“Ben Coonley,” I said, “when did you start filming yourself?”
“It started in the home,” Ben said. “When I was ten my family got a VHS camcorder and my friends and I would act in each others’ videos. We made little narratives (endless ketchup-soaked parodies/sequels to Psycho) but most of the time we would just goof around in the basement and show off for/to the camera. This continued through high school, when my friends and I had a cable access show which looked kind of like Global Groove crossed with a bad imitation of The Kids in the Hall.’”
“Why did you continue to point the camera at yourself when you grew up?” I asked.
“It would be nice to say it has something to do with theoretical interests in the video medium and unraveling its narcissistic inscription of subjects,” Ben said. “But the real reasons are probably a combination of poor organization (which makes it difficult for me to set up shoots with other people), a lack of confidence in my ability to direct others… and maybe some residual exhibitionist thrill carried over from pre-adolescence that’s been reinforced by years of pointing the camera at myself. I’m not always in my videos, you know… I don’t always like being in my videos.”
“Yeah it can be weird,” I said. “You’ve incorporated some of the videos you made in your childhood in your exhibitions and screenings. Is there any difference recording yourself as a child and as an adult? Or to put it another way, do you ever feel like there’s something infantilizing about performing for the camera?”
“I’ve only shown excerpts from childhood videos in exhibitions and screenings a few times, and it’s always been for a specific event where I think I’m going to know a lot of the people there,” Ben said. “But to answer your question, I don’t think it has to be infantilizing. For me, I guess I do trace the exhibitionist thrill of performing for the camera back to adolescent experiences. So… yes.”
It was time for me to shift the conversation a bit, to get to the point. “One of the things that interests me about your work is that video performance is something of a female-coded medium,” I said. “Or at least, video performance and photographic self-portraiture have been dominated by women. And I think this is partly because the video camera came into use in a period when women were (are) the default object of the camera.”
“Hmm,” Ben said. “Are you building toward a thesis about how male performance videos are trading in some sort of sexist assumptions about what it means to be put in front of a camera? I kind of want to hear more about your theory before I inadvertently support or undermine it.”
“Well it’s something I’m still working out but I think it’s less of a ‘trade in sexist assumptions’ than an abnegation of some of the privileges of masculinity,” I said.
“I think it’s a theory you should pursue,” Ben said.
“Ok thanks,” I said, and went on: “It’s like ceding a measure of authority or subjectivity to the camera—which is something that women are expected to do to a greater extent than men. And since ‘straight white male’ is basically the default identity of the artist there’s something weird about that identity being thematized or foregrounded. It seems to me that since Vito Acconci male artists have turned the camera on themselves as a gesture of self-abasement or self-deprecation… It’s a kind of loser aesthetics.”
“Acconci’s complicated though, no?” Ben replied. “You think he’s the origin of this tradition? Acconci’s videos oscillate between self-abasement and self-aggrandizement. It’s hard for me to think of him as interested in ‘loser aesthetics.’ I think self-abasement and self-deprecation are different things. And plenty of female artists performing for the camera trade in some kind of self-deprecation and self-abasement. But I can go along with the idea that there’s a strand of self-deprecating male performance on video, especially with artists interested in comedy. A lot of losers. There’s William Wegman, Mike Smith, Joe Gibbons, Jeremy Bailey…”
“Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Ronnie Bass…” I interrupt. “As you say, a lot of the artists who do this are interested in comedy. But the results aren’t just funny haha. They’re funny strange. Matthew Barney is arguably the most macho of video performance artists—but even when he gets in front of the camera he puts stuff up his butt and dresses like a monster.”
“Are they (or we) a phenomenon though?” Ben asks.
“Maybe you are a phenomenon,” I said. “Or maybe I’m just trying to make you one. Haha. I wanted to talk about your Valentine for Perfect Strangers, which was about putting yourself—and I mean “yourself” in the generalizing second person, not necessarily you, Ben Coonley—online, about the risks and rewards of objectifying yourself in an image. Can you tell me about why you made it?”
“In late 2005, I was asked by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter to make an e-card about
“love “ for a Valentine’s Day show they were promoting,” Ben said. “The video was originally going to be a Flash-animated e-card. But in the process of researching how to distribute an e-card, I came across YouTube, which still felt new and exciting in 2005. Aside from its scale and global reach, one of the novel things about exhibiting on YouTube—as opposed to showing work in theaters or cable access TV or whatever—was that all these amateurs were directly addressing an audience comprised of individual users sitting in close proximity to the screen. So it was a very intimate one-way form of exhibitionism with a slim-but-tantalizing chance of reciprocity in the form a video responses from a viewer. (At that point YouTube was encouraging ‘video responses’ from viewers.) So I wanted the video to be about this new exhibition arrangement and the psychology of putting yourself on camera on YouTube.
“When I started to make the e-card/video, I had just moved to a very small apartment with my cat, Otto, who was a feral rescue. Otto wasn’t taking the move very well. He’d do laps around the apartment all night long, running right on top of me while I lay in bed, knocking over the TV, clawing up the doorframes, tearing up papers, etc. He was a shitty roommate, the Balki to my Larry. I concluded that the only way we could continue to live together would be if I made him feel “safe and loved.” So I was trying very hard to empathize with him. And part of that process was to make him the ‘author’ of this video. Personifying Otto actually worked really well! We got along much better after Valentine for Perfect Strangers.
“And as for Perfect Strangers, that was a show about this physically comedic binary, which I saw as a parallel to me and Otto, or like the first-person creator of a YouTube video and its viewer. I also have some sentimental attachments to that show. My childhood friends and I had made a parody of it in which both Balki and Larry get stabbed to death. So using the theme song and clips from the show in the valentine was also about imbuing general feeling of nostalgia…and yearning, searching for completeness across a distance.”
Thanks Ben ❤