There has been no shortage of commentators noting the effect of the increasing circulation of images on the development of artistic production. From the current “Art vs. Image” issue of Texte zur Kunst to Hito Steyerl’s influential 2009 essay “In Defense of the Poor image,” contemporary art’s concern with mobile images has grown with the proliferation of technologies that facilitate it, both hardware (laptops, smartphones) and software (Tumblr, Final Cut Pro).
MoMA’s current exhibition Cut to Swipe takes this recent interest as its point of departure. Crucially, the show begins by looking backwards, at Dara Birnbaum’s pioneering 1985 video installation PM Magazine, the artist’s first. The installation is bracketed by two walls, one in red and one in chroma-key blue, a color used specifically in television production studios of the time and a forerunner to today’s ubiquitous green screen. Four monitors display a collage of female archetypes from the opening credit sequence for the contemporaneous news program PM Magazine: an ice skater, a cheerleader, and a child licking an ice cream cone all appear as representatives of peachy Reaganite consumption and productive exertion. There’s a fourth character, too: a professional woman typing at what now appears to be a fashionably out of date computer.
Birnbaum’s installation offers a historical anchor for the kind of image-interaction that typifies our present moment, and it does so by drawing out distinctions in process; to make PM Magazine, she had to steal tapes and assemble the footage using analog methods—a far cry from the relative ease with which found footage materials can be assembled today.
Birnbaum’s most recognizable work might be 1977’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, which was originally housed not in a gallery but in a downtown shop window. While the shop window provided an important urban infusion for the artwork, it was actually a solution to the difficult problem of bringing the monitor—upon which the work relies—into the gallery space. It was precisely this difficulty that PM Magazine sought to combat.
While appropriation reveals itself as a through-line in Cut to Swipe, the importance of creating space further ties these works together. The Otolith Group describes their Inner Time of Television as a collaboration with Chris Marker. In 1989, Marker was commissioned (in part by the Onassis Foundation) to produce a television miniseries investigating Western society’s foundations in Ancient Greek culture. The series, dubbed The Owl’s Legacy, was never aired. As the Otolith Group said of The Owl’s Legacy in the booklet accompanying Inner Time of Television, “Something like this could never be made today.” Inner Time of Television certainly reflects on the changing mores of television production—the increased strangulation of creative resources at the hands of data-driven corporations—while it also occasions a reflection on the ways in which television is watched. The Otolith Group first installed Inner Time of Television in 2007, the same year Netflix introduced its online streaming service, a landmark for the transformation of habitual television viewing. “What was once habitual and domestic returns as an artificial, conditional, and self-conscious experience,” write the Otoliths. “A domestic routine is (re)viewed again, for the first time, as an experiment in presentation and as an invitation to produce a specific kind of attention.”
James Richards’s Not Blacking Out, Just Turning Off the Lights (2011) further engages with the abundance of preexisting visual materials, focusing in part on their diffusion online. Not Blacking Out mixes clips from television programs, YouTube, advertisements, and feature films with Richards’s own footage. Shot in an amateur vernacular, Richards’s footage is difficult to discern from these other sources. It’s not simply the use of collected and collaged footage that makes Not Blacking Out so riveting; Richards’s editing practice, which he’s described as an attempt to “produce something perfectly illogical,” resists thematic pairings in favor of rhythmic manipulations. The result is a more nuanced, almost spiritual interaction, in which the images teem with the sensual tactility of low-fi file formats or the high-res fetish of Rosebud, another video by James Richards that opens Cut to Swipe. This sensuality comes from Richards’s mode of combining these images, even when their subjects are quotidian or, as in Rosebud, have been subject to violent censorship. Richards’s method recalls Kevin Beasley’s I Want My Spot Back, represented here as a vinyl record, which uses a capella versions of hits by deceased 1990s rappers, along with live feedback and other recorded sounds.
Next to PM Magazine, Not Blacking Out and I Want My Spot Back reinforce artists’ changing relationship to the abundance of circulating media. Yes, information overload produces a rich stream of objects for artists to engage with—it’s a process that’s been in place since the beginning of the 20th century. What changes between PM Magazine and Not Blacking Out, Just Turning Off The Lights—in tandem with transformations in consumer technology—is the proximity of media. As it comes closer, its manipulation becomes physical, sensual.