Art In Conversation
JANE BENSON with Yasi Alipour
The two trees in the lobby were created in honor of the reopening of the World Financial Center, but one had to look closely to notice that each leaf had been meticulously cut into geometric forms. Jane Benson stubbornly magnified the fake to draw attention to the shaken notion of the real. Happy Faux Flora (2002)—which would become one of the young artist’s most iconic interventions—was as captivating and contemplative as it was unsettling. In the years that have passed Jane Benson has restlessly grown her intricate work and repeatedly offered the viewers invitations to rethink the status quo and reflect on our contemporary moment—from the war in Iraq to the recent refugee crisis.
May 3 – June 16, 2019
Now, following a series of international exhibitions and her first survey exhibition, Jane Benson’s work returns to New York with The End of the Patriarchal System. It is a timely, seductive, and urgent response to the writings of the British Suffragette, Mona Caird. In anticipation of this exhibition, we followed a long studio visit with a casual meeting. We based ourselves in Benson’s office, a small room cramped with a large busy desk, shelves and boxes filled with books, some of her iconic faux plants, and a comfy couch. In what follows, Benson’s new project and her determination to re-listen to Mona Caird establish a way for us to consider the intricacies of art and politics, the expanded notion of exile, the significance of repetition, the pace of change, the sense of exhaustion, and what it means to be a female artist in our time of deep and systematic sexism.
Yasi Alipour (Rail): So, we’re here on the occasion of your upcoming exhibition, The End of the Patriarchal System. The project began with a collection of essays by the British Suffragette, Mona Caird and revolves around that text. Before we delve into the work, shall we start with Mona Caird?
Jane Benson: My relationship with Mona Caird began in 2015, I believe. At that time, I was working on “Song for Sebald,” exploring the themes of separation and belonging through a hands-on encounter with W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn. I took Sebald’s text and excised all the words except for the syllables of the musical scale—do, re mi, fa, so, la, ti—thus, excavating a score. This is something I continue to explore in The End of The Patriarchal System.
Because of the nature of Sebald’s writing, I was thinking about different writers, specifically writers working in exile; there being many forms of exile. Sebald’s was a self-imposed exile from his native Germany; he made a personal choice to remain and live in East England, having moved to Norfolk when he was young. I was also thinking about the different forms of exile—self-imposed, political, social. This led me to further research on the work of women writing and living in exile, such as the activist, journalist, and writer Asma al-Ghul living in Gaza, or Cristina Peri Rossi who was exiled from Uruguay in 1972. As the notion of exile expanded for me, I began to focus on women writing in political exile, even while living in their homelands. There’s the exile of contemporary women who are robbed of their political rights and their agency, or here in The End of The Patriarchal System, exile simply means not living at the center of society where inequality forces women to the peripheries.
All of this led me to think more about the suffragettes and the Suffrage movement, upon which I came across Mona Caird, a fierce British suffragette working on the margins of society, considered almost too fierce for the movement at the time. In my new body of work, I work with a series of essays from her book, The Morality of Marriage and Other Essays on the Status and Destiny of Women, a collection of academic texts fueled by the Suffrage movement. The essay “The End of the Patriarchal System”—where I borrow the title of the show—was written in 1892. All of the essays were written at the beginning of the 1890s, as was her philosophical book; The System of Nature. So that’s what led me to Mona Caird, simply reading her books cemented my passion for her and my commitment to create a new body of work around her work.
She was also a woman of thought-changing ideas and sentiment, who believed that the change required at the time—within law and then hopefully reflected in society—had to be driven by intellect, women’s intellect. Her passion for ideas is expressed quite clearly in one of her most famous quotes: “we are governed not by armies, nor by police, but by ideas.” I found this moving in relationship to my practice as it very much revolves around the disruption of archetypal structures—the search to re-invent and re-design classic forms of categorization and cultural stereotypes, all to regenerate the real, to re-engage new thoughts and ideas.
Rail: Your work has always had a nuanced relationship with the sentiments of the political moments surrounding it. Earlier pieces like Happy Faux Flora (2002) echoed the post 9/11 climate. Then, in Underbush, you used a similar process but offered a subtle critical take on the war in Iraq. The End of the Patriarchal System functions in the same way. It seems like the defining characteristic of our current political moment is unleashed sexism.
