Credit: Sharon Lockhart
by Zach Lewis Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

A Contract with the Audience: An Interview with James Benning

October 13, 2023

James Benning, the legendary moving-picture artist known for his durational portraits of America, has made one of his most personal works yet. Shot not too far from the cabins the artist reconstructed for his Two Cabins, Allensworth contains only twelve shots of a reconstructed version of California’s first town founded and run entirely by Black people that, years later, met an unjust end. Though a formal description may make Benning’s work seem simple — just as his Ten Skies (2004) might be described as “ten skies” — each minute spent with the work encourages the cogs in the viewer’s mind to turn on their own, allowing them to notice details that other filmmakers would’ve cut away from or to ponder the image’s relationship with the political history that birthed it.

Benning himself notes in this interview that his simple approach forces a more engaged style of viewing — something quite rare in an age of political movies that opt for condescending exposition. Paying attention is good for both politics and art, so we talked to James Benning about both during his time at the New York Film Festival.

You’ve been a teacher longer than you’ve been a filmmaker.  Have you noticed a big difference  recently in how different generations might approach art or what you teach?

Oh, that’s a really hard question. I’ve been making films for over 50 years, so certainly it changes from day to day almost.  When I began, I was connected to an avant-garde experimental film world influenced by Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton and less influenced by people like Brakhage, who made things that were more lyrical.

I was more interested in the conceptual use of film.  And now I’m very far away from that beginning. I’m kind of rooted in structuralism from the ’70s, but I’m maybe more interested in the content that I’m putting in the film. And as far as students over the years, sure they’ve changed, just kind of like me, because the whole film world has become much wider, and I embrace the art world now more than the film world, so I tend to get students that are doing the same. So the kind of students I get today are almost the exact opposite of what I began with, and they’re interested in those issues that are in the art world.

I suspect that there’s a little bit of self-selection with some of your students, though. That they might know what’s going on if they choose to do a class with James Benning.

Yeah, it’s true, but we, at CalArts, tend to choose a lot of graduate students that maybe  haven’t even made films yet, that they’re in the art world, or maybe they study mathematics, or history, but they have an interest in kind of expanding the film vocabulary. So, I tell them I don’t want them to make another good film. We’ve had way too many of those. I’d like them to push the vocabulary and add to the film language. Which is a big challenge.

I’m curious if you’ve also noticed any kind of big bureaucratic changes that have taken place whenever it comes to teaching something like art or film.

Like the outside world, everything is becoming morbid, and even in CalArts, which is a private school, those structures become top-heavy with administration. And it’s only damaged the kind of freedom that I instill in students, you know. And then there’s a lot of concern about lawsuits and providing students with information so they don’t get  into trouble. And I think to make good films, you almost have to get into trouble. So it’s kind of a conflict.

Do you have any favorite classes that you’re teaching nowadays? I know you have that legendary “Seeing and Listening” class that everyone brings up.

Yeah, that’s probably the best class I’ve ever taught. I continue to teach that, although it’s getting more difficult because I’m not as mobile as I used to be. But I teach a variety of other classes that I enjoy, too. I teach a class called “Acting Bad,” where we deconstruct acting. It leans toward a kind of performance art. And I’m teaching a class on installation design this fall to allow students to design installation work without worrying about the amount of equipment they can get access to and the money. And then to pare down these kinds of grandiose proposals into something that’s usable. So, this is a new class, and we’ve only taught it for two, three weeks now. But it seems like it’s gonna be valuable.

Do you think patience has declined thanks to the rise of things like smartphones, or kind of a constant stimulation? Do you think patience can be taught, either at a university level or just throughout one’s lifetime?

Well, I talk a lot about that, and I think through observation one gains agency. And I think just by talking about that concept that we can learn in different ways. You know, a mother can tell us something to do, or a cop can tell you what to do. You can read a book or whatever, but you can also look and listen.

And that’s really hard work. First, you have to even know you can do that to learn that it’s an option of learning. And then once you know that, then you need to practice because it’s a discipline to stay focused and to look at something for an hour to see how the light changes or to contemplate what are the social and political implications of a space.

And then you can look things up and, you know, the actual observation can give you ideas as to which direction it goes. But, I think we’re very far away from that because of the cell phones and things that are always distracting us. We have to have such discipline. The phone makes us look at it constantly. I don’t have one, because I’m afraid I would just do that all the time. It is a trap.

Friends of mine and myself — a lot of times we’ll select to go to movies in theaters simply because it can be so hard to watch movies or to engage with art at home with those distractions.

