In the realm of the visual arts, there is no one quite like Dara Birnbaum. Beginning in the 1970s, Birnbaum has used video productions and multimedia installations to challenge and provoke audiences to reconsider the messages being sent by the mass media.
Her classic works “Kiss the Girls: Make the Cry” (1979) and “Pop-Pop Video” (1980) use the repetition of isolated imagery from popular TV productions to openly question communication, gender roles and the contemporary myth-building culture. Her inventive mid-1980s trilogy “Damnation of Faust” reinvented the landmark story in an urban setting, with a female central character putting her soul on the line.
Birnbaum solo work has been exhibited in prestige arts institutions around the world. She has received numerous honors for her output – this year, she was awarded Creative Artist Residency at the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation and a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Her latest endeavor is a solo exhibition at New York’s prestigious Marion Goodman Gallery from June 28 to August 26.
Film Threat caught up with Birnbaum at her New York studio to discuss her work and her views of contemporary video arts and experimental filmmaking.
What is your overall impression of today’s experimental filmmaking and video art? And which of today’s filmmakers and video artists impress you the most?
I think of experimental film and video making as differing from video art, although today you can see many crossovers. I think that the use of video in the arts is flourishing, but not always with outstanding achievement or results.
There is a proliferation of the moving image. When I’m working, I don’t look to the right or left. So, I am not always aware of as many other contemporary film or video makers as I would like to be. In 2002 I was impressed by Alexander Sokurov’s use of video technology in “Russian Ark” to expand his film vocabulary. Lars Von Trier did the same for me with his use of video cameras in “Dancer In the Dark” (2000), although employing the video in an almost opposite way from Sokurov.
More recently, I can think of Werner Herzog’s use of a 3-D video camera for “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010.) I grew up on the videos of Jean-Luc Godard and Anne Marie Mieville. The way the contemporary artist Cory Arcangel utilizes video in his work impresses me. I am glad that there are some video artists that started in the 70s that have stayed in there for the long haul, such as Joan Jonas, in relation to her performative work.
Today’s lower-cost video technology has enabled a larger number of creative artists to pick up a camera (or, in some cases, a cell phone with a built-in camera) to produce their own works. Do you believe that the increased quantity of camera-toting artists will result in an increased quality of video production?
I don’t believe that increased quantity increases quality. However, the odds in these moments of mass production become all the better for seeing some good work.
In your classic video art from the late 1970s and early 1980s, you dissect the pop culture’s extreme depiction of women as being either superhuman (Wonder Woman, the Olympic speed skaters) or super-silly (the B-list actresses mugging on “Hollywood Squares”). Do you believe contemporary pop culture is more generous in its depiction of women?
If anything, I think that contemporary pop culture is equally at fault with its stereotypical depictions of women, such as “The Girls Next Door,” depicting Huge Hefner’s Playboy bunnies that live at his mansion. The popular culture industry is still filled with and embeds itself in abhorrent clichés about women, also in reality TV shows that have invaded television culture. But, at times, the stereotypical images of men are also at an all time low. “Jersey Shore” might be an example of both.
Today’s culture is blanketed by media overload, and it often seems that only the most outlandish image or behavior warrants in-depth attention. How can today’s creative artists stand out amid the noise and traffic in this media-heavy culture?
Exactly by not following the formulas at play in the dominant culture and media. Even I watch shows such as “Criminal Minds,” which are somewhat garish in showing the dark underside of mankind and womankind. I am drawn into its blood curdling adventures by its well-crafted scripts and acting. Yet, this is not an incentive for my art, which remains outside of the “most outlandish image or behavior.”
In my art, making practice I look for subtly and ambiguity. I search for depth in statement and character. When everything is going by at incredible speed, it is a slow runner who will stand out from the rest and can be noticed. Imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery; it is sometimes just imitation. And, that is to be avoided.
For those who will be able to attend your new presentation at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, what will be on display?
The solo exhibit at the Marian Goodman Gallery will be a mixture of my earliest works and my newest multi-channel video installation, “Arabesque” (2011).
In the South Gallery are a series of the earliest single-channel video works from 1975 and 1976. These works reflect an early interest in video to create a psychological self-portrait – in works such as “Mirroring” and “Control Piece,” in which the physical expression of such a state of being within a given space is revealed. Most of the works are performative, as well as psychological, and exhibit the relationship between the camera and its subject.
Then there is a very early installation entitled “Attack Piece.” Here in the North Gallery viewing room, this two-channel video work can be seen as an investigation into the formal differences between film and still imagery through the use of gender stereotypes. I am seated and ‘armed’ with a still camera and then filmed mostly by male collaborators (Dan Graham, Ian Murray, and David Askevold, among them), who attempt to invade my territory.
The new work is a four-channel video projection installation. This work reflects on the legacy of two piano compositions: “Arabesque Opus 18,” composed by Robert Schumann for his wife Clara, and “Romanze 1, Opus 11,” composed by Clara Schumann for her husband Robert. The work is meant to highlight the differing receptions that each composition has had throughout history, juxtaposing video clips of respective performances culled from YouTube footage, presented contrapuntally, set against still footage from the 1947 film “Song of Love,” a melodrama which also feature “Arabesque.” Robert Schumann’s composition is widely recognized as a masterpiece, whereas Clara Schumann’s work of similar virtuosity has been largely forgotten.
In my research for this work on the Internet I could see a disproportionate number of videos posted in video of “Arabesque,” over “Romanze 1.” When I started this work, you could find only one person on YouTube playing the Clara Schumann composition; whereas there may be a hundred (men and women) playing the “Arabesque.” Yet it was Clara who had to carry on when Robert went through his periods of depression and madness and eventually died – she took care of the family (they had eight children) and supported them through her playing.
I have always been interested throughout much of my work in this “voice” of the woman. I find that it may perhaps be unusual that I have reached for such a romantic composer as Schumann during such irrational political times that we are going through. Perhaps it is just because of this that I chose a rather isolated, self-reflective person who, in the end, went mad.