Gretchen Bender: Tracking the Thrill
August 27 to October 5, 2013
512 West 19th Street
New York City, 212-255-5793
Gretchen Bender (1951-2004) was a pioneering video artist whose work was under appreciated in her own lifetime. Although Bender was connected to the group of artists known as the “Pictures Generation,” she never received the recognition and institutional legitimization that many of these artists now enjoy. A new exhibition at The Kitchen, Tracking the Thrill, suggests that Bender’s videos and her prophetic views on the media’s relationship to art and perception was ahead of its time, and that perhaps it is only now that the radical dissonance of her work can be fully appreciated.
The top floor of The Kitchen presents the video installation Wild Dead (1984), a video documentation of the lost performance piece Dumping Core (1984), and a sampling of her commercial work. Her flashy, high-speed intro for the television show “America’s Most Wanted” is shown alongside music videos she edited or directed for bands such as Megadeth and New Order. The slippage between these commercial works and her artwork is fascinating. As an artist who also worked in commercial television, Bender was something of a double agent: she played an active role in both developing and appropriating the system of commercial advertising to expose the viewer to the manipulative language of the industry. Bender was aware of an artwork’s half-life, and by controlling the high-speed intoxicating language of commercials she worked to stay one step ahead of art’s absorption back into advertising. She speaks with poetic urgency in a 1987 Bomb Magazine interview with Cindy Sherman about the power and effect of the media, describing it as “a cannibalistic river whose flow absorbs everything” and flattens out content. It is her recognition and intervention into this incessant movement that feels the most shockingly relevant today.
Total Recall occupies the entire bottom floor theater and takes its name from the 1990 film by Paul Verhoeven, which was still in production at the time. First exhibited at the Kitchen in 1987, the 18-minute video installation is an operatic tour de force, and curator Philip Vanderhyden does an excellent job in re-staging it. A stack of 24 television monitors and three projection screens pulsate with images woven together in a way that is both absorbing and frightening. As the viewer is confronted with bits of movies, news, personal graphics, and film, very rarely do all the monitors and screens show the same image simultaneously. The eight channel analog piece has a rhythm all its own and the work demands that the audience sync to its rapid pace. Bender’s long time collaborator Stuart Argabright’s soundtrack flutters between assault and surrender that perfectly compliments the visual speed of Total Recall. This unsettling pace will not allow a passive viewing; as soon as one begins to feel comfortable, the tempo of sound and image change radically. It is this fast-paced rate of change that is paramount to understanding this work and indeed Bender’s overarching vision. Because one is never fully able to grasp the entire work and although one might recognize commercial logos and fragmented images from popular culture, the edits destabilize a complete and “true” read of the symbols. We are left simply with their particle form, an aesthetic empty shell. As the hollowed scenes and symbols are sequenced, their speed and movement simultaneously become context and content.
Despite its chaotic abstraction Total Recall, like much of Bender’s work, evokes the political climate of the time. Regan-era conservatism and the monolithic aspect of consumer culture was pervasive, and Bender worked furiously to expose how advertising reflects our society’s obsession with entertainment. One merely needs to turn on a television (or stream digital news) to see just how prescient she was in anticipating the way we now consume information, and how our appetite for such rapid consumption is never satiated. Today, when so many artists are passively using the language of advertising, Gretchen Bender is a bold reminder that they should be “active agents.” Although the current of information may be strong, we can jump in and change the flow of the pulse.