But the theater has developed a contract with the audience that’s stronger than real life. I can have a 10-minute shot of the moon rising, and people sit there and watch it. And, because they know when you come here, you actually do observe. But to get somebody to watch the moon rise outside for 10 minutes, they’ll be looking at something else. You know, it’s hard to stay focused. And it’s an interesting thing now with installation art and installing films: that contract is much looser than the contract with the theater audience. So, that has to be developed too. Although, I think galleries and museums are perhaps much more social than viewing a film. So you go there to have a cup of coffee and you spend time — ten seconds — in front of each painting, and, you know, that contract has never been defined very strongly. But I think there are attempts now by artists and gallerists and museums that when you install work that has durational components, that somehow you have to allow the audience to know this is durational and you won’t get it if you just watch it for 10 seconds.

To get the people to do that is another thing. Now, I have a particular following, so if I do installation works, I’ll get some of the people that know my films, knowing how to watch them. Others can be very difficult.

Credit: Courtesy of the artist

How would you arrange the space in order to maybe communicate to somebody who wouldn’t know your work that it would be durational? My first thought would be something like hiding it around a corner. I’ve seen museum installations where you hide a work around a corner and it’s its own private space outside of the rest of the museum where you can engage with the art and leave on your own contract or will.

Well, I don’t really have an answer yet for that. But one is to just be straightforward and say this piece begins every hour on the hour, and it’s durational and it lasts 45 minutes. Oh, and then it’s also to, as when you build installations, consider this lack of contract and make work that can be seen just walking by.

And then when they walk by another time, something else is happening. I’ve installed my film Twenty Cigarettes, and there it is without any explanation. And it’s nice if it’s at the beginning of a gallery space or museum. Because somebody will come in and there will be somebody smoking. And they might just see that same person and they walk around and they can pass it again and somebody else is smoking and then they look at it and then they come back. And then once you realize, oh, there’s a number of people — maybe it draws you into it.  But if I want an audience to actually experience it like in a theater, then I would have to have some kind of statement saying, you know, it starts at this time.

So, one can have the different expectations of the installation: that you can have it so people actually watch it as a film, but then why not have it in the theater anyways? Or you can live with how it’s viewed without any explanation. When I’ve installed [it like] that, I didn’t expect people to watch the whole thing. I kind of like the idea that if it’s near the end or beginning, people would pass it going in and out and see somebody else.

Location is obviously a very important part of your work. I’m curious as to what your pre-production research process might be whenever you decide to film on a new location, and whether or not that varies whenever you’re doing a project that’s very specific to one location, like Allensworth, or perhaps something like North on Evers or The United States of America, where it’s a much broader portrait.

Yeah, it varies from film to film. I mean, the remake that I made of the U. S. A. that Bette Gordon and I made in 1975  was just crossing the U. S. with shots occasionally taken from the back of a car. And it played on one of — I can’t remember, it was on streaming for a while [note: The United States of America briefly streamed on The Criterion Channel] and it got a great response.

And then I thought, oh, I’ll remake the film, but not really remake it. And then I just used the same title again. And for that, it was  during Covid and I thought, well, I want to make a film that represents the whole U. S., but I don’t want to travel that much during Covid, but I do want to get out of the house.

And I know California worked very well, so I’ll shoot everything in California. It’d be kind of a playful joke, and I reveal that at the end. But also, I thought it spoke to other things. How Hollywood movies do that all the time — where they are and where they’re shooting. And then it became a kind of a fun project for me to find in California to represent Georgia, for instance.

Do you think that work has an anthropological element to it? I mean, it’s mostly landscapes, but I feel like every once in a while we do see people and different kinds of people creating different kinds of environments.

Well, Allensworth is a town that was built in the early 1900s in Tulare County, and it’s in the Central Valley, which feeds a third of the U. S. with large corporate farms. And that happened after Allensworth was started in the early 1900s. And I was interested in that particular place because I’m interested in the evils of white culture toward Black culture.

I grew up in a poor white ghetto in Milwaukee that was adjacent to the small Black ghetto. And I was being taught to hate Black people and that Black people hated us. We didn’t know each other, but we did apply for the same job. So it was  an institutionalized way to keep labor costs down and to keep the fighting in the poor part of town. So that took me some time to understand, that kind of systematic prejudice that I grew up in.

So I’ve been trying to rid that from my system my whole life. And then when I found out about Allensworth, a town that had great promise, only it couldn’t succeed mainly because of that [system]. The way white culture made it very difficult for them. The land itself was sold to the Black people that were trying to start the town at a cost that was three times the rate of good land.

And this was really poor land. And then the train was moved from their place to the close-by white town, so they lost that kind of revenue and distribution. And it goes on and on. They didn’t get the water that they were promised when the irrigation systems were set up.

