KünstlerInnenporträts 41

Conversation with Dara Birnbaum

Note: For lack of space, it was necessary to shorten this interview to its second half. A more complete edited version of the interview was published, in German translation, in the catalogue "Dara Birnbaum" (Kunsthalle Wien, 1995).

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: After your first two exhibitions, one strongly utilizing photographs from network television, you went into single-channel video work with "Wonder Woman," and "Kojak" – you changed speed, you accelerated, you slowed down. Was this about creating other narratives?

Dara Birnbaum: Never. Not at the beginning. I took exactly what was there.

HUO: So it was only repetition?

DB: The thing is, when you see it, because it's taken out of the narrative flow, you look and you think the speed is wrong. Or like in "Laverne and Shirley," which was called "(A)drift of Politics" – my first installation – there are two women. That was all about two-shots. They confront the world together; they face the world together. This was the end of the so-called nuclear family in America, meaning: Where is the father? Where is the mother? We are, as adolescent Americans, alone now. They're women, but girlish women. They go out; they work on an assembly line. When you see the original program, "Laverne and Shirley," they are working on a Coca-Cola bottle line. They finally take off their rubber gloves – this is around 1977 – and put the rubber gloves over the Coke bottles. Now with AIDS, unfortunately, there is a need for everything to have this rubber membrane. But here they cover the Coke bottles with these rubber gloves, and they leave the plant. They go out into the world. And they are their own nuclear family. I presented this work with another woman, Suzanne Kuffler. We were both doing our own work – but for me it was "Laverne and Shirley" – that we had to go out and face the world together, and at least I had another very bright woman to talk with. We wouldn't do collaborative work, but we would collaborate in getting the work out there. But I thought, it's really important not to change the speed and not to change the medium. "You don't speak from another voice. You speak from that voice." And with "Laverne and Shirley", for example, I took only the two shots and butt-edited them. Then I made subtitles, because I took the audio and I put it in a separate room. And I thought, "Let the audio be like a radio play when you go in there. And in this first room let this only be imagery – the "two shots." But you could read in the subtitles what they were saying in the frame. The subtitles went by so fast that you couldn't believe what they were saying.

HUO: So all this became visible through shifts of context?

DB: Absolutely. And through not shifting the medium. Because there was a peer group as you mentioned. I did relate myself to people dealing early on with media-related images like Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine. If Robert Longo, as an example, would take an image from a Fassbinder film, he would freeze a moment and isolate it. For example, he would take someone who had been shot in the back. They, meaning Longo and Goldstein, talked about media space as a kind of new empty space. Nam June Paik talked about it as a non-gravitational space. So the image was also extracted. Robert sometimes made it into relief painting, very early on. Jack Goldstein sometimes made it into painted form. Or on film, Jack took an image and rotoscoped it – isolating a main object from the original image. He did some very brilliant films that are not watched enough. For me, though, these artists were always translating the medium, and I wanted to use the medium by itself. I remember in Amsterdam that they had an exhibition, a kind of multi-part exhibition-talk-symposium. The organizers gave me a compliment and said they named it in part after what I was doing. They called it "Talking Back to the Media." And I think this was it – I wanted to arrest the image without translating it, and I thought: "How do you put video onto video? Television on television? Especially at a time when you don't have Betamax and VHS." So people said that I became a pirateer: "Oh – she's the one who is the pirate of the images." It's interesting, because in the seventies I had this ferocious image. I was a singular woman pirate. I got my photo around a lot, "Yeah, she's the pirateer of the images." Then, in the 90s, I would tease and say, "Oh she was the pirate of the image. Oh, she appropriated images (in the early eighties). She stole images (in the mid-eighties). Oh, she samples images (in the nineties)." It kind of goes like that as the generations change.

HUO: Then you made a book with an explosion of sources with regard to situationism. In terms of stealing, in the Deleuzian sense – creative theft.

