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Conflictual Topography I

  • Monday
    May 25–Saturday
    May 30, 2020

Online Screening

The Conflictual Topography public program, organized by Heidi Ballet, was planned to take place during the exhibition of Zhou Tao but came to a halt due to the coronavirus crisis. In a revised program, the artists of the original program are revisited under new circumstances. Between May 25 and May 30, works by Rosa Barba and Ben Rivers are screened online, accompanied by a conversation. From May 25 until May 27, The Empirical Effect (2010) by Rosa Barba will be online, after which Urth (2016) by Ben Rivers will be online from May 28 until May 30.

Ben River: Urth

Screening Dates: May 28–30, 2020

Ben Rivers’ film Urth (2016) was shot at the site of the Biosphere 2 project, a failed experiment in a man-made ecosystem that took place in the early 1990s in Arizona. Urth is a cinematic meditation on ambitious experiments, constructed environments, and visions of the future. The film considers what an endeavor such as Biosphere 2 might mean today in terms of humankind’s relationship with the natural world.

Ben Rivers, Urth, 2016, 16mm transferred to HD, color, sound, 20 min., film still, courtesy of the artist

Rosa Barba: The Empirical Effect

Screening Dates: May 25–27, 2020

Rosa Barba’s The Empirical Effect (2010) takes the area around Mount Vesuvius in Southern Italy as a topographical starting point. The protagonists of the film are all survivors of the last active eruption of the volcano in 1944, and live in the immediate danger zone of the volcano. Fact and fiction are blurring, with the volcano Vesuvius acting as a protagonist and metaphor for the complex relationships between society and politics in Italy. No one is able to control this immense force of nature and yet it connects the inhabitants and their environment with an invisible tie.

Rosa Barba, The Empirical Effect, 2010, 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound, 22 min., film still, courtesy of the artist

Interview with Rosa Barba and Ben Rivers


Normally, we would have met in person at Times Art Center Berlin, on March 14, to screen a film from each of you and ended that with a conversation. Unfortunately, we had to change plans since just then, around mid-March, the corona crisis started to unfold in Europe, in ways we could not have imagined. Right now these types of evenings feel part of a long gone past. I experienced an overwhelming inertia in the first weeks of the crisis, a state I can only describe as “shock” in hindsight. At some point I was reading every piece of news I could find, trying to make sense of the situation, while unsuccessfully trying to concentrate on work. Working was obstructed not only by worry about my loved ones, but I also had the feeling that everything needed to be questioned. It didn’t seem possible to jump back into the thoughts that I was having before the crisis, or even appropriate, since my earlier thoughts belonged to a time that was a lot more carefree, one without an emergency of this scale. As time passed, thinking about the virus slowly shifted to thinking about privilege, and to seeing how privileged we are, especially in Germany. I am curious about how you have experienced the last two months, and how your life has been affected.


It has been a very intense and slow time. The sudden halt of travels and shows, the constant reading about the daily developments all over the globe, and especially reading different voices who are processing the crisis. Feeling more fragile as humans and being in a very emotional state. I learned from one article that you shared with me, Heidi, that this is called grieving. It helped to give it a name. Worrying about families and friends in harder hit areas and checking in with them very often. Fearing for all those places in the world that are even more vulnerable to the crisis than Europe and hoping it will not explode there. Thinking about those kids that have been in confinement for over a month and what it might do to their mental state. Being first paralyzed, and then extremely angry at some political leaders who seem to accelerate all possible disasters with misinformation. Getting some sort of temporary relief from this anger sometimes through readings or films. Trying to think how to be helpful as a human (maybe when I am immune, I can be useful for example) and as an artist, figuring out how I can set a frame in which we can imagine now. Thinking about how we can make changes in our previous routines and be gentler to the environment. How we can offer some sort of “maintenance work” these days with artistic invitations to a sort of healing, during this breathing crisis. Andrew Russeth’s article on the role of pandemic art in March in Artforum triggered more thinking around these possibilities of maintenance.


How has it been for you, Ben?


In many ways my life isn’t so different from how I’d planned to spend these months: I’d put aside time for research, writing, and developing a couple of projects, and during those times I would have spent a lot of time at home reading, looking at the computer, staring out of the window, procrastinating, and going out for a long walk each day, all of which hasn’t changed. But somehow the feeling of stasis, of time suspended, of not being able to break routine and go and see friends, which is a very important part of my life, or do things among strangers, a sense of the decision to stay in being made for you by an outside force, has affected my concentration, as it has for everybody. That and, as Rosa says, spending too many hours reading about the situation from different writers’ points of view, and a general anxiety about the world that will come out of this. I veer wildly between having positive ideas of people understanding how we are so precariously close to system collapse, and that this in some way will help people make better decisions in the future regarding the planet, the environment, people, and other animals, waste, etc. and much darker pessimistic thoughts about control, surveillance, and an even furthering divide between the haves and have-nots— as we can see, this virus is in no way a great leveler, we are certainly not all equal in the eyes of the virus, that’s rubbish. But from a personal point I generally feel like I’m in a very lucky position here in Whitechapel, able to survive easily, and reading things I’ve wanted to for a while, Clarice Lispector short stories, Saul Bellow, Lindsay Anderson diaries, and William Gibson’s more recent books.


