DARA BIRNBAUM in conversation with Dr.Kostas Prapoglou
Since the mid-1970s, Dara Birnbaum (b.1946, New York) has painstakingly been investigating the multi-layered ways television and film are constantly being resculpted and redesigned, reflecting contemporary economic and socio-political conditions. American mass culture has always been in the epicenter of Birnbaum’s visual lexicon. Her pioneering experimental video works focus on specific qualities that define the construction and deconstruction of the identity of American household through the prism of televised imagery and its ideological follies. Repetition, fragmentation, image manipulation and visual analysis are only but a few key-elements in Birnbaum’s practice. Her video installations are often characterized by profound architectural elements echoing her primary studies in architecture.
Spanning six decades, Birnbaum’s career is empowered by the in-depth evocation of the balances between public and private domains. Her solo exhibitions and screenings have been presented at various museums and galleries around the world, some of which are: Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI), Rome, Italy (2019); Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, USA (2017, 2011, 2002) and London, UK (2018); South London Gallery, London (2011-12); Serralves Foundation, Porto, Portugal (2010); S.M.A.K. Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Gent, Belgium (2009); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2008 and 1981); Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria (2006); Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Germany (1997); Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Frankfurt, Germany (1996); École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, Paris, France (1994); The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA (1989); Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland (1986) and The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts, USA (1984).
Her work has widely been presented in hundreds of international group exhibitions at museums, art foundations and film festivals worldwide such as MoMA PS1, New York (2019); Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, Germany; Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland (2019); National Portrait Gallery, London; Grand Palais, Paris (2018); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2018); The Met Breuer, New York (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (2017); J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center Los Angeles (2016); Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany (2015); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014); MACBA Collection, MACBA, Madrid, Spain (2012); Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris (2012); MoMA PS1, New York (2011); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2008); The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2007); Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan / Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, Sydney, Australia (2006); The Haifa Museum of Art, Haifa, Israel (2003); Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2003); XXIII Moscow International Film Festival, Moscow, Russia (2001); Seoul Biennial, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea (2000); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (1999); Museum of the Moving Image, New York (1998); Guggenheim Museum Soho, New York (1997); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1995); documenta IX (1992), documenta VIII (1987), documenta VII (1982), Kassel, Germany, and Whitney Biennial, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1982).
She has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards such as The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts Residency (2011); the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2011) and the prestigious United States Artists Fellowship (2010).
Your visual vocabulary engages with the architecture of those tropes that dictate how truth and reality are being presented and communicated by the media to wide audiences. What triggered your interest in such a practice?
I had become good friends with Suzanne Kuffler in the mid-70s and subsequently was asked to present my work alongside hers at Artists Space, NYC. At that time, I had barely begun to seriously approach my own art and mainly had been working on some performance/conceptual works (Six Movements,1975.) Confronted with my first gallery show, I had to think about what was most important to me at that precise moment and I realized that it was the language of television. This was directly because the average American family, in 1977, was –according to the Nielsen ratings– watching television some seven hours and twenty minutes per day. I felt that it was thus our main vocabulary and language. Journals, important to me, like Screen magazine from London, were analyzing film but never –at that time– approaching television. Therefore, I thought this type of television analysis must be done. My first show at Artists Space, entitled Lesson Plans: To Keep the Revolution Alive (1977), consisted of five sets of B/W photographic panels. Each set of five photos depicted a reverse angle shot from a prime-time crime-drama series on television and it was matched with a text panel, which revealed what was being said on TV during each of the captured still frames. Together, these pairings revealed to the viewer the way reverse angle shots were the prime piece of vocabulary for such shows. However, it seemed that viewers exposed to my work, took this critical information, or dialogue, home with them to explore other programs on TV, including and especially political programs. My second work, (A)Drift of Politics: Two Women Are Active in A Space (1978) took the popular TV-show Laverne & Shirley. I utilized the ‘two-shot’, which had these two women actresses (Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Freeney, as played by Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams) confronting the audience, thus the world, together. In the beginning of each show, these two actresses sang a song, which included the phrase “doing it my way”. Again, this show was presented with Suzanne Kuffler’s work, this time at The Kitchen, NYC. I continued using prime tropes from TV with Technology/ Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978/9). That work, now considered a classic of video art, utilized a ‘special effect’, when the average secretary turned into a ‘Wonder Woman’ to help save mankind.
