the Sand I drew in the sand and filmed while I was drawing and the drawing became the narrative. This footage then became a major backdrop for a new project. Drawing is one of the main elements of my work. I try to find different ways of drawing in relation to the medium and the image and the narrative. So the drawing functions differently in each piece.
RB The drawing becomes an actor.
JJ I guess, you can say that. The gesture of the drawing becomes part of the language.
RB For A Private Tableaux (2010), I walked underneath the Mersey River in Liverpool recording the subterranean city pumping air through these tunnels. On the tunnels’ ceilings are handmade white drawings by the engineers who examined the pressure cracks made by cars overhead. They are like cave paintings in a way. It is nearly impossible to imagine them as functional. They do seem to follow a certain logic; they make some shape or other. I wrote a narrative about these images and cut the film with this text of possible explanations. There is a sort of dialogue—question and answer.
JJ I like how you choose these very unusual locations for your work.
RB I’m always interested in buildings that have changed their identities, that don’t have a specific function anymore, but where you can still find many traces of what they might have been before, although you can’t be sure. It is a moment of suspension. That’s when I like to go in with the camera and activate these traces. But video and film create a different experience of time.
JJ Technically, you can do so much more with video than with film in the performance. Video enables you to work with physical and mental layers.
RB For me it’s very difficult to think of how to translate my ideas with video. In the performance Subconscious Society (2013), I used the action and sound of the 35mm projectors starting up as travel mediums. They accelerated the preciseness of the image, but with a delay, which helped the audience to adjust and be carried into the next thing. I’m not sure how I would have done this with video.
JJ Do you always work in film?
RB Yes, but it’s getting a bit more difficult, because the film labs are closing all over. There are still a few left in Europe. When I was a student, I would do tests for the labs. I would get the slightly old material for free and then the lab would develop it also for free, to see if it was still okay to sell. I could work cheaply that way.
JJ Film is very beautiful. I made a couple of films in the ’60s, before I started to work with video. But I was attracted to video because I could do everything in my loft and I liked having that freedom. While I shoot most of my videos myself, I didn’t shoot the two films, I only directed them. I really wanted to own the camera. The camera is my tool. And we can edit at home. I find the process of putting it together and editing very interesting.
RB Editing is also one of the most interesting things for me, after the camera work. I cannot give the editing away to another person.
I admire how you had a real artist community in the ’60s and ’70s in New York. This seems to have changed.
JJ I think the community now exists everywhere in the world, meeting at group shows, for example. As an artist now, you travel a lot and there is not a fixed space anymore, so the community exists for me in a different way. In the ’60s and ’70s, at a time of change and innovation, the community was smaller and one knew artists experimenting in film, sound, painting, sculpture, video, dance, and so on—there was a dialogue. Now there is a continuation of that situation and there is more of a dialogue between young and old.
RB How important is the audience to you? I had never done a performance before Subconscious Society in New York, so it was a new experience for me and I felt very sensitive to how an audience behaves. For me, they were like actors too. The first night there seemed to be a strong connection but the next night I felt the audience was waiting and more passive, which made it hard for me to keep up the energy.
JJ You were not on stage, you were directing from the side. So you were more in between and looking at the audience. That’s more difficult. I don’t wear my glasses when I’m on stage. I don’t want to see people but I know they are there. You have to put your energy into the performance itself, not into what you think the audience might be thinking. However, an audience gives you energy; you can’t forget that it is there. You are very interested in conversations and round tables. There is the exhibition you curated at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, which was a conversation of art works from the collection.
RB Yes, where your Vertical Roll participated in the Round Table. The exhibition was called “A Curated Conference” (2010) and I was interested in how all these art works in the collection live together in storage. Maybe the creators never met but their works were now in conversation with each other. The aim of the conference was to bring together representative works by artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and have their informed opinions respond to the significant questions in art in 2010. In the exhibition brochure I wrote that a set of neat conclusions is neither expected nor desired. Rather, it is hoped that progress will be made in the exposure of hidden assumptions, in the uprooting of obsolete ideas, and in the framing of new questions.
I drew a diagram on the wall that expressed the different round table discussions in the show. The video and film works were synchronized with each other and switched on and off at different times. I applied an orchestration structure that I use with my films and objects as well. There were questions and answers between the pieces. To mention some, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Clockshower was in there, Ewa Partum’s Active Poetry, Paul Sharits’s Word Movies, Entrance to Exit by George Brecht, Eye Blink by Yoko Ono, and many more works. There were some sculptures as well, like Joelle Tuerlinckx’s Crystal Times and Louise Bourgeois’s Spider—you had to walk under the spider in order to get into the space. I welcomed the anarchic outcome produced by a situation in which each artist speaks with their own voice in their own language, temperament, and volume.
After this great experience I continued working in museum collections and started the series “The Hidden Conference,” where I went with my handheld film camera into a storage space and tried to create, with the camera, dialogues between the art pieces. It’s a trilogy now.
JJ So, “The Hidden Conference” brings to light a situation that, although existing for years as the written prologue informs us, has now taken on a certain “degree of urgency.” The Western Round Table comes back again from another perspective. You just finished your residency at EMPAC [Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center] in Rensselaer, New York. You will show a new work there in the spring of 2015?
RB My project at EMPAC is titled The Color Out of Space and it’s a collaboration with the Hirsch Observatory at Rensselaer. The work takes a reciprocal approach to astronomy and cinema.
A film composed of images of stars and planets, recorded by the observatory over nearly a year, will be projected onto EMPAC’s building facade, creating an outdoor cinema. A free radio station around Troy will broadcast a soundtrack about the speculative intersection of astronomy and art. The soundtrack will be in sync with the image projection and consist of voices from interviews and fiction, which are read by artists and astronomers from various locations. At the same time, a concurrent 70mm film installation at the observatory from my series “White Museum” will project out of the planetarium’s dome into the sky. I hope you can be one of my readers for the soundtrack.
JJ I would love to. Let’s talk about it. We are almost in Boston now. We should get off at the next stop.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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