New York artist Dara Birnbaum opens a show at South London Gallery today spanning her career from the single channel experimental video pieces of the 1970s through to her latest 4 channel installation 'Arabesque'. In the 2011 work footage taken from YouTube shows women playing two compositions, one by Robert Schumann and one by his wife Clara, which Birnbaum cuts with extracts from Clara's diary and scenes from 1940s film 'Song of Love'.
The accumulation of imagery comes together to chart the progression of the music in history and culture. Best known for her 1978-9 piece Wonder Woman, Birnbaum opened up TV as a medium for a generation of artists through her use of appropriated footage and fast-paced collaged imagery. Using visual effects to deconstruct and subvert the image of woman, she is one of the original artists to work with the visual vocabulary of video mash-ups and quick cuts. We took the rare opportunity to ask her a few questions on her extensive and inspiring career…
Dazed Digital: There is a current trend among young artists for revisiting the idea of TV and remixing imagery from the internet, this seems to have roots in your work?
Dara Birnbaum: I was thinking that when I started in 1975, there was no real easy access to footage from television, there were no home recording units, the internet was probably in science fiction at the time and I had to go out and what was then called 'steal' the footage. I was called a pirateer of imagery. It's so different nowadays because everyone has access to all kind of images so it's almost the opposite of where I've come from - a lot of people are doing mash-ups.
I haven’t found that many yet that are entirely thought-provoking but I know it is still possible to do an investigation. I went to Youtube and was gathering all the footage of the Robert Schumann Arabesque piece, but there was only one person playing Clara Schumann because that’s all I could find, so I thought that was a different way of approaching it - not just mashing up things together but reaching into the Internet as a source bank or resource material. Everyone wants to be on YouTube in a way.
DD: Wonder Woman is sited frequently as a feminist investigation into TV, how present has your feminist sensibility continued to be throughout your work?
Dara Birnbaum: I think I'm still looking toward finding a voice for the position of women, within technocratic societies specifically. It was important to foreground the Clara Schumann work. My strategy has stayed primarily the same, it's simply looking to re-portray woman from roles that have been received traditionally and historically into a stronger position.
DD: The Internet's quite interesting with regards to that and how imagery is addressed on this new platform - the largely pornographic bank of newly accessible imagery.
Dara Birnbaum: It’s a good time to re-enter looking at the Internet instead of TV where a critical analysis needs to take place because there isn’t yet a critical analysis of it. This large area of pornographic use of women could be altered or changed or even reversed.
DD: Or even re-entered from a position of strength. How has your work developed as technology progressed?
Dara Birnbaum: It’s a way of reaching into a popular medium source the way that television was and YouTube now is, the strange thing is that we live in politically very conservative times. There's a lot of problematics with the sense of appropriation, whereas I was heralded for being a pirateer in the 70s although it was illegal, now everyone who wants to show the piece 'Arabesque' is looking toward whether copyright was obtained correctly and I'm still a believer that appropriation is a very important strategy in the arts as a tool and that it keeps up a kind of freedom of speech action; can we sample materials of the landscape that’s built around us and use that as a critical and analytical tool? The arts were willing to fight for the idea of appropriation in the 70s whereas I'm increasingly encountering problems in institutions today.
DD: The Internet's another interesting place where those battles are being fought and law is being re-imagined every day to attempt to catch up with the technology.
Dara Birnbaum: There are problems now with countries on whether or not they can have a democratic voice. If not, the first thing that's shut down in the country is the net, which represents a kind of freedom of speech.
DD: Can visual art hold power over other disciplines in this realm?
Dara Birnbaum: I hope that the arts can provide a critical discourse at an important time where it's obviously incredibly necessary. With Occupy Wall St and other cities, there is a sense where people need to re-occupy the arts in a critical fashion and take it off of it's climb towards commercial enterprise in the '90s and see if we can now present inquiry again coming up in the next decade.
Dara Birnbaum, 9 December 2011- 12 February 2012, South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UH