Interview with Bennett Williamson

May 16th 2010

Interview with Bennett Williamson

I first met Bennett Williamson few years ago when he was in London on an exchange programme at Central St Martins. He’s been back in New York ever since, making work both on his own and as part of the net art collective Double Happiness.  We met the other week (coincidentally in a cafe that sold English tea, biscuits and squash) to reminisce about London and catch up on our post art school lives.

IS: Your collaborative work on the double happiness blog, is a sensory overload of collated material (which did crash my computer as you said it might).  This experience is difficult to translate in a physical space, however I know that you did this for the ‘New Blood’ exhibition at Vertexlist in Brooklyn. How did you approach replicating that experience? Do you think you were successful? Did it change the way you approached working on the blog?

BW: Once we got the invitation to the show, initially we talked about how much of a ’single gesture’ we wanted to make – like a focused, fairly simple sculpture, which would be closer to replicating a single post on the website. Or did we want to go more general, to try to embody the feeling of Double Happiness offline. We decided to go with the latter.

It was a mix of trying to embody the aesthetic of the website in the way that the installation would be laid out, and also trying to find examples of things in the real world (objects, images, items, machines, etc) that were Double Happiness. (We often use ‘Double Happiness’ as an adjective – loosely it just refers to something that fits the feeling of the site, or would be included on the site.) We tiled images across the background, as the site often has a tiled background. We used a lot of found objects (posters, stickers, microwave, placemat) in the same way we use appropriated content online. We spent a lot of time the week prior to the opening in the gallery, trying out different compositions, sketching, trying things different ways. Along with the found objects, we purchased/made a lot of new items just for the show (video loops, DVD cases/covers, mini-fridge).

In the end I think it was successful in that although we were obsessed with all the little details and hidden bits of the show (after spending a week in that room going crazy), it came out looking like one, messy, huge gesture. In that way we were successful in creating a the feeling of Double Happiness offline – the individual images and pieces may have a lot of meaning to the members of the group but the audience is confronted with a noisy mess as a whole, and has to decide if they want to delve into it or not. It looked great, we were very pleased.

Doing the show did not change the action on the blog, but it did get us applying to more grants/shows and thinking about taking Double Happiness offline more.

IS: You organised the ‘Internet Sleepover‘ at Eyebeam in 2007, which has received a lot of attention.  Again this event gave a ‘real’ space to something that previously only existed online.  Can you tell me a bit more about the event? How did it come about? Have you worked with any of the other bloggers since the event?

The Great Internet Sleepover was essentially a meetup of people that were doing this new net art, now known largely as ’surf clubs.’ There was a little groundswell of movement of people doing this new style of group blogs that featured a mix of found and original content. I think what interested me was that these were not like style blogs or photography blogs just images found on the web to try to create a ‘look,’ it was all people making work or showing things that really related to the experience of spending time online, using computers in a personal and artistic way, and taking notice of all the little great aesthetic moments that crop up in the everyday user experience. There was some talk too in the (mostly online) art world about this being ‘net art 2.0′ as opposed to the original wave of 90s web art.

It seemed like a good time to try to get these people together, just to give everyone a chance to get together and talk face-to-face, and maybe make some artwork together. Double Happiness started while the members were all in different countries, but once we all got back to NYC we met up, and the times that we’d get together and surf the internet together were really fun and fruitful in terms of ideas that I thought ‘lets get a bunch of these groups together.’ It was cool because a lot of the people were NYC based, but by no means all, and people flew out from LA, Utah, drove from Baltimore etc to come. For some of the surf groups it was the first time they were meeting each other in person as well. The groups included Double Happiness, supercentral, nasty nets, loshadka, and other individuals.

The ’show’ was at Eyebeam and was open to the public for the first few hours, there were tons of computers set up, public terminals for people to log on, mess around online, and they were hooked up to projectors. There was some fun cross pollination between the surf clubs that night, people posting content on other people’s blogs, working informally with other people. There was a half-hearted roundtable talk which yielded more questions than answers, there was a green screen, people were live chatting with strangers online on huge projection screens, people were playing four square, there was a pizza party, someone brought a tent and was playing video games in it, and there was even a big game show trivia event that one of the Eyebeam artists organized. As it got late, the space was closed to the public, and it became a lock-in style party, with people staying up all hours and getting crazy, doing art both online but also drawing, talking, filming, etc.