DB: But the creative theft process was absolved by the situationists. And at the very beginning, the book is dedicated to these people who made these anonymous street posters. It's something I really respect – their approach to the 'original' – the original was seen as a multiple, and it was owned by everyone. When it was produced it was basically silk-screened. The images became plastered on the walls, as in Paris. And it was said, "You can take these images. You can take these words. There is no copyright." I'm actually in a dilemma. I took images which I felt belonged to me, but that technically didn't. Like Wonder Woman. No, you cannot make my landscape into that image of a woman. You cannot only send these images one way at me – a woman who transforms by a burst of light and spinning around in space three times. This was a special effect in 1977. Now, you know what is defined as special effects. In a burst of light she changes. And I said, "No, it's not acceptable, and it's my landscape." TV, at that time, was being watched by the average American family seven hours and 20 minutes a day. So I said, "It's landscape. I can paint my own landscape. I can take from it. There's no difference." And I took the imagery. Now, the strange thing: the images were put back out again like a kind of throwing up of their double. Taking it in – throwing it back out, in a Baudrillard sense. It was thrown back out: I put it on cable TV opposite the 'real' Wonder Woman. I put it into a avant-garde film festival and made it like a bar-room B-film. It penetrated a storefront; it was the image that was sold now in the storefront of H-Hair. But what happens after that, years later, is the nightmare, in a way. I felt like I owned these images. And that's the strangeness of the art making practice for me.

HUO: Like a boomerang.

DB: It's a boomerang. It comes back again. But what I'm saying is that with the situationists, they created images, as with the posters, that were sent out to affect mass numbers of people and they didn't attempt to own those images. The images were made to effect a relationship with the viewer.

HUO: There was no signing – nobody signed.

DB: No one signed them. And you were told: "These are anonymous and you can take them." Whereas, I've become an owner in some ways of Wonder Woman. And I think for me I have to constantly now ask questions of myself: What images am I making? What am I making that is consumed? How saleable it becomes – what marketplace am I playing into? You know, there's an image highway, not only an information highway. And the image highway is, in part, the galleries and the system of selling images. And for us, meaning a peer group, let's say, of Bill Viola or Gary Hill, Mary Lucier, it's different now again. But I would say that at the very beginning we got into video because we thought of it as a multiple, as it doesn't carry the 'aura' of a painting, again in the sense of Benjamin.

HUO: And was it also against the system? Lucy Lippard once said that the goal of feminism is to change the character of art and directly attack the infrastructures of the art world. Was it also, at the beginning, this idea of attacking the infrastructures of the art world? Or at least undermining. .

DB: I think we thought that there would be something else. I don't think I made my work so much directly to undermine. I had such a non-belief in that structure that it didn't matter to me. My belief – and I want this still to be true – was in the message. So I don't know how 'McLuhan' I am, but I just knew something had to be said regarding mass media imagery. And I did perhaps see art – for me very idealistically – as an activist position. It was one of the few positions that could be held in a society that was activist. Then, the more I learned, the more I saw what was controlled. How do you become the one who penetrates – who hacks through this system? Do you want to be the hacker? I don't know.

HUO: You always saw video as a vehicle.

DB: Maybe I saw art as the vehicle.

HUO: With regard to your recent installations – I have a question about the sources. With regard to the early works, you often cited Raymond Williams. What was the importance of Raymond Williams' texts?

DB: In 1974, I lived in Florence, Italy. At that time in Florence there was a small, gallery with a big message. They were producing videotapes of various international and Italian artists. I remember seeing something, which I found interesting, in their storefront window. There were two lithographs – one by Vito Acconci and the other by Dennis Oppenheim. In the back of the gallery they were watching television, but they weren't watching 'television' – they were watching video art. I didn't know. So they said, "Come in, come in." And the first video artwork I ever saw was in that gallery. And it was very potent for me. I saw it as a tool, a really good tool. So this became my first meeting of video artworks. Later, I got to meet some of the video artists – artists using video. I was also exposed to the work of Dan Graham, whom I later met in New York City. I think he was the one who said, "Well, you can read this, I'll lend it to you as a friend." That loaned book was my first encounter with Raymond Williams' texts – and a structural look at British television. In England there existed the remnants of the nuclear family. TV was structurally programmed keeping this in mind; that it was formatted for people at home, especially housewives; etc. So that was a beginning. 

