Lindsay Benedict in conversation with Will Rawls

Brooklyn-based choreographer Will Rawls interviews Lindsay Benedict, a multi-media artist who works in film, photography, and performance. They discuss, via g-chat, Lindsay’s recent performance interventions in France and Italy, which gather community members for social movement events that inspire awkwardness and cultural exchange. Baby, I just wanna dance was an open call for dance performances in the parking lot of a contemporary art center in France, enacted on July 1, 2011. What I do without you (Swimming Exercises), was a water aerobics class Lindsay led in Italy’s Lake Como, a lake that does not generally allow swimming, on July 15, 2011.

Interview date: July 12, 2011

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Will Rawls: What did you have for breakfast this morning? And where are you?

Lindsay Benedict: I had a huge foccacia, or pizza. I can’t tell the difference and the Italians would be horrified if I called it a pizza. I’m sitting at a desk that looks directly to a huge window that overlooks Lake Como [in Lombardy, Italy.]

Will: Are you working with bodies in your practice right now, as you had been doing recently in France?

Lindsay: I’m working with bodies, yes.

Will: How do you select whom you are working with? Which bodies?

Lindsay: Good question. Normally I am working with the people I’m completely in love with, and that dictates the body. My last two projects I have been inviting unknown bodies—having open calls and inviting anyone with desire and eagerness, regardless of trained technique. The public calls also need to be directed (I will purposely go to youth centers, and senior centers, etc), because I want a real diversity of people, and wanting us all to be interacting. I want all bodies to move, and feel the pleasure and awkwardness of that. When I speak about diversity, I think less about the physical bodies, in fact, and more about a person’s life experiences.

Photo by Lindsay Benedict

Will: There must be a healthy amount of pleasure and awkwardness in those situations. Why is this combination important—it certainly seems unavoidable considering your approach to diversity? For example, once you’ve collected people from a senior center and a youth center, how do you get those individuals to focus on the same activity or movement?

Lindsay: Well, the project I’m working on over the next three weeks is to lead a water aerobics class in Lake Como. I often use ritual, repetition, and exercising or cleansing in someway, as a structure to hang the rest of the mess onto. For me, having everyone share the same activity is what allows the initial connection. If this basic structure is clear and understood (that we all came to this area of Lake Como to do water aerobics together), then there is space for the rest, like fear of being in a swimsuit, or the pleasure of being outside with others, or everyone feeling awkward because my leading-aerobics expertise is sub-par… does that make sense?

Will: Yes. This pleasure and awkwardness creates a messy situation for you to navigate and for the participants to follow. How can we define this mess a little further? Are you giving directions that are physical or verbal as you perform this role of aerobics instructor? Is the sub-par quality of your aerobics leadership something that generates an aesthetic experience for you, for the participants for a spectator? Are there spectators? The water seems like it also becomes a medium for liquidity in a social sense. Both in terms of assets and fluidity.

Lindsay: Hmmm, well. For me, I think of the real reason for the project, which I’m calling What I do without you (Swimming Exercises), is for the research. The idea to plan an aerobics course while I’m in an unknown place is a way for me to touch the ground and the people. It is one point to hit along the way. The need to ask people for help and to get really lost and to completely culturally misstep on my way to creating the event—that is the mess for me. It forces me to be in uncomfortable, vulnerable positions quite often. I’m going to be verbally giving directions, but I don’t speak Italian—so, ideally people can see the moves by looking at me, but I am mostly submerged. In the water there is a real invitation to act really differently for some reason.

