The School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, will present video and performance artist, Ben Coonley (and perhaps his talking toy pony) tonight at the Krannert Art Museum. Coonley hails from Brooklyn and uses comic pedagogical styles and direct audience address to explore aspects of media culture and film history. Now what exactly does that mean? Read the interview below to find out.
Smile Politely: Have you ever been to C-U before? Is there any particular place you’d like to revisit?
Ben Coonley: No, I’ve never been here before, but I feel a distant personal connection to C-U. My grandfather taught at the UI for a few semesters between 1949–51, so my mom spent a couple of her early years here. They moved away because my grandfather got a job overseas. But if they hadn’t moved, this could have been my ancestral home. I also loved the band the Poster Children when I was in high school/college.
SP: What gave you the itch to start video and/or performance art?
BC: I was a public access TV volunteer when I was in high school, so that’s where I learned to shoot and edit video. Although I studied video in college, I think an amateur/public access sensibility still informs a lot of the work I make.
I came to performances sort of by accident. In 1998, a friend of mine, Xander Marro, started a film/performance series in Providence called “Movies with Live Soundtracks.” She would hold these events three or four times a year, and anyone could participate — the only rule was that artists showing work had to perform a “live” soundtrack to accompany their otherwise silent original short films. Movies with Live Soundtracks went on for about six years, and I tried to participate as much as I could. So I made a lot of videos that had an interactive or “live” accompaniment. Recently I’ve been making performances that use other new media presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint.
SP: How would you explain what you do to someone completely unfamiliar to your work or art in general?
BC: I make short videos that could be shown in art galleries, film festivals, or on the Internet/YouTube. A lot of the work I make is about media, and the way that contemporary people use and relate to new technologies, human perception and the distractions of everyday lived experience. Most of the work I make uses comedy and addresses anxiety around the act of presentation/performance. I use untrained actors including as myself, my cat, and a talking toy pony.
SP: What film festival do you consider to be the most important of our time?
BC: Internationally, I think Rotterdam is still the best programmed (and most international) festival in the world. Every show is sold out, even the experimental/art programs. For years, I loved the Cinematexas film festival, which closed last year. Cinematexas was a festival that was able to program low-budget experimental non-commercial work alongside short work from renowned International auteurs such as Werner Herzog, Gus van Sant, Todd Haynes, etc., and they always attracted a great audience of filmmakers, students, people who know and love film. The New York Underground Film Festival was another (recently-closed) film festival that showed outstanding work while helping to cultivate a supportive community of film/video artists working outside of the commercial film world.
I think film festivals aren’t as vital as they used to be, even three years ago. At least not for filmmakers working in an underground/avant-garde tradition. Festivals still offer some institutional validation for people working in specific (mainly academic) fields…and they’re a necessary way for filmmakers looking to find distribution for a feature-length film to market their work. But I don’t think that film festivals are the only or most important place to show or see new short and/or experimental work anymore. Internet distribution and local microcinemas (small theaters that show DIY/independent work on a regular basis) are the most vibrant venues for American artists working in video right now. The Internet allow for potentially huge exposure (far greater than any film festival circuit) and the microcinemas attract receptive regular audiences and help to cultivate/develop local filmmaking communities.
SP: What will be on the plate for tonight’s presentation?
BC: A selection of underground art videos, Internet curiosities and avant-PowerPoint performance. The videos will include a couple from “The Pony Collection,” which is a group of faux-instructional videos I originally made for Movies with Live Soundtracks. I’ll also be showing a couple videos I made with my cat, a hand-painted super-8 version of James Cameron’s Titanic that I made when I was in college, Jar-Jar Binks at Christo’s Gates, and more.
SP: What do you hope your audience will take from your presentation tomorrow night?
BC: 3-D glasses.
Visiting artist Ben Coonley will be presenting in room 62 (basement level) at the Krannert Art Museum, 500 E. Peabody Dr. in Champaign. The presentation is free and begins at 5:30 p.m. Of course, all are welcome to attend.
Photo by Wayne Northcross.