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Last week, Hyperallergic publisher Veken Gueyikian received an email from someone who asked to purchase an ad square on Nectar Ads, the online ad network Hyperallergic uses. The request seems simple enough and within a few emails the transaction was made and we received the “ad,” which turned out to be an art project by artist Jesus Benavente. When you clicked on the image — which many of you may have already discovered — it leads to a webpage, www.ohheywhatsgoingon.com, that — I later learned — is simply the title of the piece, “Oh Hey. Whats Going On?” (2012).
Since the project debuted on April 1, I have found myself laughing at the absurdity and wondering who this person was and why he chose to do this. I reached out to discuss the project and why he chose this medium.
“It’s about wanting to be something greater, but the realities of life preventing it from happening,” Benavente told me over email. “My character, BENAVENTE, allows me to make these big gestures and funny attempts at overcoming my socio-economic realities. In this case, BENAVENTE wanted to be a part of the important art conversations without really knowing what he could say.”
The project, he says, was inspired by seeing Lynda Benglis’s infamous 1974 Artforum advertisement at the New Museum retrospective last year. The two-page ad, which was her attempt to stake her territory nude, with a double-headed dildo inserting into her vagina, in the straight male dominated art world is still the stuff of art world lore. The concept for Benavente’s ad is entirely different, even it was influenced by Benglis’s show of advertising chutzpah.
“It was such an awesome and impactful gesture, while also having an awkward presence in a gallery/museum setting. It made sense to me that my character would attempt to do a version of his own,” Benavente says. “The internet obviously presents an opportunity to explore what this kind of gesture can now be today. Internet ads and art blogs/websites also behave very differently from traditional advertising and art media. Online advertising tends to ask more of the viewer. You have to click the ad to go to a website which in itself is typically an ad for some product. I like the idea of subverting that by giving the audience an ad for someone who is incapable of giving further information or a reason to care. Plus the idea of an online ad being shown inside a gallery type set up would make my action seem all the more stupid.”
He says the reaction from the audience is what he’s most curious about and he likes that he has little control over its reception. “What if no one clicks the ad? What if someone hates it and by extension me? What if the audience decides to manipulate the ads (adblocks, photoshop, etc.)? I also like the idea of this performative act spilling out into the real world when people pass me on the streets and make the visual connection,” he says.
The project relates to his other work in that it deals with humor and socio-economic issues. A series from last year, “Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility” (2011), blew up his mugshots from “poverty based arrests” as an absurd indictment for his lack of money savvy.
“I like the idea that comedy is tragedy happening to someone else. It makes the most sense to me that the someone else should be me,” he says. “This project like in my other projects allows people to laugh at my face, while also questioning what it means to be on the outside of where we want to be. In one work, I built a life-size monument of myself that was then covered with birdshit.”
“I’m also interested in the modes of exchange and how art can effect what that means,” he says. The issue of power comes up again and again in his work. In one project, he’s hired a fantasy phone operator to enact a power fantasy where his character plays a bank manager and she is asked to play someone having trouble with her mortgage. “I’m currently working on a project in which I have hired a accent reduction specialist who helps people with accents (immigrants) become more American and have better access to jobs.”
“I feel the best work has got to leave you feeling stupid and unsure when you’re making it. That is something I try to strive for in all my work,” he explains.