Gretchen Bender

Total Recall


Not on display

Gretchen Bender 1951–2004
Video, 24 monitors, 3 projections, colour and sound (stereo)
Duration: 18min
Presented by the Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of the North American Acquisitions Committee 2016, accessioned 2021


Total Recall 1987 is an installation lasting just over eighteen minutes and comprising twenty-four television monitors and three projections on large screens. The work has a start and end time akin to a theatre event and each screening is separated by a short break, rather than being looped. The television monitors are arranged in four rows in a pyramid structure with the large projection screens at the two bottom corners and at the top. The monitors are arranged on plinths receding into the space as they grow in height: the lowest layer of monitors on the floor is a few metres nearer the viewer than the fourth and highest layer. Across the twenty-four monitors there are eight channels of content determining the maximum number of different images at any one time; the material projected onto the screens is in addition to these channels. The footage is choreographed very carefully. Images flash on the monitors simultaneously, or repeat in different parts of the pyramid, or appear to move across the whole structure. The images are accompanied by drone music composed by Stuart Argabright. Bender took the images from recordings from network television programmes and from television adverts. She also animated corporate logos, produced animated title images for yet-to-be released Hollywood movies, and worked with computers to create some abstract images based on 3-D polygons. Total Recall predates by three years the Hollywood film of the same name featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. News stories about the production of the film were circulating in 1987, and Bender’s decision to pre-appropriate a title from the film was part of her subversive approach to mainstream entertainment media.

Bender’s earlier work was very much associated with the ‘Pictures’ generation and had been based on appropriated images of paintings by other artists and of media images, silkscreened or printed on tin. She began working with television footage in 1983. Total Recall was Bender’s most ambitious work and was originally shown at The Kitchen in New York in May 1987, where it was billed as an ‘Electronic Theatre’. Bender was aided in the production of the work by her then studio assistant, artist Rirkrit Tirivanija (born 1961); the material was edited largely by hand pressing buttons on and off, and the entirety of the piece was only revealed when first installed. Tirivanija has recalled: ‘When she was working on it we had the two editing monitors and then maybe a small house television and then at some point, slowly these TVs started to show up. So she was really editing the whole thing, basically, on three televisions. None of it was actually played together until we came to The Kitchen.’ (Rirkrit Tirivanija, in ‘Panel Discussion at The Kitchen: Dara Birnbaum, Hal Foster, Tim Griffin, Robert Longo and Rirkrit Tirivanija’, in Vanderhyden 2014, p.80.)

The artist’s aim in the work was to produce a powerful critique of the way television and computer graphics function in mainstream media, to entertain and pacify viewers and create consensus. According to Bender, Total Recall ‘doesn’t critique consumerism in the form of the material commodity, but consumerism as the consuming of ideologies’ (quoted in Peter Doroshenko, ‘Interview with Gretchen Bender’, Gretchen Bender: Work 1981–1991, reprinted in Vanderhyden 2014, p.55). She wanted to ‘make it so that when you see familiar images you’re unable to think of them in the same familiar way’ (ibid., p.51). Instead of doing this by isolating a single image and cropping it in an unusual way or surrounding it with text (as in the work of contemporaries such as Barbara Kruger or Richard Prince), Bender decided to use repetition, motion and the seductiveness of television. In Total Recall, viewers would not only look at mass media images in new ways but, part-immersed in a spectacle, they would understand how mass media functions to create desires and other affects that they would simultaneously experience and analyse. She explained: ‘I wanted to use the media against itself – to have it be entertaining and critical simultaneously. I wanted to see how far I could push using the seduction of the imagery from television and computer graphics without going over the edge.’ (Ibid., p.54.)

These strategies put Bender at some distance from critical practices of the 1970s which imagined the viewer as a subject who could share with the artist a critical analysis from a position outside the spectacle. Richard Serra’s (born 1939) Television Delivers People 1973 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), for instance, tackled the workings of American commercial television but adopted a deadpan visual style of rolling text, accompanied by absurd ‘muzak’, viewed on a single small monitor. By the time she made Total Recall, Bender would have also known the work of Dara Birnbaum (born 1946), who was also appropriating television footage; but whereas Birnbaum was comfortable with single or two-channel pieces (for instance, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman 1978–9 [Museum of Modern Art, New York]), Bender decided to make a more theatrical work whose spatial structure (the tiered pyramid) had affinities with ancient Egyptian architecture and even with Fascist parade grounds. For Bender, to tackle television, it was necessary to ‘infiltrate and mimic the mainstream media’. As she continued in a conversation with fellow artist Cindy Sherman (born 1954) in 1987, recorded while she was working on Total Recall:

I’m trying to create an overview of an environment and at this point I’m not able to do it on one channel so I create a theatrical exposition of it with multiple channels. In the past three years, I’ve surrounded myself and the audience with an environment and then turned up the voltage – to create a criticality. 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.
(In Sherman 1987,, accessed 10 August 2015.)

Over the eighteen minutes of Total Recall, Bender used many different editing devices and sequenced the footage in various ways. One sequence representative of both her editing strategies and her intentions regarding the appropriated material was described by critic Carol Martin when she reviewed Total Recall at The Kitchen in 1987:

Without warning there was a barrage of commercial images. Playing repeatedly in takes a few seconds long were a series of shots that were clipped before the product message. People greeted one another in a manner that involved friendship, warmth, love and home. This was about the person side of the media’s myth about American life. The series should have achieved narrative closure with a glowing ‘GE brings good things to life.’ This is where Bender intervened. What the spectators actually saw were the sequence of the GE commercial run backwards. Thus the intended message of the images was totally negated. This was further complicated by the multiplication of images on the 24 monitors. Actions and people turned into an abstract visual landscape of shape, color [sic.] and motion.
(Carol Martin, ‘Gretchen Bender: Total Recall, The Kitchen’, High Performance, 1987, issue 38, pp.70–1.)

