Benjamin Orlow’s exhibition follows his month-long residency with Work/Leisure; a programme which invites emerging and mid-career artists to develop new work in the unique context of Blackpool. Work/Leisure is based at Abingdon Studios, Blackpool and managed by artist Garth Gratrix: the artist responsible for the development of Abingdon Studios to date. The Work/Leisure concept and programme is devised, coordinated and curated by artist and curator Tom Ireland. The programme is delivered in partnership with LeftCoast and Grundy Art Gallery. Work/Leisure continues until July 2016.
I sat with Benjamin prior to the opening of his exhibition to discuss his time in the town, how he has responded to the location and residency, and the concepts and themes relevant to his practice.
MD: I guess a good place to start would be to ask you how important you find residencies are for your work. Have they been central to the development of your practice?
BO: I feel there are two things which are extremely useful, referring to this and other residencies. The first is that there’s something that happens when you leave your normal environment and you’re put somewhere else; you have to start over, re-establishing yourself on some level and that, I think, makes you go over the foundations of your work and can lead to interesting things. It takes you out of your routine. Secondly, on a really practical level, like, for instance, with the Body as a Domestic Animal – which is based on activities and journeys which have been facilitated by an institution or person – the project doesn’t really exist without the residency framework, as then it’s just someone going on holiday. With this project, the work isn’t the video—it’s the actual activity; the leisure is the work. That’s what I’m trying to explore with the work presented here, and I can only do it when I’m provided with opportunities like this.
MD: Whilst conducting some research into your work prior to this interview, I came across a residency you had undertaken in Switzerland [at Kunsthalle Roveredo] and the work created in response to that, the Ticket that Exploded +1 0 -1. I read that you weren’t required to produce work during your time in that residency programme. Is that true?
BO: It was open ended. I mean, it was encouraged, although it wasn’t mandatory. That was also interesting as it lead to the project which is presented at Work/Leisure coming about. The residency was based on being in the space and cooking together in this small, idyllic Swiss town. Prior to this, I engaged in another residency in Prague; this is where the model came from. It started with thinking about what I really wanted to do with the time I had, free from demands; that’s where the idea for the work initially came from. I couldn’t simply frame my having a personal trainer as a work; I didn’t want to create an exhibition where you leave a bunch of receipts on the wall, or something like that, as that’s not something I’m interested in. I started looking at Richard Long’s walks and the performances and actions that took place in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and thought that it’d be nice to use this as a kind of mechanism; however, instead of doing something dramatic, I would do something mundane.
MD: I’ve found that the documentation of Long’s work are some of my favourite photographs, but they don’t speak from a perspective of everyday life; rather, it seems that they stand outside of it as a kind of testament to the limits of human being, whereas I feel as though your work is in the midst of being, especially Prehistoric Fields. Growing up in Blackpool, that work depicts the kind of person that you would come into contact with if you did go out for a drink with friends, and engaging in conversation with them always felt like we were having a kind of grizzled wisdom passed down to us. However, my familiarity with Blackpool lead to a point where it seemed that I had exhausted the possibilities the town has. Coming from the position of a traveller, so to speak, do you feel this unfamiliarity helps your process?
BO: I originally come from a town that’s around the same size as Blackpool, and have similar experiences of going out with friends and encountering these people. I think Blackpool is really interesting in terms of its history, and its being based on the leisure industry. It creates a different kind of mentality, a different kind of atmosphere, and a culture where there’s an element of showmanship. People don’t refer to ‘the Illuminations,’ or ‘the Tower,’ instead they say “…the world-famous Illuminations,” or “…the world-famous Blackpool Tower.” There’s an element of something happening.
When you go on holiday there’s a certain kind of organised freedom that you allow yourself, a kind of irresponsibility, I suppose. To have a town facilitating this culture, I think that’s the main thing that creates this unique atmosphere that’s very tangible. It’s tangible, also, in the people that you encounter. We managed to capture two hours-worth of footage of Barry [the figure who appears in Prehistoric Fields], and half of the things he says are the philosophical ideas about life and values which are presented in the video, but also there’s a part where he’s talking about how Blackpool could make itself a better town for tourists. There’s definitely an openness you take on when you come here.
