FRIEZE magazine
Issue 115, May 2008

Review: We Interrupt Your Program

Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, USA

In the wake of the exhibitions and symposia concerning feminist-related art practices in 2007 – of which the historical survey ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ was perhaps the most visible – several curators in the San Francisco Bay Area have organized shows of contemporary art by women, as though to test recent practices against a newly canonical feminist past. These shows included: ‘Small Things End, Great Things Endure’ at New Langton Arts; ‘Make You Notice’ at the San Francisco Arts Commission; ‘The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art & Politics’ at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; and ‘We Interrupt Your Program’, an exhibition of video and new media works staged at the Mills College Art Museum by Marcia Tanner. It remains to be seen whether these shows mark a revving up or a petering out, a continuation or a repudiation, of last year’s enthusiasm.

If ‘WACK!’ was a wild, expansive celebration, ‘We Interrupt Your Program’ can be seen as the dispiriting morning after – 14 artists who ‘respond to mainstream media […] as restrictive cultural vocabularies that routinely exclude the female voice and point of view’. ‘We Interrupt Your Program’ did not address ‘traditional feminist themes’, Tanner declared in her curatorial statement, but instead pictured the operations of a patriarchy both dominant and pathetic. Patriarchy’s ideologies were discovered in the instruments of science – Gail Wight’s prints of smashed test-tubes (Blow Out, 2006) and giant Perspex microscope (Meaning of Minuscule, 2006) – and in politics, in the form of edited snippets of George W. smirking his way through his first press conference on CNN (Maria Friberg’s no time to fall, 2001). In her video Double Bubble (2001) Serbian artist Maja Bajevic rehearses male justifications for rape, oppression and hypocrisy: ‘My wife wears the veil. I make her wear it. Then I go to prostitutes.’

Détournement, rather than disruption, was the common strategy – feminists imagined as natural bricoleurs. The strongest cases for this were brilliant works by Maria Antelman and Nina Katchadourian. Antelman offered a compellingly weird video called taH pagh taHbe (2006): still images of a vast, unused NASA hangar soundtracked by Hamlet’s famous soliloquy translated into the guttural sci-fi language of Klingon; America’s space programme imagined as a bleak and nerdy no-zone. Katchadourian presented The Recovery Channels (2005), her collection of discarded magnetic videotape found on the street in New York. These denatured loops of unwanted video – 38 ‘channels’ ranging from cartoons, moody art films and instruction videos to raw, amateur porn – provided a fascinating image of dispossession and overload in a post-video age.

Several artists took aim at Hollywood. Claudia X. Valdes produced seven versions of the notorious television movie The Day After (1983), each one compressing the feature-length film down to 56 seconds (In The Dream of the Planet, 2002). I saw the movie when it was first released and was terrorized by its vision of nuclear winter – I was somewhat less shattered this time around. Anne Walsh enlarged pages from a catalogue of sound effects, including boats, bobcats and falling bodies (Sound FX Library, p. 119: Bodyfall, Human, 2004). Stephanie Syjuco’s Body Double (2005) was a video triptych screening altered versions of Vietnam War movies – Platoon (1986), Hamburger Hill (1987), and Apocalypse Now (1979) – that were actually shot in the Philippines, where she was born; Syjuco had ‘censored’ everything from the films except their occluded views of the Filipino countryside. Titled THE DAWSON’S CREEK PROJECTS, Renetta Sitoy’s short animation (2005–6) quoted crass dedications from a Dawson’s Creek fan site: ‘I would like to see Jack suck Dawson’s cock’, wrote one randy hopeful.

Here the exhibition’s version of feminism seemed to require further ramification. If we understand that ‘Television Delivers People’, as Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman declared in their eponymous landmark video from 1973, then it ‘delivers’ them in ways that are disorientingly specific at times (niche marketing, ‘Recommended If You Like’) and bizarrely generic at others (‘Add Inches To Your Manhood’ sent out indiscriminately). We don’t know who wanted to witness Jack fellate Dawson; Syjuco’s ‘censorship’ bears an abstract relationship to her gender at best. Slippery assignations such as these don’t make visible the specificity of women’s dispossession by power; rather, women’s position is construed as merely and specially dispossessed as a matter of course. Surely this was not the intended effect – a programme not so much ‘interrupted’ as re-enacted. One of the things that Feminism does best is put to bed these grotesque and obsolete sexual dyads; there’s plentiful evidence of this femme modernity in ‘Small Things End’ and ‘The Way That We Rhyme’ across the Bay.

Julian Myers