As optical technologies advance to make the universe increasingly visible to the human eye, scientific discovery can come to resemble artistic innovation in some respects. Recognizing this, MIT became one of the first institutions to sponsor “artistic research,” with a residency program founded in 1967. Other organizations, including NASA, eventually followed suit. Last year, Rosa Barba became a participant in one such program, hosted by the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. While the Berlin-based Italian artist is known for her work with film, her new video installation The Color Out of Space (2015) appears to leave celluloid behind only to inflect cutting-edge imaging techniques with specifically cinematic ways of seeing.
Developed in collaboration with Rensselaer’s Hirsch Observatory, The Color Out of Space consists of images of celestial bodies captured by an astronomy camera affixed to a telescope. Barba edited these still images into a high-definition video sequence accompanied by vocal commentary collected from university astronomers, artists and writers. In the original installation, Barba projected the images onto EMPAC’s distinctive glass facade. The soundtrack, mixed by her husband, electronic musician Jan St. Werner, was broadcast by a local Troy radio station.
At MIT, The Color Out of Space was presented on a more intimate scale alongside Barba’s recent sculptures, screen prints and films. Compressed into a maquettelike installation, the main video was projected onto a series of transparent colored glass planes, which both multiplied and canceled out the luminous pictures of the moon, nebulae, planets, stars and so on. Images blurred by the panes bled onto the gallery walls, swirling around the space like a cinematic Starry Night.
As a voice on the soundtrack reports, color filters are used in telescopes to produce more “accurate” images of space (otherwise we would see only “white or gray blobs”). Here, science borrows something from art, as ostensibly objective images are layered with artifice to enhance perceptible detail. We are reminded that when it comes to looking at the universe, we are in fact “looking at a shadow of something that doesn’t exist.” It is telling, then, that the glass panes in the installation generate prominent shadows and partially obscure the high-resolution images. They serve as optical devices that block out as much as they make visible—and perhaps the same could be said about even the most advanced telescopes.
Blind spots and cinematic shadows appear frequently in Barba’s work, and many of her other projects on view in the MIT exhibition explore the limits of vision. Color Studies (2013) features two 16mm projectors placed on either side of a freestanding screen that play loops of celluloid tinted with primary colors. Overlapping on the front and back of the screen, the pure light projections blend into subtle abstractions. Barba’s dystopian film Somnium (2011) takes up the mode of speculation also evident in her collaboration with Rensselaer scientists. The work was inspired by a 1634 astronomical treatise by Ludwig Kepler and shot on the industrial shores of the North Sea. Kepler’s treatise, which imagines what the earth might look like from the moon, is considered by many to be the first work of science fiction. Before the modern advent of artists-in-residence, the scientist had to make his own work of art.