- Dara Birnbaum: Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman
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, 50-second color video with stereo sound sampling key fragments of the short-lived television series adapted from the much older and much more successful superhero comic Wonder Woman (the first female equivalent or counterpart of Superman). Demos's 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 to achieve. On the one hand, a critique of the dominant culture, by which one has to understand [End Page 275] 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 hand, there was an attempt to remediate these flaws, both by exploring video's medium-specificity and by resisting the ideological meanings of the dominant media. Video was not (only) used as a carrier for other meanings, it was an opportunity to explore, that is, 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 also investigated the (in this case sexist) ideology of the messages spread by popular and media culture, which were attacked and deconstructed through the 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's 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 by 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...