February 14, 2008
Feminist Video Art as Forerunner to Postmodernism
UPDATE: Administrator's Note II: In pulling this original 2008 essay up to send to my directed studies student, I made an Editorial correction (Laura Mulvey did not receive credit in a footnote for her seminal "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" essay). I am making an Editorial decision as well, to re-publish it for the current set of readership's eyes. Over the years, this essay has consistently garnered accolades and kudos and its themes bear further scrutiny.
Administrator's Note: The following essay by Diane Blackwell, current Corcoran College of Art + Design senior and former Theory Now student, focuses on the importance of postmodernist theory on feminist video. Diane’s meticulous research on this topic directs our attention to further discursive analyses by multiple sources, and her passion for feminist video as a unique and continuing movement in contemporary art is skillfully represented in her writing. With great pleasure, I post it here for readers of this site.
“. . . since around 1970, it has been feminist responses and approaches to visual images that have provided some of the strongest, most polemical, and most productive theories and critical strategies to come out of any of the disciplines or modes of analysis associated with visual culture.”(1)
Amelia Jones in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2003.
Two events in the 1960s caused a dramatic change in the way art was formulated; one was cultural, the other was technical. Betty Friedan published her book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963 which criticized the idea that women could only find fulfillment through childrearing and homemaking and jump started feminism. As Anna Quindlen stated in her introduction to Friedan’s seminal work, “This is the book that defined ‘the problem that has no name,’ that launched the Second Wave of the feminist movement, and has been awakening women and men with its insights into social relations, which still remain fresh, ever since.”(2) The Portapak, a relatively inexpensive, portable, home video recorder, including camera, was introduced by the Sony Corporation in 1965. It gave artists a new medium for creating art. Friedan’s book and the Portapak coincided with a shift in artistic theory from modernism to postmodernism.
The Second Wave of the feminist movement centered on examining the dissatisfaction found in the lives of a multitude of women who found their identity and thus, self-worth, dependent on their role within the family. By focusing on social institutions that caused this sense of discontent, it was thought that women would be liberated from entrenched prejudices. For too long it had been a private issue. Only by developing a “Pro-Woman Line with its scientific explanation based on an analysis of our own experiences and an examination of ‘who benefits’ from women's oppression . . [could women arrive at an] understanding that our oppressive situations were not our own fault.”(3) This premise was included in an introduction to the paper, “The Personal Is Political,” by Carol Hanisch which was originally published in 1970. An exploration into gender identity was begun by the struggles within one of the radical movements of the Sixties, the Women’s Liberation Movement. Inspired by their example, women video artists created some of the most successful visual investigations.
Video art, initially made possible by the Portapak, was the ideal medium to present artistic endeavors that rely on psychological conditions that could not easily be summarized on a physically two or three dimensional structure. The physical qualities of the Portapak were appealing. It was relatively light, affordable, easy to operate, and gave immediate feedback on what was recorded. When the Portapak became available it appealed to women artists because it made the process of making art self-sufficient and came with no preconceived notions as to aesthetic expectations: a medium free from a patriarchal usage and ways of seeing. What was there not to like when the physical qualities of the new medium and the psychological possibilities were wide open for interpretation? Women began using the new medium unrestrictedly to explore not only generally addressed modern art themes but also how gender shapes how viewers see and how they understand what is seen. All this reflectiveness, this analysis, was not possible in previously available mediums. Art critic Gregory Battcock summarized the unique properties for the new video aesthetic: narcissism (to manipulate psychological factors); immediacy (time and space); and participation (how the viewer interacts).(4) These properties were a far cry from traditional aesthetic properties set out in 1962 by Clement Greenberg that the inherent meaning of art comes from its structure, for example: pictorial art’s essence is found in its flatness.(5) Feminist video art not only analyzed its medium — its technological qualities — but also the cultural influences that created it.
Many early videos were recordings of artists performing to the camera or documentations of performance art. This tendency led Rosalind Krauss, co-founder and editor of October, to observe that artists use the monitor as a mirror and thus, to conclude that the medium of video is psychological. “Because that statement (‘The medium of video is narcissism’) describes a psychological rather than a physical condition, and while we are accustomed to thinking of psychological states as the possible subject of works of art, we do not think of psychology as constituting their medium.”(6) However, without a permanent physical presence, psychological factors were one of the unique aesthetic properties found in video.
In her 1975 video, Semiotics of the Kitchen, (6:09 min., b&w, sound) Martha Rosler critiqued the socially prescribed image of housewife in her role as food preparer. The widely acclaimed success of Julia Child’s television cooking show, The French Chef, which debuted in 1963, demonstrated that many women aspired to attain a similar image of successful provider of the family meal. Rosler had laid out the traditional tools of the kitchen, methodically picked each up, named it, and proceeded to demonstrate it. Her “lesson” was given straight to the camera. However, instead of Julia Child’s cheery enthusiasm, Rosler’s presentation was made with a dead-pan ironic delivery. The disconnect between the neutral announcement of the utensil and the violent gestural demonstration indicated that more was happening here than just the happy housewife-in-the-kitchen routine.
