Interview with Ben Judd

Ben Judd has exhibited widely in the UK and abroad, including group exhibitions JAM: Tokyo London, Tokyo Opera City Gallery, Tokyo and The Barbican Centre, London; The Galleries Show, Royal Academy, London; Strangers: The First ICP Triennial of Photography and Video, International Center of Photography, New York; Impakt Festival, Utrecht, The Netherlands; Social Creatures, Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany; Seeing is Believing, The Photographers’ Gallery, London; Whitstable Biennale, UK. His solo exhibitions include fig-2 ICA London; Vilma Gold, London; Michael Janssen, Cologne; Kunstbunker, Nuremberg.

Following his Whitstable Biennale 2014 project Vast as the Dark of Night and as Light of Day he curated the exhibition Stories in the Dark: Contemporary Responses to the Magic Lantern at the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge in Canterbury, from 19 March to 19 June 2016, a collaboration between Whitstable Biennale and the Beaney. For more information about the exhibition see Stories in the Dark: Contemporary responses to the magic lantern.

Here he is interviewed by Whitstable Biennale 2015-16 intern Sarue Jokonya about the exhibition and his earlier work with us. 

Ben Judd, Vast as the Dark of Night and as the Light of Day, 2014. still from video documentation courtesy of the artist.

Sarue Jokonya: In 2014, you were commissioned to produce a performance work for the Whitstable Biennale; you created Vast as the Dark of Night and as Light of Day. Can you tell us a bit about this project, and what you hoped to explore?   

Ben Judd: Taking place during a trip out to sea on an historic Thames sailing barge, this performance and video attempts to form a temporary, fragile, community out of the ten passengers on board.

The work examines how community can be forged through the suggestion of a ‘voyage and return’ narrative, by using and reworking familiar narrative tropes in literature from mid-19th to mid-20th century. Within this context, the island is also considered as a physical place and as a suggestion of an isolated utopian project where narratives can be reused and recycled within a relatively closed society.

The performance and video consists of five performers who are embedded amongst five audience members. The boat sails from Whitstable out into the Thames Estuary, then the engine is cut and the boat drifts. At this point the skipper asks everyone to go below deck. Here, a magic lantern projectionist (Jeremy Brooker) uses Victorian slides that reflect the work’s themes; the narrative arc of voyage and return and the structure of the performance suggests a trip away from, and back to a starting point (that mirrors the physical trip of the boat). Ideas to do with closeness and distance, the collective and the individual, are referenced, sometimes obliquely, in the images. From the darkness, images, spoken word, song, instrumentation (as well as the sounds of the sea and the movement of the boat) gradually emerge; individual moments shift from intermittent and disconnected to suggest a synchronised collective, before the process is reversed.

The work tests the notion of drama as a bonding experience, and asks: can theatrical practices facilitate communal togetherness? How can an integrated drama suggest and enact an idealised sense of unification? How can alternative models of community be constructed (through the practice) and what forms would they take?

Magic Lantern Slide, courtesy Ben Judd 2016

SJ: This project, as well as other projects you've undertaken, incorporated the use of magic lantern projection. Why are magic lanterns so magical for you? And does this interest extend to early cinema technology more widely? 

BJ: I have used magic lantern projections in several recent performances as a way of connecting the audience to gatherings that instil a sense of belonging and wonder, such as campfire storytelling, séances or Quaker meetings; the projected imagery often acting as metaphors for otherworldly experiences. I am interested in the way the medium can invite participation; historically, magic lantern shows were the first time people saw projected moving images, and were used for storytelling, education, and entertainment. In profound contrast to our digital age in which the technology is largely incomprehensible, the magic lantern’s relatively simple analogue mechanisms and projected images paradoxically allow a sense of wonder, in which the viewer suspends disbelief and engages their imagination. Unlike the pre-recorded nature of cinema, the creative act takes place live with the audience, encouraging a sense of participation.


SJ: You have chosen a number of artists to work with magic lanterns and the Beaney collection as part of your exhibition. What is it about these artists that made you want to collaborate with them?

BJ: I am interested in all of their practices for different reasons, but all of their work has a way of engaging the viewer in an exploratory process - there is space, or a gap in the work that allows the viewer to use their imagination and participate. This could be a direct form of participation - such as Adam Chodzko’s work for Whitstable Biennale 2012, Ghost, or Lindsay Seers’ Entangled2 (Theatre II) - or the work can draw you in in other ways. Several of the artists also use contemporary versions or descendants of the magic lantern, such as Guy Sherwin and Louisa Fairclough’s use of projected 16mm film, and Benedict Drew’s digital projections.

Stories in the Dark, 2016 . Photo, Julian Hughes

SJ: Have you given the artists a theme/topic that they must stick to or are they able to explore different things? And can you talk a little about some of the works in development?

BJ: The only theme was the magic lantern - to respond to the medium. They were also invited to explore and interact with the Beaney’s extensive collection - I am interested in how the Victorian museum’s obsession with collecting and categorising objects from around the world can be seen reflected in the lantern’s use as a tool for bringing the distant, often ‘exotic’ and unseen world into close contact with the public.

Some of the artists are using original Victorian magic lanterns or slides, such as Dryden Goodwin and Adam Chodzko, and others are using more recent or contemporary projection devices such as the 35mm slide projector (Jordan Baseman, Benedict Drew and Guy Sherwin), 16mm film projectors (Louisa Fairclough) and the overhead projector (Haroon Mirza). In Seers’ work an image is reflected from a TV screen, so another kind of projection takes place. I am intrigued by the fact that the magic lantern, a simple device which produced (and still produces) such compelling, fascinating results has such a long history and extensive heritage that extends into so many aspects of contemporary life. I think the way in which the projected image sets up interesting relationships between the distant and the near is fertile ground to explore.

Also on display will be vintage magic lanterns, slides and related archival material in order to provide an historical context.

Particular thanks goes to David Francis and Joss Marsh, Kent Museum of the Moving Image, as well as Nicholas Hiley, University of Kent, for loaning items from their collections, as well as to Jeremy Brooker and Mervyn Heard for their advice, expertise and support.

Sarue Jokonya is studying for a BA in Film Studies at University of Kent, and is a Whitstable Biennale Intern 2015-2016.