Ben, when I got in touch with you again, with the proposal to make this dialogue, you mentioned that the streets in London look Ballardian, which made my imagination run wild. Can you tell us what London looks like, when it’s empty?


I’ve been taking long cycle rides around London, in particular around the financial districts of the Bank and the Isle of Dogs, and then over to the developments around the Millennium Dome. These places are fantastic because they’re normally teeming with bankers and other financial workers, and at the moment they’re quiet, the manicured trees blossoming, more birds and rats making themselves at home. Or Limehouse, near where I live, where many luxury waterside apartments are empty most of the year because they’re investment properties, the few people who are there furtively looking out from their balconies. It’s easy to imagine Ballardian rituals taking place behind the respectable veneers. Even the polite queues outside the few shops that are open, people standing two meters apart, look like some insane mass hysteria in slow motion. When people talk about it looking Ballardian, they often only think about the apocalyptic imagery of empty cities and seaside resorts, the end of things, but what is often overlooked is that there is an element of perverse optimism to Ballard. His central characters, the people who stay in these deserted worlds, are adapting to these new scenarios. He took situations like the one we’re in and saw them through to their very frightening ends, but human beings what they are, there are always survivors. As my oldest friend reminded me the other day, Mark Fisher said that dystopias can be a backdoor to utopia. That the space they wrench open denaturalizes reality such that it’s provisional, contingent nature is exposed. Reality isn’t fixed. Ballard said of reality that it’s a stage set ready at any moment to be swept away. Gibson says the future’s already here, only unevenly distributed. Sci-fi is perhaps the most reliable way to understand the times we are living through.


I was reading the other day an interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul who was musing that this current situation might develop in people the ability to stay in the present moment longer. It might create a different type of audience since people will be able to stare at things for a long time and thrive in total awareness. This made me think of a change I noticed on social media, where friends started posting photos of plants that they are observing more closely, or beautiful objects in their homes.


I realized that I haven’t looked at leaves on trees growing so intensively like I have the last month since I was a child! That was shocking and beautiful at the same time. We don’t stop looking for movement everywhere even when we are not allowed to travel and move much slower suddenly. I agree that this might create a group of people, filmmakers and artists, that will linger longer, exploring the present. This group will gain back a quality to look at things, like children do.

Ben, I like and relate to what your friend pointed out about how dystopias can be backdoors to utopia. I also believe that we can be closer in finding this new utopian space together, even if we seem to be disparate in different geographical areas, we can occupy a new space by connecting mental spaces— as we are living through all the same dystopia. I had to think of the work Tango by Zbigniew Rybczyński from 1981 lately, when imagining our world for a while with the social distancing reality. In the work—which he shot on 16 mm and meticulously worked out a notation for superimpositions on the same space of the celluloid—an initially empty room gets slowly crowded by persons repeating the same action without touching or meeting each other. Here in Berlin the measures are lighter than in other places and people are still going out, now more and more, but of course the visual brake is also very apparent. For me the most outstanding thing, though, is to hear a different city. The transformation of sound is exceptional. Birds and winds are taking over and drown out the sound of cars. Together with the missing constant airplane sound, it is creating a new volume.


I completely agree with what you say about the sound in Berlin! Especially the chirping of the birds here in Berlin has been so remarkable, it has made me question whether there are effectively more birds in the air or whether my head was simply not attuned to listening to them before.

Rosa, we initially planned to show Aggregate States of Matter, but you have chosen to change that plan and instead screen The Empirical Effect, which you made in 2010, since it fits better with the new conditions we are living in. The Empirical Effect shows a group of people who survived the last eruption of the Vesuvius and are now still living at the foot of the volcano, right in the “red zone,” the most dangerous area in case of a new eruption. We see them in the observatory discovering the instruments used to register the activity of the volcano, and in general being strikingly carefree, while there is the permanent anticipation of a disaster that could unravel. Could you say something about what inspired you to make the work?


