In the Studio: Dara Birnbaum

Portrait by Boru O’Brien O’Connell


The premiere of a new installation by Dara Birnbaum is a significant event. Since the 1970s she has produced a focused body of work comprising videos and installations that illuminate the media politics of the moments in which they were made. The nature of the mass media has shifted over the years—from the control exercised by television broadcast networks of the 1970s to the Internet’s decentralization of information—but Birnbaum’s work has remained consistently prescient and vital, incorporating new technologies and providing a touchstone for generations of younger artists engaged with digital culture. Like many of her pieces, Birnbaum’s Psalm 29(30), 2016, which offers a subtle video meditation on the brutality of war and the process of healing, has been years in the making and involves the contributions of composers, editors, and other specialists.

Once a practicing architect in San Francisco, Birnbaum turned to video in the 1970s, creating works that feature footage appropriated from popular television shows. She drew the attention of critics who saw her alluringly composed art as a potent vehicle for exposing television’s ideological underpinnings. “The visual pleasure that Birnbaum’s tapes may generate in the viewer,” wrote Benjamin Buchloh in 1982, “is balanced by cognitive shock.” 1 Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978–79) isolates and repeats flimsy special-effects sequences from a campy superhero show, revealing ingrained conventions for representing femininity. Pop-Pop Video: General Hospital/Olympic Women Speed Skating(1980) juxtaposes weepy soap-opera scenes with shots of athletic female speed skaters, bringing together opposing feminine archetypes. 

Birnbaum also became adept at working in gallery spaces, often utilizing display armatures designed for trade shows to create elaborate architectonic structures that house multiple monitors. In PM Magazine (1982), exhibited recently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, monitors embedded in colorful display walls produce what Craig Owens described in this magazine as a “phantasmagoria of the media.” 2 The swirl of imagery Birnbaum took from a news program created for Owens an experience bordering on “vertigo.” Birnbaum, he wrote, offered a “visceral experience of television’s enormous (yet often imperceptible) power; at the same time she invites us to examine our relation to it critically.” 

Birnbaum’s multiscreen installations also examine what she calls “critical moments” in television history.Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission (1990) features an array of monitors hanging from the gallery’s ceiling or mounted on the wall. The monitors play different scenes related to the 1989 student-led uprising in the Chinese capital. One focuses on the moment when multiple American news networks were cut off from broadcasting. In Transmission Tower: Sentinel (1992), a vertical arrangement of synced monitors offers a poetic response to the politics of the first Gulf War.  

If television dominated media in the era when Birnbaum began working, the Internet is the major force for the circulation of images today. Her recent installation Arabesque (2011) includes a presentation of videos she found on YouTube that show various female musicians playing two Romantic-era piano pieces, one by Robert Schumann and the other by his wife, Clara. Though Robert’s “Arabesque (Op. 18)” is more familiar and popular—and more frequently played in such online videos—Clara’s “Romanze 1 (Op. 11)” comes across as equally profound and deeply felt. Birnbaum’s methods have shifted to more precisely engage the politics of the Internet age. While she often worked in a legal gray zone to appropriate footage from corporate television networks, Birnbaum dutifully obtained permission from every performer featured in Arabesque to use their videos.

Psalm 29(30), her newest piece, incorporates footage she shot at Lake Como in Italy as well as online video showing scenes from the Syrian Civil War. As the title implies, Psalm 29(30) foregrounds spirituality, which is as evident here as any conceptualist critique. Though the cognitive shock may still be present, the visual pleasure derived from Birnbaum’s current project also suggests a wider frame that includes religion, healing, and thanks. 

I visited her studio in New York this past January. The space, which is also her home, was filled with books and archival materials related to her past work. Birnbaum shares her studio with a dog, a cat, and two birds. When we spoke, she was busy finishing Psalm 29(30), which she calls “the biggest challenge” of her career. Given the ambition of her past works, I imagine that she has set such a high bar for herself many times before.

