Dara Birnbaum

An architect by training, Dara Birnbaum is an installation and video artist best known for challenging gender biases in the 1970s and for addressing the growing presence of television within the American household. A New Yorker by birth, Birnbaum currently resides and works in New York City.

Through the intersection of television and video art, Birnbaum’s work addresses the aesthetic and ideological features of mass media. With her work, Birnbaum explores the similarities and differences between how someone watching at home experiences the television and how an artist appropriates the images from television in a public space like an art gallery.

Birnbaum entered the video art scene in the mid-1970s and is famous for being one of the pillars of the feminist art movement in that world. Through her artwork, Birnbaum denounces the power of mass media to manipulate the imagery they produce and, consequently, how they influence the viewers.

Birnbaum is known for her subversive approach. One of her trademarks is showcasing the superficiality of video by using the very technological possibilities it provides to deconstruct the flow of television programs. By playing with the codes and the language of commercial television, Birnbaum shows the basic dichotomies that exist within the medium.

Birnbaum’s artworks are held in collections all over the world. One of her most famous artworks, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Some of her other works are in the National Gallery of Canada.

Dara Birnbaum Career

Dara Birnbaum received her BA in architecture from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1969. After graduating, she worked at the architectural firm Lawrence Halprin & Associates in New York City. During her time at the firm, she developed a lifelong interest in civic space and the intersection of private and public spheres in mass culture.

Birnbaum cultivated these interests by enrolling at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she earned a BFA in painting in 1973. Two years later, she moved to Florence, Italy. There, at the Centro Diffusione Grafica, she discovered video art.

The artist returned to New York City in 1976. Not long after, she was introduced to the artist and art critic Dan Graham, who would become an influential figure in her artistic career. Graham introduced Birnbaum to the British film theory journal Screen, which featured analyses and critique of mainstream cinema.

Birnbaum, who had a keen interest in the emerging feminist context in critical analyses of cinema, found Screen fascinating. However, she thought that the journal’s failure to consider television was a major flaw. The artist believed that television would replace film as the most influential force in American mass culture.

While she was teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the late 1970s, Birnbaum started using a Sony Portapak that was lent to her by the poet Alan Sondheim. Using this device, she was able to make her first experimental video works. These first video works included Mirroring (1975) and Control Piece (1975).

With these works, Birnbaum used mirrors and projected images to explore the differences between the body and its mirror image or representation. The artist also used mirrors, as well as borrowed images, to experiment with the different facets of television.

Birnbaum’s first exhibition was at the Artists Space in New York City. At the time, she was not using video but was already analyzing images from television. One of her works from this period was a deconstruction of TV imagery called (A) Drift of Politics (1978).

This work, as well as others she did on the relationship between the text and the image, informed her most famous work, the video art piece titled Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, which she worked on from 1978 to 1979. For the next four decades, Birnbaum continued to make video and installation works that have been shown around the world and earned her numerous awards.

Birnbaum’s international solo exhibitions include ones for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan, the Musee d’Art Contemporain in Montreal, the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez in Valencia, the Wilkinson Gallery in London, the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, and the Jewish Museum in New York. Retrospective screenings of her work have been held at the Kunstmuseum in Berne, the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and the Kunsthaus in Zurich.

In 1987, Birnbaum received the Maya Deren Award for Independent Film and Video by the American Film Institute. The same year, she was awarded the Louis XIII de Remy Martin Award of Excellence and was appointed a Perkins Junior Fellow in the Humanities and Junior Visitor Fellow by the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.

In 2009, a major retrospective of Birnbaum’s work, entitled The Dark Matter of Media Light, was organized at Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.) in Ghent, Belgium. In 2010, the retrospective also traveled to the Museu Serralves in Porto, Portugal.

Birnbaum won a United States Artists Fellow award in 2010. In 2011, she received a Creative Artist Residency at the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation. Birnbaum has also received a TV Picture Prize from the International Festival of Video and Electronic Arts in Locarno, Switzerland.

Key ideas

  • Birnbaum’s video and multimedia installation artworks are considered some of the most influential and provocative works tackling contemporary issues in art and television.
  • The artist uses both low-end and high-end technology to depict, critique, subvert, or dissect the power of mass media to define culture, memory, and history.
  • By playing with video, images, text, and music, she reveals the hidden ideological meanings in mass media.
  • Birnbaum often repeats images and disrupts the flow of videos with music and text.
  • According to her University of Richmond bio, Birnbaum has said that her videotapes are “ready-mades” that “manipulate a medium” that is already “highly manipulative.”
  • Birnbaum is recognized as one of the first video and installation artists to use images from television in a subversive manner. She used a pop culture icon in Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman and dominant TV genres in the 1979 video work Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry.
  • According to the Electronic Arts Intermix, the artist sought to “define the language of video art in relation to the institution of television.”
  • Birnbaum was interested in the speed in which popular television shows are accepted and consumed without ever being questioned or verified. Some of the artist’s works were designed to get viewers to critically process the images so that they could no longer be neutral or passive about them.
  • Birnbaum is known for using deconstruction and appropriation to tear apart the codes of representation in mass media. She was one of the first artists to use these tactics, subverting the grammar of television text and using it in a subversive manner to ultimately critique and recontextualize the medium.
  • Many of the artist’s video and multimedia works focused on the representation of women.
  • Birnbaum was one of the first video artists to make “video walls.” She created Rio Videowall in 1989 for the Rio Shopping/Entertainment Complex, a busy shopping center and public plaza in Atlanta, Georgia. The interactive installation work was a permanent piece consisting of 25 monitors.
  • In her video installations, Birnbaum gave spatial dimension to the ideas explored in her videotapes.
  • One of these installations, Break-In Transmission: Tiananmen Square (1990), looks into the role of television in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and national movement.
  • The kidnapping and murder of German business executive Hanns Martin Schleyer was the subject of Birnbaum’s six-channel video installation Hostage.
  • The May 1968 Paris uprising and the first Take Back The Night march at Princeton University in 1987 featured in her single-channel video work titled Canon: Taking to the Street (1990).
  • Birnbaum has said that she used to avoid galleries, preferring instead to show her work at independent art studios, art spaces, nightclubs, and wherever there a projector and a sound system were available.

