Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless opens at RedBull Arts New York on Wednesday March 6 through July 28.
For some, it’s the hoverboards. For others, the Trumpian figure of Biff Tannen. For me, the banal futurism of 1989’s Back to the Future Part II truly clicks when Marty McFly Jr. turns on the TV. He stands facing the screen, which is crooked, and instructs a Siri-Alexa forebear to put on “channels 18, 24, 63, 109, 87, and the Weather Channel.” Images flicker across the single screen, which has the look and dimensions of a flat-screen Samsung or LG. And then, once the screen is populated, he tries to straighten it out, as you would a painting. He fails, and it slides back into its crooked position.
Five years before Back to the Future II was in theaters, the New York-based artist Gretchen Bender debuted Wild Dead, a two-channel video looped across four small television monitors. One is flipped on its side. Watching Wild Dead, the viewer is in cyberpunk freefall: a pixelated purgatory of synth beats and collaged gunshots, of frames scraped from pop culture (Videodrome, He-Man), corporate imagery (Saul Bass’s recently unveiled AT&T logo; which Bender referred to as the Death Star), or just the tracer rounds of international conflicts framed by news channel producers, scorching eyeballs in living rooms across America.
Bender had long been drawn to a radical redeployment of visual culture. Cutting her teeth in a Marxist-Feminist silkscreen collective in Washington, D.C., the 27-year-old artist moved to New York in 1980, falling in with Pictures Generation artists Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Robert Longo, who she dated and collaborated with for the next decade. She went on to forge new connections between the art world and popular culture. Though she initially exhibited static images—her The Pleasure is Back series combined details of David Salle and A.R. Penck paintings along with ads that resembled, say, the shower scene in Psycho—Bender soon moved toward the moving image: finding there a closer kinship to mass culture.
Bender understood the tractor-beam pull of broadcast media, the allure of advertising, and the slick power of corporate imagery. She eulogized our submission to the flow, and stoked our repulsion of it. As one of her earliest multi-channel video work, Wild Dead was a sketch of things to come. There were at least five iterations of the video known, and Bender, installed it in venues ranging from the East Village gallery International with Monument to the Donnell Library Center’s Meet the Makers series. The edit here was originally screened at the legendary nightclub Danceteria as part of a party hosted by her collaborator Stuart Argabright’s brief, chart-topping project Dominatrix.
"Working on music videos for R.E.M., New Order, and Megadeth—often in collaboration with Robert Longo—and designing the title sequence to America’s Most Wanted, [Gretchen Bender] applied the criticality of theory and art world production to the raw material of mainstream entertainment."
Wild Dead prefaced her acclaimed Electronic Theater pieces: monumental installations of stacked screens that blasted viewers with Orwellian image flows. Its liberal appropriation of mass culture set the stage for Bender’s commercial work. She designed for music videos and network television, putting her mark on mass culture forever. Working on music videos for R.E.M., New Order, and Megadeth—often in collaboration with Longo—and designing the title sequence to America’s Most Wanted, she applied the criticality of theory and art world production to the raw material of mainstream entertainment. The result was intoxicatingly subversive and attractive.
Wild Dead gets at the thanatotic return of media addiction—from channel surfing to Swipe Up For More. Meanwhile, its physicality rightfully insists on the place of images in our lives: These are not mere screens, they are objects: chunky monitors, nearly cubic, installed in the gallery floor. Which is perhaps one reason why the top left monitor is on its side.
One thing that Bender’s work teaches is a resistance to passive viewership. The act of simultaneously watching multiple channels or screens initially feels like a juggling act, an impressive balance of inputs, a transcendence of signal over noise. At first, multitasking seems impressive, extraordinary, cool. But give it a while. It gets old. The eyes gloss over, the exhausted subject succumbs to the influx, whatever it may be. Bender complicates, disrupts. Her rapid-fire approach to editing takes the tools of filmic continuity, of motion pictures’ realism effect, and accelerates it to breakdown. The flow is violent, her work suggests. And with that flipped-over monitor, her work suggests that not only does the flow erodes the subjective ramparts of its audience. It will itself break down.
Five years after Bender flipped that one screen on its side, Marty McFly Jr. tries to straighten out his own. Her influence. The image, having promised transcendence, chaffs against its physical container. Bender, who died in 2004 at the age of 53, would have found much to consider in our era of people walking down the street, phones in hand, heads tilted awkwardly down, retinas scanning the unremitting flow.
Hunter Braithwaite is a Brooklyn-based writer and the editorial director of affidavit. He is completing an MFA in fiction at NYU.