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Two Generations of Groundbreaking Video Artists Spotlighted in Major Exhibitions Opening This June at CCS Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art

First U.S. Retrospective of Dara Birnbaum Surveys Artist’s Influential Career Through Four Decades of Creative Practice · New and Recent Works by Martine Syms Explore Systems of Representation and Digital Media's Shaping of Culture Today

This June, CCS Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art will present major solo exhibitions of Dara Birnbaum (born 1946) and Martine Syms (born 1988), providing audiences a rare opportunity to experience the work of two artists who have made a significant impact on the development of video art. Dara Birnbaum: Reaction, the artist’s first retrospective in the United States, is an in-depth examination of Birnbaum’s influential contributions in video throughout a multifaceted career that both responds to and anticipates the development of popular culture. Martine Syms: Grio College highlights recent and never-before-seen works that interrogate digital media’s influence on our lives and explore representations of Blackness and its relationship to vernacular, feminist thought, and radical traditions. Both exhibitions are on view from June 25 through November 27, 2022.

“The Hessel Museum of Art provides a platform for new discourses in contemporary art and culture. This season, we focus on the work of two pioneering artists who share a basic impulse to leverage media as a tool for revealing fundamental truths about society, identity, and politics,” said Tom Eccles, Executive Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College and Founding Director of the Hessel Museum of Art. “Conceived separately and yet presented concurrently, these exhibitions collectively encourage the viewer to question the evolving role of technology and media in our lives—beginning with Birnbaum, one the first artists to experiment in video art in the 1970s and the first to focus on the systems of power inherent in television and mass media, to Syms, who carries forward a similar ethos of experimentation and criticality into new digital platforms, including the web and AI, to offer comment on experiences that are both deeply personal and broadly shared.”

Dara Birnbaum: Reaction
Reaction charts a wide and in-depth view of Dara Birnbaum’s extraordinary and influential practice, marking the indelible contribution she has made not only to American art but to the international movements of Conceptual, performance, and appropriation art. Organized chronologically, and marking the first U.S. retrospective of the artist’s work to date, the exhibition surveys works from 1975 to 2011 with a focus on key single-channel videos and major installations, many not seen in the United States for years. An accompanying presentation of archival material will illustrate her rigorous and interdisciplinary method, while illuminating the varied contexts of her work in art, music, and politics.

Many techniques that Birnbaum first tested—re-editing found footage, inserting remixed footage back into public networks, asserting an imprint or ‘reaction’ on a media clip to viral effect—prefigure the operations of popular media culture today,” said Lauren Cornell, Director of the Graduate Program and Chief Curator at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. “Yet what is truly Birnbaum’s legacy, beyond these direct formal antecedents, is her systems analysis, and her insistence on engaging media on her own terms.”

Included in the exhibition is Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978/79), considered an iconic work in the history of video and feminist art for Birnbaum's use of appropriated imagery to deconstruct the codes and structures of television. Also on view are contemporaneous but rarely seen early works, such as her earliest surviving installation Attack Piece (1975) and (A)drift of Politics (1978). Through works from this period, Birnbaum begins to articulate her concept of “talking back to the media,” or countering the passive reception of TV and popular culture, which would become a touchstone throughout her career.

Reaction expands to explore the ever-evolving nature of her practice over nearly four decades. Works from the early 1980s give insight into her participation in New York’s post-punk music scene, her interest in the entertainment industry, and the emergent form of the music video—such works range from large-scale installations to experimental documentary to the legendary commercial piece Artbreak, MTV Networks, Inc. (1987), a thirty-second TV segment that ran on MTV Network and critiqued the objectification of women’s bodies in music television. In the multi-channel installation PM Magazine (1982), Birnbaum illuminates television’s coding of gender through remixed footage featuring cliched images of women in acts of leisure and consumerism. Also on view are installations from the mid-1980s:      Damnation of Faust (1984) and Will-O’-the-Wisp (1985), part of a series of Faust-inspired works that haven’t been seen in the U.S. in decades.

Birnbaum’s work of the late 1980s and 90s show her increased interest in student activism and the ways that foreign conflicts were mediated for a U.S. audience. Commissioned for documenta IX in Kassel, Transmission Tower: Sentinel (1992) demonstrates Birnbaum’s incisive engagement with coverage of the Gulf War and subsequently became an emblem of U.S.-based war resistance. Eight monitors are arranged vertically on a custom-built metal structure made from imported sections of a ROHN telecommunications tower; moving rhythmically down the eight screens is footage of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg reading his poem “Hum Bom!” (1971) at the opening night of the 1988 National Student Convention. A smaller frame of video, featuring President George H. W. Bush giving his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, is inset into the Ginsberg footage, while a third video stream, tinted green and moving up the monitors, documents excerpts of boisterous meetings during the student convention. The jarring combination of images amounts to an indictment of war and state-sanctioned violence as conveyed via television. As demonstrated in Transmission Tower and other works such as Hostage (1994), Birnbaum’s work from the late 1980s to the present is a testament to her adamant refusal to be a passive receiver of her government’s imperialistic and bellicose approach to foreign wars.

