Dara Birnbaum: Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman
by T.J. Demos
Afterall Books (One Work series), London, 2010
112 pp., illus. 38 col. Paper, £9.95
ISBN-10: 1846380677 ; ISBN-13: 978-1846380679.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
An art critic and theoretician with links to the October group, T.J. Demos proposes an interesting reflection on a perhaps lesser-known work that belongs to the pioneer years of video art: Dara Birnbaum's Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978/1979), a 5 minute and 50 second colour video with stereo sound sampling key fragments of the short-lived television series adapted from the much older and much more successful superheroes comics Wonder Woman (the first female equivalent or counterpart of Superman).
Demos' ambition in this exemplary book is twofold. First, he offers a historical contextualization of the work as well as of its amazing reception (Birnbaum's video is now being read in a very different way than it was at its first release, and even at the moment of its first projection the consensus on its meaning was far from complete). Second, he tries to understand why Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman has been capable of producing such diverging and often incompatible interpretations. In both cases, Demos proves to be an excellent pedagogue, with an in-depth knowledge of the historical framework of the work and its intertext as well as with a profound understanding of the theoretical and cultural underpinnings of what it means to read and interpret this kind of work, which is deeply rooted in both popular culture and cutting edge critical theory.
At first sight, Birnbaum's work is typical of what the first pioneers of video art were looking for.
On the one side a critique of the dominant culture, by which one has to understand not only the technological critique of the dominant medium of these days, namely television, but also the ideological critique of the dominant cultural messages spread by television and related popular media (such as of course film and comics). Television was considered by avant-garde artists and critical theorists as a medium that had betrayed the possibilities of social interaction, dialogue and critique enabled by the very technology: broadcasting is indeed not the only way of using television technology, and artists as well as social activists were looking for ways to "talk back" to the medium (David Joselit's Feedback is a key publication in this regard). And the messages it carried to the public were characterized by a strong ideological subtext that was, among many other things, very woman-unfriendly.
On the other side an attempt to remediate these flaws, both by exploring video's medium-specificity and by resisting to the ideological meanings of the dominant media. Video was not (only) used as a carrier for other meanings, it was an opportunity to explore, i.e. to invent a new visual language, which was used in its turn as a way of criticizing the belief that images, most importantly television images, were transparent windows on the world. Moreover, the new video art investigated also the (in this case sexist) ideology of the messages spread by popular and media culture, which were attacked and deconstructed through classic avant-garde mechanisms of sampling and collage.
T.J. Demos describes with great clarity the historical context of Birnbaum's video, stressing very rightly the relationships between the beginnings of video art and the postmodern aesthetics of appropriation art as exemplified by Craig Owens work around the landmark Pictures exhibition. He also underlines the strong input of Screen-based critical and feminist film theory, as illustrated by theoretically schooled filmmakers such as Mulvey and Wollen.
Yet contrary to other works of the same artistic and ideological movement, Birnbaum's reworking of the Wonder Woman mythology and television series, has never had the same homogeneous and politically streamlined reception as that of most other works of her colleagues and competitors (one of the critical voices in this regard was that of Benjamin Buchloh). From the very beginning, there were doubts on the political "correctness" of this video, and today it is even seen by many spectators, including women, as defending a positive image of a strong, postfeminist woman.
For T.J. Demos, this persistent ambivalence is not a flaw of Birnbaum's work, but one of its major strengths, and the fact that after three decades the Wonder Woman video is still producing such divergent interpretations should be the core question of any analysis of the work. Demos rejects, and I think he is right doing so, the easy hypothesis of the multiple audiences: if Birnbaum's work engenders various readings, it is not only because the public is different, both synchronically and diachronically, but also and foremost, and this is a much more courageous hypothesis, because Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman takes very seriously the strength of popular culture and dominant media and does not discard automatically the positive aspects of our fascination with this kind of culture. Birnbaum's work is a highbrow critique of lowbrow culture, but one that does not take as its starting point the unbridgeable gap between both. How this complex relationship between distance and fascination works, is discussed in the last sections of Demos' analysis in reference to notions such as experience, interaction and affect (and, not unsurprisingly, the names of Bourriaud and Masumi are quoted more than once).
The aim of the One World series, which focuses on specific works, is of course not to give definitive answers to very general questions, but T.J. Demos' discussion of Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman is a valuable contribution to a better, i.e. a less a priori negative understanding of our long-standing oscillation between involvement and critical distance in contemporary mass culture.