Ellen Mueller

Interview with Ben Kinsley

by Ellen Mueller on October 16, 2023, no comments

marching band in an alleyway

Ben Kinsley & Robin Hewlett, Street With a View, 2008, screen capture from Google Street View; Courtesy: Ben Kinsley & Robin Hewlett, © Google, Inc.

As part of the release of the hardcover release of my book, Walking as Artistic Practice (softcover comes out in April!), I’m going to be publishing some brief interviews with the various artists, authors, researchers, creatives, collectives, and platforms whose art practice, written material, or other works I cite and mention.

My ninth interview in this series is with Ben Kinsley whose projects have ranged from choreographing a neighborhood intervention into Google Street View, directing surprise theatrical performances inside the homes of strangers, organizing a paranormal concert series, staging a royal protest, collecting put-down jokes from around the world, and planting a buried treasure in the streets of Mexico City (yet to be found). Kinsley is an Assistant Professor and Co-Director of Visual Art in the Department of Visual & Performing Arts at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is Co-Founder of The Yard and former President of the Pikes Peak Mycological Society.

EM: First, thank you for chatting with me about your collaborative work, Street With a View (2008), created with Robin Hewlett. This piece is mentioned multiple times in Walking as Artistic Practice. How would you describe this work for people who might not be familiar with it?

BK: Street With a View was a community intervention into Google Street View maps. Robin and I were living in Pittsburgh in 2007 when Google opened up a headquarters there. Street View was a new technology, and they soon began documenting the streets. It caused quite a stir and raised questions of privacy. There were lawsuits filed on behalf of individuals whose houses were captured on private drives. We asked ourselves “if we knew the car was coming down our street, how might we respond?” In the end, we organized a neighborhood to respond to this question. Various scenes were staged, some ordinary and some fantastical, to be captured by the Street View car and embedded within Google Maps. At first, we had envisioned this being a guerilla intervention, but this was not really feasible. So we proposed the idea to Google and, several months later, ended up working directly with the Street View team. We staged the scene along Sampsonia Way, a small alley on the Northside of Pittsburgh, where the Mattress Factory Museum also calls home. The Mattress Factory is a museum dedicated to installation art, and the central scene of “Street With a View” took place right outside of the museum creating a virtual installation located at their address. We worked with the Mattress Factory to connect with the neighbors who lived along the alley, and organized a series of scenes using their garages, windows, and doorsteps. We also curated some scenes from other artists/creators in the region and worked with a local high school marching band. For a while, this was the only street in Street View in which people’s faces were not blurred. We were interested in willingly participating in this technology, and using it as a space for performance, blurring fact and fiction, and inserting moments of confusion and wonder within this mapping platform.

EM: Street with a View is first mentioned in chapter four on “leading versus following,” in the subsection on archives. This artwork features the use of Google Maps as a type of photographic archive. Would you talk about how you think about archives, and the various ways you archive your work with particular attention to works that intersect with walking? I’m thinking of not only Street With a View, but also works like Points of Departure (2012) or Myco-Ramblings (2016).

BK: I have been thinking about archives lately from the perspective of mycology, the study of mushrooms. I am an amatuer mycologist and spend a lot of time foraging and studying mushrooms. Mushrooms were wrongly considered to be plants until the kingdom of Fungi was added to taxonomic classification in 1969. So, mycology is a relatively young and under-represented science. It’s estimated that there are around 5 million species of fungi on the planet (estimated to outnumber plants by at least 6 to 1), yet only around 75,000 species have been scientifically identified. There’s so much we don’t know! What we call mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of an organism that lives underground, out of sight. The fruiting bodies occur when conditions are right as a way to spread spores (sexual reproduction), but these fruiting bodies only last for a few days. So they can be hard to study – here one moment, gone the next. So, it seems that mushrooms were long ignored by science because they weren’t as visible or present. This might be a helpful metaphor in thinking about archives and what is selected to be recorded and what is ignored and forgotten. In my work “Points of Departure,” Jessica Langley and I created a site-specific work within a small town in Ireland called Askeaton, a place that has been left off of tours of the region (County Limerick). We wanted to get a local experience of the town and surrounding area, so we asked residents to draw us maps to their favorite places. The maps originated from the place where we had the conversation, and were drawn from memory, out of scale, and often missing important details. We then attempted to follow the maps and had some wonderful meanderings, often getting lost and not finding the destination at all, but enjoying the journey. We engraved these drawings on granite and installed them outside of the buildings where the conversations took place, so that future passersby may notice these respective spots as they would commemorative markers or signs and follow the directions for an unexpected journey. “Mycoramblings” was a collaborative work created with Christopher Kennedy with meandering in mind. Directly inspired by mushroom foraging, we organized a group walk through Central Park in NYC, in search of mushrooms but also stories. We asked people to share memories about mushrooms, and unearthed personal experiences, cultural phobias, folk knowledge, wisdom, and joy. All while meandering through Central Park observing flora, fauna, and funga (see: https://www.ffungi.org/campaign/fauna-flora-funga).

EM: Street With a View is also mentioned in chapter eight on activism, in the subsection on humor. Can you talk about how and when you use humor in your practice and why?

BK: With “Street With a View” and the performative, participatory works I was creating at the time, I was thinking more about play than about humor, per se. I took a lot of inspiration from musical frameworks in terms of how to develop interactive, participatory structures… open ended frameworks and game-like structures to create space for meaningful participation. Humor certainly played a role in the scenes we staged in “Street With a View.” We wanted to use the platform as a stage, and some of the more fantastical scenes were playful takes on neighborhood scenes (such as the fire department helping a child rescue a cat from a tree) or storybook narratives (like someone escaping a third floor window with bed sheets tied together). We also collaborated with a local battle society called Angaron which was a local chapter of a national full-contact, live-action combat game called Dagorhir. The Angaron sword fight at the end of Sampsonia Way (part reenactment, part fantasy, and part play) was the first scene to catch the attention of the internet and went viral on Reddit, eventually landing on an episode of @midnight with Chris Hardwick on Comedy Central.

I have also been studying a specific form of humor for the past 10 years with my collective project “Janks Archive” (a collaboration with artists Jessica Langley and Jerstin Crosby). The Janks Archive project is an investigation of traditions of insult humor in cultures from around the world. It is a multifaceted project which documents this tradition through field recording and presents the collection through an online database, public events, exhibitions, installations, publications, and a podcast. Our collective thinks it is important to study this oral tradition, as this aspect of culture does not usually get written down and is something that “high” culture typically ignores. We are interested in how language morphs, shifts, travels, becomes obsolete, and is forbidden to some, but acceptable to others. In this time of great political upheaval and xenophobia, we are driven to increase understanding of something which on the surface seems antagonistic, but may ultimately be an invitation for exchange and mutual understanding.