Martha Rosler_semiotics of the Kitchen & Polaroids

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


On the work of Martha Rosler


martha rosler,semiotics of the kitchen, 1975


martha rosler,semiotics of the kitchen, 1975, video still (courtesy of martha rosler)

In recent years, Brooklyn-based artist Martha Rosler has established a traveling library of her books, a non-traditional exhibition that is the culmination of an artistic career devoted to a radical reading and research practice. In an interview with the artist this past November, Rosler claimed as precedent for the library her visit to Donald Judds library in Marfa, Texas where the books could not be handled, let alone read. In contrast, the books in Roslers library can be read by all visitors. Through her traveling library, Rosler emancipates her books from the privacy of the domus and from the interiority of a private reading practice. In libraries, we read among others. Sometimes we even read aloud with people, though this is unfortunately rare.

What does it mean to read for or with people? How can reading with others constitute a conatus, a social space in which subjects are co-constitutive (or born) with one another? How can reading be for a public good, for the sake of critique, analysis, evaluation? How can reading become a practice involving the whole body? These are questions raised by Roslers uvre, especially her video works beginning in the 70s, which began to put forth a live performance practice of reading, involving both the word and body as sites of counter-hegemonic strategy. Such practices extend from civil disobedience in the 60s whereby, as Martin Luther King Jr. writes, we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community ("Letter from Birmingham City Jail," 1963). It also extends from the cultures intuitive sense of the body under threat of disappearance, harm, and disavowal after Vietnam, Kent State, Birmingham, and any number of other violent confrontations during the late 60s and early 70s. These conflicts, mediated by an unprecedented dissemination of graphic documentary images in print, on television, and in film, form the backdrop to the emergence of certain live art forms and participatory intermedia performance practice of the period.

In an age of tactical mediamedia used to counteract the coercive effects of mass mediaRoslers work offers a radical, tactical hermeneutics for interpreting and reading. The tactical aspect of Roslers work is evident in her second video work,The Semiotics of the Kitchen(1975) a parody of Julia-Child-style cooking programs, in which she chooses a cooking implement for each letter of the alphabet, reciting the name of each implement while staring deadpan into the camera. A is for apron, b is for bowl, c is for chopper, etc. Rosler poses as a pedagogue instructing her viewers about the names of things proper to the kitchen. However, there is never a direct correspondence between object and word because of the mediating presence of Roslers person, which with every new object makes a gesture demonstrating the objects possible, if not intended, use. In some cases, the gesture corresponds to the way the object is typically used in the kitchen, but more often than not, Roslers gestures contain a threat of violence. This is especially true of the knife and fork, which she interprets as stabbing utensils. It is also true of the measuring cups and spoons, which are used to cast-off invisible ingredients, a minor act of rebellion but an act of rebellion no less.

This performed reading is in the interest of revealing a relation between the suppression of women and the domesticating force of culinary programs, which train and prepare them for their social functions within a division of labor. Through this reading practice, word and object produce an excess of significationor an ulterior signification systemthrough their interaction with the subject, Roslers dramatic persona. The ulteriority of this system channels the submerged threat women pose against phallic power situated with the domus.

In her 1977 video, Traveling Garage Sale, Rosler folds clothing and arranges items for a garage sale. Customers drift in and out of the scene, haggling with the artist, trying on clothes, and thumbing through LPs. The camera is positioned to assume the viewpoint of a closed-circuit camera, typically used for the purposes of surveillance, and viewers thus inherit that same position. In the accompanying soundtrack, Rosler recites a text in which she reflects on the economics of garage sales: What is the value of a thing? How do things become commodities? Why do we fetishize things so much? If its about divestiture, why not give it away? Turning over a set of questions, Rosler articulates the ideologies and mythologies that might dictate ones decision to hold a garage sale as well as larger concerns regarding the psychology of salesmanship and consumership, which the garage sale initiates.

