New York

Dara Birnbaum

Josh Baer Gallery

Dara Birnbaum couches her recent video installation, Break in Transmission, 1990, in the fervent language of private recall and public censure. Intercutting clips from news reports about demonstrations in Tiananmen Square with images of Chinese singers in a recording studio, Birnbaum offers a subtle yet overpowering rendering of the massacre of student protesters in China. She shows how the fragile lives of individuals, filled with intricate moments of moral yearning, were not merely ripped apart, but simply negated: quietly and completely nullified.

Birnbaum, known for her videos duplicating the condensed lexicon of TV imagery, has now shifted to a more direct political analysis of how we view what we view. She continues her use of visual and audio repetition, the electronic wipes in which one scene is literally wiped away and replaced by another, the split-screens, and the insertion of a smaller complete image into the larger full-screen image. All of this combines to collapse the pretend reality of the present tense so that we are discouraged from believing unquestioningly or experiencing passively. The technical effects encourage the viewer’s awareness of the artificiality of the screen, thereby questioning its implicit appeal to authority.

Upon entering the gallery, the viewer was confronted with five video monitors. One played a tape of Chinese singers recording “The Wound of History,” a popular song about the demonstrations; one showed reports from Tiananmen Square; one showed various communications-related activities in China, such as the students using fax machines to transmit their pleas to the outside world, and Chinese citizens watching the executions of protestors on their TV sets; and one showed footage of various demonstrations. The largest monitor functioned like a computer’s compiler, taking short segments from each of the other monitors and interspersing them. It was as though the small monitors were little depots of relayed information and the larger monitor were the nervous brain, trying to make sense of all of it.

The audio portion of the installation was both eerie and seductive. The music of the singers, with its overtones of traditional Chinese melodies, is juxtaposed with raw sound from the news footage, creating a haze of bitterly emotive sound particles. It is the sad reminder of what was hoped for yet what failed to come into being. The audio and visual recording of the real acts of violence come upon us slowly enough so that we cannot strike our well-rehearsed voyeuristic pose.

The violence is not fast enough to trigger our media-conditioned collapse into passive collusion. What Birnbaum does by slowing down the action and interspersing it with related but often separate experiences is to create a chasm in which the audience can fully register its own thoughts, its private memories of loss, its own knowledge of public censure, and its own individual voice. Birnbaum is quoted in an interview with Norman Klein as saying, “. . . [W]orking inside a culture where the process of assimilation happens almost overnight, it is hard to find out, Who is the real voice, who is the real narrator?” It is a question that too frequently gets left out of politics, and surprisingly frequently gets left out of art as well. Birnbaum’s installation reinserts it back into both.

Dena Shottenkirk