Winter 2002/03

Cable TV’s Failed Utopian Vision: An Interview with Dara Birnbaum

Televisual activism and the revolution that never was

Nicolás Guagnini and Dara Birnbaum

When Sony released its first portable video cam­era, the Portapak, in 1968, the three M’s—McLuhan, Marcuse, and marijuana—determined the political fr­amework of America’s young intelligentsia. The first generation of video artists mapped and defined a utopian territory, voiced­ in the influential magazine Radical Software. The titles of tw­o books written by cont­rib­utors to Radical Software are enough to sample the ideologica­l scope­ that a technological adv­ent he­lped to foster: Paul Ryan’s Birth and Death and Cybernation: Cybernetics of the Sacred (1972) and Michael Shamberg’s Guerrilla Television (1971). The communitarian use of video paralleled th­e development ­of cable television. Control of the means of production, copyright, and distribution blur­red the frontiers between activism, local news fo­recasting, and art-making. Media artist Dara Birnbaum witnessed this process unfold as she defined her own practice. Nicolás Guagnini met Birnbaum to discuss some of the entangled sociopolitical and artistic issues of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Nicolás Guagnini: In early video pieces, one structure repeatedly appears: camera/body/monitor. It started as an interrogation of the self and moved more towards playing with the audience and defining social spaces in pieces like Wipe Cycle (1969) by Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette, or in Dan Graham’s works between 1973 and 1978. How did that development come about?

Dara Birnbaum: From my own experience, I felt that early on there were two distinct developments evident. The one you first mentioned, camera/body/monitor, is best seen in the early tapes by Bruce Nauman or Vito Acconci. They were coming out of what became known as “body art” but also from a projection of an inner psychological state. But there was also another area of development, which was to create alternative forms to broadcast television. Here the concern was with relationships to and through the community, or a much more social “self.” Both fields overlapped. With regard to the self and the body, many works were developed in the isolation of the artist’s studio, such as Bruce Nauman’s 1968 Stamping in the Studio, where he inverted the camera so that to the viewer he appears to be walking on the ceiling. Even though he repeatedly stamps in a rhythmic, almost primitive pattern, he is not really participating in any social or communal rite. He remains individualized in his own studio. Acconci’s Centers (1971) has the artist pointing at his own image on the video monitor, attempting to keep his finger in the center of the screen. He was pointing away from himself and to an outside viewer. In that work he introduces another aspect of video: using the video monitor as a mirror. The work also begins to take advantage of the self-reflexive potential of video by becoming more aware of the psychology of interpersonal relationships. Other artists, like Dan Graham, were producing works where this social awareness was evident, but they expanded this initial awareness by also providing for a way that the viewer could interact with their work, such as Graham’s numerous delayed feedback/mirror installations. Wipe Cycle incorporated the viewer’s image into delayed feedback loops. In Wipe Cycle, again the importance was that the audience became participants by directly affecting the work and thus the viewer was no longer passive. Gillette and Schneider wanted to emphasize the process involved in a work. They were both members of Raindance Corporation, an alternative media collective that published Radical Software.

Dara Birnbaum, still from Pop-Pop Video, 1980. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix.

The technical device that prompted the explosion of video art was the Sony Portapak, and the theoretical framework was coming from Radical Software. Feedback was one of the main topics. Among the writers for Radical Software was Paul Ryan, who came up with topological models for feedback, quite influential in the works of Graham. Another of Ryan’s concerns was the application of those models to education. What was the relationship between education and the community concerns you mention in the early video groups?

