Legacies of the Television Age

Following early encounters with artists such as Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim at Maria Gloria Bicocchi’s gallery in Florence, in 1974, Dara Birnbaum became fascinated with the medium of video, and particularly the language, format and imagery of television. She has described a desire to ‘talk back’ to the medium and explore a two-way dialogue with it. Birnbaum’s works often focused on the representation of women on television and the passivity of the audience to receive these constructed stereotypes, challenging, in her words, ‘viewers to consider their own roles as receivers of information and to confront the ways in which such information is constructed for the viewing audience’.1
In Transmission: Legacies of the Television Age, three of Birnbaum’s early video works have been selected for display, including two works formulated from appropriated television imagery: Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978, and Kiss the girls: Make them cry, 1979. MTV: Artbreak, 1987, was made for television as an intervention into regular programming. Maggie Finch, Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, conducted the following interview with Birnbaum, who lives in New York, via email in March 2015.
Maggie Finch: How did you first become interested in television (its content and its potential for the transmission of information) as a platform for making art?
Dara Birnbaum: I came back from Florence, Italy, in 1975, after living there for a year and being exposed for the first time to ‘video art’ through a small gallery by the name Centro Diffusione Grafica, owned by Maria Gloria Bicocchi. Many artists whom I met through that gallery told me to return to New York, as they thought the city provided an invigorating work space at that time – an exciting moment for the interchange of ideas in all genres of the arts. The artists, whom I remember as encouraging me, included Vito Acconci, Charlemagne Palestine and Dickie Landry.
I was trying to further the beginning of my own art-making, mainly painting and drawing, through the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze, and that just was not working out – too ‘academic’ (conservative) for my taste and I didn’t speak the language, which was also a great disadvantage. So, by various means I forged a friendship, or comradeship, with the people of Centro Diffusione Grafica and also Galleria Schema. That threw me in the direction of New York, where I was originally born and fought to get away from (spending the previous four or five years in the San Francisco Bay Area). Upon returning to New York, another artist lent me his Portapak. I did what I call ‘exercises’ with it in my studio – explorations. Basically those works (now known as Six Movements: Video Works from 1975) were inspired by artists such as Acconci and Bruce Nauman, but were attempting to proclaim and develop a voice for a female figure/performer as the main subject – her position, her weaknesses, her strengths. Dan Graham, then a friend and colleague, recommended this work to be shown at Artists Space, New York, who turned me down, not understanding the work at all. However, they wanted an artist with whom I was then collaborating, Suzanne Kuffler (recently graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia), to show at their non-profit space. It was very ironic because she only wanted to show if I could show with her. So, in the end, Artists Space was seemingly forced to show the very artist they turned down! We exhibited works together in a new space they had created for experimental work and younger (lesser-known) artists. When I was given a chance to show with Suzanne at Artists Space, I actually had to think about what I wanted to say. After all, most of my work was relatively undeveloped and in its beginning stage. Also, the space had turned down the performative pieces I created. So I quickly turned to TV as my subject matter, as I saw it as a political statement, one that was close to my heart in relation to my time living in Berkeley and San Francisco, which was a leftist political Mecca in the 1970s. I tried to find the most common vocabulary on primetime TV, just after the news. Those shows were mainly crime dramas and I extracted the reserve angle shots from them, presented such sequences as stills with the text that would accompany each specific image. Later on, I believe this became known as the earliest ‘deconstructing’ of television, the most popular language in the United States at that time. I was lead to this through reading the work of Christian Metz, the French film theorist (who developed theories of semiology to film) as well as Screen magazine from London. Neither was approaching television language at that time, only the language of film.
MF: Which artists/theorists inspired you in the early days?
DB: I grew up on the French New Wave and filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard. I loved the collaborations between Alain Renais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and also the films of Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer. I was enticed by experimental filmmakers, such as Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton. I loved to read George Bataille – The Story of the Eye (1928), The Blue of Noon (1957). The artists I was looking at were mainly Acconci, Nauman and Dan Graham. The critical writing I turned to was by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Julia Kristeva and even Harold Bloom. I listened to all the early noise music I could, as well as No Wave and punk music, such as the Ramones, whom I would go to see live at CBGBs in New York. Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Michael Asher, Lawrence Weiner and Daniel Buren were other artists that enticed me. I did not distinguish between genres, just whether or not it was work that I admired. Also, of course, I grew up (in New York) on Pop Art and Minimalism – the New York School had a great effect on me when I was young, as that was what I was born into and also raised on. Conceptualism came next for me. As to my own generation, I felt a kinship with artists such as Jenny Holzer and Jack Goldstein. I read Deleuze and Guattari. Loved the Semiotext(e) series published by Sylvère Lotringer. I later became involved with Zone Books, forming a friendship with one of its founders, Sanford Kwinter, and designing a cover for the title Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs (1991). I engulfed myself in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. I listened to the development of the music of Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich.
MF: Who are the artists/theorists inspiring you today?
