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Cleveland Artist Spotlights
The scene: The artist is on a small riser. He has just delivered an insightful, well-spoken, if not slightly snarky monologue, articulating a lightweight existential crisis. He does this while gesturing in tandem with images projected on the wall behind him. He sports vibrant, sapphire blue hair, distressed Converse high tops and a DIY t-shirt that reads “I Am Stupid.” And reveals another underneath, “We Are All Stupid.”
Interdisciplinary artist, Ben Oblivion, is pushing boundaries and blurring lines between visual art, performance, theatrics and absurdist humor and has been working to establish a community for outre and left-field artists working in the region. He single-handedly organizes the monthly performance collective, Conundrum Co-Op at Maelstrom Collaborative Arts and is bringing more magic to SPACES Gallery this month. He (and fellow artist, Marcia Custer) were one of 10 artists selected for SPACES’ new Satellite Fund grant program this year for their work as performative duo Two Divorced Moms, Peg & Deb. Get transported into Ben’s world this Friday and through Oct 31st at SPACES’ End of Days exhibition, an immersive, artist-designed experience.
Arts Cleveland [AC]: Can you briefly describe your work and who you are as an artist?
Ben Oblivion [BO]: I am an interdisciplinary artist, working primarily in performance. That means I do things, usually ones that would never occur to most people, in front of an audience. As an artist, I am that friend in that romantic comedy who is perpetually single, my story forever secondary to the feel-good narrative that takes center stage. I provide wisdom, a shoulder to cry on, and comic relief, but whether or not I get a truly happy ending remains to be seen.
AC: How were you introduced to your craft?
BO: My very first experience with performance art was in the eighth grade. I went with my parents to see Laurie Anderson perform at Playhouse Square. She stood in the center of the stage in a ring of candles and told stories about her dog and 9/11 through voice distortion filters. My parents were worried that I was bored because I was only really familiar with her music at that point, but I was enthralled.
AC: Who/what are your long-standing influences?
BO: Laurie Anderson, Bruce Nauman, Orlan, Shana Moulton, Jacob Ciocci, Ryan Trecartin, Bridget Moser, Marcia Custer, Thomas Kinkade, Precious Moments, the daytime soap opera ‘Passions’, The Real Housewives, artificial foliage, and graphic t-shirts.
AC: I’m really curious about your infatuation with daytime soap opera ‘Passions.’ Is your work influenced at all by the show’s popular “dream sequences?”
'Passions' was a lot of things for me and it's sort of hard for me to state my love of the show without over-stating how much I actually know about it. I discovered 'Passions', along with many other day-time television programs, staying home with my sister at a very young age during the summers while my mom was working. 'Passions' specifically stuck with me because it was my first exposure to the Soap Opera World, which is a place that I love, and a place that I wish I could live. In the Soap Opera World there is nothing utilitarian or practical. A Soap Opera gun is never an AR-15. A Soap Opera gun is a revolver with a mother-of-pearl handle, a single bullet, in the velvet-gloved hand of a scorned woman, and we won't find out if she misses her target until next week. The Soap Opera World is about fantasy, but it is only very slightly distanced from reality, and what it ultimately does is shows us an exaggerated version of everyday life. There are no happy endings and nothing final except death (usually). The work that I make is like a 'Passions' dream sequences in that it is a brief exercise in a sort of Soap Opera fantasy of life, an exterior look at my own place in my personal narrative and a question as to where and how that fits into an idealized vision of what my life actually is. My life is the AR-15, and my work is the revolver in the velvet-gloved hand. However, where the one starts and where the other ends is a subject of great contention.
AC: What is your idea of artistic or creative success?
BO: I’m relying on being fondly remembered after I die, which seems to happen to almost everyone anyway, so creatively things are looking up.
AC: What advice would you give someone who is about to see a performance piece who is completely unfamiliar with interdisciplinary work/expanded media/performance art?
BO: "Keep an open mind" is really good advice, but it's also simple and kind of sets close-minded people up with an out to not engage with the work. As someone with an interior view into this world, I try to approach every performance by pushing away any preconceived notions about what I'm about to see. While the performance is happening, I want to allow myself the freedom to associate what I'm seeing with other things that I know and through that be transported by the performer. The truly impressive ones take you on journeys that transcend words and you're left half-capable of explaining what you saw, and completely mystified. And then after, when you're half-capable of explaining, and completely mystified, I would encourage the first time viewer to talk to a fellow audience member. Don't be afraid to have a different reading than your neighbor on what you saw, you're probably both right. And, lastly, my most important advice, don't stop looking for opportunities to see more performance art because the more you see the better it gets.
AC: I’ve noticed an uptick in more overt use of humor in contemporary performance art. Do you think this is an accurate observation? Do you feel your work is informed at all by this trend, or do comedic undertones in your pieces exist naturally for you?
BO: I definitely agree with you. Humor, particularly, absurdist humor is very culturally trendy nowadays. It is also an easy match with performance art which is predicated on the idea that everything we do is a kind of absurd performance. Performance is also inherently physical and what is funnier than the human body? In art, humor does a lot of things in a really pleasant way. It gets your audience on the same level as you, if you can laugh together, but it also gets you to mutually agree on something that is relatable as well as absurd or humorous, and if you're really on-the-nose, you get your audience to feel that they have power over that thing that is both relatable and absurd. That's a really potent thing to achieve, from there you can change the way people see things, from there how we think gets rewritten, from there empires fall and dictators topple and toxic ideologies are remembered as quaintly uncomfortable societal attitudes. Or at least that's what I've come to understand. I wouldn't actually know, as I have never once told a joke in my entire life.
AC: What does your process for generating new ideas look like?
BO: Here’s how it works in a step by step instructional:
1. Put on a garment that is heavy and drapes elegantly
2. Pour yourself a single glass of white wine (don’t drink it yet)
3. Place the glass of wine on the ground and lie face down next to it
4. Clear your mind
5. Maintain this posture and this state until a phrase or an image enters your mind
6. If it is a phrase, whisper it to yourself repeatedly for several minutes. If it is an image, trace the lines of it over and over on the floor next to you for the same period until you have finished
7. Keeping your head firmly on the ground, shift your posture to a kneel
8. From this posture, look into the glass of wine and repeat these words:
“This is a place that I have never been before and a place that I will never be again.
I have distilled the fullness of a thought into a physical form and from here I will
allow it the freedom to live and grow separate from me, even though I wish for it to take hold of my bones.”
9. Stand up. If what came to your mind was a phrase, spit into the wine. If it was an image, stir the wine with the finger you used to trace it on the ground
10. Place the glass of wine in the freezer until it is solid
11. Once frozen, remove from the freezer and drop the frozen wine into your toilet (DO NOT use this toilet until the process is complete)
12. When the frozen wine is completely melted flush the toilet
AC: From your perspective, how do you feel your work affects your audience/viewers? What would you like viewers to take away from your work?
BO: It seems that people are mostly entertained by what I do, and they seem interested in my ideas and what the whole thing is all about, which is something we have in common. Every work is a story, and like most stories, they end with a death. And if you know me, that’s really not all that surprising and maybe more importantly not that interesting. The interesting part is everything that happens before that.
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