Meeting the Man Behind the Smile: An Interview with Benjamin Bennett
For all intents and purposes, Benjamin Bennett is a YouTube legend. Bennett has been posting videos to the platform since 2014, sparking intrigue amongst users for his series’ ‘Sitting and Smiling’ and ‘Walking and Talking’.
‘Sitting and Smiling’ was the video that started it all. In an empty room, Bennett sits alone and smiles for hours on end. During this time, he does not move, speak, or break character. The video is livestreamed on YouTube before it is uploaded on his channel for anyone to watch. A bizarre curiosity has led Bennett to make over three hundred episodes of ‘Sitting and Smiling’. Yes. Three hundred.
Bennett’s later series, ‘Walking and Talking’, isn’t any less strange. The premise of the videos is simple enough, with Bennett exploring places and talking about whatever springs to mind. But it’s Bennett’s monologue that makes the video odd; talking to the point of over-explanation, Bennett discusses abstract concepts without any apparent desire to reach a conclusion. For hours. The videos become a cycle of discussion without an outcome, making them just as baffling as ‘Sitting and Smiling’.
Watching Bennett’s videos provides zero clarification on what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. Articles have come out over the years trying to figure it out, but often end with an exasperated reporter grumbling over the silliness of Bennett’s videos. Despite their probing, Bennett has yet to give away anything concrete or specific. As far as he’s concerned, it is what it is.
But it’s this lack of clarification that must draw people in. Bennett’s videos have been recognised enough to reward him 302K subscribers, over 26 million likes, and a Wikipedia page dedicated to the ‘Sitting and Smiling’ series. Bennett has even amassed a group of cult followers who have created a conspiracy theory that the YouTuber is being held against his will and forced to make these videos.
Getting to Know Ben
Now we don’t usually discuss how we approach our interview subjects, but the whole experience of locating and talking to Ben was an interesting one. With our team having seen Bennett’s videos at one point or another, we thought it would be a great idea to get in contact and try to ask him some questions. Key word: try.
After reaching out to Ben last August and not hearing a response, we eventually dropped the article. So, you can imagine our surprise when we found an email from Bennett sitting in our inbox in February. Jumping at the opportunity, we scheduled a Zoom call with Bennett where we could put to him the questions we’d been dying to ask for over six months.
We were more interested in the artistic possibilities of Bennett’s videos – in particular, how elements of performance and conceptualism seemed to mishmash together. With this in mind, we were very excited to get to know the man behind the smile.
The meeting we did have with Bennett was bizarre, to say the least. Very on-brand when considering the content of his videos. A simple “How are you?” quickly morphed into a philosophical monologue on the origins of the question and its use in small talk. Thrown for a loop, we weren’t sure if this was just an exaggeration of Bennett’s YouTube persona or a genuine response to our question. Either way, it was unnerving.
Bennett was quick to emphasise that he would not be giving any of our questions a straight answer – instead, he would flit between excessive reasoning around the subject and stretches of silence (often for what felt like over a minute at a time). It became clear why so many journalists before us had come away with little to say on Bennett: the man was adamant that we would know as little about him and his work as possible. He’s developed a brand that centres on the audience never knowing what exactly he does and why he does it. The discussion we had only perpetuated this model; we can’t know everything, and we never will.
Read on to see how our conversation with Benjamin Bennett went (please note: the conversation has been edited for length and clarity).
C: Hi Ben! Could you please tell us a bit about yourself – who you are, what you do?
B: In a way I feel less interested in that biographical detail, because I know that when someone comes to an interview it’s with the idea that they can put together a story of a person that will make sense […] I feel like that kind of story isn’t helpful when it comes to me. I don’t want to give anyone the illusion that by reading this interview they can make sense of something.
C: Do you think these details oversimplify your practice?
B: We’re trying to reduce something into information that seems graspable or comprehensible. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in this instance, it seems more fun to try and not do that.
C: So, you want to leave it up the audience’s imagination to figure it out?
B: Yeah […] When you come to read something, there’s this kind of looking energy – this seeking energy – to solve some kind of mystery. Maybe I’m projecting too much, but I feel like people come to interviews or media content with the mindset of ‘What’s going to give me the answers? How can I learn something or get something from this? How can I understand something better?’ Maybe it’s like I want to make it extra clear that you just can’t understand anything.
C: That’s an interesting narrative when you think of how the internet gives you everything at the click of a button.
B: Uh huh. I think actually you know this, and the reader knows this. There is nothing to understand about [my work]. ‘Sitting and Smiling’ and ‘Walking and Talking’ are what they are. For me, there’s no reason or explanation for them that is any closer to the truth than what they just are. In fact, any explanation around them is a little bit further away from truth – it would actually be like misunderstanding them.
Obviously, there’s a lot of pretty wild or farfetched interpretations for what it is or why I’m doing it, and obviously those are further from the truth. But in actuality it’s like any interpretation is a misinterpretation, and that’s fine.
C: That’s very paradoxical.
B: Yeah. [laughs]
C: So, if I were to ask what made you decide to start a YouTube Channel, there would be no definitive answer?
B: Definitely not a definitive answer. There are interpretations I could come up with and relate it to other things in the world that other people in the world might be able to use as reference points. There is a potentiality. But I guess I’m avoiding that because it’s so easy for those to appear like solid truths that people can grab onto, and that feels like a problem in a way – but it’s ultimately not really a problem. Ultimately it would be fine for me to just tell these stories or let them come up, but like I said before it’s more fun and interesting and challenging maybe just to try as much as possible not to interpret things. Try and see them for what they are as close as possible, even though it’s not really possible.
C: There must be many people who get frustrated not knowing what exactly it is you do. They have questions, but they won’t get an answer.