I worked on the idea of this film many years earlier, before I actually realized it. The initial idea was to shoot during a huge test evacuation organized by the government to train the inhabitants of over half a million people in that area to flee. But since this training kept being postponed and some volcanologists finally told me that this might never take place in reality, as the infrastructure is not designed for such an evacuation, I decided to make the film differently and not rely on the official plan, but rather to stage an evacuation with one village (Ottaviano) for the film with its residents. Volcanos have always been very fascinating to me. Mount Etna is the most familiar to me, as I have experienced quite a few times its regular outbreaks. Mount Vesuvius though is a very mysterious one as no one can predict or really monitor it precisely. It is located in a densely populated area, and it’s obviously dangerous. There is a warning in a very populated town under the volcano where ancient inhabitants left a message carved in a marble stone. This message is read aloud in the beginning of the film and describes the explosive ingredients of the volcano and why one should never live there. 

Vesuvius’s powerful, unpredictable, destructive existence, along with its location on the Mediterranean coast, ensures that it is ever-present in the collective memory. Science has yet to discover a way to control this immense force of nature, and yet it is invisibly tied to the inhabitants and their environment. The soundtrack of the film includes a lot of singing of the protagonists about the fertile soil of their hometown and the delicious ingredients and food it produces.

For me, the volcano has always represented a central metaphor for the complex relationships between society and politics in Italy. At the foot of the sleeping monster, the mafia runs its empire, filtering untold numbers of illegal Chinese migrants into a secretive parallel society. They are visible only in their social impact; meanwhile, all official attention is focused on the volcano, where nature is dramatized as a media spectacle— a powerful structure beyond comprehension. It is perhaps similar in this sense to the ways in which the obscure social situation at its foot is mystically narrated. Even history acts ironically here; the last eruption, in 1944 during World War II, coincided with the bombing of the region by the US Army. The protagonists of The Empirical Effect are all witnesses to this catastrophic 1944 eruption. I asked them to participate in my film where we would move to the Old Observatory next to the crater and take it over as our set of control. The protagonists brought their animals of control (sheep) and daily ingredients from their garden (tomatoes that grow tastily in the ashes) to prepare lunch together. These inhabitants of the “red zone” presented themselves as a community separated from their original context and revealed unexplored aspects of their existence through the filmmaking.


Ben, we were planning originally to show Urth, from 2016, about a woman who has locked herself into Biosphere 2, a man-made copy of the Earth’s biological environment that was made for an experimental project in the early 1990s. She is inside, while an assumed catastrophe occurs outside. After the corona crisis came, we decided it would still make sense to show this work, and to stick to the original plan. Isolating ourselves inside is for sure something we have become more familiar with than before. Did the relevance of the work change in your opinion? Do you think about the work differently today?


I don’t think it’s really changed! It’s the exact thing I was thinking about, that a young scientist is living and researching inside the enclosed biosphere, and something happens outside which wipes everyone out, at least she thinks so. She stays in, monitoring her own replica of the world, wondering if the (human) world is still going on outside. Her entries into her logbook begin more scientifically and become more poetic—I like this idea of someone losing their grasp on reality and that actually frees the mind to become less fact-based, and therefore free to move between different states, merging the real and the imaginary.

The initial idea for Biosphere 2 was to see if it was possible to recreate the biosphere as a completely sealed habitable space—this was a courageous and absurd project, full of both positive ideas and hubris. Why try and make a small version of Earth, at great expense, when the original one is so incredible, and isn’t that what we should be looking after? In a way, the difficulty they had in maintaining it showed just how difficult it is to recreate the delicate balance that exists on our planet, even in a small way. And this is what we see an example of with this particular coronavirus—how fragile everything is. I completely agree with the few people who have written about how this is like a minor rehearsal for what could possibly happen if climate change predictions go to their not even worst-case scenario. With Urth I talked to my collaborator, Mark von Schlegell, about imagining if the biosphere had worked, and not failed as it did in reality. How would it feel to be isolated in this world and not know if it was safe to go outside? I think it’s taken on extra resonance now that we’re living in a worldwide quarantine state, where people are forced to stay in their own bubbles, and feel there is danger just in stepping outside, or doing really mundane things like going to the supermarket, which has taken on some novel form of anxiety.


Do you have any new thoughts about the experiment of Biosphere 2 itself, given that all evidence is showing that the virus originates from how humans have been treating animals and their natural environment? Do you think this crisis might change our sense of being in the world, to the way we relate to the natural world, and maybe lead to more protection?