Once again, in Traveling Garage Sale, the presence of Roslers person is important as a body charged with excessive signification. Her dramatic persona-cum-subject calmly performs the tasks of holding a garage sale, just as anyone would. As such, her subject-performer is interpellated by the garage sale, i.e. the garage sale calls the subject into being and surveils the adequacy of its performance within a habitus, a place of cultural disposition where certain cultural values are presupposed.

martha rosler,losing: a conversation with the parents, 1977, video still

Roslers hermeneutic (or interpretative) technique is two-fold in this video. On the one hand, it involves the ocular participation of a viewer who watches the scene of the garage sale from the position of the camera. The viewers, however, do not hear what is happening during the sale; they only are allowed to see. The withdrawal of diegetic sound is important not only because it foregrounds the voiceover, but also because it enhances that viewer's sense that he or she is watching the scene from the super-subjective/objective position of the video camera. In the voice-over, we hear one of Roslers first experiments in her signature modality of reading, the meditation. This modality is both anaphoric (it has a repetitious syntax), and interrogative, proceeding through questions, both recurrent (looping, re-turning) and digressive. The form of this voice-over resembles prayer and, as Rosler has speculated with me in conversation, very likely derives from her yeshiva education in Brooklyn. Prayer as a mode of teaching, prayer as a mode of inquiry, prayer as counter-hegemonic strategy, prayer as a form for aesthetic politics.

InLosing: A Conversation with the Parents(1977), Rosler assumes a didactic-ironic mode of address. The parents of a young woman who has died of an eating disorder sit on a couch together, processing the causes of their daughters illness. Performing an expected role of a liberal, white, middle-class, heterosexual couple in the 1970s, the couple draw out the aporias of female body-image/eating disorders, which they relate to global disparities of wealth and power. The camera moves from a full-body shot of the couple sitting on a living-room couch to one of a family photo album, and then to a shot in which we only see the couples laps and the album opened to a picture of their daughter. In the absence of the facethe seat of significationwe see the laps and hands of the parents as extra-signifying, i.e. as gesturing body parts isolated from speech formed in the mouth. Whereas in Traveling Garage Sale, Rosler removed the diegetic sound to the foreground, in the surveillance format of her videoLosing: A Conversation With the Parents, Rosler negates her chosen formatthe documentary-style interviewin order to desynch voice, body, and face as three distinct realms of signification. Through this technique of desynching, the viewer moves among readingsvalences of reading which appear in the voice and the voices absence, the body taken as a whole and the body as a series of discrete signifying surfaces/organs.

martha rosler, with paper tiger television,martha rosler reads vogue, 1982, video still

The development of Roslers video practice was dependent upon the emergence of video technologies in the 70s, and in 80s public-access stations such as Paper Tiger Television, with whom Rosler made the videoMartha Rosler Reads Vogue, another performance in which she compels viewers to actively engage in her radical hermeneutic through a reading practice that is neither passive nor interiorizing. Using the December 1st, 1982 issue of Vogue as material, Rosler repeats a series of questions that directly question the magazine as a source of cultural meaning, specifically patriarchal-disciplinary power exerted over the publications predominantly female readership. Rosler incants: What isVogue?Vogueis fashion, it is glamour, it is sex. Its threat and the whiff of decadence. It is the allure of narcissism It is the new face over the old face. It is the weak face covered over by the strong face. By reciting a series of questions, she again acts through a form of meditation. Turning over her central question, What isVogue? she arrives at a number of responses, both in the form of quotations from the magazine and from a text she has scripted in advance of the performance.

martha rosler, with paper tiger television,martha rosler reads vogue, 1982, video still