Dara Birnbaum Biography

Not much is known about the artist’s private life. Birnbaum was born in the state of New York in 1946. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a BA in architecture in 1969.

After a stint with an architectural and urban planning firm, she studied at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1973, she graduated with a BFA in painting. She moved to Florence, Italy for a year and returned to New York in 1976.

Back in New York City, Birnbaum, who had been introduced to video art in Florence, started experimenting with video and installation art at the New School for Social Research. Birnbaum has produced video and multimedia works for a wide variety of consumers, including shopping center visitors and MTV viewers. To this day, Birnbaum lives and works in New York, where she has been making video and multimedia installation art for over forty years.

The artist has taught in and received awards from numerous schools. She was a Louis B. Mayer Artist-in-Residency at Dartmouth College and was awarded a Certificate in Recognition of Service and Contribution to the Arts by Harvard University. She is the recipient of several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.

Dara Birnbaum Art

These artworks are some of the most representative of Dara Birnbaum’s artistic career:

  • Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978–1979)

This color video art piece, which features stereo sound and has a run time of 5 minutes and 50 seconds, is about the gendered imagery produced by mainstream television. It is, to this day, Birnbaum’s most famous work.

In Technology/Transformation, the artist uses appropriated images of the pop culture icon Wonder Woman to overturn the ideological subtexts and hidden meanings in the famous television series from which the images were taken. The action-packed video features repetitive, recycled images of the main character Diana Prince transforming into Wonder Woman. The transformation sequence is repeated insistently until it no longer has a mystical effect and becomes commonplace and almost ridiculous.

The repetition of the images in the video artwork serves to free them from the context given by television, much in the way that a seemingly ordinary woman (i.e., Prince) transforms into a superhero. It also serves to call the status of media icons into question. With this work, Birnbaum experimented with how television could “talk back” to television or how television/video could be analyzed and critiqued within its own terms.

  • PM Magazine/Acid Rock (1982)

PM Magazine/Acid Rock is part of a four-channel video installation that Birnbaum created in 1982 for Documenta 7. It uses appropriated video and images from PM Magazine, the nightly news and entertainment program that was broadcast from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, and a segment from a Wang Computers commercial.

Through images from popular culture and music from The Doors, the video installation tackles the themes of mass media, consumerism, and feminism.

  • Damnation of Faust trilogy (1983—1987)

In the 1980s, Dara Birnbaum worked on a three-part video installation using Richard Wagner’s Faust as inspiration. Damnation of Faust consists of Evocation (1983), Will-O’-the-Wisp (1985), and Charming Landscape (1987). The highly-structured videos evoke an amorphous memory or dream.

The installation itself is composed of two screens showing two different videos. There is also a black-and-white photograph of a young girl. The image is printed in large-format and hung on a red wall.

The Damnation of Faust trilogy deals with societal restrictions and the struggle to establish and express one’s identity. It uses the female voice to look into the conflict between loss and memory, past and present, and the inner world of the self and the external world.

Influences

Like many in her generation, Dara Birnbaum was influenced by the works of video art pioneers Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik. Paik is widely considered to be the founder of video art. Vostell, a painter and sculptor, was an early adopter of installation art and video art.

Paik, in particular, was influential in shaping Birnbaum’s views on television and television critique in the 1970s.

Birnbaum’s works have influenced younger artists like Douglas Gordon, Candice Breitz, Philippe Parreno, and Pierre Huyghe.

Further reading/References:

Cornell, Lauren. (2016, April 28). In the Studio: Dara Birnbaum. Retrieved from https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/in-the-studio-dara-birnbaum/

EAI.org. (n.d.) Dara Birnbaum. Retrieved from https://www.eai.org/artists/dara-birnbaum/biography

MarianGoodman.com. (n.d.) Dara Birnbaum. Retrieved from http://archive.mariangoodman.com/artists/dara-birnbaum/The University of

Richmond. (n.d.) Exhibition: Appropriation. Retrieved from https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~jdrummo2/feedback/exhibition_appropriation.html

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