INTERVIEW WITH BEN OBLIVION
What were some of your earliest experiences in making art? When did your interest in making digital art begin?
I did a lot of drawing at an early age, my mom is very artistic and she had a major influence on my inclination towards creativity and would always push my sister and myself to spend more time in the tangible world, reading, writing, and drawing. All that went out the window of course when I got to school and discovered the allure of the moving image.
Do you have any favorite works of art?
I don’t think I can pick just one work that I could qualify as my “favorite”. If I had to though, upon threat of death, I would probably pick one of the countless masterpieces Thomas Kinkade created over the course of his incredible career, or maybe something by Ralph Wolfe Cowan. I’ve been enamored with his portrait of the Filipino royal family [the Marcos family] ever since I read a biography of Imelda Marcos. The figure in the bottom right corner (their daughter Imee, I believe) looks like she walked straight out of the movie Xanadu.
Can you tell us a little bit about your process? Do you keep an archive of images/videos that you pull from?
My process is - pardon my French - a bit of a putain grappe (english slang translates directly, right?). Often I start without any idea of where I’ll end up and just allow my intuition to guide me. The final result very much mirrors the process in that it kind of works like a collage where I shift around a lot of not-directly related parts and arrive at a destination that feels satisfactory. I do a lot of writing which sometimes ends up in the work, and other times it gets tossed to the side. The criteria of what happens to which thing is usually pretty vague. I think often my work is a direct expression of how I am feeling, instead of a conscious articulation of a well formed thought. Which isn't to say that my work doesn't comment on anything, or mean anything. I usually just don't know what that comment or meaning is until the end when I take a step back and let the two of us (myself and my work) breathe. As far as an archive, I wouldn’t use that exact term because it implies that I have a meticulous organizational system that I work from. I'm not a very organized person so I have a bunch of .jpegs, .pngs, and .mp4s scattered all over my computer. Since I re-use some of the source files in different works I find myself back tracking and reopening old project files to find stuff. I feel like for some people that would be really frustrating, but for me I feel like it actually informs the current work and kind of jogs my memory of what I have already built in the past.
What’s the role of performance in your work?
In a broad sense my work is about how we are all prone to hyperbole or romanticizing aspects of our lives. We create a fantasy which we drop ourselves into, like our own personal “Hero's Journey”, so to illustrate this I use my body as source material to insert into the narratives and landscapes I create. Performance is also important in that much of what I make work about does not exist as a tangible thing, but rather as ideas. For example, there is no set shape or color to the filmic trope of the “Femme Fatale”, but there are attributes and behaviors which denote that trope. So, performance is how I enact those things. I also often make live works of performance art, which work in a similar way where I'm borrowing some attitude or behavior that I saw on TV, and following it to a point of absurdity. Because my work is about a fully self-constructed fantasy (based off of exterior narratives) I think it’s important that I control every step of the process from shooting to acting to editing. I've considered using other performers in the past but there's a limitation to working alone at all sides of the camera that keeps things from looking too perfect, too flawless, too believable. I leave seams unfinished, so to speak, in my work a lot because I want to remain fallible, and I think that strips away the seductive sheen of things and allows the viewer to see things a bit more clearly. I don't want you to believe what I'm saying -- I want you to think about why I'm lying.
In your work you deal with the relationship of fantasy and reality. You talk about different forms fantasy takes on in culture - “Popular Culture, Folklore, Religious Iconography, Archetypal Narrative, and Mediatic Tropes”. Are there any specific narratives, iconography, or myths you are interested in?
I am interested primarily in moments of transition and transformation. This could be a visual transformation or a spiritual one. Like the breakthrough of existential clarity in a 'coming of age story' or a make-over montage in a romantic comedy. I'm interested in poking holes in these things but never too aggressively. While they're really simplistic and make life seem easy and almost painless, it's really sweet that people believe in them and pretend that these moments can happen to them too, so I try not to be too harsh. I think there's also a greater over-arching reference in all my work to the story of Narcissus, which is about what happens when we see our own image. Narcissus watches himself until he dies, because he is so over-taken with the fantasy that is created when we see our reflection. When we see ourselves represented as a two dimensional image there's a translation that takes place and there's a lot lost in it. When we see our reflection, we see a version of ourselves that is some way idealized. That reflection is without any of the things that make our physical existence difficult. An image cannot feel pain or die, it can only reflect. There's also something of a dominant/submissive relationship that exists with our own reflection because we can control it. We can sculpt it or bully it into looking or acting a certain way. This applies to our public images, as well as our private, and especially so when it comes to the digital selves we make online. Humans have always consciously crafted exterior versions of themselves, but in the past those had to be at least somewhat grounded in reality. Now with social media and selfie culture, which distances image from reality, we can project fully fabricated personas and pass them off as authentic selves. We give them perfect skin, and perfect significant others, and perfect vacations, and when things get rough we give them the most noble and graceful sadness imaginable. It's theatre masquerading as reality. A lot of what I make pokes fun at the idea of this “perfect” image because I think it's really silly to chase after perfection when we're all really comically, endearingly flawed.
