Tell me about your work, when did it all start?
It is really hard to pick the exact moment when I started to produce work for self-satisfaction, or using art as a vehicle to channel my thoughts and ideas. I originally moved to London to pursue a career in music and to find an art course which could facilitate that interest whilst still getting an education. It has only been the last two years of studying when I started to produce work in the formats of performances, film, events and garment making.
Music is something that I still incorporate. For me it’s an enjoyable method of creating interests when producing works. My practice generally revolves around creating alternative logics from recognised objects and institutionalised structures that we already understand exists in this world and others.
I often look towards how these objects and structures are presented through common language and space, then decode them with various alternative presentations and properties to create a dichotomy between the attachment the viewer already has with the recognised object or structure.
To abbreviate, I am trying to create a push and pull effect. I want the work to be accessible with the viewer but then I also want you to find it completely inaccessible, even anti-climactic.
An example of this is how I use the term “cum” in my work.
It is a term which has become a homonym with its 21st century abbreviation.
To “cum” or “cuming" i.e. “come” or “coming” refers to both the act of attending or visiting something and a bodily substance which is ejaculated during intercourse aka “cum” or the sexual act of “cuming” i.e. the climax to ejaculation. So, in my film “Grey Film” I use this term in relation to the idea of coming or “cuming” to a space, a space where “cum” is multifaceted and cryptic in purpose and origin:
“Ectoplasm ejects, erects and projectile cums,
Cums with cum,
Penetrating the ectoderm,
what role does space play in your work?
I have a strong focus on space when thinking about performances or film. I like to think about the creation of spaces within a space.
I guess I see this as an extension of the idea of safe spaces - making spaces which seem or are untouchable by an audience, spaces which can’t be contaminated.
For instance, using film as a tool to navigate a certain space, but it can only be viewed behind a screen. Or using reflective materials like plastic for performances as part of the stage set up. It creates essentially other dimensions and alternative perspectives to seeing the performance in real time, an attempt to blur where the “real” space sits. A time travel of some sorts.
I want the space to transform when the public documents my work, furthering the conversation to how space is documented and experienced by the public via visual documentations as a historical archive, alternatively to seeing the performance in real time. I never want the space sit comfortably in space, the present or future. I want it always to evolve.
All the materials used are specifically chosen because they are “camera ready” - they allude to some other possibility or has some kind of exaggeration of their presence when under the camera lens.
I guess like the same quality of props for a film. Or even when you view things on TV, and behind the scene there almost sublime but in person they have an alternative anticlimactic feeling, they are not as magic as they are behind the screen.
I think that’s the vibe that I want with my work, that things are never what they seem to be, you can’t prick your finger on anything.
Are there also other elements that are essential to your work?
When making work I rely on various networks of collaboration, which is something that I find most valuable in the production process. This is normally with friends or other fellow artists, involving their participation and opinions, as well as helping with certain elements to the construction of various elements in my work i.e. video, sound, recording etc.
I think it’s the sense of collaboration and of a community that I want to be echoed or gestured in the final product. A queer family in essence. The collaborations aren't necessarily intentional, there more like vibes which bounce off from friends and I find we all end up mutually giving and taking from each other. Without any form of collaboration, I don't even know if my work would function because it relies on the individualism of other performers to gesture their own sense of being whilst being interconnected by my own gesture or direction.
Before a performance or filming I always reassure the performers that I haven’t specified what they “cannot do”. I think this is where the magic lies in the work, giving it a multitude of possibilities. In essence, there’s complete utter freedom to do as they want to freely, although the actual act prescribes in general something regulated and repetitive but with the occasional glitch. And the glitches, the acts which defer from the vague directions given in the script, are the most satisfying to me.
You mention that you're a queer, non-binary person. In terms of space, do you feel that, throughout your art you are challenging new ways of seeing performative art?
I don’t feel that there is a sole intent from my side in shaping the way in how performative art is seen in correlation to my gender identity. Internally it is something I live with, something which is normal everyday life. With this said, I would agree that my practice probably does gesture my queerness. I think that spaces are challenged not necessarily by an individual gesture (like myself with my art) but rather it’s challenged by a correlation of similar minded individuals.
