This summer in New York, a whole floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art was given over to ‘Pro-Tools’, Cory Arcangel’s exhibition of tech-savvy sculptures, collaged YouTube clips and re-calibrated video games. MoMA PS1 hosted Ryan Trecartin’s ‘Any Ever’, which expressed a vision of socially networked hell – a vision that was for some second only to the Second Coming, and for others a migraine-inducing experience that made you want to look at Giorgio Morandi paintings for a month. Whilst it was refreshing to see work that was clumsily wired to the Zeitgeist rather than slickly attuned to the past, a solo show of old and new work by Dara Birnbaum provided a welcome historical corrective to the foamy excitement over Arcangel and Trecartin as young technological visionaries sui generis.
Birnbaum has been making video and installation work about television and the media since the 1970s. In a 2008 interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, she said of her work during that period: ‘what really needed to be talked about was the language of television because that was the contemporary language of the US, and many other technologically advanced countries. The Neilson ratings at that time, in the mid-1970s, said that the average American was watching television 7 hours and 20 minutes a day. That’s what I felt I had to go after.’ In December 2009, according to the Nielson Group today, people were spending on average more than five and a half hours using social media. Our relationship to TV may have changed but we are still addicted to the culture of the screen – a fact to which Birnbaum’s new multi-channel video installation, Arabesque (2011), and a selection of early video works from the 1970s attested.
Arabesque is a four-screen video projection made using multiple YouTube clips of women performing Robert Schumann’s piano composition Arabesque, Opus 18 – written in 1839 for his wife-to-be, Clara Weck – and the one clip Birnbaum could find on YouTube of someone performing Clara Schumann’s under-recognized piano work, Romanze 1, also written in 1839. These are juxtaposed with stills from the 1947 film about the Schumanns, Song of Love. Edited with a gentle rhythm, the videos were projected across one wall, with three screens grouped to the left, and the fourth – which also showed the stills from Song of Love – ranged a little further to the right. The two left-most screens showed continuous footage of Arabesque performances, whilst the third screen alternated between performance clips and text, excerpted from Clara Schumann’s diaries and from Song of Love: ‘How you men wriggle and twist, and turn your backs on all logic, before you will recognize the truth’, for instance, or ‘Feeling is many sided and words have but one side.’
The text screen made a formal split between the melodramatic idea of the tortured lone artist – as seen in Song of Love to the right of the projections – and a range of recitals by amateurs and professionals on the left. These unknown female players, each giving their all to interpreting Arabesque, together suggest a more generous collective understanding of a work in contrast to a Romantic model of singular male genius. The clips often looked amateur, filmed by friends or family, decidedly un-showy. Examined as distribution data – or putting it plainly, there are lots of performances of Arabesque on the Internet but only one of Romanze 1 – they speak obliquely to the ways in which the status of an art work in the canon is maintained through repetition and ubiquity. If using clips ripped from YouTube is something we’re seeing more of in galleries, here it’s interesting to think about Birnbaum’s Arabesque in comparison with, for instance, Arcangel’s Paganini Caprice No.5 (2011), which features countless clips of heavy metal guitarists playing Paganini, spliced together at breakneck speed, or the 24-hour parade of timepieces in Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010). Birnbaum uses a narrower range of clips, allowing excerpts from the performances to play out longer than Arcangel or Marclay’s rapid-fire edits; Arabesque feels like a piece about the Schumanns and ideas of romantic creativity, whereas Paganini… and The Clock seem like pieces about technological carriers – the Internet and cinema, rather than Paganini and clocks. A selection of early video pieces gave visitors the opportunity to see works such as Attack Piece (1975), in which Birnbaum sits with a still camera, trying to ‘defend’ her territory against her male peers (including Dan Graham, Ian Murray and David Askevold), coming at her with film cameras. Liberty: A Dozen or So Views (1976) involves a trip on the Staten Island Ferry in New York. Passengers – with varying degrees of confidence or shyness – describe their ethnicity, height, weight, age and other distinguishing features to the camera as the boat passes the Statue of Liberty. Control Piece (1975) features the artist placing herself between the camera and a projected image; first of a white square of light, and then a photograph of what appears to be an artist’s loft or studio. She moves across the projected image, feeling around its edges, interrupting its spatial illusion. In these 35-year-old works we see an artist already acutely aware of technology weaving its way into the social network.