Academic journal article Afterimage

Stories from a Generation: Early Video at the LA Woman's Building

Academic journal article Afterimage

Stories from a Generation: Early Video at the LA Woman's Building

Article excerpt

In 1994, Elayne Zalis, Video Archivist at the Long Beach Museum of Art, brought a number of tapes to the University of California at Irvine to do a presentation on early video by women. The tapes were from a show curated by JoAnn Hanley called "The First Generation: Women and Video, 1970-75." I was teaching video production at UC, Irvine, and had heard from a colleague that Long Beach had a collection of tapes from the Los Angeles Woman's Building. I mistakenly assumed that Hanley's show was based on this work. The tapes that Zalis presented from "The First Generation" show were very exciting both as video artwork and as documents of the feminist movement of the 1970s, but the show was not in fact based on the Woman's Building collection.

My mistake became my good fortune. Curious about the archive at Long Beach, I began to research the Woman's Building tapes. Eventually I watched over 40 of the tapes and therein rediscovered a rich vein of early feminist video work. The work raised questions about the presence of video at the Woman's Building and how it compared to the larger picture of who was working in video at the time. I wondered why this work had been all but lost to the history of video.

In 1991 the Woman's Building in Los Angeles closed its doors after almost 20 years of operation. It had been designed as a place for women to make art in a non-competitive environment. The plan was utopian by today's standards, but within the framework of the feminism of 1973 it made perfect sense. Video was an intensely popular medium at the Building, and by 1991 approximately 350 videotapes had been produced there. The tapes from the 1970s represent the most interesting part of the collection in terms of an expression of ideals of feminist artmaking, and in terms of having every element of purpose and experimentation in common with the early works of recognized pioneers: Nam June Paik, William Wegman, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden and Vito Acconci. The videomakers from the Woman's Building go a few steps further than these canonized videomakers by placing a wildly optimistic and imaginative set of ideals about artmaking onto a detailed and unyielding feminist ideological ground. Some of them made work that incorporates the ways in which women's sexuality, and specifically lesbianism, could be politicized, theorized and represented in content, and even more frequently as context. Personal love relationships did promote collaborations at the Building, and it seemed important for personal identity and group identity to be fused.

Feminist art as a genre not only involves process and methodology, but also has personal, political and social history at its foundation. Given traditional art historical models for recognizing and validating work, it is easy to make connections between the politicizing of artwork and their erasure from art history. That the work is in video makes it that much more obscure. The situation calls for revision.

Video History

The accepted history of video, however prematurely written, goes something like this: when artists took up video in the early 1960s there were one or two "fathers of video" who understood its meaning as television, mechanism and mirror.(1) They had the insight to explore its properties in an art context, and were able to make the art world take notice. Shortly thereafter other artists began to use video in what seemed like a simultaneous explosion of experimentation and process-oriented, non-object artmaking. A canon of artists, mostly male, was quickly put into place. David Ross contributes a paragraph of his essay, "Postmodern Station Break: A Provisional (Historic) Overview of Video Installation" to this story:

[I]t is generally proposed that video art's specific origins are located in the early 1960s' German avant-garde scene dominated by Group Zero and Fluxus and the parallel American scene dominated by the confluence of Pop Art and Happenings. …

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