Emily LaBarge on Gretchen Bender

It was a nice touch, installing Gretchen Bender’s TV Text & Image (Image World Version), 1989, so that it faced the gallery’s front window and the nine bulky wall-mounted CRT monitors were visible from the street, their televised grid flickering with 24-7 live feeds of mainstream media channels. What they were drawing us into was the exhibition “Image World,” which gathered three works made between 1984 and 1990—and a selection of related archival materials—by the Pictures generation artist who died in 2004. Inside, closer to the work, we could read the series of phrases overlaid on the screens in matte-black vinyl, interrupting the current of images like static ticker tape stuck onto the same messages.

Sardonic and disquieting, the appliquéd statements had by turns vexed, ironic, or distressing relationships to the content glowing behind them. GENDER TECHNOLOGY hovered over a home-shopping channel special on velvet dresses, while MILITARY RESEARCH branded the unaptly named Tory Foreign Secretary James Cleverly as he addressed the House of Commons about humanitarian aid to Turkey and Syria. PEOPLE WITH AIDS struck through an ITV2 reality dating show, and I was momentarily mesmerized by a commercial for a stainless-steel and ceramic pet fur trimmer, over which read WHERE TRUTH LIES. TV Text & Image was originally exhibited in the windows of the Donnell Library Center in New York, its pairings of image—live from 1984—with text likewise as varied (or, arguably, as similar: same shit, different day) at diverse hours and for diverse viewers. Here in London, the British media of today feeds the work (cannibalism or coprophagy?), lending its bulky obsolescent technologies an uncanny immediacy.

For Bender, spaces outside the white cube were salient for work that critiqued what she called the “cannibalistic river” of the media, with its “flow or current that absorbs everything.” Wild Dead I, II, III (Danceteria Version), 1984—a two-channel video installation on four monitors stacked in a cube, one turned on its side—was first shown in the nightclub named in its title, at an event hosted by synth-pop band Dominatrix. Bender collaborated with the band’s leader, Stuart Argabright, and his associate Michael Diekmann to produce the work’s glitchy, percussive soundtrack. Gunshots, laser blasts, video-game effects, and shattering glass overlap frantically, giving way to a Cabaret Voltaire–style pulsing dance track. Clips from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and the TV series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983–85), as well as of a cartoon eyeball floating in space and the Statue of Liberty with her torch exploding, are interspersed with kaleidoscopic computer animations and sinister manipulations of media logos: CBS, ABC, and what Bender called the “Death Star,” or AT&T’s swirling “Earth in bondage.” For long periods, the screens are overtaken by an animated head, bald and swaying in the darkness, eyes blank, mouth opening and closing in what looked to me like rapture or ecstasy.

“I use media on its own terms regarding the vastness of its seduction and the inversion of that seduction,” Bender said, articulating the ambivalence behind her manipulations. Her work does not propose judgmental binaries such as good and bad, but, as the title of Aggressive Witness—Active Participant, 1990, suggests, highlights our own complicity. The artist’s critique is aimed not just at the media and its hegemony of corrupt corporate overlords but at viewers—you, me, us—at how we look yet do not really see. If Bender’s multichannel works bombard and assault the senses, they also remind us that it is we who choose what to focus on, interpret, and believe. The future in which technology liberates has not arrived (surprise!) and appears nowhere on the near horizon. The revolution, it seems, really will not be televised, streamed, or live cast on Instagram or TikTok. These media are no substitute for lived experience, and neither is art. In Bender’s work we are simultaneously looking at all three, looking from inside and outside the system, looking at ourselves—animals in and of the image world.

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