New York

Dara Birnbaum

With The Damnation of Faust: Evocation, Dara Birnbaum has moved to a consciously narrative work. In retrospect the narrative implications of such earlier installations as Kojak/Wang, 1980, and P.M. Magazine, 1982 (the latter shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art recently), are more apparent—Kojak did seem to be shooting at the woman sitting in front of the computer, and the little girl in P.M. Magazine was certainly the heroine of the piece. But those installations, with their process flashiness, repetitive editing, and intensely rhythmic synthosound tracks, seemed more importantly to be highly stylized loops intended as comments on the surface sheen and archetypal narratives of TV. While their immediate formal sources would seem to be commercials and rock videos (along with the audio cut-and-paste of dub music), they also suggest presentations of Pop material in Minimalist—and antinarrative—frameworks.

The Damnation of Faust: Evocation, on the other hand, breaks out of the mechanical rhythms of this earlier work and follows a more intuitively derived path. This is only one section of a planned five-part tape, but the implications of the full work are already clear. The story, Birnbaum has explained, is a blend of Berlioz’s and Goethe’s versions of Faust, updated to Soho in the ’80s. In an opening sequence neighborhood kids play on swings in an urban playground; watching them pensively is the protagonist, a young woman who later appears in her sun-suffused apartment, where the pages of a book flip quickly in the breeze. These scenes establish the classic Faustian themes of the search for lost youth and innocence, and a concomitant quest for knowledge and power. A second section introduces the element of evil, through shots of silhouetted skyscrapers with ominous clouds gathering, accompanied by dark, murky music on the soundtrack. The tape next returns to the playground and the young girls, their play now tinged by melancholy and an ominous tone. Brighter, Latin music opens the third section, which again features the playground, with boys on the swings silhouetted against the sky. Various editing techniques accentuate the hard, peppy lyricism of this episode; in a device that Birnbaum uses repeatedly, one image sweeps across another forming a shape like an upside-down fan, or the pattern left by a windshield wiper. A final shot shows the young woman walking pensively among grasses by the seashore, and the tape lurches to an abrupt end.

As a fragment of a larger work, this torso leaves a great deal unresolved; in fact, it seems like nothing so much as the first reel of a film. But it’s notable as an attempt to reengage questions of video narrative, as opposed to the highly conventionalized narrative of broadcast TV. Video has a wide array of formal and narrative codes available to it, encompassing as it does photographic, theatrical, and filmic representation. It also opens up new possibilities of editing and of image manipulation and synthesis (in some cases new only by virtue of the ease with which effects can be achieved). In her past work Birnbaum has both parodied TV and borrowed its vocabulary for other purposes. But video is something more, and something less, than TV; it’s a relatively inexpensive, electronically controllable, photographic medium capable of more than the industrialized, genre-dominated range of TV production. Not coincidentally, in its concern with form, with narrative innovation, and with personal production, The Damnation of Faust: Evocation also suggests many independent films of the recent past.

Charles Hagen