Some of your works such as x machinahhhhhh, all the stars explode tonight and Forever is a For Letter Word include you playing a sole figure in an isolated space, and all seem to reference religious iconography and Greek myths. Were there any images/stories that you pulled from to inspire these specific characters? Do these characters have any names, or narratives behind them?
X machinahhhhhh came from that very Disney moment where suddenly nature springs forth from nowhere to solve all of the main character’s problems and give them their “torn-up dress to fabulous ball gown moment”. The imagery in all the stars explode tonight was taken primarily from the deaths of pop-icons and religious martyrs. Forever is a four letter word was inspired by the myth of Sisyphus. I went to Catholic school up until college so that imagery bleeds into my work pretty often. Religion in general, but especially Christians, have such a spectacular way of suffering. There's a story of a martyr who, after being beheaded, picked up his decapitated head, started giving a sermon, and just walked away. And the best part is he's not the only one to do it. There are enough of them that there's actually a word (cephalophore) for someone who picks up their head and walks around after being martyred. Greek myth has a similar sort of fleshiness to it. Both of these traditions have stories, The Illiad is one example, that exist in kind of a grey area between fact and fiction where it’s like "this is all kind of, sort of true". I don't really have fully developed stories behind my subjects. I actually see them as being removed from their native narrative so the particulars of where they've been or where they're going are blanks that can be, but don't necessarily need to be, filled in. Although, I guess "where they're going" isn't really applicable since they're really not going anywhere besides back to where they started because they all loop pretty quickly, which is of course intentional. Seeing something loop over and over is kind of like repeating a word until it doesn't sound right anymore. It puts a distance between the actual sound/vision and the meaning which makes your brain go "Wait, what?" (which incidentally is my artist statement).
Your series “Vicarious Interiors” uses much of the language and format of a soap opera. Do you watch soap operas? Can you discuss the relationship “Vicarious Interiors” has to this format of storytelling?
I do watch soap operas, although I have never been able to get into a healthy rhythm of daily viewing. I go through phases of intense sporadic consumption, but I must confess to being a soap opera amateur. I, however, do have a deep passion for a soap opera that was canceled long ago called Passions that’s available to be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. It has witchcraft, a gender-bending masked serial-killer, and accidental incest, all I could ever want out of a television program really. My interest in soaps came about because I was trying to figure out what genre of media has a viewing experience that was closest to real life and I came to the conclusion that it was the soap opera. The very slow pacing, paired with the smoldering, never-resolved drama of a soap plays out in a way that is much more akin to our real lives than other forms that ape perception of reality like the “jump-straight-to-the-action” montage of reality TV, or edit for the sake of being informative like the voice-over guided performance for camera that is documentary. While these forms maybe more grounded in objective fact, the experience of watching them is not at all like the experience of being alive. Yes, soaps are very melodramatic and campy, but I think at our core human beings are, too. We have a desire to exaggerate and cast ourselves as the hero of our own story, which is why I chose to create Interiors for Instagram which offers us an opportunity to make craft ourselves however we see fit. Interiors was very much about experimenting with these forms and using them to playfully question our tenuous relationship to authenticity when it comes to telling our own stories. Everything on Instagram passes for authentic and I wanted to mess with that. So instead of documentation of “real” moments from a person's life you see a soap opera made by one person, filmed in his basement, which is as much of authentic experience as anything else on the app.
With much of your work, you deal with some aspect of celebrity. And your stage persona of Ben Oblivion takes on many of the tropes of celebrity culture. How do you think about celebrity myth making in your work?
When my mother named me “Ben Oblivion”, she knew that one day I was destined to be a star. I surround myself with a kind of celebrity aura as a way of keeping myself humble and down to earth. Go to my website: benoblivion.com, and click on “About Ben” to read my full story.
What's the role of humor/comedy in your work?
They say that comedy is tragedy plus thyme, and I agree because I think humor provides the flavor to my work that prevents it from being very cynical and depressing. I often feel like I'm pointing out how silly and romantic humans are for wanting their lives to be like movies or TV, but I don't think that's a bad thing. It’s a very bittersweet thing to believe a fantasy. To have the courage to trust in something that cannot possibly exist is utterly stupid, incredibly hopeful, and completely human. So when I make things that are critiquing human's attraction to fantasy, I always make myself complicit first. I'm not trying to put anyone down, but I am trying to get people to question where we can draw the line between our realities and the exaggerated versions of those realities that we present to other people and believe in ourselves. Humor is also a great way of dealing with pain, and it is a painful thing to accept that we lie to ourselves constantly that our lives are more than they are.
Is there anything new (books, shows, films, music, etc.) that's been inspirational for you or your work lately?
Paris Hilton's Instagram account is pretty much the only thing worth looking at these days.
Do you have any projects you’re working on currently?
My fellow performance artist, Marcia Custer, and I are gearing up for a show at SPACES Gallery in Cleveland. We collaborate on a project called Two Divorced Moms, and our characters Peg and Deb have a talk show together that we're doing a live filming for on February 9th. We did one over the summer and it was a blast and a half. I'm also in the process of recording and releasing an album One Night in Oblivion, which (fingers crossed) will be dropping sometime in the next year.