LAUREN CORNELL  What is it like for your home and your studio to be in the same space?

DARA BIRNBAUM  I like it because I am able to work anytime I want to. I can simply fall out of bed and be right there in my work space. I’ve never totally wanted to—or perhaps been able to—have a separate studio and home, or that kind of luxury. Also, because I work with video, so much of what I do is involved with collaboration in postproduction, and that is accomplished at professional facilities outside my home.

CORNELL  What do you work on here?

BIRNBAUM  This studio has become, over forty years, something else, including a home for my archives. My studio activity mostly involves working on computers and the desks they’re tied to and the tables we periodically clean off to do sketches, which are mostly related to architectural renderings for my installation work. 

CORNELL  I believe you edited your early works yourself, is that right? When did postproduction start to happen elsewhere? 

BIRNBAUM  The early works—like Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman and Pop-Pop Video—were all done almost entirely by me. As digital technology got more advanced, I didn’t grow technically with it, and I started to utilize the strengths of other people—talented editors or composers. That started even in the ’80s with Damnation of Faust Trilogy [1983–87]. You can see a real break there. For example, much of that work was videoed by me. There is a variety of complex special effects. The compositions formulated on-screen made use of the way that digital technology could create a more profound breakdown of the frame, thus yielding several images conjoined simultaneously within the same frame. So the studio became more a home base and less a place for video production.

CORNELL  Why do you think that you “didn’t grow with” technology, as you said? Is it because the productions got larger and more elaborate, forcing you to delegate?

BIRNBAUM  I never trained myself in Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, or similar editing programs, which I think are prime tools for younger artists. I grew up on analog technology. Also, coming from architecture, maybe that sense of collaboration felt like a more familiar path to take. When everything basically turned over to digital technology I didn’t take the time and energy to sit down and learn to edit with the new software being developed. I didn’t become like Cory Arcangel, an artist I respect, who’s really good with technology. Instead, my imagination and desire for work went toward projects that were way beyond my own technological abilities. I’ve had fantastic collaborators along the way and some of the works we did, like the linear video wall Transmission Tower: Sentinel for Documenta 9, are not things that I could have done alone. I had to have an expert; in the case of Transmission Tower that was Peter Eggers, who had done commercial editing and was familiar with video wall design. He could make images fall seamlessly across monitors. In these collaborations, which I’ve enjoyed very much, I kind of became the conductor and director. 

CORNELL  Even in the lead-up to our interview, I noticed how thorough and meticulous you are by the way you handle your schedule and your correspondence.[pq]I grew up on analog technology.…When everything basically turned over to digital technology I didn’t take the time and energy to sit down and learn to edit with the new software being developed.[/pq]I imagine that even though you’ve brought more people into the process, you still oversee everything very closely and are intimately involved with the editing process. Can you talk about how you work with an editor?

BIRNBAUM  I can’t remember a time, although I know it existed long ago, that an editor for me might have been someone who simply and almost mechanically edited by the numbers. My fondest and most pronounced memories are from when I worked with editors collaboratively. In the past, editors like John Zieman have gotten so involved in the project that they’ll actually say, “You know, I see what you’re going toward, and I have a surprise I’d like to show you.” And then they’d show me, like, a superimposition of an image or a way to wipe something offscreen that actually wasn’t part of my vocabulary. These brilliant moments occur because of this type of collaboration. Frequently I’ll give a credit like “postproduction collaboration,” but you’re right, I don’t let go of a thing. The content and basic aesthetics are always mine, and remain mine. 

CORNELL  Let’s turn to your new work. Can you tell me about the footage your video editor and postproduction collaborator, Michael Saia, has been working with?