In the end, the town fails. And then the town was rebuilt as a park, and that interested me because I have a place in Tulare County at the other end of the county that’s up in the mountains. That’s where I built replicas of Thoreau’s cabin and Kaczynski’s cabin. So I have this as a kind of questioning of outsider-ness.

And then I realized that at one end of the county are my replicas, and then at the other end of the county there’s this state park now that’s replicated the town of Allensworth. So all of a sudden, my project was connected with that. And then it connected with my interest in how I’ve been fighting against the kind of prejudice that I grew up with.

So that all kind of connected and made me think, well, I’ll just look at this place and see what I can learn from observing it. I thought of it as a mystery film where I wouldn’t tell you anything about it. You would just observe it as if you stumbled onto this place. And then, through certain hints through sound and performance and poetry, I would give enough hints that you could kind of figure out what you might be looking at. And then in the end credits, there’s a little more information. But hopefully, because everybody has these devices, they can look at it and can type in Allensworth and learn. So the film is a mystery film that gives you hints as to what it is, but it doesn’t really completely describe it. But you can quickly find that information out. It’s online, and now I’ve drawn great attention to that place. And to this event — the whole history of Allensworth.

And it was a hidden history. So I’m hoping that the film does some teaching in that respect. But it doesn’t do it itself. You have to be proactive and react to the film. And I think most people do that. And now it’s got many reviews, and I’m really surprised. I was really pleased that almost everybody reviewing the film did extensive research about the place, and it’s exactly what I wanted the film to do, so I think it’s very successful in those terms.

Credit: Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin

That’s pretty good that you can have that secret pedagogy there to give them just enough information so that they want to learn more and teach themselves.

That’d be the best way to do it. Otherwise, if I watch documentaries and they solve all the problems, I seem to think, okay, I know that, and then I never think about it again. So I have this opinion that documentaries should kind of motivate you. Some kind of activism. Be a participant within the film.

How did you first come across the story of Allensworth? I was also going to ask how far it is from Val Verde, but it seems like it’s closer to your cabins.

Yeah, and it’s not on the way between Val Verde and Pine Flat where I live at the moment, but it’s directly west of the road that I go up into the mountains. When I come back down, if I don’t turn on the 65 and keep going, I run right into Allensworth. So, my Two Cabins project is in a direct straight line with Allensworth. I stumbled on it just riding around Central Valley. I didn’t know about it when I made El Valley Central.

And then I stumbled across it 20 years ago. It happened to be on the day of the year that they celebrate the founding of it. So there were maybe 60 or 70 Black people there, and they were giving speeches, and I think there might have been one or two other white people at the time. So I was really surprised — it was an accident, basically.

But then I didn’t think about doing anything about it until so many years later after I had built my cabins, and then at some point it occurred to me: Oh, this fits exactly into what I’ve been struggling with my whole life. And so I’ve always been prepared to be kind of attacked by, I don’t know, liberals I guess, that would say, oh, what right do you have to talk about Black people? But I’m not talking for Black people. I’m pointing the finger at the poor way white people act. So that’s my interest: to point out these kinds of mistakes and how evil it is and what it can lead to.

You say the town is a park now. So is there even a town that is operational and running?

The park itself, no one lives there. And it’s very spooky, and you kind of get that feeling from the film where you see one or two people in the whole film, and they’re kind of hidden.

The park is about two-thirds of what the town was. And so, south of the town, there’s part of the [original] town, then there’s a grade school there, and there’s maybe 20 houses, and it’s mainly, I think, Mexican at this time; maybe there’s a few Black people. The graveyard is on the other side of that town — so the graveyard in Allensworth is outside of the park; it isn’t part of the park, and it hasn’t been restored. And it hasn’t even been researched to figure out who’s even buried there. It’s just falling apart at this time.

And I’ve gone there a number of times and I’ve met one of the Black families that live in that part of Allensworth. And they were trying to raise money to do research to find out who is there and, at least, put it back into some kind of shape. But, it’s still being used. There are a few graves that are only five or six years old there. But most of them are just little wooden crosses, no indication of who’s buried there.

The “December” shot in your film almost looked like a set, because the gravestone is still pretty legible, and then the crosses are set up in no order.

And in the background of that shot, you can actually see some of the houses that are in the livable part of the town. But they’re at a distance. And I think you hear a dog barking from there. And a plane flies overhead.

Did you have to ask permission from the Parks Department? Or did you just show up and start filming?

Well, the park is interesting, because I got stopped a few times. And the other interesting thing: the people who administer the park are all white. So, you know, it just continues on. They asked me what I was doing, and I just said that I’m interested in the place and I’m making a film to show my friends, you know.

I showed the film at the Academy Museum in L. A., and there was a Black man who came to that screening that’s connected with a group of Black people who are trying to have some say in Allensworth. And he liked the film a lot, and he wants me to show it at one of these yearly events there. So I’d like to do that.