MD: It’s almost as if it’s ingrained into the local culture. People always talk about Blackpool as being kind of run-down; there’s a new rejuvenation project every couple of years, yet people still have that civic pride. If we move onto some concepts and themes relevant to the work presented here and in your practice, and you can stop me if you feel I’ve missed anything.
When I was viewing the work which you share on your website, it seemed to me that you were less interested in the medium and more interested in creating a physical sensation in the viewer. Through the presentation of emotional extremes – say, for instance, in the Ticket that Exploded, a man anxiously screaming that he was going to die, the shots of blue skies and snow-covered mountaintops, a first-person view of someone un-packaging a shrink-wrapped in-flight meal – you reference various levels of aesthetic pleasure. Similarly, Deleuze says that when we view a close-up we’re no longer viewing the subject experiencing that emotion—rather, we’re viewing that emotion as the subject. I’m just wondering if this is something that you’re conscious of, or something that you aim for in your work; what we could perhaps call a kind of mimetic cinema.
BO: The Ticket that Exploded and Bog Bodies both started as reactions to the enormous abundance of amateur media uploaded to sites like YouTube; more than anyone could ever possibly view, like an hour of video uploaded per-minute. There’s something overwhelming or intimidating about this mass of information, and I wanted to try and take it and turn it into something graspable, to try and create this body and to look at what it was. I chose a place – in Bog Bodies, for instance, a swamp – and then I started looking at all the footage I could find that took place there, and tried to assemble it in a way that made it seem like it was all happening in the same place—the result was this sort of narrative where everything is happening simultaneously; everything is tied together but is also separate at the same time. I became really interested in this way of presenting a story, one in which you tell everything at the same time but in a way in which it would be graspable.
Bog Bodies also came out of the fact that I didn’t have a studio at the time. I wanted to make sculpture, so it was like trying to create something I could have the same physical relationship with as I would an object, with the means I had available to me. In that sense, I was trying to bring out these sensations.
MD: I think that what you’ve said with regards to wanting to make sculpture anticipates the next question I have for you, which was in what way you feel your sculptural work relates to the work you make for display on-screen? In your exhibition at Sinne, Helsinki [A Long Time Ago, But Somehow in the Future] you were combining sheet metal and sausages, whilst in Tartaruga you combine bronze casts of tree trunks with chilli peppers and ginger roots, and create masks from used pizza boxes. You’ve got these fleshy or fruiting bodies coming out of, or in contact with, these inert or cold materials, and I feel as though it echoes the medium and apparatus which we use to capture moving images. You’ve got these technological appendages – the camera and your eyes, for instance – which complement and extend the capabilities of our natural faculties. In either medium there’s a real sense of physicality, similar to how, from afar, we can judge texture with our eyes. Even though we can’t touch the materials in the found footage, there’s a kind of nod to the collaboration between the senses, something which is happening all the time. I feel, as the consumer of your work, that I’m being thrust back into corporeality, or being made aware of these visually haptic sensations.
BO: The way I see the relationship between the sculpture and the video is that with the video there’s a control over time; when you’re creating the work you can set the pace, or edit it and make it fit together in many different ways. With the objects I’m interested in time as well, but in a different way. I have recently finished a work of public sculpture in Jakobstad [Salad Days – Frank] which is made of granite and bronze. There’s something about knowing that this work will always be there and that it has this kind of permanent physicality. With, for instance the pizza-box masks, these objects stay pristine for a very short amount of time before beginning to disintegrate due to the oil and food remnants on them, and then they’re thrown away. There’s something that I think is interesting in these different types of physicality and temporality.
MD: At the same time, when you upload clips of your work to Vimeo, for instance, I guess they gain an added layer of permanence. I know they’re bound by time as they’re moving-image works, but they stay where they are, too, unless you choose to take them down.