BIRNBAUM  What we have is both footage shot by me—landscape imagery—and images of the civil war in Syria from 2014, which I gathered from various sources on the Internet. The landscape footage was actually shot a few years ago, at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center at Lake Como. It’s very serene footage of the lake, mountains, and sky. And what I’m trying to do is to set up in the gallery a series of—I’m somewhat reluctant to say this, but I don’t know another phrase for them—“video paintings.” I think that’s a hard and perhaps even inappropriate term to use, too restrictive and conventionalized, but I was looking for very slow-moving imagery of this landscape that will be accompanied by a unique sound composition. The heart of this composition is Psalm 29(30), performed in Gregorian chant by the Moines de la Grande Chartreuse, who are sworn to silence except while chanting or praying. This is one of King David’s psalms and is known for both healing and thanksgiving. For the project, I collaborated with a composer, Neil Benezra, who has worked both commercially and in the arts.

The imagery, which is edited with Michael Saia, is serene, even solemn, landscape footage. These scenes are very carefully juxtaposed with highly selected imagery from the Syrian Civil War, which will be projected inside of an interior space designed solely for this imagery and its separate sound composition. This chamber, or cavernlike space, is to be centered inside the main ground-floor gallery. The exterior gallery space is light and solemn. The interior space is dark and therefore, perhaps, a bit more agitated, so that the viewer can shift between these two environments.

The sound occurs in two zones: we’re trying to envelop viewers in calmness and in the repetition of the chant as they enter the gallery. Then, in that interior chamber, there’s a different kind of sound. It still has a resonance with the psalm, but also breaks from it. In this inner chamber you hear bells—a slight influence of Syrian music and environmental sounds. So it provides an introduction into a different emotional state, and the experience is one perhaps more of anticipation. It’s subtle and it’s taken a lot of talent and work to edit this.

CORNELL  Why this particular psalm? 

BIRNBAUM  To be honest, it is personal. It resonates with me a lot.[pq]I’m allowing the new work to resonate with my own personal moment. And that’s a challenge for me.[/pq]The year 2014 was a critical time in the development of the Syrian Civil War. It also happened to be the year that I spent over ten weeks in a hospital, in very serious condition. Confronting a life-and-death situation sensitizes you in an incredible way. The psalm says, “I cry out to you and Lord you healed me.” It’s a psalm that, in its words, contains an aspect of hope and healing. I’m allowing the new work to resonate with my own personal moment. And that’s a challenge for me. 

This new work is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced in my career. I hope, with the visual and sound collaborations, that we can find a way to set the viewer into a meditative space that allows for a different form of reception for the war imagery. The shots are being edited and treated in a way that I feel is highly differentiated from the way conventional mass media would handle such imagery. Most war images that we’ve seen, or images of disaster, or those showing “the pain of others,” as Susan Sontag would say, are delivered to us as spectacle, or become spectacle in their viewing. I’m in the process of experimenting with how one can set images emanating from war in an alternate way, so that viewers can reflect on them and associate directly with the pain without feeling as if they’ve been punched or thrown off their own axis of gravity, so that there’s a sense of being able to absorb and better understand the pain of others.

CORNELL  It seems that you’re seeking new ways to encourage empathy, is that correct?

BIRNBAUM  Yes, I’d like to create a space for viewing and reflection that doesn’t usually occur within this society, especially through mass media. When I started with Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman in ’78, the average American family was watching television some seven hours and twenty minutes a day, according to the Nielsen Ratings. Imagery was constantly coming at us, but it was hard to take hold of it. The early works were, as people referred to them, appropriations and deconstructions—attempts to grab at relatively inaccessible imagery in order to “talk back to the media.” I feel that the time we are in now is almost the opposite. We’re surrounded everywhere by imagery that pours and flows out at us and through us and seems easy to access. But there is also that shadow, that question of how truly accessible this imagery is. And what does this monumental flow of imagery mean? What does it mean to be constantly relating through social media? What types of surveillance are really out there? These are the large questions of today. We’re in a period where we’re constantly taking part in an extreme flow and yet not truly aware of our real position in that flow. 

