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Meet Women Creators of Film and Video in Year-long Viewfinder Series

Zina Saro-Wiwa leans against a white wall

Photo of Zina Saro-Wiwa courtesy of the artist.

Have you ever expressed yourself or your worldview by filming a video on your phone?

According to Saisha Grayson, a curator at our Smithsonian American Art Museum, that means you have created time-based media. If you have watched a home-made video on YouTube or TikTok, you have viewed time-based media.

Time-based media art is a term for creative projects that take time to fully experience and that change over time. Grayson said, "Today, everyone is making time-based media on a regular basis, sharing it, thinking about it, and relating to the world in that format. In the 1960s and 1970s, film cameras got smaller and personal video cameras were introduced. Since then, women have explored the artistic possibilities these portable technologies allow."

This year, the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, Because of Her Story, is hosting a monthly series to showcase the work of women creators from the 1960s to today. Viewfinder: Women's Film and Video from the Smithsonian shares time-based media online from across Smithsonian collections.

The series curators chose to focus on women's contributions to film and video from the 1960s to today.  Marina Isgro, an associate curator at our Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, said, "When you look at the inventors of video art, there were a lot of women in that group because it was easy to access and use. It didn't require you to be part of institutional structures."

With the introduction of the video "portapak" in the mid-1960s, video cameras became small enough and cheap enough for people to film inside their own homes—and anywhere else. Video art, a form of time-based media, was born. Women led the way. Because video was so new, women artists found there was more space to experiment. They created innovative works in a field that did not have a long history of artwork created by men. Working on videotape, rather than film, allowed these artists to complete projects without needing significant financial support.  

Videotape also made finished artworks easier to distribute. Video artists could quickly make copies of their tapes to share with friends and their artistic network. They did not necessarily need a gallery to screen their work, because artists could hold screenings anywhere you could play a videotape.

Charlotte Ickes, a curator at our National Portrait Gallery, said these creators also helped break stereotypes. "There is a stereotype that women and technology don't get along, but these artists and filmmakers experimented with new technology to transform image and representation," she said. "Fast forward, and contemporary artists like Zina Saro-Wiwa are still pushing the camera's potential."

In our Viewfinder series, we will virtually screen time-based media works on the first Thursday of each month this year. Afterward, a Smithsonian curator will speak with the artists or filmmakers. Each program will include time for audience questions. A recording of the event, including the film or video, will be available through the end of that month.

This Thursday, we will screen Julie (1974) and Walking (1975), two videos from our Archives of American Art. In Walking, filmmaker Ingrid Wiegand explores SoHo, her New York City neighborhood. Following the screening, curator Josh T. Franco will join Wiegand and dancer Julie Finch, the subject of Julie, to discuss art and everyday life in 1970s New York.

Close up of woman's face in profile, with a different human form behind her
Film still, Robert and Ingrid Wiegand, Julie, 1974. 1 videocassettes (U-Matic), Robert Wiegand papers and video art, 1953–1994. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In March, we'll screen Sarogua Mourning, a work that Nigerian-born artist Saro-Wiwa created in 2011. In it, she attempts to cry for her father, a political activist, for the first time since he was murdered. Afterward, Saro-Wiwa will speak will Karen Milbourne, a curator from our National Museum of African Art. The first six screenings have been announced so far.

Ickes said, "If you miss live experiences where you can learn something new from art and the person who created it, then be sure to tune in!"

Grayson said Viewfinder will allow anyone to learn about women's history as well as current trends in time-based media. For people interested in making videos, the series will inspire new ways to use the camera in your pocket to express a unique point of view. "Viewfinder will help you understand the women creatives who have come before and learn how you fit in. It's like art school from home, for free."

Viewfinder screenings begin this Thursday, January 7, and continue once a month through 2021. RSVP and learn about our first six screenings.

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