"There isn't really a purpose. My inbox is full of people asking me why I'm doing this, but I don't think that question is really applicable to this type of activity."
For the last six months, for four hours at a time, Benjamin Bennett has been sitting alone in his empty room and livestreaming himself sitting motionless and smiling in zen-like silence. So far, he has uploaded 116 hours' worth of footage of him sitting, without giving any reasonable explanation. After Ben's work was discovered in the middle of his 25th livestream, it seemed like everybody wanted to know why anybody would take the time to do this. Was it art? Meditation? Mental illness?
At first glance, it seemed to be a form of durational art, which is more about the endurance of the performer than the content of the piece itself. For example, about a year and a half ago, Jay Z rapped "Picasso Baby" over and over and over for six hours straight at the Pace Gallery in New York. In 1963, John Cage forced a bunch of pianists to perform Erik Satie's "Vexations" 840 times in a row because of a joke notation in the composition's margins. Perhaps the most famous durational artist was Tehching Hsieh, who did a series of endurance projects, including one where he locked himself in a cage, unable to speak, read, write, or listen to TV or radio, for an entire year. He spent another year living on the streets, refusing to enter any buildings; another year, he tethered himself to a female artist by a rope and wasn't allowed to touch her.
By comparison, Ben's four-hour sessions of sitting and smiling seem tame, but his work seems to follow in the same tradition. I asked him to call me following his next session, which I watched intermittently during breakfast and then lunch. It was unsettling. He rang right after his video ended, and took long, ten-second pauses before answering each question.
VICE: So, you just ended a session. How do you feel right now?
Benjamin Bennett: Pretty normal. My face and legs are a little bit sore, but it seems like I recover from the soreness faster and faster.
Why did you start doing this?
I don't know. It seemed like something that the internet was lacking. It seemed like it needed to be done, and nobody else was going to do it.
But what do you feel was lacking? What's the purpose?
There isn't really a purpose. My inbox is full of people asking me why I'm doing this, but I don't think that question is really applicable to this type of activity.
Well, I mean, most people wouldn't sit and smile at a camera for four hours at a time...
I guess I just don't really understand. Is it performance art?
Yeah, you could definitely place this into a performance-art context, and I definitely am interested in performance art and relational aesthetics. I think it's actually not so important what I consider it to be—it's more important what the viewer considers it. It's not necessary for me to categorize it. A book on this topic I was very influenced by is Claire Bishop's Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. She's brilliant. But I don't feel like this is a prescriptive thing; i's just what you see is what it is. If someone can watch it, I think they can understand it. Even if they think they don't understand it, I think that what they perceive to be their non-understanding is actually the correct understanding.
Do you prepare in any way?
I maybe drink a little bit of water, and take a pee beforehand.
Do you get hungry or have to go to the bathroom during your sessions?
No, I never get hungry doing it, and I don't have to eat very much food on the days that I do it. Once I forgot to pee beforehand, and I'm surprised that video hasn't gotten more comments.
I think I'd like to leave that a mystery.
All right. Why the smiling?
I think if I weren't smiling, then it would just look like meditation, and I would just look like someone with a martyr complex. I don't think anybody would watch it or be interested in watching it. And I think that smiling is a better reflection of how I'd like to address the world than if I was just sitting there not smiling. I think it offsets the seriousness of the duration.
I've read that forcing yourself to smile when you don't want to makes you feel happier. Do you feel happier?
Sometimes I do. I think, more so earlier on, just looking at myself smiling was often really amusing and it would make me smile harder, which creates a feedback loop. Sometimes I feel hilarious, sometimes sad, but mostly I just feel normal. I think it's possible to see a range of emotions on my face, through the smile.
Do you watch yourself on screen the whole time?
At one point, somebody broke into your house and you didn't react, what was that like?
It was around Thanksgiving, and I heard a knock on the door, and I was the only one home. Then I heard some loud bangs and somebody lurking around downstairs while I was upstairs. This was already suspicious to me because my housemate was gone for work, so I had an idea that it was somebody breaking in, but I knew from the beginning that I wasn't going to move. Then I heard him, you know, creeping up the stairs towards my room, and he opened the door and said "Hello?" and I didn't move, and he closed the door and left the house. And then I just finished the session. I found out he had kicked in the door.
You can see someone opening the door at 2:36:30
Wow. Why was it so important to maintain while somebody was breaking into your house. Why not take a break, see who it is, do another session later?
Well, I knew that as long as I didn't react, whatever was going to happen in that situation would make a really amazing video. I think making that video was more important to me at that time. It was streaming live, but I don't think there was anyone watching at that point. My heart was beating like crazy, but I knew that not reacting was the best thing to do, and now there's that guy out there with his own crazy story to tell.
The frequency of these videos been increasing. Why is that?
I've just been finding it a good use of my time, I guess. Also, I was actually hoping that I would get more hours of this online before anybody noticed what I was doing, because then it would be all the more exciting for somebody to stumble upon.
Would you do this for more than four hours at a time?
I have had the thought of turning this into my full-time job, sitting and smiling for 40 hours a week, but I would still need to support myself in a way that is not degrading to the work. Getting donations would be a decent way to do it, but aside from that, continuing my day job [at a public radio station] might be the best way to do it. Or I could just slowly eat away at my savings until it's gone, and then figure out what to do next. So far, from the donation button on my website, I've received a total of $24—half of that being from my mom.
What kind of response have you gotten so far?
The comments on YouTube and other websites are more dismissive, but the emails that I'm getting are mostly positive and supportive. I get emails from around the world of people are saying very supportive things. I think that a lot of people who are emailing are really interested in meditation or they're meditators and for them they like the idea of what I'm doing. A lot of people say that it makes them smile.
Just the fact that you're broadcasting this seems like you want a reaction.
I'm not looking for a reaction, but I am making it available for people to take it or leave it. A couple of artists that are relevant to this are Tehching Hsieh and Tom Friedman with his piece 1,000 Hours of Staring, though what I'm doing is nothing by comparison.
Are you at all concerned about any lasting effects?
Somebody told me that people who work in the service industry—who have to smile all the time when they don't want to—die sooner. But I don't know if that's true.
Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter.