London, Nov. 2009 - ArtSlant writer Mike Tuck had the great opportunity to speak with Dara Birnbaum about her practice and her solo exhibition, First statements and then some..., at the Wilkinson Gallery in London. This exhibition showcased Birnbaum’s works spanning from the 1970’s to the present day and followed a successful retrospective of her practice on show earlier in 2009 at Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.). In March of 2010 this retrospective travels to Fundação de Serralves in Porto Portugal.
Mike Tuck - Much of your early work is concerned with TV. Have you shown in gallery settings right from the beginning of your career, or were there other formats or outlets for your practice?
Dara Birnbaum - At the beginning I was not at all concerned with showing in galleries. I went into the arts from architecture. I saw art as a way to address the many societal concerns I had, from the vantage point of encouraging a change in perspective as to how we see and relate to our surroundings. At that time, I was basically most interested in alternative spaces and different distribution channels in getting work out. Galleries, whose main interest lies in the commercially viable aspects of an artwork, were of little interest to me. One reason I initially went into video was that I thought of it as a “non-collectible” form of art – that it was more related to a society of mechanical and mass reproduction. Video, at first, seemed to be an endlessly reproducible medium and the goal was simply to get my message out. In the 1970s, I felt more aligned with independent musicians in this way than I did with the commercial art market and the gallery system. In fact, mostly the commercial art market did not relate to, nor desire, video. Now, commercial galleries have the desire to be involved and to be supportive. When I first showed, if it was in galleries it was in alternative spaces, such as The Kitchen, NYC and/or Artists Space, NYC. Otherwise I aimed to get works onto cable-TV and broadcast television, into music clubs, in film festivals, and even in public spaces, such as Grand Central Station, NYC.
MT: Do you associate TV with a particular moment in history; a sort of TV age?
DB - Yes. TV for me is a development of post-WWII. I feel that as a “baby boomer, “ born just after the war I grew up on television. I remember when it went from black-and-white to color, when it was a large piece of furniture – a console – in the living room, when the family would sit around to watch, in a communal way. I think it is my generation that is a product of television. When I started my video work in the mid-1970s the Nielsen ratings stated that the average American family was watching TV some 7 hours and 20 minutes per day. Growing up in America in the 50s and 60s meant that your most common language was television.
MT: The current show at Wilkinson Gallery spans over 30 years of work, from the late 1970s to the present day. Do you find nostalgia in seeing your works long after they were originally made?
DB - Usually I don’t feel a sense of nostalgia when I re-see my early work. I seem to have a separation from it; sometimes I wish that I could engage with it more. For me, the work has taken on its own life. I seem to have an almost purposeful separation from it. I watch it as an outsider. There are moments when I can re- align with the process of producing it, or the moments that brought it into inception, but that is all. Or, if we need to upgrade certain works – now to digital – I can get in touch with a really good feeling if this is done in a way that brings an older work back to life, when it is re-issued in relation to its form, and if it is able to maintain integrity in relation to the original work. In such cases, I am thinking of larger installations such as “Transmission Tower: Sentinel,” originally commissioned by documenta IX, in 1992, and recently upgraded for the retrospective of my work that was initiated by S.M.A.K., Ghent.
MT: I read an interview recently between you and Cory Arcangel where you talk about specifically not wanting to convert popular imagery into, say painting, but instead you wanted to “convert television into television”. What drives you to use the same media as popular entertainment?
DB - I wanted to use the same language as a critique on itself. It was my way of “talking back to the media.” This seemed the most forceful approach I could take. Also when I started, television constituted a one-way flow of images and sound at the viewer. You watched in a relatively passive position, with no accessibility to the source material that constituted TV. That is why, with my early works, I was called a “pirateer” of imagery – I found ways of entering into the television industry, getting images such as “Wonder Woman” through friends who worked in the industry and believed in my work. At that time there were no home recording units, such as VHS, Betamax, or TIVO. I wanted to stop and arrest that one-way flow of images and turn it back onto itself. Proceeding with any other strategy would not have been as strong a statement; it had to be taking the prime material of television, altering its syntax, and thus revealing the hidden agendas encoded within that popular language.
MT: There are some 2d works and installation pieces in this current show. Have you always made other work alongside your moving image work?
