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Making Art from Stolen Conversations

As told to Alan Weedon

Benjamin Lichtenstein has been scrapbooking phrases and overheard conversations for years. Now he's turning it into art.

All artworks by Benjamin Lichtenstein

VCA graduate Benjamin Lichtenstein is part-voyeur and part-documentarian. For the past few years, the artist has been collecting misspoken turns of phrase, overheard conversations, small gestures, and quiet words between people. Initially he didn't know what to do with all these borrowed moments, but this week he'll bring them together in his IPF show Even Dim Stars Add Light To The Universe. Turning countless observed moments into a series of silver gelatin prints isn't a super straightforward task, so we called him to ask how he did it.

VICE: Hi Benjamin. How long have you been documenting these interactions?
Benjamin Lichtenstein: Forever really. I've always been interested in language, the way that people interact with each other, or subtle gestures between people. You get to a point where you do a shitload of pictures and patterns start to emerge without you explicitly thinking of it.

How do you collect interactions and conversations you're not a part of?
With a lot of scrapbooks, notes on bits of paper, visual diaries, photographs, or screenshots. Someone might say something that's particularly amusing, poignant, or just strange and I just keep notes and collect them.

When you began preparing this show, how did you translate those random bits of archival material into art works?
For some, I've just written out turns of phrase, or little snippets of text that I've found interesting, and paired them with photographs that are largely pretty mundane. The way that I write text on a lot of my works is just with a modified torch that I use in a darkroom. I can't see the marks that I'm making until I process the paper.

Because this is all built from observations, the resulting exhibition feels quite journalistic. Did you have that in mind when creating the works?
It's journalistic in a way, that certainly rings true. It's basically an amalgamation of a lot of little snippets of life that stayed with me. This exhibition is not really an exercise to make something super beautiful, or in a typical sense, harmonious. It's more just trying to get an emotional or spontaneous reaction from myself—or just whatever's in my head when I'm making the works.

You've mentioned overhearing poignant things, can you give me an example of something that stood out?
There's the exhibition title (Even Dim Stars Add Light To The Universe), some things are poetic and some are just funny or the words don't even make sense. One of the works in the show is a list of personalized motorcycle number plate configurations available in Victoria on a particular day.

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