PRINT October 2011


Ilene Segalove, Today’s Program: Jackson Pollock, “Lavender Mist, 1973, collaged photographs on paper, 14 x 17".

I’VE SPENT FORTY-TWO YEARS waiting for the other (saddle) shoe to drop: Sha Na Na at Woodstock? There, the group performed Danny and the Juniors’ 1957 doo-wop classic “At the Hop.” Woodstock was many things—brainchild of hip entrepreneurs; cheesy, overdetermined symbol of the counterculture; sentimental apotheosis of the hippie—but, say what you like, it was not a sock hop. Although the Woodstock performance propelled Sha Na Na to certain commercial success in film and television as well as music, at a live show in San Francisco (preserved on their 1973 album The Golden Age of Rock ’n’ Roll) the band’s lead singer taunted the audience: “We’ve got just one thing to say to you fucking hippies, and that is that rock ’n’ roll is here to stay!” If anything, that challenge marked the end of an era, not its permanence. Decade consciousness, for better or worse, had not yet penetrated the American psyche. Grease (in which Sha Na Na appeared as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers) was still to come. So what, in the end, was this anomaly? Retro novelty act? Artificial nostalgia? Harbinger of postmodernism? All of the above?

I first saw Ilene Segalove’s work in John Baldessari’s graduate seminar at CalArts in 1974. Nearly forty years later, a selection of Segalove’s photo and video work on view last October at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York offered a time tunnel back to those days. I don’t remember exactly how Segalove presented her work at CalArts, but the work itself remains vivid, especially the first installments of the quasi-documentary videos of the artist’s family life that make up The Mom Tapes, 1974–78. My impression was that Baldessari had supported her project, and certainly Segalove’s photo collages are indebted to him. Nonetheless, they access a distinctly different register of experience and social observation. Consider her 1973 collage Today’s Program: Jackson Pollock, “Lavender Mist. Here Segalove inserted a color reproduction of the Pollock painting into a black-and-white photograph of airline passengers watching an in-flight movie. The painting appears on the drop-down screen. The screen, in turn, obscures the head of a flight attendant standing behind it and casts a harsh shadow, leaving her visible only from the shoulders down. Today’s Program seems like a one-liner . . . until one begins to parse the joke. The first thing to strike the viewer (apart from the spaciousness of the seats in what appears to be economy class) is the absurdly rapt attention passengers have given over to the improbably placed painting. The impression of group hypnosis within the airline cabin is reminiscent of the cover for Black & Red’s 1970 edition of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. That image shows an audience for a 3-D movie, each person staring straight ahead, each wearing the same kind of outlandish cardboard glasses. To state the obvious: Nobody looks at a painting like that, no matter how good it is. For her part, Segalove seems to ask, What kind of attention does an avant-garde artwork, versus popular entertainment, deserve and demand? In short, vis-à-vis mass culture, how and by what means has the avant-garde devolved into a form of cultural mannerism?

As is well known—much better known now than in 1973—Walter Benjamin almost forty years earlier had crystallized this question, which would haunt the rest of the century:

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert. Such fusion is of great social significance. The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public.

However radical a painting might be within its own discourse, it cannot compete with the technological shock embedded in film and, by extension, it cannot command the same unequivocal attention from the viewer, regardless of how inured the public has become to the spectacular effects of movies. This leaves some nagging Sha Na Na–like questions: Is Lavender Mist today’s program, yesterday’s, or tomorrow’s? If Pollock’s painting still challenged the public’s assumptions about art when Segalove made her collage (“My eight-year-old could have done it,” etc.), the painting’s technical means of facture nonetheless lagged behind those of the entertainment industry. In Segalove’s allegory, while the aircraft hurtles forward through space, its immobilized passengers face a screen of Greenbergian flatness.

