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Tina Keane
Michael O'Pray on Tina Keane's career and work for Performance Magazine, 1988

TRE MOST POWERFUL slogan of the 70s was 'the personal is the political' and for many women artists, this redefining of what was meant by 'politics' transformed personal experiences, domestic practices etc into the very foundations, the content and form of their work. Thus, it is no accident that time-based art and performance became central to the history of British women artists since 1970. Tina Keane is not only one of the most influential and important practitioners of mixed media work but also one of its founding figures in the women's art movement. She has described the role of women in performance particularly as being - 'more important in the development of feminist art than in any other media or area because it really cuts through'. To such an extent, her work insistently merges art and politics, by bringing art practices like film, video, installation and performance to bear upon her own personal experiences, perceptions and context.

Keane began as a painter. But when she left school in the late 60s she turned to light shows and light organs, very much part of the 60s' Arts-lab multi-media ('expanded') aesthetic with its impact on the traditional 'autonomous' arts of painting, sculpture and theatre. During these early years she worked with painting in light and sound, 'total environment' pieces, alongside Stuart Brisley and Marc Chiamowicz at the Sigi Kraus Gallery. Perhaps more importantly in the early 70s she became a member of the Artists' Union, formed in the aftermath of the 1971 Art Spectrum show at Alexandra Palace and set up to give artists more political clout. She was active as a convenor in the Women Artists' Group. Quite rapidly, by 1971, women artists of the Union had set up the Women's Workshop, whose energy and direction was both political and aesthetic, with an emphasis on collective work.

Keane showed at the first all-women exhibition in July 1974 at the Arts Meeting Place organised by the Women's Workshop. In 1975 she made her first video, Har4s, a political piece. And in 1976, on the Edinburgh Arts' Journey (organised by Richard Demarco), and accompanied by her small daughter Emily, she made a Super 8 film (which later became Shadow of a Journey) and completed her break with painting. In interview, Keane has pinpointed her attractions of performance - its 'of-the-moment' quality, feedback properties and the fact that performance 'provided women with a significant tool for discovering the meanings of being a woman.' Importantly, in contrast to facile artistic representation of feminism, Keane felt that performance demanded 'putting oneself on the line.'

Her work from this period onwards involved mixed media, typically film, videotape, objects and performance. In the case of Shadow Woman (1976), for example, she included her daugher in the performance. The role of her daughter in her work was to be developed and was responsible for strong and unique resonances. In Shadow Woman, her daughter playing hopscotch is set against the universality of a woman's life. Tam Giles has noted this 'strategy of juxtaposition of two separate elements, one a specific focus, the other a continuum.'

Towards the end of the 70's she became involved in the new women's distribution group Circles, together with a number of activists and film- makers. Originally Circles was to be mixed-media based, but developed into a women's film and video distribution organisation. In the early 1980s, Keane began teaching in the Film and Video section of St Martin's College of Art, then headed by Malcolm Le Grice. And for the past three years she has served on the Arts Council's influential Film and Video Artists' Subcommittee.

Keane claims that her work is primarily to do with 'identity and play.' For her, art is play and we learn to play. On this matter, she is at one with Freudian influenced ideas about the role of play in early childhood learning. It is perhaps no accident that, by and large, the most influential purveyors of this view in psycho- analysis have been women, Melanie Klein, Anna Freud (both working largely with children) and Marion Milner (the latter's memorable book On Not Being Able to Pain: has been singularly influential on Keane's ideas). Thus, for Keane, play is never a trivial pursuit. It is a merging of pleasure, learning, ritual, history, fantasy and communality. Equally, in this century, the notion of understanding has been bound up with the Wittgensteinian idea of 'language-games', whereby knowledge is achieved through social practice and language and not through some abstract essentialism. In Tina Keane's works this idea is explored from an artistic viewpoint.

In many ways, Keane was typical of those women artists who incorporated the experience of having a child into their work, including Mary Kelly and Susan Hiller. This was a strategy pitched at a series of levels. It was both a critique of the male formalist art work endemic to the 70s; it was a subjective (although far from undisciplined or mystical) response to the art work itself and it was an opening out of the artistic process onto the ordinary experiences of women. In Keane's view, performance had an extra benefit in its accessibility. Even more so, it required no equipment and very few resources - only sincerity and something to say. It was also an art form unburdened by an enormous history and in which its openness could be explored by women in a way impossible in traditional art forms. Furthermore, the experience of performance is intrinsically social and collective, immediate and complex. However, Keane has always refused any easy identification with a single form - performance, video art, avant-garde film, third-area. Keane's social-art background is grounded very much in this rich inter-textuality. Together with her choice of subject matter, it is the most important factor in the uniqueness of her work.