It created a lot of dialogue between the surf clubs after that, but nothing like a formal movement really emerged. I think that an important part of the work is that people are at home, doing their thing on their own computers, and meeting in person is the exception. Afterwards I was asked to submit work to some shows that other net artists were involved with, which was really fun. And I did become closer with some of the NYC based people.

IS: Your work has a very ‘tongue in cheek’ attitude.  Do you think it is fair to say that a certain part of making art is about seeing what you can get away with, about being able to say, ‘I want to do this seemingly ridiculous thing. But I’m going to pull it off. It’s valid and conceptually sound, and if you get it, great!’?

BW: ‘Ridiculous’ and ‘Amazing’ are two words that do come up a lot in relation to Double Happiness. Usually something like “Look at this thing. It is totally ridiculous because it is so disgusting / poorly designed / inexplicable as to why its on the internet / amateur / etc. But in its own way it is amazing, and I’m really glad it exists.”

We created Double Happiness as the place that we could put all this stuff, and look at it together.  And then that dialogue informs our own original work that we create and put on there. We also take advantage of the fact that the publishing is so fast – you can have a stupid, Double Happiness-style idea, and boom 30 seconds later you’ve made it into a post, and thus the artwork is ‘completed.’ So I don’t think we are trying to get one over on people in the way you describe, by doing ridiculous things on purpose trying to ‘get away with it.’ I think that we just made ourselves a place that we can post some of our basest, least-developed, crassest, and in that same way some of the purest and simplest ideas and urges we have. Like, first thing that comes into your head.

IS: Do you ever worry about your work being dismissed as purely entertainment?

BW: No. That is to say I think some people probably do look at the blog and think of it just as entertainment, but that doesn’t worry me. Double Happiness is like a sketchbook. We’ll talk about something together and then some version of that idea will get made into a post, but the real idea gets developed more thoroughly by one of us individually and made into a more cogent artwork.

But I also like mingling art and entertainment – it would be great to work on some music videos / films, or public entertainment events.

IS: How would you describe the differences between how artists approach their work in both London and New York?

I’m definitely not ‘on the scene’ enough to make any sweeping statements about this. But when we met and talked in person, I was talking about my initial impressions of art students at NYU where I was in school and at CSM where I did study abroad and met you. I was saying that in London, at least from the students I met, there was much more people that were going to just start up their own gallery/collective and just do it from the ground up – start with a squat show or whatever but just stay active and make your own space if you can’t get into the mainstream. I just didn’t see that much of the same spirit going on in New York (though technically I wasn’t in the art program, so maybe I was missing out a bit). There were some warehouse/apartment shows, but somehow they didn’t feel like people were taking it as seriously as in London. I know a lot of people who are just out of school and are artists, but I’m not sure how the gap gets bridged to practicing artist. I think this is just because I’m young and still figuring it out myself.

IS: Is there anything interesting going on in New York you think I should know about?

BW: Uhhhhhm its summertime so places like Storm King and DIA Beacon are great day trips outside the city… check out Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, also in Queens is Flushing Meadows, huge park with the Unisphere which is a cool huge globe. Also in Flushing Meadows, in the Queens Museum, is a scale model of the entirety of New York City, which is cool. The Max Neuhaus sound installation in Times Square is probably the only reason to ever go to Times Square. Definitely check out The Dream House in TriBeCa, by LaMonte Young – awesome and trippy. In the same category are The Earth Room and The Unbroken Kilometer by Walter DeMaria – like The Dream House they are cool because they are weird installations that take up huge apartments/spaces in non-museum parts of New York. They are always there, day and night, forever. Look up Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and then go down to the courthouse plaza that they removed it from and checkout the stupid benches and bushes that replaced it. The Greater New York show is coming up at PS1, that is definitely one to check out. I usually enjoy whatever is at Postmasters gallery.