Malena Barnhart: Video Works 2012-2015
The video works of Malena Barnhart offer us a cartographic look at the hidden presuppositions that structure gender identification and its attending expectations. Working with single, dual and multiple channel strategies, many of Barnhart's videos juxtapose re-appropriated material with re-enacted and/or scripted scenes. The duplicitous effect of this mirrored methodology is that it works to reveal the contrived nature of certain cultural codes and heteronormative conventions. By surveying the digital landscape, and Youtube in particular, Barnhart's works are able to give us an uncanny picture of how our gendered dispositions are anything but predispositions, ultimately providing us with new ways of thinking about the content of what we 'share' in the public sphere.
While Barnhart's earlier pieces revolved around issues related to landscape, memory and familial relations, it is in her video works that she directly addresses how these themes are tied to, and defined by, the symbolic force of the cultural imaginary. "Photographs of a Landscape" and "Memory Installations" allow us to see how Barnhart developed a Hockneyesque sense of surveying a single subject from multiple viewpoints. Other early bodies of work like "Taneytown, MD" and "Family Album" give us a glimpse of how the personal and the painterly can be combined to form an intimate look at the space of remembrance and the feeling tone of recollection. Subsequent pieces like "Tween Face/Touch" highlight the valences of intersubjective exchange, but through an intensive form of looking that relies on projecting a sense of touch and texture into the language of the moving image.
It is out of this tri-part set of interests --- of surveying the landscape, of coloring memories and engaging with interpersonal concerns --- that Barnhart's video works emerged as a dynamic synthesis of the themes that defined her flatworks. And yet, through this process of growth, experimentation and maturation, Barnhart's video pieces have attained a sense of self-reflexivity and anonymity that goes beyond her earlier efforts without abandoning any of the core concerns of her artistic practice.
Her first video piece, "Youtube Re-enactments", explores the phenomenon of women posting their image on Youtube, and asking the public if they are beautiful in an effort to get an 'honest response'. Barnhart has juxtaposed these moments of personal exposure with re-enacted doubles from a different generation as a means of underscoring how our changing notions of beauty are constituted by any number of gendered biases. This is revealed not only by the introductory title, "I Just Want To Know", which points to the burning desire to take stock of one's aesthetic status in an age that is obsessed with idealized images of women, but much more importantly, it also points to the fact that the responses to these kinds of open forum questions is often decidedly negative and even degrading, if not outright slanderous. Thus, the chasm created by a culture of unreal expectations is put on display here as being supported by a form of hidden violence toward women that only comes into full view through the suspension of consequences for anyone but the subject on display. In other words, "Youtube Re-enactments" is a kind of critical inquiry into understanding what it means to be subjected to display in a twofold sense, first as part of a process of hyper-objectification, and second, as a newly minted dispositif of the digital self.
In her second dual channel piece, "Siri, Your Wish is My Command," Barnhart plays with a similar strategy of re-appropriation and dis-identification. By providing a sampling of the demands made of Siri by men, played against the image of Barnhart's own requests for interpersonal comfort, one can take note of the subtle subtext that supports the advancement of this new technology. Namely, that while Siri was promoted as an androgynous model of voice activated AI, there is still a cultural predisposition toward hearing Siri's responses as an idealized feminine voice that is both motherly and accommodating. Furthermore, this unconscious, and sometimes not so unconscious set of associations seems to engender different 'terms of usage' when requesting information, adaptation, and intonation. And here is where Siri's position as a second class citizen is put on display, not so much as a technological condition, but as a cultured refrain that makes us reconsider the naturalized position of the 'personal assistant' as a gendered practice left over from the long history of modern employ.
By contrast, Barnhart's next work, "Christmas Hauls", is a multiple channel exploration of the kinds of enculturation that inform the fantasy space of gendered difference by showing a survey of excited tweens displaying the manifestations of their Christmas wish lists. Of course, what is most notable in such a work is how the cultural imaginary of young girls is not a display of difference but rather, of radical homogeneity. From colorful purses, to special make-up kits, to hello-kitty paraphernalia and even pop-star perfumes, what we are given in "Christmas Hauls" is a picture of the pre-pubescent display of consumer desires. It is through such a collection of images that we can see the ways in which the 'freedom' of childhood actually consists of so many forms of cultural entrainment given over to us as an engendering agenda. Thus, "Christmas Hauls" points to the many ways in which the real question of subjectivation and interpellation exists at the nexus of corporate designs, religious rituals and state power. "Christmas Hauls" shows us this inasmuch as it highlights the fact that the major purchasing power, by demographic, is now that of young adults. And with this shift in consumer focus we can also come to see where gendered difference is viscerally inscribed in the precepts and affects of each new generation, given in the form of gifts and celebratory expectations that make for a 'good haul'. What Barnhart's piece points to however, is that it is just this set of contrivances which needs a good overhaul in terms of thinking about the far reaching effects of our symbolic commitments.
