Benjamin Lundberg was AS220‘s Artist in Residence for the month of September, 2014. He must’ve enjoyed it here, because he’s now the newest resident of the third floor at Empire Street! This interview was originally conducted in September 2014.
Please introduce yourself!
My name is Benjamin Lundberg. I’m a performance artist and a theater maker coming from New York City. I grew up outside of Dallas in a suburb called Bueno, Texas but because this is really relevant to the work that I do and am doing here at AS220, I’ll also mention that I am a transnational adoptee from Bogota, Colombia. I was born there and lived there all of five months before being adopted and raised in the United States.
So, how does that relate to the work that you’re doing or will be doing at AS220?
I’m working on a solo performance, primarily. It is a triptych piece that I’ve been working on for the last year and a half in smaller iterations in a lot of performance art or gallery spaces, and then have used those for 15 minute works or durational works. Because my background is theater, I’m really interested in taking what’s lovely about performance art spaces and integrating what I like about the structure of theater into that experience. I’ve been knitting together three pieces that are loosely examining the many valences of my identity as somebody who’s adopted, somebody who’s adopted from the global south, and who has a specific relationship to the United States.
What’s your background, how did you arrive at performance art? Did you go to school for art or theater?
I did go to school for performance, for drama specifically, at NYU. I trained at Stella Adler, which was really rigorous, but I found that I was really hungry for more…more experiences in collaboration, doing things that were a little bit less conventional, devised work. Even after doing several devised theater pieces and producing them myself, after school I became really dissatisfied with trying to produce theater in New York City. It’s such a schlog, it’s really expensive. Around the same time I was having those feelings, I did the emerging artist program at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics, which is housed in NYU’s Performance Studies Department, and started making performance that was more “performance arty” than maybe I’d ever done before which propelled me into this year and a half that I mentioned of really specific focus on solo performance that was done in performance art spaces. So, I didn’t know anything really about those spaces, the artists who inhabit them, or what I could really expect from that. I’ve learned a lot just watching and sort of feeling like an outsider within those spaces as I try to understand what’s going on there and then translate it into a theatrical mode that maybe I’m a little bit more familiar with. I love what’s spontaneous and weird and non-literal about performance art spaces. I was always interested in images and physicality in theater, so I wanna borrow that and sort of leave behind what I find really frustrating and disorganized about a lot of performance art spaces and performances and then bring it back into a few theatrical structures that I really like.
We were talking before but didn’t get too into detail so I’m just curious, what is the organization that you work for in New York?
My main gig is called Opening Act, it’s an arts non-profit that provides free after-school theater programming to 14 campuses in the city which translates to 39 high schools within those campuses. I’m a teaching artist who leads two programs, one in Manhattan and one in the South Bronx. I’m also on the administrative staff for Opening Act doing a lot of things with donors and creating a lot of media to support fundraising. I’ve been working for them for four years and, back to front during the year, we teach students the basics of improv. That’s our road into acting training because it’s a technique that does not rely on participants having any experience. It’s incredibly validating for youth just to be in an art making scenario where the whole premise of the work is to say “YES” to each other and build on things. It can be really a quick way into having a young person’s artistic impulse validated very quickly not only by facilitators and teachers but by their peers. So I teach improv, and in the second semester we devise an original play that can range anywhere from 30 minutes to, on the long end, we had an 80 minute show which is kind of amazing because it’s structured improv. They know it’s sort of beginning, middle, end, of their scenes and what the trajectory of the play is, but to me it’s just really advanced storytelling on your feet, because every time they perform it, it’s brand new. None of it is scripted, they just know what they are supposed to communicate, what’s supposed to happen in a scene. When they walk on, they know the architecture, but they’re building it from scratch every time.
How is it working a straight job, a day job, and being a working performance artist in New York City in this day in age, is that a challenge?
I feel really lucky to be working with Opening Act now, because a couple years ago I was doing my teaching artist work, I was managing a cafe on the Upper East Side, I was doing a lot of freelance and video work. I was really cobbling a lot more things together at time. Now that I work primarily for this one non-profit, it’s been really stabilizing. I can devote a lot more time to my art. It’s still a struggle, time and energy wise, but I will say that it’s really amazing to work for an organization that will let me leave for a month, while we’re in the midst of launching our programming in New York. I have really brilliant teaching partners who are taking care of a lot of stuff for me right now, and I can do a lot of my administrative work remotely, so I think it’s just been a process of doing a lot of backwards planning and really steeling myself for having my attention fly in many directions at once. It’s a challenge because it’s a lot of things competing for my attention. I would say I feel maybe the most secure as an artist this year. Part of that security, that feeling of buoyancy, instead of feeling sort of downtrodden by the hustle, is because of things like this residency and opportunities to put more work out and connect with more people. That’s what keeps me buoyant while all the other things are going. Also, teaching artist work is incredibly uplifting for me, it’s so incredible to work on creating performance from scratch with young people who are not encumbered by all the sorts of conventions and things that creep into my mind and inhibit me when I’m creating. Working with young people is a huge part of my practice, and now that it’s my main job it feels so much more harmonious to do all of that at once.
Who are the kids who go through that program? Are they people that are looking to get into theater acting or improv or people that have no idea about that. What’s their entry way into it?
There are certainly students who are really excited about theater, like capital T “Theatre”, and have never had an outlet, because our program is serving schools that have little to no arts programming. So, there may be that specific hunger that we’re filling but also there are students who may be incredibly shy, or have no social group, or are looking to do something that’s just expressive. We attract students who actually have backgrounds in dance, or they write their own poetry, or they’re interested in rap or spoken word. The flexibility of the curriculum allows the performances to end up being so variable, that we attract any student who is looking to express themselves, or looking for community. Most often the students really want both.
How did you find out about AS220 or the artist in residence program. What was appealing about either of those to you?
It was kind of felt serendipitous. To trace the full trajectory, I was doing some of the work I’m presenting during my residency here for the first time in the summer of 2013 during the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival. Through that, I met two performers and curators who work at theVilla Victoria Center for the Arts in South Boston who asked me to come perform for a series that they’ve been doing called “Todo Bajo Control” and that’s where I met Shey Rivera. We connected a lot over each other’s work. There are a lot of things that Shey does that I feel deeply connected to. Particularly this idea that exists in her work of slowly ingesting potentially hazardous or poisonous aspects of dominant culture as a way to eventually become immune. Because I have a strong connection to Colombia that’s formed out of absence and desire, rather than experience or knowledge, I’m always going to have an equally, if not stronger, relationship to dominant culture in the United States. So, that really resonated with me a lot. Actually, first I reached out to Shey to write for her online publication Crudoand through the process of sharing notes with her about writing, she invited into the residency. So, I knew about AS220 through her. This opportunity was kind of magical and unexpected, so I just feel really lucky to know Shey and to have connected so immediately to the work that we’re doing.
So how has it been so far? Are you meeting people or are you just working by yourself? Have any potential collaborations spawned?
The first week I was here, I sort of just holed up by myself because I needed to go back to New York City for work obligations with Opening Act. I definitely felt like I had a soft launch where I met a bunch of people but didn’t connect in a super deep way. This week has been super different. I feel like now I know who’s on the floor and there have been more opportunities to, you know, just be in the kitchen together, make food, go out and get things to eat or drink, socialize. For me, that’s such a valuable part of the residency and specifically the third floor living situation. I’m an artist who really thrives in building my own work through social interaction. I really need people around me, so it’s been really thrilling to keep my door open and have people drop in. I never had that experience in undergrad, to have a dorm floor where people were floating around constantly. I think it’s been really great.