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Sadie Benning: Play Pause at The Whitney
by Rachel Silveri
September 21, 2009
Some readers may remember Sadie Benning as a former member of Le Tigre—she was one of the band’s original co-founders—but I know her as a video artist first and foremost. At the age of fifteen, Benning began making videos with a toy Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera. The short films take place inside the artist’s bedroom and feature a collage of texts and images, shots of Benning and her rambling, musing voice giving shape to the longings, aspirations, and confusions experienced during adolescence. Films like Jollies (1990), If Every Girl Had a Diary (1990), and Girl Power (1992) speak of early desires and feelings of loneliness, their narrator’s nascent lesbian identity and her experience of growing up in society filled with gendered stereotypes. The works have a diaristic tone; audiences feel privy to the interior life of a teenage girl, which is both child-like and wildly imaginative and yet so utterly intense, angry, and sincere as to outmatch the routine cynicism of adult life. These early videos by Benning are quite stunning and so it was with great anticipation that I approached one of her latest endeavors, Play Pause, a video installation that just ended at the Whitney. The new work does not disappoint.

Play Pause is compromised of hundreds of Benning’s drawings—gouache on paper, sometimes colored—projected onto two adjoining screens. The “narrative” is loose and open-ended: presenting a day in city life, the video tracks a multitude of characters as they travel urban streets and captures some of the storefronts, advertisements, and displays that are part of the landscape. The drawings are matched with a superb soundtrack by Benning—not simply ambient city noise but music that rises, swells, pushes the street scene along.

It eventually becomes clear that the film takes place in a post-9/11 setting. One drawing illustrates a screen announcing the day’s color-level terror warning, orange plus yellow. City dwellers at times seem lost, detached. And the work ends with a scene inside an airport: the heavy surveillance of security, the endless scrutiny given to travelers and their luggage. Yet still within such a climate people go on with their day. They go to work; shop; they ride the subway, walk the streets, wait for the bus. They head to the local diner and they go to the bar at night; they go to the club. They dance, eye each other across the room, flirt and kiss. Benning’s film implicitly suggests that somehow within the everyday, within both pleasure and play, there can be found a nascent resistance to fear.

If Benning’s early works were characterized by the interiority of the bedroom and the confessions of its teenage resident, Play Pause opens out onto an entire world. It traverses a map of urban loneliness in search of those remaining forms of public intimacy. And nods to queer culture are still resolutely made: many of the city’s inhabitants are androgynous; a woman watches talk show lesbian makeovers on TV; those shots of city bars are gay bars; and viewers see many characters having or about to be having sex. “There’s a lot of sex—gay sex—in Play Pause,” the poet Eileen Myles writes about the film, “I keep wanting to call it Play Paws. Because it’s fun.”

And, yes, it is fun. Play Pause was on display at the Whitney from April 22 to September 20, 2009—a long run, to be sure, but I still wish to see it playing.
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