Bad Feminism: Modern Women, Single-Channel at PS1

Sorry PS1, but "Meat Joy" isn't video art.

In college, I became familiar with video art because of my courses in Feminism and Art History. I can’t assume that everyone else in the arts comes from the same background as me. It was a standard line in my courses that female artists started making video art because it was a medium without as complicated and heavy of a male history as, say, painting. I don’t believe this line anymore, but this doesn’t make me a bad feminist.  The most influential writings on feminism and art – Linda Nochlin’s Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? and Joan Scott’s Experience, to name some of my personal favorites – can teach everyone to be suspicious of any reified history.

Just because women were on camera doesn’t mean that there’s anything cohesive about their separate experiences. Sure, it’s evidence of a halfway decent premise to know that women were and are making video, but it doesn’t tell me anything about what comes next. It’s just another “And what else?” moment as I’m yearning for some sort of a conclusion or opinion based on the fact that video’s been somewhat popular with female artists.

Mako Idemitsu "Another Day of a Housewife"

I like the individual works in Modern Women: Single-Channel, but the curatorial standpoint and the specific type of “history of women and video” is so sloppily woven together that I just can’t recommend the exhibition.  My short-list of problems:

  • Not all of the videos are single-channel.  Too many of the “videos” merely record performances and don’t involve themselves with the technical structures of video. Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy and Fuses, both important works about visual and corporeal experience, aren’t videos; they were originally 16 mm recordings.
  • For an exhibition including just over a dozen works, not enough artists are represented and some artists are over-represented. In this exhibition, there’s 3 VALIE EXPORT videos; 2 by Carolee Schneemann; 2 by Dara Birnbaum; and 2 by Anna Bella Geiger.
  • Most videos were made in the 1970s and 1980s, but there’s one wily, floating referent: Kristin LucasHost from 1997. It’s a good video, but there’s plenty of exceptional female artists who were making video in the 1990s that I hesitate to think that Lucas’ is somehow representative of that entire field.  Showing only one video from the 1990s is sloppy curatorial form; I would have at least included some  Miranda July.

Sorry PS1, but "Meat Joy" isn't video art.

The timing of Modern Women is appropriate, providing an historical comparison to Ryan Trecartin’s Any Ever, installed in PS1’s first-floor galleries.  If the videos in Modern Women focus on a diminished visibility, Trecartin’s is one of hyper-visuality; additive rather than subtractive.  Many of the videos in Modern Women show the female body as fragmented and in some cases, almost to the edge of erasure.  Pippilotti Rist’s I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much shows a fuzzed-out female image whirling away in hysterics, almost blotted out by video editing effects with each consecutive spin; and Joan Jonas’ Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, like Jonas’ other videos and performances from this time-period, show the body in fragments, broken across mirrors and the monitor screen.  Even the focus on nudity in perfromance from this period leans towards a similar conclusion of getting rid of the external.  Trecartin’s videos consist of situations at the opposite extreme.  Comparing Trecartin with early “feminist” videos can only go so far because they’re at opposite ends of exploring the on-screen self under surveillance.  The constant overlaying of wardrobe, voices, and make-up creates an environment seemingly without end; and it can’t when the artist’s logic is an additive one.

I’m not a bad feminist and these aren’t bad videos, but the curating could have been tighter. Mako Idemitsu’s Another Day of a Housewife features a leering “TV-eye” that constantly surveys the on-screen subject as she performs her daily household duties, an example of how video’s discussions of surveillance can also be applied to those about gender.  An exhibition organized around issues of Modern Women: Video and Surveillance or even Video and Narcissism, Video and Immediacy, Video and the Gaze, to name a few options, would have been more appropriate to discussing the various ways that women were using video in the 1970s. It’s not enough to just say that they were doing it.

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