Video Essays, Part 4: Redesigning Stage Sets: Viewing "The Yellow Wallpaper" Differently (Introduction)
While inadvertently paving the way for new media experiments, videos from the late twentieth century sometimes look to the past for direction. I Need Your Full Cooperation, an independent video by Kathy High that was produced in 1989, simultaneously dramatizes and critiques The Yellow Wallpaper, a novella by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that originally was published in 1892. Engaging with Gilman’s text in an interdisciplinary, intermedia context that incorporates timely concerns, the video addresses spatial, discursive, and spectatorial issues that continue to resonate. As women from the closing years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries come together on the stage that Cooperation designs, cultural paradigms unravel and alternative models take shape, a process that involves visually and metaphorically tearing down the layers of wallpaper that haunt Gilman’s text while also updating and reframing the nineteenth-century workspace of Yellow Wallpaper’s narrator. Strategic editing of literary, scholarly, and cinematic intertexts supports this effort.
An integral part of this project involves examining the historical context in which the novella was written, noting in particular the "repressed" of Gilman's society and how the ideological framework that supported it limited women's roles. Original interviews with author/activist Barbara Ehrenreich and professor of history and psychiatry Carroll Smith-Rosenberg introduce authoritative women's voices from the 1980s. Unlike Yellow Wallpaper's narrator, a victim who lacks a voice in the public sphere and finds refuse only in madness and secretive diary writing, Ehrenreich and Smith-Rosenberg speak—and write—publicly as woman who legitimate rages that Gilman's narrator privately acts out but cannot name. As a player in the multilayered video performance that High orchestrates, Gilman's narrator leaves behind the isolated existence she inhabits in the novella and enters a networked space informed by the scholars' voices and High's visions. Archival film clips insert shadowy figures of oppressed women who speak and move in the background, lending a spectral quality to the piece and reminding viewers that many stories remain untold. Even after old paradigms unravel, these specters infiltrate new stage sets, representing lingering traces of elusive ghosts.
Overall, Cooperation produces a space in which to push beyond the spatial, discursive, and spectatorial parameters of the novella and at the same time challenges contemporary viewers to contemplate new images in their homes—or elsewhere—images, as well as sounds, voices, and texts that offer alternatives to commercial fare. By joining forces with Gilman’s literary text in such ways, High’s video opens up directions for future generations of writers and producers who work with old and new media. Doubling as electronic wallpaper for Gilman’s heirs, Cooperation invites them to examine the spaces in which they read, write, view, and produce texts, noting in particular delineations of "public" and "private." Cooperation also encourages Gilman’s heirs to recognize traces of the past that inform their work, drawing on memory banks as well as public and private archives. Finally, Cooperation hints at the potential of intermedia convergences, possibilities that acquire novel dimensions in the early twenty-first century as new media appear on the scene at record speeds and the World Wide Web unsettles earlier modes of production, distribution, and exhibition.
(See Video Essays, Part 1, Autobiographical Stages/Women's Lives: From Video to the World Wide Web; Part 2: Dear Diary Revisited: Transforming Personal Archives, Flag and Trick or Drink; and Part 3, Switching Channels in the Age of Video: A Personal Medium for Storytellers)
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