Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa is an artist and independent curator based out of Brooklyn, New York. He has been featured on Make Space back in August.
I often begin a film or video with a concept, something I have read or heard that is bugging and/or intriguing me. A lot of my work could be considered as kind of critical theory field work, in that I will read a piece of philosophy or art theory and wonder if I can verify or explore it with film and video in some way. That’s the case with my piece The Green and the Blue (above). I had been reading a lot of posthumanist texts, Harraway and Deleuze, while simultaneously my mother was getting a pacemaker/defibrillator attached to her heart. I thought that this was an opportunity (if such a word can be used for a family crisis) to investigate the validity of these thinkers’ claims. I have my own feelings and beliefs on the subject (which I outlined in a paper that can be found here) but the complexity of the footage always kept me from solely stating my opinion. What I ended up with was sort of a mix of my mom’s, these philosophers’, and my ideas. In general, I always try and allow enough open space in my movies for ideas other than my own to seep in. So, while I may have some theses, and I usually do starting out, if the film just ends up explicating them then there’s something wrong, and I probably should just be writing a paper on the subject instead. I really don’t think of my art as a form of self-expression, as a way of telling people my ideas or emotions; it’s more of a document of my interactions and grappling with the world than anything else.
I usually have a few projects floating around at a time. I tend to go through periods of intense activity followed by long gaps in my productivity. I consider myself at least half a critic or theorist, and often this role will eclipse or be eclipsed by my art making. But even if I am working on a piece of writing or a specific movie for an extended period of time, I always have some other movie or writing project that I am thinking about while procrastinating.
For me, working with the moving image is all about the medium’s indexicality, the fact that the camera is capturing the real light of actual objects during a set period of time. Sometimes this expresses itself in an almost vérité approach, where I go out into the world trying to capture some “truth” with my camera, but I would like to think the truths that I seeking are ones that cannot be documented in a conventional sense, or through conventional means. In a way, I think the camera’s frame and the combination of images through montage can be used to allow the subjects to express small truths about themselves, rather than trying to capture some bit “TRUTH” that exists out there. It should be mentioned that by “subjects” I don’t necessarily mean humans, or even animate objects, I simply mean the forms whose reflected light is being recorded.
Depending on the project, I will often research artists that I feel have succeeded in making work that explore the themes I am exploring. For And They Watched the World All Around (previously featured on this site), I was interested in the possible expressive qualities of landscape images. I looked at a lot of paintings, trying to figure out what these natural scenes can say to a viewer. On the one hand, you have paintings like some of the early American landscapes, where the sun is coming out over these vast spaces. You get the feeling of unlimited possibilities, and there’s usually some vestige of humanity somewhere, like a fence, or a tiny explorer on some mountaintop pointing at the horizon. It all feeds towards this image of nature as a resource, as a material for humanity to explore and use. On the other hand, you have paintings like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s (who I absolutely love) where nature is huge and beautiful, but also terrifying and dangerous. In his paintings nature is a totally alien thing, that is so big and beyond us that it can be all these things at once. (Here’s a good example). I was trying to get at that feeling with my film, and ask some questions about it. What do we get out of looking at images of nature? Are we simply seeing a threat or an opportunity, or is there something else? A lot of my work revolves around this idea that we can expand or get beyond the limits of our species through contemplating images like these, so it’s a vital question for me.
On space and site:
I currently live in Brooklyn, NY but I grew up mainly in New Jersey. Both places are really essential to who I am, but I have to say I think New Jersey is a much more interesting place to film. The landscapes there are just stunning, the changes that take place outside the bus window on the drive from New York City to Atlantic City is the craziest thing. You pass through this swampland that is crisscrossed with highways, and you go through this immense industrial zone that feels straight out of Blade Runner. I’ve been wanting to film by these factories for a long time but I keep getting worried that the companies’ security guards will catch me. Finally, you end up in Atlantic City, which is just such an interesting place. They have this astounding statue right in the middle of the boardwalk dedicated to all the construction workers who died building the casinos in 1977. It’s 25 names, which is a lot in my opinion. It really is completely surreal to have it just pop up in the middle of all the partying and debauchery that goes on there. (A picture I took of it is above)
Unfortunately, living in New York City I barely can afford enough space to live in, let alone work. Luckily my art requires very little space. I always shoot on location, and all I need for editing is my laptop and my hard drive. While I would love to have my own studio, I have a feeling that many artists in this city are in the same predicament that I’m in, and I’m grateful that a lack of space doesn’t stop me from being productive.