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Feminist Resource: Video Data Bank

July 15, 2010

Last month, I wrote an article about the Video Data Bank, a non-profit video art rental, screening and preservation facility in downtown Chicago, for Chicago Art Magazine. Having utilized the center for research on a number of occasions over the last year and a half, I was surprised to learn from its director that the screening room receives relatively little access outside of those affiliated with the School of the Art Institute, within which it is housed, and I wanted to make its resources more apparent to Chicago’s art-loving public. I was familiar with their collection of video art and video-recorded performance pieces by feminist artists, such as Sadie Benning, Yvonne Rainer, Peggy Ahwesh, Carolee Schneemann, Laurie Anderson, Eleanor Antin, Dara Birnbaum, Gregg Bordowitz, Abigail Child, Valie Export, Coco Fusco, Jenny Holzer, Joan Jonas and Shigeko Kubota, as I had spent most of my time at Video Data Bank watching pieces by these artists, but I had only recently came across other sorts of historical feminist material in their collection, the nature of which I found relevant for all feminists, rather than just those with a particular interest in art history or criticism. Due to the limited nature of my first article, I was unable to highlight these special videos, which I hope to ameliorate here. These materials can be categorized into two different sorts: documentary video footage of feminist events and happenings from the sixties, seventies and eighties and interviews with feminist artists, theorists, academics and critics from the seventies through the present.

Most of us have read about, seen photographs of and imagined the women’s rights demonstrations of the early seventies, but at the Video Data Bank one can screen hours of raw video footage from the 1970 spring and summer protests in New York City. The footage, which was shot by Videofreex, an activist video collective that was formed in 1969 and shot over 1500 tapes of interviews (including one with Black Panther Fred Hampton a month before he was murdered), protest footage and underground news, was donated along with the rest of the group’s tapes to the VDB in 2001 and has since undergone restoration. Their footage of the August 26th, 1970 Women’s Lib demonstration, documents tens of thousands of women marching down New York’s fifth avenue, celebrating the 19th Amendment’s anniversary and chanting together for equal rights and opportunities as a member of Videofreex every now and then pulls a demonstrator or demonstration onlooker aside to get his or her take on the event.

Many participating in the demonstration voice their concerns as multivalent, i.e. related to women’s healthcare, workers’ rights and ending the war in Vietnam. Many onlookers, however, voice bigoted concerns about the events of the day. Two older women kibitz, “All these youth are so disgraceful…They set race against race, religion against religion, generation against generation…They are just doing it to degenerate the country!” “They want to stir up trouble. They want to create the allusion of popular support. They’re all haters. The left wing thrives on haters.” A group of angry men get into an argument with a group of the protesters and one threatens, “I’ve never hit a girl in my life, but there’s always a first time!” A slightly more prudent and certainly more calm man tells the camera and Videofreex interviewer, “I think they are going too far out. I think they are going to be sorry…They’re enjoying privilege now, which they probably won’t enjoy if they get real equality.” At times empowering, at others angering, this footage provides amazing insight into what women not so long ago had to face in lieu of simple demands for reasonable change.

The interviews are even more phenomenal. Beginning in 1974, Video Data Bank co-founders Kate Horsfield and Lyn Blumenthal began conducting in-depth video interviews with artists, critics and academics as they came through Chicago. Often, the interviews go to the interviewees’ backgrounds, and the viewer learns about how they got to where they are now, as well as what they have recently been working on and how it differs from the work of their past. Two of the most amazing in the collection are those from 1974 and 1979 with Lucy Lippard, the quintessential feminist art critic, whose writing has served as many women’s introduction to women’s art and critiques of the hegemonic male art world. In both interviews she tells the story of her initial resistance to feminism and how she came to be realize its freeing potential for her writing and thinking. The historical differences between the two, however, are striking. In the first, Lippard expresses a desire to pinpoint what makes up “feminine art,” the qualities and imagery that can be found woven throughout women’s work that make it distinct from that of men. In the second, she speaks with such confidence as to the positive changes that have come about for women in regards to art and culture in the US. No longer one of just a few writing about women’s work, she expresses excitement at the fact that she no longer sees a need to group all women’s work together due to its diversity and that she can no longer see all the women’s shows, as they are so frequent and widespread. In both she articulates her trust in the common person and dissatisfaction with the elitism and incestuousness of the art world: “I think the men and women on the street have as good of taste as anybody…I don’t think it’s a matter of having to go down to the people as going out to the people.”