Why did Rosler turn the camera on such an iconic image? She gave her reply as, “An anti-Julia Child replaces the domesticated ‘meaning’ of tools with a lexicon of rage and frustration. When the woman speaks, she names her own oppression.”(7) Rosler was using the medium of film which has had unrestrained freedom in its use of the female image to benefit the patriarchal gaze. It was the “tool” she used to expose the illusion of self-fulfillment created by society in its aggrandizement of the domesticized role of women. The woman in Rosler’s artist statement clearly was not enthralled with her position as cook for the home. Each representative item was met with pent-up rebellion. As a matter of fact, the possibility of even coming close to Julia Child’s adept use of kitchen utensils to produce culinary perfection seemed so remote that a revolt was inevitable. Jacques Lacan defined this psychological condition as The Language of the Self. “What the patient comes to see is that this ‘self’ of his is a projected object and that his frustration is due to his own capture by the object with which he can never really coincide.”(8) This aspect of the not so “pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation” as outlined by Laura Mulvey “developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, (and) comes from identification with the image seen.”(9) There was a double mirror image: the example of the home cook to the professional, and the example of the viewer to the home cook. The viewer mirrored the hopes and anxieties displayed by the unfortunate chef. Thus, when the names of the tools were vocalized objectively and the definition of the usage of those tools were demonstrated subjectively, the jarring juxtaposition released hitherto suppressed emotions in the viewer. The irony of the submissive role of viewer was played against the insidiously demonstrative person with the knives.
As Walter Benjamin noted in his 1936 essay on photography and film, “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”(10) By researching the methods used to construct the image one could make conscious the meaning of the image. Rosler furthered the metaphorical use of “tool” by formatting her video as a self-help television program. Television had become ubiquitous in American households. Within the privacy of one’s own home existed an immediately accessible tool capable of offering a better way of life. The television seemed to be the voice of authority. The television viewer obediently accepted the messages, visual and cultural, that were relayed across the screen. It was this unquestioning position that Rosler wanted to expose.
Another of video’s unique properties was its immediacy. Initially many videos were records of events as they occurred which were filmed from a stationary position. Editing methods for videos were not widely available in the late Sixties and Seventies. This block of recorded time was given a sense of authenticity: something happened in an allocated space of time and it was captured. Quickly though, with enough resources, videos could demonstrate that time and space could be modified seamlessly through postproduction. “Video art in the long run is not television. It’s the medium of television being used by artists to express conceptual ideas and also to express ideas about time and space.”(11) The vocabulary of television was learned by artists and the recorded image was given new meaning.
Joan Jonas took advantage of the qualities of video and critiqued the omnipresence of television from a feminist perspective. In her 1972 video, Vertical Roll, (19:38 min., b&w, sound) she addressed the disconnect between anticipated time and space and exposed the objectification of the female body as being out of synchronization with a woman’s identity. “In performance I was able to work with time in many layers, combining different elements-sound, gesture, object.”(12) As in Rosler’s work the television screen is used to frame the video, however Jonas had blended prerecorded footage into the recorded performance which was relayed on video. A common malfunction of the image, a vertical roll that occurred during early television (caused by a de-synchronization of the frequencies of the camera and monitor signals) was used as the driving element of her video. The viewer observed only sections of Jonas’s body from different perspectives. The view was interrupted by the constant roll which slammed down only to spring into existence again from the top of the screen. The staccato effect on the image was matched, almost, by an abrupt blast of sound of something being rhythmically banged. The discord was meant to be highly irritating so as to jolt the viewer from a passive role into an active one. In the end, Jonas faced the viewer directly with an emotionless stare in front of prerecorded footage.
In her video, Jonas addressed the issue of the objectification of the female body as enabled by television. Mulvey presented this view when she stated, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed . . ”(13) Jonas thus presented a fragmented female image and literally shifted the rolls of the transmission signal. By staring at the viewer while the scenes play in back of her, she had created a layering of space and time and challenged the viewer to deconstruct the traditional representations of women as shown on television.
The third unique property mentioned by Benjamin concerning video was viewer participation, for only in video does the viewer assume an active role. “Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed.”(14) In contrast to film, the viewer’s thoughts in video art were not guided by the moving picture for passive amusement. Instead, video art communicated a criticism of current culture.
In her 1979 video, Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry, (6:50 min., color, sound) Dara Birnbaum directly addressed the issue of the grammar used by television to subdue its audience. She had appropriated images from a game show, The Hollywood Squares, which provided light comedy from celebrities. The participating television contestants determined whether the celebrities truthfully answered questions. The television viewing audience decided which celebrity was most clever. Birnbaum’s video panned in and out, then froze the framing of the image in a close up (telescoping montages) to capture the gestures used by individual celebrities. By definition, the celebrities were putting on an act for their viewing audience; their gestures were representative of their expectations of what would “sell” their star image. The men were shown as authoritative figures that were confident and assured. The women were submissive. Their eyes shifted hesitantly. They were alluring but coy. These star strategies that exploited the audience’s prejudices were exposed through video to its viewing audience. Birnbaum’s art served to enlighten her audience by showing them the truth.