The notion of the 'game' is a hallmark of her work and has been used in both relatively simple and complex ways. For example, in Clapping Songs commissioned by Audio Arts in 1981 for the Riverside Studios, London, the approach is very direct and uncluttered. She used a slide-tape of two girls (her daughter and a friend) playing clapping games. The sound-tape is a series of clapping game songs which take us through the vicissitudes of life itself, including birth, childhood, courtship, marriage and death. Characteristically, the verses are larded with 'bad taste', sexuality and a morbid fascination with death (the body will 'rot, rot, rot!'). There is a strong sense (as in Shadow Woman) of the dialectic between concrete history (the ever-continuing generations of girls playing these games) and the universal rituals of play as learning.

In a different vein, in Playpen (1979), Keane uses her performance to complicate the installation, which comprises two monitors and a playpen in which Keane sits with a camera manipulating one monitor's images. On the other monitor is a tape of females aged from 6 months to 80 years. The equivalence of play with art is here quite overt but there are more subtle points being made: namely, the idea of imprisonment in having an adult in the playpen caged by the determinism of infancy and by the barrier set up by adulthood against the experience of childhood. We are also imprisoned biologically - by the simple but traumatic ageing process itself. The piece is an attempt to both display these ideas and resolve them. But there is no easy solution here, for Keane, characteristically, expresses a more pessimistic statement in the image of the artist working the camera in the pen, separated off from the monitors embodied (literally) in Playpen, that of the alienation of the artist from the resources, power and even ability to represent through art. There is an ironic humour at work in this representation of the artist, an undercurrent of wit common to much of her work.

In Swings made for the Serpentine Gallery, London in 1978, Keane uses a large child's swing set up before three monitors placed in front of a four-part dividing screen. The invitation to participation is strong, based on the perennial pleasures of swings surviving long past childhood itself. Keane encourages the spectator to use the swing, and through the device of the camera filming the participant she explores her ideas of 'play and identity', but in a way which is probably double-edged. For the adult, the experience has a disturbing aspect both in the tranagressing of adult codes and 'becoming' a child, and in the memory of earlier childhood experiences triggered by the installation. However, for the child, where such memories are in the making the self-reflective power of the camera is easily absorbed as a further element of 'swing-play' itself.

Keane has stated that communication is fundamentally important for her. To this end, philosophical ideas embedded in her pieces are always mediated through everyday 'unnoticed' objects which are then recontextualised. She says that her works are always 'attempts to escape cliche and preconceived ideas.' The art works are metaphorical at one level. For example, the swing is a metaphor for movement between worlds - childhood and adulthood, for ambiguity of feeling, and for an hypnotic state of pleasure not far away from that of sexual feeling. Ladders are similarly metaphorical for Keane, suggesting imprisonment, escape, pliability and anxiety (try climbing a rope ladder).

In her famous installation Demolition/Escape which originated as a soundwork and exists also as a video tape, Keane is at her most subtle and imaginative. A large model steam railway engine moves back and forth across the floor. A yellow indicator lights up as it moves forward and a red one when it reverses. On the right of the track is a vertical column of six monitors placed alternatively upsidedown so that the column resemble a steep staircase.

The monitors show a sequence of the artist crawling with difficulty along the floor and then ascending the ladder. On the wall behind is a diagonally ascending from left to right, line of blue neon numbers. As Jean Fisher has suggested, the whole piece constitutes a 'three- dimensional triangle.' The first impression on being faced with the piece in a darkened gallery is of a disturbing, eerie atmosphere created by the animation of the train moving backwards and forwards, the sounds of the struggling woman on the monitors and the static glowing blue neon lights.