Shooting methods, language techniques and other broadcasting manipulation systems employed by the media have been the focus of your filmmaking for years. Have you detected a shift in these practices involving specific changes in the aesthetics and ideologies as well as the ways subliminal political meanings are structured and transmitted? How are these reflected in your work?
In 1980, I did a work in collaboration with Dan Graham entitled Local TV News Analysis for Cable-TV. We did this through A Space, Toronto, Canada. The work showed an hour of local TV news and we formatted the footage so that it revealed: 1) the inside of the television station and its control booth; 2) a family-at-home watching this news; and 3) the actual news broadcast itself. This composite of all three elements was then screened the following night on a separate cable-TV station, exactly during that next night’s evening newscast. It turned out that the structure of the news was basically the same from one night to the next. This included the way that the news was announced, to when certain types of stories would occur, to when the weatherman/woman would take over, to a recap, with some humor, etc. I think that since the mid-60s the structure of major network news has stayed mainly the same. However, CNN broke the mold when they delivered 24-hour international news. Now certain stations will do breakaways to major breaking news stories. Or, for example in the U.S., if the president chooses to make a speech to the country during prime-time, the news will breakaway for that. Some roles have changed. More women have been given bigger roles/positions, such as ‘anchor women’ on major stations in the U.S. Also, the traditional weatherman will now sometimes be a weatherwoman. Dan had previously observed that the formatting of the news team actually resembled the family-at-home, with the anchor being male and thus similar to the post WWII man in the U.S. at the head of his household. However, across the last decade the gender of such role positions has changed. In addition, several years ago stations such as CNN would have reporters in the field. With the desire to keep production budgets down, now there is more use of online interviews and ‘panels’ that perform commentary and less in-the-field work. I also think that the audience is now more aware of such structures and that there is less oblique or subliminal political meanings behind newscasts. There is more directness as to the political leanings of each channel, or station. So, it is directly known that i.e. FOX news represents primarily Trump and the Republican right. Whereas, stations such as CNN are more overtly ‘democratic’ and present a more complete news picture, with some attempt to present both the left and right opinions of news stories. On the left you have stations such as MSNBC in America. For my own work, I have usually used news stories for the content of their shot, such as showing how CNN and CBS were both taken off-air by the Chinese government, in the summer of 1989, in light of the Tiananmen Square uprising (Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission, 1990). There is also in this work the footage from a cable channel (Channel-L on Manhattan Cable TV), where a song performed by sympathetic Taiwanese students was aired. However, it was coming through very broken up, but they chose to transmit it anyway. Major news channels would never have allowed such broken-up footage to be televised. I showed each of these critical moments in the work.
You have been working in the fields of video and installation since the 1970s. How have these evolved over the past five decades?
The work has gone through several different phases. I would say that mostly from 1975-1982 I concentrated on being able to express several observations and concepts about the language of television. Hoping that by the use of different approaches –repeated edits, slo-mo, and then what became known as ‘appropriation’ and ‘deconstruction’ of the vocabulary of this medium– I could reveal its hidden agendas and make this basically commercial media’s manipulation much more apparent. When I was in Documenta 7, in 1982, I felt that perhaps such manipulations were already becoming apparent, through my work and that of other artists (eventually known as The Pictures Generation) –such as Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine– whom I felt close to at that time. I decided to alter my strategy and started a series entitled Damnation of Faust Trilogy (1983-1987), where I composed my own imagery, yet again tried to dissect a mythology, that of Goethe’s and Berlioz’s versions of Faust. By 1987, when I finished this trilogy, I then took on other projects of interest –an Artbreak (1987) for MTV and Rio VideoWall (1989), as the winner of an international competition held by Ackerman & Company–for an ‘electronic art work’ for their commercial shopping center, designed by Arquitectonica. These projects, in ‘public space’ were an attempt to bring the investigations I was doing earlier on into a larger arena, while still providing a type of ‘deconstruction’. The 90s started a period of working more directly with political events, such as the kidnapping and slaying of Hanns Martin Schleyer (Hostage,1984) and the Gulf War (Transmission Tower: Sentinel, 1992). On the contrary, works from 2000 forward attempted to deal further with gender, such as Arabesque (2011) and Erwartung/Expectancy (1995/2001). By 2014, my focus went back to investigating how to express the necessities of our time, as through Psalm 29(30) (2016), which relates directly to Syria’s civil war and unrest and its subsequent devastation. This work compiles, in part, an interior chamber revealing footage from the World Wide Web, which soldiers –against the regime in power– shot while on patrol. The last work, which was also very political in nature, The Soul Train (2018) was actually censored by the very museum that commissioned it! This work explores civil unrest in this country in the 1960s. I thought its attempt at revealing this critical time period was crucial, perhaps too much so –given our current demonstrations and unrest in the U.S., which has emerged on the tip of the COVID-19 virus and as sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
Have you observed any significant changes in the way feminist artists express themselves through video or other/new mediums?
