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People Like Us

Vicki Bennett opens new mental doors through perhaps familiar sights and sounds

A still from "Genre Collage."

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/14/2010

A robot carries on a rather serious conversation with Ingrid Bergman. Mayhem erupts in scenes shot in both black and white and color film stock. A string of shots from classic movies--The Birds, Mary Poppins, Psycho--featuring close ups on faces and eyes forms the hypnotic visuals accompanying a smoky ballad about the look of love. These teaser clips of the audio/visual performance "Genre College," found on the web site of People Like Us, offer only a brief peek into the creative mindscapes that British artist Vicki Bennett, the woman behind PLU, has been creating since 1992.

"Genre Collage" is her latest project, and what she performs at this year's Transmodern Festival. The live a/v mix is an experiential immersion into familiar sights and sounds completely reorganized to yield a new emotional place. "I got fed up with working with obscure moving images, because I could never get enough of any particular thing, and I wanted to also work with well-known sources in the way that I do with audio," Bennett writes in an e-mail interview about the origin of "Genre Collage." "So I decided to target major feature films. I know nothing about films, [and] am dreadful at remembering the names of actors, but in a way that can be used to one's advantage--it makes it a lot less complicated in knowing if something is immediately recognizable, because if I don't recognize it, it isn't.

"So I watched a few hundred well-known films and collected lists of images and events within them that happened a lot--for instance, driving, staring, crying, conflict, and so on, basic stuff. Then I looked for keywords in songs that I have in my archive and made thematic music on different subjects. Then I cut the film to the music. Sometimes the other way around. Sometimes both. It's tricky because with collage you've got a lot going on, and with audio-visual collage you've got twice that."

Collage and appropriation can be problematic art forms, and that's leaving aside issues of intellectual property and copyright. The close-minded often view collage as mere theft of somebody else's original artwork, where the resulting effect of the appropriation is both contingent on the effect of the sampled work and is inevitably inferior to the original. That's a reactionary response that views sampling as merely clever, providing perhaps witty commentary to something already pre-existing. And it's a reaction that makes you think such a person has never encountered the transformative creative energy that an artist such as Bennett achieves through her blithe collage work.

"I'm not very good at doing things 'properly,'" she writes. "My talent lies in the way I think about changing and transforming what already exists, or at least I hope that's the case. I like to think of what I do as being folk art in that I am taking what already exists and reflecting on it not by making a new rendition of the same thing (like a painter may paint a scene), but by literally using the source. Collage is fantastic because it allows you to be a conductor of fantastical activities making the impossible happen on a stage in the way it never could in real life. I'm sure a lot of older artists would be working with media in the way I do if they were around now."

Now 42, Bennett says that she has always worked with collage in her adult life, writing that she started out doing photographic and paper collage before making scratch video by recording images off the TV. She got her first mixer and tape decks in 1990, about the same time her Brighton hometown became host to a radio station, where she did a weekly show. And for most of the 1990s, People Like Us was Bennett's moniker as a sound artist, releasing a wide variety of found sound and music collages via CDs and albums on such left-field leaning labels as Staalplaat and Kleptones. On a 1994 Staalplaat mini-CD, her nearly 13-minute "Guide to Broadcasting" creates a fascinating space out of a blend of radio voices, music, and sound effects.

And it's in her work with language that you start to see just how ingeniously Bennett puts things together. Humor is a big part of it--not so much jokes, but in the way she finds insouciant ways of putting ideas, sounds, and images side-by-side to create a new space to interact with the world. "Humour is the main way that I engage with, understand, and connect to other people in general," she writes. "It's the case with the art, too--it's a magical thing, humour--often a reaction to surreal or absurd situations and definitely above and beyond language. Humour is different to comedy, though--comedy is about punchlines whereas mine's more subtle and complex I hope. More playful.

"The reason I love collage is one can approach it from the outside through many doors and windows," she continues. "It's very open to interpretation and I would say very easy to access on many intellectual levels. I also see collage as being like alchemy--summoning up combinations that aren't possible to be acted out any other way. It can come across as subversive or even political when people use collage--and of course sometimes it's intentional, like with those using collage early on--but it's inevitable."

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