Martha Rosler and The Kipper Kids

As one of many recipients of MARTHA ROSLER’s installment mail art piece chronicling some events in the life of a woman of increased consciousness, I found myself curious about Domination and the Everyday, Rosler’s most recent videotape which had its Bay Area premiere at the University Art Museum in Berkeley. The same program contained four earlier Rosler videotapes, seen previously by this reviewer in a public showing at Video Free America in San Francisco. I mention this merely to demonstrate that while the University Art Museum is to be commended for its commitment to video and performance art, they are, in fact, (while not historicizing the work into dead storage as museum presentation has been known to do) not the Bay Area vanguard in these matters, but a step or two behind. So much for credit where credit is due. The University Art Museum has, once again, after a long period of fuzziness, become a place where something is happening.

Rosler’s earlier videotapes have in common vast quantities of information, presented in such a way that the viewer is informed and aware that he/she has been inundated with vast quantities of information. A brief description will show that the early tapes are not unrelated to Domination and the Everyday. Rosler herself appears as the aggressive would-be cook in Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. With as much clattering noise and violent, jerky motion as possible, she names and uses a bowl, grater, chopper and ice pick. As in her other tapes, Rosler tries to engage the viewer’s attention—then defy him to concentrate on or enjoy what is presented. It’s a deliberate, antiseductive technique and Rosler employs it again in her choice of obvious bad actors in Losing: A Conversation with the Parents, 1977. The audience is forced to retain an objective distance from a couple discussing the starvation death of their anorectic teenage daughter. They are hardly more than teenagers themselves, and their conversation oscillates between doctor-prescribed diets and world hunger problems. Rosler, in the kitchen again, in The East is Red, The West is Bending, 1977, demonstrates, tongue-in-cheek, an electric work, reading the manufacturer’s elaborate instructions interspersed with questions such as “What is the meaning of red?” In semiserious tones, she makes several comments on east-west dominance, concluding, “The West Bend wok represents the marriage of American know-how with the honest, authentic simplicity of the mysterious east.”

Vital Statistics of A Citizen Simply Obtained is the most pointedly feminist of Rosler’s tapes. Every protrusion and angle (including depth of vagina) of the artist’s nude body is measured and recorded by two doctors while voiceovers comment on standards, body ideals and their relation to masochism. This time, she is talking about dominance on a personal level which she expands to include all women when an offscreen voice enumerates crimes against women—bound feet, clitoridectomy, wage slavery, suttee, electric shock, etc.

Domination and the Everyday contains elements now familiar from the preceding tapes, yet the information (the circumstances of a group of Chilean guerrillas, an interview with an L.A. art dealer, and the voice of a demanding child) is presented in a confusing way, with excess noise driving the viewer to distraction. It is part, if not all, of Rosler’s point that we receive, on a daily basis, at least this much information in equally confusing ways. It is one of the ironies of the art/life split that the audience, in order to better hear this mishmash of sound, shushed an interesting viewer who was explaining loudly to his neighbor his own experiences as a medical guinea pig, his reminiscences of long ago events having been stirred by Vital Statistics of A Citizen Simply Obtained.

I think Rosler has boxed herself into a corner with Domination and the Everyday. In an attempt to attract attention through irritating factors rather than slick pleasantries, she has more than succeeded. and, once that point has been made, there seems little more to learn from the tape. The artist, who was present, welcomed discussion with the audience, yet the questions posed by that particular audience were predominantly concerned with formalist issues, thereby ignoring or discounting the information factor altogether. Rosler’s ideas have always been good ones, and if her next piece takes her into yet another area of exploration, it will be well worth waiting for.

There are times when the choice of a viewing companion can be all-important at an art event. Not that I approached THE KIPPER KIDS’ recent performance at the University Art Museum in Berkeley from an uneducated viewpoint, (having seen one of their videotapes at La Mamelle in July) but that was nothing at all like being in the same room (at a safe sixth row seat) with Harry and Harry Kipper, clad in gray jockstraps, white faces with large noses, and gray shower caps, singing “I’m Going Back to See My Corny Country Cousins.” Live instruments, sound-poetry intonations and burps accompanied this and “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” sung between bites from pickle necklaces. My companion, who shares an English background with Harry and Harry, leaned over and whispered, “It’s only because of the current vogue for English humor that they seem funny here.”

The Kipper Kids proceeded, plotlessly, to transform themselves (by removing their masks and altering their costumes) and various objects (a stuffed doll became a portable stove) into agents and implements for simple deeds performed in the most unnecessarily convoluted manner imaginable. Teamaking, which in the hands of the Kipper Kids could be accomplished only after a series of knee bends, seemed to result in the production of boiling water, and the actual drinking of the beverage was attempted in linked tandem movements. Of course they spit out the tea. And threw flour and other substances around the room with little regard for spectators in the first rows. Most of their motions coexisted with indescribable mouth noises, finger gestures and ass wiggling. The burps, grunts, and other universal signals of digestive disorder were effective accents but most of the humor is visual—slapstick and mime possibilities extended to absurdity. Anyone who pays attention can understand, although not necessarily learn to love, the Kipper Kids. And become uneasy in their presence. It is still good clean fun when they plaster a quarter pound of butter on each half of a poppy seed roll, mash the halves together, scrape the edges clean and light a firecracker in the center. After that “boom,” Harry and Harry blowup handfuls of party horn balloons, smash some eggs on each other’s heads and throw flour into the audience. The increased aggression of their activities heightens the anticipation for their final wild sequence: after smearing each other with bright colored paint, Harry and Harry pile shaving cream on each other’s heads and attempt to light fire crackers inserted in the gooey mess. The suspense becomes unbearable, repeated efforts to light the firecrackers fail and finally one goes off with a small pop. The piece ends, not with a bang, so to speak, and the Kipper Kids say, “Thank you very much.”

As we left, my companion said, “In England they wouldn’t last six seconds at a party.” Well, maybe so, but seeing the Kipper Kids live isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen before. Maybe he missed the point.

Mary Stofflet