B: Yeah. But even that is the right understanding. The non-understanding of it is essentially the right understanding. Even though there is no right understanding.
C: Was there something you wanted to achieve with your videos? Was it this kind of response that you wanted? This emphasis on the paradox between knowing and not knowing?
B: I wouldn’t say ‘achieve’ – it’s more like the opposite of achieve. Anti-achieve. Un-achieve. Like to move towards non-achievement. Any response is really acceptable.
C: I’m thinking more along the lines of the different methods you go through when doing ‘Sitting and Smiling’ and ‘Walking and Talking’. For example, some people find ‘Sitting and Smiling’ a bit unsettling, but ‘Walking and Talking’ doesn’t have this because it’s more communication based. Were you trying to do different things with these videos in that context?
B: In some ways it’s more like the same thing expressed with opposing means. With ‘Sitting and Smiling’, so many people are frustrated and want explanation. They want verbal logical explanation. And one way I could describe ‘Walking and Talking’ is the most lengthy and thorough explanation of things I could ever give […] But as time passes and you look closely at that meaning, you discover that the meaning is made of non-meaning […] There’s just an appearance of meaning.
[…] It’s like the many and the one, in the way that Plotinus would put it. Of the one and the many, of reflux and efflux. You could say that ‘Sitting and Smiling’ represents the one and ‘Walking and Talking’ represents the many, but there actually is no difference between them. They are the same thing.
C: Would you say ‘Walking and Talking’ is a means of compensation for all the hours you sat in silence?
B: You could think of it that way, but maybe ‘Walking and Talking’ is more of an investigation of the phenomenon of individuation. The phenomenon of being an individual person. Investigating that. So, if ‘Sitting and Smiling’ is the reflux, the return to the one, the resistance of individuation, then ‘Walking and Talking’ is like an excessive individuation, to the point where it obliterates itself. Self-expression until the self disappears. Or extreme narcissism until you come out the other side.
C: It’s almost like having two sides of the same coin. One side is blank, the other is covered to the point where you can’t read it – it’s no longer legible.
B: Yeah. For me, maybe Plotinus’ concepts of reflux and efflux are a good reduction of that. It’s like an apparent bifurcation of the experience of consciousness, two polar extremes. But in doing that, you can see through them and see that they actually aren’t different.
C: We’ve been talking a lot about your videos here at Mouthing Off. We read your work as something that falls within the categories of visual and performance art, as well as elements of conceptualism. Do you see your work in this light?
B: That’s one reference point that I could place it in. Some visual and performance reference points do exist in my mind, but I don’t think of it strictly as connected to that. There are also many other reference points […] I don’t feel like things are connected in that way. I don’t think that putting it in that framework helps anyone understand anything better.
C: You currently have over 291k subscribers on YouTube and have amassed over 25.5 million views across your videos. Did you expect to receive this response?
B: No, I didn’t expect the response. I just knew I’d be doing it regardless of response – that it had some kind of power to it, regardless of any response.
C: A lot of people do seem to look at your video and make a quick assumption. With relation to you work being along the lines of visual or performance art, do you think this could be a wider issue with how people look at art (if we were to classify your work as art in this sense)?
B: I think the reason why people struggle is – in a broader sense than whether it’s art or not – is because it can be uncomfortable to just exist in mystery. To let the mystery of reality engulf you. To just stop trying to pin things down and make things solid and feel like you are a solid self that understands the world.
There’s this very widespread conspiracy theory that I’m being held hostage and being forced to do this – which is completely ridiculous […] I don’t know if they actually believe it. I think that people are just creating a theatre for themselves that is more entertaining or more comfortable for them than the reality that there is just no explanation.
[…] All these weird interpretations [about my work] are just that manifesting, that ‘figuring out’ energy. When you have something that is almost like specifically unexplainable, then the sorts of explanations that precipitate from that are actually really interesting.
C: I also wanted to ask you about some of the more bizarre things that have happened when filming your videos. There was one instance where someone broke into your apartment during. Do you think these make your videos more interesting or encourage people to see what you’re doing?
B: Whether it makes them more interesting or not, that’s for other people to decide. Those particular moments attract everyone’s interest, because they appear as something you can grab onto amidst the void.
C: In ‘Walking and Talking #66: Get a Load of This’ you discussed the possibility of having developed a persona for your videos. Do you think this is a correct description for how you see yourself when you create your videos? Is the person we see in ‘Sitting and Smiling’ completely different to who we see on ‘Walking and Talking’ or even just you in everyday life?
B: In all actuality there just is no continuous person. That is an illusion […] It’s not that there is a more real reality. It’s not that there’s an underlying truth to something, because what is found beneath the dream is actually nothing. It’s actually an absence. A nothingness. So, if we’re operating from the perspective that there is a more real plane of reality, or like a real me – whether there’s a YouTube persona in opposition to a real me – the answer is that there isn’t a real me.
C: Do you think this persona is largely made up of what a viewer would expect to see – what they project onto you, their ideas, their thoughts – is this part of that character-building that happens on your channel?
B: Well I mean, that’s one possible interpretation, like in terms of YouTube branding – which is as good an interpretation as any. But I don’t really understand why I do it either […]
‘Sitting and Smiling’ and ‘Walking and Talking’ are both expressions – but don’t interpret this as an actual interpretation – of being silent because it’s not possible to speak the truth, or continuing to talk forever because it’s not possible to speak the truth because everything you say is wrong and needs correcting forever. This is just one viewpoint on the paradoxical nature of reality […]
Obviously, I’m not even really answering any of the questions in any coherent way. And I’m completely just rambling off track. I don’t think I’m giving any insight into anything. And I think that’s the way it has to be.
Graphics by Charlie Colville.
Looking for more intriguing stories? Check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section.