CORNELL  I think you really nail our media moment on the head with the question about how true our accessibility is. Social media espouse a rhetoric of openness, while the companies that control it are, actually, busy tracking our likes and preferences to tailor stories and ads for our highly structured news feeds. 

BIRNBAUM  And surveillance—we don’t know where that line really is. As I said, surveillance is a kind of shadow image. We know it’s there and yet we don’t quite know where it lies. America has a pretense toward total freedom, but total freedom doesn’t exist. 

CORNELL  You’ve been looking at and responding to the televised representation of political events for a long time now. Your past work has dealt with occurrences such as the Tiananmen Square student protests and uprising, with Tiananmen Square: Break-in Transmission, and the kidnapping of German businessman Hanns-Martin Schleyer by the Red Army Faction in the 1970s, with Hostage [1994]. Do you think there is something new about the way images related to the crisis in Syria are produced or presented to us?

BIRNBAUM  Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission was about the delivery of images through mass media or through other sources, such as fax machines, when the mass media was shut down. So one of the most important events I showed in this work is CBS (a major network in America) and CNN news (a major worldwide network) being shut down forcibly by the Chinese government, so that they could no longer transmit by satellite. To me, that’s a critical moment, a historical moment of TV. 

There are other moments in television history I’ve singled out. In Damnation of Faust: Charming Landscape[1987] there are the scenes of the Chicago police invading Lincoln Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention, where a man who was knocked over looked up and pointed at the camera and said, “Remember, the whole world is watching.” To me, that’s also a critical historical television moment. 

For the new work, I’m looking for images that are basically aside from the red-hot blasts of bombing, or the rapid firing of guns with dead bodies shown in the frame, or someone on their knees with their head about to be cut off. You do see the “smoke” of such tragic incidents, without having to be an eyewitness to scenes of extremity. It very roughly has to do with choosing images that can give someone the tremors of war without giving the bombastic nature that becomes spectacle. 

CORNELL  This is a huge project you’re embarking on, Dara. Who supports you? I don’t see a team of assistants around here.

BIRNBAUM  There they are! 

CORNELL  That’s a dog and a cat.

BIRNBAUM  They keep me going. There were times when you would find up to four or five assistants in here, and now I have fewer: two. Even though part of it is financial, I am completely driven to make my work. I think it’s the talent that’s been given to me and that I need to express and give to others. It’s OK if the art is not making a lot of money. It makes enough to keep the roof over my head, to keep a skeletal structure of assistants, to keep the family of dog and cat and myself fed, but it is not paying for a luxurious studio or large numbers of assistants. Beyond all this, as you noticed, I’m a very detail-oriented person who likes to work hands-on. 

CORNELL  What is it that drives you to try something totally new now? 

BIRNBAUM  I think it’s partly maturity and growth, and maybe it’s partly my nature that I feel like I need to constantly challenge myself.[pq]In a society that’s constantly yelling, maybe it’s a strong whisper that can best be heard.[/pq]I don’t believe in the way much art has become highly commodified. I look at art as a test of the First Amendment of the Constitution and also a way, hopefully, to change people’s perspectives from the norm. I have to say that after being ill, when you see life and death, you come back appreciating what life has to offer you. The goal is to accept the greatest challenge—because, if it works, it’ll be the greatest gift. 

CORNELL  In the case of the new work, is the norm apathy and disengagement around the current Syrian war and refugee crisis? 

BIRNBAUM  I meant “norm” more in relation to our communication through and as provided by mass media. Just now in the United States, we are in a very conservative time. Most people are worried about the economy, the environment—and the climate. Everything seems to be changing and failing and falling out from under us. So a kind of numbness has developed, and that’s why some art attempts to yell out so hard at its viewers. But if one comes from a place of solemnity and from a whisper, in a society that’s constantly yelling, maybe it’s a strong whisper that can best be heard and then matched with full integrity.


“Psalm 29(30),” at Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris, through June 4.