Miss Behavior: Video Art and the Female Body at Kinetic Cinema

darabirnbaum-wonder.jpgWhat I love the most about my guest-curated Kinetic Cinema series is that I’m constantly exposed to new art and ideas I would never have run across otherwise. Last Monday’s (4/7) program was no exception. Jonah Bokaer, dancer, choreographer, media artist, and community-builder extraordinaire surprised even me, by scrapping his original program of Nam June Paik videos, to show an evening completely devoted to feminist video art from the 60’s and 70’s, entitled “Miss Behavior: Video Art and the Female Body.”

I only wish I’d had more time and resources to market and promote this evening, because it is so fascinating, rare, and exceptional to see works by such luminaries as Dara Birnbaum, Joan Jonas, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, and Hannah Wilke. It was a bold choice for Jonah, as a male dancer and media artist, to dedicate his evening to the accomplishments and advances of women in the male-dominated video art world. It was also a very interesting program show to an audience of dance people, who come from a field shaped by a very different gender dynamic from media arts. In media arts, the numbers of women participating are just generally low, however in dance, the gender diagram is shaped like a pyramid with a majority of females making up the base as dancers, students and teachers, and an increasing concentration of males populating the limited positions at the top (DanceNYC, “The Gender Project“, Updated Research 2003). While women are not a rarity in the dance world, female leadership and artistic success (as measured by touring, commissions, and funding) is, given the huge ratio of women to men in the field.

Issues of the female body are also a constant undercurrent in dance performance. During the time period of the videos in this program, the dance world was undergoing its own post-modern investigations, and it seemed that choreographers and performers were trying to question and challenge all the common associations of the dancing body, particularly a female one, with sex, suggestiveness, and sensuality. Could a body be just a machine, or an object like any other prop? Could a female body be a blank slate, like a male body is? Are the bounds of femininity and gender stereotypes something to push against and destroy, or revel in and enunciate? The videos shown on Monday addressed these same questions from a number of different angles.

Dara Birnbaum‘s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79) was an early precursor to the common YouTube mash-up video of today. Using what was cutting edge video editing technology of the day, she spliced together hundreds of clips of Lynda Carter’s TV character twirling into and out of her Wonder Woman persona. At the end of the video, a sexy disco song about Wonder Woman plays while plain typed lyrics scroll up on a blue screen, seeming to ironically underscore the song’s suggestiveness. Jonah described how Birnbaum encourages her work to be pirated and played in different contexts including clubs, theatres, and installations. The work is still remarkably fresh and fun even now, and this makes sense when you think about the fact that Birnbaum has been embracing the web 2.0 spirit for over 30 years!

Here is a very short clip from Technology/Transformation:
Wonder Woman:


jonas_duet.jpgJoan JonasDuet from 1972, is a performance-based video documenting a vocal duet between Jonas and her screen double. The two women howl like wolves at the moon, with the live Jonas’ face in profile in front of a tv screen of her luminous face in extreme close-up. If viewed on its own, I may not have read this video from a feminist perspective, but given that the entire program was about women in video art, I started to think about “bitches” as slang for women and female dogs, and the archetypal connection of the moon with the female principle. The piece did not imply anything good or bad, it was simply an interesting composition that invited many interpretations and possible meanings.

martharosler.jpgMartha Rosler‘s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) shows how powerful simple task-based compositions can be. Delivered with deadpan wit, Rosler methodically goes through the alphabet showing and demonstrating common kitchen objects “Apron, Bowl, Chopper…”. Despite the familiar surroundings, Rosler’s kitchen is not warm and cozy. Instead she imbues each object with danger and violence through gestures that turn them into weapons rather than cooking implements. For “Chopper” she picks up a hand chopper and violently bangs it down into the bowl. For “knife” she picks up a long carving knife and jabs it sharply towards the camera. Even “spoon” isn’t an implement to feed, instead she scoops up invisible liquid and hurls it out to the side. I love double meanings, and in this case Rosler juxtaposes gesture with words to break-down our assumptions and associations with women’s work and the domestic realm.

schneemann_bowery.jpgWhen I think of Carolee Schneemann, the first thing that comes to mind is her famous Interior Scroll piece in which she pulled a scroll from her vagina and read a report of sexism. Beyond that, I know little about what else she has done. For this program Jonah selected a video that was neither erotic nor sexual. It was a 10 min 16mm film of a performance she did at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery called Water Light/Water Needle (Lake Mah Wah, NJ) (1966) in which the filmmaker was one of the performers. The result is a fragmented chaotic film of a performance that involved 8 tightrope walkers suspended over the ground and lots of paper and detritus everywhere. What I liked about it was the impression it gave of what it must have felt like to be inside the piece. With its inside view, the camera was able to convey the essence of the work – instability, tenuousness, balance – rather than capture a cold, impersonal document of the performance.

hannahwilke.jpgThe last piece of the program, Through the Large Glass (1976) by Hannah Wilke was the most sexual in content, and for that reason perhaps still the most controversial today. In this film, Wilke performs a strip tease behind Marcel Duchamp’s famous Large Glass, also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. I didn’t know the alternate title of Duchamp’s work, and was glad Jonah mentioned it in his introduction, because by knowing this reference it made Wilke’s performance a bold commentary on female objectification in Western art. Dressed in a white pants suit with a white fedora hat, Wilke struck different poses as she undressed, alternating between personas and genders. To me she was representing both the bride and the bachelors, sometimes feminine and coy, other moments defiant and haughty. Throughout the piece her gaze was fixed out on us, the audience on the other side of the glass (and the camera), making me feel like a subject as well. Generating a feeling of self-consciousness on the part of the viewer seemed to be the objective of Wilke’s piece, and as a result it called attention to the male point-of-view implicit in most other Western art.

I’m very happy Jonah shared these works, and I hope there will be more chances to examine feminist motif’s in Kinetic Cinema in the future. Many thanks to EAI (Electronic Arts Intermix) for access to these films, as well as Chez Bushwick and the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts for support of this screening.

Next month at Kinetic Cinema – Levi Gonzalez on May 5th with a program on “What makes a dance or film experimental?”

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