Karen Kilimnik's video Heathers, produced in 1994 and presented in an austere and sepulchral physical environment, is based on the cult American satire Heathers (1989), directed by Michael Lehmann and starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, who were at the time idols to a generation of angst-ridden youth.
The original motion picture is a dark and humorous story of teenage conformity and rebellion in picket-fence America. The title refers to three girls of the same name who, with their friend Veronica (Ryder), are at the pinnacle of the high school hierarchy. Just as Veronica begins to question the wisdom of her association with the Heathers she encounters and becomes lovers with a deterministically named juvenile delinquent called J.D. (Slater), whose anarchic and irreverent attitude to responsibility and authority results in a trail of bloodshed, starting with two of the Heathers.
As an acid dramatization of the social and sexual confusions of adolescence and young adulthood, the original Heathers chimes with Karen Kilimnik's fascination with the uncanny nature of white American mainstream society, trash culture and the emotional, fragile world of teenagers. Kilimnik's artistic remix of the original is directly filmed off a television monitor, and extends the original three hours long thriller into a six hours tour-de-force artwork by slowing down, freeze framing, fast forwarding, rewinding and repeating individual scenes, sometimes ad nauseam.
Like Kilimnik's painting practice, Heathers reveals an ambiguous attitude towards the clichéd woman of American mass media, an attitude that sits intriguingly between fetishisation and critique. By breaking up the narrative structure of the film into separate scenes, Kilimnik shifts the viewer's attention away from the storyline towards a non-linear constellation of key moments, including the opening scene and its famous quote, "What's your damage, Heather?"
The fragmentation of narrative also places more focus on the female stars, invoking a critical tradition which identifies the representation of female sexuality in classical Hollywood film as constructed around the still image, the pause or pose, which invites the spectator to contemplate woman as a visual spectacle.
Heathers locates Kilimnik not only in a particular kind of feminist tradition, but also within a specific generation of artists' film and video makers. Kilimnik, like other mid-1990s artists, was fascinated by the advent of digital technology and the way it exposed the limits and the unique qualities of celluloid film and its aesthetics. For Kilimnik, DVD and video technology are based on and encourage a fetish of spectatorship, because they offer the possibility of scene selection, freeze frame, slow motion and other tools which push the spectator out of the "passive" cinema seat into a position of play and control. By extracting short film sequences from the linear narrative of the film, and by repeating them over and over again, Kilimnik exemplifies the concept of the so-called "possessive spectator" of the digital age, whose desire to interrogate, possess and hold the elusive image generates a new form of compulsive repetition.
Heathers is viewed in a chapel-like room, a context which deliberately alludes to the funeral scene in the film. The sacred and reverential atmosphere of the installation environment, with screen as altar, also subtly and humorously points towards the worship of the Hollywood idol that so fascinates Kilimnik. This sense of kitsch morbidity and awe typifies Kilimnik's use of exaggeration and irony, which have long been central to her artistic practice.