When Suzie Silver poses as the late Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant in her video "Free Bird," it's beyond a simple lip sync, more than karaoke with a wig and a fake mustache. For the out lesbian artist, a self-described former "Southern California motorcycle surfer chick," it's an embodiment of everyone's license to wield popular culture, that repository of vilified commodities, for one's own uses. Especially if in the same gender-lending video, she also chooses to play two other alter egos: a lesbian lounge singer decked out in lingerie, and a tuxedoed Oscar-winner whose acceptance speech is an extended riff on having sex in public places.
"Lord help me, I can't change," indeed. Three of the internationally exhibited artist's short videos are set to screen at Film Kitchen on Tue., Jan. 11, and they're all as consumed with costuming and transformation as they are brightly colored, giddy and fun. All three are also, not coincidentally, based on pop songs.
The earliest, 1991's "A Spy," dates from Silver's grad-school and post-grad days, when she was active in Chicago's performance-art scene, staging AIDS benefits and other shows with such titles as "Bait and Switch: At Night, Every Girl Is a Boy." "A Spy" finds performer Hester Reeve costumed as a half-naked Jesus and miming a Doors song while a Silver-edited montage of '60s psychedel-erotica unreels as backdrop.
"Free Bird" ('93) was followed by a sojourn in New York City, where Silver worked as an assistant editor in television, including two seasons' worth of cutting for Homicide: Life on the Street. She returned to video art with "The Look of Love: A Gothic Romance" ('98). The 18-minute video began as a study of the ways conventional cinema portrays female desire and pleasure, but ended as a comedic-yet-poignant homage to female film icons, who co-star with Silver, exchanging significant glances with her as, costumed in top hat and brocade jacket, she wanders some woods.
When Silver came out in the early '80s, images of open homosexuality in pop culture were rare, and thus much of her early work was about finding ways to express her desires using pieces of a culture that denied they even existed. In the era of The L Word that's less of a priority, and in the meantime Silver's videos have been exhibited in museums and galleries, and at gay and lesbian film festivals, across the country and around the world. But Silver -- since 1999 an associate professor in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Art -- is still "obsessed," she says, with the uses to which people put the culture they're handed.
If her earlier videos wholeheartedly embrace kitsch, The Happiest Day, an upcoming collaborative video-based installation at Filmmakers Galleries with fellow CMU associate professor Hilary Harp, cuddles up with nostalgia, though the reference points are less universal. Silver is an aficionado of performance art from '60s and '70s Manhattan: "That seemed like the golden age of that particular kind of art," she says. It's work she's only seen depicted in still photographs. But she and Harp recruited friends to re-create art happenings including Herman Nitsch's Orgies-Mysteries Theatre, in which participants slaughtered goats and dumped their guts on people. Silver and crew do it with fake goats with red paper streamers for entrails.
Silver and Harp intend the re-enactments -- presented on monitors in nine "video boxes," some of which are given depth with layers of miniature paper scenery -- to summon the same primitivist energy and "shamanistic catharsis" they believe the original artists were after. But in the context of nostalgic fantasy, says Silver, "We're taking things that were scary and gross and making them cute."
It recalls Silver's strategy in earlier videos, in which she cut up raw pop material and assembled it anew. Pop's critics tend to imagine that people consume commodified culture whole, but Silver contends, "People appropriate and use popular culture to give their lives meaning and to enrich [them] too."
Similarly, "I think nostalgia has a bad rep," she says. Beyond mere "base sentimentality," it's also a way to reclaim the past. "People don't realize what a rich experience [nostalgia] can be in a way. ... The world is changing so fast all the time, and we're constantly losing things."
Perhaps that's one reason viewers find her work accessible, even if they don't know from 1960s performance art. "People sometimes find the work a little puzzling," Silver says, "but they find it mesmerizing."