If, as some linguists say, men interrupt women as a way of asserting their power, the fourteen artists in We Interrupt Your Program turn the tables. Curator Marcia Tanner has assembled an international cadre of artists who, she writes, use media to “appropriate, intervene in, reconfigure and recontextualize dominant narratives of politics, war, power, science, technology, and gender.”
That quote from Tanner’s catalog text casts the project in rather formal terms, but the works on view butt in, cut short, disturb, heckle, hinder, impede, inject, and intrude on the patriarchal values of mainstream media with satisfying irreverence. The works also have satisfying formal variety, including a reverse-Pandora’s box (Julianne Swartz), pigment prints on Hahnemule rag stock (Anne Walsh) a computer-key textile (Jean Shin) and video-in-giant-microscope (Gail Wight) as well as videos and projections, There are plenty of headphones and black boxes to be seen, but the show is a lively presence in the gallery as well as on the monitors.
taH pagh taHbe (To Be or Not to Be) (2006), a video projection by Maria Antelman, and Afflicted Powers (2007), an installation by Gail Wight with other members of Retort, are installed at opposite ends of the gallery and mark the extremes of mood in the exhibition. The soundtrack of taH pagh taHbe is Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy delivered in Klingon, the language of the warrior aliens in Star Trek. Like all things Star Trek, Klingon (which was created by the linguist Marc Okrand and partially based on an extinct Native American language) has escaped the screen to propagate in the “real” world. This circumstance might prompt a viewer to reflect on mediated realities if that viewer could tear her consciousness away from the gorgeous sights on the screen, a flow of still photographs taken in a decommissioned NASA hangar.
Antelman found that hangar a thing of beauty. Her camera wanders through it with awe and without judgment, as if like a Klingon she were seeing temple ruins on a strange world for the first time. The images dissolve one into the other, just quickly enough that the eye can’t quite grasp their details. The palette is metallic burnished golds, silvers, and blues and the compositions are bardic, suggesting the epic ambitions that created the space. As the last words of Shakespeare’s famous meditation on suicide roll by, familiar in cadence if not in consonants, the stream of images settles in a cockpit. The pilot’s seat is vacant and fraying at the edges. The dream of space is beautiful, but is it, like that seat, empty?
Where Antelman creates a space of reflection, Wight and the other members of Retort* create a space of protest. Broadsides paper the side walls of Afflicted Powers. In the center of the room stand two waist-high stacks of the same leaflets, positioned like twin towers. They front a video projection of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica; portions of the painting have been cut away to reveal filmed footage of bombings. Over and over again, planes appear, discharge their explosives, and smoke boils up from the bottom of the painting. The formal unification of still and moving image is remarkably effective, The painted figures speak, as they always have, of suffering, while the recurrent bombings makes one feel that history is repeating.
Wight’s fresh reworking of Guernica redeems the militant tone of the broadsides, which teeter on the edge of righteousness. Credited to Michael Watt, the twin texts use phrases like “crisis of hegemony” and “dogs [who] will all want their share of the spoils.” If the language seems a bit reminiscent of Mao, in the context of the installation its heat works. In its certainty it mirrors the attitudes it decries, but it also performs an impassioned “NO!” to bombing in Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon while tying it to larger political themes.
While not all the works in the exhibition can be discussed in detail here, it is worth noting that Anne Walsh’s Sound FX Library, p. 426 Space (2004) and Claudia X. Valdes’s In the Dream of the Planet (2002) can be read along the same axis as Antelman and Wight’s works. Like Antelman, Walsh uses formal beauty to get her point across. The work is, as advertised, a reproduction of a page from a sound effects catalog. By enlarging it and printing it with sensual attention to materials, Walsh makes from the flimsy page an object of wonder. Among its pleasures is a list of “whooshes,” including a “quick, ripping whoosh” and a “processed whoosh, useful as moving light or laser beams.” In a most economical way, Walsh draws the curtain on which fantasies of space are projected, revealing the mechanics of their construction.
Valdes’s single channel video, like Wight with Retort’s work, recuts a well-known work about bombing, in this case the 1983 made-for-television movie The Day After. The screenplay dramatizes the aftermath of a massive nuclear attack on the United States. Valdes condensed the movie into six 56-second variations. At that pace, the scenes fly by too quickly to comprehend. In just a few places the editing slows long enough for the viewer to take in a phrase or an action. These pauses fall on different scenes from version to version, picking out story threads such as medical, military, or civilian responses to the event. By making manifest various perspectives within the story, she provokes political concern without commanding an answer.
“We Interrupt Your Program” is rich with interpenetrating themes and subthemes, fielding enough ideas to fill several essays. For more than a decade Tanner, who also curated “Brides of Frankenstein” (San Jose Museum of Art, 2006), “Lineaments of Gratified Desire” and “Aural Sex” (Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, 2004 and 2000 respectively) and “Bad Girls West” (UCLA Wight Gallery, 1994), has been putting together superb, feminist-inflected exhibitions. At times it must have seemed as if she were barely holding off a mainstream view of feminism as humorless, single-minded, and dogmatic. But in the wake of two major exhibitions, WACK!and Global Feminisms, that let viewers see for themselves the heterogenous, varied forms of feminist art, Tanner’s insights into the contemporary moment will convince all kinds of viewers that in dismissing feminism, they miss out.
Also included in the exhibition are works by Maja Bajevic, Maria Friberg, Nina Katchadourian, Marisa Olson, Julia Page, Shannon Plumb, Renetta Sitoy, and Stephanie Syjuco.
* According to the exhibition catalog, Retort is a “gathering of antagonists to capital and empire, based for two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area.” In addition to Wight, members include Ian Boal, T.J. Clark, Joe Matthews, and Michael Watts.
© Meredith Tromble 2008