In 1977, television was still a relatively young medium. While the first broadcast dates back to 1928, the technology did not become widely available to Americans until decades later. By the time artist and Carnegie Mellon University graduate Dara Birnbaum started using her work to examine the phenomenon, records show that almost every household in the U.S. — around 98% — had at least one TV set and that cable television was becoming the new must-have.
Now the subject of a show at CMU’s Miller Institute for Contemporary Art, Birnbaum is described by the university as “one of the first artists to use manipulated television and media footage and is widely recognized as one of the most influential artists of her time.” On view through Dec. 11, Dara Birnbaum: Journey traces the artist’s evolving examinations of media throughout her 45-year career.
The exhibition, which also includes a new Birnbaum work set to debut on Fri., Sept 23, reviews her interrogations of mass media during a “period of time when technological transformations enabled seismic shifts in the mass consumption of information and entertainment.” Curator and Miller ICA director Elizabeth Chodos expands on this, saying that, in 1977, Birnbaum realized the hold television had on the American people after reviewing Nielson TV ratings, which reported that the average family watched up to seven hours and 20 minutes of television per day.
“Now media’s overall influence has only strengthened,” says Chodos, adding that, in 2018, the Nielsen Total Audience Report showed American adults spend over 11 hours a day interacting with media. “This steady diet of information, delivered through ubiquitous and pervasive technology, wields enormous power globally.”
Chodos believes that the Birnbaum exhibition comes at a time when “the media’s role in shaping American culture and politics is more potent than ever.”
Despite the apparent influence of television on Birnbaum, viewers will find few screens of its type in the Miller ICA galleries. Instead, they are treated to a small, but carefully curated selection of works representing the whole of Birnbaum’s interests and chosen media, from a porthole triptych of pop art to a series of projections that explore sexism in the arts using classical music.
The first floor features “Mirroring,” a single-channel, black-and-white, silent video work from 1975 in which Birnbaum makes herself the subject. Nearby, an old Samsung SyncMaster LCD monitor sits atop a display of speculative fiction and other works focused on the year 2023. The latter represents a wide range of pieces, from cheap paperbacks to CD-ROM games and cassette audiobooks, as well as printouts from the fringes of the internet. It also includes “A Letter From the Future,” a letter from an unknown author to her daughter, sourced from the website gospelweb.net (Googling it reveals a page crammed with links and text in a mind-boggling array of font types and colors). It all culminates in a video playing on the Samsung flat screen.
The second floor immediately entrances with “Arabesque Opus 18,” a classical work by 19th-century German composer Robert Schumann, playing on loop. Part of a piece also titled “Arabesque,” Birnbaum uses the song, along with a series of ever-changing, choreographed projections along one wall, to show how Robert’s piece has lived on, while a complementary piece by his wife, Clara, also a celebrated composer, has become largely forgotten.
Using excerpts from Clara’s diary, as well as captioned still images from the film Song of Love (a 1947 dramatic biopic about the Schumanns starring Katherine Hepburn), Birnbaum demonstrates how the concept of artistic genius has only been reserved for men, with women being relegated to the role of muse or nurturer even as they produce their own masterly works. The point is driven home by a rotating selection of YouTube clips featuring pianists playing “Arabesque Opus 18.” As explained on the info placard, Birnbaum could only find one clip of someone playing Clara’s piece, “Romanze 1, Opus 11.”
But Birnbaum has not limited herself to video work, a point demonstrated by other pieces in the show. Dated 1999, “Quiet Disaster: Fire, Water, Looking Back” uses three enlarged comic strip images showing characters in peril, all cast in shiny Plexiglass. By cropping the images to close-ups removed from their original context, Birnbaum challenges the idea of victimhood and how our reaction to impending catastrophe can often be dictated by the media. The themes of “Arabesque” continue in “Computer Assisted Drawing: Proposal for Sony Corporation,” a series of colorful panels fanned out and bolted to the wall. The panels feature images from a commissioned video installation for Sony that Birnbaum abandoned due to what she felt was the company’s “derisive attitude toward a woman artist.”
The show offers a taste of what to expect from Birnbaum, who graduated from CMU in 1967 with an architecture degree before moving on to New York, where she still lives and works. The university’s portrait of her will become complete with the premiere of the show’s upcoming video work, now being promoted under the working title Journey: In the Shadow of the American Dream. The new, original piece should add to an already illuminating view of an artist whose experience of living through a fast-changing media landscape, as well as trying to succeed in a male-dominated industry, more than comes through.
Dara Birnbaum: Journey. Continues through Dec. 11. Miller Institute for Contemporary Art. 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland. Free. Open to the public. miller-ica.cmu.edu