Gretchen Bender: Living with Pain at Wilkinson

Gretchen Bender: Living with Pain at Wilkinson, installation view.

In juxtaposing a very particular selection of works by both artists the gallery hopes to revisit a crucial moment in the mid- 1980s in order to explore its continuing resonance more than 30 years later.

Both artists were engaged with contemporary gender politics at a time when both had many friends who were dying from AIDS. Both raised questions about the transmission of images in various media, especially those relating to war and the politics of the day, at a moment when such images were proliferating as never before. The use of found footage is also fundamental to both practices. Whereas Bender has been affiliated with the influential Pictures Generation in the US, she subverts their simple appropriation strategies. Rather than investing in and contributing to the image bank, her work divested the imagery in circulation of its power and currency. Jarman spoke from his position as a key figure in a new generation of experimental filmmakers in the UK. Text played an essential role in Bender’s work and she used it both as a highly visual and decidedly poetic means to engage the viewer. Jarman’s writing has become legendary and is exemplified in The Last of England through the incorporation into this the wildly innovative film of poetry written during its making in 1986/87.

Gretchen Bender: Living with Pain at Wilkinson, installation view.

In the multi-screen TV Text and Image, 1986, Bender transmits live TV footage, but with extraneous slogans pasted across the screen, as both an engagement with and a critique of the power of television at the time. Of the first of these screens, People with AIDS, Bender remarked, “what I did was make everyone on television have AIDS. I used the phrase ‘People with AIDS’ rather than ‘AIDS Victims’, which was the way the network media was referring to people with AIDS at the time”. Jarman was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, the year he embarked on the making of The Last of England as well as the series of ‘black paintings’ also in this exhibition. His depiction of gay sex is overtly present within the collaged imagery of the film, most poignantly taking place on top of a strung-out Union Jack. This had a powerful resonance in the same year that Clause 28 was enacted by the Thatcher government. Jarman wrote four voice-overs for the film, delivered in a BBC monotone by Nigel Terry. Jarman writes in his memoir Kicking the Pricks: “I’ve written four ‘voice overs’: my reaction to the view from the window of a culture riddled with deathwatch beetle.”

Both Bender and Jarman used a variety of mediums to articulate their ideas and were unapologetically experimental in their use of materials. Bender’s series People in Pain uses crumpled vinyl panels backlit by light blue neon tubes to present a series of movie titles mostly from the period 87/88. (Jarman’s The Last of England was released in 1988). Resembling burnt celluloid film or black rubbish bags they have the same anarchic punch as Jarman’s ‘black paintings’ of the same year. Of similarly modest scale, these canvases have embedded in the dark mire of their tortured surfaces choice selections from the detritus of everyday living – crushed coke can, a discarded geometry compass, a smashed light bulb – pulled together into brooding compositions sometimes overlaid with gnomic texts, sometimes not.

Bender’s work Untitled (Landscape, Computer Graphics, Death Squad), 1987, presents a violent photographic image of dead bodies next to computer-generated abstractions. In Bender’s words “The work is about how we allow ourselves to see and, simultaneously, not to see the sociopolitical landscape we’ve created for ourselves. We know we fund the death squads in El Salvador, but we never have to see the dead bodies, or we see the aestheticized versions of them through photographs. I want us to feel how disturbing it is that we flatten our politics of death through visual representation.” Jarman also places images of war and destruction at the center of his film, but the found imagery is taken from his own family home movies. Cut in between a post-apocalyptic landscape, reflected also in the brutal handling of the materials in his paintings, the contrasting imagery grounds the film in a real world. Rather than exoticizing the imagery of war, he drags it violently into a residually domestic setting. The use of found imagery by both artists is at once a reflection on the contemporary politics of the 1980s and a timeless commentary on images of war and destruction.

Wilkinson Gallery would like to thank the Gretchen Bender Estate for their help and support with this exhibition.

Gretchen Bender: Living with Pain at Wilkinson, installation view.

On the occasion of Gretchen Bender’s 1991 retrospective at The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, curator Peter Doroshenko and Bender spoke at length about the work contained in this comprehensive mid-career show, as well as Bender’s larger oeuvre. That conversation, originally published in the Everson’s exhibition catalog, is reprinted here.

Peter Doroshenko: Your work deals with three important topics: information, interference and abstraction. With so many information systems working at once, how does any one idea translate itself to the viewer?

