Artist-in-residence Lily Benson (US/SE) in conversation with coordinator and curator Maria Gry Bregnbak, November 2015
Lily Benson is an American filmmaker and visual artist working from a feminist perspective. She was awarded a three-month FAIR residency at FABRIKKEN in 2015. She has spent her time in Copenhagen working on a film project about the Danish margarine tycoon, Poul Thorsen (1885-1961), focusing on his controversial writing on women and hypnosis.
Earlier, Benson has worked with the stories related to individuals like Francis Gabe, who patented her invention, The Self-Cleaning House, and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who was a radical poet, sculptor, model, and public provocateur, whose artistic legacy has been “obscured and in some instances appropriated into the oeuvres of much better known male peers (LB).”
MGB: I’d like to start by asking you to describe your practice; I know that you often work with particular narratives that you reactivate, and I was wondering what catches your eye in that respect?
LB: I usually start working by overhearing or seeking out true histories that have been overlooked or misinterpreted. Often it is around a particular figure or a certain moment in history.
After researching, I eventually have an idea or concept or part of the story I want to highlight, but always have trouble determining how to visualise it. To figure out how, I create a lot of animation experiments and sometimes make objects. I try to research and generate visual material simultaneously though never actually at the same time. Once I feel like I’ve ended up with something that matches the material and generates the strongest meaning in this division – then the editing and crafting of the actual work begins. When I edit, I always cut for pleasure. Whenever I feel pleasure; that’s the cut I’ll use. My practice often centers around the juncture between image and story, and between image and sound. So I’m usually working on one side of that or the other. At the very end, when all of the parts come together, the separation or juncture is where the meaning is created.
MGB: And I suppose this is where some of your visualisations come in? Sitting here in your studio, there are a number of painted textile objects on the walls, and I know you’ve referred to them as a sort of mapping, right?
LB: Mapping is an accurate term, but you could also call it a thought model. There’s this idea of memory palaces – like if you want to memorise a 40-digit number, you place the sequence into your childhood home or somewhere familiar and make visual connections. This is my way of getting deeper with the material, by placing it in space.
MGB: So this is a method to capture a particular thought or idea and keeping it available?
LB: Yes, well my training at Cooper (Cooper Union, ed.) was heavily based on structuralist film from the 70s, so I think the final part of a project is to create a system of rules. All these ideas need to be put into a container and whatever doesn’t fit in is surplus material.
MGB: And what are you hoping to achieve with your works? Earlier on we’ve discussed how you’d like your works to have a certain hypnotic character; to embed themselves into the viewer’s mind like a subconscious undercurrent and inform her or his thoughts.
LB: I guess that’s part of my method – I try to draw from the tricks of advertising as a way to make the story sticky, as the whole point is to bring lost or strange stories into mainstream consciousness. Sometimes I find that work inspired by obscure stories can become even more obscure than the story itself. So my ambition is to connect them to the present in a more celebratory way. However, with my current project there isn’t much to celebrate at all! But I still want the film to be highly engaging and to make people realize how recent these writings (by Poul Thorsen, ed.) are. By using younger performers in the film and making them translate these very dark and misogynist passages (from Swedish into English), I’m hoping to make people wonder when this was written.
MGB: And how do you choose your performers? They are all young men, right?
LB: Yes, I usually meet them at openings here in Copenhagen and then I ask them if they’d like to participate. It’s a good way to get to know people, as reading aloud can be an intimate experience.
MGB: As a female artist working from a declared feminist approach, do you find that this is sometimes an obstacle? Do you feel that it generates a preconceived notion of your work?
LB: The question is really relevant – especially right now – as there is this whole trend around feminism, or it seems like feminism has gone mainstream really quickly. Especially through social media where one issue can be taken up by so many sources at the same time.
This past year we saw Beyoncé performing using the word Feminism of course knowing that historically it’s been viewed as a negative or aggressive term, and a lot of other pop stars have gone out saying things like ‘I’m not a feminist’, and that has lead to this strange commercialisation of feminism.
For instance, there is this store in LA called Otherwild, which recently started selling a collection of t-shirts with quotes and images from the Herstory Archives, where some of the profits go towards Planned Parenthood and other good causes. Even though this is great, it is also a t-shirt, many of which I, as an artist, cannot afford. So it’s become this weird juncture where feminism is all of a sudden a commodity. Acne recently released an expensive collection, which also is appropriating famous
feminist slogans from the 60ies and 70ies era. So as a feminist artist who’s been working with this for a long time, I feel like people who hear me describe myself as a feminist artist are maybe suspicious that I’m latching on to this trend.