DB: Unfortunately, they are few and far between. In the 1990s, I found myself being both influenced and inspired by the energy and philosophical thoughts of Hans Ulrich Obrist, who became a close friend. Now I’ve met Michael Brenson, a critic, scholar and teacher, whom I feel I can have a dialogue with. This is also true of the art historian and cultural critic T. J. Demos. Stuart Comer, Chief Curator of Media and Performance at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has now also become an inspiring figure for me, providing an enriched dialogue. I still hold T. J. Clark, and his books such as The Sight of Death (2006), in high esteem. The very few artists I can think of that I find engaging are Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Tacita Dean, Cory Arcangel, Rineke Dijkstra and William Kentridge. I remain interested in the work of Gerhard Richter, which I originally encountered when living in Italy in the 1970s. I group these artists together because basically what I admire is their serious endeavours. They all seem like hard, inspired workers. I also hold a special place for women artists who are growing older, but remain creative and are producing very viable work; artists like Joan Jonas and Pat Steir. I also look towards some feature filmmakers, such as Danish director Lars von Trier. I admire Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). I think that Ed Halter, who established the Light Industry venue, is to be highly commended for his film and video programming, some of the very best in New York. I can still listen to and read Patti Smith, and read novelist Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian (1985) is one of my favourite books of all time. I guess Don DeLillo also comes into play. I hope to watch even more of the work of Harun Farocki and Chris Marker, both of whom have unfortunately now passed and I did not get to know them, or their work, as well as I would have liked to. I am now trying to relearn more about the earliest video and work attempted by The Videofreex (guerrilla television), the Raindance Foundation and TVTV.
MF: How are you responding to the shift from analogue to digital television and broadcasting, and the related shift from passive to active engagement that is occurring today? Are you involved in digital broadcasting platforms?
DB: My work has not been that concerned with the technological aspects, or development, of the fields of digital television and broadcasting, although I am beginning to learn and realise the great potential of digital broadcast platforms, the internet and social media to actively shift the viewer’s position from being passive to something more dynamic. Digital television and broadcasting I basically consider upgrades which now my work must conform with as I am more and more compelled to use these formats. I am not actively involved in digital broadcasting platforms, understanding philosophical differences and the vast effect that the new technologies are having on multiple cultures. This is something to continue to learn, as when you are older it is harder to understand these intense shifts. Mostly it is younger people who have grown up on digital technologies but do not necessarily understand them and their implications who are using the new platforms prolifically, because it seems to be a part of their intrinsic nature.
MF: I am interested in your description of your early appropriation-based video works, such as Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978, as ‘readymades for the late twentieth century’. At that time it was a radical strategy to literally cut and paste from television sources, and I wonder if you can expand on this idea of the readymade in terms of media content and how you were trying to use the television?
DB: Television was my landscape. I thereby felt that I had every right to paint it. The average American family was, according to the Nielsen Ratings in the mid 1970s (a rating system founded to determine the audience size and composition of television programming in the United States), watching television approximately 7 hours and 20 minutes per day. I thereby considered the source material that constituted television programs to be readymades. The material was always there, being shown to us, but the trick was to make it ‘hand-able’ – to ‘grasp’ the images and not treat television as simply a one-way signal with overbearing content, directed at a passive audience.
MF: Can you please elaborate on your ideas about the power and effect of the techniques of appropriation?
DB: I isolated particular sequences that went by too fast for real thought or examination by the viewer. I also rearranged the syntax. It was, for me, a position of empowerment. Recreating sequences would have been a weak ‘copy’ of the original. There were enough images being made by the industry and they needed to be grabbed and then turned on themselves. I had absolutely no interest in making representations of imagery shown on TV. The whole idea was to turn the media on itself.
MF: It is often noted that you have had a long interest in displaying works outside of conventional gallery spaces. Can you please discuss your reasons for circumventing gallery spaces for the display of video? Do you think the works change currency when exhibited in a gallery space?
DB: At the time I was not interested in galleries, as I saw them as places explicitly for the sale of work. I was interested in the work’s dynamic and especially wanted to escape its commercial aspects and to occupy those spaces in-between, more in the public domain, more accessible to the public. I did respect certain galleries, such as Leo Castelli, but my dominant effort was in what was considered a more pubescent field of art – video – not yet entirely understood or appreciated by the gallery system. There were ‘gallery artists’ allowed to do such work, mostly on the side of their main practice. Thus, there was a library of such work at the Castelli and Sonnabend Galleries. But, as I saw it with youthful eyes, this work was not entirely appreciated. So, I started at alternative spaces, like The Kitchen, and from there went to public spaces, such as the Mudd Club and other music clubs, which also showed video. I did get a video distributor for my work, around 1980, Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI). That organisation was founded by Howard Weiss, who had perhaps the first ‘video gallery’ in New York. His interest seemed sincere and he had more love for and a deeper understanding of rising video art. He showed, for example, Nam June Paik. EAI also had a small workable production studio where many artists created some exceptional work with very modest means.When I now show in galleries, it is by choice and with spaces I respect and whom I know respect the work. They do not pressure me about sales (although, of course, this is always a deep consideration with any gallery) and they do not restrict what it is that I wish to say with my work. They represent me based upon a belief in my work and what it states. This has definitely been true with the Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, Paris, London), who have been there for me every step of the way. Marian Goodman took me on, asking if she could show my ‘films’, beginning one of the most supportive relationships in the arts that I have encountered for the past fifteen years.
MF: Your use of technology in the early video works, and their specific content, has been seen as ‘[opening] the critical panorama beyond art production by women to include the entire field of media production by women’. I am interested to know how you describe your own relationship to, and interest in, the use of technology in your artworks. Also, were you consciously setting out to engage in feminist politics by using television and media footage?

