‘We Bring Good Things to Life’ - so goes the General Electric mantra, repeated so as to approach its pernicious inverse in Gretchen Bender’s ‘Total Recall’ (1987). In its current presentation at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, Bender’s work is startling in its prescience. Her work, described by Hal Foster as a kind of ‘mimetic excess,’ tracks our deep complicity as both witnesses and co-conspirators in the spectacle of war. Here, as in 1987, the work is shown on twenty-four TV monitors and three screens, creating a sensation primarily of the body rather then being a solely visual experience. Over a brief but extreme eighteen minutes, its effect is one of being acted upon: seized, almost.
Comprising clips appropriated from saccharine advertisements, street scenes, and movies, alongside blank infographics, almost sublime in their studied lack of signification, the work attempts to figure some kind of totality. Over these twenty-seven screens, each fastidiously edited as part of a narrative, a sense of hallucinatory omniscience is realised. Indeed the staggering effort involved in making the work – how to even edit while picturing the work in its entirety – speaks to the impossibility of figuring Total Recall’s context: namely, the entanglement of entertainment and passivity, with systems of power and of war. The result is that no one narrative endures, and the viewer is left with only threads of association, clues that dart off into the darkness, slowly faltering towards a dead-end.
The work’s sense, instead, is one of claustrophobia, of an uneasy proximity to systems of military and corporate power we can neither understand nor endorse. Within the work’s narrative, this proximity is attenuated through a particular melding of the organic with the technological. In one segment, computer-generated imagery morphs unsettlingly into stills of a flower, so as to destabilise the notion of their differentiation. Instead, what is left is the colonisation of the real, the ‘pure’, with the virtual, technological, and abstract. The blank technological infographics that seem to both populate and consume the narrative are instead to be thought as another kind of nature: a nature that is absolutely human in form, and malleable in purpose. Blind to politics or even morality, they can traverse all contexts.
‘Total Recall’ works best when thought as a kind of collage: forcing irreconcilable images alongside one another, it creates the imperative towards a narrative, or at least the sense of one. Through this strategy, it amounts to an American Dream within touching-distance of the horrors of war. General Electric’s wholesome idealising – its ‘good things’ – must be thought alongside its active role in nuclear armament production. Bender’s work speaks to the cruel and apolitical regime of numbers, and of data. Insomuch as these numbers and images are blank, it says, they are perfectly ripe for political ends. Within the contemporary - ostensibly apolitical - technological context, Bender’s mode of thought – didacticism, even - is more valuable than ever.