Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art


Dara Birnbaum’s works does not merely employ rediscovered Pop art strategies, as is currently fashionable in the context of painting and still photography. Her work critically embodies all the concerns that originated in Pop art and were subsequently developed further in Minimal and post Minimal art of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. When she states that she “wants to define the language of video art in relation to the institution of television in the way Buren and Asher had defined the language of painting and sculpture in relation to the institution of the museum”, it becomes clear that her work operates programmatically within both frameworks. It analyzes that overt ideological functions of the language of mass culture with the tools that the practice of high art provides. Simultaneously it looks upon the conditions of high culture - its isolation and privileged position, its commodity status and fetish existence - from the perspective of mass culture in its most advanced form: the television industry. Birnbaum’s work integrates both perspectives in a dialectical exchange which has the potential to affect the languages of both art and television, though the work has not yet assumed a comfortable position in either institution. Seeing her work in a traditional gallery situation - for example, during her installation at P.S. 1 in New York in 1979 - made the work’s references (both implicit and explicit) to the past decade of sculptural thinking and transformation instantly readable. It emerges out of that historical moment in sculpture when artists such as Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham began to use video as a tool to implement a phenomenological understanding of viewer-object relationship as they had been introduced through Minimal sculpture. They gradually developed analytical video installations and performances that not only focused on the viewing process, but involved either author and audience, audience and object, or audience and architecture in an explicit and active interchange.

With the growing theatricalization of video and performance in the mid-70s and its increasing tendency to narcissistic estheticization it is understandable that the focus of the video activities of politically committed artists would return to television. At that time such tapes as Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People, 1973, emerged, differing substantially from the artist’s tapes for television broadcast that had been previously produced but that had simply channelled artistic performance material on videotape through television, rather than addressing the language of television itself. The programmatic position of Fluxus ideas in Nam June Paik’s pioneering video/television work of the mid to late ‘60s was that the visual culture of the future would be contained in and affected by the emergence of television as the primary social practice of visual meaning production, just as visual culture in the 19th century had been profoundly affected by the invention of photography. Birnbaum logically refers to Paik as one of the key figures to have influenced her thinking along with Graham, with whom she collaborated in 1978 on a major project proposal entitled Local Television New Program Analysis for Public Access Cable TV.1 Birnbaum’s tapes using material taped off broadcast television focus first and foremost on the meaning of technique, the specific conventions and genres of television. In the formal analysis of the convention and the mixing of genres their ideological functions and effects become transparent. It is crucial to understand to what extent Birnbaum’s work is anchored in the structures that determine collective perceptual experience. Due to its revelatory deconstructive procedures, the work does not participate in the proliferation of artist-produced, innovative media strategies which in the end only function to bring television ideology esthetically up to date.

Birnbaum’s videotapes appropriate television footage ranging from sitcoms and soap operas such as Laverno and Shirley and General Hospital to live broadcast material such as Olympic Speedskating and commercials for the Wang Corporation. They are ultimately destined for television broadcast, where they could most effectively clarify their functions in situ and in flagrante, but the contradictions within which the work exists place it , for the time being, exclusively within the framework of a high-art, avant-garde discourse. Should it actually be shown on commercial television, its essentially esthetic nature might become all the more apparent, and its critical potential might decrease. The striving, necessary as it is, for a position for power within the media is therefore also the most vulnerable aspect of Birnbaum’s work. This becomes most evident in Remyl/Grand Central: Trains and Boats and Planes, 1980, where the attempt to embody the interests of a corporation’s “support” for young artists in a simulacrum of an advertisement results in a construct that at best could be perceived as parody, and at worst could all too easily be misperceived as a new advertisement gimmick. It is not surprising that the work’s potential for affirming a final, totalitarian synthesis of the culture industry and esthetic production would occur in an independent construct that mimics advertising conventions rather than addressing its critical aculty to found materials, which is the rule in almost all of Birnbaum’s other tapes.

Technology / Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978-79, unveils the puberty fantasy of Wonder Woman that has grown historically from a comic-book figure to a nationally broadcast television series. This progression provides an image of crisis which, like the resurrection of Superman in film, feeds a collective regression toward icons that recall the monolithic powers that children perceive heroes, parents, and the state to be. The prime focus of this tape seems to be the inexhaustible special effects that corporate television and film producers drawn upon when state power most urgently needs to be mystified. Iconographically this tape runs parallel to the comic-book-hero-turned-television-mirage in the same way that Lichtenstein’s paintings placed themselves within and against the graphic techniques of comic-book reproduction in the ‘60s.

The formal procedures of fragmentation and serial repetition to which Birnbaum subjects the appropriated television material expand Warhol’s pictorial strategy of serializing commodity imagery, and his and Bruce Conner‘s device of using film loops and serialized segments. They break the temporal continuity of the television narrative and split it into self-reflexive elements that make the minute and seemingly inextricable interaction of behavior and ideology an observable pattern. As a result of the precision with which Birnbaum employs these allegorical procedures we discover with unprecedented clarity to what degree the theater of professional facial expressions, performed by actors in close-ups on the television screen, has become the new historical site of the domination of human behavior by ideology. This becomes particularly evident in the ingenious juxtaposition of segments from a live broadcast of women speedskating at the Olympics and a segment from the “real-life” soap opera General Hospital in her tape POP-POP-VIDEO: General Hospital/ Olympic Women Speed Skating, 1980. The desperation of a female doctor, confessing in a series of reverse-angle shots to her paternal male colleague her failure in handling a communication breakdown with a man whose identity is not revealed, is tightly counterpointed by the spectacle of Olympic vigor and velocity. The splendor of a neo-futuristic imagery that celebrates the subjection of the female body to abstract instrumentalization does not become a sort of Leni Riefenstahl on color TV because of the image’s constant paralleling with the spectacle of neurotic collapse in the features of the female doctor. Physiognomic detail and its meaning spark off even more in the tape Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry, 1979, which extracts segments from the game show Hollywood Squares.