What the Portapak brought in was a high level of self-awareness. In 1965 Nam June Paik bought some of the first consumer video equipment on the American market. In the following years, there were so many art pieces that came out of literally “living with the Portapak.” There was a sense of amazement towards that apparatus that, unlike film, could reveal oneself in real time, or in slightly delayed time. Many pieces were diaristic and confined to a secure or isolated environment. The ones I am thinking about deal with being within one’s home space. There was not really an extension outward. Think about Nauman’s “anti-gravitational” pieces, like walking on the ceiling; all these types of work were structured in an interiorized safeness. That is different from the methodology that Ryan applied. He seemed much more interested in pedagogical models and collective usages for video. Alternative television was trying to reach out, to permeate society. In addition, artists were discussing the portability of video, for example when Allan Sekula made reference to a group of workmen on strike—how they utilized a Portapak powered with car batteries, which allowed them to both record spokesmen’s statements as well as to play them back again directly to the strikers who were assembled. That was more like agitprop. The most interesting experiment with education that I remember was done by students of the Irvine school system in California who were able to be tutored through open cable channels which linked different schools in the area. David Ross presented this at the Long Beach Museum of Art. It seemed natural to those students, who were then in high school, or grade school, to utilize the video systems like a telephone.

Which other writers of Radical Software were influential, and how did the magazine circulate?

The first issue of Radical Software came out in 1970 through the Raindance Corporation, which was run by Ira Schneider. Beryl Korot and Paul Ryan were also very involved. I remember that the first issue presented a proposal for a paperless society and an interview with Buckminster Fuller. The main thrust of Radical Software was that there should be an alternative to broadcast television, that television has the capacity of being a responsive medium and a valuable social tool. This approach was completely different from how broadcast television was being used. Also, there was the feeling that television should be open to all. Thus, the magazine would also frequently detail hardware information, along with listing what were then considered counterculture videotapes.

As early as 1926, Bertolt Brecht proposed that the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers. Each new technology brings its own democratizing promise, and the Portapak did so as well.

I don’t think so. The Portapak was somewhat of a cast-off of the industry, and it was fortunate that there was someone out there to grab it. It was basically developed for electronic newsgathering. It is well known that in America everything gets old before its time. The Portapak promised nothing in and of itself. It was almost a “throw-away” from the industry and was taken up by people who had the insight to see its critical potential. For example, early on in Los Angeles, Michael Asher and his students at Cal Arts saw the opportunity to gather this portable equipment and use it in ways other than how the industry was using it. It was also utilized by Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno of the Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) in Lower Manhattan to give a voice to a community and events that may have never been covered by television. There was also the collective Top Value Television (TVTV), whose well-known work Four More Years covered the 1972 Republican Convention. That work was one of the first documentaries to be shot entirely on portable video equipment. Later on, when Sony saw the broader appeal of the Portapak with its multiple applications, they intensified their marketing of it for home and individual use. They even ran many commercial ads showing how even a beautiful-looking young woman could carry and use this equipment without being encumbered.

It is clear at this point how the Portapak promoted a sense of self-awareness that was not completely divorced from the basic levels of identification that showbiz quickly commodifies. Did it help to create any type of community?

What you are looking at is the intersection of a moment in time in which there was a proliferation of available equipment and a lot of communities looking for an alternative lifestyle. The usage of all electronic equipment was also being redefined. Composer Peter Gordon talked about the portable audio tape recorder as a folk instrument. Some video makers consciously or unconsciously used their equipment in the same way. Groups like Videofreex at the end of the 1960s joined together in order to provide alternative models of television. Feedback was utilized, formally, as an alternative to the previous types of light shows at rock concerts. The attempt was to create a bioelectrical sphere. It was the amazement of being stoned through technology, and this also provided a sense of community. Video was easy, and easygoing. You could pass around the camera as you passed around a joint. It was also light enough so that women could lift it. And the collectives’ development took a different direction. Videofreex, reformed under the name of Media Bus, set up what could be considered the first “pirate TV” station in Lanesville, New York, in the Catskills. Their home-built studio was basically in defiance of FCC regulations. Therefore, it became the first unlicensed TV station in America. It was low-power television. It basically went down a lane, a couple of blocks, and many of their programs featured local people. This fostered a stronger sense of community. Of course it only worked on a small, marginal scale.

Prior to McLuhan’s influence and hippy-ism, there is an American tradition of founding utopian communities for religious purposes, like the Shakers, or sociopolitical purposes, like the early 20th-century socialist community Llano del Rio on the outskirts of Los Angeles. This mirrors at a social level that interrogation of the self we were talking about. In many cases it is about setting a series of rules, and then living with those rules to push their limits and applications. At what point in the early 1970s was writing being done about each community having its own cable, with its own broadcast? What relevant experiments were carried out in that direction?

