The School of Art Announces the Birnbaum Award

On Thursday, February 16, at a special reception held in the Sky Room at the New Museum in New York City, the School of Art announced the creation of the Birnbaum Award, honoring artist and Carnegie Mellon alumna Dara Birnbaum.

Presented by Head of the School of Art, Charlie White, the inaugural award will be presented annually to a graduating senior whose work exemplifies art at the intersection of media and technology. The award was funded by Patti Kenner, also a Carnegie Mellon alumna and member of the university’s Board of Trustees.

The event featured a special tribute to Birnbaum, a 1969 School of Architecture graduate and renowned feminist artist at the cusp of art and technology. White, who joined Carnegie Mellon in summer 2016, was formally introduced as the Regina and Marlin Miller Professor and Head of the School of Art, and welcomed alumni and friends from across the country who had come to take part in the event.

“Dara’s contribution to contemporary art’s discourse is fundamental to how we understand the effects and influence of media in mass culture today,” White said. “It is our honor to create this award, which will serve to recognize a graduating senior each year who carries on Dara’s tradition of creating exemplary work that bridges art, media, and technology.”

Birnbaum’s work currently is featured in an exhibition at Miller Gallery on the Carnegie Mellon campus: “Hacking / Modding / Remixing,” curated by Angela Washko, a visiting assistant professor in CMU’s School of Art, runs through Feb. 26. It features 22 female artists, designers and developers, and showcases their technology-driven and sometimes humorous work, channeling feminist voices from the 1970s to today.

“Kiss the Girls, Make them Cry,” the 1979 seminal video work by Birnbaum, manipulates off-air imagery from the television game show “Hollywood Squares” (1966-1981). The work, she said, is “amongst the very first media art works to address the language of popular television and Top 10 songs. Its unusual and bizarre repetition of that television banality still rings as true today.” And, she continued, while a new generation of artists is now providing commentary on contemporary mass media, critical social commentary – especially in regard to women – must again be confronted.

“Voices from a younger generation of women artists will, hopefully, again select and dissect those images that now dominate the mass media. The challenge remains to gain control of the imagery, revealing its hidden agendas and to formulate alternative voices and visions,” she said.

Indeed, White said, “Birnbaum’s work serves as a catalyst for our students, and they will be honored to carry this award with them from Carnegie Mellon, just as we at the university are honored to call Dara Birnbaum an alumna who truly serves as an inspiration to us all.”