But as politically charged as your work is—and as significant as your ideas are—your practice is also very physical and demanding. Here you go through each essay, page by page, word by word, and cut through it. While reflecting on these complicated and tense political moments, you have never reduced it to simple statements and answers. What I’m interested in here is the creative process, your gesture of cutting. At first glance this feels like a destructive act, but more than anything, it is persistent. I can’t help but imagine you battling the book with your X-acto knife for what must have been hours.
Benson: That’s a good way to put it. As destructive as my work may initially seem, I’m not an iconoclast. And I’m not concerned with smacking someone over the head with a sledgehammer. The drive to the work comes from reflecting on the rifts and crevices that exist in contemporary ways of being and then creating further rupture in order to re-assemble or re-map. Those rifts and crevices are either a specific political moment or a historical stain. That then creates a need to construct a new perspective, one that is estranged and displaced and one that is completely other than the current political cage. Because that is the starting point, my initial gesture is always destruction, whether it be splitting, cutting, or skewing archetypal structures. It’s a way of breaking something open but not destroying. It’s not violent. It’s a way to disrupt that form in order to crack it open. It’s a method of regeneration provoked by re-assembling. By this, I mean, there’s a cut in order to re-assemble, a split to re-engage, an excision in order to re-design, or a skew to re-map, to re-do, and so on. And in the case of the work with Mona Caird to re-, re-, re-, re-iterate.
Rail: You recently published Jane Benson: A Place for Infinite Tuning, a beautiful monograph that coincided with your first survey exhibition Half-Truths at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati. There the essays play with the same idea. The opening essay by Steven Matijcio focuses on the idea of destruction in your work. But as you said, in your work, the destructive act is never complete or violent. At the end, you leave us with these beautiful works on paper, the pages with all the added empty space and the repetition of the notes. Your work doesn’t undo, it doesn’t even fully destroy to build a new, it penetrates and echoes. And I think that’s what I find in your work, over and over again: these contemplative spaces for the viewer to consider—as you beautifully put it—our “historical stains.”
Benson: It aims to echo and leave gaps or create absences. I excise to create a dialectical space. The work is an evolving entity and I have to reposition myself to get to grips with it. This is why I think collaboration is so important in creating the work. Through collaboration these absences become places of renewed ideas, of plurality, and of a gathering.
Rail: I want us to get to collaboration later as it seems really key here. But to go back, as the viewer going through your work, it almost felt ritualistic. There was something...
Benson: A rhythm. A rhythm of reading and a rhythm of reinterpreting.
Rail: Exactly. There’s already so much meaning in asking us to consider what it means to read the 1892 essay called “The End of the Patriarchal System” in 2019!
Benson: Yeah, that’s what is simply mind-boggling about it. That it was written in 1892.
Rail: But then through your intricate work, you invite us to stay with that thought. That’s where your thousands of cuts become important to me. I think one can read the time, commitment, and dedication this takes. It’s such a close study of Caird’s writing. In looking at your work, I began to think of my frustration with what seems to be gendered in terms like “craft” and “obsession.” But what you do here is not a matter of obsession. It’s a decision to see through what the process and idea demands. I want to hear more about your thoughts on the time and physical commitment that comes with having your practice revolve around the repeated act.
Benson: To respond to the question about craft and obsession—which used to happen in the past, but not for a long time now—I feel that these comments are always thrown at the work as opposed to responding to the work. But, it’s interesting to reflect specifically on that. It comes from knowing how I work and the choices I make to slow things down. That’s why in this body of work I rewrote everything, to create a space to reconsider. This is another difference between this work and Song for Sebald. There, I reprinted the entire book so that I didn’t destroy it. Here, I reprinted everything, but they’re still prints; there’s a certain pace to production and reproduction. But with this work, this is not a print that you’re looking at. It’s a drawing.
Rail: Wow, I didn’t even realize that. That’s how carefully recreated the pages are.
Benson: This is handwritten type text so not only is there an absurd dedicated pace to the reemergence of these ideas, there’s also time spent to reawaken Mona Caird’s ideas. I mean, these are her words and her ideas, and I only hope to shine a light on them again. (And that is reflected in the color field prints too.) Just to finish the thought though, rather than obsession, for me it’s more a matter of pace and, thus, time and re-iteration.
Rail: The short-comings of such labels to describe your repeated gestures are telling. As you mentioned before, you are not one for sledgehammers. It’s about the small cuts and there are lots of those!
Benson: There are so many. Death by a thousand cuts?
Rail: Literally. [Laughs]
Benson: Well, perhaps The End of the Patriarchal System will come by the death of a thousand cuts rather than an explosion. One can see that when looking at the Suffrage Revolution or even in the revolution occurring now. When Mona Caird was writing these essays, she published a series in the Daily Telegraph. At the time they caused an uproar, and the 27,000 responses from readers were certainly not all supportive. I think there’s a transition in the revolution worth identifying, and this is where the persistence and resurgence come in. I feel that I need to intensify my focus, to see that there has been incredible change from the time Mona Caird was writing these essays. Yet still we need to keep on going, to repeat, to reiterate, to re-engage, to revolutionize the current system.
This ties into something essential to the work—not just in this body but throughout all of my work—how to provoke different questions? How to listen again, to re-listen? And this is something I have spoken about in the past in regard to my project The Splits where I work with cutting, splitting, reassembling musical instruments; bifurcating each instrument into two playable halves. The timbre of the instrument changes when split, because they remain incomplete. I worked with numerous professional improvisational musicians to perform and activate the altered instruments. The most remarkable response to the work came from one of my collaborators who said that this was the first time he had “truly improvised in years.” In playing the re-assembled guitar or violin, he had to relearn how to listen because the split instruments no longer sounded like so. As the pitch and tone had changed, he had to re-listen and respond without preconceived ideas or habits influenced by how each should sound.
Even now, I still hear the same questions, such as why aren’t women receiving equal pay? Perhaps, we should ask different questions, such as why are men receiving equal pay? It’s a very simple flip, but perhaps those flips can ultimately penetrate current cultural stereotypes and make a difference?
Rail: Your work refers to politics in such a unique way. It is about practice and showing up, doing it again, and showing up the next day and doing it all over again. And through it all you persist in rethinking structurally. It’s about looking deeply into the systematic problems without a tinge of cynicism and then committing to change and doing the work.
Benson: I’m determined. It did take me 15 years to get citizenship! But yes, it’s a process of slowly and methodically dismantling the structure and then methodically reconstructing something else. I think that speaks to when you asked about the process, the re-, re-, re-. All of these structures that are in place in the everyday have a rigorous framework, so then I have to be just as rigorous in dismantling and re-assembling. There’s something in my persistent process that allows fertile new forms to emerge from the fractures of old, albeit illogical rather than linear. Yes, there’s an absurdity to my process, but I adopt this tactic to try to disrupt and penetrate,—to ensure that the place I arrive at is never predictable, and that I’m left questioning. The infinite possibilities for new compositions that remain in the redacted text leaves room for reading and interpreting. In the Mona Caird series, I precisely re-assemble and re-map in order to excise all that isn’t being heard any more. Can we hear Mona Caird’s arguments anymore? If we could, we wouldn’t be where we are now!
Rail: For me, this corresponds to the comment of your collaborating musician. What does it mean to be a professional improvisor, but to give up the ability to truly improvise? Professionalization is another one of these structures that demands the faking of the performer. Your work—with all its nuanced gestures and its plays with absurdity—shifts the stage just enough for this to be unraveled.
In our conversation today, it is very apparent that you’re deeply interested in all the manifestations of “re-.” One of these word-plays that stood out to me in your press release was repetition.
Benson: To re-petition Mona Caird’s ideas, yes.
Rail: Another term you used there that stayed with me was “radical redaction.” It’s interesting to consider the term radical in your context. I tend to be critical of its usage. And in my case, I like the usage of the Afghani-American artist, Mariam Ghani, in her “Dissonant Archives.” She looks at the genealogy of the word, radical, from the Latin word radix (“root”): beginning as “essential” and “fundamental” (1650) to political Radical Reformers of Britain aiming to the “overturning of the root” (1786) to its contemporary use as “in opposition to the norm.” And she sums up the inner conflicts of the word, “it may seem contradictory that a radical can be both a root part and founding principle, and an extreme agent of change and reactions, simultaneously basic and new; but all this contraction resolves at the root, which is both the foundation of the status quo and the natural starting point for its reform.”1 I thought it felt really true to your work, especially The End of the Patriarchal System.
Benson: Thank you so much.
Rail: I would like us to shift our focus to the color field prints now. In this exhibition, each of your works on paper—the excised essays and their excavated inner scores—is accompanied by a large scale geometric color field print. This is something completely new in this project. This time, rather than asking your musical collaborators to perform it, you create your own visual translation using Newton’s Color theory. The resulting prints are moving. Each print is distinctly in character with its accompanying essay. On top of that, the prints show off their systematic and algorithmic process, while each having their own individual voice. I want to have your take on the prints, learn a bit more of the process, and ask, why Newton in such a Feminist conversation?
Benson: Yes, they’re systematic because of the translation of his color theory. I’ll try and approach the description of the prints but, in order to get to that, I want to quickly discuss the idea of dislocation which has been an important and consistent part of my work. Consider how displaced the excised text is; this is the source of the prints. In excising all the text from the essays in order to find the musical scales, I was thinking about how I’m excavating a found score that is dislocated from the narrative of the essays themselves. The text is tethered to the original narrative but hovers outside of it. And this speaks directly to displacement; it’s dislocated from its original context. It belongs, but is on the outside. When I was working on Song for Sebald, this also spoke to the refugee crisis, foreignness, and extraterritoriality. Here, it speaks to the position of women in society. We are, in a sense, in an extraterritorial position.
To get back to the prints. There’s the excised text and a found score that hovers outside of the original narrative. The syllables of which are used to create the color field prints; this is where the dismantling of the systematic structure of the original language comes into play. Each syllable has a color allocated. That’s where the color theory and Newton come in: for example, “Do” is indigo, “Re” is violet, “Mi” is red, “Sol” is yellow, etc. I created a system that translates the solfège into color—rather than using sound—so that the found score became a silent visual experience—as opposed to an auditory one. In this way the color field links to the gaps within the excised texts. There’s an absence of sound, an inclusion of hued silence. I wanted to assemble a moment of silence within this work. That’s where the decision to construct a color field came to be as opposed to translating the excavated score into a sound work, as I’ve done in the past.
Each syllable has its own color, and then a grid of colored dots is created for each syllable. I take each page, locate each syllable/note, work out the percentage of occurrence of each note on the page, and translate this percentage into the color’s opacity. A series of color layers are created for each note and each page. There are thus hundreds of layers of differing opacities that create the color field.
The choice to use dots was two-fold. Choosing not to use a solid color field meant that light is allowed to come into the work, and, thus, illuminosity. But more importantly,
when laid over one another, the dots create a moiré pattern. The moiré effect suggests an evolving form that here speaks specifically to the evolving form of women’s rights. Hopefully, there is luminosity there.
Rail: I think there’s something quite powerful in how you start with Newton and his color theory and from there you create your own system, your own process of translation.
Benson: Well that’s the thing, there is great ambiguity surrounding his system. He just came up with it. There wasn’t really any solid scientific reasoning behind it.
Rail: [Laughing] “I’m Newton, I can do that.”
Benson: “Of course, I can do that, I’m a man.” So, I thought, “Of course I can do that, I’m a woman. I’m just going to take it and dismantle it.”
Rail: I think this is a good place to return to something that you mentioned before and that’s the importance of collaboration in your work. You have been working with collaborators and musicians for a while now, and since Song For Sebald, you have begun to really play with the idea of authorship in your work. It seems like there are three main characters in The End of The Patriarchal System. In the works on paper consisting of the book and Caird’s original text, you are mostly a student. Then there’s the print and your translation, where your individual voice is most emphasized as the artist. And finally there’s the sonic piece, Limited Mobility Mobile X, where you take the excavated scores of one of Caird’s philosophical texts to be performed by your collaborator, Hai-Ting Chinn.
Benson: My long time collaborator, Matt Schickele is also involved in production.
Rail: The good old idea of the community of people who make things possible.
Benson: There’s a lot of generosity…
Rail: But the prints become where your artistic authorship is most apparent because of the really nuanced relations each print has with the titles—which you take from Caird’s essay for each piece, the only part of the text that is left intact.