BO: But even then, they still exist, I guess. Even if I wanted to take a video down, they’d still be out there. I’m assuming that if someone really wanted to, they could find them. In a way they are permanent, or a kind of middle-ground. There’s a certain temporal quality to them, in that they capture events that are fleeting and at the same time that they’re intact constantly.
MD: I guess in a way it’s similar to Blackpool, a place whose vision of itself as a tourist destination hasn’t changed much since the 20th century; time marches on, yet it seems firmly planted in place.
BO: Time is really interesting when talking about Blackpool. I was having this conversation with Tom [Ireland, curator of the residency programme] about how ‘holiday-mode’ is this sort of timeless place. You build up your ‘normal’ time leading up to a holiday, or invest time into your job, and then say “…oh, well, in two weeks I can go on holiday.” There’s this idea that the time spent on holiday will make up for this other time – the time spent in work – the idea that a small amount of ‘this’ can make up for a large amount of ‘that,’ which is an interesting dynamic.
MD: There’s something incongruent in the way that we exchange our ‘work time’ and ‘leisure time.’ Do you feel there’s anything which I’ve missed?
BO: I was hoping we could backtrack a little and discuss this idea of the performance of a mundane activity in this work [the Body as a Domestic Animal]. I think it’s interesting because it requires us to justify something mundane in an art context, and that can sometimes feel like it requires some effort to achieve. The work isn’t clearly presenting – or giving someone – something; in a way, it can seem like a very selfish activity, and I feel that’s interesting: that provocation. I guess that it’s like receiving something that should be a reward, but without having done the work for it. I think that’s something I’d like the work to question, the value-relationship between work and reward.
MD: Do you feel like there’s something of seminal importance in the mundane?
BO: I feel as though the mundane is the new taboo. Some friends and I did a show in 2011 in China and there was this very strong notion that we can actually get into trouble for what we do, due to what we can and cannot show. This was a strong encouragement; you felt like what you were doing really had weight, in a different way than it does when you’re in a society in which you’re freer to express yourself, where you don’t have that pressure. I feel like there’s more material for that in the mundane, and more material in doing the mundane.
MD: China’s a good example of that, I think; whilst there, your everyday experience is dictated by the restriction of things which we take for granted in the West, such as internet usage, or the instances in which you’re walking along the street and come into contact with armed police officers. Whilst there is some initial dissonance, after experiencing it for a week or two, that novelty wears off—it becomes mundane. Do you think that the mundane has its own aesthetic quality?
BO: The mundane has a very invisible aesthetic quality. It’s hard to see because your work is inside it, and it’s hard to see sometimes because it can easily become boring. It’s hard to feel like you want to present something that’s boring.
MD: I think that boredom contains, within it, the potential for personal improvement; whether we rebel against it or we use the silence and stillness of boredom as a chance for introspection.
BO: Setting out to create boredom is tricky. I don’t, in creating the mundane, intend for it to be boring. I intend for it to have some sort of charge.
MD: I guess that we ought to wrap up this interview, somehow. Perhaps if we close with a question about any upcoming projects you might have?
BO: I am working on an opera/dance-video [Taistelu – Strid 2019], set in the Finnish Army. It combines footage I started shooting whilst enlisted in the Finnish National Services with a soundtrack which I have composed and performed with the opera-singer Frida Josefin Österberg, and dance conceived with the choreographer Sandra Lolax. My aim is to show the day-to-day social interaction amongst conscripts; the role-playing, live-fire exercises, and lectures on potential war scenarios and morality in combat. Through this milieu, I’ve attempted to provide an angle into my interests in contemporary notions of patriotism and the concept of nations in today’s global society. I’ll also continue with the Body as a Domestic Animal in December, at Elverket, Ekenäs, Finland.
Benjamin Orlow, Work/Leisure Residency, Abingdon Studios, Blackpool.
3 March – 23 April 2016.
Installation image courtesy of the artist and Abingdon Studios.
For more information on Abingdon Studios or the Work/Leisure programme, please visit www.abingdonstudios.org.uk and www.workleisure.org.
Michael D’Este is a writer and undergraduate student of Philosophy at the University of Central Lancashire.