Emma Cocker in conversation with Ben Judd
Emma Cocker: Your work often interrogates the complex ritual performances and social practices that surround various closed communities or structures of belief. How do you select the groups that you work with? In some senses it seems as though it has nothing to do with their specific beliefs?
Ben Judd: I am interested in people who are attached to a community, but the communities themselves are separated from a larger societal group. Many of these groups are ostracized, to a certain extent. In the recent video, I Will Heal You (which was filmed during my residency at Lugar a Dudas in Cali, Colombia) I worked with a witch – who is a figure both ostracized and respected within the community. There is a aura of respect surrounding witchcraft, even if you think it is nonsense. The same is also true of the power that surrounds a séance.
EC: Witches and spirit mediums have a certain power within a community or belief structure. However, in your earlier work, the groups that you were associating yourself with or trying to infiltrate seemed rather impotent or powerless? In video works such as I Love you adopt a personae in order to infiltrate a particular community – in this case a group of amateur photographers. In I Miss, your attention turns to a group of trainspotters.
BJ: If you think about the earlier groups maybe they do have power, in a very different way to witchcraft. It is still an unknown or secretive activity; it still has codes and is ritualistic. Morris dancing is a very obvious example; trainspotting too. To us it doesn’t make any sense. Why would somebody endlessly write down a list of train numbers? Yet to them it makes perfect sense and I guess that there is a fascination in this structure that they have set up. Maybe this is to do with a certain kind of power. My position within these contexts was as participant and observer; but my connection with the subject presented by the voiceover in the video is only ever imagined, it actually never happens. The subcultures that I am now getting involved with affect people in a different way, on a more emotional level. Witches do have a perceived power. In Colombia, I was warned against seeing the witch; my interaction with these people reinforces that notion of power.
EC: Marginal practices have a curious latent power perhaps because they exist outside of the mainstream power structures; they have an exempted status or manage to operate beneath the radar. There seems to be a greater degree of risk involved in your recent work though?
BJ: I guess so. The worst that could have happened in some of the earlier work is that the trainspotters could have caught me, and in fact quite often they did – they often realised that I was filming them. It feels much more dangerous to try to believe in witchcraft. The danger is unknown – I genuinely don’t know what might happen. In Colombia, during the cleansing ritual (which forms part of the video I Will Heal You) it definitely felt like something was having an impact on me. In retrospect, I am not sure whether that fear was in fact me just believing the witch’s hype. Objects can be transformed through ritual – a lemon, an egg and some sugar can take on very different meaning – they can have a talismanic property. I did genuinely believe if only for a short period of time.
EC: In a number of your video works and performances, you appear to simultaneously inhabit the position of participant and observer, or of a believer and non-believer. The idea of remaining between positions or of not arriving at a single position seems to be central to your work. Do you think that being inconsistent can be critically recuperated as a positive quality?
BJ: I consider my work from that position. Sometimes I don’t know whether what I am doing is a real experience or an imagined experience. I really enjoy that ambivalence.
EC: Your work seems to rely on the tension between belief and non-belief. As soon as you can definitely say that you believe the tension between the two opposing positions collapses. In your work you seem to be on a quest searching for an encounter with belief, whilst simultaneously hoping that this belief-encounter won’t ever be lasting. The quest dissipates at the moment that its goal is reached. Is the tension between wanting and not wanting to believe central to your endeavour?
BJ: It is a quest for an unresolved or in-between position rather than a quest for true belief. It is a very strange position of wanting to believe and yet still disbelieving. I would like to believe in clairvoyance and when I stood up in front of a class and tried to demonstrate my clairvoyance, I felt that I did do it in a genuine sense. On the other hand, it could be seen as a constructed experience for everyone. Being a non-believer or an atheist is still also a belief system. I try to become the medium through which other people experience these different positions. I think that this is why it is important for me to be there doing it. Hopefully people can see from my own expressions that I am going through this very intensive period of questioning. Hopefully they can put themselves in my position.
EC: The character or personae that you inhabit is always going to be perceived as a little questionable or fictional. But I wonder whether the questionability of the character necessarily puts into question the authenticity of the self? If you can inhabit one position and put that into doubt, surely the sense of the original position is also subject to questioning?
BJ: Absolutely, it makes you wonder whether you inhabit those roles anyway, on a day-to-day basis. If I inhabit a role then at least part of me believes it to be authentic, which seems like a contradiction, because how can it be authentic when it is also a role.
EC: Role-play still requires a particular investment, a certain kind of immersion. By being immersed though there is a point at which things might slip and have the potential to be felt as real. Inhabiting a role still involves the participation of the body and the potential that emotions are brought into play.
