Interview: James Benning

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins (A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.

James Benning, Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007-January 2008

The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:

I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

“The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75”

Published on on October 4, 2011. The exhibition was on view at Third Streaming, New York, from September 8 to October 15, 2011.

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75
Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

During the past fifteen years, scholars have dramatically revised our understanding of the American civil rights and Black Power movements, proposing answers to questions such as: When did each begin and end? What traits, if any, do they share? What is the relative importance of acknowledged leaders and lesser-known participants? Historians including Charles Payne, Martha Biondi, Thomas Sugrue, and Peniel Joseph have crafted nuanced portraits of both movements’ protest dynamics and the merits of the gains each made. The visual record of the era, however, has not been given an equivalent boost, which makes the recent discovery of hours of documentary footage captured by Swedish television journalists all the more special. That material has been transformed into The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011), the feature-length documentary on which this exhibition of film stills, related footage, and ephemera is based.

The images selected for stills focus primarily on Black Power leaders. We see Angela Davis as a glamorous antihero, two dour officers at her elbows; Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael coolly addressing unseen gatherings; and Kathleen Cleaver next to a typewriter, taking a break from crafting revolution’s message to pensively drag on a cigarette. A small monitor displaying unused film footage contrasts this hero worship with images of children carousing in unkempt streets, cops cruising down sweltering avenues, and little boys in suits marching out of a school building.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, a precedent for the Swedish investigation of American social problems. Economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma, permanently inflected the conversation on civil rights and was even cited by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. While The Black Power Mixtape doesn’t aspire to the same influence, it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the body of evidence documenting a turbulent period in our recent past, one whose meaning is still up for revaluation.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

In recent weeks I’ve found myself thinking frequently about Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, an experimental 2008 documentary by filmmaker John Gianvito. I saw it that summer at Anthology Film Archives, and was happy to learn that this hour-long plaintive meditation on radical American history—and how it has been encoded in the country’s landscape—is available as a free online stream at SnagFilms. As A.O. Scott noted in the New York Times, “The calling of birds and the rustle of trees provide most of the commentary, and the effect is somehow to make history more mysteriously distant and more concrete—a matter of stone and weathered plaques inscribed with the records of half-forgotten deeds.” Here is a longer meditation on two of Gianvito’s films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who compares the film to those by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Rosenbaum says, “Gianvito’s various ways of approaching the graves, memorials, and shrines through the surrounding landscapes that nestle and sometimes hide these largely unremarked sites is every bit as important as their inscriptions.” I highly recommend the film.

“Dance with Camera”

Published in Aperture 198, spring 2010. The exhibition remains on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia until March 21, and then travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where it will be on view from August 7 to October 17. See also this post on a wonderful Hilary Harris film included in the exhibition.

Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2007, still from a silent 16-mm film.

Many variables structure the exchange between cameras and dancers, including whether the lens captures a still image or motion, whether the camera itself is static or moving, whether the performers acknowledge the camera’s presence, and whether the camera aims for a synoptic overview or fragmented details. The small first gallery of “Dance with Camera,” an exhibition and screening program organized by Jenelle Porter for Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, includes work that vary these characteristics like reels in a slot machine. In the process they offer a succinct introduction to the show’s catholic approach to its subject. Elegantly composed photographs by Christopher Williams and Kelly Nipper suggest the passage of time from mobile and fixed vantage points, respectively. A video of Eleanor Antin’s ungainly attempts to assume ballet poses for a male photographer belies the elegance of his pictures of her, which hang on the wall nearby. Mike Kelley’s static eight-and-a-half-minute video of two dancers performing on a laboratory-like stage set seems like unmanned CCTV footage. In contrast, Charles Atlas’s Fractions I (1977) alternates black-and-white and color footage of Merce Cunningham’s company dancing a work that was intended to be recorded: as each camera tracks the performers, it passes before monitors displaying what other cameras are recording, creating a kind of picture-within-a-picture.

Round the corner into the museum’s main spaces and Cunningham himself appears, in another Atlas recording (included in a “video kiosk” highlighting inspirations for the show) and in a 2007 film by Tacita Dean in which he gives a majestically reserved performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. Yet “Dance with Camera” is by no means limited to artists recording professional dancers. A pair of recent videos by Oliver Herring document the stout painter Joyce Pensanto acting out choreographic fantasies with younger male partners. Two generations earlier, Bruce Nauman tapped his way around a square marked off on his studio floor, and Bruce Conner captured Toni Basil’s delirious gyrations against a black backdrop, a piece that rhymes nicely with Joachim Koester’s 2007 film Tarantism, in which a group of young men and women convulse uncontrollably in a similarly featureless environment. In his 2007 film Untitled (Agon), Elad Lassry deployed suggestions outlined in Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to position his cameras for the documentation of the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Lassry’s film is one of the few included here to offer not only exquisite compositions but also, with its close-up views of the dancers’ faces in between performances, some sense of just who is in front of the camera.