The interviews with Barbara Kruger, Michelle Wallace, Linda Williams, Shigeko Kubota, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro—and I have only begun to explore this prolific collection of interviews myself—are great as well. In her 1983 interview, Japanese performance and video artist Kubota describes a time in the late-fifties when she had to ask herself, “Shall I get married to a Japanese man or shall I be an artist seriously?,” after which she moved to New York and, connecting with Fluxus and early video artists, established herself as an important member of the field. In her 1991 interview, black cultural critic, feminist scholar and intellectual Wallace discusses the positive changes in education that have come about due to the infiltration and influence of multiculturalism: “So of course education is becoming revolutionary…Not only do you have to read the ‘great masters’ and know your field, you have to know how to change your field and change who the masters are, so you can function as an articulate, educated person. You have to go out and make the field for yourself.” In her 1992 interview, feminist film historian Williams describes the pleasure she derives from complicating readings of the most popular film genres, including horror film and melodrama, which eventually lead her to pornography, a subject on which she has since become one of the leading scholars. She states, “On some level it was very easy back in the 1970s, when feminists could talk about the ‘feminine’ and ‘feminine identity,’ and we could speak somewhat confidently of what that identity was. Now we have to speak less confidently about it, because, in fact, we’ve learned through our theoretical work that we don’t know what ‘woman’ is at the same time as we struggle in her name.”

Every time I visit the Video Data Bank, I come across intricate and inspiring interviews such as those quoted above. It is a resource that I think all feminists should consider utilizing. If you’re in Chicago, it’s easy and free to access; one just needs to pick out titles from the data bank’s online catalog and email in a screening room reservation request. For those outside of Chicago, particularly those working at educational organizations, the Video Data Bank manages one of the most extensive rental and distribution facilities of its kind. From its inception in the 1970s, the Video Data Bank established a dedication to the oft-underrepresented work being made by female artists, and, as the material above suggests, it has kept this priority to this day. The fact that a number of those interviewed are not only women working in a male-dominated field but out-and-out feminists who demonstrate a dedication to thinking critically about gender, race, sexuality and culture makes this video collection a resource worth utilizing and supporting wholeheartedly.

  1. Maria Guzman permalink*
    July 15, 2010 1:51 pm

    This is a great resource, indeed-it makes me want to visit Chicago ASAP! I have one question regarding Lucy Lippard’s feminist approach to art criticism: How do you feel about “womens’ shows”? I know feminists that find it to be a “ghettoizing” practice, and the terminology itself implies other facts such as class. Thoughts?

    • Roxanne Samer permalink*
      July 15, 2010 6:32 pm

      Well, as someone who has curated a “women’s show,” I don’t really have anywhere to hide. I understand the dilemma, and that is why the Linda Williams quote I quoted above speaks to me. It’s a paradox. We’ve come to realize that there is no essential femininity that all women everywhere share; we are all so different and diverse. At the same time, there are shared experiences, especially in a sphere as competitive and catty as the art world, and that’s where a level of commonality for certain comes in. I don’t have a problem with the practice. If we couldn’t have shows of work by women in the US in the 70s, then we also couldn’t have shows of work by German Expressionists working in Paris or any other semi-arbitrary identity based curatorial practice. I don’t think it’s offensive to be picked out as a female artist. For me it doesn’t imply second class status, and I wish it didn’t carry that taboo for so many.

  2. Maria Guzman permalink*
    July 15, 2010 6:41 pm

    hear, hear! I agree, and appreciate a sense of solidarity in any form, especially if it makes a statement against a longstanding institutional bias 🙂


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