In the early 1970s, while I was working for Lawrence Halprin, an environmental architectural firm in San Francisco, I remember doing a small side-job, which was to assist a friend involved in selling cable television. What I hadn’t expected was that it had nothing to do with utopian ideas at that moment. It was simply a business, and the plan was based on selling and delivering television through cable franchises, which would provide better signal reception through an expanded network of cable. What happened was that through federal and state regulations those cable franchises had to give something back to the community. They had to deliver a basic operating studio with two cameras that had open access and people would then do their own “hands-on” television. The only stipulation was that the programming had to be deemed “in the local public interest.” There are very few remnants of this left, except for stations such as the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. It was innocent to believe that cable was not related to a capitalist notion of big business. For me, cable is not a failed utopia because it never was one. It was during its rise and expansion that room was left over for a multiplicity of programming. There was a need for software and for a moment it was possible to provide alternative forms of programming within those spots. From the “Woodstock Nation” on, there was a brief moment when you actually felt that a large alternative group existed—that there were millions of “us” out there. But this was incredibly idealized. I was in Berkeley at the time, and what I found were a variety of attempts at alternative cultures or counter-cultures. I can remember Tom Wolfe lecturing in the early 1970s in the very same building where many student demonstrations happened. It was a turnoff to see the author of Radical Chic in a totally white suit that looked so elitist to us, especially because he then represented the total opposite of a blue-collar worker. And he said, “You think that you are so different. Look at you. You are all so alike—what you are reading, how you are dressing.” The coding within that “alternative” society was as defined and strict as in the society we were rejecting.

Are you also implying that it was rich kids having fun?

No. Berkeley was then called “Berzerkeley.” It became a depository for people who were runaways from all different classes and types of families, and for people who felt alienated and thought that Berkeley would provide an environment with less pressure. There were amazing teachers at that campus of the University of California, such as Marcuse and Angela Davis. The free speech movement started there. It was one of the most politically active and aware places in the country. You could only say that it was unbelievable that America allowed itself that “leisure,” that privilege of consciousness, looking at it from what I feel is now a much more conservative time.

Your disenchanted outlook on hippy-ism and the utopian ideas circulating among early video practitioners and collectives seem to me part of the critical vision that a “second-generation” artist has to bring into a field to mobilize it. Your early works Pop-Pop Video: Kojak/Wang (1980) and Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978/79) brought upon you the appellation “the pirateer of images.” You certainly pioneered the act of making copyright and distribution instrumental issues for the meaning and understanding of the work. How did you come up with the idea of cannibalizing television?

What happened to me when I started working with video in the late 1970s was that I saw two distinctive roots to video art. One was television, which was being ignored, and the other was an extension of other art forms like body art and performance art. There was a proliferation of writing, especially coming from Europe, such as Screen magazine, which looked at America though the language of film—countless articles and studies on Hitchcock and film noir, but nothing on television. And I felt that it was absolutely necessary to look into the most common language, and that was TV.

Wasn’t Warhol a model already for that kind of search?

I was deeply affected by his work, perhaps mostly by his use of serial reproduction and what it seemed to reflect about mass production and the neutralization of signification that comes with it. When I was in Berkeley everybody was carrying a little red book—Mao’s red book—and when Warhol produced his portrait series of Mao in a very aestheticized way, it was a shock—a good shock. The type of imagery and portrayal that was present in mass media affected many people around me at the time, like Jack Goldstein. These artists began to utilize aspects of the mass media’s forms and modes of production. However, they were translating these images into other mediums, like Warhol. For me, from 1977 on, it was important not to translate this vocabulary into other mediums. By turning the medium of video/television on itself, the real dislocation took place by altering the iconography of television through changing its original structure and context. At a time when there were no VCRs available, I could capture Wonder Woman and disassemble the “her” from a seamless flow that provided viewers with the Pop glorification of her red-white-and-blue democratic iconography. Before the onset of home video recorders, that type of imagery was only coming one way at you. TV was strictly controlled. The idea was to grab these images that were part of my own landscape and not to translate their meaning by making objects, but to let it exist on tape or film. I wanted to place the work anywhere that it could permeate back into the culture. It was a way of talking back to the media.