The plethora of filmic components in this presentation inevitably creates minor problems, such as sound bleed and distractions in one’s peripheral vision. But unlike many surveys that rely on time-based media, “Dance with Camera” is admirably well programmed with works that are varied in their approach but of relatively short duration. A two-hour visit neither exhausts a viewer’s patience nor leaves one with the sinking feeling of having missed great swaths of what was on offer. The exhibition successfully presents dance as a profitable frame of reference through which to understand anew collaboration, narrative propulsion, the body, and other topics artists wrestle with today.

Installation view. From left: Tacita Dean, Merce (Manchester), 2007; Elad Lassry, Untitled (Agon), 2007. Photo: Aaron Igler.

Two other notes: First, the catalogue for the exhibition, designed by Conny Purtill of the Purtill Family Business, is wonderfully put together. Not only does it feature an impressive (and impressively long) essay by Porter, but it includes choice reprints that span several decades. These texts reflect upon both specific artworks in the exhibition and the general issues it raises. It’s a lovely object, one well worth having in your library if the issues addressed by the exhibition interest you. Second, as my interest in photography grows it has been a pleasure to contribute to Aperture, and this issue includes a plethora of articles I’m looking forward to reading, including Geoffrey Batch’s review of “The Pictures Generation,” Tim Davis’s review of the new “New Topographics” exhibition, and my talented friend Alan Gilbert’s essay on Walid Raad’s art.

Michael Ned Holte on James Benning’s Ruhr

I’m jealous of my friend Michael Ned Holte, a talented art critic and film enthusiast, for he has seen James Benning’s Ruhr (2009), the filmmaker’s newest work and first foray into high-definition video. Thankfully, he has also written about it, for, and in the process has offered a thoughtful meditation on some of the differences between digital and celluloid images. It’s “not simply the difference between the ‘purity’ or indexicality of photographic grain versus cold, clinical pixels: Ruhr suggests that, for Benning, the true promise of HD is in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer’s attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register.” Ruhr receives its US premiere at REDCAT in Los Angeles on January 11. To read the rest of Holte’s piece, click here.

Tacita Dean Interview

My friend and former colleague David Velasco has interviewed Tacita Dean, one of my favorite working artists, about her new film Craneway Event, which premieres next week as part of PERFORMA 09. (If you haven’t looked yet at the PERFORMA calendar, you should—there are many outstanding events on the docket.) Dean has worked with Cunningham before, producing a series of six 16-mm films that I discussed when they were presented at Dia Beacon last year. Now she has filmed the rehearsals for a Cunningham “event” that took place in a former Ford factory in northern California; the still reproduced on the Artforum website looks amazing. Here is some of Dean’s description: “Merce told me I didn’t have to be faithful to the chronology of the dance, which was very liberating but, in the end, I was quite faithful. The Event had three stages on which the dancers dance simultaneously, so as a viewer you never have a composite view, which is the same in my film: no single perspective. The actual Event is always broken up.”

Hilary Harris, Nine Variations on a Dance Theme

Last Wednesday I traveled to Philadelphia to see the exhibition “Dance with Camera,” on view through March 21 at the Institute of Contemporary Art. My review will arrive on newsstands several months from now, but in the meantime I wanted to share my newfound enthusiasm for Hilary Harris, a now little-known documentary filmmaker whose exquisite short film Nine Variations on a Dance Theme (1966) is included in the show. Harris’s thirteen-minute film of dancer Bettie de Jong dissects a short composition she performs nine times. With each iteration, he films her in a different style, revealing new details—such as the way her muscles quiver as she holds a difficult pose—that add up to a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a human body in motion. For further description of the film (and stills), see this post in the “Films I Love” series on the blog Only the Cinema. To watch Nine Variations, as well as three other shorts by Harris, including Organism, his celebrated portrait of New York City, click here.

New James Benning Short Viewable Online

The annual Viennale festival has commissioned James Benning to create its “festival trailer,” and the resultant one-minute film, Fire & Rain, is available for viewing online. From the festival website: “Benning shot the work process in a steelworks in the Ruhr area. On a kind of conveyor belt, a glowing piece of steel flits across the screen and disappears only to reappear again as a blazing, shining material. Finally, artificial rain falls onto the glowing metal, shrouding the whole image in a cloud of steam and making it disappear.” As Daniel Kasman at The Auteurs notes, this looks to be a fragment from Benning’s first digitally shot work, Ruhr.

Mark Lewis in Canadian Art

The summer issue of Canadian Art features a cover story on artist Mark Lewis, a very talented filmmaker who is currently representing Canada at the Venice Biennale. “Lewis works with film as if it were a sculptural material,” writes Nancy Tousley. “He demonstrates its inherent difference from other kinds of picture-making and shows how it works. […] Lewis courts the impression of reality to show it off as an invention, to show to a spectator what he has seen, to revive the surprise and wonder experienced by the audiences of early film.” Beginning September 8, the art gallery at the University of Toronto will present the three films Lewis created for the Venice pavilion, and on the next day the Art Gallery of Ontario opens the exhibition “Beautiful Fictions,” which includes three other Lewis films. I reviewed an exhibition Lewis presented in New York four years ago, and the artist maintains a very useful website with low-res versions of his films and related information.

Al Reinert, For All Mankind

Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, (detail), still from a color film, 79 minutes.
Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, (detail), still from a color film, 79 minutes.

Published as “Step Children” on on July 12, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

In the spring of 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It was an act of hubris: When he spoke, the country’s astronauts had logged only twenty minutes in outer space. Billions of dollars and a little more than eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong hopped off a lunar module nicknamed Eagle and pronounced the occasion “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Live television images beamed back to Earth’s surface transfixed the nation, momentarily stitching together a public torn apart by the Vietnam War, violent inner-city unrest, campus protests, and much else besides. The achievement seemed not only a victory in the country’s war-by-any-means-but-war with the Soviet Union—the USSR’s own unmanned lunar explorer crashed into the moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were there, asleep in their landing module—but also to augur a grand age of space exploration and scientific breakthroughs. Yet the last human to set foot on our moon’s pockmarked surface, Eugene Cernan, did so less than five years later, at the end of 1972.

The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission offers an opportunity for reconsideration of the Apollo program; even Aldrin has gotten into the act, publishing Magnificent Desolation, his second memoir. Criterion has contributed to the effort by releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray Al Reinert’s magnificent 1989 documentary For All Mankind. To make the film, Reinert, a journalist with no prior filmmaking experience, trolled through millions of feet of official Apollo 16-mm footage, then combined his selections with audio recordings extracted from hundreds of hours of interviews with astronauts. The lunar missions are collapsed into one epic journey, from pre-flight training to command module splashdown, narrated in the southern drawls and flat Midwestern accents of the men who rocketed out of Earth’s orbit.

The figures onscreen and those recounting their experiences are never properly identified, a decision that aims to emphasize the communal nature of the entire lunar enterprise. This directorial sleight-of-hand ensures that the focus remains on the images, which cannot be matched by the descriptions offered by those who captured them. But it also effaces the huge effort required to make the footage possible. Not only were there ten Apollo missions prior to Armstrong’s fateful steps, but also hundreds of men and women who worked at the command center in Houston, and thousands more that dedicated millions of hours of labor to create, ex nihilo, the physical infrastructure necessary to get Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s ash-colored surface. For All Mankind, then, is hampered by its narrow focus. But what magnificent footage it presents! There is the slow-motion infernal blaze of engines propelling rockets into the air and the still uncanny sight of flashlights, slices of bread, and other everyday items floating languidly in zero gravity. There is the Earth seen from a distance and rising above the moon’s horizon, an image that helped spark a nascent environmental movement; there are the astronauts themselves, snow-white Michelin men bouncing and stumbling giddily across the knobby, lifeless gray expanse.

Many people, reflecting on the dubious Cold War inspiration for NASA, or lamenting its ratio of cost to demonstrable benefit, or chastising the always malfunctioning, dangerous shuttles that arrived in Apollo’s wake, will use this anniversary to criticize the entire enterprise. Their claims are often legitimate. But the velvet blank amplitude of outer space, the backdrop for most of the film, reminds viewers of one Apollo program legacy still to be puzzled out. The inky, airless expanse that is so palpable a presence in For All Mankind is an indication of the deep ontological shift represented by traveling so far into the unknown. Irrespective of politics or science, forty years later, the mind still stutters when trying to grasp precisely what it means to have been to the moon and back.

For more information on For All Mankind, click here to visit the Criterion Collection’s website. To read Caryn James’s 1990 New York Times review of the film, click here. To read a 1973 essay by Al Reinert on the space center in Houston, Texas, click here (free registration required).