On behalf of SCHIRN MAGAZINE, Katharina Cichosch visited Berlin-based artist Rosa Barba in her studio to discuss films, the right light and her installation “Blind Volumes” at the SCHIRN.

A pleasant sense of calm pervades Rosa Barba’s studio: This is not the usual pre-event flurry of activity. No music, no scurrying assistants, no freshly dropped paint. Both the works and a large part of the work process take place outside. And what does take place here is, at any rate, not 24/7: “I’m not a classic studio artist”, explains Barba, who was born in 1972 in Agrigento in Italy, but now lives in Berlin.

Ideas are brought in, processed and then brought out again. Thus the studio becomes a base in which Rosa Barba develops her projects with a small team. Her way of working is typically a combination of sculpture and analog film, which often give rise to walk-in installations. At the same time, Barba deals with the theory and practice of film in printed form – ten times, for example, as the “Printed Cinema” edition, a kind of personal reflection, but also as a screenplay for a 90-minute film, which exclusively comprises clichés from failed screenplays of science-fiction films and ultimately was itself never realized, but exists merely on canvas. 

Experimenting with the Super 8 

Yet Rosa Barba’s studio is far from a businesslike project office. In the outer office there is a midcentury desk, representative of a way of working that requires a great deal of coordination, research and planning. In the studio there is a big table at which ideas are exchanged, which already bears a model for Barba’s next project in Bordeaux. There’s also a comfortable sofa, and on the walls hang works and exhibition posters, not to mention countless film strips in all widths and stages of processing: written on, in glass boxes, illuminated, unilluminated, manually processed. The majority however are in the neighboring room, Rosa Barba’s film store: shelves filled to the top with rolls of film, plywood boxes, equipment for film editing. “Film was always my medium”, explains the artist, who as a teenager experimented with her Super 8 camera and after completing a degree in theater and film in 1995 switched to the still brand new Academy of Media Arts in Cologne (KHM), then an avant-garde address for digital film which was just starting to emerge at the time.

While the other students pounced on the new technical possibilities, Rosa Barba was able to quietly continue with her 16mm camera, to experiment a great deal and in the meantime to attend the excellent theory classes. Nevertheless, she does not see herself as a classic film and even less a video artist: “I actually feel more like a painter, just because I also work with light.” Analog film could be considered materiality in its purest form: It’s not just the material itself, but also the recording process that remains physically present. “I really need the weightiness of the camera”, explains Rosa Barba, even if, for example, she herself is not always behind her 35mm shots. It is in the process of filming that her way of working crystallizes; when she captures landscape drawings, writing in the desert sand, then this writing is reproduced as the light is burnt into the film material. 

Her own rhythm 

Rosa Barba has just come back from the São Paulo Biennale and is enthusiastic about the automatic way in which the public space is incorporated there. The hub of the event is an enormous park where people hang around, ride skateboards, do sports. “So a jogger with a towel thrown over his shoulder comes along and takes a look at two videos, then perhaps might come back the next day.” Many other art events are designed for a very specific audience right from the start: admission prices, day tickets – you have to be able to afford it in the first place, Barba points out, not to mention the typical coding, the language, which an artistic audience is familiar with but won’t necessarily resonate with the wider public. And if one has initially paid out a fair sum for the ticket, then there is soon pressure to take away as much as possible within the given time frame. Rosa Barba sees this as self-defeating, and values the possibility of discovering art at one’s own pace.

This “outside” setting as celebrated in São Paulo is fundamentally important. If the artist is exhibiting in classic spaces like those at London’s Tate Modern, then she projects the street into the exhibition too, for example, so that passers-by become part of the installation. When curator Esther Schlicht approached her some time ago, this precise accessibility was a key aspect in arousing Rosa Barba’s interest in the SCHIRN’s Rotunda. This publicly accessible space is located on the way to the exhibition rooms, but there are no barriers in the form of a museum ticket desk or reception. 

Travel as spoils 

The work put into the installation amounted to a total of two years, during which the artist met with the curator several times to suggest and discard ideas. The public space is not without complications: Safety is an utmost priority here, and ultimately a structural engineer must have the last word on a construction stretching over several floors. But Rosa Barba is more than happy with the result. Alongside the framework designed especially for the Rotunda, her work comprises several films, including one from a New York observatory, and these are projected in a loop by analog projectors onto various canvases. A physical process that not only becomes visible, but also clearly audible. And yes, “Blind Volumes” is entirely accessible, or nearly, since “Climbing is not allowed.”

The artist has another reason not to follow the model of the classic studio artist: “I really like traveling. Ideas develop regardless of where you are.” In the years after finishing her degree, Rosa Barba enjoyed an impressive series of artist-in-residence positions, whereby she often ended up staying a little longer in each location, spending time in Amsterdam, at Villa Aurora in Los Angeles and at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas – where the light must have been pretty special and therefore perfect for working with film material surely? “You can hardly say that anymore, it sounds like such a cliché”, laughs Rosa Barba, adding that yes, it was simply beautiful there. Ideas and film recordings shot on a helicopter flight through the desert or in the astronomical observatory are the spoils she takes back to the studio with her and processes, merging them there. And then – see above – puts back out into the world.