Retrieving Things Past
December 2015

The decision to bring Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall (1987) to Dublin’s Project Arts Centre is one of the less obvious curatorial ‘statements’ of the year. The Project’s reputation as a venue for visual art is in newish work by emerging artists; but then Bender saw her media installations as a form of theatre which resonates with the arts centre’s other primary function. These factors may have contributed to the decision that followed, the commissioning of Oisín Byrne to create a work to accompany Total Recall. The overall result is an affirmation of theatre space though what is to the fore is that both installations, in different ways, are steeped in visual art practices and concerns. It is important to stress at the outset that while Bender’s work appeals directly to sight and sound the experience is not overwhelming; there is time and space for spectator reflection. As such it invites consideration of the media complex which is at the heart of both the piece and of contemporary life. To make this claim about the significance of the work is not cut and dry. For one thing the technology available to Bender is now obsolescent and the footage she appropriates looks slightly dated—the default attitude today is that nothing is as dated as yesterday’s technology and often ideas about it have an even shorter shelf-life. Yet if anything what Bender addresses is more pertinent than ever.

Byrne’s contribution is more perverse in this respect. He had curtains made which drape the entrance to the gallery, the purpose to block outside light, the idea to cover the curtains with patterns simulating the test-cards, lines, glitches, and so forth visible on the TV screen in pre-digital times. In effect the work is a variation on that metier where mechanically or digitally produced images are re-produced as paintings. In this case the medium is print, which serves to further muddy the waters around Walter Benjamin’s influential essay. Inside, the gallery is arranged after the original installation of Total Recall: a dark space, seating which face a bank of four rows of twenty-four CRT-type TVs and three rear projection screens. These project the visual performance that is Total Recall completed with acutely synchronized sound, an intrinsic and important component. The eighteen-minute video begins with clips taken from eighties advertising of happy family/desirable lifestyle scenarios. The logos of American TV Networks and Corporations appear, most particularly communications giants GE and AT&T, and the General Electric slogan, ‘We bring good things to life’.[1] As Total Recall evolves the video clips become less about the advertisers’ rendition of the good life and more about the destructive uses of technology in, for example, film depicting war zones. While the footage Bender used may have been readily identifiable to an American audience of the time, now these sequences are viewed from a distance; but the point is nonetheless clear.  If the message is less than subtle it is a performance piece that is akin to opera but with connections to actual conditions with profound effects. Moreover, a number of other motifs are weaved through the work which bring to bear themes that are less obvious.

Of these, the most commented on are those which flash titles suggestive of Hollywood all-action movies. Some of the titles are well known, others are not; many never saw the light of day. The titles, in stark white on black and in stark contrast to the advertising imagery she appropriated, draw attention to an industry that involves creation, technique, the fantastic from the sentimental to the violent, and, conspicuously, capital. Which of these prevails in value terms is not entirely predictable and in that sense filmmaking is more diverse in its operations than advertising. Total Recall not only comments on modern, media technology, what it is and what it does, it is also itself a product of that technology. Bender and her co-producers have been complimented on the quality of editing and sound. Extended sequences in Total Recall are of moving, abstract, computer generated forms. At base level these may be interpreted as the mesmerizing effect of visual technology. At another level these may be seen as the abstract nature of social relations in modern life in the Adornian sense. It is also possible to see these abstract forms as standing for technology as self-generating and ‘free’ of human intervention. On these terms Bender’s appropriations from TV and film of actors acting out the good life or all-action drama are simulations, they are severed from the real, but what of the shots of crowds? The latter may be metaphor for the masses but does the inclusion of these shots have any other meaning beyond their context of conspicuous consumption?

Such questions regarding simulacra are synonymous with the art world of the late 1980s. However, it is possible to bring the enquiry towards matters that are, or should be, critical to debate now. In 1992 a conference took place at Dia Foundation in New York that was developed into a book co-edited by Bender and originally published by Bay Press in 1994.[2] While the contents post-date Total Recall by a few years it indicates Bender’s evolving concerns. While she herself did not contribute an essay, her co-editor, Timothy Druckrey, wrote an Introduction that she will have subscribed to. Druckrey’s essay is literally packed with ways in which technology permeates our lives. A flavour includes: technology simulates the experiential in ways that complicate and confound our notions of reality; in the medical system there is a shift from treating disease to work in genetic defect; there is an erosion of distinctions between the speculative and the instrumental and a merging of research, development, and marketing; and, through these developments, culture is being transformed. Druckrey stresses the need but also the difficulty of deconstructing technology, i.e., even when we do think about it, we don’t think about it nearly enough: ‘As the system of technology expands to dominate the regulation of the external world, it also contracts and increasingly penetrates the internal world. The body is unquestionably the next frontier—the body, and then cognition’. If this seemed a little far-fetched in the early 1990s, it shouldn’t seem so now. One doesn’t have to be a technophobe to see that much of it has come to pass. Druckrey makes the point that language adjusts to technology and when one substitutes ‘technology’ with ‘neo-liberalism’ in the above quotation, we might consider the extent to which the worker is being made to conform to technological production. Both Bender and Druckrey pit a world of simulation against a belief in ‘real’ social relations and the tragedy is that their work from a quarter of a century ago underlines the paucity of the manufactured debate of the art world today.


1] It should be noted that while Total Recall is US centred in its choice of material, it was during the 1980s that these Corporations began to globalize and diversify. Art followed suit in the 1990s.

[2] Druckrey in Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey, eds., 1994, Cultures on the Brink: ideologies of technology, Seattle WA, Bay Press, p. 9.