Drawing the Infinite
Rosa Barba’s Drawing the Infinite at Luhring Augustine is a mechanical funhouse starring two gigantic 35mm film projectors clattering away like model-T's on cobblestones. Each is fitted with a massive plate ringed with spindles that loop the film in a giant reel; periodically racking the ring of film, so that—despite constantly filling in from the perimeter and draining out from the middle—the filmstrip stays basically the same size and shape.
The contents of the films are not the point, exactly. Granted, it's probably impossible to loop 35mm stock with much less gear and space and commotion. Barba chose to focus on this problem—a fact underscored by the present arrangement of one of the films, From Source to Poem, in which the giant Dresden-brand projector’s lens points at the wall, its beam bouncing off a mirror to the screen. The high-fi “optical audio” of the films bleed together in the unmuffled space, competing with the mechanics. It is a harsh presentation—as bare and utilitarian, maybe, as some of the installations depicted in From Source to Poem: arrays of radio telescopes and molten-salt solar power stations thrown onto the hard floor of America’s desert.
At any given moment, only one of the two films plays. Both trade off with a third machine: A Shark Well Governed, 2017, a whirring cube of milky plexiglass, is edged with film rollers and lit from within like a lightbox. Thirty-five millimeter stock crisscrosses the form, looping under itself, so that the text handwritten on the blank leader is nearly impossible to make out, even when the machine is still. When its turn comes, the film starts crawling around the cube like lines from a journal worming away from our eyes. The work is opaque; as an intermission between the two longer films (indeed, this is also a film, although one made to be viewed without a projector), underscores the work’s skittishness about making meaning on the conventional, narrative, or linguistic terms of cinema.
All these theatrics are a little frustrating, because the elaborate tools Barba draws into the exhibition prevent sense from being made. It’s not easy to make gibberish interesting, and the trick here seems to be gaming the space between pedestrian communication (not art’s thing) and random nonsense (off-putting or not, it’s clear there’s nothing to decipher, there’s no point in trying). Somewhere in between signal and noise, the artist finds the itchy intimation that a message could come through—that something might click between the parts of this exhibition besides the machines themselves.
Which makes Language Infinity Sphere (recording) from 2018 a beautifully irksome work to hang at the entrance, where it bookends the show. The linotype on canvas is large, over 86 inches tall and 65 wide, and cased in acrylic like a paper print. The image it contains is a round, puddle-like swirl of ink, spotty from a distance but on closer examination comprising a cloud of crisply delineated letters in various typefaces and sizes. There are no discernible words—no intentional ones, at any rate—nor any grammar: like the looping films, the cloud of type has no beginning or end.
The piece also shares the films’ tension between two-dimensional image and 3D contraption. In the middle of the show, the Language Infinity Sphere itself sits on a low plinth: a steel ball covered in bristling lead type. The sculpture—why not call it that—echoes experiments in ergonomic keyboards or typewriters as much as Hollywood’s imaginings of alien technology. But it is also, very simply, a machine for generating nonsense type, looping streams of letters without meaning beyond that fact. —Travis Diehl
Rosa Barba, From Source to Poem, 2016 (film still), 35mm film, color, optical sound, 12 min. © Rosa Barba