HUO: We were talking about "Wonder Woman" in the H-Hair salon. Then the "Rio Videowall". Besides museums, art galleries and most different contexts where you contextualize or show your work, you also made exhibitions or interventions directly in television. What does this mean? Maybe it would be interesting to talk about your recent MTV project.

DB: There were two only projects which I did for MTV. One was an "ArtBreak", where MTV came to me. In 1987, early on, they took six artists in the United States – but I was the only video artist – and they said, "Do whatever you want to do." Everyone was so hot to look at the new kind of graphics that could be made: digital processing or, at that time especially claymation – to animate the image. And they had really the most grotesque representations of women, as they still do, in my opinion. And maybe of men also. So they said, "You've got thirty seconds, and you have no budget." And I said, "Artists working with video never have a budget." They said, "No, what we mean is that you can go wherever you want. We're paying your bills." So for an artist that's a very privileged position. The art world in America, I thought, was already beginning to reveal forms of censorship – that is getting very strong now, unfortunately. So thirty seconds – what do you say? And I had friends – I remember a very stern warning coming from Benjamin Buchloh, the Marxist-based historian and critic. "What are you going to do for MTV, entering into that supermarket of imagery?" And I said I'd rather enter, risk, and perhaps fail. I rather learn from it than not enter it. So I went for a very early cartoon animation by Max Fleischer, "Coco the Clown." Coco came out of the inkwell, and then he used to get into fights with the guy who animated him – Fleischer – and take the pen away from him and say, "You're not going to animate me anymore – I'm animating myself." So I guess I was very sympathetic to Coco, growing up. And now, as a woman in America, I thought, "Fuck your images of women on MTV. This is really getting ugly. So I'll animate myself." I took the original Fleischer cartoon, cut it up a lot, very quick, 30 seconds. And in this kind of quick mini-narrative you see Fleischer drawing Coco. Then Coco looks up and there's a machine drawing a woman for Coco. He has to have a woman. I don't blame him! And then he looks up and he gets really excited looking at the image of the woman. The machine has an erase-arm, and it erases the woman. And he gets very upset . But in this case we changed the animation. I found someone who did illustrations for Fleischer Studios in the forties, and he did "cell animation". One point was to go back to the original animation of America that was really strong, cell animation. Especially because everyone was looking for the newest digital effect or a digital version of a film scratch – people would be sitting there wasting a fortune of money trying to make MTV videos that looked like scratch film. So instead of making scratch film, they would make beautiful images in camera, and then they'd get someone in post-production to put in the scratches. And you're sitting there for $1,000 an hour, putting scratches on film. So I thought, "I'm going to the original form of animation; I'm getting the cell animation. We're redrawing the original Fleischer, using his own devices." In this case the woman's kiss – that she blows to Coco – becomes an MTV logo. It's shaped like a rock of MTV. It lands on his crotch, he falls out of the frame. And at the end you see a woman animator now trying to make a new image. And already in her palette is Fleischer. So history already simply has become a piece of digital information. We're all becoming part of the palette.

HUO: And he second project?

DB: Years later, they came back. The Whitney Museum, the American Center in Paris, and the Public Art Fund in New York came and said, "You are one of seven people we picked to work with video imagery. We will be able to give you some money to create a piece that will be shown on MTV." This project was called "TRANSVOICES" and my piece was called "Transgressions". Now, in a practical history of video art making or art making with video, if the year was 1992, then you have a five year difference between these two commissioned works. Now the further difference was: I got twice as much time – so 60 seconds instead of 30 seconds – to express myself in, and less than half as much money. It was very funny. In 1987, there was no limit to the budget at that time – MTV went anywhere, everywhere they wanted to go. And by 1992, you were offered really – as an artist using this kind of visual medium – almost no money, unfortunately. Someone in a commercial area, doing commercials for MTV, would use the money that was given to us, to make the entire 60 seconds, in less than a few hours of working-time. The Artists' spots that were created for screening on MTV also were shown on Canal Plus, in France. It was to be a dialogue – because it was to be about "Where are you now in 1992?" For America it was a celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery America, and in France you had the beginnings of the formation of the EEC. These wonderful things that don't exist for me at all. So, the EEC didn't get together in 1992. If you're a little wise, you know that it's perverse to say that Christopher Columbus found America. Of course he did make a history that did find America in one way. So we had a cross-dialogue, a "Transvoices". My piece shows a lot of mappings. It's mappings of the growth of the United States and France, everything in transition; boundaries and transitions. And you know from Virilio, as I did, because I know we both read his books – that now we deal with invisible boundaries, boundaries much less visible to us. This again becomes part of the work for St. Pölten. I was commissioned to make a new work for the new capital of Lower Austria in St. Pölten, which was scheduled to "open" on May 31st, 1996. And I thought, "I'm going to find St. Pölten all the way back, historically." I actually even found it on the old Roman road; it was really there that early on. So I want to make a work which will allow someone to travel through the previous spaces and times of that now "new" government complex to see the constant fluidity of what we make as boundaries.

