Hazing the Muse Part II: Dr. Laurie Weeks interviews Benjy Russell and Rya Kleinpeter

To darken this darkenss-Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterTo Darken This Darkness

RECAPS featured an earlier version of  Hazing The Muse  in the Fall if 2012.  After connecting in virtual space for the past two years, it was cosmic timing that Russell rolled into LA on his truck in from Tennessee just in time for Rethink Environment — radiating his sweet soft butch energy throughout the happening.  Friendships were forged, conversations became praxis. Mobilizing that spirit, we re-present an updated, and brilliantly annotated version of Hazing the Muse for Rethink Environment Part II. The magical Dr. Laurie Weeks facilitated an interview with our muses, Benjy Russell and Rya Kleinpeter, and the lovely T Fleischmann provided the following introduction:

To preface A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes reminds us that “the necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.” Hazing the Muse splays Rya Kleinpeter and Benjy Russell across just such a discourse. The photographs here are acts of love, born out of a deep and deeply devious respect for the images, and it is in the longing to join together that the subject and the object can’t help but trying to destroy themselves after all. Bound and blinded, they both put on lipstick so that we will look at their lips while they obscure the exact pink of the flesh.

It is this turning inward by turning outward, this determined and self-negating stare, where the action happens. The bodies of the artists become sites not just of their humiliating affection, but of their greedy consumption. Archetypes become edible, and as we feast on cherries and hummingbirds, Kleinpeter is denied a banana and Russell chokes on a lemon. Like all the best masochisms, it’s impossible to tell who is actually in control here. Beauty startles, it damages. We seek it because we love someone, by which we often just mean to say that we love ourselves. Roland Barthes was a gay man who lived almost his entire adult life with his mother and somewhere in rural Tennessee a massive, white sculpture of impossible geometry hangs above a creek. We don’t know if Kleinpeter put it there for Russell or Russell for Kleinpeter because, in truth, what lingers is the difficulty of its suspension, the labor that marks devotion. Both subjects remain subjects, unjoined to the other and aching, as a trail of balloons rises from the cave’s agape mouth. 

Only the lover and child have a heavy heart-Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterOnly the lover and child have a heavy heart


Hazing the Muse: An Interview with Dr. Laurie Weeks

Dr. Laurie Weeks: This series is so luminous, you two. How long have you been working on this project?

Rya: Well it started a while ago. Benjy and I used to live together in Tennessee where we hosted this very informal artist residency program called Sassafras.

Benjy: All of the work is dealing with Rya and I’s relationship with each other. So it’s a series of gifts to each other, and in true brother and sister fashion, there’s a bit of torment in there also. With infinite amounts of love.

L: There’s a sense of playfulness too, so that the darkness isn’t completely soul-crushing. I’m standing here tucking my dress into the back of my underpants for no reason.

R: Now we’re [Laurie and I} walking down the steps and into the garden [in Los Angeles].

B: Sounds beautiful. I’m in my garden right now too [In Tennessee].

L: The month of Cancer reminds us of death. Anne Ortelee said that today on her podcast right after saying summer was the month of abundance.

R: It’s all good. We’re all in the garden together.

L: So Benjy, how are you feeling these days?

B: I feel really good. I’m really busy, and it’s good to be busy.

L: What are you busy with.

B: When I was out in LA I shot a film that’s premiering Tuesday, July 1st.and I’ve been doing a bunch of carpentry projects.

L: Where is your film coming out at?

B: MOCA has an online channel called MOCAtv, and they’re premiering it on Tuesday. It’s called The Passengers and it’s starring WIFE, this amazing performance art troupe out of Los Angeles. It’s based on a poem that I wrote called The Passengers. It’s a love letter to my husband who passed away in December.

L: I know, Benjy. I’m so sorry about that.

B: Well, making this film was very healing. The film and the process were very healing. Art is really the only therapy that I know how to do well and which always works. So it was very good for me.

L: Because of its capacity to transform unbearable pain into—

B: I think good art should heal.

L: What’s Wife?

B: They’re a performance art group that deals with ancient female archetypes and storytelling but told through digital projection mapping, choreography, sculpture, and costumes.

L: Well, they’re my type of people.

B: The film feels very semi-futuristic, and the overall vibe is what I feel witchcraft is going to look like in the year 2300. Nature plays the fourth character in the film.

L: I love that you’re thinking witchcraft in the future. Is there going to be a lot of gnostic/wiccan/ceremonial/sacred rites prancing around the moon kind of thing in 2300?

B- It also plays around with alternate dimensions using mirrors, bent mirrored acrylic, glass, and light.

L: We’re definitely on the same team. So I’m feeling the mind/body split evaporate and everything communicating telepathically with everything else like in the days of yore?

B: Yes! Lots of nonverbal communication and ritual.

L: What made you think of 2300? The fact that we’re supposedly leaving the Kali Yuga industrial hellscape and heading up again towards the Golden Age, in terms of the the Hindu cycle?

B: I feel like it’s a time of healing right now and that also means a time of growth. I also feel like we’re coming out from underneath so much male dominated culture. Thank goddess.

L: Speaking of crawling out from under the men, let’s get back to Hazing the Muse. It’s a sweet harassment though, isn’t it?