I have basically followed the dynamics of the changes that have occurred in mass media over the decades. Thereby, my concentration has not been in feminist art, although I am included in the category of ‘feminism’ in the arts. I have definitely attempted to unwrap the role of women, mainly historically, through such works as Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, Arabesque, and Erwartung/Expectancy, etc. Works regarding the ‘role’ of men on TV have perhaps been less noted, although I feel they are equally strong, such as Pop-Pop Video: Kojak/Wang (1980). I think that grouping women artists into a feminist category can limit the reading of the work of the many women artists I know. There was a wonderful poster by the Guerilla Girls, which in part stated: “Don’t worry, any art you make will be called feminist”. This is not to discredit, at all, those women working very hard on the ability for women to strongly express themselves and also choosing to make strong statements directly affecting their voice through their gender. However, I have not followed through on those significant changes made by ‘feminist artists’ through video and other mediums. Perhaps now, with a bit more acceptance of ‘women artists’ their voices are all the more strongly felt and heard.
What does someone like yourself think when watching the news today, especially with all these ongoing disturbances set off by the global pandemic and the current social unrest? To what extent do you feel artists will get influenced by these and how will they respond?
The only agreement I may have with our current president is that there is what he chooses to call ‘fake news’. Since the mid-60s in America, the news has been ‘owned’ by corporations, such as CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN. Before that time, historically, news was not owned by corporations. The mid-60s was a turning point in America, with the killing of major important leaders ‘on the left’ such as John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. However, ‘fake news’ is also a horrible term –causing one not to believe in anything, or any attempt to get real news across to the people of a country. It is just that if one chooses to educate oneself, it becomes possible to read the prejudices involved with most news stations. I would say that the majority of reporters in this country make a great attempt to give facts, but during such difficult times, ‘truth’ is very hard to come by. The use of the term ‘fake news’ is for this president an attempt to shut down valid news reporting, so that nothing can be believed. That is a crime and takes away from our first amendment rights. Artists have always questioned a dominant way of looking at the world. I believe that one gift of art is that perception is challenged and new observations can be made. The currency of these times challenges all, including artists. I would think that many artists will comment directly on this unique and critical time period. Others may choose to carry on the work they already have been engaged with, despite the overwhelming crises of this time. I would like to think that it is not the responsibility of artists to always and directly reflect their times. However, many may choose this path and that certainly can be for the good of a society. Already some people here, in the arts, are almost readily dictating that the only path an artist can choose, at this time, is to reflect the crisis we are in. I think this will happen naturally but does not have to be a dictate that all artists must pursue.
Do you see the beginnings of a new era in artistic expression following such paramount events?
Such epic events as the COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests and demonstrations, strongly based in current critical movements, such as Black Lives Matter, will certainly have an effect on many artists and creative people in the United States. I do think a new era in expression will evolve. In the U.S. there, for decades now, has been an emphasis on the marketing and commodification of art. Art was beginning to be seen as stock to some people, including investing and collecting enterprises. An earnest love of artwork seems to have been replaced by a wheeling and dealing mentality toward finding ‘genius’ artists, who are then collected. Just now, in the U.S., our unemployment is greater than it had been during the Great Depression. The art market is prepared for a serious hit. Perhaps a time of experimentation and freedom from commodification can re-emerge. That would seem to be a very good thing. We are at a point of inevitable destruction if we continue the ways in which we have lived and how we have treated our planet. We must choose a path out of this destruction, or we will be at the beginning of an end. Artists have, historically, paved the way for new insights and it is my hope that this can happen again.