The evolution of Birnbaum’s practice in her later works follows the profound paradigm shift that took place in mass media over the course of her career. The concluding work in the retrospective, titled Arabesque (2011), mines material from YouTube and remixes it with clips from the 1947 film Song of Love to explore the unequal legacies of married composers Robert and Clara Schumann.

Exhibition Credits, Sponsorship, and Catalogue
Dara Birnbaum: Reaction is curated by Lauren Cornell, Chief Curator of the Hessel Museum of Art and Director of the Graduate Program at CCS Bard.

The exhibition was designed to accompany a significant thematic survey of Birnbaum’s works opening this August at the Miller ICA at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where Birnbaum graduated from the School of Architecture in 1969. Organized by Elizabeth Chodos, the director of the Miller ICA and professor of curatorial practice in the School of Art, Dara Birnbaum: Journeys focuses on three recent immersive installations, including a new commission set to premiere at the exhibition. 

Dara Birnbaum: Reaction will be accompanied by a forthcoming catalogue, published by Dancing Foxes and CCS Bard with the Miller ICA, with contributors including: Alex Kitnick, Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Bard College; Jordan Carter, Dia Art Foundation curator; Erika Balsom, media scholar and critic; Giampaolo Bianconi, Museum Brandhorst curator and writer; and Legacy Russell, The Kitchen’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, in conversation with Elizabeth Chodos, and Lauren Cornell.

Dara Birnbaum: Reaction is generously supported by Lonti Ebers. Major additional support is provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Dara Birnbaum: Reaction is also made possible through the generous support of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation.

Martine Syms: Grio College
The practice of Martine Syms (Bard College, MFA’17) is distinguished by its boundlessness: her subjects move across media—print and web publishing, moving image, photography, installation, AI, software—dissolving the lines between these forms. One of the most insightful and important artists to show how digital media shapes our culture, Syms examines representations of Blackness and its relationship to vernacular, feminist thought, and radical traditions.

“Syms is a prolific artist who is rigorous in both media and method: she is an astute listener to language and a deep researcher of visual patterns and representation,” said Cornell. “Grio College highlights the range of her production since 2017, and, on the heels of her first feature film, the exhibition also seeks to emphasize her versatile approach to photography, highlighting the many scales and methods through which she approaches image-making.”

Grio College features major new and recent work by Syms in video, photography, installation, drawing, and written form. A focal point of the exhibition is her now iconic installation on gesture and femininity Borrowed Lady (2016), which was recently acquired by the Marieluise Hessel Collection. The multifaceted work takes a cue from writer Samuel R. Delany’s explorations of how feminine characters are constructed through the compositing of ideal physiological and psychological features, and draws from Syms’ own archives to speculate on the influences on her actor’s gestures. Other installations include Ugly Plymouths (2020), an immersive one-act play across three screens each representing a different character, and DED (2021), a gripping digital animation in which an avatar of the artist—wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase: “To hell with my suffering”—moves through a digital netherworld, repeatedly committing suicide and then resuscitating to a soundtrack of her own music and voice.

Syms’ research-based practice frequently references and incorporates theoretical models concerning performed or imposed identities, the power of the gesture, and embedded assumptions concerning gender and racial inequalities. Installations such as Misdirected Kiss (2016), Threat Model (2018), and Relax Your Jaw (2018), the latter two never before seen in the U.S., demonstrate how her research-based projects come to build entire environments, with photographs placed on the floor, walls, and interwoven into layered collages. In Misdirected Kiss, Syms compiles representations of Black women in cinema to reveal contradictory messages of desire and negation. Ideas of self and identity are further explored in the works Threat Model (2018) and Relax Your Jaw (2018), an installation that serves as a map of the artist’s unfiltered thoughts and a reflection on the universal condition of being human in the face of criticism, injustice, and self-doubt.

The exhibition is accompanied by a screening of Syms’ first feature film The African Desperate (2022), and premieres related new photographic works and drawings. Set in “Grio College,” a fictional school from which the solo show draws its name, The African Desperate traces the experiences of the graduate student “Palace” (played by artist Diamond Stingily) during the last 24 hours in her MFA program. The script of The African Desperate, co-written by Syms and Rocket Caleshu, will be published by Nightboat Books and available in conjunction with the exhibition.

Martine Syms: Grio College is curated by Lauren Cornell, Chief Curator of the Hessel Museum of Art and Director of the Graduate Program at CCS Bard.