Birnbaum described her tapes as new “ready-mades” for the late 20th century — works that “manipulate a medium which is itself highly manipulative.”(15) The technique used on the appropriated shots was repeated enough so that the video audience could understand the unspoken language used to convey meaning. This use of repetition was in direct contrast to its effect when used by the repetitive game show formats which lulled the audience into mind-numbing experiences. An ironic touch was replacing the show’s theme song with a child’s taunting sing-song and linking the adults’ gestures to the music. “In this case, appropriated material is consciously stripped of its references to its original setting, so that it can be reinvested with meaning which draws specific attention to the nature of the original surrounding context.”(16) The alluring and clever gestures became sarcastic commentaries of what the stars actually thought of their viewing audience. These subconscious thoughts were revealed by video.
The 1960s and 1970s brought a period of revolutionary technological and cultural changes that signified a new era. Women artists empowered by the re-emergence of feminism and armed with the tools of new technology challenged the way art was commodified through their use of video. Rosler realized this when she commented on the fate of institutions of art in Western culture that “Not only systemic but also a utopian critique was implicit in video’s early use, for the effort was not to enter the system but to transform every aspect of it and . . to redefine the system out of existence by merging art with social life and making audience and producer interchangeable.”(17) It was a very postmodern way of looking at things: to make a better world by deconstructing it. Rosler dismantled the image of the happy housewife by turning the refracted mirror on the icon of cooking. Jonas dismembered the male gaze when she offered a disjointed array of body parts. Birnbaum exposed the façade of the celebrities to the naïve viewing audience. The privileged art object would not suffice to convey a subversive message meant for mass distribution. It would need a medium capable of multilayered meaning.
The early videos of the Sixties and Seventies produced by female artists marked the transition from modernism toward postmodernism. As Hanisch proposed, only by analyzing women’s “personal problems” and identifying real sources of oppression could women gain “political” equality. Female video artists took on the task of feminist “consciousness-raising” within the remnants of modernism. They began by looking at the tools of their oppression: the language, the perspective, and the stereotypes that formulated the concept of “woman.” In this semiotic analysis of repression, Second Wave Feminism’s “consciousness-raising” was meant to break with past assumptions and create a new world of equality. When applied to creating art, this idealistic approach soon moved away from its modernistic origins.
Video was the favored medium for this utopian vision. It arrived without any historical theories, was malleable in its handling of the subject, and it was reasonably affordable. As Krauss pointed out, video shattered the notion of art as a precious object by turning the definition of art from that of being a physical condition to a psychological one.(18) By doing so, it no longer fit the definitions of modernism. More than a narcissistic phenomenon, feminist video art foretold postmodernism’s trait of social commentary. Video in the hands of female artists was used as a mirror on society’s stereotypes to influence social change. It could effectively capture the male-oriented gaze by freeze-framing it, and thus exposing its existence so as to begin the process of dismantling it. The near-simultaneous arrival of the Second Wave and video technology were the combined events that signaled the final demise of modernism and greased the path towards postmodernism. Video was used as a direct psychological link to a passive audience to shake up the status quo. “Modernism also thought compulsively about the New . . but the postmodern looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the telltale instant after which it is no longer the same.”(19) Feminist video art signaled that moment of change.
Image: Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), (6:09 min., b&w, sound), © Copyright by Martha Rosler.
1. Jones, Amelia. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, New York, 2003, 3.
2. Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique, New York, 1963 [Introduction by Anna Quindlen, 2001].
3. Hanisch, Carol. “The Personal Is Political,” in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, 1970 [New introduction by Carol Hanisch, January 2006]; see also The ‘Second Wave’ and Beyond.
4. Battcock, Gregory. New Artists Video: A Critical Anthology, New York, 1978, xvi-xvii.
5. Gibson, Anne Eden. “Color and Difference in Abstract Painting: The Ultimate Case of Monochrome,” in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, (A. Jones, ed.), New York, 2003, 192 [Note 3: Clement Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism,” Art International, October 25, 1962, 30].
6. Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” in New Artists Video: A Critical Anthology, (G. Battcock, ed.), New York, 1978, 44 [Reprinted from October, 1:1, Spring 1976].
7. Semiotics of the Kitchen.
8. Krauss, op. cit., 54.
9. Jones, op. cit., 47 [Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” originally published in Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975].
10. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation (John Hanhardt, ed.), Rochester, 1986, 43 [Reprinted from Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, New York, 1969].
11. Levine, Les. “One-Gun Video Art,” in New Artists Video: A Critical Anthology, (G. Battcock, ed.), New York, 1978, 90.
12. Jonas, Joan. “Untitled,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, (Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, eds.), New York, 1990, 366.
13. Jones, op. cit., 47 [Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” originally published in Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975].
14. Benjamin, op. cit., 44.
15. Video Data Bank.
16. Ross, David. “Truth or Consequences: American Television and Video Art,” in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation (J. Hanhardt, ed.), Rochester, 1986, 176.
17. Rosler, Martha. “Shedding the Utopian Moment,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (Hall and Fifer, eds.), New York, 1990, 31.
18. Krauss, op. cit., 44.
19. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, 1997, ix.