Segalove’s video work, though not as pointed as Today’s Program, implicitly involves many of the same questions—of anachronism, obsolescence, and recontextualization—while continuing to explore avant-gardism as a masculine construct. Her embrace of video came at a specific cultural moment, one whose technological innovations marked the onset of the gradual marginalization of broadcast television and the major television networks. Sony Corporation made its legendary Porta-Pak, the first portable video camera and recorder, commercially available in 1967. As clunky and low-tech as this equipment looks now, at the time it was revolutionary. How could opaque videotape—not transparent film—actually hold images? How could you see video just as it was being shot, in real time? What did it mean now that almost anyone could make TV? Video art, in the early 1970s, was bound up with the counterculture. Gil Scott-Heron’s proto-hip-hop manifesto “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” captures a sense of the era’s progressive opposition to commercial broadcast media. Many believed that a society that could produce television outside a corporate framework would be a freer society. To that end, in 1970, the Raindance Corporation, which had formed the short-lived Center for Decentralized Television, published the first issue of Radical Software, a journal focused on cybernetics, ecology, and media theory. Two years later, Abbie Hoffman helped the Videofreex—a collective whose initial members met at Woodstock—launch a two-way pirate television station, Lanesville TV, in the Catskills.

Ilene Segalove, The Mom Tapes, 1974–78, still from a black-and-white and color video, 30 minutes. From the episode “Oh, if Only I Could Draw,” 1976–78.

In stark contrast to these movements, Segalove, the product of an affluent Beverly Hills family, turned the camera on her parents, and her mother especially, with Hollywood and commercial TV in mind. Because video artists then constituted a self-selected elite (the decision to work in video itself bestowing considerable cultural capital) and because most video artists tended to stress all the ways in which their medium was absolutely not film, the contrast between Segalove and the video pioneers could not have been starker: home movies versus media activism, self-reflection versus utopian feedback.

Despite its flaunted normalcy, i.e., its embrace of a middle-class lifestyle and even the parents that come with it, Segalove’s work is dialectically linked to countercultural media to the extent that the New Left’s demand to transform power structures in everyday life superseded older models of national revolution. In Segalove’s case, this meant feminism—and its transposition of protest from class struggle per se to the individual and even biological arena, encapsulated by the mantra “The personal is political.” Segalove accented the personal, even as she presented it almost as a mirage. For example, in works such as Ilene & Barbie—Close but No Cigar #1, 1976, Segalove juxtaposes droll images of herself with those of Barbie dolls, artist and doll in the same pose, both photographed the same way. Who is mimicking whom? While this gesture resonates with Martha Rosler’s performances and photocollages, it also anticipates aspects of Cindy Sherman’s and Laurie Simmons’s still-to-come iconography. Curiously, what gives Segalove’s gesture its power is its ambiguity and ambivalence. The artist hates Barbie because she envies—or has been forced to envy—her. Moreover, the attention that she gave to such prosaic concerns comes closer to how the broad public ultimately came to use the expanded video screen (in blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, etc.) than to the techno-utopia of, say, Raindance.

Likewise, The Mom Tapes is less the prerogative of a self-identified activist than that of a young woman restlessly curious about what the prospect of being normal might hold for her. In the aftermath of what had become obligatory generational rebellion, in this series of vignettes Segalove casts herself as the dutiful daughter, but one not averse to recording acerbic portraits of her advice-proffering mother, the series’s titular star. It’s easy to forget that the artist’s mother plays the straight man in these setups and, therefore, to conclude that The Mom Tapes simply documents the Segalove family life. The mise-en-scène, however, is more complicated than that. The camera doesn’t capture the artist’s mom “as she is,” but rather as she plays a nuanced role tempered with a bit of yenta schtick. This approach resembles that of Jacques Tati, who cast untrained actors to play themselves. Tati would observe them, mime their movements, then ask them to duplicate his imitation, in effect bracketing their otherwise unnoticed, yet routine and characteristic, tics. Segalove, for her part, simply asked her mother to play the dry, parodistic parts she outlined for her. Her mother, in turn, proved a willing accomplice. In one sequence, “Underground Walkway,” 1974, “Mom” does not even appear on-screen. For that reason, though, her presence is all the more palpable. The scenario opens with the camera nervously panning up and down a busy street in what looks like Santa Monica. The entrance to a pedestrian underpass is in view. Then comes a voice-over, which assumes a superego-like function:

MOM: Honey, I’ve tried to explain to you many times not to use the underground walkway. It is terribly dangerous. You never know whether a gang of boys are going to be down there. Sometimes men are down there taking a leak. And it’s just filthy-dirty down below.Why don’t you use the crosswalk?

