GRETCHEN BENDER likely knew better than anyone that her work would be mostly forgotten with time. Erasure was not just her fate, but her subject. The multimedia artist and filmmaker investigated how the violent, relentless stream of electronic moving images was changing the viewing public’s sense of space and time, eroding collective memory. She described this as the “flow of the pulse, the permutations that happen daily, in the culture,”1 a flow she tried to intervene in, disrupt, appropriate, and subvert, in order to help people become more aware of the patterns of power and the mechanisms of control beneath their surface.
While Bender was alive, her artwork was written about extensively by Hal Foster. She made films starring Cindy Sherman and edited music videos for New Order and Megadeth.2 She had shows at the Kitchen and Metro Pictures in New York. But most accounts of Bender concur that she was a pioneer who never got the attention she deserved. When she died of cancer in 2004 at age 53, she had become an obscure figure.
Only in recent years has Bender received more widespread recognition. “So Much Deathless,” a retrospective on view at Red Bull Arts New York, showcases the most demanding and ambitious pieces from her thirty-year career. The exhibition takes pains to establish her importance to a wide network of collaborators, curators, musicians, designers, and artists who, through detailed oral histories available at listening stations throughout the galleries, illuminate her artistic rigor and intentions. These audio recordings are a crucial supportive element of the show, of great value to anyone who wants to know more about the artist. Bender left a scant written record: Culture on the Brink, an essay collection she co-edited with Timothy Druckrey; some artist statements and project proposals; a couple of interviews.
In 1973, after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied printmaking, Bender moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue her passion. She led P Street Paper Works, a Marxist-feminist silkscreen collective, for five years. There, she honed a political and critical position toward what she perceived as dominant images and ideologies. When she moved to New York in 1978, Bender became romantically involved with Robert Longo, and befriended Cindy Sherman, Bill T. Jones, and Eric Bogosian. Working adjacent to this Pictures Generation crowd, she was similarly critical of the sexist, money-worshipping, brand-oriented culture that dominated the art world. Bender worked primarily in sculptures and prints. But eventually she began to experiment with video, mastering her personal style of brutal rapid-fire editing. She did commercial work in the medium, including the title sequence for “America’s Most Wanted.”
Early on, Bender developed a style that replicated the flattening effect of media’s standardized formats. Again and again, she placed images of horror alongside banal images alongside those in a joyful register, muting their tonal differences by reproducing them in equal dimensions and mediums. Take the works in Bender’s series “The Pleasure Is Back” (1982), images silkscreened on tin, displayed in one of the first galleries at Red Bull Arts. In one, a Sol LeWitt sculpture—representing an artistic “brand”—and a Chanel ad bracket a portrait of Bender by Longo. In another, Lichtenstein “brushstrokes” are framed by panels showing a Dove ad: a woman wild with happiness about soap. They look almost shockingly flat. Among the next room’s color laminated photographic prints on masonite is Terminator (1985), where Mickey Mouse holds his red penis and gestures beneath a mouth agape in shock and pain, a mouth belonging to a shooting victim in a film still. The meanings of these two images are colored and complicated by a reproduction of a Barbara Kruger text piece: WE WILL UNDO YOU.
Later works in this vein integrate video. In Flash Art (1987), prints of David Salle’s misogynist representations of the female form—bare legs, buttocks, and abdomens in vulnerable positions—frame a monitor showing a montage of clips of empowered, self-defining, chameleon women like Janet Jackson and Dolly Parton, who play with and appropriate artifice.
The centerpiece of “So Much Deathless” is Total Recall. First shown at the Kitchen in 1987, it was restored for a 2012 exhibition at the Poor Farm, an alternative art space in rural Wisconsin. The piece is a prime example of what Bender called her “electronic theaters,” multichannel works distributed across many screens in intriguing formations. Total Recall features eleven channels playing on three projection screens and twenty-four monitors stacked in a pyramid. At Red Bull Arts, the work is presented in a curtained space with timed entry, where the viewer can be subsumed by its hypnotic symphony of images.
Through significant installations like this, Bender offered a critique of the mindlessness of media. In response to Cindy Sherman’s query about whether she wanted to see the media affected by her work, Bender said:
[blockquote author=”” link=”” target=”_blank”]I don’t think the media is something that listens in the way that we’re talking about. I think of the media as a cannibalistic river. A flow or current that absorbs everything. It’s not “about.” There is no consciousness or mind. It’s about absorbing and converting.3[/blockquote]
In tandem with her critique of media, Bender pursued a strategy to subvert it. Speed and scale were her primary tactics to push her viewers and their vision, to test what and how deeply they could see.
Wild Dead (1984), another piece of electronic theater, had multiple iterations, one of which involved thirty-three screens at the Kitchen. At Red Bull Arts, it is presented in a small two-channel, four-screen version, as Wild Dead I, II, III (Danceteria Version), and jammed into a corner of a side hall. The glitching swirl of the banded globe in the AT&T logo, sometimes couched within funny wireframe graphics by Bender’s friend and collaborator Amber Denker, appears between snips of the title sequence of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Bender called the AT&T logo the “Death Star,” and used it as a symbol of the centralized control of media. She said she would never trust the swirling “earth in bondage.”4