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PHILADELPHIA — Howardena Pindell describes, in her video “Free, White and 21” (1980), an afternoon during her mother’s childhood when a white babysitter was hired to care for her mother and her siblings. Her mother was the darkest among them; the sitter, who was unfamiliar with the family, thought she looked dirty and scrubbed her arms with lye. The chemical left lifelong scars.
Pindell’s video is featured in Making/Breaking the Binary: Women, Technology, and Art, on view at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts through December 8. Curated by Kelsey Halliday Johnson, this rigorous exhibition uses art to critique the stereotype that men and technology go hand in hand. After all, Ann Smith Franklin, this country’s first female newspaper editor, taught her brother-in-law, Benjamin, how to use the printing press before he took up his trade as a printer.
Later in Pindell’s video, after recounting personal incidents of racial and gender discrimination, she costumes herself as a white woman in conversation with the artist. The video has the feel of a psychotherapy session gone very wrong. The white character says to Pindell, “You really must be paranoid.” She charges that Pindell’s art isn’t political and that she doesn’t use symbols that are familiar to white audiences. The work goes on to address the issues of validation and tokenism, with Pindell’s white character stating, “Don’t worry, we’ll find other tokens.” As the video ends, Pindell peels off her white mask. If only the constructed falsehood of white supremacy in the US were as easy to remove.
Near “Free, White, and 21” is a table devoted to Radical Software, a journal founded in 1970 by Phyllis Gershuny and Beryl Korot. Radical Software was dedicated to the belief that personal video technology improved one’s capacity to resist modes of governmental and corporate media control. These days, when most of us carry smart phones equipped with cameras and tracking devices, an incisive editorial statement from December 1972 takes a chilling edge:
In a time when our powerlessness is reasserted daily, when we can watch TV accounts of this government’s repression of the already brainwashed mass communications industry, when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has demanded programming reflecting Nixon’s credo, when we must bear witness to a totally outrageous annihilation of a nation, in our name, we must now seriously reevaluate the significance of this new media and its real effect on the human condition.
Instead of TV, Nixon, and Vietnam, we have social media, Trump, war in the Middle East, and gun violence in schools and places of worship. The incipient urgings of Radical Software have advanced several stages. To read excerpts from this journal, adroitly edited by Gershuny and Korot, is to relive the failure of not only personal video technology, but the Internet as well, which, we have been told, was conceived as similarly empowering.
Shigeko Kubota’s video, “My Father” (1975), offers a personal glimpse into the power of video, in its moving account of the artist mourning her father’s death. Based on a friend’s suggestion, Kubota, who was an early adopter of Sony’s Portapak camera system, recorded herself crying. “My Father” embraces the maudlin expectations of such an act, through its close-up shots, in grainy black and white film, of the back of Kubota’s head, as she drinks and weeps while watching Japanese singers perform on TV. The muffled sound contributes to the melancholic texture of the piece, as does the slow, patient gaze that Kubota establishes with her camerawork. After a few minutes, the video transitions to footage of father and daughter watching TV and sporadically chatting.
Kubota’s father, who wasn’t told of his cancer diagnosis by his doctors, seems initially to be the subject of the piece, but by the end it’s clear that “My Father” is more about the daughter’s gaze near the end of her father’s life.
A small room devoted to Catherine Jansen’s “Sewing Space” (1981), puts the female subject at the center of a meditation on traditionally female labor, such as sewing, and women’s involvement in scientific enterprises, such as space travel. Jansen’s xerographic installation consists of a queen-sized bed, with the image of a sleeping woman in the middle, a sewing machine in the corner, and copies of magazines devoted to space travel stacked on a night table. Every item except the bed is a sewn replica — including the sewing machine, which is sewing a length of fabric that runs directly to the bedspread. The room is a soft space that conjures celestial dreams, as it pointedly challenges the false dichotomy of male and female labor.
“Petit Dragon” (1980), by Pati Hill, is a nice companion to Jansen’s work. Hill arranged a well-worn, tasseled scarf on the glass of a Xerox machine and copied it to form a delicate, yet stark representation of a dragon. Hill, who has begun to gain the attention she deserves, often created Xeroxed images that subvert the coldness and utilitarian purpose of conventional photocopies. She remarkably expands the standard palette of the copier with a full range of whites, grays, and blacks.
In addition to the array of visual art included in Making/Breaking the Binary, there is a table in the main room devoted to women’s contributions to electronic music, featuring album covers, magazine articles, and books, such as Pauline Oliveros’s Software for People (1963-1980), displayed under glass, and headphones playing excerpts of compositions by Laurie Anderson, Annea Lockwood, and Wendy Carlos, who composed soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange (1972), The Shining (1980), and Tron (1982).
Oliveros seems to serve as a touchstone for curator Kelsey Halliday Johnson. Upon entering the gallery, this statement from Oliveros greets the visitor:
Bach, for instance, was not the father of Baroque Music, but the son who brought it into full bloom. Who was the father of Baroque music? If his identity is clear, then who was the mother? Naturally, the daughter is missing. Her role has been non-existent. Choose to be what you want to be. Do what you want to do, no matter who wants you to. Your piece is food for a hungry scene of starving daughters.
Days after seeing this exhibition, phrases from this statement were echoing in my head. At the heart of it are notions of genealogy and sustenance. As Halliday Johnson’s wisely curated exhibition demonstrates, women artists have long subverted the spurious narrative that they are technological neophytes. Making/Breaking the Binary asserts this independence and power. It should feed all of us. And urge all daughters to be what they want to be.
Making/Breaking the Binary continues at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery (333 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through December 8.