In Conversation: Dara Birnbaum and Cory Arcangel

Dara Birnbaum and Cory Arcangel, ARTFORUM, March 2009, Visit external site
Cory Arcangel, The Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run” Glockenspiel Addendum, 2006. Performance view, Light Industry, New York, August 5, 2008. Photo: Damien Crisp.

If Certain Critical Operations first explored by artists during the 1970s and ’80s have since become nearly ubiquitous in visual culture—with, for example, the isolation and manipulation of popular imagery, once the purview of avant-garde practice, now common among homemade videos placed online—then what are the most significant obstacles, opportunities, and shifts in attitude for artists working in these modes now? Artforum invited DARA BIRNBAUM—pioneering video artist and subject of a pivotal retrospective next month at the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent, Belgium (April 4–August 2)—to sit down with media artist and programmer CORY ARCANGEL and compare notes on art in light of widespread appropriation, outmoded applications, and increasingly divergent audiences. Part of their conversation has been reproduced below. For the rest, pick up the March issue of Artforum.

CORY ARCANGEL: Recently I read an interview in which you said clubs provided one of the first outlets for your videos. In other words, you felt you could make videos to be projected in clubs at the same time you made videos that were to be shown in art spaces. Was that specific to the time? It made me wonder how the context for video has changed over the past thirty years or so.

DARA BIRNBAUM: Well, to clarify just a bit, I was saying that whenever I made a work, I believed it could be inserted into different contexts. It wasn’t that I was actually making different work for a specific venue. You see, when I started, video was a very bastardized medium, mainly separated out from the arts. The only video I knew of within the arts in the 1970s consisted mostly of extensions of performance art, body art, or Earth art. Video was understood almost as an expanded documentary format, whereas I thought that it had a great capacity for different applications. I was excited when, for instance, the Guerrilla Girls asked me to show Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman [1978–79] at a special evening in their honor at Palladium, which had these massive video walls, or when I could show Pop-Pop Video: Kojak/Wang [1980] in another club that had forty monitors around the room, so we could stand within this shootout, truly encircled by the action on-screen, which never resolves itself. But my excitement was more about the change of context than about changing the content.

CA: Yet all these different things were possible only because the clubs suddenly had the technology. It was the classic era of the New York club, right?

DB: Clubs had fantastic architecture and decor at that time. Places like Area had a different interior design every month. But when it came to video, I honestly think they were just looking for a new kind of light show. Studio 54 was using lights in an effective way, and the next club had to ask, “What can we do?” Video was perfect for them, because it presented a whole new dynamic of audiovisual stimulus. The Ritz had this enormous screen, and I had never seen anything like that. I mean, the thing was a couple of stories high.

CA: It was called the Eidophor. NASA had that a decade earlier in its first central-command rooms. Now you see it only in movie renditions of NASA.

DB: I know that your work often deals with technology that’s practically obsolete. I guess the Eidophor, given its original use, was also obsolete in a sense. So if it no longer serviced NASA and those applications, it then seemed to have made its way to the clubs. And the clubs would call me. At that time, I was very hot, since I was seen as somebody who edited really fast, utilizing a multiplicity of images and sound.

CA: This was years before MTV, right? I swear I saw your MTV “Art Break” when I was a kid. I was glued to MTV.

DB: You had to be glued to see it, it went by so fast. But I think what’s more significant in all these examples is that one is getting inside popular culture as opposed to the frameworks of institutional art spaces. I used to talk about how Bertolt Brecht would refer to mediums such as the newspaper, radio, or television and how they had the tendency to fulfill themselves and then become overinflated. All of a sudden there are holes within their structures, and then other substances could penetrate. That’s what happened with cable, for instance. Artists believed that they had finally found a spot within which they could operate; holes opened up and they inserted work into them.

CA: I think I’m definitely in a parallel situation today when it comes to the question of context. You made videos and found it interesting to place them in clubs; my videos go on view in galleries, but I’ll also put them online. And just as the galleries weren’t interested in your video work because they thought it was just TV, they weren’t so interested in my work at the beginning. They just didn’t see it as art.

DB: I initially avoided galleries like the plague. I didn’t want to translate popular imagery from television and film into painting and photography. I wanted to use video on video; I wanted to use television on television. A lot of us who went into video at the beginning did so because we thought art shouldn’t be made in limited editions, and in video we finally had an eminently reproducible medium that could get out into the hands of many. It was a populist form, and our great hope was to do something that made it to Kim’s Video store. You know? I didn’t want to be collected. I wanted to talk. Looking back, there were different test runs to promote this way of distribution for artists, but nothing ever truly supported that vision.

CA: But that last assertion makes me wonder: Is there even such a thing as a bastardized medium today? Sure, if you’re talking specifically about the art context and its inevitable waves of style. In larger culture, however, you now have to consider all the developments in distribution. The fact is that you can put anything up on the Internet and there will be five people who want it, no matter how weird or obscure the information. The niche exists; someone’s going to find you, period. That means there can’t ever be, in terms of expression and audience, a wrong move. Now, for me, this creates a dilemma I’m still dealing with. On the one hand, it’s great, because I’m conceivably able to just chase my wildest, weirdest dreams. But it’s also completely paralyzing; if I were to make just what I “liked,” it could just as well be all about hockey or something like that. So I use the art context to bring me back.

DB: How does that dilemma unfold with your video games? Aren’t they bastardized? As much as we want to let go, there is, I think, still contradiction in art and culture along the lines of, for example, the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “High and Low” [1990]. Such exhibits have supposedly come together to allow for comparative views, but this actually only reinforces a “low,” bastardized component in the art world—until, that is, the art world can see a gateway into it. And that gateway is usually a reinforcement of art-historical values and views. And then come those critical interrogations where people make something of it, saying, “Oh, how interesting that he uses these video games that are obsolete.” Because that’s a cool word in the art world: obsolete. [laughter]

CA: Well, you’re right to some extent. I can put a video game online and the core audience will be drawn like a magnet to it, while in the art context, some people just won’t even go there—although, as I get older, I find that more people are willing to accept it, because everyone else is getting older, too. There’s a generational shift. I guess I tried to address the problem with I Shot Andy Warhol [2002] and Super Mario Clouds [2002], which were meant to be blind to both audiences, meaning that art people would see the work one way and like it while Internet people would see it another way and like it. I wanted these parallel rails on the train track. I Shot Andy Warhol doesn’t totally work online, though, because your average computer dork doesn’t care about Warhol. The Clouds really worked, on the other hand, for the reasons you describe. In the art context, it brings to mind the history of landscape and video installation.

DB: Another of your videos, Japanese Driving Game [2004], features an endless road, which for me reflects this parallax between the rails of art and popular culture. In the video, you’re looking out endlessly, and it’s as if the two sides reach toward each other—there is that promise held out—but they never really come together, and the road stays empty.

CA: That work was also about how video games convey space. Structurally, video games, and especially the ones from the ’80s, are different from television because they assume there is land to the left and right of the screen. Your perception is of an endless, horizontal, scrolling plane. So my work is dealing with the structural concerns of the medium, just like some of your early Pop-Pop Video work was dealing with the editing techniques found in, say, soap operas.

DB: The piece still seems very reflective of a kind of hopelessness in its endlessness, manifested for me in the empty road that goes on forever. That’s my feeling of what’s going on, in a larger sense, between popular culture and art—the latter of which is steeped in attempts to reinforce its own history now more than ever before.

CA: But that kind of separation is only going to be more pronounced given the rise of the Internet, I think. Art is bound to become more and more specialized, because that’s what everything is going to have to do; there won’t be mixing even within popular culture, simply because of the way information travels. Each person goes his or her own way. Already, we don’t have superstars like Michael Jackson anymore, because people aren’t “watching the same channel” the way they used to.

DB: It’s funny you say that, because I recently viewed your Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run” Glockenspiel Addendum [2006] online. Springsteen has maintained a certain stardom level—and with some integrity—and yet you make him into an obsolete background figure by playing this “dumb” glockenspiel live against a recording of his music. This is humorous enough, but what’s most interesting to me is that you’re performing in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, of all places, and you’re almost like a star yourself.

CA: Well, MoMA has a “Pop” night. But that project works in every setting. I mean, it’s ridiculous. I use a spotlight sometimes. I dress all heavy metal. I create a cultural mixture that doesn’t make any sense.

DB: But my point is that the audience is screaming before you even start playing. I asked myself, What the fuck is this, where an art audience is cheering like that, giving you star status? It made me think about how odd it is, as when the arts seem to demand that someone’s got to “crack the code” of popular culture. I remember feeling like people in the ’80s wanted me to crack the code of television. I did that, but then I never found the next model. But here, I thought a generation was clearly looking for that in you—waiting for a superhero to crack the codes of newer mediums, like video games and the Internet.

CA: Well, I’m no superhero. I would say that you did crack the code of the Internet, though. You anticipated the way people would express themselves today through technology. In fact, if you look on YouTube, one of the most popular genres is called “super cuts”—where people take a television show and edit together all the similar parts. It’s so common now, because every ten-year-old kid has iMovie, but the format—even when it comes to mash-ups—is predicted by your work. I certainly know that I use the repetition and isolation of certain cuts in order to highlight and extract visual elements in video, as you do.

DB: That’s true. What I liked about another work of yours, Sweet 16 [2006], was that even though it has a very formal concept behind it—relating to Steve Reich’s compositional strategies, as you’ve said elsewhere—a mesmerizing drone takes over, which releases me to see some very specific aspects of the image. Like how Axl Rose enters the frame, brief moments that reveal his exact position—

CA: The way he snakes in, yeah. It’s very similar in technique, without a doubt, to your Pop-Pop Video.

DB: Iconography starts to emerge through a formalist device; repetition allows certain things to surface. In my work, it was the hidden agenda of what was really being said on TV. I think you reach a point where these hidden agendas are also made visible.

CA: But it’s important to note that the whole media landscape has changed in just the past couple years. Media is no longer a one-way street. It’s participatory. People just make things. And so I don’t know whether it’s so necessary to “reveal” anything anymore. Maybe a previous era’s debate has shifted over to, I don’t know, Are you going to Twitter about what you’re doing every second?

DB: What is Twittering?

CA: I’m sorry. This is embarrassing. I’m going to tell the editors not to print the word Twitter. Twitter is this new website. People use their cell phones to text what they’re doing—“I’m eating lunch” or “I’m in the Artforum offices having a conversation”—to their website, where other people can read about it. I do have my own audience online, in this sense, because I surf the Internet all day long and leave a bread-crumb trail so people can see what I’ve been looking at. And when I’m “leaving bread crumbs” for my audience, I’m Twittering, basically. It’s like production itself has become consumption.

DB: That sounds to me almost like when artists first got hold of the Porta-Pak. They would just turn it on, not really knowing what to say with this new device. I remember a tape by Howard Fried called Fuck You, Purdue [1972]. It was just him in his studio, pacing and recording every word: “Fuck you. Fuck you, Purdue.”

Dara Birnbaum and Cory Arcangel’s conversation continues in the March issue of Artforum.