A TRUE AND TIMELESS UNIVERSALITY:
Barbara Rosenthal’s I Have a New York Accent at Film-makers’ CoOp
Always direct, stark, simple, reductivist, economical and refined, yet wildly raw and natural and usually funny, the videos of Barbara Rosenthal are personal and universal at the same time. We are stricken by how the little phrases she or her stand-ins speak in the over 100 video shorts she’s made since1976, state what has been in our own minds, and are the elements, in fact, that define us as a species. But always with Rosenthal’s wink of absurdity and irony.
Her 1987 video I Have a New York Accent was screened at the Film-makers’ CoOp in the “New Year New Works Program II” of shorts newly acquired for collection and distribution. All of Rosenthal’s performance/language videos use herself or a surrogate to explore a slightly different aspect of Homo sapien identity. Most are shot with a stationary camera in a single take, and more than 80 use onscreen text, title puns or elements of language. So this video exemplifies some of her most prevalent formal and conceptual concerns.Voice, lips and text basic elements for this artist/writer/performer who has been called Media Poet since her solo month of video at The Kitchen in 1988, and last April, and Old Master of New Media at the New Media Film Festival in L.A.this year. While accident surprise, expectation, audacity and absurdity are almost always present, she aims for cognition beyond Dadaist or Collagist coincidence. She has published stories, poems, aphorisms, button pins and a novel, but in video she works with language beyond definition, through the nuanced meanings conveyed by spoken voice in terms of intonation and accent, by the look and feel of language in terms of fonts, handwritings, Braille, codes, and lips.
I Have a NY Accent, produced in her studio, eMediaLoft.org, runs 1 minute, 24 seconds, 17 frames, including titles and credits. It begins with her “Red Rubber Name Stamp,” the “anti-signature” she was given when she was 8, which is her printer’s chop and logo. Then a quick fade in and out of black opens on Barbara Rosenthal standing in her loft, 727 Sixth Avenue at the time, tightly framed head and shoulders, her massive hair curling to the edges of the frame. She’s wearing a black scoop-necked polo shirt, many plants hanging in the window behind her. It’s shot in greenish color, slightly dark, a little grainy, but her eyes look straight at you from the screen.
She takes a breath and says, deadpan, slowly enumerating: “I have a New York accent. I was born in the Bronx. I grew up on Long Island. Now I live in Manhattan.” The phrase takes her 10 seconds 10 frames of the 11 seconds 9 frames she’s onscreen, and we relax a few beats to await whatever follows. The video jump-cuts to a repeat of her image. But as she opens her mouth, and her lips begin again, “I have a New York accent…,” the voice we hear is not her own! It is another woman’s voice, high-pitched, nasal, amused — and the locations aren’t “Bronx…Long Island…Manhattan.” They are “Astoria…Astoria…Astoria.”
The audience laughs, highly engaged now. Rosenthal’s lips are not in sync, and the voice-over from Astoria does not take the same amount of time to say the phrase; it needs only 7 secs 11 frames. Each segment is cut to the voice. This is subtle, direct, and unobtrusively subliminal to the audience, eager to hear the next speaker. We already know what her lips are telling us, so she doesn’t trail her image. She jump-cuts again to begin again, this time with voice-over by a nasal baritone who’s lived all his life in Bensonhurst. He needs only 8secs 22 frames for his phrase, but to the audience’s great delight, his first sentence comes out of Rosenthal’s lips in sync! The next voice-over was born in Puerto Rico. The fourth and final one, in Harlem. The credits tell us these were random New Yorkers sitting in Madison Square one lunch hour, when Rosenthal asked them to play. The audience erupts in laughter and applause. We are all one!
We feel good watching this video because we feel part of the melting pot of the city. It’s very inclusive. Most of Rosenthal’s videos also have an ironic humor, but with dark dysphoria. Her world view is generally bleak, but in this, she shows us we all fit in. “Our differences are what make us the same,” she says. I Have a New York Accent , as most of her absurdist performance-video shorts, investigates humanity and identity through language in terms of voice, accents, intonations, mouths, puns and letter-forms, some funny, some deadly serious.
