What was really radical in the 1980s: The case of Kathy Acker and Gretchen Bender

Kathy Acker – I,I,I,I,I,I,I Kathy Acker – ICA London – 1 May – 4 August 2019

Gretchen Bender – Red Bull Arts New York City – 6 March – 28 July 2019

It is interesting that the work by Kathy Acker and Gretchen Bender appear at the same time in London and New York. Both artists come from very different places in their poetics, but today, they carry many things in common. 

Although with ambitions which are not quite easy to understand, their remixing of content, computer graphics, images, and, in the case of Acker, text, loads of text, tried to make sense of an emerging world of exhaustive mass media and aggressive commodification of culture. I suspect that only in 2019 we might have arrived a full grasp of their messages.

Both of them died tragically young and from cancer. If alive, they could have provided us with further thoughts about the nightmarish world they projected. If in the 1980s, the fears of living without the meaning of words and surrounded by banal images everywhere were still developing, what if all this is true now? 

Writing television: Kathy Acker

What Kathy Acker once wrote in one of her books could be said about the public she covers with her art:

“People who loved, suffered, and lived. My novel contained real people. That’s why you liked it. My new novel had died successfully and contained the same characters. And it contains two new characters: You and me. All of us are real. Goodbye”.

Acker builds on to this notion of a suspicious us as opposed to a frightening, dominating you, which, as I see, serves to describe a broader relationship between art and society.

This relationship is invariably a guilty consciousness involving wealth, sex, and prohibition. It is striking that her text grows to produce a large number of images, which are not always functional, but all are positioned onto the foreground as if text was to exist more as a tool of articulation, but just of projection.

Therefore, I see her text as television. Acker wrote television, not for the television. She broadcasts what she visualises in a terrifying way. But which is very similar to what mass communications can do: to massify and conquer.

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Acker at the ICA. Credit: The Body/ICA

Even though there are a few videos with Acker’s interviews on display at the ICA, but they are not helpful to the visitor who wants to get a better grasp of her work. It could be shown, instead, on a projector or visual resource.

Why? Because her text is a form of the broadcast itself. The words are the pixels. We see through them but we cannot assert their meaning directly. We need to sit in front of it and debunk it as a collection of subversive images.

Whether teaching a nun how to suck her c*nt in “The Story of My Life” or seeing supernatural danger everywhere, Acker’s appropriation of meanings through these images follows a certain politics of sex created by herself.  

These snippets of words are placed within nonsense narratives. It does not aim to convince as text because it lacks coherence. On the one hand, they convey a bulk of televisioned images that have become the norm; On the other, these are images of intimacy that are not interesting to everyone (whereas critics have focused only its pornographic dynamite). In brief, apart from having no logical meaning, they are juxtaposed to give us very little time to react to them. 

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The Story of My Life by Kathy Acker. Credit: The Body/ICA

That’s Acker speaking to us. All is left to the spectator is to observe her attempt at the chaos and bizarre and wonder if there is anything we can do for her.

The shocking persona

At the entrance of the Acker’s ICA exhibition, the visitor is confronted with biographic wall information that purports to tell the artist’s life. Suddenly, the same visitor is trapped into reading sexually-explicit descriptions, However, at the same time, we hear from her:

I rather be a baby than have sex

These escapes from meaning are supposed to be her way of sending a message of pain, life endurance, and joy at the margins. She might do that, but her work dwells more on this creation of a shocking persona, which remained with her throughout her career.

Contrariwise, she admittedly enjoyed some degree of success in her artistic life. During an interview to Angela McRobbie at this same ICA, she mentions being an author who was “published by mainstream publishing houses.” But she “never reads popular culture”; meanwhile, she was happy to read “science magazines and photography”.

She then completes with this:

Mania and death will be the only doors out of prison, except for those rich people and even they are agonisers prisoners in their masks

Regardless of her own popularity among these same rich and famous, Acker is not interested in criticising them all the time. Her text, pictures, drawings, if looked to in retrospect, have been more inclined to direct this (imagined) shocked spectator. Her radicality is meta because it is never fulfilled. Her verbs, her grammars, in sum, her appropriation of other worlds – no matter how pornographic it resulted – ends inevitably with frustration and cold.

Working on media waste: Gretchen Bender

If Acker has had her connections and managed to stay afloat over the decades, the work of Gretchen Bender arrives at us from the 1980s as an archaeological finding.

Even to reconstitute her intention in a gallery space it demands a bit of creativity. Her projects have no ready-made appearance at all. Its way of appearing at a gallery setting is miraculous, it certainly demanded a certain curatorial trick.

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Gretchen Bender. Photo: The Body/Copyright: Red Bull Arts NYC

The visitor can certainly realise that Bender’s installations are referring to the world of mass media in the 1980s. It was easy for her to have set up these mini-TVs close to the other as they stay in studios. Having worked in the media backstages and production, Bender’s plays with TV sets, but also with images of its productions, even if they are just snapshots of seconds.

Her work’s most assertive plays with the necessary infrastructure to produce these images. Her goal is that of creating an illusion of consumption, reception, and success.

In a mini theatre room set up at the end of the exhibition,  one spots many seats and an enormous screen. What is shown is useless. It throws at us a loud programme of blurred images, geometrical forms, noise, and flash formats. This bulk of nothing leads to an inevitable sense of waste. Media waste – that which was not appropriate to be aired – and time waste. Our time, the media time, the civilisation’s time.