DB: I have always had an interest in technology, perhaps in the broadest sense, apart from what is considered feminist politics. This interest started at a very young age, perhaps around the age of seven. For example, in grade school I fought (and thankfully) got to take Electronics Shop as a subject instead of Home Economics, which girls were supposed to do! In grade school I also was in charge of radio programming in the classrooms, at designated times. My first university degree is in architecture. Although we started out with a few women in the class, by the end of our fifth and final year I was the only one left, and was the only woman to graduate in architecture in some three years consecutively. Video to me was simply a calling. I much preferred it to film as I enjoyed the electronics involved and the idea that an image was being put down that could not be seen by the naked eye (as in film). It felt like playing a game of chess when you were editing. I loved it. All the early works I shot and/or edited myself with the commercial equipment that ‘landed’ in artists’ hands at the time, such as the Sony Portapak. To edit, I went to film and video not-for-profit spaces which had grants (thank goodness!) that allowed artists in New York to work cheaply. I started editing Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax, Canada, where I was teaching in 1978–79 (my first teaching job). There was equipment at the college that I could use at night, after I taught during the days. Kiss the girls: Make them cry was also started at NSCAD. Both works were finished with a young editor at a place named Exploring Post No. 1, started by a most amazing person, Ted Esterbrook. I was eventually able to get my own Portapak, and I loved shooting and, later on, editing. I shot many music performances at places such as at the Mudd Club and the Performing Garage, both in downtown New York.

I was not setting out to engage feminist politics through the use of television and media footage, although consistently I was mostly trying to create a stronger voice and position for women. That came to me naturally, as I started in a male-dominated field in architecture, at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the age of sixteen. That was very rough. Then I resided in Berkeley, California, and worked for the well-known landscape and environmental architect, Lawrence Halprin (married to the dancer and innovative choreographer Anna Halprin). There, too, I was in an office that was male dominated. However, some of us participated in workshops with Anna Halprin at the Dancer’s Workshop, San Francisco, and her voice was incredibly strong.

