Keenan Bennett

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KEENAN BENNETT

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

About Keenan

Keenan Bennett is an interdisciplinary artist based in Philadelphia, where he currently serves as a committeeperson on the William Way LGBT Community Center Art Gallery Committee. He founded and organized Groupe de Recherche d'art Intégré and Incubation Series, was a graduate student lecturer with the Institute for Contemporary Art - Philadelphia, and holds a Masters in Fine Arts with a certificate in Interactive and Time-Based Media from University of Pennsylvania. He has been included in exhibitions at Space 1026, Philadelphia PA; New Boon(e), Philadelphia PA; Viridian Artists, New York NY; The Greenpoint Gallery, New York NY; and MAMA Gallery, Los Angeles CA. His participatory performance project Service Art was awarded a First Night grant by FIGMENT two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014. He has been an Artist in Residence at Vermont Studio Center, Officina Stamperia Del Notaio, Ox-Bow, The Church Studios, and Laboratory Spokane in 2017.

 
 

2017-2018 Winter Residency

 
 

 
 

Interview

By Drew Broderick, February 2018


Where do you call home?

Philadelphia.


What is one good thing that has happened in the past 24 hours?

Folks in the Olympic village are probably hooking up, and the Obama portraits by Sherald and Wiley are fantastic.


Why do you make art? Have your reasons changed over time?

I am interested in what art can do. I don't think I realized the range of art's effects until college, and that's when it really began to excite me, especially art's ability to open relationships between people.


What is a song that you never tire of listening to?

Careless Whisper.


What have you been reading lately? Thoughts?

I've been reading James Baldwin's short stories. He's an author I've neglected, and I'm disappointed in myself for not coming to him earlier. So I'm reading him slowly now, spending time with his stories, with his writing.


What drew you into the contemporary art world?

Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics introduced me to Félix González-Torres in 2009. My heart broke. I couldn't think of anything else for a while. And it was all downhill from there.


How would you describe your work/practice to a total stranger? To a friend’s 5 year old child? To a grandparent?

I'm interested in opening portals to queer spaces in the past so that I can better relate to queer communities I never knew. I'm simultaneously interested in projecting failed queer projects from the past into the future as a speculative, maybe more hopeful, gesture.


What are your studio essentials? What is something unexpected a visitor might encounter?

Really depends on the project. Here in Wassaic, a pile of chipboard architectural model toilets. In other studios through this past year, I usually set up a large shallow pool (dangerous here because my studio is right above the gallery space below where art is currently installed - won't risk it). In my Philadelphia studio, a couple bottles of Ty-D-Bol detergent.


Influences: we all have them regardless of whether or not we acknowledge them. Who or what currently inspires your work?

I have a book put together by Aperture about David Wojnarowicz in the Wassaic studio right now (from the Wassaic Project library). Peter Hujar has a show up at the Morgan Library right now that I need to see (and I'm going to on Friday), but maybe the Hujar interest is more historical-cultural while the Wojnarowicz is definitely: I'm into his writings, his way of thinking, and his projects involving 'historical compression.'


What were your intentions for this residency and how have they changed since being at the Wassaic Project?

I came here pretty open-minded. I have books to read. I have a set of ideas to deliberate on, physicalize some, drop others, figure out what's important. I don't live in an artist commune back home, so it's great here to wake up, talk about art stuff over coffee, walk, talk about art stuff over lunch, work on art, and then talk about art stuff until the stars come out.


What role does community play in your work, and how has community shaped your experience of this residency in particular?

How the people around you think about art informs how you think about art, I believe that. I live in Philadelphia because the community there is amazing, really fantastic artists making art that matters. Here, it's the same thing, just smaller and more condensed and, of course, with its own flavor. A particular way the community here has shaped my work is I am living with a performance artist and dancer, Allie Hankins, and she introduced me on to a form of choreographic notation called Labanotation. I'm using that, now, to choreograph cruising gestures.


How has place influenced your time at the Wassaic Project, and where is your favorite “spot” in Wassaic? 

The remoteness of Wassaic, the cold weather for the winter season, and the small/medium cohort size has definitely led to a more introspection/self-reflection period. Which feels healthy and appropriate. My favorite spot is the old wicker chair in the living room of my residence where I am sitting now. It is low to the ground and sagging in the middle. I fiddle with the wicker when I get anxious and it has ruptured in its center due to the continued sitting and fiddling.


What will you take away from this experience, and what will you leave?

I'm here for two months, and right now I'm only two weeks in, so it feels too early to say at this point. Check back later?

 
 
It’s great here to wake up, talk about art stuff over coffee, walk, talk about art stuff over lunch, work on art, and then talk about art stuff until the stars come out.
— Keenan Bennett
 
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So you're interested in what art can do, especially with respect to its ability to open up relationships between people. Let’s talk a little bit more about this potential of relations, of sociality, or whatever word you prefer to use. 

Well, I think this interest in what art can do really comes out of an exposure to relational aesthetics early in my coming to terms that I am an artist. And it was after reading this book that I thought, wow, there's so much that art can do in terms of opening up relationships, creating relationships, shifting relationships, breaking apart relationships and I was interested in all of these real-world effects that art can have.


In a way that then changed how you approached art and what you produced? Or in the way that just changed how you thought about what you were producing?

This understanding of art, I came to it when I was an undergrad and I was first exposed to relational aesthetics. I wasn’t an art major; I was an art education major. I cared about education, I believed in that system, I believed in the project, I guess that’s a better word for it. Not the system so much — the system has problems, but the project of education of learning from each other, of a growing knowledge and expanding the possibilities of what we can all do, it felt important. And then, when I was exposed to relational aesthetics, I thought, hey — maybe art can be empowering like education, in a way that’s not education, in a way to empower people outside of the education system, which itself I felt like had issues that maybe seemed like big issues to resolve. I didn't know if I was up for that challenge.


Within the sphere of education. But what is it about the sphere of art that does feel more approachable for you? 

I think it is this idea that we can really, as artists, decide or explore new modes of empowering people and of creating relationships. Modes that don't already exist and I think I'm drawn to that aim of, you know — what's a different way that we can create relationships with each other?


It seems like there’s also a fluidity to the discipline of art. It occurs in education as well, under the best conditions, but it’s often met with various forms of academic rigidity. Anyway, for better or worse, art allows a certain flexibility of its practitioners.

I agree. Yeah.


So I guess, I’m wondering what you feel the limits of your practice are… or if there are any?

Well there's always these limits. Who is the work for? How many people can access it, realistically? Who does it empower? Does it empower anyone? I think these limitations are helpful because they provide something to push against. If the art is being limited to a certain audience, there is always a way to push it over that limit. If it's being limited in how much it affects the community in which it exists, can it be pushed over that? And so I think it's important to look at the limits, and to not necessarily accept them, but to look at them.


In that situation, where an artist or a member of a community is looking at a limit, who — maybe not who, but what agent, whether or not it’s an art object, art experience, artist, curator, whatever — what agent pushes it over that limit?

I mean it could be, any, all. I’m not sure if the artist necessarily has more of an ability to push something over the limit than the viewer does. In that way, I don't know if the categorizations of artist and viewer are helpful.


They are certainly much less helpful in the case of your work and practice. 

I can’t speak to others. But for me, I like considering those categories as loose or malleable.


You’ve said that you’re interested in opening portals to queer spaces in the past so that you can better relate to queer communities that you never knew. Specifically, you’ve expressed interest in projecting failed queer projects from the past into the future, as hopeful gestures. I’m fascinated by this idea of looking to the past, in particular to a failed project, in this instance a failed queer project, and what it means to try and bring aspects of that project, not so much into the present, but towards a future. How does this relate to your current work and interests?

Good. Well, I love this question, it seems like a big question, would you be able to break it down into a couple of bite sized questions?


