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.
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.
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 Artforum.com, 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.
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.
Published as “Parts and Labor” on Artforum.com on January 15, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.
Sharon Lockhart’s latest films depict employees at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. Lunch Break (2008), the longer of the two, is notable first for the artist’s decision to set the camera in motion, something she has not done in any of her previous films. (Exit , a related, forty-one-minute study of repetition and difference that depicts workers leaving the facility on five consecutive days, maintains a fixed camera position.) In a long, uninterrupted tracking shot, the camera in Lunch Break traverses at midday what appears to be the spinal cord of the shipyard—a long, uninterrupted passageway—as several dozen employees eat, read the newspaper, and talk in small groups. Most of the workers (all but one are men) do not engage with the camera, perhaps a result of the fact that, as with Pine Flat (2005), Lockhart’s study of children in a small California town, the artist spent considerable time conducting quasi-ethnographic research to familiarize herself with the “community” of shipbuilders, electricians, welders, and pipefitters before capturing it on film.
Though the camera moved, the footage it gathered has been slowed down dramatically: Six minutes pass before the first figure is beyond the frame, and another seven elapse before the camera reaches the next trio of relaxing employees. As it progresses, every detail of the claustrophobically hemmed-in environment is revealed in sharp focus: dented garbage cans and putty-colored lockers, some adorned with stickers; olive-green tool chests and brightly colored plastic coolers; gauges that cling to pipes stretching from floor to ceiling; and tubes and hoses that extend every which way, all beneath drab, uniform fluorescent light. The dilatory pace emphasizes the sheer amount of material (and visual detail) packed in to this place, and highlights how successfully 35-mm film can capture that plenitude. But the unhurriedness also imparts a monumental solemnity to each of the workers’ gestures, which can undercut the film’s tight structure in both negative and positive ways. A man sitting to the left of the aisle with a water bottle in hand, momentarily looking at the floor, becomes, when slowed down, a despondent ruminator seemingly lifted from one of Bill Viola’s histrionic video installations. On the other hand, when, midway through the film, another man reaching above the lockers pulls a bag of popcorn out of an unseen microwave, the humor of his banal action deflates the portentousness that can cloud such snail-paced scrutiny.
Lockhart’s deadpan gaze, it should be noted, is in fact far removed from Viola’s schmaltzy recent work. Lunch Break is more closely related to films such as Tacita Dean’s Kodak (2006), a poker-faced threnody that memorializes the last days in the factory in France where Dean’s preferred film stock was made, or Mark Lewis’s Children’s Games, Heygate Estate (2002), in which the camera glides seamlessly along an elevated walkway through a south London housing project, capturing children at play on the sidewalks below. All three infuse sharply delineated formal parameters with content extraneous to that structure. (As Michael Ned Holte has noted elsewhere, Lockhart does not make strictly structuralist films; the same can be said about Dean and Lewis’s rigorous work.) Lunch Break is described as part of Lockhart’s new series “about the present state of US labor,” but the film discloses little concerning this ambitious remit. (For example, nowhere is it explained that the Bath Iron Workers’ labor is put to very particular ends: The company is part of the General Dynamics conglomerate and a major supplier of destroyers to the US Navy.) The employees’ idleness might be seen as a metaphor for the way in which our economy has ground to a halt, but Lockhart remains a better portraitist and formalist than analyst or polemicist.
The same can be said of James Benning, who is perhaps the single greatest influence on Lockhart’s moving-image corpus and who edited Lunch Break and helped supervise its sound. (For example, RR , his wondrous latest film, is diminished somewhat by its didactic sound track selections.) He has, with composer Becky Allen, given Lunch Break a deep, consistent, ambient industrial drone (similar to Dean’s Kodak) that is punctuated occasionally by the clang of metal against metal. Snippets of conversation and, at one point, a Led Zeppelin song bubble up to the surface of the mix as the camera passes by plausible sources for the sounds. The disjunction between edited sounds seemingly played at normal speed and a slowed-down image helps articulate the constructed nature of Lockhart’s elegant, if seemingly transitional, film.