Ben Kinmont: On Becoming Something Else

Odd Jobs

Ben Kinmont: On Becoming Something Else

By Calder Yates February 13, 2018

Originally published on Daily Serving, Odd Jobs is a column exploring artists’ varied and untraditional career arcs.


Being an artist is an odd undertaking. Most careers in the arts entail economic uncertainty, more than typically found in other professions. It’s a field that often disparages wage work and valorizes unpaid activities, frequently at the expense of an artist’s financial stability. Odd Jobs features interviews with artists about how their practices—indeed, their lives—do and do not align with the needs and values associated with more traditional career paths.

Ben Kinmont runs an antiquarian bookselling business, specializing in books about gastronomy printed before 1840. This business is also an ongoing sculpture titled Sometimes a nicer sculpture is to be able to provide a living for your family (1998–ongoing). When I learned that he had curated a show titled On Becoming Something Else, I immediately called him for an interview. Kinmont has exhibited in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and the 2011 Documenta. An open and evolving archive of his work was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the first such acquisition in MoMA’s history. He has taught at California College of the Arts and Cranbrook Academy in the United States, the École des Beaux-Arts in France, and the Rietveld Academy in the Netherlands. Kinmont lives and works in Sebastopol, California.

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Ben Kinmont: My interest in economic structures is about supporting yourself. But it’s more than that. It’s also about what happens when you’re shifting out of one value structure and into another. On Becoming Something Else looked at artists who, through the pursuit of their art practice, moved into other professions or fields. In other words, the subject matter of their artwork required that they call their practice or project something other than art. It included Lygia Clark [who designed her work to be useful for psychoanalysis] and Hans de Vries [who eventually became a full-time farmer].

Ben Kinmont. On Becoming Something Else, 2009; mixed media; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Bruno Serralongue.

These weren’t artists who said, “Fuck the art world. I’m going to become a banker or a truck driver or something else.” It was where the subject matter of their artwork necessitated that they be called something other than an artist, which usually arrives when you’re doing a project that takes a long period of time—months, years—or if you’re doing artwork that involves helping others. It’s harder to help communities when you come in as an artist than when you come in as a social worker, because there’s an established history and value structure and discourse. Issues about power and authorship and representation, which are intrinsic to how contemporary art is understood, become problematic when you’re trying to work with a community and trying to help them.

When I’m teaching grad students, I often refer to the need for people—students, especially—to begin to think about their practice within an economic structure. If they want to pursue a more radical practice—something that’s more challenging than object making, or the typical relationship between the artist and institutional spaces and commercial galleries—it’s crucial for students to think about the larger picture. If you want to have a radical practice, are you expecting to have a family? Are you expecting to have insurance? Are you expecting to ever be able to go on vacation? Are you comfortable working within the commercial gallery system, and if not, what alternatives exist?

Ben Kinmont. Sometimes a nicer sculpture is to be able to provide a living for your family, 1998–ongoing (performance still); mixed media; 20 years. Photo: Ben Kinmont.

My dad was an artist. I’ve grown up in the art world, and I’ve seen the attrition and the nature of the attrition that happens. I try to get students to think about this, so that, ten years after grad school, they’re not grumpy or pissed off because no one will loan them any more money, they’re unhealthy and going to the emergency room to get medical treatment, and they say: “Fuck this shit. I’m out of here. I’m doing something else.” Instead, they might say, “I’m doing this now because I want to be doing this in my forties, and I’d like to be doing that in my seventies.” I want students to look at the bigger picture.

In that context, I often discuss the issue of jobs and what kind of work one can find, what one can do. In my particular case, I chose to become an antiquarian bookseller.

In New York, I first had a short-lived administrative-assistant job at a gallery on Madison Avenue that dealt in contemporary Chinese art. It was actually a front for an investor in Texas with natural-gas interests in China, who was trying to get in the good graces of the Chinese government. I figured out what was going on, and my relationship with them unraveled. Then I became a truck driver.

Ben Kinmont. We are the social sculpture!...I wish to open up our understanding of life, 1990; photocopy (handed out on New York City streets); 11 x 8½ in. Courtesy of the Artist.

The questions—how do you support yourself; how do you keep going financially—stayed with me. My son was born in the mid-nineties; I had just made this show, The Materialization of Life Into Alternative Economies. What really struck me was that it was hard to find artists who were not working with alternative economic structures in a symbolic way. Almost everyone was doing it, for a month or for a year. It was always a gesture.

I was already working in the book trade as an assistant, but I decided to become a bookseller. It wasn’t about the bookshop being an artwork, but rather the idea of supporting your family as being the artwork. My wife also worked, so this was my contribution. I had done pieces before this, about trust being a sculpture or different notions of exchange as sculptures. I stick with the term sculpture because it is a way of being honest about being an artist, being upfront about what I’m doing.

Ben Kinmont. Sometimes a nicer sculpture is to be able to provide a living for your family, 1998–ongoing (performance still) (detail); mixed media; 20 years. Photo: Calder Yates.

I’ve gotten to know Mierle Laderman Ukeles [who labored alongside NYC sanitation workers] over the years. She realized that there’s a need to get the contemporary discourse to include the things that aren’t just narcissistic, that aren’t just about aggrandizing oneself. This is the interesting thing about these kinds of projects, especially the bookshop project: There are times when it’s fucking hard work and boring and a really hard piece. But then there are other times when I’m more mindful and aware of what it means within the art discourse. It also comes down to, of course, just trying to understand what we mean by the word art.

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