A pioner in the 1970 of the use of video as a tool for social analysis, Martha Rosler (New York, 1943) continues to be relevant for her political engagement and feminist perspective. For almost fifty years, her works have offered a critical examination of the workings of contemporary culture. Referring to her work, Rosler has written: ‘I want to make art about the commonplace, art that illuminates social life.’

Made in China, a mechanical toy dressed as an American soldier plays God Bless America on a trumpet. In this video, Rosler’s camera pans down to reveal that one of the toy’s camouflage-clad trouser legs has been rolled up to uncover what looks like a prosthetic limb. An anatomical reference that, together with the patriotic song that acts as America’s national anthem, creates a short but incisive anti-war video.

An early video work by Rosler, Flower Fields anticipates, despite its simplicity, some of the artist’s analytical interests: the hidden social oppression in everyday life, gender and class. Together with Backyard Economy I and Backyard Economy II (Diane Germain Mowing), this is one of only three works by Rosler filmed in Super 8.

The intersection of cultures and classes as exemplified by the street life of San Francisco’s Mission District here becomes Rosler’s focus of attention. A tourist street lined with shops and restaurants, also known for being a meeting point for lowrider car culture. The artist places a Super 8 camera inside a moving car to film the streets in the manner of video surveillance cameras. The graffiti and political messages on the street walls are reinforced by the artist’s voiceover reading one of her texts on alternative street culture as opposed to fake official culture. Her voice echoes the voice of the street directly asking the viewers: Que voit-on? Qu’entend-on dans cette vidéo?  Without omitting the filmic condition of the viewer, allusions to street culture reflect on the problematic dialogue between cultures with messages such as: ‘You can’t know a culture by coming to visit, you can see its “facts” but you cannot see its meaning.’ As for the ‘secrets’ in the title, the artist displays a true polysemic nature in the audio that accompanies the video: her voice reminds us of the meaning of the word ‘secret’, from the privacy of our lives to the secret operations of power and the untold parts of any culture. As Rosler states in the voiceover: ‘The secret is that to know the meaning of a culture you must know the limits of meaning of your own.’

This video was part of an installation with the same title, taken from an article in The New York Times accusing the U.S. Government of spreading false information on Nicaragua. According to the U.S. Government, Nicaragua had bought MIG planes to attack the United States. By incorporating press material, Rosler creates a collusion of text and image that questions the authority and objectivity of the media. ween text and image, and captures the confusion inserted intentionally into the news script. Stressing the fact that there is never a straight story, Rosler asserts her presence in a character-generated text that isolates excerpts from the original broadcast sources, rolling over the manipulated images.

Years after the 1973 military coup in Chile, Rosler produced a scathing video showing the relationship between the country’s booming economy during those years, the large U.S. corporate presence and the silence about the victims of fascism.

While deconstructing the unity of image and text is normal practice in Rosler’s video works, in this piece it is taken to extremes: video and still images and a crawling text on the screen all work in parallel without any formal correlation. This fragmented symbiosis of still images, action, sound and discourse synthesizes what the artist self-describes as the ‘artist-mother’s This Is Your Life’. A vital context in which the media and the State are entwined with private life: the mixture of sound, text and visual elements can be seen as intense snippets of everyday experiences, showing the cracks through which politics invades our daily lives.

In Semiotics of the Kitchen Martha Rosler begins her demonstration of kitchen utensils in alphabetical order (from “apron" to "tenderizer") in the style of a seemingly straight TV feature. The work then tips over into a performance whose critical edge results not only from the artist's precise analytic and emphatic understanding of the matter but also from the formal structure of her acting. In her subtly anarchic and comical presentation of the tools, Rosler addresses the aggressivity that is inherent in "the Woman in the kitchen" – from outside as well as from inside. 

Rosler has, throughout her research on specific topics, her investigations of how the system of a male, white, capitalist-dominated culture permeates everyday life, in her theoretical writing, her textual and visual works, her performances and videotapes, followed one principle as artistic strategy: In order to "bring conscious, concrete knowledge to your work… you had better locate yourself pretty concretely in it.”

Martha Rosler did this performance at the University of California, San Diego, in 1974. Instructed by medical examiners, the artist gradually undresses so they can measure the different parts of her body. In 1977, Rosler reformulated the project and turned it into a video piece presented as an opera in three acts. The cold, aseptic tone created by Rosler hints at the institutionalisation of the ‘science’ of measurement or anthropometry, once used to justify racist theories. Since then, medical measurements have become a tool for sexual and racial discrimination used in contexts such as concentration camps, the army and the police, but also in schools, prisons and beauty contests.

Rosler presented an acerbic and lucid interpretation of the struggle of a surrogate mother to keep her child. In the purest theatrical style of American comedy, Rosler assumes the various roles of the participants in this legal fight, including the baby and a spermatozoon. The video alternates real TV sequences on the Baby M Case with the artist’s own interpretation and transcripts from the trial. Rosler views the actions of Mary Beth Whitehead, the natural mother, as an attempt to defy the identity assigned to her by her class and gender, and sees the verdict as an endorsement of the father’s phallic right, so common in jurisprudence, and an example of patriarchal power exerted upon a lower-class woman by representatives of the middle classes. The main argument in this case, although not explicitly stated, was that Mr Stern ‘owned’ half the baby and had contractually acquired the other half. Rosler’s analysis demonstrates how political and legal systems are played out on the physical bodies of women.

Martha Rosler did this live performance for Paper Tiger Television, a public-access cable channel created in 1981 in New York as an open and experimental media collective. For this programme, Rosler deconstructed the messages of the famous fashion magazine Vogue and its advertising.

Made in reaction to an article in Newsweek magazine, in this video Rosler identifies the totalitarian implications of the sort of argument that defends torture under certain circumstances. The artist’s voiceover narration runs in parallel to images from media articles on subjects ranging from human rights to unemployment and the global economy. Rosler denounces the U.S. Government and American businesses for supporting political regimes that systematically use torture, as well as the silence of the American press, their biased used of language and selective news coverage. The irony in the title associates the argument in favour of torture with the clean conscience of those who can sleep at night.

Through the diversity of her work (photography, installation, performance, video, essays and fiction), Martha Rosler has created a series of cutting analyses on the myths and realities of patriarchal culture. Expressed with an unruffled sense of irony, Rosler's work explores the socio-economic realities and political ideologies that dominate our daily life.

Martha Rosler offers an incisive critical analysis of the prevailing patriarchal culture with its myths and truths, and the socioeconomic realities and political ideologies that dominate our daily life. She does so by means of a diverse oeuvre that includes photography, installation, performance, video, critical writing and fiction.

Son[i]a #253 Martha Rosler
05.02.2018

Martha Rosler analyses and questions the proliferation of surveillance systems and self-representations in contemporary society, while telling us about artistic circles in the seventies, the seminal video art scene, and the need to keep chasing utopias.

SON[I]A #253. Martha Rosler Deleted scenes
09.08.2018

We dig up some unreleased fragments of the interview with Martha Rosler that we were unable to include the first time around.

Entering a museum starts at home or in a plane or in a tweet
Mark Wigley