Gretchen Bender: I want the viewer to be aware that there are complex systems in operation, as opposed to any single idea that I may wish to get across which might obscure the interplay of these elements. There are several things involved in the attempt to accomplish this. I allow fascination, ambivalence, and horror to operate in my work, creating interference patterns in order to perceive and explore structures. The viewer, in negotiating this, develops an awareness of so-called information systems operating culturally. I also believe that an acceleration into, rather than a resistance to, our multi-layered visual environment will reveal structures or open windows to the development of a critical consciousness we can’t yet perceive as useful from within our immediate vantage point.

PD: At what level do you use anti-proprietary values when using appropriation?

GB: Whenever I see something that I want to incorporate into a piece of mine, I assume the right to use it because it’s part of the public environment. My work involves setting up a dialogue with this environment. I interact with, interpret, and re-present information. I believe in my right to exhibit whatever I feel expresses a relationship between cultural politics and images.

PD: In your earlier work, including Aramis Man and Woman and the Pleasure is Back series of images, you relied on the photo-silk-screening process for making images. Was this because this process has a mass-produced quality that lends itself to media imagery? Or because it lends itself to a larger audience.

GB: Both, plus a third thing: I had earned my living as a silk-screener and I had silk-screening equipment but no money, so silk-screening was the cheapest thing to use. But what was really important about it was that it was a mass media tool. That I had printed on sigh-tin was an important indication of my attitude. I was viewing them as signs, scans, a sign-language.

PD: Was television the next step after silk screens?

GB: I was influenced by the early “appropriation artists” of the eighties, like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince and others. Yet, I realized that those artists dealt with reprinted still photography, and television seemed to me the more visually overwhelming environment we lived in. I started to do work with TV in early 1982. I wasn’t at the time aware of Dara Birnbaum’s seminal work, Technology/ Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1980. I also accessed the imagery and the context of TV to make my work. However, I started by putting the film positives from my silk-screened images over the face of the TV so that the broadcast flow of pictures across the screen continually interacted with the static transparency adhered to the screen. The visual combinations mutated relentlessly. The TV imagery became recharged psychologically and became an interactive forum for the viewer. This was a very critical step in my development.

PD: Why did you decide to work with the concept of television? Because of its flexibility as a source for images to be reprocessed and re-contextualized?

GB: To fully contextualize it! Television is so central to mass culture. I thought artists needed to engage in it more directly — television rather than video — a very important distinction. The video art of the seventies became ghettoized in the eighties art world. But it was television that had to be brought into a broader critical consciousness.

PD: You have stated before that a television screen’s single plane of equivalent information flow has the curious ability to make politics entertainment and aesthetics fascist. Can you expand on this?

GB: I want to heighten the awareness of how compromised the single plane of television is. No matter how fragmented it is, TV seamlessly promotes its fiction as politics and its politics as entertainment. Television is an incredible combination of editing techniques and disjunctions that are covered over by this smooth flow of transitory images. When you look at the one screen, you cannot compare or contrast what you are seeing with anything else. There’s one source coming at you which presumes the authority of its viewpoint. Yet, if you have several TVs going at once, you can see the structures and watch it with more critical consciousness. So, instead of a single political message getting through, you watch multiple screens revealing complexity, contradiction and manipulation of political viewpoints.

Gretchen Bender: Living with Pain at Wilkinson, installation view.

PD: When watching television, so many viewers are used to have their minds controlled by a program or advertisement. How do your television pieces that incorporate silk-screened images or text on the TV screens work on an audience’s subconscious? Are they meant to work subliminally?

GB: I want you to become consciously aware of the association that your mind seems to be making unintentionally. Putting a static image on top of an active television screen triggers contradictory responses in the viewer’s mind. It’s a truly interactive form of television. The viewer is able to make associations — political, social, emotional and humorous — through the interlacing of moving and static images or texts.

PD: Are these associations something that can be brought up by the viewer at a later time?

GB: Yes. In Dumping Core, for example, I “stuttered” the AT&T TV logo. You could sense a compelling abstract fascism in its form. I felt that I had done what I had wanted to do: to break down the message coming from AT&T and complicate it visually so the viewer could never watch it psychologically in a simple way again as “the right choice”. It’s what I want my work to do — make it so that when you see familiar images you’re unable to think of them in the same familiar way, and when you receive a visual message, you recognize its propaganda value.

PD: How successful has your work been in analyzing television and its power structure?

GB: I haven’t analyzed the corporate power structure except to infiltrate it in order to subvert the power structure of the programming.

PD: What effect do you see your work having on the larger media system?