Following along the lines of a similar set of interests, but in a much more explicit manner, is Barnhart's, "Lana Del Rey Makeup Tutorials". Here, we have a dense multi-channel experience of 72 Youtube make-up video's, all of which are playing slightly ahead of real-time experience, in a kind of frantic effort to take on the trappings of the Lana Del Ray 'look'. Such a group of images speaks not just about the influence of celebrity and the society of spectacle, but about how aesthetic labor is naturalized as a cultural condition of iconic femininity. One could even say that the selection of the music video, "The Young and the Beautiful", is important not just because it acts as a stands-in for Western beauty standards, but that in this particular work it operates as a kind of slowed down gravitational force that motivates the sped up imagery of make-up applied en masse. The dissonant sound of the audio track, which is slowed to half speed, hints at a politics of disengagement by de-aestheticizing the allure of this particular pop anthem. In such a work, what Barnhart provides us with is a picture of accelerated ritual conformity played off against the slow moving gestures of the latest heroine of the pop music scene, ultimately giving us an un-retouched look at the increasing subsumption of subjectivity by star power and the identity-industrial complex.
In her most recent video work, the "Youtube Feminist Discourse", we are treated to what is perhaps, the most direct engagement with the politic element in Barnhart's art practice. This consists of a single channel focus on solitary commentators about the use of the word feminism in culture at large. By providing a cross section of both male and female perspectives, one can see how these divergent responses highlight a rather strange displacement, and sometimes even a disavowal of the achievements of the women's liberation movement. From rants against the power that women hold today, to positions in the Christian community about gender roles coming from on high, to outright attacks on the word feminism itself, the "Youtube Feminist Discourse" not only demonstrates a total lack of education on the part of its speakers, but it provides us with a picture, or rather many pictures, of a culture that is politically adrift in an era of supposedly enlightened views. Sometimes a touch violent, other times snarky, the kind of 'social commentary' we are confronted with in the "Youtube Feminist Discourse" seems bent on avoiding the confrontational disposition that is often attributed to the word feminist. By substituting terms like 'humanist' or 'equalist' for feminist, we are left wondering if the bastardization of the word isn't the most enduring legacy of patriarchy in the early twenty-first century. This, afterall, might be the nature of the real tragedy of progressive politics in the contemporary moment which has seen little movement in legislation concerning equal pay and even the institution of backwards looking policies on reproductive rights. Perhaps this is what a work like "The Feminist Discourse" serves to underscore, namely, the need for a return to stronger voices in the public arena that advocate for changes which are more than long overdue, and which the public has unconsciously misconstrued as aggressive tactics for creating greater awareness about gender inequality.
As such, the contribution to contemporary video art on display in this short survey of video works consists of the myriad of ways in which Barnhart shows us that there is a missing element to consider in the discussion of interpellation and gendered identification. Thus, it is important to think of her pieces in relation to the work of the French philosopher Louis Althusser, who noted how we are 'hailed' to become subjects of a kind of disposition through identification with a power other than ourselves. And yet, while Althusser presented us with a picture of how state power operates through ISA's (Ideological State Apparatuses) and RSA's (Repressive State Apparatuses) there is a much more poignant position from which to begin thinking about subjectivation and identity politics, which is the 'state of enculturation'. This is where Barnhart's works makes a decisive contribution to contemporary art because her video pieces expose us to how we are first 'hailed' as a subject, not by the state, but by the culture of consumerism and the presuppositions of gendered difference. In other words the analysis of state power is always already first an analysis of cultural power and gendered interests, both of which are co-opted by corporate interests, thus, closing the loop of hegemonic effects suspended between corporate power and governmental practices. From such a perspective, we need a third and maybe even a fourth term, which are everywhere at play in Barnhart's works, and which could provide us with an analysis of ASA's (Aesthetic State Apparatuses) and CCA's (Cultural and Corporate Apparatuses) that would allow us to better define how patriarchal power continues to operate as a model of governmentality.
In many ways, Barnhart's oeuvre offers us just that, and in being something of a corrective to the heteronormative analysis of enculturation, her video works open up the possibility of confronting and moving past the démodé conclusions of the most reactionary voices in culture today. Here, we could even go a step further and claim that the kind of cultural cartographies created by Barnhart allow for new perspectives to emerge out of the retrograde moment of anti-feminist thought that has gained a foothold in more conservative circles. And for that reason, her art practice, which is dedicated to the critique of enculturation, deserves a small reprisal in the form of an early survey, a survey which holds greater implications for the project of human liberation and revolutionary politics tout court.
Bio: Malena Barnhart' works have been shown at Whitdel Arts, Indiana University-Purdue the WVU Creative Arts Center, and the SPE National Conference. She was a recipient of the Student Award for the Society for Photographic Education, the Juror's merit award for Heat Wave: Desert Photography, and the Sadat Art for Peace award, among many other honors. Her pieces are in the personal collections of Madeleine Albright and the special collections at Columbia University. She has exhibited widely in Arizona and currently teaches at Mesa Community College.