Benson: Yeah, it’s an interpretation as much as it is systematic. The roots are alghorithmic, but I became a composer through the translation of found score into color field. The translation of the solfège into the layers of color creates the material I compose with by playing with the order of the layers. Obviously, the essay “A Defense of the So-Called Wild Woman” has a different tone to “The Pioneers of Civilization.” Some of the resulting compositions came quickly. In The Pioneers of Civilization a poignant moiré pattern and color emerged with my initial layering and hardly any composing had to be done; the evolving forms and color felt like an embodiment of the essay itself. For example, Caird speaks about how women were the first herbalists, agriculturalists, initiators of the art of medicine. The color field for The Pioneers of Civilization has a cell-like feel to it and a dominant green tone. A Defense of the Wild Woman has a bright yellow tone. Yellow was an important color to Victorian women and the Suffrage movement, because pastels were associated with the feminine and yellow was this bright, powerful, apparently offensive, color to men.
Rail: It’s beautiful to think that in her writing, Caird is bringing in all these different powerful women with all their distinct characteristics. And then in your work, and in this commitment to re-tuning and listening to Caird, the spirit of all these women finds its presence in your color fields. There’s this profound historic conversation with different timelines and many authors. I had this quiet emotional experience with the prints on that level. But I also kept returning to them because I wanted to solve them, to fully grasp their logic and system, to reverse-engineer them and couldn’t.
Benson: And there is no sense to the system, really, just like there is no sense to the patriarchal system.
Rail: But it’s definitely a system.
Benson: A carefully constructed and preserved system.
Rail: An element that was consistent in your earlier practice which perhaps is less bold here is your relationship with nature and the idea of the fake. Maybe in this exhibition it can be reflected on the sound-sculpture, Limited Mobility Mobile X. Is that still a concern in your work? I was actually thinking about the form of the sculpture, these tiny hanging and reflective black globes that also function as speakers. Do you find them to be correlated with your earlier pieces like the Mirror Globe (Mapping the New World) (2012). The surface becomes a kind of black mirror, does that perhaps echo our relationship to technology—the fake in our time?
Benson: There may be multiple answers to those questions. But this is where the poetry leaves the room, because my decision to use the black ball speakers was not a poetic decision. My immediate frame of reference made the decision very literal. So as beautiful as these objects are, it gained the title, Limited Mobility Mobile, because of the two long hanging balls that touch the ground, limiting mobility. Movement is thus limited due to these two small black balls. [Laughter]
But poetry does reenter the room in the making of the audio. The sound component of the sculpture is beautiful, thanks to Hai-Ting Chinn. And it comes from an uncanny realization. I was taken aback upon realizing that certain words remain alongside the solfège in the text; “la-re,” “ti-re,” “fa-re,” and “re-do.” All the words that remain poignantly speak to the Suffrage movement and to the plight of women in society today. For example, we are tired of the injustice; women do not fare well. “Redo” further emphasizes my focus, “re-do” in the context of we have to re-do everything and keep re-doing. Perhaps this influenced my process of wanting to slow things down because once you dig, you unearth, “tire,” “lare,” “fare,” and “redo.”
When I saw these words emerge I had Mona Caird’s voice in my head:“we must not look at destruction but at re-birth. These essential wrongs on which I have been insisting of —being wrongs of thought and sentiment—are destined to give way before a vigorous moral Renaissance.” And yes, many wrongs did give-way, but more must. When I think of her words, I hear how her words remain in our social consciousness right now. We are going through a process of having to re-listen and wake up to the reality of women’s rights again and again.
Rail: That’s really moving! To go back to your comment on the speaker, I think a bold sense of humor has been consistent in your work. Though that may be undone in conversations like this. [Laughter]
Benson: Reflective balls are more useful.
Rail: [Laughs] It’s hard to discuss “balls”! This was the same dynamic around the writings on your pivotal work, The Chronicle of Narcissism. I guess there’s nothing worse than explaining a joke.
Benson: There was a naked swan. [Laughter] I plucked a Victorian swan. There’s nothing that’s not absurd about that.
Rail: I would like to go back to your new approach to the sound piece for a moment. This time, unlike Song for Sebald, the notes are not read, they are simply hummed, unless the combination of the notes create one of the four words. So, depending on when the viewer enters the work, they may get one of these words to hold on to, or they may be fully surrounded by the non-verbal experience.