There are a couple of shots in this that I think are what you’re referring to as these hints as to what is going on here. One is the big “August” shot with the student reading Lucille Clifton poetry where she’s dressed like Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine. And then you also have two songs: one’s by Lead Belly, the other one Nina Simone.  Was there anything that led you to those particular choices? Or did you want to just have some sort of rhyming with the bigger project of talking about Allensworth?

Well, the two artists — I respect their work, and their own histories are interesting. Nina Simone is somebody who fled America because of racism, and that song is kind of brutal. So I thought it states what I’m interested in, the result of this kind of racism. And then Lead Belly — somebody who was let out of prison because he could make some music, and then had a song that Kurt Cobain made more famous than him — so it’s this idea of Black culture being appropriated by white. He doesn’t make money from it. So, I mean, I don’t know if people watching it think about that, but it’s in the film, it’s something we can talk about.

James Benning - Allensworth

Credit: Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin

The choice to dress a student like Elizabeth Eckford — it’s a very particular kind of outfit.

I was very young when that picture was in the newspaper, and I was appalled by it. And that was kind of a beginning for me to start questioning. Because I could relate to this kid as a student, but I couldn’t relate to going to high school the first day and having such stress, you know. And I thought, oh, this is what my neighborhood brings about, this kind of evilness.

So it’s a reference to my own coming of age, kind of. But also, that photograph is kind of the quintessential meaning for what I’ve been struggling with my whole life. And it’s such a beautiful dress. And that’s such a tragic story for her because her family didn’t have a telephone and the other eight students were alerted to enter the school from the back door, and she wasn’t told. The information didn’t get to her, so she was by herself confronted by this.

I mean, I also feel bad for poor whites that, even today, a lot of Trump followers, when you have nothing, then you can be so easily manipulated. So it’s kind of also a portrait of madness, that we have to look beyond who’s actually yelling.

I’m also curious about the structuring device of the film. It’s separated into different months, but I think there’s something interesting about that particular part of the California landscape. I suppose I was trying to look for the changes in maybe the flora or something. But I think the biggest visual indicator that the months are changing is maybe just the quality of light coming through.

Yeah, California’s upside-down because it’s green in the winter and it’s brown in the summer. So, in the very first shot, there’s frost on the ground and there’s actually green grass, but it’s very muted because there’s not much light. It’s foggy that day. And then the next three or four shots are where you can see the grass getting greener in February, etc. And then by September, it’s yellow, so it’s the opposite. And there’s not a lot of rain there. The rainy season is generally in the springtime. And so I had some cloudy days, but it was unusual for me to find it raining in October. But I took what I got.

Also, the quality of the buildings themselves — and I’m guessing this has to do with the fact that it is a park now. They do look old, but they certainly don’t look like they’re from 1912.

They were built from 1975 to ’85. So they are like 40 years old and look like that. And some of them had just maybe been repainted a few years ago. Others, I’ve noticed they’re repainting a lot of them this year. So it looks more like a park. Also, there’s the park rule about having wheelchair access. I had to try to shoot so I didn’t quite show all the ramps that are in the place. And the interiors are all furnished with not the exact furniture that was in there, but of that period and that place. But, you can look in the windows, and once a year, I think they open the doors.

I took pictures through the window of the school and then I actually recreated the blackboard and the wainscoting exactly. So I made a replica of a replica, and shot it at school where I could have more control over things and didn’t have to get permission to go inside.

With digital technology developing so quickly and all kinds of new equipment coming out, do you find yourself trying to keep up with that  — trying out new equipment and whatnot? Or do you have some standard digital tools that you like?

Yeah, I shot on 16mm from 1970 to 2007, and I used two Bolexes: one was a hand-cranked Bolex, the other was an electric one that I put in a 400-foot magazine so I could do 11-minute shots. And I got familiar with that equipment and I liked it, and then it became impossible to get good lab work and I was forced into digital. I didn’t go in until there was high definition digital.

And so I bought a Sony camera in 2009, and it’s just HD — I don’t like 4K. I’m still shooting HD because I don’t like that ultra sharpness. 4K is great for if you’re shooting at night or in darkness; you can get good quality in darker settings. But for what I do, I’m very happy with just HD, just the 1920×1080. I’m not trying to make films, but I think Allensworth almost looks like 35mm. It has kind of the same resolution. It isn’t as sharp as 4K. I won’t change that camera. I’m trying to keep it alive. So I’ve shot, I don’t know, more films with that in 15 years than I shot [with the Bolexes] in 35 years. It’s so cheap, and I made Allensworth for, I don’t know, a thousand dollars. And that’s just mainly gasoline.