Well I suppose one aspect of the comment/question relates to nostalgia — of looking to a past. A past that you have evaluated as failed in a certain sense. Is this correct? Or by failed do you mean unrealized?

Yes and no. Okay, so I don’t know if I have the expertise or the authority to be able to qualify queer projects in the past as being failures or not. I don't know. I am drawn to certain queer projects in the past that were never realized. So maybe unrealized would be a more precise term for the projects to which I'm looking at. To whatever extent this not being realized fits in with queer failure, I’m interested in that intersection. But I don't know if I have come to a place where I can lay it all out in a clean fashion. It might be a little bit messy, the way I’m thinking about it. My housemate here, Allie Hankins, identifies as queer femme. So I feel like I’ve had an opportunity, here at Wassaic, to really ask her about all the things I'm thinking about, because she and I have read many of the same authors, we’re reading similar material, interested in similar things, and one of the books we were talking about this morning is called Gentrification of the Mind and it's a book that I maybe stumbled upon in a bookstore or something, a couple of weeks ago, and it starts off with this quote by Milan Kundera who's an author I have read in the past, and the quote says, I’m paraphrasing, the first step to eradicating a community is to erase their history. And in some areas of queer communities today and I feel like queer histories are slipping away and I wonder if this is contributing to a certain erasure of a queer community today. The queer communities of the past were not like a concerted, kumbaya community. There were certain factions, and certain projects and they butt heads, and argued, and it seems like today, many of those histories, many of those projects are just being jettisoned to the past. It seems like it's important to be able to relate to some of these projects. Some of the projects, looking back, they seem ambitious and radical, for today. So there were, you know, maybe even more radical back them. But what does that say about today? That we’re just casting them off. I wonder how looking towards these histories, bringing them, dragging them into the present might shape the priorities for the queer communities today. It might open up a range of possibilities for what we should focus on, as a community today. That’s my interest in queer histories.

 
 
In some areas of queer communities today I feel like queer histories are slipping away, and I wonder if this is contributing to a certain erasure... the queer communities of the past were not like a concerted, kumbaya community.
— Keenan Bennett
 
 
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Going from your thoughts on queer histories to your own work. Let’s pick up on the last part of the earlier question. In what ways do you bring that project into the project of your making now? 

I'm not an expert; this sort of project, it seems like there's not a handbook for it. I want to try everything available by any means possible to relate to these queer histories and to conjure, maybe, these unrealized queer projects. So, let me think. At first I was doing lots of research, digging in the archives. I found that there is actually a really rich collection of queer publications that came up starting in the 1950s here in the US, with one magazine out of Los Angeles — 1953 is when it started publication, and it continued for decades. Fag Rag, out of Boston, Gay Liberator, out of Detroit, Drum Magazine out of Philadelphia, where I'm based, so there's all these publications that were access points into these queer histories. So I was thinking, how can I bring these publications to the surface of the present? While also not anchoring them to their temporal past. So I would recreate it but then remove all the text, free it up, lift the anchor, let it float into the present where could exist today, but maybe not tied to the specificities and urgency of the past. Because there’s a certain impossibility of restoring its urgency, how it was urgent in the past, today. But maybe it doesn't mean that it's not urgent, maybe it is still urgent, just in a different way. So that was my original step into doing this, and it's gone through different modes. The most recent project I did was looking at a proposal by George Cecil Ides, in the late 1800s, and he was a gay anarchist living in London. He read Marx and he wrote Marx, like, Marx: love this stuff, love your project, I have an idea that could end class warfare. Let's take Hyde Park, which right now is being locked up at dusk, let's open up the gates of Hyde Park at night, keep all the lights off, though, and turn it into a spoonatorium — this is a word he made up, a spoonatorium, a place for spontaneous romantic encounter as a way to unite the classes. Then I've also been exposed to the history of cruising through radical publications that I've been able to locate, from from stories I've heard, from from older generations of queer folk. My first same sex kiss was in a public restroom, so I sort of felt like a little personal investment in this history and so I did this project called Future Defecations where I thought, okay — if cruising is an important gesture in queer history, if it has this analogy to political protest in that it both required a massing of people and spontaneity… then what would a restroom look like if it were designed for cruising? Restrooms were reconfigured by queer communities to facilitate cruising and then these restrooms were, more or less, shut down in in the 80s and 90s. So what would a restroom look like if it were created for sociality? For a spontaneous romantic encounter? So I designed a couple of restrooms based on cruising and sociality, restrooms that would facilitate interaction, and so I had three models that I drew up. I did this project in Spokane, so the models were largely informed by the topography of their main downtown park. I wanted the viewers in Spokane to have a stronger connection to the models being presented and so one is called Shit Pit, and it it's like this. You go down, it's all outdoor, you go down this dirt ramp into the circular space, where there's a circle of toilets. One is called Romantic Alcove and it has a toilet design called Truncated Pyramid. It’s a toilet designed so that you can sit on it from any direction you want. Feet dangling, feet on the ground, feet up in the air, and so if you have just a pile of these like they're thrown across the landscape, then you have all these new ways of using the restroom with others, at your most intimate moment.


Just so I'm clear, and it connects back to our earlier conversation of unrealized past queer projects: these projects (your projects) are also unrealized? In the sense that they have not been materialized, not been built in the park in Spokane for instance.

Right.


But they’ve been realized as proposals for the park…

Yes. So these were proposals for future defecations. The third is called Loff, and that is the name of the carousel maker who made the carousel for the downtown park and it's a public restroom carousel. The fourth thing in the show was a large park model. All outdoors, it had a lake, it had a mountain, and everything was movable. The bushes removable, the streetlights removable and viewer were invited to come to design their own toilets for the park and then deploy them on the model and move the bushes to make the perfect hyper socialized public restroom.


Beautiful. Can we loop these projects into a current project that you have just begun by way of conversations with Allie Hankins, who you said you're living with currently, and is also a current Wassaic resident. It was about choreographing cruising gestures. Let’s talk a little about that?

Yes, so I showed an early version of Shit Pit to a visiting critic when I was at Vermont Studio Center. And this is someone that I really looked up to, and at their talk, I asked a question and I didn't ask the question in the way I meant to ask the question. The response that I received was sort of, like, sassy. So I felt like there was a person in my studio.. the way I was feeling, I was standing in the studio in a way that was awkward. And it was sort of like the visiting critic thought that I was moving through the space with them in a way that was analogous to cruising or cruising gestures. So I thought, what if there was a choreography to go with these spaces? So I brought up this idea with Allie at home, and Allie said, do you now Laban I don’t, so I looked up Laban, who had this way of recording motions, and there’s really nothing else that been devised for choreography so precisely. It's like a score of music but instead of moving left to right, you move from the bottom up, and this center represents your center of gravity. Your legs, your arms and your head along here. And so this is a score made for the movements made by the protagonist of Pink Narcissus, which is a film from the 1970s by James Bidgood. The protagonist is in a public restroom, looking to cruise, and so this shows the protagonist with their center of gravity on their left foot but both feet are on the ground, their arms are by their side, and their head is sort of center. Then a step forward on the right foot, then I step forward on the left foot and I turn to the left. Then the hands come to the crotch and hold the groin, while the head dips down and starts to bend to the right, then step on the right foot, then the left foot, and the shoulders come down and the head bends even more to the right.


So you’ve taken this sequence, applied Laban movement analysis, and then this will become a document, a score for a performance, a…?

This is so new, so I can't say where it's going to rest and I'm still learning this, like this is a really complicated system. It's beautiful.

 
 
I want to try everything available by any means possible to relate to these queer histories and to conjure, maybe, these unrealized queer projects.
— Keenan Bennett
 
 
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Photos by Walker Esner