A new reception

Indeed, Bender is not interested in recreating a system of production and consumption. Rather, we end up with analogies that build on her personal repertoire of outrage at the media, as it is Acker’s case about the literary canon. She is building new centres for media reception because of her refusal at engaging with the apparatus. She also thinks we should refuse it and the only possible way of making it assembling boring, unwatchable and paranoid media garbage.

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Gretchen Bender. Photo: The Body/Copyright: Red Bull Arts NYC

Whether by displaying large-scale print-outs of TV shots, collated onto big shapes and canvas; or by putting up TV monitors that broadcast different “serious” programmes at the same time. Like in a journalistic newsroom, her created environment champions noise over aesthetics.

As in modern journalism, it recycles, regurgitates, and force-feed us with images which we tend to refuse. We don’t want that version of reality. But she wants to impose it against us as if trying to position her own propaganda.

Bender follows this same sense of enforcement of the mainstream media, especially aware of how it all makes seem simultaneousness, like in live web streams or TV journalism. “The whole world is watching”, she seems to tell us. She delivers this effect by placing these pieces of broadcasts, useless narrations, and snapshots taken out of its contexts as a permanent portrait of a failure. It makes one feel anxious and tired. But that’s how we feel every day living in a mediatised world and we probably don’t notice it.

Hers is about the bizarre leftovers of the idealistic 1980’s television, crossing it over with an idea of computerised design fetishism that was at its heyday. It is a step before today’s device/Apple/foldable cellphone fetishism. 

Again, her poetics is about unmaking that illusion of choice that it is the chief argument for consuming the media. We were accustomed to thinking that we could extract just what we wanted from the TV or the Internet when the truth is radically the opposite. The media today get what it wants from us. Through big data, surveillance, statistics, rankings, and so forth.

Bender’s art is urgent because it shows we are on the media not for pleasure. All the rest has to do with compulsory apparatus: the text, the image, the gifs, the emojis and so on. We are required to use it. Even if these things are undesired, they are kept somewhere in our mind or pushed into our deepest emotions.

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Gretchen Bender. Photo: The Body/Copyright: Red Bull Arts NYC

This growing reservoir of media garbage is Bender’s playground and her paint. Aware of that, she wraps it up to make it even more disturbing and useless.

In the end, it feels like almost like torture – The picturesque sea wallpaper which has an old, infected couch floating on it. The bay of our senses bears witness to a live-streamed dissection of the mass media, with the remains of a rotting cadaver landing on our lap.

Radicality and refusal: The state of our media

Seen from a very distant viewpoint, if Bender and Acker (and many other radical female artists of the 1980s) hadn’t existed of their time, they would unconsciously and ultimately belong in the fatigue of their time. 

It is true that Bender has even shown alongside format-pioneers at mainstream exhibitions. She was shown alongside Cindy Sherman (photo caricature), Jenny Holzer (LED displays), Barbara Kruger (commercial slogans), to name a few. Acker, otherwise, assumed a literary jibe persona at cool festivals and televisioned interviews, to talk about sex and oppression. But these were just brief incursions in the mainstream when they were very far from it.

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Gretchen Bender. Credit: Hans Neleman

If nowadays junk media is the norm, one should not forget that back in the 1980s there was a magical aura around the hegemonic structure of broadcasting. It was made it acceptable, exceptional and welcome inside everyone’s homes. Heterosexual families of three or four were still sitting on couches at 8 pm to watch and believe the news; people reading books because what was written and carried out by someone with an authoritative presence.

The 1980s’ art circuit in the US and Europe had people like Ana Mendieta, Valie Export (all recently-revived by globetrotter curators) who could vomit radical things at the mainstream, but they did it all too well. Bender and Acker, despite each other’s differences, rejected these artists’ sharpness and straightforwardness to focus on abstraction, decadence, and poverty of materials.

They go against what is expected by the establishment culture, the literary heritage, the convention of TV and its ideological circuits, by failing them and remixing them. 

As a result, these artists have built an erratic portfolio on top of thoughts rather than a robust, well-researched craft. Having pornographic text inserted into standardised messages, appropriating and fighting computerised images was something beyond the underground. They were the spirit of improvisation.

Acker and Bender today

The return of Ackers and Benders as more well-known artists or a project for our time is more difficult. First, because of our own imprisonment on the small reality of media. It has become atomised and even poorer, and therefore harder to be criticised.

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Kathy Acker’s mastectomy. Credit: Del LaGrace Volcano

Second, because such media design allows no breaches while being flexible to attend to the user’s wills, social media reality has become serious, censoring, and invincible. No artist can really create a discourse that goes against it. Despite people trying. In the face of automation, their art is utopia when even utopia is no longer desired. 

In a nutshell, both artists are radicals because their poetics were freer and critical of the only platform they had.

Risking some idealism myself, I would state that they were able to refuse the very notion of the platform and still be accounted for. If they would be doing that today, that would be the equivalent of signing-off from social media, and mocking it, stopping it, hacking it to the extreme and those things are not possible or contemporary artists aren’t interested in that extent.

Refusing things from power, or refusing to be the power remains the ultimate radical gesture, whether in art or in the media. As Acker once said:

Pain at this point is good.

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