Walter Benjamin’s observation that neurosis has become the psychological equivalent of the commodity becomes obvious in the physiognomical detail of hyperactive television actors and actresses, a reading that is provided by Birnbaum’s astute selection of details and the formal procedures to which she submits her material. The total apparatus of television technology and the machinations of its conventions become readable as instruments of ideology in visual language; the ideological instrumentalization of the individual is manifested in physiognomic spectacle. In Birnbaum’s work the viewer is confronted with bare layers of ideology mise en abyme: the patterns of behavior on the screen anticipate and exemplify what television aims to achieve within the viewer - they are exercises in submission and adaptation. Birnbaum’s perspective on the technique of television does not seduce her into using those techniques as visual gadgetry employed for the sake of “pure pleasure” or “formal play”, which always conceal estheticizing ideology. The visual pleasure that Birnbaum’s tapes may generate in the viewer is balanced by cognitive shock. For example, in her Wonder Woman tape special effects appear as sexually disguised violence offering images of power and technological miracles as a diversion from the reality of social and political life; the shock resides in the recognition that such sexist representations of a female figure as a vehicle of male and state power are the cynical ideological complement to an actual historical situation in which radical political practice seems to have been restricted to feminist practice.

This becomes all the more transparent in the juxtaposition of sound and imagery that occurs in the second part of the tape. In the first part the staccato serializations and freeze-frame images of a spinning, running, fighting Wonder Woman are accompanied by original soundtrack fed through the same formal procedures as the images. The second part of the tape visually consists of the lyrics (in white letters on a blue background) of a disco song also called Wonder Woman. Birnbaum happened to come across this relatively obscure disco song while she was editing the television footage. The graphic, scriptural representation of female sighs and of lyrics that we are normally supposed to hear, but not read, inverts the split of the phonetic and graphic elements of language which we saw earlier in Duchamp’s pun. Here, in the scriptural allegorization of the disco song, we become aware that even the most minute and discrete phonetic elements of such popular music (sighs, moans, etc.) are as soaked in sexist and reactionary political ideology as the larger syntactic and semantic structures of the lyrics.

The dimension of sound plays a very important role in Birnbaum’s tapes in general - it does not perform the subservient role of phonetic illustration and emphatic massage to which music in film and television usually has been reduced. The restoration of sound to a separate discourse which runs parallel to the visual text makes the viewer aware of the hidden functions that sound normally fulfills. In one of Birnbaum’s recent works, PM Magazine, 1982, a four-channel video and sound installation at the Hudson River Museum2, she extrapolates the function of sound even further, just as she expands the material elements into the conditions of painting and sculpture, and of the museum framework which contains them. Two panels on opposing walls featured large black and white photostat images extracted from the television footage used in the installation, framing one and three monitors respectively. A wall surface was painted bright blue for three-monitor panel and bright red for the one-monitor panel, both of which were graphically emphasized by Birnbaum. The panels possess the qualities of the kind of enlarged photographic imagery that might be encountered in trade-show displays. They are reminiscent of the grand-scale exhibition panels in the later Productivist work El Lissitzky, such as his installation for the Soviet Pavilion of the International Pressa Exhibition in Cologne in 1928 with Sergei Senkin, or the International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden in 1930, in which photomontage techiques were expanded onto the level of agitprop architecture. Birnbaum’s panels have lost their “agit” dimension for the sake of the museum “prop”. As such they enter a dialectical relationship with the current return to large-scale figurative multi-panel painting which uses quotation as an end to legitimize historicism.

Quotation functions in Birnbaum’s work as a means to disentangle this historicist collapse and to reinstate each element to its specific function and place. She transfers the procedure and syntactic structuring principle of spacing, which Rosalind Krauss has discussed in the context of Dada collage and Surrealist photography, from the level of material and iconic elements to that of perceptual modes - visual, tactile, and auditory - and their material correlatives - the iconic image, the planar sign, color, architectural space, and sound.

In this complex work the framework of the museum is bracketed with the commercial display, on the one hand, and the historic dimension of agitprop montage, on the other. In the PM Magazine trailer Birnbaum juxtaposes state-of-the-art editing techniques with electronically generated imagery of state-of-the-art animation techniques, recycling icons of the ‘50s American dream of leisure time and consumption. Television techniques and technology are made to refer to themselves and become transparent as the ultimate instance in which ideology is structured and contained. In the same way that the visual material is processed in four three-minute loops, the soundtrack of the trailer - or the key motifs of it - are run through four channels. Once again it is he auditory dimension that reveals most clearly the work’s essential decentralization. The elements of the installation could only become congruent as text within the individual experience of an active viewer.

Birnbaum unfolds the historical potential of montage technique as it originated in Cubist and Constructivist relief constructions and as it was transformed and particularized in the work of the ‘60s and ‘70s ranging from Dan Flavin, Nauman, and Serra to Graham and Asher. Her installation, saturated with historical understanding and striving for contemporary specificity, provides and adequate definition and reading of the original implications of relief and montage techniques at a time when the market tries to assure us that their historical fate was to end up as Frank Stella’s corporate brooches and Julian Schnabel’s art-historical gingerbread.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh

Note: The text excerpt is from the text published in Artforum, Volume XXI, No.1, Sept. 1982. Permission given by Mr. Buchloh & Ms. Birnbaum to reprint for the SCCA on Oct. 4, 1996, NY.

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