Will: You are both touching the ground and not, a recognition of etiquette or rules and a suspension of them…

Lindsay: And for the participants, they are in a place where I am to lead them—in exercises or in trusting my artwork. But that is why I think it is crucial for me to not be a professional at what I do. That people can go through life on automatic pilot and when things are precarious it creates some fractures and hopefully openings. I think of mess and uncomfortability as precursors for intimacy in a lot of ways…

Will: It goes a long way to demystifying the creative process, which can be quite lonely. And it requires you to be scrappy and enter headlong into your work. Live. In the moment. I imagine the more you let yourself go the more people feel comfortable letting themselves go too. It makes me think of improvising or performing a score with strangers—or getting a dance party started

Lindsay: Yes, I’ve been having some difficulty with this work on its tone. With the water aerobics people want to instantly kitcsh-ify it, but I prefer that it is in fact serious exploration and gesture. About lonely: I think that is why I have been having such a change of my artwork while I’m here in Europe. My studio in Brooklyn is completely solitary and all meetings are planned way in advance. My work was mostly self-contained projects. Here in Europe I have really come to life in my own life and in my studio because it is so social somehow, and I can integrate being alive with making work. The work is open and live, like in real-time.

Will: Do you think about how this work might be dance? Or choreographic?

Lindsay: Good question.

Will: You certainly are breaking down an older model or choreographer/choreographee…I am pre-disposed to think of this in dance terms… but those are not the only terms this project seems to touch on. But rewinding to July 1, 2011. You presented an open call performance at the Confort Moderne Museum in Poitiers, France. What were the circumstances? It seems like a radical departure from your time in Brooklyn, NYC… we should talk about that too.

Lindsay: It is what is pleasurable about the work for me, in fact. The part of it where I get to choreograph the aerobics course! In contemporary art practice it has been so hard for me to just play and make up dances with my friends, but my last two projects did exactly that. In Baby, I just wanna dance the open call for anyone to make up a dance with their friends and perform it at the established cultural center in Poitiers, France was a procedure that allowed other people (and myself) to create what they want, without competition or structures of value. The circumstances in France actually really pushed me to this point. I was doing a post-diplôme for a year in an art school there and none of my work was supported. The program had a really narrow idea of what research was and whether emotion and love was valid to be considered art. (This is a long hairy topic…) So, after having many of my projects and proposals denied within the education program I met directly with the art center director who supported my project. I then titled the work after my exasperation i.e. I don’t want to write a critical text—baby, I just wanna dance!

Will: You went through the back door to the top dog.

Lindsay: Well, I had found a home. The Confort Moderne is an incredible community. The director, Yann Chevalier, is genuinely excited and curious about all the arts he involves himself in. It is really beautiful to watch and be a part of.

Will: Sounds like they also support pleasure in the creative process. Was this an event that brought awkwardness to the Confort Moderne too? The performances happened in the parking lot, right?

Lindsay: They loved it. Some of the sound tech engineers dressed up and we were practicing dance moves. In a way, I think of being in the parkin lot as…I didn’t have to ask. I could have done this performance without asking.

Photo by Lindsay Benedict

Will: What is it like to have to ask to do your art? Can you talk more about this place that you are in where you are just doing it?

Lindsay: I’ve been trying to go backwards in fact…the program I was in was forcing a kind of professionalism and theoretical and conceptual validation; but I was trying to travel the opposite way in my work. The small town in France where I live now is an incredible place for me to work through this and feel it for myself. It’s nice to play in the water.

Will: Scholarship is great but it also seems that this scholarship set up an institution that stifled you, a classic situation. By circumnavigating this you expanded your own resources and modes of production.

Lindsay: Its radical to have an unmediated interaction…

Will: You produced a kind of discomfort moderne.

Lindsay: Ha. Yes you are right. I had to go through it, though. It was incredibly hard for me to have to ask to make work and validate it (and get it continually rejected), but in the end it really strengthened my work and created new modes of working. Now, at the residency where I am now, they just ask “what are you making?” and then they completely help bring it to life. It is like night and day! But, I’m grateful for the post-diplôme resistance to my work, because I grew a lot.

Will: I remember when you were first heading to France you were skeptical about staying away from Brooklyn that long. Now that you have been there is there still something you miss about Brooklyn? Poitiers seems like it is providing a good substitute.