It is a generational gesture. I recognised thought my study at goldsmiths working with fellow queer, femme or non-binary artists how in particular a millennial generation of artists seem to be shaping new ways in spaces art facilitates.
Spaces are becoming safer, but then I get anxiety just thinking exactly why spaces are needing to be safer. There is an awful lot of violence which exists outside of these spaces, some spaces even are advertised as “safe spaces”, turning out not to be safe. I’ve had personal experiences with this. This makes it even harder as a trans person for it ever feel legitimate or comfortable to express myself. I'm trapped in an anxiety bubble [haha]. But a few spaces do provide me with love and care, it allows myself to blossom to become my true authentic self.
To discuss this though would be a very long and intense conversation, it would take a various range voices and positions to do satisfactory justice, but I think is important to be noted. So, to round up the question, I believe that my work and body is just one clog in the mechanism to seeing new ways how art is performed, to the open expression of gender identity.
But do you then think that personal identification is important to the way the public view your work?
I guess this question kind of relates to the previous question. Again, it’ not my intent for the viewer to read some kind of my personal identity within the work, although I do believe that traces of my own self and bodily gestures are characterising my work.
For me it is not necessarily important, however, I do acknowledge that my work gets some sense of validation from the viewer i.e. comments, appraisal or even a sense of acceptance, that’s something that I find validating.
I think that even the validation does become internalised to become something other than the work, taking the appraisal of my work as validation of my body, of my gesture.
I definitely have a trait of narcissism which kind of feeds off this attention, I think that’s because I get a lot of invalidation of my gender identity on a daily basis i.e. not feeling femme, been referred to by the wrong pronouns, verbal abuse ect.
With that I definitely celebrate my narcissism - it gives me the confidence to keep on going. I think even essentially the garments that I make in my practice are the garments which I would want to wear as my true authentic self.
Currently, I don’t have the confident nor feel safe to do this on the regular in public. I wear black most of the time, a cute colour, but doesn’t feel very me. I’m getting there slowly though - most transitioning periods take many small steps, so I'm taking it day by day to be able to project my true authentic self, how I want to feel or express my body and gender identity.
Making work is breaking down the barriers which prohibit me from not feeling truly satisfied with myself. So, I guess, that it’s definitely my own projected identity within the work, it is just not explicit when viewed by the public.
I’m curious to find out where does your reference and inspiration come from and how have they inspired you to explore certain areas or borders within work?
My references often come from what I do in my own time - I'm never seeking out information or inspirations. Basically, when I'm procrastinating or when I go out to clubs.
Youtube videos are a source which I have found extremely helpful. Like, I archive lots of stuff I find on Youtube on my hard drive, often replicating tutorials or using materials which have been reviewed by Youtubers. I think it comes back to the “camera ready” elements to my work - these materials have already been pre-tested under the lens of the camera by Youtube and I also know that these objects provide a curiosity and accessibility to the viewer because people are intrigued by them.
That’s how the use of objects such as liquid gallium and gold collagen face masks are used in my film and performances. I just provide an architecture to these props to alternately attempts to push the viewer away from what they recognise the original properties the objects held, creating that “push and pull” effect.
Clubbing or the club has a strong influence in my work. The types of music from when I go to various different clubs is often sampled in the music in my films, it might sound weird, but I often look at how people interact in the club. It’s crazy how so much communication is made without speech. It’s like a whole different language - gesturing your friend to go out for a fag, passing over drinks, not knowing when to make eye contact with people ect. The club often also provides a safe space for me as well. I'm able to express my gender comfortably and be surrounded by company that validates it. I guess the clubs I go to, often queer nights or nights which host queer DJ’s, provides me with a safe Space. Sober safe spaces are also important though, I guess that what becomes validated in my work. We need to see more of these spaces for queer bodies, it’s something I’m particularly interested in at the moment.
So, what’s next for Benjamin O’Brien?
At the moment, I'm just thinking about new ideas and continuing to archive anything that takes my interest. I’m also starting work soon as an artist assistant to an artist work who I’ve admired for a long time, so that’s an exciting prospect for me. Continuing to collaborate with friends is also something which wish to continue with. And I'm definitely looking for more opportunities to keep me active. There’s lots of thoughts and ideas, I'm just waiting for the moment when I feel it’s ready to materialise them.