Helen Benigson

Weightless Utopias, Helen Benigson’s Platform Residency at Site Gallery, includes a new digital cyberspace animation and sculptural installation alongside a programme of performances including a live spray tan, simulated weight-loss support group meeting and a live performance by rapper Princess Belsize Dollar. Catherine Ailsa Jones interviewed Helen about the show.

Catherine Jones: Weightless Utopias is an ambitious body of work exploring, amongst other things, notions of weight. This seems to work on many different levels, can you talk me through them?

Helen Benigson: I have been thinking about digital weight and real, physical weight and the awkward space between the two – the space where language, gesture and speech become compressed or reduced – fragmented versions of reality.

CJ: The use of the word ‘utopia’ in your title suggests a place that cannot exist. Are you referring to those online weight-loss strategies and the incessant marketing that comes with them?

HB: I am really interested in the communal or supposed safe space of online and real-life groups and communities– they are spaces sold as intimate or safe but are in fact fraught with anxiety and often never deliver their promises – so it inspires a dystopia.

CJ: Weightless Utopias features three weightlifters and a dancer. Steadily lifting, wearing microphones and lycra, the weightlifters embody that semi corporate gym goer aesthetic, whilst the dancer’s routine is overtly sexualised. I imagine that if you searched on YouTube you would find similar videos, perhaps one targeted for viewers interested in weight loss, the other targeted for viewers looking for pleasure. Why did you juxtapose these two types?

HB: I enjoy the fact that the performers occupy the same space, like they would in real life. The characters act as protagonists and I see them all as fragmented versions of the same, single pulsating, anxious body.

CJ: Your subject comes ready associated with a history in art of male power and voyeurism. You have invited us to inhabit a visceral world that is decidedly pink and strangely sexy. I wonder if by deciding to invite us in rather than put us in front of the work you are tinkering with these associations?

HB: Absolutely – I want you to feel immersed in my world of dirty, sexy, messy awkwardness.

CJ: I find that your cyberspace animations are really tactile rather than overtly visual. Sound and layering add yet another texture. Have you read Laura Marks’ text The Skin of the Film? Was this an influence at all?

HB: I was greatly inspired by Mark’s writing on the erotic within haptics, which has the potential to become a powerful and loaded material in the work. The arousal of the body, captured through the camera lens works to create a sensual territory that the viewer responds to on a visual and auditory level.

CJ: I know that in previous work you have made videos based on virtual reality games. Are you fascinated by the idea of the doppelganger?

HB: Yes definitely – I am inspired by the idea that there can be many versions of self in different times and spaces. For example in my early videos, I often used my cousin who looked almost identical to me. Now, when I use casts of characters or dancers / weightlifters etc, I still think of them as versions of myself: me, but not quite. I am really interested in the idea of limitless, online profiles – a new way of describing biography.

CJ: The vast cyclical space of the internet is a playground. But, like becoming obsessed with losing weight, virtual reality games on the internet are addictive and hypnotic – these are negative points. I can’t tell if you’re critical of the subjects you choose to cover, fascinated or a bit of both. What do you think, and is it important for us to know what your position is? Or should I just lighten up?

HB: I’ll answer that question after I have ordered my sushi take-away as I am starving right now!

CJ: Can you tell us about your alias, Princess Belsize Dollar?

HB: Princess Belsize Dollar is a formal way of thinking through my concerns around the messiness of sound, text and visual pleasure. PBD is my rapper name – when I rap I feel sexy and in control but at the same time awkward and alien.

CJ: What have you got planned for after your Platform residency?

HB: I am really excited for a site-specific performance at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in August, again working with female weight-lifters.

Weightless Utopias runs at Site Gallery, Sheffield until 1st March, closing with a performance from Helen Benigson at 7pm.

Catherine Ailsa Jones is, amongst other things, an artist and writer based at the Yorkshire Artspace, Sheffield. 

Published 26.02.2014 by Ali Gunn in Interviews

788 words