The camera starts toward a distant crosswalk, doubles back, then descends into the tunnel.

MOM: Uh-uh. I wouldn’t go down there.

The camera continues.

MOM: I’ve never been down here, myself. So this is what it looks like. . . . I still don’t like it.

The camera reaches the staircase on the opposite end and proceeds to daylight. This time we hear two voices:

ILENE: Hey, Mom, I made it and I’m OK.

MOM: You were just lucky this time. I wouldn’t try it again.

Formally, the sequence is organized around an extended handheld tracking shot that broke with video art’s default trope: the Warholian static camera. Tracking was a nod not only toward film but also toward narrative. Passing through the pedestrian tunnel gives the sequence a clearly demarcated beginning, middle, and end. Even so, the point of the story is that nothing happens, that Mom’s worries amount to nothing. Together, however, the camerawork and the narration pinpoint the way in which both phenomenal and public space are gendered, working together to interrogate where a woman can or cannot go, how she must behave, and in what ways these concerns differ from those of men. Indeed, “Underground Walkway” can be seen as a droll take on the social and political underground. Although it invokes structural and New Wave film (bringing to mind both Michael Snow’s epic zoom in Wavelength and Jean-Luc Godard’s eight-minute tracking shot in Week End), in Segalove’s video the sociopolitical priorities shift from a heroic/tragic panorama to the simple act of crossing the street. Here, the tracking shot serves to immerse the viewer in the constructedness of urban space, a space produced not only by the artist as a female subject and by the artist’s mother as her role model but also by the real and imagined phallic specter of urinating men. Mom’s worries may seem laughable, but in another work (The Painter Wagged It at Me, 1980—again painting!) Segalove recounts the story of a housepainter who exposed himself to her in the presumed safety of her own home.

Ilene Segalove, Ilene & Barbie—Close but No Cigar #1, 1976, diptych, black-and-white photographs, each 15 1/4 x 10 1/8".

In 1983, Segalove made another episodic video works, Why I Got into TV and Other Stories. Its title deliberately blurs the distinction between getting into TV as a consumer and as a producer (roles that have become increasingly indistinct, of course, in the age of YouTube). It is a sequence of coming-of-age stories in which TV and film play a big part. Each segment is a small fable. Segalove recounts how the 1967 film The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman, was “never a movie to me, it was more like my summer vacation,” since part of it was shot across the street from the house in which she grew up. The segment opens with a reenactment of the artist and her friends watching a broadcast of the film in her living room. Yet for her, reality and representation began to blur, as she got to know Hoffman’s stand-in. Even the house across the street was a carbon copy of her own. Like all the other episodes in the series, “The Graduate” wraps up with a blasé moral: “Almost everything looks better on a tiny TV screen.” In another segment, she vies with the evening news for her father’s attention.

Through postproduction, Why I Got into TV is more stylized than The Mom Tapes. The editing is brisk, and the scenes are cropped so that viewers don’t see the actors’ faces, only their bodies. Oddly enough, this allows for greater identification, not less. As a quasi reincarnation of commercial television, Why I Got into TV lacks the sense of discovery of The Mom Tapes, in part because it moves away from the present, exemplified by real-time footage, into entertainment as nostalgia. While this shift represents the dissociation from the present that was indeed current in popular culture at the time (and which Sha Na Na so clearly represented), gone is the sense of unfolding in actual physical or social space. Here, Segalove’s sentimental insistence on the centrality of TV becomes a crutch, and the snappy maxim at the end of each episode an annoyance. The series thus reflects the burgeoning crossover sensibility of the 1980s, when the art world increasingly looked to entertainment as a model. Not surprisingly, performance artists reaped the greatest acclaim: Consider Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, and Ann Magnuson. Segalove herself went on to become a producer at National Public Radio. In Why I Got into TV, Segalove seems to taunt her viewers with the idea that “TV is here to stay. Get used to it.” And like Sha Na Na with rock ’n’ roll, she doth protest too much.

John Miller is an artist and writer based in New York and Berlin and a professor in the visual arts concentration of Barnard College’s art history department.