Q & A with artist Dara Birnbaum

By | October 7, 2016

The inspiration for an artist’s work comes from many different driving forces but often starts with the question, “Why create?” Video and installation artist Dara Birnbaum shares her thoughts and process behind the works now on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum and for other works she has created over the past 40 years.

How did you become interested in the exploring mass media culture and especially gender representation in television?

I first encountered video when living in Florence, Italy (from 1974 to 1975) through Centro Diffusioni Grafica, a gallery that encouraged its artists to use this medium experimentally.

Dara Birnbaum, American, born 1946; Kiss the Girls: Make them Cry, 1979; video still from single-channel video, color, stereo sound; 6 minutes 25 seconds; Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Dara Birnbaum, American, born 1946; Kiss the Girls: Make them Cry, 1979; video still from single-channel video, color, stereo sound; 6 minutes 25 seconds; Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Through the encouragement of several artists I met there, I decided to come back to NYC, where I was born, to see what art I could begin to engage with, especially video. It quickly occurred to me that although there was a good deal of exploration in relation to the semiotics of film, no one seemed engaged with the language of television. Thus, I felt that it was important to look more closely at the effect it was having on our society by examining the most popular shows of that time, such as Wonder Woman, The Hollywood Squares and Kojak. I had to find a way to discretely obtain the imagery because there were no home-recording units or cable-TV at that time, nor was such recording allowed by the media companies. So, with the help of people in the industry, I was able to get direct access to this broadcast material. Then I attempted what became known as a “deconstruction” of television programming.

What do you find the most interesting about seeing your early work now compared to your current work?

My interests in the representation of women, in particular in television and in mass media, played a strong role in my artistic practice. However, I wanted to explore more readily what this medium could now say beyond what was brought forth by the “industry of television.” So, for example, with the advent of digital technology, I started the Damnation of Faust Trilogy in 1983. I also explored how effective an artwork in video could be within public space, such as the large-scale and interactive Rio VideoWall (©1989)*. Years later, I utilized the medium of video through installations such as Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission (©1990) and Transmission Tower: Sentinel (©1992), both more politically progressive in their subject matter. I see my forty years of engagement with video/media – both single-channel and installation work – as a continuous thread of exploration, shifting as the medium has developed.

How do you choose the soundtracks for your works and what role do you see music as having?

I learned from Jean-Luc Godard, a filmmaker who I much admired, that both sound and image were equally important in film and video.

Dara Birnbaum, American, born 1946; Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978-79; video still from single-channel video, color, stereo sound; 5 minutes 50 seconds; Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Dara Birnbaum, American, born 1946; Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978-79; video still from single-channel video, color, stereo sound; 5 minutes 50 seconds; Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

I believe that the medium of both analogue and digital video –require attention to both sound and visual imagery as their creative bedrock. My sound tracks have evolved differently throughout the years. At first, as with Technology/ Transformation: Wonder Woman (©1978/9) I “found” the audio component for the second half of this work by accident. I was editing the visuals while listening to the radio and by coincidence heard: Wonder Woman Disco by the Wonderland Disco Band being played. It was obvious to me that the record/music industry was keeping pace with the television industry as Wonder Woman was one of the most popular shows on television at that time. So, I utilized this disco soundtrack to forge a newly expressed “image” of Wonder Woman. Thus, for this second part of the work, I wrote out the lyrics and had white text roll on a blue-background, emphasizing the sexuality of this seemingly innocent pop song, while playing the original audio track that I highly edited.

For the work Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry (©1979), I wanted to pair the images I appropriated from the hit TV-show The Hollywood Squares, which was then the top American game show, with the number one song on the disco floor. Thus, I chose the hits “Found a Cure” by Ashford & Simpson and “Georgy Porgy” by Toto. This work completely changes at the end – both its song and texture – with lyrics and credits scrolling over a bright yellow background. It is also influenced by Godard, with a sort of “punch line” utilizing a completely different soundtrack – a cover of “Yellow Bird” (a popular  song) sung by two younger musicians I knew at the time, Spike and Allan Scarth. In addition, for Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry I invited a young talented jazz singer, Dori Levine, to cover both songs, “Georgy Porgy” and “Found A Cure.”

Throughout my 40 years in the media arts, I have utilized music and sound as equally important aspects for my work.

*Commissioned by Ackerman & Co. for the Rio Complex in Atlanta, Georgia

New Media Series: Dara Birnbaum is on view in Gallery 301, Main Building through December 11.

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