I have really mixed feelings about this commoditisation. On the one hand it’s great that feminism becomes mainstream, but on the other it’s in danger of loosing momentum, if it becomes an accepted idea that everyone’s suddenly a feminist without feeling a responsibility to act accordingly.
I started associating myself with feminism after I saw the Wack! show at PS1 (in 2008, ed.). I had this amazing professor, Marlene McCarty, who took us to see the show and was shocked at how negatively many viewed it. Afterward, she sat us down and explained what it all meant, and the moment that made me able to identify with that label was when she pointed out how so many of the male artists that we all revere, would not have been able to make the work that they do without these female predecessors. Just think of the use of textiles in fine art – if you think of an artist like Anni Albers; I don’t think that someone like Mike Kelley would have had this background of domestic objects in art had it not been for female predecessors etc. That was an eye-opening moment for me.
But to go back to the original question, it feels like at the very moment feminism can be an asset, because there’s an interest in it, but I fear that in the long run it’ll be seen as a trend rather than a continued struggle.
MGB: I’d like to talk more about your background. I know that both of your parents are artists and that you studied at the Cooper Union and in Malmö?
LB: Yes, although I was determined not to become an artist since I could knew how hard it was, I kept gravitating towards it and eventually got accepted to Cooper Union, which is one of the few art schools in the US that offers a full scholarship. But I originally wanted to become a lawyer and in a way that still connects to my work, as I keep creating these problems that I then try to solve or find a logical way of explaining something seemingly supernatural. But Cooper was the reason why I was able to fully commit to art because it’s such an amazing school.
After Cooper, I had to find work since I was living in New York and really needed an income. I interviewed for the craziest jobs I could find – one time I auditioned as a hand writer for a reality show, like a dating show, and I had to stand in front of a panel and write sentences like “I have an amazing vagina” on a blackboard. They didn’t like my handwriting so I didn’t get the job.
But eventually I got a job and at the same time continued my art practice. At the time I was mostly working collaboratively, which is a good way of being held accountable to finishing projects. I had a band called Cross (founded in 2010), with another artist and musician, Leslie Allison. The band was a way of getting access to a public more easily than doing an art show. My job at the time was also organizing collaborations between art brands and really big companies. All this work meant that
I’d work nine hours a day and go home to work on my practice, so I rarely had time to sleep. And then I escaped to Scandinavia!
I first visited Malmö as part of an exchange, and later I decided to go there for my Master’s degree, and it was the complete opposite of Cooper. In Malmö you have to make your own structure and be very disciplined, whereas Cooper is much more structured around assignments and such.
MGB: So what are your plans for the future?
LB: I was recently accepted to HISK (Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten) in Belgium, which has an excellent postgraduate program. And I’d like to stay in Europe; it seems like a friendly place for artists at the moment.
MGB: Spending time in Copenhagen, have you seen anything lately that’s made an impact on you?
LB: Yesterday I saw the Martin Erik Andersen installation (Nut - The Nightsky and the Astralpool, ed.) at Den Frie as part of the Trust show. I was completely unable to leave the room and got really sucked in. I was mostly inspired by how he worked with time; it felt like there were different timelines. When you walk in your brain tells you that this – what you see now – that this is how it always looks, because of the slow movement of the light patterns and the slow changes in the sound. So when it shifted, you’d realize that if you’d walked in now instead of then, you’d have a completely different idea of the space. The fact that I, and the people I was with, couldn’t leave the room was really fascinating to me, and I wanted to figure out how to do that in my own work, since he’s also working with this kind of hypnotic imagery. It felt like you were in a film but it was in the space – such a cool relation to cinema; a highly immersive experience. It’s fascinating that he was able to create this atmosphere of full attention. I’ve never really seen an installation that did that before.
MGB: What does being in residence in FAIR at FABRIKKEN mean to you personally and to your practice?
LB: FAIR is my first residency experience, and I love being here. On a very practical level, my current project would not be possible at all if I weren’t in Copenhagen. Most of the material that I need is only available at the Royal Library, and I also need access to translators. The community at FABRIKKEN is very welcoming, and a lot of the artists here seem to be working with public commissions, which is something I’m not very familiar with. It has a different scale compared to what I’m used to seeing in art schools and studios. So that’s pretty cool.
Being here with a lot of successful mid-career artists is very inspiring and shows that it’s actually possible to keep going with this. It’s great to see all the different paths that it’s possible to take to become a professional/self-sustaining artist.
September, October, November 2015
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