Sadie Benning Girl Power

Girl Power, I was once told, was a slogan coined by The Spice Girls.

‘Which one?’

The question was met with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘I’m not sure, think they might’ve came up with it together.’

No, no, no. Before The Spice Girls persuaded a big chunk of the world’s CD buying public that what they really, really wanted was manufactured pop dross, there was brattish bubblegum punks Shampoo with their Girl Power single and album, and before them Milwaukee born Sadie Benning called one of her early short videos Girl Power after the Bikini Kill: Girl Power fanzine.

So, within about five years Girl Power went from feminist riot grrrl slogan to being appropriated as marketing tool used to promote a global phenomenon – who liked to cite Maggie Thatcher as an influence. As Geri Halliwell put it in 1996: ‘Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology—Girl Power.’

Beware Girl Power

It’s said that the fifteen year old Benning spent most nights alone in her bedroom, where she would narrate the events of her life while gazing into the lens of her Fisher-Price PXL2000, a kid’s black-and-white camcorder that used a compact audio cassette as its recording medium and possessed only about half the resolution of most basic camcorders on the market at the time. Its images were high contrast and were surrounded by a thick letterboxed border.

Back in the first half of the 1990s, the idea of shooting films on a PXL2000 exploded, after Richard Linklater included a short sequence shot in PixelVision in his 1990 debut feature film, Slacker.

Inspired by directors like Linklater and Steven Soderbergh, independent filmmaking in America was on the rise at this point, as was the grunge music of bands like Nirvana and the Riot Girrrl movement. These influences all collided in the work of Sadie Benning, helping her forge her unique lo-fi aesthetic that quickly began attracting attention.

Sadie_Benning_Girl_Power

One early piece was the aforementioned Girl Power from 1992. Here Benning creates an urgent visual collage, incorporating scrawled text on paper and some cut-out lettering similar to The Sex Pistols’ ransom typography; there’s brief clips of TV ads; old home movies; music by The Sugarhill Gang, Blondie and Bikini Kill’s Revolution Girl Style Now; shots of strange and shocking material lifted from a number of sources – these include an old lady shooting in a gun range and a snippet of an interview with the American Nazi Party leader of the time George Lincoln Rockwell; as well as highly pixelated black and white footage. The PixelVision was certainly accurately named.

All this, and much more, is accompanied by close-ups of Benning’s face and her rather flat voice over giving us accounts of her alienation as a child and thoughts on her lesbian identity. A constant camera hum is part of the package too.

Girl Power still.png

It’s much nearer to a punk or underground fanzine than watching a standard American studio movie*, although of course, whereas making a fanzine has always remained a relatively easy and cheap, making any kind of film in the pre-smartphone 1990s, was a more expensive area of creativity to become involved in.

As Benning explained in an interview with Jigsaw fanzine: ‘I have a 8mm camera, and an 8mm small little deck that cost like 400 dollars, and an editor controller that cost a hundred dollars, and I edit between the deck and the camera.’ She went on to explain: ‘I have only one channel of sound, and if I want to have music and voice over, I have to have my boom box and be turning it up, and saying the lines, and then be turning it down.’

I saw some of her work at the CCA in Glasgow and immediately wanted to get my hands on a PixelVision. Already, though, they were being considered a much sought after cult item. They were only on sale for around a year, with only 400,000 of them ever being manufactured worldwide. So I couldn’t join in the fun. Maybe this was for the best.

Benning’s camera, incidentally, would have cost around $100. Before the 1990s were out, they were selling for over ten times their original price.

GP1

Even early in her career Benning began appearing in prestigious art shows like NYC 1993: Jet Set, Trash and No Star at the New Museum and that same year, she became the youngest artist to show at long-running American art survey the Whitney Biennial, when she was only nineteen – her filmmaking father had been shown at five previous Biennials (and Sadie’s camera had been a Christmas gift from him).

In 1998, Benning joined Le Tigre, a feminist dance-punk band with singer/guitarist Kathleen Hanna (previously of Bikini Kill) and fanzine editor Johanna Fateman.

This century has seen her being awarded several solo exhibitions, including at the Walker Art Center in 2005 and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009.

No trailer exists for Benning’s Girl Power – well it does only last fifteen minutes – but here’s likely where I first heard phrase Girl Power, mentioned here as a lyric on a fragile ditty by Ramones obsessed Helen Love, a Welsh singer/band that John Peel played a lot in the 1990s.

From 1993, this is Formula One Racing Girls:

* Asked in a 1993 New York Times interview, she was asked if Hollywood had ever come calling, she replied: ‘Yes, but it’s too weird to talk about.’

Advertisements