Berkeley, where I lived in the early 1970s, was a hotbed and locus for differing political ideologies, especially of the left. I made a conscious choice to stay with Marxist-based political groups, instead of the strong feminist groups that were also active at that time in the Bay Area. I felt most of the women I knew to be ‘separatists’ and somewhat hostile. I preferred, ideologically, to relate to Marxist factions and not to the radical feminists of the time, thinking that a change in class structure was needed and not isolationist gender divisions.

However, finding a voice for women is the thread running through most of my work. This starts with Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman and continues through much later work, such as Erwartung, 2001, and Arabesque, 2011. Along the way are other video works whose desire was to declare and redefine the role of women. These works, including The Damnation of Faust Trilogy, 1983–87, took their basis in countering and reconstructing historical touchstones.

MF: I am interested in the use of music in the video works selected for Transmission: Legacies of the Television Age, and more broadly. The soundtracks used in both Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman and Kiss the girls: Make them cry are pivotal in the exploration (and subversion) of the representation of gender roles on television. Do you also see the selected music similarly operating as a form of readymade – something existing in the world of popular culture which when placed in a different context can operate as a tool of seduction, entertainment and critique all at once? Did you always start with the visual imagery and then incorporate the music, or were there times when the music came first?

DB: Music is at the heart and soul of my video work. When I was younger, I was greatly impressed by Godard, at the time when he was seemingly trying to get away from the French film industry and moved back to Switzerland, with Anne-Marie Miéville as a collaborator. They named their joint effort Son + Image. Also, many video pioneers realised that the best film/video/art work was comprised of both sound and image. When it began, MTV began to cut and paste images to mostly new pop or commercial songs. I felt that MTV was in essence simply finding a way (through the power of image and sound) to advertise commercial music hits, exposing them to a broader, visually based public.So, audio – or sound – was always on my mind, as a counterpart to the main visual composition, or an essential component of it. When I was editing Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman I was selecting highly specific scenes from the one-hour TV program, the ‘transformation sequences’, and repeat-editing those transformations so that Wonder Woman was caught up in them. She was spinning endlessly like a doll in a music box, within either her transformation to Wonder Woman or back again to an average secretary-type working-class woman. I loved ‘butt-editing’ these sequences (an edit where two segments are brought together end-to-end and no cross-fade is utilised) and the sound was also great that way. However, I had no idea how to end the work, as it seemed to need another part – a counter-dialogue with the first section of appropriated images from the TV program, which were all butt-edited. When I was working late one night, I had the radio on to keep me company. Then, miraculously, I heard a song called ‘Wonder Woman in Discoland’, put out by the Wonder Woman in Discoland Band on Hippopotamus Records. I think it might be the only LP that music group ever released. It seemed it was meant to be that I would hear this song at that exact time – fated – and I immediately got to work, editing it in much the same way I approached the visuals, because I probably think of visual and sound as the same thing; as dynamic structures. I combined both sides of that disco recording: ‘The American Version’ and ‘The European Version’ (all the more sexy with O-ous and Ahs.) It was a gift. It gave me the very dialectic that I had been looking for. For Kiss the girls: Make them cry, I recognised the strong interplay between the television and the popular music industries. So, I purposefully sought out songs from the dance-floor that were No. 1 on the charts to pair with the show Hollywood Squares, which was No. 1 in television ratings, being shown as much as three times per day in New York during the late 1970s. The way it went together with two top dance-floor hits (’Georgy Porgy’ by Toto, and ‘Found a Cure’ by Ashford and Simpson) was like hand in glove. I then found a wonderful jazz singer, Dori Levine, who did her own style of ‘Georgy Porgie’ (originally from a children’s nursery rhythm) and we mixed them so that one track was from the industry and the other track, of the same song, was ‘independent’. I liked taking that step. Other times, as in Damnation of Faust: Evocation, 1983, I spoke with Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth fame), who was then a friend I highly respected for the songwriting she was doing. We spoke about what she was currently working on and especially a recent song she had written, ‘Protect Me You’ (1983). It was completely perfect and she and Sonic Youth then gave me permission to use it.

