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Acclaimed video-art pioneer and CMU alum returns to Pittsburgh with solo exhibition

Dara Birnbaum enrolled at what was then called the Carnegie Institute of Technology when she was 16. She was surely one of the youngest students there and, four years later, in 1969, she was the youngest to graduate with an architecture degree -- as well as the only woman to do so, she said.

Within a decade, however, Birnbaum was making a name for herself in another field—as a pioneer in turning appropriated television footage into art. Now, some 45 years into that career, she returns to Carnegie Mellon University for a new exhibition exploring her internationally acclaimed career. The show will also feature a major new work by Birnbaum.

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“Dara is one of the most influential artists living and working today,” said Elizabeth Chodos, director of CMU’s Miller Institute for Contemporary Art, who curated “Dara Birnbaum: Journey.” “She’s had this indelible influence on contemporary art practice.”

Of Carnegie Mellon, Birnbaum said, “It formulated who I am, and it’s a pleasure to be back.”

The solo exhibition opens Sat., Aug. 20, with two floors of art by the New York-based artist. Then, on Sept. 23, a new work by Birnbaum titled “Journey” opens on the gallery’s third floor. That debut will coincide with the opening weekend of the Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Birnbaum was born in New York and loved art from an early age, but she didn’t think it was something she could make a career of, she said in a recent interview. After leaving CMU, though, she pursued art further. She was introduced to televisual art while living in Florence, Italy. The idea of re-editing television footage appealed to her immediately.

She was further spurred by a 1977 Nielsen report that found the average American household watched more than 7 hours of TV each day. Television, she saw, had its own language of performance, shooting and editing that was distinct from cinema’s. But, despite its reach, that visual language was little discussed.

“There were a lot of people writing about film, but not about television and what a prominent language it was, maybe the prominent language in America at the time,” said Birnbaum. “And I thought I really needed to get into that and kind of stop action, and stop flow, and re-present it to people. And also probably I most strongly related to how women are presented on TV.”

Her iconic early short works included “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” which re-edited footage from the 1970s “Wonder Woman” TV series, repeating the same images and sounds multiple times to explore depictions of gender. Likewise with “Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry,” which critiqued the public performance of gender through similar reworking of footage from the game show “Hollywood Squares.”

Birnbaum, 75, has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art; London’s Wilkinson Gallery; and at museums in Spain and Montreal. She’s had a retrospective screening at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and she was the lone video artist invited to participate in major shows including Documenta 7, in Kassel, Germany; the 1985 Carnegie International; and the 74th American Exhibition in Chicago.

“Dara Birnbaum: Journey” coincides with the opening of “Dara Birnbaum: Reaction,” Birnbaum’s first retrospective in the U.S., at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College.

Chodos said “Journey” is not a “greatest-hits” roundup of Birnbaum’s work, but explores some of her less-seen moving-image pieces, along with physical 2-D works.

Of special note is “Journey,” the piece commissioned by the Miller Institute. It’s an installation that juxtaposes Birnbaum’s own childhood home movies, as shot by her father, with footage from 1950s-era television of the sort she grew up with, including shows like “Howdy Doody” and “Winky Dink and You.”

She calls the work an exploration of how the concept of the American Dream has changed, from the idealized version prevalent in her childhood to today.

“I feel we’re in a very fractured and fragmented society here,” she said. “Journey,” she said, is a “glimpse into this American Dream idealized as kind of parallel or constructed in opposition to what [we’ve] all … gone through in the past few years here, which for me is the shadow of that American dream.”

Birnbaum’s chosen field has undergone immense technological changes in recent years. For one thing, the kind of footage she once had to retrieve from TV-station garbage bins is now available on anyone’s smartphone. For another, the public’s consumption of media has only increased – from less than 8 hours a day in the 1970s to more than 11 hours a day, according to a Nielsen report from 2018.

Birnbaum said she no longer tries to keep up with all the ever-evolving formats and platforms. She said younger artists need to pursue the mission she undertook decades ago.

“We need to profoundly challenge the dominance of the industr[ial], commercial kind of social-media use, and show the pathway toward what art has always brought to society, which is the ability to hone in on alternate perspectives and to present people with a kind of awakening,” she said.

More information on the exhibit is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm