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.

Matias Faldbakken

Essay for the book Matias Faldbakken: Not Made Visible (JRP Ringier, 2007).

You can draw a zigzag line across history and the arts, highlighting negation as a force of change by connecting, for example, Martin Luther to Bartleby the Scrivener to Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing to Lee Lozano to the World Social Forum. Negation is normally considered the act of denial or the absence of something extant or positive. But another sentiment seems truer to me: Negation is a positive force. It is a tool, a resource to be exploited, and a way to strategically counterbalance the status quo. No can be a nuanced term: The refusal to work under given conditions implies the desire and need to change or replace them, a process that can take myriad forms. Matias Faldbakken has written, “If Eskimos have two hundred ways of saying ‘snow,’ I want a million ways to say ‘no.'” Negation is a quicksilver agent, difficult to identify, harder yet to pin down. Opposition is never stark. Here are thumbnail sketches of three ways to say “no,” as outlined or embodied by Maurice Blanchot, Joseph A. Schumpeter, and Henry David Thoreau, an admittedly idiosyncratic pantheon. Only 999,997 to go . . .

* * *

“Literature professes to be important while at the same time considering itself an object of doubt. It confirms itself as it disparages itself.” From this premise, outlined near the beginning of his essay “Literature and the Right to Death,” the French writer Maurice Blanchot swerved toward definitions of literature and of the writer—and hence of art and of the artist—that in their embodiment of paradox, they forward a radical affirmation: Everything is possible immediately. The writer must “destroy language in its present form and create it in another form, denying books as he forms a book out of what other books are not,” Blanchot stated. This negation is a license to freedom: The freedom to imagine worlds that do not exist and to make everything within them instantly available.

This opportunity is itself hounded by ambiguity; by allowing himself the freedom to depict the unrealizable, the writer limits his ability to create the conditions for his emancipation. He “ruins action, not because he deals with what is unreal but because he makes all of reality available to us.” Yet his writing is “the world, grasped and realized in its entirety by the global negation of all individual realities contained in it, therefore, at its highest level, it re-creates the lucidity-in-lack-of-control and the openness of total revolution. Every boundary dissolves. The French critic and novelist Julien Gracq touched on this in his Reading Writing, where he extolled the prose of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet and François-René de Chateaubriand for their “exquisitely negative values; in the various ways [their work] thwarts expectation at every moment, in the largely open register of its breakdowns.”

Unexpectedly, it is Damien Hirst, with his book title I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, that gives voice to this freedom intrinsic to art. Extract Hirst’s monomaniacal ego from the statement—assume the art object is speaking for itself&8212;and one has a prescription for effective and affecting art. Operating everywhere and nowhere, relatable both to the masses and to the individual, with immediacy and foresight, an artwork has the power not only to negate but also to supersede current conditions. It hovers above us, suffused with all of our contradictory urges and desires.

* * *

Joseph Schumpeter, one of the twentieth century’s greatest theorists of capitalism, coined a term that remains with us today: creative destruction. It is “the essential fact about capitalism,” in the economist’s words. “It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.” In essence, this concept suggests that nothing is permanent: Everything—every business and business practice, in Schumpeter’s case—will be negated in time by insurrectionary forces. Fusing two essentially opposite terms, the term expresses capitalism’s dependence on “innovation, human drama, and sheer havoc,” as Schumpeter biographer Thomas K. McCraw phrased it. Today, as globalization seems to lock capitalism into place as the central, inalienable fact of contemporary life for an ever-growing number of peoples, the instability cited can be understood as a seam or loophole. It is a manner by which one—or, more likely, a group—may introduce broader, more structural changes to a highly regimented system.

I cling to the belief that art—indeed, art informed by modernist principles—can act as an agent for this kind of “massive change” (to use the designer Bruce Mau’s term). The commensurability of “creative destruction” and the modernist dictum “make it new” remains striking. Both terms create a temporal continuum and both prioritize that which is at that continuum’s leading edge. Whereas the innovation intrinsic to capitalism is ethically and morally neutral—if one imagines it solely as a process, and does not consider intention or its societal effects—modernism in the arts was (and remains) conditioned by teleological thinking: The movement has an endpoint, a goal. As the twentieth century taught us in so many ways, any guiding intelligence, when deployed at so large a scale, is likely to be, at best, benign in its coerciveness and, at worst, malevolent and ultimately catastrophic.

This is not to advocate for mindless transformation for its own sake, nor for passivity in the face of that which one hopes to change. But creative destruction gives a measure of hope in the face of despair. Now more than ever, art production is inextricably bound up with the machinations of capitalism, and urban wealth—ostensibly the primary endower of artists—is in fact displacing them. Given this, some comfort comes from the knowledge that resistance to the status quo will be abetted by impermanence, one of the status quo’s essential qualities.

* * *

“Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau, who by all accounts—including his own, in his numerous journals—was a rather misunderstood social figure. Today he might be disdained as a loner, but as the late poet William Bronk related in his essay collection The Brother in Elysium: By following the dictates of his own conscience Thoreau was accepted by his neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, if misunderstood “for the little differences and a certain strangeness that they felt between them and him.” Bronk, who spent most of his life in small-town, upstate New York, was sympathetic to the great Transcendentalist and was able to appreciate what Thoreau gave us—a searching, often lyrical account of himself and his immediate environment as both were affected by the rapidly changing society, all in exchange for his abandonment of most social conventions of the time.

Thoreau’s predilection for silence, his eschewal of idle chatter, and his avoidance of large gatherings of men stemmed from a peculiar (to contemporary sensibility) definition of friendship: It is not, as Bronk phrased it, a “mutual assistance league,” but rather an appeal to our best estimation of each other. One solicits neighbors for assistance and one turns to friends for sustenance that is deeper and that requires nothing more than insistence on the integrity of each partner’s individual nature, “specific for each other beyond any power of word or deed to change,” in Bronk’s words. Indeed, as Thoreau himself put it, “It is not words which I wish to hear or to utter but relations that I seek to stand in.”

These relations are a far cry from, for example, relational aesthetics, in which fleeting connections among culturally and economically homogenous groups are celebrated (often uncritically) as heralding a new social paradigm. Indeed, words (and certainly workshops) are not necessary to Thoreau’s conception of friendship—fellow feeling suffices. What would it mean to “opt out,” on his terms, today? While risking the disapprobation of colleagues—or worse yet, their indifference—there remains much to be gained by turning away from such thin relations. By turning inward, at a moment when so much artistic production is unavoidably linked with its social manipulation, one could stopper the slow diffusion of one’s creative faculties, thus making viable a kind of self-understanding that may otherwise never be achieved. Many artists, however, in choosing such self-reliance, will discover that the “new value” they acquire by doing so is of limited interest. But after time, some will be rewarded for their efforts and, more importantly, their creative output will enrich the lives of those that follow. (No one may know this better than Bronk, whose essay on Thoreau, written in the mid-1940s, was not deemed publishable until 1980.)

Let the last words come from Bronk: “In silence [man] prepares for speech; in solitude for society. And so in like manner, the truest society always approaches nearer to solitude, and the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.” Furthermore, “Silence is the world of potentialities and meanings beyond the actual and expressed, which the meanness of our actions and the interpretations put upon them threatens to conceal. Yet all actuality is to be referred to it and valued accordingly as it includes or suggests it. Nothing is worth saying, nothing is worth doing except as a foil for the waves of silence to break against.”