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Rosa Barba at Cornerhouse

Rosa Barba’s work is a sensitive reflection on the end of the industrial age, where analogue technology is fading into the distant past and being superseded by digital technology

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Berlin-based artist Rosa Barba’s work explores the medium of film – its material properties as well as its narrativity. It seems particularly appropriate therefore that her solo exhibition, Subject to Constant Change, should open at Cornerhouse, Manchester’s centre for independent film. A collaboration with Turner Contemporary, the exhibition presents Subconscious Society, Barba’s most recent film installation, which considers the end of the industrial age, and was filmed at locations in Manchester and Kent.

The exhibition occupies Galleries 2 and 3, with Gallery 3 dedicated entirely to Subconscious Society (2013), while Gallery 2 contains two of Barba’s earlier works: Time Machine (2007) and Coro Spezzato: The Future Lasts One Day (2009).

Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the café, I climb stairs to Gallery 2. As I enter the darkened room, I am confronted by a wall of words. A single spotlight illuminates a large silkscreen print, evoking a film projection. The whirring sound of projectors further contributes to the feeling that I have walked straight into an old-fashioned cinema. The print consists of a screenplay for a feature film based on H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, Time Machine. As I read along its lines, I can envision the narrative unfolding. The screenplay describes the setting, the characters, the music and the dialogue, and camera directions indicate precisely how the sequence will be shot. And yet, there is neither motion nor any sense of the passing of time; Barba has effectively stripped film of two of its most essential properties.

As I turn the corner, I discover the source of the whirring sound: five 16mm projectors are projecting scrawled words onto a white wall. The projectors, dotted across the room, serve not only to produce images on the wall but are themselves an integral part of the installation. They form a chorus, sometimes projecting in unison and sometimes producing a veritable cacophony of images. Barba took her inspiration for this multi-projector installation from the Venetian polychoral style, coro spezzato, which involves spatially separated choristers singing in alternation. And so, as I watch these fragments of text flash in synchronicity across the wall, I find myself almost involuntarily piecing them together, making connections between them and constructing, or rather reconstructing, a narrative.

I head up another flight of stairs to Gallery 3, a spacious, high-ceilinged room with bare white walls and exposed pipes. A film is projected onto a large screen suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the room. Scenes shot inside Manchester’s derelict Albert Hall are interspersed with fragments of text and views of post-industrial landscapes in Kent, including a collapsing pier and Margate’s dilapidated Dreamland amusement park. The film’s protagonists, a group of local residents, move about the hall in strange, choreographed movements and muse over relics of the industrial age. In voice-over, they ruminate on the past. The effect is eerie: I feel like I am, in the words of one local, stepping on the toes of ghosts. These elements combine to produce a sensitive reflection on the end of the industrial age, where analogue technology is fading into the distant past and being superseded by digital technology. This theme is echoed in Barba’s use of celluloid: Subconscious Society was filmed using one of the last available shipments of Fuji stock.