Inverting Expectations: An Interview with Guy Ben-Ner

May 6, 2013 | Published Articles, Writing

The following interview was published on Artslant in May 2013:

Chicago, Apr. 2013: Guy Ben-Ner began with an idea. He wanted to divorce a soundtrack from a film, then make a new film that accommodated the appropriated soundtrack. The idea provided a mechanism, defining the rules of a game which would yield Ben-Ner’s latest work, Soundtrack. He decided to appropriate eleven minutes of sound from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In Ben-Ner’s version the world is not ending exactly, rather his kitchen erupts into chaos. The sound of rain in the Spielberg movie is described by a frying egg in Ben-Ner’s, just as the Hollywood sounds of robots are explained in Soundtrack by way of an everyday blender. Ben-Ner embodies the voice of lead as his three children, ages eighteen, fifteen and two, play their own parts in the score. His parents also make a debut appearance, as well as friends and Yaara Shehori, the mother of the two-year old child. Having enlisted this cast, Ben-Ner wrote, directed and edited the resulting film, intentionally emphasizing a disconnect between the overarching soundtrack and the visual actions that fulfill it. The effect is breathtaking—a ballet of everyday gestures in which a fried egg plays as much of a principle role as the children themselves. Consider also the lineage of this work: a piece originally written in 1938 by HG Wells; reworked for radio by Orson Welles and broadcast in 1938; to the 2005 adaptation by Spielberg; and now Ben-Ner’s translation in 2013. As with much of the artist’s work, he plucks up tales in the collective consciousness, borrowing the readymade structure of a family and grafting it onto the folk story of alien invasions and apocalypse. These structures provide an exterior framework within which Ben-Ner explores his own status as a divorced father failing to achieve a sense of order. Ben-Ner adeptly explores the relationship between global and familial worlds, between sound and image, between the impersonal and personal spheres of influence, begging the question of individual agency.

Soundtrack‘s U.S. premier took place at Chicago’s Aspect Ratio from March 15th to April 26th, 2013.

Guy Ben-NerStealing Beauty, 2007, single channel video; Courtesy of the artist and Aspect Ratio.

Caroline Picard: You often work from common lore stories—how did you start working that way?

Guy Ben-Ner: Early on I realized that people enter the gallery at different times and I wanted to find ways to help people if they came in the middle of something. If you see someone is sitting on an island in a film, immediately you know what the story is. Then I thought about these stories as narratives that we know without having to read them. Robinson Crusoe or Moby Dick—children in Freud are the same, everyone knows what the Oedipus Complex is without having read Freud. These narratives are kind of imposed on you and in a way you measure your life through them. Later, I started using narratives that my children could understand. Because I thought working with children is immoral from the get-go—

CP: Why do you say that?

GBN: Because you cannot work with them without abusing them. You understand more than they do, you are their father or director—your role always has some degree of abuse in it. And I thought, how to deal with that? Eventually I decided that on some level the children have to understand the story we make. At least so they can enjoy the final product.

CP: In Soundtrack your youngest daughter is such an integral part of the film—and yet she seems like a totally unpredictable actor, she’s the least affected by the chaos.

GBN: The young one, Amalia, is playing. And if you look at the film carefully, you’ll see that she’s bribed throughout the film. I’d say I want her to get there, so I’d put her mother’s iPhone playing Amalia’s favorite movie in one place and she would run to the phone. Then it was just a matter of doing a few takes. Sometimes she’d run and I’d make her laugh and sometimes she’d run and I didn’t. Gradually I understood if I wanted her laughing or not, what kind of character do I have to be, because I can’t build her character through acting but through playing with her.

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