Lindsay: At a different point during the year-long post-diplôme, when I was at my wits end and exasperated for a different reason, I basically called to my arts community for help…the four artists of the post-diplôme are given 8 pages in an end-of-the year catalog/revue. My first proposal was rejected and I was experiencing severe social discomfort around the others. So, I decided to document the works/projects of seven artists who have been important mentors. The project was called i gather around me a community because I was not strong enough to stand behind my work alone, but was sharing the kind of works that I found take risk and encourage mess and are emotion and love based… I made i gather around me a community in order to get strength from a community. It is a community I’ve found in NYC and been a part of. One that really asks hard questions of art, society, culture.

Will: Who are the artists?

Lindsay: Katerina Llanes, who created the “SESSIONS: Con Verse Sensations” project at the intersection of curating and pedagogy; there was the “Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner” project by Malin Arnell & Johanna Gustavsson. Ginger Brooks Takahashi, I wanted to show a documentation of her army of lovers cannot fail quilted piece, Diane Cluck, who is an incredibly honest musician in Brooklyn, a document of AL Steiner & AK Burns’ Community Action Center work, Sarah Cain’s We push ourselves into the mountain until we explode into the sky, and a bootlegged still of Klara & Hannah Liden’s Techno Battle video piece. I enjoyed the process of creating the project because I got to meet some of these people that I admire so much in the community for a first time at a personal level. The bravery of their works allowed me to continue with the risks of mine.

Will: It seems important to you to refuse to be divorced from this community even as you are thousands of miles away. The academy asks artists to abstract their relationship to their own work in order to generalize it and make it accessible.

Lindsay: Well, I learned how incredible it was when I didn’t have it… And, as a sad finale to the post-diplôme, this work did not fit into the strictures of what was the intention of the catalog and so will not be published in the end. I hope to include a statement about the project’s absence in the catalog/revue.

Will: Yeah. It’s nice to get that love when abroad. And send it back home too. And the three works that you’ve mentioned thus far are addressed to a person or reference a community as well—“baby” “without you” and “community around me.” I have an immediate sense of being in a dialogue with you already, without seeing the work. And there is both an admittance of loneliness and a search for connection in the practice of the work.

Lindsay: Yes.

Will: We should probably wrap it up soon. Anything you want to touch on before we break? You did show work recently at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, which I associate with a certain kind of community of artists in Paris. Their approach to open formats, participatory work and re-imagined scholarship via performative lectures and such is interesting. And messy.

Lindsay: Yes, curator François Taillade programmed a bunch of my films at their ‘illegal_cinema’ in March. The artists are not invited to attend because the reason they screen these film works is to create an environment in which to have a discussion. I find it really great that the dialogue is the priority and that the desire to have art generate a discourse is awesome. Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers is an incredible space that artists tend to use like a home.

Will: Why weren’t you allowed to go?

Lindsay: Because they want to be able to really have a discussion, without people being worried about offending the artists. The artwork is used to generate a discussion for the group, not provide a feedback for the author. One of the main missions of Les Laboratoires is to be in conversation and connected with its neighborhood, the inhabitants of Aubervilliers (a banlieue of Paris).

Will: A little bird told me that people were psyched about your work though…

Lindsay: Aww, shucks. I hope so! My screening there came at a really crucial time when I was being really broken down by my program and was having such doubts about my own work. I’m looking forward to next year in France and am so psyched you will be there too!

Will: Yes! So there is more France in your future? That was my next question. More Poitiers? Or Paris?

Lindsay: Yes, another year or so in Poitiers! Who knew I could ever leave Brooklyn.

Will: Which would you like to do with the city of Poitiers?

a. Gay marry it

b. Go on a road trip with it

c. Have a torrid romance with it

d. Make it wait tables in Bushwick for a summer

Lindsay: I love this question. Definitely go on a road trip with it—take me all the way, baby!

Lindsay: I’ve been basing so much more of my intellect on my body. It blows me away how wise it is….

Will: I am interested in shame and shamelessness too. You create a safe space for them and yourself to explore these things.