BJ: And they are very real emotions. When I was working with the spirit mediums, in the video Close to You for example, the nature of the role I have adopted takes on a whole new meaning or becomes a new moral problem. People who have been bereaved, for example, are looking for a connection with someone who has died and I am supposedly making a connection with them. I think that the level of uncertainty or even ambivalence – the question of whether I should even be doing this in the first place, whether it is ethically wrong or in bad taste – would hopefully create a sense of tension or uneasiness which I think is important.
EC: The issues of ethics and exploitation must need to be carefully negotiated within your practice, in relation to how you involve people in the production of the work and how that cooperation is played out. During your residency in Colombia, you worked very closely with a local woman, Verónica Mardel, who had already initiated her own one-person quasi-religious organisation called ‘The Ministry of Universal Culture’. You describe how you had to keep reminding her that what was happening was part of an art practice, a construct. Was there a danger of the work endorsing or furthering her fantasy?
BJ: I had invented a new movement, I Will Heal You, which was partially based on Verónica’s ‘Ministry’, and I suppose there was always this question of whether I was furthering her delusion or fantasy. It is a fine line, because on the one hand I was encouraging her to talk about her ideas, but then I was setting up this movement that I had to invest in, that I had to start believing in. There was a very strange moment where she arranged a TV interview and kept introducing me as her minister from London. I kept saying that I was not this at all – that I was an artist from England making some work that partially involved her. At other times she would come with other ideas for her movement. For example, she said that she had invented the equation of universality. It was a very beautiful idea with a certain kind of logic to it. I would take her seriously; but there is still the question of what happens if you keep pushing this. I found that increasingly the more I pushed it – fabricated this world – the more I had to start inhabiting it, being physically invested. There was a reality to things.
EC: There seems to be a tension then between wanting to set up a movement whilst at the same time stating that it is only a construct. Does the presence of a true believer – like Verónica – unsettle this tension, this balance of contradictions that operates at the heart of your work? What is the difference between actually setting up a movement and setting up a movement within a practice?
BJ: You could argue that there isn’t any difference. I had written a manifesto and had created artifacts. I had made a logo and given a public lecture. So you could argue that this is a movement in a sense, but maybe for different purposes.
EC: The same could be said of a film set though? A production team might make an explosion or a whole new world yet this exists within a particular ‘fictional’ frame and only has logic within this frame which everyone present understands. There is a sense of knowingly inhabiting a construct or alternatively perceiving something to be for real. There is always the question of which group you belong to, what kinds of games are being played, what kind of languages are being used?
BJ: I am fascinated by that idea. I did a piece, Presence, for a show in London where I invited two clairvoyants to conduct a séance. There was this strange clash between two worlds – between an art audience and the believers. I normally think of an art audience as being open-minded but in this particular instance I don’t think they were – they were very skeptical. It created some very awkward moments. The overlap between the very constructed world of an art experience and another group which also has its own beliefs was interesting – what happens when these two groups collide or are brought together in some way? Ideally there are different ways of looking at the world, which then get overlapped.
EC: Every ritual performance has three stages: separation, transitional, and reintegration. Within most rites of passage ceremonies there are always these three stages. The middle or transitional stage is described by anthropologist Victor Turner as being one in which the initiate is ‘no longer and not yet’ classified. There is this in-between status that cannot quite be defined, yet it still has a distinct character. Turner discusses the unruliness of the liminal phase where certain identities or beliefs are abandoned and new ones not yet taken on board.
BJ: I imagine this as a blind spot. There is this thing that you are experiencing but you can’t quite see it or it is slightly out of your vision. When I look at a piece of art that I think is successful, I feel that I am looking at it through a blind spot. I am seeing it but also not seeing it at the same time. It is a very strange experience that is unique to art. For me, this is the criterion for a successful piece of work. It doesn’t happen very often.
EC: Do you mean that you are seeing something whilst not knowing what you are seeing?
BJ: Maybe I am experiencing something and there is a set of experiences that are coming together to form one experience, and I have never had that combination of experiences before, so I don’t know how to describe it. It is a totally new experience. It is almost so new that I can’t quite see it. This is art’s promise.
EC: Art’s promise is that it opens up a gap into which something other is imagined. It is capable of both rupturing what already exists and promising something new. However this promise of the new often remains propositional, it is not always sustained or developed. It promises something but often holds back. There is always the risk that it will not quite hit the mark. The promise of art contains the threat of its potential failure. In your work there seems to be a sense of a quest for something – for belief perhaps – but also a sense of the absurdity or potential failure of the endeavour.
BJ: It is a doomed quest then. This relates to the movement that I created in Colombia. The manifesto for I Will Heal You was full of promises saying things like, ‘If you join us you will achieve this wonderful nirvana, this blissful experience’ but at the same time warning that this was all a sham, that people should stay away, that it was quite dangerous for them to even consider joining. It was setting up the possibility of something otherworldly or magical at the same time dismantling the possibility of this ever happening. It was like saying you can have this if you want it but I am just going to keep it out of reach as well. You will never actually get there.