Bender was not just interested in negating the messages of commercials, however, but in revealing how they constructed a sense of permanence of life and time. As she worked on her raw material, she became aware of the collapse of temporality in television: ‘I started discovering things that we were saying to ourselves – about a nostalgia for an American heartland that never was; about a simultaneity of the past, present and future; how nothing ever dies.’ (Quoted in Peter Doroshenko, ‘Interview with Gretchen Bender’, Gretchen Bender: Work 1981–1991, reprinted in Vanderhyden 2014, p.54.) Playing material over and over again, forwards and backwards, was a way of visualising stasis in a hyperbolic way, and thereby pointing towards the way commercial television aimed to construct a sense of permanence and immortality. She stated: ‘I’m trying to examine what it is we’re really promoting to ourselves - the cultural lies, the cultural anxieties, the cultural truths.’ (Ibid.)

The inclusion of film footage on the three large screens, originally projected from 16mm and now digitised, is another important component of Total Recall. Some of the film footage seems to have been recorded by Bender herself (rather than being taken from existing television material) and features crowds of people walking in Manhattan. For critic and historian Hal Foster, this material recalls ‘the first footage and film ever [by] the Lumière Brothers of just people walking’. (Hal Foster, in ‘Panel Discussion at The Kitchen: Dara Birnbaum, Hal Foster, Tim Griffin, Robert Longo and Rirkrit Tirivanija’, in Vanderhyden 2014, p.90.) The juxtaposition of the material on the screen and the material on the monitors suggests, for Foster, that in Total Recall Bender also reflected on ‘what film could have been and what it turned into … There’s real nuance in this piece about different moments of film, different moments of video, different moments of montage.’ (Ibid.)

Also significant is the ending of the installation. Recordings of fireworks play out across the screens, but in reverse, as Bender rewound the material. The ending therefore gives a visual sense of a spectacle collapsing on itself. Dara Birnbaum has described this moment: ‘All the fireworks are withdrawing themselves, it’s like a sense of entropy pulling in the thing that should be the most explosive out.’ (Dara Birnbaum, in ibid., p.82.)

The critical importance of Total Recall was recognised very early on. Introducing an exhibition of the work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston in 1988, Jonathan Crary, now Meyer Schapiro Professor of History of Art at Columbia University, wrote:

Researchers have shown that television is probably most powerful when the eye is immobile for long periods of time … Total Recall completely prevents this possibility. Bender’s setup forces us to become active, critical viewers whose eyes continually move from one screen to another, never resting, never becoming hypnotized. She allows us a glimpse of the awesome fascination of television, almost submerges us in it, but simultaneously preserves for us the autonomous position of stimulated, alert, and analytical observers … Bender does not approach television as a medium that distorts or falsifies a view of the true or real world. She explores how television produces rather than represents a world of experience that, increasingly, becomes more real than so-called everyday life.
(Jonathan Crary, ‘Gretchen Bender: Total Recall’, in Contemporary Art Museum, Houston 1988, unpaginated.)

Total Recall is increasingly recognised as a masterpiece of 1980s video art. Hal Foster has recently pointed to the uniqueness of Bender’s position in the context of the ‘Pictures’ generation, differentiating her from artists mainly concerned with appropriating existing art works or adverts:

When Gretchen took appropriation into a very expanded field, in her milieu appropriation was still mostly about art, maybe film. It was bound up in a particular critique but she took it out towards the military entertainment complex. Even though we didn’t use that term then, she was onto it before the rest of us. She also, rather than resist these effects, wanted to accelerate them. I think her strategy was one of mimetic excess, to see if one could actually speed up the spectacle and somehow go through it.
(Hal Foster, in ‘Panel Discussion at The Kitchen: Dara Birnbaum, Hal Foster, Tim Griffin, Robert Longo and Rirkrit Tirivanija’, in Vanderhyden 2014, p.80.)

After Bender’s death, the extant works from her estate (including Total Recall) and original master-tapes for her video theatre from the 1980s were deposited with the Mint Museum, North Carolina. In 2012, academic and curator Michelle Grabner worked with curator artist Philip Vanderhyden to reconstruct the work, which has been sanctioned by the Estate of Gretchen Bender as an edition of five. This is the second in the edition; the first is held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The installation of the work is guided by the layout employed at The Kitchen in New York and a schematic diagram prepared by Bender in 1987 which gives a sense of the spatial relationship between each screen.

Further reading
‘Gretchen Bender by Cindy Sherman’, Bomb magazine, 1 January 1987,, accessed 10 August 2015.
Jonathan Crary, ‘Gretchen Bender: Total Recall’, in Gretchen Bender: Total Recall, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Art Museum, Houston 1988, unpaginated.
Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam (eds.), Gretchen Bender: Tracking the Thrill, Poor Farm, Waupaca County, Wisconsin 2013.
Philip Vanderhyden, Gretchen Bender: People in Pain, New York 2014.

Mark Godfrey
August 2015

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