Slip Away in The Flickering: Gretchen Bender’s IMAGE WORLD

Installation View of TV Text & Image series, 2023. Photo by Pei-Shin Hung. Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers, London.

Sprüth Magers, London

February 3 – 25 March, 2023

By Crystal Li

The walls of CRT monitors broadcasting live television incessantly set you up to an optical battlefield. Without the accompanying soundtracks, your sense of sight is unprecedentedly amplified, generating hyper sensitivity and attention to what comes to your eyes. Welcome to IMAGE WORLD at Sprüth Magers, London, the gallery’s first solo exhibition for Gretchen Bender.

Image World presents Bender’s significance as a ‘guerrilla’ to the Pictures Generation, anchoring her critical edge over television as a rivalling numerator to media culture, politics, and society. “I thought in the early 80s you guys had done such important work on the print media—the photograph. And it seemed like the next area to similarly deconstruct was television,” she said in a 1987 interview with Cindy Sherman. All exhibited works use live television streams or clips as the source material and vary by the ascending level of intervention and editing.

When TV Text & Image series on the ground floor has meticulously chosen, mostly politicized phrases applied to the screens to superimpose over the images, Aggressive Witness – Active Participant, 1990, on the first floor follows in addition with a sinister soundtrack and a computer-generated undulating white line graphics coming from four of the twelve monitors. Wild Dead, 1984, in the final room, radiates a sci-fi colour to the assemblage of monitor, graphics, and sound. Here, Bender juxtaposes the aggressive, pulsating montage of computer-generated motion graphics and appropriated news clips of missile firing and corporate idents with a synthetic soundtrack of yelps and gunshots, commencing her signature type of installation characterized by stacked monitors and fragmented audio-visuals, titled ‘Electronic Theaters.’

Installation View of TV Text & Image series, 2023. Video by Crystal Li. Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers, London.

These works are Bender’s embodied investigation of how the people at her time simultaneously consumed and were consumed by the mainstream media when the then-now cultural landscape was encroached upon by corporate power. Now, television has already dissolved into handy smart gadgets seemingly advancing for more autonomous and individualistic browsing and streaming. These ‘media-oriented artworks’ from the 80s-90s are now in their fate of ‘a temporal limit to its meaningfulness in the culture’ predicted (and accepted) by Bender, also in her interview with Sherman. In this sense, how differently can we re-read her works at Sprüth Magers in 2023 to restore their strength in the present tense?

“I’ll mimic the media—but I’ll turn up the voltage on the currents so high that hopefully, it will blast criticality out there,” Bender declared the mimicking of structure as her infiltrating tactic to scrutinize and criticize the mass media.  She is both an insightful observer and an ingenious constructor of experience. Viewing Bender’s works aside from the recurring interpretation of corporate-thick content particularly striking in the 80s, puncturing them purely by our on-site viewing experience allows us to rejuvenate her works in today’s algorithm-heavy media landscape.

Aggressive Witness – Active Participant, 1990. Photo by Crystal Li. Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers, London.

Rather than delving into the well-explored sense of overload in her by-now-signature ‘theatrical exposition of multiple channels’, as evoked in Wild Dead, the illusionary visual effects of disappearing and collapsing only available to in-the-gallery viewing fiercely capture both my eyes and my mind. In TV Text & Image series and Aggressive Witness – Active Participant, the all-caps phrases in black vinyl text stamped center-screen only reveal themselves to the viewers upon closer examination. Otherwise, they disappear into the moving images beneath. Our attention to the phrases in reverse does dilute the live television broadcasts at the back but very often, we are distracted by the ceaselessly fleeting images and ‘blind’ to the phrases upholding political importance. While I was there, PEOPLE WITH AIDS faded into teleshopping when HOMELESS lost to a talk show re-run. The optical illusion of disappearing further aggravates into collapsing. Our sole focus on one screen triggers the flickering of screens surrounding, except the four playing computer-generated geometric graphics. If not being watched or contentless, both the phrases and the moving images of the remaining screens slip away in the flickering.

Bender’s manipulation of our retina resembles the hegemonic nature of every public space, as put forward by Chantel Mouffe in Which Public Space for Critical Artistic Practices? ‘public spaces are always striated and hegemonically structured.’ The spotlight is always exclusively occupied, expelling the others out of the beam of light because public attention is forever limited. Technological transformations in the past decades have usurped television’s dominance, in which social media has replaced mass media and arisen as one of the most heated public spaces. In the explosion of content, competition ‘to be seen’ is no longer natural when it is heavily charged by algorithms — social media’s closest ally. In the digital domain, visibility establishes a marker of recognition and validity.

The gaze on social media is channelled by algorithms, which feeds back ‘the visible’ with more exposure in a close circuit, eventually trapping us in filter bubbles. It is how one’s current interest in fashion and cosmetics automatically closes the gate for her to ANTI-APARTHEID, NUCLEAR WARHEADS SEX PANIC, etc, and in return ‘rewards’ her with more exposure to tempting content on beauty. An algorithm, as a personalized searching configuration, is indeed an arbitrary, rigid programming pre-emptively rejecting alternativity and possibility on our account. Not only does algorithmic visibility deprive our right to a conscious selection, but it also strangles/restricts the digital living space of all visual content along with their embedded discourses and ideologies. 

“We need to stay alert to the political implications of the conceptual evolutions of our newer technologies,” Bender’s cautionary reminder is timeless. Inside Sprüth Magers, the option of what to watch is still entirely available to us. Yet, in reality, the algorithmically sorted social media has quietly cancelled out the option by fixating/narrowing our eyes to only what it thinks we should see. What will slip away in the flickering has already been dictated, yet, in the name of us.

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