HUO: The project for St. Pölten and the project for the KUNSTHALLE wien bring me to a further question. There is a shift in your large-scale installations in the nineties more and more to a "passage" notion, in the sense of Benjamin. And the idea that there is basically not one viewpoint, but lots of different plateaus within the exhibition. Maybe as a last point it would be interesting if you talked a little bit about the works "Tiananmen Square" and "Transmission Tower", which you've already mentioned with regard to documenta IX, as far as the content is concerned, but maybe also formally.

DB: I think they're each a little different, but they're each an investigation for me. "Break-In Transmission: Tiananmen Square" came after the "Rio Videowall". Here we have, for "Rio", this television box as one of twenty-five units – thus you could begin to symbolically relate the box to a "pixel", as well as a TV: microcosm and macrocosm. The television image now breaks through its "frame" for the first time in history. Well, because the image was previously contained within an individual box, an individuated frame, and then the image pushed out into a multi-framed matrix, making it larger than it previously could be, stretching out past its previous boundaries. For me "Tiananmen Square" was a very large image in a much different way. It was CNN, round the clock, bringing you images that I had no way, and still probably have no way, of really absorbing. Certainly if there was "Tiananmen Square," the "Gulf War" did it better and worse at the same time on television. In seeing that, I then made very small boxes, a landscape of imagery formed by LCD monitors – an image that you can see only frontally, and if you go to the side it ghosts out. That's the mechanics of it, the technology of it. You see them only as lights hanging from the ceiling, as if information is coming down at you – not video on pedestals, that put video work on the pedestal. Here there was always the attempt to hang, I think because the feeling was already, as with the "Transmission Tower" it's coming from out there. I think there was a tradition in video that developed this bedrock foundation for video sculpture. And at the time a lot of people were working with that notion. The way museums and institutions chose to contextualize it, was to build a platform for it as a base for a sculptural event. You put the monitor on, you see the image. So here it was coming, like lights – I thought they have to be something similar to utilitarian lights, small. At a distance you only see light. When you come closer, you see image. So given this necessary proximity of the viewer, the viewer has to travel through that space to see many small images. There is, from my point of view, no "eyewitness news". We have that slogan from Channel 7 in New York, ABC, one of the biggest networks in the United States. "We bring you Eyewitness News." No, you bring to me, obviously, a mediated portion of news. And, in America, since about the year 1965, the networks own their news. Before that, news was in the public domain. So here, you would say ABC's version of the news of "Tiananmen Square" – they own that news; you have to buy it from them. And so, if you go and say, "I really want to do this work and re-represent the news" – "Oh, and who will you make it for? Will you make it for the State of New York? Then we will charge you one rate per minute for the news. Will you make it for the country of America? Oh, you also want to go to Europe? Which countries? And then you get all different amounts you have to pay out, and you even have a rate now for the cosmos, for the universe. And you pay for that. The networks already know where this is all going.

HUO: Like the TV-Bank, like an image bank.

DB: Not only a bank, but they want to own territory. I think the most important thing for me in my work has first been to find out what the mechanism of television was, to question it, and then to find this larger mechanism developing, this communication, the networking that happens. And even television has projected itself out into space already. It had that idea of going out there. Then, in the United States there had developed some good science fiction writing about when it goes out there. "Wonder Woman" you know, will eventually reach someone on a distant planet. It will be picked up and they will see "Wonder Woman" in a different time and space than we ever have. So I think with the works "Tiananmen Square", etc., it was to say: "You've made an awfully large image for me on TV." I have to deal with that size, and I have to know that there's really no unity in that image.