I really hope it changes our sense of being in the world, and our being a part of nature, not us and nature. We are nature, and yet this is completely forgotten most of the time—we feel superior to it, able to control it. Well, here is a good example of how we cannot. I would hope that it wakes people to the real dangers of toxic emissions! The problem with emissions is that they have always been slow expressing themselves, so it’s easier for people in power to deny them—but this virus cannot be denied. If the correlation is made in people’s minds between this event and the probable worldwide catastrophe of global warming (the huge reductions in pollution in the air at the moment are a good concrete example), then we might see something good. One other positive scenario I’ve daydreamed about is that all this time inside, and increased time looking at screens, will eventually drive people to distraction, and people will want to spend less time alone on the small screen afterwards, maybe take to the streets, start a revolution, grow vegetables, or fill the cinemas watching films that, as Rosa so nicely put it, linger longer. I just read some very good Bifo Berardi diary entries, and he says something similar (https://www.neroeditions.com/reset/): when this epidemic disappears, wouldn’t we tend to psychologically link our online self to the disease? He also says: “I try not to take myself too seriously, but I do think about it.” A disclaimer that this may be an all too sweet dream that sadly won’t happen because people are locked into their technology in such a powerful way, which overrides any negative associations it might have. But most importantly he says, “Normality must not return.” In relation to the biosphere my fear is that there will be increased private resources put into similar projects. We’ve seen something of this in the super rich getting to use their private converted bunkers. I imagine there will be people wanting to spend vast amounts of their wealth on trying more biosphere projects, to save a few people, but for what? What world do they want to walk out into?


Rosa, I wonder if we are forcefully collectively adopting a mindset that is similar to the one the people in your film have, the people who live in the red zone. We are having to find a way to live together with the coronavirus and its threat, the same way they live with the volcano, and have become attuned to it. After the lockdown has eased a bit now, and we are settling into the idea of slowly taking up life again, we are also well aware of the likelihood of a second wave in the corona pandemic, the chance of a new lockdown and more recession, and the possibility of a large outbreak in places with a fragile healthcare system. Can we learn something from the protagonists in The Empirical Effect?


At the moment of this breathing crisis, I think a lot about the right to breathing and how we can gain this back again. It seems that the only way to have this crisis pass is not to share common breathing places, like cinemas or conferences for example, but our thoughts and ideas can expand together in a special way when they meet in the same space. We need to exercise this collective freedom, though, so we don’t unlearn this. Creating shared online spaces seems to be the obvious solution at the beginning, but I think we need to find and create safe spaces where we share the “same air” again. I was impressed by the demonstration in Tel Aviv last month against surveillance, where a huge amount of people stood with the necessary distance from each other and created an incredibly strong image. My protagonists in The Empirical Effect go even closer to nature, even though it may seem more dangerous. They share the soil, the food, the songs about perennial exchange in which life is destroyed and regenerated, and in the end they always believe in the resurrection: “post fata resurgo.”


Rosa Barba (born in Italy, lives and works in Berlin) engages with the medium of film through a sculptural approach. In her works, Barba creates installations and site-specific interventions to analyze the ways film articulates space, placing the work and the viewer in a new relationship. Questions of composition, physicality of form, and plasticity play an important role for the artist as she examines the industry of cinema. Her film works are situated between experimental, documentary, and fictional narrative. They often focus on natural landscapes and man-made interventions into the environment, creating spaces of memory and uncertainty.
Barba studied at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne and completed her PhD at the Malmö Faculty of Fine and Performing Arts, Lund University, in 2018. Recent solo exhibitions include: CCA Kitakyushu (2019); Kunsthalle Bremen (2018); Remai Modern, Saskatoon (2018); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Palacio de Cristal, Madrid (2017); Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan (2017); and Malmö Konsthall  (2017). Rosa Barba has participated in several biennials such as 32nd São Paulo Biennial, 53rd and 56th Biennale di Venezia (2009, 2015) as well as 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (2014).

Ben Rivers is an artist and filmmaker represented by Kate MacGarry Gallery in London. Awards include the EYE Art Film Prize, 2016; FIPRESCI International Critics Prize, 68th Venice Film Festival for his first feature film Two Years At Sea; Baloise Art Prize, Art Basel 42, for Sack Barrow; Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists, 2010, and twice winner of the Tiger Award at Rotterdam Film Festival. Recent solo shows include Urthworks, Hestercombe Gallery, Somerset; Phantoms, Triennale, Milan; Urth, The Renaissance Society, Chicago; Islands, Kunstverein of Hamburg; Earth Needs More Magicians, Camden Arts Centre, London; The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Artangel, London and Whitworth Museum, Manchester. He recently collaborated on a new feature film Krabi, 2562, with Anocha Suwichakornpong. 

Heidi Ballet is an independent curator and researcher based in Berlin. Recently she co-curated the 2019 Tallinn Photomonth Biennial that focused on ideas of belonging in times of climate breakdown. Other projects include the 2018 Beaufort Triennial in Ostend and the 2017 Lofoten Biennial (LIAF) in Northern Norway. 

Related Exhibition:

Zhou Tao: Winter North Summer South

Feb 15–Aug 1, 2020