Energetic, colourful, dream-like and hysterical are some of the adjectives usually used to describe Helen Benigson’s installations. This British artist creates immersive video and sound environments in which she, or a cast of volunteers from all kinds, perform. Besides being a multimedia artist working on screens and the boundaries between the tangible and the digital worlds, she also raps under the name Princess Belsize Dollar. Having performed in places all over the world –from the UK to South Africa, Israel and the US–, with pieces that must be experienced in first person, we wanted to discover the woman behind such two strong artistic identities.
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First of all, I’d like to talk about your website, which is so funny and cool! As you scroll down the hot pink background, there appears a palm tree, a middle-age woman in a bikini, some pills for female fertility, and a Skype screenshot. On top of this, the cursor is a sushi maki. How does it all make sense together?
Thank you! The website builds on ideas of layers and cut-outs. I wanted the website to be an extension of what I was thinking about in the videos, installations and performances and another place my videos can be experienced. However, it is a constantly evolving process and I am about to re-make my website completely. So I think of it as an online sketchbook.
And now let’s talk about you… When did you start experimenting with sound and video? And when did you know you wanted to work with that media?
When I was 18, I made a video where I interviewed a butcher –that was the beginning, and from that moment I was addicted to the medium. This was at the same time that video / photography on mobile phones was beginning to be better quality so the idea of recording became more accessible and instant. I remember that at this time, I printed out every photo on my phone and made a physical photo album. This is something I would never dream of doing today because I take up to 50 images a day and so the limits of memory are completely redefined through web 2.0 and technology.
Your creations end up in site-specific installations and performances. What do you like the most about creating ephemeral art?
I think the instant and the spontaneous is really appealing. I like the idea of a single moment that is either shared or missed. I explore ideas around the “instant” in my installations: I have a very short attention span and would never want other people to be bored when watching my work. I like the idea of moving quickly (get in, get out, move on). However, many of my videos are also slower-paced with complicated and layered narratives. So, some of work is meant to be watched more slowly. I also write a lot, which has a different time and I make monoprints which although are quick, are hand-made and not ephemeral.
Screens are very important in your work and methodology. What draws your attention to them?
For me, screens work as skins. They are the closest technology to the body, mirroring a corporeal technology that happens inside.
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The cast of volunteers that you collaborate with include spray tan beauticians, weightlifters and strippers amongst others. How is it to work with people from such a variety of professional fields and worlds?
These women are all experts in their field and this is inspirational and powerful. I include producers more than I include consumers and I ask them to work with me in order to highlight contemporary strength in different forms. I think of these women as being versions of myself but to retain their sense and purpose of self so that they become characters within a narrative. They have to perform a certain role when they become part of work –it is a scripted process although collaborative. The process is collaborative but I am still the author of the work.
Besides being an audio-visual artist, you also perform and rap under the name of Princess Belsize Dollar. What’s that project about? Is it differentiated from Helen Benigson?
Princess Belsize Dollar is a formal way of thinking through my concerns around the messiness of sound, text and visual pleasure. PBD is my rapper name –when I rap I feel sexy and in control but, at the same time, awkward and alien.
What kind of issues does Princess Belsize Dollar rap about?
Sushi, sex, nails, pregnancy, insomnia, saliva, sweat… The raps were audio versions of the installations, performed and embedded.
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One of the themes you like to talk about is the body, both in its physical and real sense, and in its virtual sense. In fact, you created some installations and performances to talk about the body, such as Cashino Desert and Anxious, Stressful, Insomnia, Fat. Tell us more about it.
I am interested in the presentation of the visceral tensions between performance, body and brain in online and offline spaces. I find the overlapping of virtual and real space really exciting and this excitement becomes a material I play with within the work. Bodymapping, profiling, hyper technology and imagined territories are all constantly reworked, remodelled and then broken down.
I am constantly on my phone documenting the real: sending pictures of my body across the world, looking up medical symptoms online, inputting personal data into an app, etc. This crudeness is problematic as well as seductive.
You’ve been a resident artist in different spaces, such as The Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town and the Site Gallery in Sheffield. How was the experience of living in an artists’ residency? What major differences did you find between them?
I really enjoyed the public aspect to the program at Site Gallery –the model that the working studio became a site for live rehearsals, performance and video, print and sculpture. I also appreciated the duration of the project, which meant that the research was able to develop over the time of the residency in an organic way. My residency culminated in a large-scale performance and an installation that saw all my research during the residency come together. The process at the Irma Stern was the exact opposite, very intimate and quiet, where the filming took place at the museum –I worked alone and edited the footage once I was back in my studio in London.
Besides London (and the UK in general), you’ve also exhibited and performed in cities such as New York, Tel Aviv and Moscow. What differences did you notice between each city’s audiences? Did they react differently to your art?
I feel that there is no difference in the way people respond to the representation and performance of the female body within online space and real space. All over the world, people are experiencing their own mediation of body through technology and this is something that is shared.