Demolition/Escape speaks of a childhood heavily infused with fantasy. The emotional struggle of the artist 'imprisoned in' the monitors (for art is always an aggressive drawing-in and fettering as well as some kind of liberation) is taunted by the cold rational mechanical 'stare' of the train in its pointless movement back and forth, and by the equally empty rise of the numbers - rationality to no purpose except as an illusion of knowledge, and to that end a prison of sorts. This is the darker side of childhood (at least for this viewer).The struggling woman on the monitors has all the quality of the common anxiety dream of escaping some dreadful fate only to find oneself transfixed, moving on the spot despite one's efforts to run. The installation is a formidable success. In the 1980s, Tina Keane has been prolific by installation standards. This is partly due, she believes, to a renewed interest in her work by younger gallery curators, which has meant commissions and funding for new work, so that she has been less reliant on state funding as such. In 1984 she produced 8Bouquet for the Royal College of Art Cross Currents Show*. A group of monitors act as 'flowers', their leads brought together to imitate stems. Some of the footage was shot at Greenham, other sections (in Super 8) were of landscape and particular objects. The Greenham Common demonstration was a natural subject-matter for Keane. The use of 'primitive' elements like songs, rituals and sounds from the buried history of women was very much in tune with Keane's own ideas. However, in this installation she relates the footage of women at the camp to images of a stark stone monument to Maggie Wall, a 'witch' burnt in the late 17th century.

In her related installation (which also exists as a video) In Our Hands Greenham, hands are used to represent a web through which silhouette we see images of Greenham, thus portraying notions of entrapment, of silent menace, of subterfuge and of victory (the spider's web is the most fundamental image of how to beat an enemy). Typically, this image is ambiguous between women being trapped and themselves trapping. Also characteristic is her use in Bouquet of the folk-lore of witchcraft and folk songs (adapted like children's to topical events). The monitors brought together like a bouquet of flowers is the installation's 'structural' celebration of the Greenham movement as In Our Hands Greenham is tribute to it.

In recent years, the installations have become more ambitious. Media Snake, for example, shown first at the ICA, comprised monitors on plinths of varying heights curving in the space in imitation of a snake. The images were of a snake itself, slowly and sensuously moving, set against found images from TV, e.g. Joan Collins from Dynasty, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, synchronised underwater dancers and so forth. The artist has spoken of the ancient dual symbolism of the snake - an object of fear, love and reverence which merges both good and evil. The problems of female identity are posed by the images of Joan Collins as object of emulation, desire and dissatisfaction. Implicit also is a critique of American cultural imperialism.

In her slide-tape/video/performance piece at the Tate Gallery, Faded Wallpaper (1988) which developed from an installation made for the Serpentine Gallery in 1986, and was premiered in Canada (like the In Our Hands Greenham installation), she creates an electrifying atmosphere of hysteria and madness undercut with an irony. She has spoken of the control over self- identity in relation to this piece. Keane's own performance stresses women's fear which brings about a rigidity and passivity. Audience involvement is strong through this spare but powerful performance and its ironic use of music. In a review, Reg Skene wrote that we 'had been taken into a real and terrifying area of our own inner space' and the work was a 'vindication of performance art... capable of powerful psychological impact.'

There is no doubt that in Faded Wallpaper, as in her recent installation The Diver and her forthcoming installation Escalator for the Riverside Studios, London (opening 23rd March), the emotional range is broader, engaging with aspects of popular culture (Media Snake was perhaps her first piece to explore fully these broader icons of Western culture), and conveying a strong feeling for collective experiences (swimming pools, houses, London Underground), all evocative of a communal landscape saturated in the social and the political, and more distant from the domestic. Once again the universality of the emotion is lodged in a particularity, a unique time and place.

It is true to say that Keane's work has been very much in step with her maturation as a mother. With her daughter's growth (she is now in her mid teens), Keane has traced a journey in which her relationship to her child and its attendant feelings, experiences and perceptions have developed and found expression in her art, until she now finds herself confronting more global concerns. However, the motifs remain - of steps and a journey in Escalator, of exclusion and play in Faded Wallpaper and so forth. Finally, it is easy to overlook a prominent aspect of her work, as we have become so familiar with its presence, that is, its beauty and aesthetic pleasure. But this beauty is never vacuous or decorative or purely formal, always being inflected through a wit, an ironic playfulness and an imagination that renders her work accessible and radical - the fulfilment of her early desires for her art.

Michael O'Pray
Performance Magazine
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