Heavily accented English is notable in Body Found in Suitcase, a horrific American news story read cold by a middle-aged Romanian woman; in Women in the Camps, told by concentration camp survivors; and in Kandace’s Grandmother: Work Injuries Stories, a harrowing 10-minute monologue spoken in twangy-drawl by the tiny, old grandmother of one of Rosenthal’s students from back-country Missouri.
Some of Rosenthal’s other existential videos carried by intonation are Society, A Boy and His Father Butcher a Deer, Handwriting Analysis, Pregnancy Dreams, Siddhartha and Toil of Three Cities / Liebesmüh, as well as several she made using her children, such as Burp Talk, in which she films her daughter Ola speaking in Burp Talk, Nonsense Conversation, when Ola was 9, wherein they both ad lib a no-language conversation completely understandable through intonation and gesture alone, and Ola Writes the Alphabet, when Ola, then 3, writes on a blackboard as Rosenthal speaks to her offscreen. In Siddhartha her voice reads Hermann Hesse’s passage about Siddhartha’s corruption, while the screen fills with each negative word in bright yellow, superimposing to almost obscure a grayscale photograph of a Hindu monk slowly dissolving to that of an Indian prince,
In I Have a New York Accent, our eyes focus on her lips, a device in several works, besides her frequent use of segmented body parts in general. In Words Come Out Backwards When Spoken to Screen Right, a small photograph of her face in profile on the left edge of the frame, ready to speak, spells out words in speech and moving type, which, on screen cause the absurd but true result of the letters appearing backwards as they emerge in sync with her voice one letter at a time. And in some videos, she varies her voice considerably, conversings without moving her lips at all as they vie with The Monkey Puppet in all three Monkey ventriloquism performance videos.
Focusing on Rosenthal’s lips in I Have a New York Accent gives us the impression that while other voices name other parts of the city, her lips are revealing the secret truth she told us in the first place. It brings another laugh. This aspect of the artist sharing a secret with the viewer, and her often-confessional tone, comes up in several other works, as does her You and I concept, which is the actual title of her cardgame. And the word “Secret” itself shows up in two of her video titles: Secret Codes, in which aberrant handprints vie with on-screen text in English, German and Yiddish and The Secret of Life, an appropriated Ziggy cartoon. She tells us actual secrets in Lying Diary, which is an unsent letter to her brother, and in Whispering Confession, wherein her mouth fills the screen, cupped and whispering about a sexually charged relationship with a student, behind accumulating on-screen text About this emphasis, she says, “art itself is a vehicle that transmits secrets of universal connection through the medium of the artist.” At the Film-makers’ CoOp, as with so many of her works in all media, viewers and readers feel they are partaking in the experience.
Viewers jolted with a laugh when they realized they were lip-reading, and had just followed Rosenthal’s lips mouthing information she had told them, which differed from the information they were hearing. As if what she had told them in her first segment was the truth, but what being said in voice-over was not true, and thereby, they lip-read a secret truth between them. By the third segment, when the randomness of reality puts the voice-over in sync with her lips for the first sentence, there is riveting of attention to the screen, as if she herself had now just uttered the incorrect information in a fake voice — not a “secret” told by lips out of sync with voice, but a “lie,” because it came out from her lips in sync with a voice. And then, by the fourth and final segment, what happens when the audience realizes all this, they mentally start putting their own answers into the blanks, as interactive participants.
New Year New Works 2017
Featuring Barbara Rosenthal, Robbie Land, Jerry Tartaglia, Katherine Bauer, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Will Erokan & Gerry Fialka, Emily Hubley, Mary Billyou, Rose Present, Karissa Hahn & Andrew Kim, and Amanda Katz
Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, 7pm
The Film-makers’ CoOp
475 Park Avenue South, 6th Floor, NY, NY 10016
Reviewer’s bio: Bill Creston is a video and small-guage film pioneer who made the world’s first video diary in 1967, and instituted the first video courses at both Cooper Union and The School of Visual Arts. A solo retrospective Cineprobe of his auteur Super-8 films was held at MoMA in 1989.
NOTE: All underlines are LINKS to the videos themselves online, or the people named in the exhibition information as they are listed at the Film