DB - Mainly my work is media-based. Occasionally, when it seems appropriate, I have done and will continue to do 2-D works. For example, at the Wilkinson Gallery are “drawings” made for a proposal requested by the Sony Corporation, for a work to be commissioned at their NYC headquarters. The actual project never went through, but I became intrigued by the drawings, which were produced in the early 90s through SGI graphics. This work is composed of still frames, which are transparent and mounted between Plexiglas plates, hanging 90 degrees from the wall. A newer work, “Flags: Occupied Territories,” was originally made for my retrospective exhibit at S.M.A.K., Ghent. It is composed of sixteen two-sided flags – on one side is the flag of the U.S. and on the other side the flag of a country currently occupied by U.S. armed forces. The size of the flag is dependent upon the number of U.S. troops stationed in the country. These flags are not “media-based,” but can be seen as a form of appropriation as well – taking the multiple reproduced flags of numerous countries and recombining them. This may not be all that different in strategy as the early appropriated video works I’ve done. The syntax here is also altered. When works or statements demand other material, I use it. I am more committed to the statements I wish to make, rather than the exact material, or medium, that constitutes the work.
MT: Much of your work seems to play with the difference between media – I’m thinking here of photographs placed next to moving images or the doubling up of some video pieces. Can you talk a little about why that is important?
DB - Some of the earliest work that addressed the issue of American-TV, was done through black-and-white photographs. I took stills of prime-time programs on TV, such as in the work “Lesson Plans” or “Westside Medical,” both from 1977. It was the first step toward concentrating on television language, specifically the reverse angle shots frequently used in crime-drama television at that time. This progressed to using video on video, such as with “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” ©1978. Immediately after that I produced works such as “(A)Drift of Politics,” ©1978, now at the Wilkinson Gallery. Here there is a combination of video on a monitor and video that is projected. Originally the projected video was 16mm film. The projected image, more “filmic” in nature is enlarged and made into slow motion. That image is used to emphasize the gestures between the two women, “Laverne & Shirley” (from the TV show of that name.) Whereas, the video shown in a monitor is of the same scenes, taken from the program and butt edited, only using the two-shots in the program. This reduced the 30-minute television program into a five-minute video work. The television images are sub-titled and the sound is coming from speakers elsewhere in the space – like a radio program. I believe in a total economy of means. I don’t use any additional material that is not necessary to the main thematic issues involved with the work.
MT: The more recent work in the exhibition tends to be more outwardly political than the earlier work. Is that to do with a change in politics or a change in your practice?
DB - I believe that most of my work takes on a strongly based political stance. I find that even the earliest work, such as “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” ©1978, is directly political in nature, as well as taking a strong feminist stance, which is also political in and of itself. The costume that “Wonder Woman” wears is the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag. When she changes from an average secretary into a “Wonder Woman” she is wearing the colors of the U.S.A. The title of the 1978 work “(A)Drift of Politics” is purposefully entitled that, rather than “Laverne & Shirley,” the title of the television show it was taken from. The question is how “(A)Drift” television imagery is from politics and societal structures. Here two women are forming a new family unit, or core, to face the problems of the world together. There are also many large-scale installations, which were part of my recent retrospective but not able to be shown in the Wilkinson Gallery, that reveal strongly held political positions. Works such as “Transmission Tower: Sentinel, “ ©1992, is directly political, incorporating an anti-militaristic poem by Alan Ginsberg versus the recitation of Bush’s acceptance speech from the 1988 National Republican Convention. A work such as “Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission,” ©1990, directly addressed the way telecommunications were issued and received regarding the uprising and crackdown on Tiananmen Square. Then with a work like “Hostage,” ©1994, the kidnapping of the German industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer was the key element within the work, as well its address of terrorism. Many of the single-channel works address political issues. “Canon: Take Back the Night,” ©1990, would be a good example, where the main issue is to understand how an individual’s position and ability to speak out against sexual harassment and injustice also formulates the core of a body politic. I always felt that I “grew up” in Berkeley, California – where I was doing environmental design and then switched over into art. The years I spent in Berkeley, in the early to mid-1970s, placed me directly in a hotbed of political activity. It helped me express what was already a direction I felt in New York, where I was born. I am definitely a child of the 60s. But, unlike some others, I don’t think that our somewhat idealistic political positions failed, I think our inquiries, positions, and hard-core stance to the political left, opened up essential issues, which are still just beginning to be addressed today.
ArtSlant would like to thank Dara Birnbaum and the Wilkinson Gallery for their assistance in making this interview possible.
-- Mike Tuck
(All Images: Dara Birnbaum, First statements and then some..., Installation Views; Courtesy Wilkinson Gallery)