Sadly having passed away nine years ago at age fifty-three, Gretchen Bender was an unsung member of the Pictures Generation and a pioneer of immersive video installations. Her work as a technologically avant-garde artist and as a commercial video editor maintained a complicated, prescient relationship with mass media. “Tracking the Thrill,” a retrospective of Bender’s career at the Kitchen, will hopefully give the oft overlooked artist the due she deserves.
Bender’s best-known work may have been her video editing for commercial television, including the opening credits to “America’s Most Wanted” and music videos for New Order, R.E.M., and Megadeth. Though directed by Robert Longo, Bender’s choice as the editor to create stuttering overloads of images allows the videos to exceed their more dated qualities (Megadeth’s metal tropes haven’t aged particularly well) and still seem vibrantly alive today. One’s glad that the Kitchen chose to show the commercial videos in part because of their tense kinetics, but also because Bender’s stance on mass media and corporate identity went beyond a simple "us vs. them." Her attitude’s encapsulated by “The Perversion of the Visual,” a rare text from Bender printed on the gallery’s wall. A series of aphoristic sentences whose insights have held up surprisingly well, “The Perversion” is an early articulation of the now commonplace recognition of media’s near total integration into our daily lives. With such saturation, Bender points out, neither the “short-circuiting of reality by the media” nor the “short-circuiting of the media by reality” applies anymore. While that notion seems to cast a pessimistic eye towards an activist-oriented, culture-jamming type of art (Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada’s billboard interventions, for example), it’s not as if Bender gives up altogether on criticality. Instead, she works from a fuller understanding of technology and media’s pervasiveness; there no longer being an outside of mass media to peer in from, artists must adapt. As she writes in “The Perversion of the Visual,” coming close to a statement of purpose: “We run interference patterns in order to perceive structures; in order to transcend them.”
Gretchen Bender, Tracking the Thrill: Installation view; Photo: Jason Mandella / Courtesy The Kitchen.
There were limits, of course, to the extent one could run interference patterns under the auspices of MTV and 20th Century Fox, and while the commercial work demonstrates some truly visionary video editing, Bender’s ambitious, experimental visions come fully to a head with the installations present at “Tracking the Thrill.” Wild Dead (1984) stacks three rows of monitors in a broad arc at staggered depths relative to each other. Bender deluges the viewer with appropriated commercial imagery and footage, slicing back and forth in the same stuttering manner of the music videos. Computer graphics resembling Tron landscapes switch to the title section of a trailer for David Cronenberg’s Videodrome; repeating again and again is the animated logo of the AT&T globe, referred to often by Bender as the “Death Star.” It’s an aural assault as well. Her intensive sound environment features a man starting a sentence over shattering glass and machine gun fire.
The sensory excess is pushed further in Total Recall, originally shown at the Kitchen in 1987. Taking place on the hour in the theater space, Total Recall’s twenty-four monitors and three large panels create a pyramid-like structure. On screen corporate logo animations (this time including the Olympic Rings and ABC News) switch to clips from The Shining and excerpts from network television before shifting to starkly black and white, helix-shaped computer animations that spin wildly. Soundtracked by downtown fixture Stuart Argabright, the accompanying music shifts multiple times over the piece’s eighteen-minute duration, starting and stopping different off-kilter (and still remarkably fresh sounding) techno rhythms.
Gretchen Bender, Total Recall, 1987; Photo: Jason Mandella / Courtesy The Kitchen.
It’s fascinating how well Bender arranges the videos, which brought to mind a sensorium of Vine clips, the social media app consisting of six-second video loops. Her compositions build into something mutant and strange, but still familiar. One thinks of the time spent watching corporate logos unfold, and the weirdly ubiquitous logic of rotation that dominates their movement—Bender’s installations evoke limbos of an infinite wait for something to load. As technology increasingly dictates the use of our time, the deluge of networked objects and media players pervading our public and private space, Bender’s work feels almost prophetic.
(Image on top: Gretchen Bender, Wild Dead, 1984; © Photo: Jason Mandella; Courtesy The Kitchen.)