From July, 2007 to January, 2008, and April to June, 2008, James Benning constructed replicas of two cabins that have played pivotal roles in American history. The first is an exact reproduction of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built at Walden Pond in Concord, MA, in 1845. It was there that Thoreau wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He later published Walden in 1854 which discussed his experiences living in the cabin and describes his primary values of self-sufficiency, simple living, and his loyalty to transcendentalist philosophy.
He wrote in Walden, 1854: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
The second structure is a reproduction of Ted Kaczynski’s cabin he built in the Lincoln, Montana woods and where he was eventually arrested, after a lengthy and expensive FBI investigation, for his part in a deadly bombing campaign. Similarly to Thoreau, he had moved to the rugged, remote cabin in 1971 to learn self-sufficiency and survival skills after becoming disillusioned with mainstream society. He apparantly began his sending his mail bombs after watching the wilderness around his cabin destroyed to make way for development, seeing violence as the only solution to the ills of what he called “industrial civilization.” He amassed an impressive library at the cabin which Benning has replicated in large part as well. Kaczynski is currently serving a life prison sentence in Colorado, without the possibility of parole.
Link to a full list of the books, papers, and maps seized from Kaczynski’s cabin: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/tedkbooks1.html
In an interview with Earth First!, Kaczynski stated: “The real revolutionaries should separate themselves from the reformers… And I think that it would be good if a conscious effort was being made to get as many people as possible introduced to the wilderness. In a general way, I think what has to be done is not to try and convince or persuade the majority of people that we are right, as much as try to increase tensions in society to the point where things start to break down. To create a situation where people get uncomfortable enough that they’re going to rebel. So the question is how do you increase those tensions?”
(“Interview with Ted Kaczynski, Administrative Maximum Facility Prison, Florence, Colorado, USA,” Earth First Journal!, June 1999.)
For the NAIL V project, the fifth organized by curatorial collective NAIL (Not Always In Location), we chose to produce two postcards, each with an exterior and interior image of the replica cabins that Benning built in the Sierras. Inspired by Boris Groys’ text “The Loneliness of the Project,” NAIL V is an exploration of the process of self-imposed isolation in the service of a major (or minor) project—artistic, scientific, literary, or otherwise. Benning’s cabin replicas, a long-term project carried out primarily in isolation, in turn refer to the “loneliness” of two other “projects”: the life’s work of Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. When viewed side-by-side, these three projects raise major questions surrounding the production of work in isolation and outside of mainstream society. In a conversation with the curators, Benning addressed the conundrum of the loneliness in working alone, in wanting to be separate from society, yet missing the social aspect. Why drives artists, thinkers, and writers to isolate themselves and, in extreme cases, to turn their backs on society completely? At what point does an iconoclast become a sociopath? And who decides this?
The use of postcards to illustrate Benning’s project intentionally refers to the historical use of the postcard as a souvenir after visiting a notable site. They are meant to be sent out into the world, to friends and family, to share an experience. Though these postcards do not originate from a literal “site,” it is our hope that the NAIL V participant will follow this model, thereby sharing the project and its ideas with others.
For the full text of Boris Groys’ “The Loneliness of the Project” please visit the New York Magazine of Contemporary Art.
About the artist:
James Benning is a California-based filmmaker best known for his structuralist films investigating place and the American landscape. These include One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), Four Corners (1997), 13 Lakes (2004), Casting a Glance (2007). For his most recent film, RR (2007), he traveled alone throughout the US documenting in long, rigorously composed takes the transportation of goods across the country by rail. He is currently a professor at CalArts in the Film/Video department.
About the curators:
Arden Sherman and Katie Hood Morgan are students in the MA program in Curatorial Practice at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA. Arden received her undergraduate degree from the College of Charleston in South Carolina where she studied sculpture and Latin American studies. Katie received her BA in the History of Art and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on photography and gender studies, from the University of California, Santa Cruz. They are both members of the curatorial collective NAIL.