Rosler places quotations from the magazine, such as a Visa ad quoting Robert Louis Stevenson, To be what we are and to become what we are capable of becoming is the only end to life, and an article about Conde Nast, the cunt crazy publisher ofVogueside-by-side with her own text. Through this parataxis, Rosler underlines what is operative in Vogues text, ironically drawing out the magazines ideological significance. Besides these two textsVoguemagazine and Roslers critical recitationthere is a third site of signification: Roslers fingers. Throughout the video, one sees her digits turning the pages of the magazine, stroking them both as an expression of desire and, in some cases, as an aggressive act of covering, as though to refuse the sirens song of the magazines content. Her fingers point from one image to another, calling attention to resemblances and sometimes drawing the contours of bodies and faces, as if to show some latent significance of these figures arranged pictorially within the magazine spread. Pointing is an essential bodily gesture, significant for Jean-Franois Lyotard as a phrase of discourse. It is also an essential pedagogical gesture: teachers point at chalkboards or projection screens to guide students eyes through lessons. And pointing is used to limit what one looks at, to construct a vision. Pointing, in other words, tends to have a disciplinary function.

InMartha Rosler Reads Vogue, a series of slide projections form a fourth realm of signification. These projections play off Roslers meditation, providing visual illustrations for her demythologization ofVogue. When the slideshow has ceased, Rosler shows her audience footage of sweatshops in New York City and provides statistics on the earnings of fashion models versus those of average sweatshop workers. A reggae-flavored New Wave song plays in the background, possibly demonstrating a related pattern of exploitation in New Waves appropriation and reconfiguration of West Indian music, which functions as a counterpoint to the images. Rosler appears only in the final scene of the video. We have seen her at different times throughout the video, sitting in a chair with the issue ofVoguein her lap, but now she faces the camera as if to use it as a mirror, through which we see her seeing, theorizing, and applying lipstick and blush. At this moment, her body is presented as a site of subjection of a disciplinary practice enacted on women. The body is both what is reflected, and what we, as Roslers audience, are forced to reflect upon as a series of signs.

martha rosler,if it's too bad to be true, it could be disinformation, 1985, video still

In three videos from the late 70s and early 80sDomination and the Everyday(1978),A Simple Case for Torture, or How to Sleep at Night, andIf Its Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION(1985)Rosler elaborates her reading practice as a means of encountering the United States geopolitical involvement with Latin America. These works pose questions about how one reads video intertextually, how the medium can be used as a vehicle for counter-hegemonic strategy, analysis, and critical reflection, and perhaps most importantly, how to read the United States unofficial wars and conflicts. Given the strategies of blackout, disinformation, and distraction enacted by popular media outlets, how is it possible to redirect a viewers reading process and critically navigate a terrain of signs intended to draw attention away from the culpability of the state? How is this a matter of bringing the war homea popular slogan from the 60s which Rosler borrows for her mash-up collage works treating the Vietnam and Iraq wars?

Roslers video,If Its Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION, uses a partially demagnetized videotape to engage problems of reading popular news media. This video presents news coverage of US conflicts in Latin America during the early 80s. Much of the language of this footage derives from Reagans Cold War rhetoric, which equated Communism and terrorism, and framed death squads as freedom fighters. While many of the popular medias charges against Latin American guerrillas and political leaders were only thinly substantiated, various media techniques were used for vilification. For instance, Fidel Castro was elliptically linked by the news to the US drug financier, Robert Vesco, by juxtaposing his picture with that of Vesco, with whom he bears a facial resemblance. By using such techniques, popular media obscures fact with allegation, propagating an illusion of truth.

martha rosler,if it's too bad to be true, it could be disinformation, 1985, video still

Reading the piece depends precisely on its illegibility. The erasure of the tapes content makes one hear the news coverage as though for the first time. It also playfully allegorizes the effects of the mass media, which deliberately occludes truth content via disinformation, distraction, and over-saturation. Much of the irony ofIf Its Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATIONderives from the original footage. Following news reportage of Regan speaking before Congress is a commercial for a Canon camera, the inclusion of which foregrounds the American obsession with photography, the dominant perceptual regime of the twentieth century. Rosler contrasts it with the crisis of representation embodied by popula...


View more >