The time is passing but the image dwells. 47 men are posing to get their picture taken, completely still. These men in suits and ties are U.S. Attorneys in the year 1933, basking in their moment of power and glory. Above them, an old wall clock’s pendulum keeps moving from one end to the other, its ticking sound loud and clear. The moment is eternalized, and the power remains, even now. 89 years and the image is still relevant: White men are in charge. Artist Cat Del Buono’s video piece Time (2011) is an illusory work in between a video and a still, framed and hung like a photograph that uncannily moves, and it displays a perpetual stalemate.
The Museum of Sonoma County features Time alongside three other video works by Del Buono in a large-scale exhibition titled Agency: Feminist Art and Power among 27 artists whose work specifically address identity, empowerment, and social constructs centering the concept of gender, Del Buono’s Now I’m Beautiful! (2011), Woman (2012) and American Female (2012) video pieces tackle these notions in different ways, but uniformly focus on the traditional and societal expectations of being a “woman” in modern culture. In powerful simplicity using only her own body and minimal props, Del Buono turns herself into the parochial idea of woman: an unnamed, unconsidered human being, stripped down to nothing but adjectives and attributes. The videos are short, between one and two minutes each, but the effect of each endures.
Del Buono, a filmmaker and artist based in Brooklyn, has been producing compelling work on social issues for over a decade. Her video pieces in the exhibition are disturbingly familiar to the viewer as Del Buono’s women are ubiquitous to our time: a classmate with an eating disorder, an aunt with botched lip fillers, a sister with body dysmorphia. An Instagram filter that shows us our face but prettier.
Yet one thing prevalent in Del Buono’s more recent work, not included in Agency, is something less obvious than any of these, hidden under oppression or shame. Since 2013, Del Buono has been conducting a series of interviews with domestic violence survivors at shelters in multiple cities in different parts of the US. An ongoing project that came out as a result of these conversations, Del Buono’s Voices (2014-…) is an intimate, heartbreaking collection of these survivor accounts conceived as a multichannel immersive video installation.
Voices is at first an overwhelming, sonorous hum inside a room with screens: 20 individual monitors show different mouths in closeup, reciting incoherently, anonymously, but in a disquieting harmony. Complementing this specific type of violence and aggression, the viewer needs to get closer to hear the stories clearly from these mouths. One by one, the narratives come to life with their voices and breaths, their lips and gestures. To hear them, to see them in the otherwise empty space is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s words from Regarding the Pain of Others: “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” Del Buono’s work is haunting both visually and intellectually as it illustrates with clarity that in this form of abuse, there are no stereotypes and no privilege. At the end of this year, Del Buono will be taking the foundational idea of Voices to Italy’s University of Naples Federico II with a newly-earned Fulbright scholarship. This time it’s an immediate response to the increase of violence and femicide during the COVID-19 lockdowns in the last two years. Intimate violence is global, as is the feeling of entrapment emanating from Voices. In Del Buono’s own words, it’s not “their problem. It’s ours.” Ours.
And that’s what lies beneath all manifestations of Cat Del Buono’s artistic practice: a sense of “us.” She uses her work to give power to others, show things concealed from weary eyes, bring people together, and capture within screens and frames a feeling of bond. In Riders on the 4 (2007), she films strangers on her usual MTA line, asking them to name something they like about themselves. With her non-profit Our House Meriden, she offers free art classes to students in the very house she grew up in. She gives up something of herself, an actual part of her own body in Take My Hair (2010), documenting as she cuts away all her long, beautiful locks for a family member in chemotherapy.
Del Buono’s video subjects have voices because she hears them and wants others to listen. “I guess I’m a happy person,” says one commuter on the 4, for example. In Take My Hair, De; Buono’s cousin, tearful, tells the artist, “It’s something that you’d never expect anybody to say.” A survivor talks about her ways of coping: “For me, writing is an outlet.” The clock is still ticking, 89 years and counting, but there’s something else to listen to.
“Agency: Feminist Art and Power” runs through June 5, 2022 at the Museum of Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, CA. To experience Voices, please visit https://www.voicesproject.info/
Cigdem Asatekin MacInnis is an artist and writer based in Toronto who’s interested in weaving literary fiction and art writing together. She has been writing and translating for art spaces, collectors, curators, and artists professionally. Her critical writing appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Degree Critical, private collections and catalogues, and more.
Susan Sontag, Regarding The Pain Of Others (New York: Picador, 2003). ↑