EC: Things remain in a state of potential rather than being actualized or brought to completion. The possibility of something is always richer. The notion of the future or of a possible future community also occurs in other work of yours. Perhaps this relates to the idea of utopia, which can only really exist as a concept?
BJ: You never quite experience the future, only ever the present. It is the idea of constantly being on the edge of experiencing it and the promise that is important; a perpetual becoming. Once it is inhabited it is no longer a utopia – it becomes something else. This is certainly true of the The Brotherhood of Subterranea, which was a project I curated at Kunstbunker, Nuremberg in 2008. It seemed very idealistic initially, but it became quite an austere exhibition. It certainly didn’t have the lightness you would expect. You couldn’t escape the context and the emptiness of the promises, the darkness therein.
EC: Your work explores questions around the idea of belonging and not belonging, what it means to operate inside or outside of a particular community. In earlier work, you adopted a much more peripheral role as a kind of interloper or infiltrator observing a particular group, however more recently you are the one who is creating the terms of the community, for example with The Brotherhood or the movement I Will Heal You.
BJ: Even if I am the initiator it is still from a position of trying to be both participant and observer, and also be both connected and disconnected. For my residency at the Banff Centre in 2009 my role became much more one of being a host. When I arrived for the residency I was given a guided tour and told where things were, however I was interested in what would happen if I brought other individuals – such as a shaman or spirit medium – to this space, and asked them to interpret it. They would give a guided tour of the site but for very different reasons, pointing out very different things. There is this overlap and within this overlap, how do I position myself? Which side am I on? Ideally, I am on both, listening to what they say and attempting to understand it.
EC: This idea of where you place or position yourself is interesting – I wonder whether your role is to operate as a catalyst that brings these different positions into dialogue? Your work seems then to be less about locating yourself in one position but more about attempting to keep the two possibilities in dialogue? As a consequence, your position appears somewhat unstable?
BJ: I think it is. I hope that the experience feels difficult or uncomfortable. The idea of questioning your own beliefs or systems of belief is very important. I don’t want to find a position of stability.
EC: I am interested in the slippage between character and self in your work, the fray that occurs when someone who is performing a particular role or operating in an official capacity gives to reveal a sense of the individual therein. In the work, The Symbol (filmed during your residency at Banff), the shaman seems to try to turn the tables a little and interrogate you. However, he does this through the voices of others; his own doubts and questions about your project become ventriloquised through the voices of the spirits that he is purporting to mediate. There is this slippage again between different voices or personae. In your video works, you also appear to shift between positions rather than remaining static or even neutral?
BJ: Yes, the way I work is obviously very different to the neutrality of a documentary filmmaker. I don’t want it to have this investigative or journalistic edge to it – my expressions are important. It is important that my role mirrors the individuals that I am filming. Their roles are multiple and so are mine. Both are unstable.
EC: In the work, you and the shaman appear to be testing each other’s limits. There is a feeling of circling, a sense of tension or a feeling of working each other out. Both of you are required to suspend certain judgments – there is a sense that you both have questions or reservations about each other’s practice. There is a line that could very easily be crossed – a spell that needs to be maintained. It seems as though both of you are trying to test a limit without breaking it.
BJ: It is a kind of dance. Inevitably there is a gap between my perspective and his. I invited him to give a reading of the site and I didn’t expect to be tested in the way that I was. I am not sure whether I am being indoctrinated or not. There is a part in the work where the shaman talks to a tree and then wants me to do the same. He takes his shoes and socks off and walks through the snow and says that it isn’t cold. I have to draw the line there and can’t believe him. He looks disappointed that I don’t just take his word for it and just do it.
EC: The marking out of two poles (belief and non-belief for example) also draws attention to the shades of grey between. By suspending certain expectations or beliefs it also becomes possible to escape the terms of a given situation, a particular belief structure.
BJ: Yes, there is a spectrum of possibility between these two options and the question becomes one of where you place yourself. If there are these specific positions, then what does it mean to be able to jump from one to the other or for them to merge? In fact, you are probably always moving between different positions. As soon as you suspend your sense of disbelief things do start to happen. When I met with another shaman at Banff, he lay out all his paraphernalia on the ground. On one level, it was just a feather, a shell, a rock – but it also had this amazing quality to it. I absolutely believed in the power of these inanimate objects. Perhaps this is another metaphor for making art. It is about suspending disbelief or investing objects with a specific quality that in any other situation they wouldn’t have. In art something has the capacity to suggest something else that it wouldn’t unless the artist invested it with those properties.