GB: Now that artists aren’t as culturally visible as they were in the eighties, they might not have the potential for having the impact they did then. I see my commercial work in TV as making an impact, I think, on a grassroots level; it’s important, especially if I do public installations like the one I did for the Donnell Library, where I positioned the TV text pieces in the library’s window and passersby could watch them. In my more commercial work, like the intros to America’s Most Wanted, I participate and try to change certain stereotypes.

PD: Do you try to slip in information?

GB: Given certain material that is violent, racist, and sexist, I try to make it a little less violent, less racist and less sexist. I’m still involved in a kind of questionable propaganda, but one small step makes a difference. At first, I turned down work because of all the complications and all of the incredible decisions you have to make about what you’re promoting. But, I decided to do it because I had a way to do what I considered socially positive propaganda.

PD: In the work Flash Art there are various levels of reprocessed art and video images and information. How much of that aggressive appropriation deals with power and gender representation?

GB: In Flash Art, I took five David Salle paintings and made a photo composition of them. I took two hours of women performers on TV and edited their songs back to back. So you watched women performers on TV through the frame of David Salle paintings. I was combining the “elite” power of one of the most popular painters in the “high art” world with the “low art” of mass commercial entertainment. So, women are being depicted by high art and women are depicting themselves in mass-cultural performance art. You see the complexity, the misogyny, and at the same time, you might see humor. You see how women are representing themselves and at the same time, you wonder whether their director or producer was a man. Is their erotic presentation of themselves different from the way a man would represent them? How much of their performance is a result of thousands of years of patriarchal conditioning? This brings up many complicated issues about gender representation and the question of whether women are depicted in misogynistic form.

PD: In the work Untitled (Relax), you used a violent photographic image of a dead body with a live television and an abstract computer-generated panel beneath it. Was this to remind us of the visual diet we exist on when watching television? An examination of why we feed ourselves this kind of horrific imagery?

GB: Yes, that’s it. The highest end of our visual imagination, what I call visual expansion, is depicted through mathematics and the low end — photographers photographing death squad victims. We fund both projects that provide these visuals. I want us to acknowledge our participation with this visual surface.

PD: What taboos are you trying to break?

GB: This work is about how we allow ourselves to see, and simultaneously, not to see the socio-political landscape we’ve created for ourselves. We know we fund the death squads in El Salvador, but we never have to see the dead bodies, or we see the aestheticized versions of them through photographs. I want us to feel how disturbing it is that we flatten our politics of death through visual representation.

PD: Your TV Text works have become an important part of your critique on the electronic media. Which television phrases have been the most effective?

GB: I think the most successful was the first one, in 1985 or 1986, entitled People With AIDS. At that time, even though AIDS was an epidemic, it was seen as isolating certain individuals and was totally ignored as the crisis that it is for all of us as human beings, as communities, as cultures. So what I did was make everyone on television have AIDS. I used the phrase “People With AIDS” rather than “AIDS Victims,” which was the way network media was referring to people with AIDS at the time, so that we all have AIDS, to get across the idea that this is something that affects all of us. We are all in this together. Another one is Body Ownership. No matter what is seen on TV, the question of self-ownership arises. How does race, class, gender affect or perceptions of body ownerships? Who really gets to own their body? Narcotics of Surrealism is another favorite of mine because it makes you aware of all the special effects and aggressively juxtaposed images on television. Clearly, TV is a visual special effects system, but rather than its image juxtapositions startling the viewer (shocking the bourgeoisie) into socio-psychological revelation, as art historical surrealism accomplished, TV manages to elide all of its disparate conjunctions into a surrealistic “narcotic”.

PD: What is your interest and why do you incorporate video printout strips in your work? Is it the next logical technological step after the television and the VCR?

GB: When I first started using video printout strips I used black-and-white video printouts with a Mitsubishi printer. It was quite interesting that Mitsubishi would try to promote a still-image system developed with the televisions as its image source output. People could “grab” snapshots from the virtual landscape of TV as they could “grab” snapshots of people, places, or objects in the external world. TV reality would more fully mimic external reality, but the replicating of a replication by the video printout contributions to a perception of a virtual world as containing an actual reality. When I originally approached it, I was interested in the idea that I could do flat art in a gallery, and I could have video printouts next to that, as a reminder that this is a flow of images that we saw on TV. It was a way if being able to pin down, freeze frame, what we’re watching on television — a continuous surreal visual environment.


Gretchen Bender: Living with Pain at Wilkinson

50-58 Vyner Street E2 9DQ

 to Jul 16, 2017


Writing and interview via press release provided by Wilkinson Gallery

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