All my works have developed in many different ways in relation to the audio. There is no one code or strategy. There are multiple strategies, depending on the heart (and soul) of the work. Sometimes I hear a sound and it generates an image for me, or sometimes it is absolutely the other way around. The greatest privilege I have had, over the years, is in orchestrating image and sound by closely working together with highly talented, usually independent and experimental musicians. That kind of collaboration is what provides great passion for doing the work.

MF: With MTV: Artbreak, 1987, you used a seemingly outmoded (and beautiful) artistic technique of cel animation, invented by Earl Hurd and John Bray in 1915, as a means of commenting on very contemporary concerns relating to the representation of women on television.
DB: At the time I was commissioned to do an Artbreak for MTV, the new network was feeling its power and glory. It said that I had ‘no budget’, actually meaning that I could spend whatever I wanted to on this production (a very unusual position for any artist to be in!). The rage at that time was the use of claymation and other similar techniques and effects. I wanted to go back to a more historical position. I grew up deeply admiring the work of Max Fleisher, whom I thought to be the greatest animator of the twentieth century. MTV said that they could get me any footage I wanted to ‘appropriate from’, but they actually had trouble getting the Fleischer footage. I think it was not, at that moment, seen to be important or of value. It was finally found in the vaults of a film school in Los Angeles. I specifically wanted to get something from the Fleischer series Out of the Inkwell, featuring Koko the Clown, an animated character who would frequently vie with Fleischer for control of the pen – wanting to animate himself and not to be drawn by Fleischer. This was an absolute favourite of mine growing up. We finally got access to a cartoon I chose, where a mechanical machine is drawing a ‘woman’ for Koko and he is overjoyed. Then I went and got an animator who worked with Fleischer Studios in the 1940s and did a re-draw of a special scene: when the mechanical animation machine draws the woman, she then becomes ’alive’ and throws a kiss to Koko. However, in the newly created animation cels, which Buzzco Studios, New York, inked for me, the kiss turns into the MTV logo (which we had to use for one second to get the commission, so I used it within the dynamic scope of my artwork, rather than during any credits). That logo, ‘rock-like’ then knocks Koko out of the frame by hitting him in the crotch. Then the whole ink bottle turns over and characters form out of the spilled ink – images of women being used in current (1987) MTV videos. Then the camera pulls back and you see that it is a woman animator sitting at the paint box, creating not only these new images of women, but even having Fleischer as part of her Paintbox palette.
MF: You are quoted as saying, in relation to this work, that ‘already history has become just a piece of digital information’. Do you see the transformation of content into digital form as being necessarily more ephemeral and subsumed within a seemingly infinite and endless information stream?
DB: Putting Fleischer on the woman animator’s Paintbox palette was a token gesture toward history becoming just a piece of digital information. Newer contemporary art theories seem to be saying that in this digital world all data is the same, moves with the speed of light and has no value – in the sense of the ethical and moral values I feel I grew up with and still believe in. We are in danger of creating formulated societies and cultures where, indeed, all becomes part of (and subsumed by) an endless information stream. I am hoping that younger artists will start to comment on and engage in critical dialogue with this, instead of just embracing it as the only possible future.
MF: What responses did you have to this form of direct intervention in television broadcasting?
DB: You get responses from television broadcasting usually when the programming is ‘of value’ to someone, like the producer of a series, or the network that screens the program(s), or a commercial sponsor. When it comes to art on TV, rarely is there any feedback. Only on occasion will you hear something about it, from a friend or colleague who happened upon it when the work goes into rotation, or perhaps even through social media and from afar. Most art-related work on television was not put into heavy rotation; thereby it goes by at almost the speed of light. You have to have some confidence that this still can mean something to someone, along the way. You do not get ratings and there is no fee paid to a research company to see how all this is going over. However, good art will find its audience, although perhaps that original – or contemporary – audience may be few and far between. The important thing is to try, to do, and perhaps even to fail.
  1. Dara Birnbaum quoted in Corinna Peipon, ‘Dara Birnbaum’, in Lisa Gabrielle Mark (ed.), Wack!: Art and the Feminist Revolution, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007, p. 219.