Sep 9, 2013
Among the more intriguing back-stories of Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall, a 24-monitor, three-film-projection installation of what the artist termed “electronic theater”—currently on view at The Kitchen through September 21—is that her work took its name from a film that was only in production at the time. Originally appearing at The Kitchen in 1987, Bender’s endeavor was, in other words, titled “after” a film it nevertheless preceded—namely, Paul Verhoeven’s science-fiction action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which found its release only some three years later. Whatever past the work recalled was only yet to come.
Apparently, Bender (1951–2004) was quite fond of such exercises in ambiguous temporality, regularly scanning Hollywood weeklies and dailies for the names of movies still under development and incorporating their titles into her own video and sculpture. By such means, one could argue, the artist was engaging in a kind of appropriation in advance: If the operation was typically utilized to render more evident the conventions by which meaning is assigned in existing institutional frameworks, from those in mass culture to others within the more limited field of art, Bender was interested in teasing out the very terms of reception as they were being prepared—or better, projected—by the mass media for its various productions. In this context, the artist’s choice of namesake for Total Recall seems peerless for its paradoxical precision, revolving around a plotline where authentic recollections of lived experience are commonly displaced by false, implanted memories. Here, by the time any past might arrive, it would be a kind of projected history encountered only at the service of another’s future.
Such interests help explain the imagery that appears onscreen in Bender’s Total Recall, particularly the near-ubiquitous sampling of computer graphics that were newly arriving on the scene during the late 1980s: special effects designed to disarm the viewer, allowing for the secure passage of information to a mass public, making it seem the stuff of engrained cultural memory. If the earliest efforts in avant-garde abstraction generated similar breaks in narrative to create a critical distance for audiences, here, among the news outlets and entertainment systems Bender engaged, that distance is created and immediately filled. Offering a counterpoint in this vein, Bender’s doubling and redoubling of such graphics across dozens of screens renders these digital manipulations concrete at the same time that they are abstracted from their imposed meaning—as so many corporate logos and introductory interstitials laid bare again within montage sequences, seen in isolation as they might be in the editor’s suite.
And yet, encountered at The Kitchen today roughly a quarter century after its original appearance here, Total Recall’s parallax view necessarily points back at the institution itself, arriving as a figure from its past demanding a reconsideration of the present. Indeed, if appropriation in art is so common today as to seem toothless, Total Recall’s reintroduction of the operation in this contemporary setting recontextualizes its core questions regarding material duplication, site, modes of address, and, as important, audience. To wit, what are the conventions of theater versus gallery, and how may these contexts’ different histories and syntaxes be wielded by artists in their projects, and in a way resonant with developments in culture more generally? How are eyes and ears being prepared to experience or receive whatever is presented within institutional walls, and how, by contrast, might an institution such as The Kitchen assist artists as they engage audiences as partners in the creation of meaning? In other words, how might an institution recall conventions in art that are projections by another name? (And, if there are any concerns about whether such endeavors might be viably pursued today, consider how Bender, as if to pre-empt avant-garde concerns about critical maneuvers being co-opted in the commercial sphere, employed her editing techniques within the latter realm herself—suggesting her belief that there was nevertheless a way to sustain such maneuvers across contexts.)
From its very beginnings, The Kitchen’s program has revolved around the idea that cultural production should be steeped in community—in other words, that an institution in its most meaningful sense consists solely of the people who make it possible, creating and partaking of a platform for dialogue both in and about art. Ideally, in such a setting, artists have the opportunity react to each other both as fellow contributors and as audience members, with their exchanges necessarily taking place across mediums and over extended periods of time. The questions above are just some of the being considered—or recollected, to use Bender’s chosen term—at The Kitchen today. And, with the literal expansion of its site here, we hope you will join us in the project of generating a reflexive sphere for art and its reception in real time.