HUO: So you show different views, basically?

DB: Different views, from a "garagey" song composed composed by students, "The Wound of History," to the exact moment – which for me was a very important moment in the history of television – it was the exact moment when CNN and CBS were taken off air. When they were told, "You will cease to exist in this way. There will be no more satellite transmission of images." This shut-down of transmitted imagery was by the Chinese government, knowing that they would eventually break down and crack down on the students. It's an interesting thing for me – one that I try to use significantly in all my art work, the pulse I want to reach – to take and to give back. The major networks knew that any minute, any moment, these demonstrations will go violent. That's what everyone looked for – the break, the rupture where this would happen. Rather is there, they have the image of him, headphones on, a big satellite dish in the background. What he's hearing in his headphones is, "They just broke off transmission of CNN." And he's hearing from their field reporters, "We're getting the first images of violence, of the police cracking down on people." At CNN's headquarters there, when I show you that imagery, reshow you, re-represent it, you see that in the CNN newsroom, when the government comes in to issue: "Stop", the news team tries to push the government representatives back out; they're trying physically to say, "No, what are you doing? You can't stop us!" Dan Rather makes it a diplomatic moment. He stalls, he says to the government as they come in, "I'm sorry, I don't understand. Oh, you need to shut us down." What he's doing is buying time. He bought one-sixteenth of a second or so, and by buying just enough time, he got out the first images that there was violence happening; out to the audiences worldwide. That's my interest – to see these historic moments in time and how they affect us. I think I want to leave a kind of totem. I want to leave behind pieces of the history in this crazy industrialized telecommunication that affects all of us. Maybe it's the telecommunications that are making an envelope like a membrane.

HUO: I thought also like a parcours – but a parcours where there isn't any path given. It's a parcours where every viewer finds her or his own path.

DB: That is true. And this too – that you can be a director, yet with no given path. Each viewer can find what images he or she wishes to look at. But overriding, the small images – repeat loops – there is a large monitor in the background, and there is a surveillance switcher. And the surveillance switcher is going around the room and taking grabs from these small images and putting them up on the large monitor, randomly. So if you're viewing an image, that image may be taken by the surveillance switcher. It can be taken away from you and all of a sudden put onto the large monitor, as TV. So there's all of this too. I think the work is about control. When are you in control or out of control? When are you in control of your own representation or out of control of it? Do you have the ability to control it? Even going back in 1979 in "Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry", it shows women presenting themselves – they're all in a kind of grid structure, a tic-tac-toe board of boxes. And I very purposely used these images of women and stereotyped them even further, so as to look at the cliché – a blonde, a brunette, a young girl, a redhead. And each one makes a different gesture, and you see it very clearly because I've dislocated it, I've repeated it. And you see how they're fighting to find an identity to ride over the stereotype. How do you introduce yourself to an audience of millions? What becomes your identity? Is it in the smallest nuance of gesture or form? And now we are entering into the World Wide Web. We have a big television audience, in a certain way. You're introducing yourself, you're going on a bulletin board. Which bulletin board? And if Nam June Paik would say; "Ah, video – very good – no gravity;" now you have no identity. You make your identity, right? "Well, I think I'll be Laura today!" I mean only because it's already happening. I think really one says, "This is great – I can live out my fantasies in a good way." Already, the first case of stalking – of a man pursuing a woman on the internet – came out in the news a few months ago. Can you sue someone, can you make a judgement, a legal judgement? : "Stop him, he's stalking me." You know, you've become a raper. Can you rape through the system? And can you rape identity? I guess maybe there's been an evolved crisis of identity and the ability to act as an individual in a highly technocratic society. And I knew from the very beginning, from "Wonder Woman", I knew that's a very technocratic view of a woman. You either heroicize her, or you underrate her as a secretary. And what place did you ever create for me – this meaning my representation? Where am I in-between? There is no space in-between. The burst of light said that I'm a secretary – I'm a Wonder Woman – I'm a secretary – I'm a Wonder Woman. And nothing in-between. And the "in-between" is really the reality we need to live in.

(Vienna, September 1995)