I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Video Essays, Part 2: Dear Diary Revisited: Transforming Personal Archives, "Flag" and "Trick or Drink" (Introduction)

[From Video Essays, Part 1: While rereading old Word files, I came across notes for a series of articles I planned to write several years ago on women’s experimental videos from the 1980s and early 1990s. After publishing one piece, I abandoned the project—mainly because I shifted my attention to new media—but I think the articles still have relevance, so I’ll be documenting introductions to four of the articles as I wrote them circa 2000–2003.]

This essay is published in Screening the Past: An International, Refereed, Electronic Journal of Visual Media and History, v. 13, Dec. 2001, I've included the introduction here:

Autobiographical videos by American women of the late twentieth century contribute to cultural archives that includes "public" explorations of "private" spheres. These independently produced experiments often establish links between print and electronic media, adapting various forms of unpublished and published texts. In the crossover to video exhibition, the writing undergoes strategic transformations. Frequently drawing on the autobiographical subjects’ personal archives, which may include diaries, journals, and letters, the videos represent women looking back on their lives as well as on personal texts they wrote—and memorabilia they collected—during the periods that their reflections address. Thus integrating autobiographical and diaristic genres, the videos also accentuate intermedia convergences between video and print. In the process, edited versions of formerly "private" texts become "public" documents available for public reception (and inspection).

The videos Flag (USA 1989), by Linda Gibson, and Trick or drink (USA 1984), by Vanalyne Green, explore such interplay.(1) Both videos incorporate childhood diaries into women’s autobiographical narratives so that the mutually inflecting dynamics of diary writing and videomaking performed on camera constitute a vital component of the protagonists’ self-portraits. The archival documents that the videos appropriate, which include the diaries as well as a range of multimedia texts, contribute to the blurring of boundaries between "private" and "public" spheres and help to define the audiences that the videos target, issues that theorists of women’s autobiographical texts underscore.(2) At the same time, the archival documents promote exchanges between the autobiographical subjects and younger versions of themselves.

Produced in the 1980s during a pre-Internet era, the videos exhibit similarities as well as differences. Flag uses actors to examine the political transformation of an African American girl who was born in 1952 to a middle-class family in the Northeast. Diary entries from the mid-1960s are used to contrast the girl’s beliefs about patriotism, race, and equality in the United States with the woman’s expanded perspectives. Shifting attitudes toward the American flag implicate the social context in which Gibson’s changes occur. Trick or drink stages a one-woman performance of the white videomaker who revisits her past with the aid of diaries that she kept in the early 1960s when she was a teenager struggling with the American dream. The child of alcoholic parents and a survivor of compulsive eating disorders, Green engages with the teenager’s personal world both to heal herself and to politicize the personal. Along the way, she forges collective alliances.

In both cases, postmodern autobiographies take shape while the storytellers embody subjects who construct multilayered histories about growing up female in America after the Second World War.(3) Like the independent films and videos that Patricia Mellencamp examines, Flag and Trick or drink involve “a transgression of the boundaries between private and public spaces and experiences, entering with intimacy the ‘public sphere’ and unsettling these metaphorical and real spaces of power through confinement by looking and talking back” (4).

Flag and Trick or drink remind viewers of places off stage, beyond the spotlight, where other languages are spoken and other logics endorsed: "private" and "public" inscriptions commingle. Displayed for audiences of independent video, the personal archives showcase materials, such as girls’ diaries and family albums, that generally have been excluded from public forums. Singularly and collectively, the archives thus gathered constitute alternative resources on which to draw for metaphors and (re)constructions of an imaginary. These cultural resources, which acknowledge the histories of women and recognize them as addressees, serve as counterpoints to more exclusive archives or cultural repertoires, such as those that Michèle Le Doeuff associates with the "philosophical imaginary."(5) By incorporating personal archives into the narratives, Flag and Trick or drink also help to broaden the critical perspectives of scholars who study women’s autobiography. With such an objective in mind, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson recommend the building of archives and documentary collections that incorporate works traditionally considered "‘merely personal’ and extraliterary." Examples of such works include "diaries, letters, journals, memoirs, travel narratives, meditations, cookbooks, family histories, spiritual records, collages, art books, and others."(6)

To suggest the scope of the resources that Flag and Trick or Drink preserve, detailed descriptions of the personal archives that each video assembles have been included in the analysis, which explores how personal, social, spatial, and historical strands may be interwoven to tell the story of a woman’s life.(7) Flag and Trick or Drink demonstrate how two American women from the same generation approach the task, undertakings that open up directions for others to explore further in a range of old and new media. Rather than point toward a shared feminine aesthetic or suggest essentialist characteristics related to women’s videomaking—objectives that Martha Gever persuasively disavows— Flag and Trick or Drink encourage viewers to acknowledge differences among women and their approaches to discourse.(8) At the same time, the videos contribute to cultural archives that comprise autobiographical texts from the worlds of print, moving images, visual arts, and hypermedia.(9) The videos raise questions for future discussions about the impact that diary keeping during adolescence has on creative choices later in life and how the diaries, when saved, inform both the writers’ remembrances of the past and other readers’ views of the worlds the young diarists construct. Autobiographers of the early twenty-first century who choose to work with their diaries might turn not to personal archives that have evaded public inspection, as Gibson and Green have, but to entries they have posted online for the world to view.(10)


(1) Flag, prod. and dir. Linda Gibson, 24 min., 1989, videocassette. The video is distributed by Gibson. Contact her c/o Media Alliance, at WNET/Thirteen, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, New York, 10001, USA.