Was that idea of permeating the monolith of mainstream culture, rather than neglecting or resisting it altogether, related to artists using cable?

Yes. Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman was put on cable TV opposite the “real” Wonder Woman on network TV. So if you were channel-flipping, hopefully you could come across both versions—which I felt could destabilize the meaning and intention of the original network program. The attempt to change context was very naive but very honest. We were trying to change things by permeating different territories. By 1979, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger were also working in that direction in their artwork, but they were not invading the territory of television. I thought that this was the most important territory to invade. In the early 80s, many artists working directly with video thought of cable TV as different from broadcast TV. It seemed less regulated and controlled, even though it was already developing into a big business. Its structure was different in relation to commercial advertising and how that affected programming. The regulations that demanded that color camera studios for production be made available to the public, for local programming in the public interest, gave many people a basis for production without great expense. The other regulations that guaranteed programming time to such local and artistic production allowed a window for more experimental work and ideas. It was possible, for a moment, to live out a more Benjaminian ideal of becoming producers, rather than spectators. In addition, there was a terrible need for product—software—to temporarily fill the gap presented by these new spaces of transmission. Even though it was also a big business, at that moment it represented a potential space for art practice. Now it is much more difficult to tell cable and broadcast TV apart.

Looking at it from today, do you think that works like Wonder Woman still have a critical potential? Or do they get absorbed in the logic of commodifying nostalgia?

Well, it marks a moment in time when I felt I had to capture that idealized vision of a woman, with a perfect body, wrapped in the American flag. This was a horrendous image for me. In the year that I made the videotape, Wonder Woman bathing suits were the hottest-selling items for girls. I couldn’t go and join Lanesville’s community television. I felt that I had to take on the task more directly. If Bush has his own “axis of evil,” then that image was mine. The reason why his recent quote of the “axis of evil” is so immediately assimilated is because it has the potential to resonate in all of us, as based upon a historical past. For me “the evil” was and is the industry—an industry that men dominated, where they could form a commodified, corporate image of women.

The feminist politics of the piece are very much alive, but this still does not answer the previous question. Both Kojak and Wonder Woman are today a cherished part of many people’s childhoods. The context of the piece evolved within the logic of the industry.

A lot of the artists working in the late 1970s and early 1980s had a need for immediacy. I distinctly remember when someone smashed the storefront window of Franklin Furnace, angered by the aphorisms that Jenny Holzer had posted there. At that time her work was produced on cheaply photocopied, standard 8 1/2 by 11-inch paper. That type of immediate reaction, that immediate provocation, was exactly what I was looking for. The urge for immediacy had a lot to do with being the first generation to grow up entirely on television. It was an apparatus that was introduced in our houses like a gun. It was a weapon, and that is how I wanted to use it. I think those pieces hold up as markers of a certain moment in time, not unlike the original series that they come from. They give you a window into a specific preoccupation we had with mass media—and our feelings of being controlled by it. We wanted to respond by breaking down the “control” of the industry and to allow for a space for altering views and representations. It was important to talk back and resist the passivity of reception, both in relation to the mass media’s dominant forms and its ideologies. Of course, like everything else in this society, years later the tapes I made came down themselves to be saleable objects, and that is the way they are distributed now. I did not escape my own copyright.

See press about “Cable TV’s Failed Utopian Vision: An Interview with Dara Birnbaum” in Moving Image, Documents of Contemporary Art series.

New York–based artist and independent producer Dara Birnbaum has achieved international recognition within the arts, spurring some of the most controversial discussions in contemporary media exploration. She is the recipient of the American Film Institute’s prestigious Maya Deren Award, among numerous other awards from international film and video festivals. Her work is part of renowned permanent collections both in this country and abroad.

Nicolás Guagnini is an artist and writer living in New York. He is also co-founder of Union Gaucha Productions, an experimental and independent film production company.

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