Lindsay: Yes, I hope to give life to this possibility for sure! To provide a space for play to be possible, for vulnerability to be among company in a way. Shame can be destructive when it is experienced alone. Practicing what is hidden by sharing it makes for a building of tools, in a way. I’m also trying to wonder if shame and shamelessness are culturally American. It was really hard for me to get people in France to have a desire to show-off or perform. And someone explained it to me by saying that they like to keep the private things private. It didn’t seem to be about shamelessness like I would have imagined, but they took the event seriously, which I loved. But didn’t expect. It’s a balance of tone I’m trying to strike here in Italy at Lake Como, too. I want the water aerobics to be an honest exploration and not seen as ironic or kitsch.

Will: There is something about the effort to stay actively afloat that precludes kitsch… there is a knowledge that the body is trying to grasp perhaps that makes it more honest too. And less about a punchline. The aerobics happen over time, which force new images that have an association beyond the initial humor or awkwardness. Of course I am saying all this from terra firma in Brooklyn.

Lindsay: It’s hard for me to use words and language to describe my work and how I feel about it. It comes from a really intense radical need for social change/revolution. It’s hard for me to speak in these terms but I feel them deeply. So, it’s a funny interview to look back on because I’m nervous that without speaking about these harder race/class/gender/queer aspects of the works that they are only easy, that they are only to escape… I know we have to go, but I wanted to state my severe conflict with most of culture…it’s the reason I make work. It’s my first interview—I’m glad I shared it with you!

Will: This has been really interesting, Lindsay. The mental images of the work happening in time, in VERY specific places do something for me that words cannot. I keep being moved to try and interpret them, which is a problem I have… but hakuna matata [“no worries”] re: words. I also think that race, gender, class and queer issues occur on levels that are beyond language. And on the performative level your work enacts these things in the participants I imagine. The choice to participate seems simple, scary and complex. I like imagining the foreign-ness you are bringing to foreigners in a foreign place while being a foreigner yourself. It’s romantic somehow.

Lindsay: Yes, when I was turning the music way up in the parking lot of the Confort Moderne and having dance rehearsals on the gravel, I was totally channeling Brooklyn and I was so happy about it! And walking around the streets of Poitiers with my boombox…but, I already worry about Americans spreading their culture relentlessly without borders or respect for culture, so its quite a conflict.

Will: Yes. I have those feelings too. It is a kind of shame when abroad. But at the same time, in terms of the dance performances at the Confort Moderne, the participants brought a seriousness to the parking lot that transformed the “Brooklyn-ish” shamelessness that you were working towards. The tone of the project was re-purposed by the participants as a way for them to engage in an appropriate way. I have had a lengthy argument about privacy and modesty with another artist friend, Moriah Evans. In a nutshell, she doesn’t believe that anything is private—or that privacy is a way for us to feel special about experiences that are common to many people.  And a way to project rules and attitudes about others’ comportment, silently or otherwise, onto the people around us.  However, I often experience shame or joy privately, and often before I recognize it happening in others around me. So, sometimes a little American showy-ness and bombast and boombox blasting can clear a space and enable privacy to become public.  That is so American of me to say.

Photo by Lindsay Benedict

Lindsay: It’s a nice way to put it. It’s what I think too. That once you get a taste of that FREEDOM (God Bless America) of expression then you will be liberated…

Will: This land is your land.

Lindsay: It’s true though, I think the people who danced on July 1st really loved it. All the land is my land…

Will: From sea to shining sea.

Lindsay: …and lakes

Will: And lots. This seems like a great place to end.

Lindsay: Yeah, I’m exhausted!

Wil: Totally. You have been great! Thank you thank you thank you thank you!

Lindsay: Yeah, sounds good! Aww, you’re making me warm and fuzzy inside. I’ll be sure to work-it-out an 8 count or two for you on Friday…

Will: Aww shucks! It takes two. Ciao ciao.

Lindsay: Ciao, bisous!