Trick or drink, prod. and dir. Vanalyne Green, 20 min., 1984, videocassette. The video is distributed by the Video Data Bank, affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 112 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60603, USA, 312-345-355 (phone), 312-541-8073 (fax); and Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway Suite 500, New York, NY 10013, USA, 212-925-0606 (phone), 212-925-2052 (fax).

(2) For an introduction to theories of women’s autobiography, see Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, eds., Women, autobiography, theory: a reader (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1998). For a general introduction to theories of autobiography that considers feminist positions, see Linda Anderson, Autobiography: the new critical idiom (London and New York: Routledge, 2001). The analyses in both books focus primarily on written texts, although the issues that are discussed pertain to a range of media.

(3) For an introduction to postmodern autobiographies, see Kathleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore, and Gerald Peters, eds., Autobiography and postmodernism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts P, 1994).

(4) Patricia Mellencamp, "Uncanny Feminism," in Indiscretions: avant-garde film, video, and feminism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990), 131. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in parentheses. For another perspective on women and postmodernism, see Andreas Huyssen, "Mass culture as woman: modernism’s other," in Studies in entertainment: critical approaches to mass culture," ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 188-207.

(5) Le Doeuff examines "the philosophical imaginary" to emphasize its gendered presuppositions and implicit focus on masculine addressees. She regards the imaginary not as a psychoanalytical term but more as a rhetorical term that entails the use of figures or imagery in texts, a thinking-in-images that involves narrative, pictorial, or analogical components, which, when studied systematically, constitute the exclusive repository of images available to philosophy or the image banks on which philosophical discourses rely, however unwittingly. See Michèle Le Doeuff, The philosophical imaginary, trans. Colin Gordon (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), 115; and Michèle Le Doeuff, Hipparchia's choice: an essay concerning women, philosophy, etc., trans. Trista Selous (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991). Marita Sturken discusses how early video collectives in the 1970s compiled databanks of images in order to build "an alternative visual history to the nationalist history produced by broadcast television" and thus paved the way for makers to experiment with the politics of individual and collective memory in later years. See Marita Sturken, "The politics of video memory: electronic erasures and inscriptions," in Resolutions: contemporary video practices, eds. Renov and Suderburg (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota P, 1996), 3-12.

(6) Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, "Introduction: situating subjectivity in women’s autobiographical practices," introduction to Smith and Watson, Women, 38-39. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in parentheses.

(7) For an interdisciplinary examination of spatiality, see Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places (Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996). Soja reinforces the simultaneity and interrelatedness of the spatial, the historical, and the social (3). In addition to adding spatiality to the historical/social pair and to combining postmodernist and modernist perspectives, the model he devises recombines Firstspace concerns with the ‘real’ and Secondspace concerns with ‘imagined’ representations of spatiality (6). He also examines a "Postmodern spatial feminist critique" (111). See also Griselda Pollock, "Modernity and the spaces of femininity," in Vision and difference: femininity, feminism, and the histories of art (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 50-90.

(8) Martha Gever, "The feminism factor: video and its relation to feminism," in Illuminating video: an essential guide to video art, eds. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture, in association with Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990), 241. Theorists of women’s literary autobiography and theorists of women’s film and video emphasize differences among women. For literary views, see note 2 above. For approaches related to film, see Teresa de Lauretis, "Rethinking women’s cinema: aesthetics and feminist theory," in Technologies of gender: essays on theory, film, and fiction (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 136. For a consideration of both film and video, see Mellencamp, 29-30. Further references to these texts appear as page numbers in parentheses.

(9) The often overlooked contingent of independent video risks erasure from history, largely because of insufficient resources to document and preserve the work, particularly videos that lack distributors and are housed in small, nonprofit or personal archives. For background and related links pertaining to video (and film) preservation in the United States, see Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP, sponsored by Electronic Arts Intermix); Experimental Television Center, Ltd., "Video history project"; and the American Film Institute (AFI), "Preservation." Major distributors of women’s independent video in the United States include the Video Data Bank and Women Make Movies. (See note 1 above for complete citations.) Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), in New York, is another leading resource for artists’ video and new media. See the Web site for additional information.

(10) Innumerable women and men, girls and boys, chronicle their lives on the Web and correspond with one another via diary lists or "burbs" (organized around common interests), "prompts" (offered as inspiration for diary entries), Webrings, and other electronic forums that promote communication among diarists globally. Often including photographs of themselves, family albums, and other multimedia additions, these online diarists either experiment independently with formats that they design themselves or publish on preconfigured sites that several companies host free of charge. The term "weblog" or "blog" describes a form of diary or journal writing that features Web pages on which short, frequent, chronologically ordered entries are posted, usually of a personal nature. For examples of online diaries and blogs, see Diarist.Net, "Diarist.Net: diaries and journals online," Diaryland, "Diaryland: get your own fun, easy online diary," The diary project (for teens), "The diary project: over 39981 diary entries posted since 1995," and Pyra Labs, "Blogger: push button publishing for the people." See also Nan Fischer, "Inspired to journal."

(See Video Essays, Part 1, Autobiographical Stages/Women's Lives: From Video to the World Wide Web; Part 3, Switching Channels in the Age of Video: A Personal Medium for Storytellers; and Part 4, Redesigning Stage Sets: Viewing The Yellow Wallpaper Differently)

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