SOME MEANDERING THOUGHTS AROUND THE VISUALITY OF COLLECTIONS PROMPTED BY 'THE HIDDEN CONFERENCE'
Rachel Be-Yun Wang
Curatorial Research Fellow 2023,
Chisenhale Gallery, London
The hum of a film projector’s rotational mechanism echoed out of the Tate Modern Tanks, heralding the murmuring life of the artwork on display. Cleaving into its concrete galleries, Rosa Barba’s film installation, The Hidden Conference (2010–2015), is composed of three 35-millimetre films projected on free-standing screens. The dark hollows of the space are spliced by the glow of these vast projections, beamed by modified Dresden cinema projectors. The solid structure of the machines have been customised to reveal their interior mechanisms, with selectively removed casings and exposed 35-millimetre filmstrips. Along with the physical whir of analogue moving image technology, the installation is further accompanied by an mumbling, ambient audio track that animates the gallery, regardless of whoever—or whatever—occupies it.
The Hidden Conference is comprised of three chapters: About the Discontinuous History of Things We See and Don’t See (2010), A Fractured Play (2011), and About the Shelf and Mantel (2015), originally filmed in the respective storage collections of Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Musei Capitolini in Rome, and Tate in London. As the camera slowly pans through the stacks of these holdings, we see the artworks of these institutional collections in various storage conditions: wrapped in plastic, boxed in crates, balanced on palettes, or otherwise strapped away on shelves and racks. A few recognisable pieces include Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1997) and John Singer Sargent’s Study of Mme Gautreau (c.1884), the latter currently on view at Tate Britain. Throughout each film, these collection objects are treated with low-key lighting and noir-esque photography. As the artworks become the films’ principal actors on-screen, the cinematic rendering of these object-turned-subjects illustrates a key fact of museological enterprise: this is the domain of images.
Seeing the depicted artworks beyond their standard conditions of display is an almost furtive, voyeuristic act, like happening upon a conversation one should not be privy to. For Barba, this is a 'meeting of artworks'—this is the conference. Vacated of a curator's narrative logic, objects in the storeroom form relationships through a spatial proximity—though it is one that is most likely inflected by the practical realities of efficient storage organisation and preservation conditions, and administered with an invisible information management system. As things that are supposedly bestowed with the mission of public viewership at some point, we expect these artworks hold an anticipatory status as protagonists of a liminal storeroom, but this is not the case in the sometimes-travelling but mostly-static or stationary life of an accessioned work. How their varied status is wielded—as examples of artistic prowess, as formulations of public memory, as assets, as something else—informs us of how we produce ethical relations, and tests their political demand.
Within a vacancy of narrative, vacancy itself carries multiple, somewhat ironic, connotations in its Latin etymological root, vacāre: to be vacated of meaning, to exist in a vacuum, to go on vacation, etc. Could we layer these meanings of ‘vacancy/vacāre’—to be empty, void, or at leisure—over the multiple contexts of doctrinal museological representation? That is to say, while Barba’s engagement with these collections stemmed from an ethos of the self-organising, animated voices of artworks in-conversation, can this vacancy of narrative be co-opted to become the un-curatable, an agency that extends beyond sanctioned representation?  Within the purportedly reflexive acts of accruing knowledge and critical acquisitioning, is the more pressing question about, rather, the kind of vacancy required to give order to a canonised world?
Oscillating between the formal elements of image and installation, a recurring thread throughout Barba’s practice plays on the 'continual transposition of material into image and back again.'  Here, the vast screens double as architectural and cinematic interfaces wherein the viewer’s silhouetted shadow can become a part of the films’ language of figuration. While it is tempting for the habitual smartphone user to fetishise analogue machines as merely the formalist injunction of a sculptural material, I have to be reminded that as I stood next to the industrial projector and watched visitors play among the photonic paintings and sculptures on the screen, this behemoth cradle becomes a part of the notionally life-sized panorama that is Barba’s 'architecture of passage,'  where the industrial projection is as much an environment as it is a conceptual tool for choreographing space. The fugue of murmurs within Barba’s anachronistic and silent dialogues is echoed in this theatre of material projection, though it also brings into relief the degrees of displacement between the object, its image, and the viewer.  If attempts to spur civic curiosity and rigour remain solely relegated to the duty of images, then the economies of creative labour may be overshadowed by the symbolic gestures of representation. Unsettling the registers of image engagement and media legibility in the first place, the question of engendering a reflexivity over a reflectivity becomes a choice of competing interests among the stakeholders of this space.
To end on a crucial aspect of The Hidden Conference that I haven’t addressed: the three collecting bodies of Rosa Barba’s films are all recipients of public funding. What hidden conversations and decisions are made around a canonised public memory? As the viewer becomes witness to an artistic or aesthetic fact held by the institution, what kind of vision is required for art beyond display? And finally, what do these coffers mean for the constituents of a civic promise?
 Kunsthaus Zürich, Bergen Kunsthall, Rosa Barba: Time as Perspective. (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2013), 34
 See Barba’s curated exhibition on A Curated Conference: On the Future of Collective Strength Within the Archive, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2010
 Jaakko Pallasvuo @avocado_ibuprofen, on political language in the arts and the uncuratable, Instagram, 12 November 2023
 Kunsthaus Zürich, Bergen Kunsthall, Rosa Barba: Time as Perspective, 9
 Rosa Barba et al., Rosa Barba: From Source to Poem (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2017), 8
 Not to suggest that this triangular dynamic is all-inclusive by any means