Little Wolf, WI

Gretchen Bender, Total Recall, 1987, eight-channel video on twenty-four monitors and two rear-projection screens, sound, 18 minutes 2 seconds. Installation view.

Gretchen Bender, Total Recall, 1987, eight-channel video on twenty-four monitors and two rear-projection screens, sound, 18 minutes 2 seconds. Installation view.

Gretchen Bender

The Poor Farm

Gretchen Bender, Total Recall, 1987, eight-channel video on twenty-four monitors and two rear-projection screens, sound, 18 minutes 2 seconds. Installation view.

Seeing video art as “ghettoized [by] the eighties art world,” Gretchen Bender (1951–2004) described herself not as a video artist, but as a visual artist working with television as her material. It is in part because of this wary definition of her practice—one rooted in a commitment to art’s “public vision”—that Bender’s work remains so important today. Thanks to curator Philip Vanderhyden, a survey of the artist’s commercial output and two of her central installations from the 1980s can be experienced firsthand in “Tracking the Thrill,” an exhibition of Bender’s videos on view this year at Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam’s experimental art space in rural Wisconsin.

The highlight of this exhibition, and the work that best exemplifies Bender’s famed notion of “electronic theater,” is Total Recall, 1987—a striking eight-channel installation in a black-box setting of twenty-four TV monitors and two rear-projection screens. In this 2012 iteration, the piece is shown on DVD and projected video, a contemporary translation of the magnetic tape and film used for the work’s 1987 debut at the Kitchen in New York. While Bender’s original mixture of formats was critical to her conception of the piece, the artist was interested in how her work, which she characterized as “media-orientated,” would soon “lose [its] force.”

At the core of Total Recall is a selection of animated 3-D renderings of corporate logos (AT&T, NBC, GE, etc.) that Bender appropriated from broadcast television and juxtaposed with abstract computer-generated forms made by her friend the New York–based artist Amber Denker. Opening with a run of Denker’s graphics, a sequence of television ads for Walkmans and camcorders (played in slow motion, backward) follows. The swiveling camerawork of the commercials mimics the spatial modeling of the logos, which flash regularly throughout the roughly eighteen-minute piece. Occasionally, all monitors cut to black and computer line drawings stutter in unison to an electronic score by post-punk musician Stuart Argabright, whose off-kilter proto-techno sounds skew from sci-fi sound track to club hit. (It should be noted that while Bender showed with Metro Pictures, she chose to exhibit her videos in public spaces. For instance, Wild Dead, 1984, the other video installation on view here, was “performed” that year at Danceteria.) Building on the line drawings in Total Recall, Bender added manipulated clips from Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986). As the movie shots are interrupted by spectacular side-wipes, viewers are transported from Hollywood’s portrayal of war in Central America to non-spaces containing glimmering logos. Dramatizing the film/television complex’s narcotic visualizations, Bender amplifies the editing procedures by which the mass media “flatten our politics of death.” Though Paul Verhoeven wouldn’t release his Philip K. Dick–inspired fantasy Total Recall until 1990, Vanderhyden notes in his catalogue essay that Bender frequently incorporated names of forthcoming films in her work. Here the title can be seen as a pejorative riff on the corporate ownership of “expanded consciousness,” even as Bender’s work knowingly aims to produce the same.

A selection of the artist’s commercial output installed on the second floor adds context. In music videos directed by Robert Longo and edited by Bender, including one for New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” (1986), we see pixelated color glitches created by Bender and live-action animations of Longo’s drawings embellished with split-screen effects. Meanwhile, two wall-size projections—the video for Megadeth’s “Peace Sells” (1986) and the title sequence from the first season of America’s Most Wanted (1988)—stand as clear examples of Bender’s innovative rapid-fire editing.

“Style gets absorbed really fast by the culture,” Bender would note in a 1987 interview with Cindy Sherman, recognizing that artists were an active agent of this process. In light of this, “Tracking the Thrill” could be criticized for charting too simple a trajectory of recuperation. From cyberpunk notions of “electronic theater” to the control society of America’s Most Wanted, Bender’s work remains emphatically difficult, ambiguous, and far from foreclosed.

Solveig Nelson