Benson: I wanted this sound piece to evolve. I wanted the absurdity of the patriarchal system to be heard and to haunt. There is no pronunciation of any of the syllables, simply a haunting hum, interspersed, sporadically, with the melancholic tone of “tire” or “lare” or “fare” or “re-do.” The audio of Limited Mobility Mobile X parallels the minimal structure of the piece, which is literally just speaker wire, ball speakers, and steel.
Rail: Reflective black balls.
Benson: If only they were reflective. [Laughter]
Rail: And the exhibition brings these three elements together: the papers, the prints, and the sound sculpture. And each of them activates and complicates the other pieces in their own unique way. The word-play in the sound piece returned me to the paper and made me realize how I was still reading it as a page. Of course, that is not to disregard how moving your exquisite cuts are but as the viewer, I remained primarily a reader. And then I was entering the text in the negative, in longing for what had been cut out. I began to notice that when I see “Fa” in Caird’s text, I speculate what the full word must have been.
Rail: Yeah, and that more than anything else shows my personal assumptions. I take that as a Feminist text, “family” will be mentioned a lot.
Benson: Or it could be “familiar”?
Rail: Right, it doesn’t have to be “family,” at all! It could be a familiar, or any other word. But I did assume that it was family. And still that’s how this process of reading the absent letters works. Or how do I read the instances of “rela”? Is it relative? Is it relationships?
Benson: Relationship, relative, relating, you can’t pin it down.
Rail: But one makes those decisions as a reader. One is taking your algorithmic and committed study of Caird, but then aims to read her original text through their own personal speculations and biases.
Benson: It left me with a question of “what do I need this text to be, today”? And it goes back to what you were saying, the rhythm of reading creates a rhythm of interpretation or expands room for reinterpretation.
Rail: It gave me contemplative room to think of what is known of the 1890 text, but also what I expect it to be or to do in 2019, as I bring in all my personal anxieties, frustrations, and exhaustion. I want to use this to touch upon the question of dislocation in general in your practice. There was something that I came upon in one of your interviews that really stood out to me. You mentioned your complicated relationship with language as a dyslexic person. We began this interview talking about exile. I think one of the best ways to describe the experience of exile is to consider what it means to be foreign to the language one lives in. But your description of dyslexia made me wonder what it means to be dislocated within one’s only language. It’s another way for us to think about what you said in the beginning, the many forms of exile, dislocation, and extraterritoriality. Will you please expand on your experience with dyslexia and its relationship to these themes in your work?
Benson: It is something that I inhabit. As an immigrant and a woman, I’m constantly displaced. I think about what it is to be displaced and this is translated in many different ways into my work. Dyslexia is something that is not really thought of as empowering, but I wouldn’t make the type of work I do without it. My language is not my language. And, so I’m positioned outside language and, thankfully, outside a classic translation of reality.
This is another reason I wanted to displace the text from the narrative both in Song for Sebald and The End of The Patriarchal System. I wanted the scores to be untethered so that I could hear them outside of the context. The scores belong to the text, but they also don’t belong or fit the original structure. In this work I was specifically thinking about how women are heard or not heard. For many reasons, women aren’t heard in the same way men are. Does the current system hear words spoken by exiled individuals, whether they be exiled women within their own cultures or exiled people within a different culture? On one (possibly absurd) level, the work is embedded in tackling the question of how to return everyone to exile as an exercise in actually trusting words or situations at this point in time, within the current political framework.
Rail: In the beginning, you offered a quote by Mona Caird, “we are governed not by armies, nor by police, but by ideas.” Ideas as both tools of oppression but also as the base to begin change and revolution. This makes me think of Gramsci and his notion of hegemony. In our conversation we have returned over and over again to the significance of ideas in your work, but also your plays with systems of power. Now your discussion of dislocation offers a new way to consider what stands outside the normative and hegemonic power. Perhaps there is more to grouping and categorizing people as marginalized, considering that we live in a moment of vast dislocation, for everyone. On different levels, on different scales, indeed on different levels of urgency but perhaps this expanded notion of exile is the defining and universal experience that unites us on a bigger scale.
Looking back at the trajectory of your work over the years, I now see each project reflect how we are floating over our historical stains, as you so beautifully put it.
Benson: One question is, “is progress simulacra?” [pause] Is progress simulacra? Is it just an imitation of what we think it should be?