B: It is. You know how if you love someone completely and unconditionally you have the whole spectrum of emotions that are involved. Rya and I are both so hopelessly in love with each other.

R: It’s not a romantic love, but it is quite romantic. We have a very romantic friendship, but it’s outside the preconceived notion of romance.

B: It’s deeper than that.

L: Like Eskimos and snow.

R: What about them?

L: Stupid cliché. They have a million words for snow, but we have to cram all of this inchoate contradictory stuff into something like “love” or “romance.”

B: Well, we’re both so inspired by each other, and for the longest time I’d come to Rya for help with a project or vice versa. It just made sense that we consciously start making work together. And anytime you have two people who are so inspired by each other, like two muses, I feel like it’s two mirrors looking at each other. it’s like an optical feedback loop and the end result is infinity.

L: It’s cool because you’re both each other’s muse. I’ve always hated the whole concept of the fucking muse, but it’s not like Rya’s the lady muse and you’re psychically vampirizing her.

R: Somewhere during the period of time we were together at Sassafras I was working as a dominatrix. So I got really interested in the idea of adoration and humiliation, and I just thought that would be such a lovely way to start something.

L: It’s so great to go from the cherries to Rya trussed up in the tree. It’s totally disturbing but so gorgeous. It takes back the night from Miami CSI and the epidemic of women being trussed up in basements by roving packs of serial killers.

Desired without love, or loved without desire-Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterDesired without Love, or Loved Without Desire

The illusion of Sentimentality-Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterThe Illusion of Sentimentality

B: It’s looking at it as a tool for therapy, too. A tool for healing.

L: You’re exploring the psyche, but in a really creative way. It’s like coded messages coming into our bodies from the photos but there’s a lot of room for our interactions with the work.

R: We worked with a dominatrix by the name of Glitter who lived in the community around Short Mountain in Tennessee. She helped us with the rope bondage in some of the work, including the photograph of me hanging from the tree, which was quite dangerous.

B: That experience for Rya was very, very intense.

R: I was tied up by Glitter, and there was a pulley in the tree. So I’m hanging facing down and Benjy is on the ground taking photographs.

L: Did it hurt?

R: Yeah, it really fucking hurt, and it was really scary. It’s the most vulnerable situation you could put yourself in.

L: Did you know that it was going to be like that?

R: No. I thought that it was going to be funny and fun, but it was not funny or fun. It was a very transcendent experience. I left my body. I remember seeing Benjy below me taking the photos and he was freaking out. He was not ok with it  and he was very worried about me.

B: I didn’t want to think that she was having to go through this pain for this work.

R: It was hardcore. Glitter was such a lovely Shamanatrix though.

L: A Shamanatrix!

R: She really talked me through it. She talked me through everything as it was happening, and she told me how emotional it was going to be. When she finally let me down, because I was up there for 15 or 20 minutes, she just held me. Both her and Benjy held me while I sobbed.

L: So it was a valuable action? Did you release a lot of trauma stuff from your body?

R: Yeah. It was very healing. You don’t realize what gravity means until you’re suspended like that. My hands and my feet were blue at the end.

B: It’s also about trust. You have to completely turn yourself over to this individual and trust that they have your best interests at heart.

L: So let’s talk about the image where the chainsaw is where your weenis should be and there are those beautiful flowers on the ground.

Language is a skin I rub my language-Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterLanguage is a skin I rub my language.

B: The begonias. Rya came up with that for me as part of our hazing ritual. That chainsaw I had used previously in another piece, so it had a lot of sentimental value to me.

R: I really liked the idea of that particular color palette, but also liked the idea of the unsafety between his legs.

L: It also feels really flat and two dimensional. Like his legs are falling off into the void. It’s also completely gorgeous. It’s a dick and a dick remover.

B: It’s soft and romantic and violent at the same time.

Something which resembles fate- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterSomething Which Resembles Fate

L: I also love the shovel piece. Just the object-ness and design. Then suddenly you’re tied up to that fucking tree. How’d that work out for you?

B: It was very cold!

R: All of this was shot in Tennessee, and that particular shot was done in February. The daffodils are the first sign of spring coming on, and this was shot in a location that’s called Daffodil Meadow at our friends space.

B: The daffodils are also a sign of old homesteads. The homesteaders would plant them around their homes, and the flowers would long outlive the houses.

L: It’s a really anxiety-inducing photograph.

R: He’s wearing yellow football shoulder pads and a yellow jockstrap.

B: I played football growing up and I totally hated it. I was the only son, and my dad wanted me to play football. So it was very therapeutic being able to strap on those things that had held so much torment for me, and then to be able to do it in a field of flowers at the same time.

L: Your reconfiguration of these elements—fetishized violence and punishment for loving flowers is very transformative and exciting It clears out the terrorizing energy for you AND the viewers.

B:I was able to reclaim it.

L: It’s creation. Or re-creation.

B: And it’s necessary.

It's true that this mute figure is an angel-Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterIt’s true that this mute figure is an angel

L: So let’s talk about the lipstick image with the orange flowers.

R: Those are daylilies on top of a mirrored jewelery case.

B: I bought that jewelry case for Rya as a present years ago.

B: The scientific name for those flowers is Hemerocallis fulva, which roughly translates to “beautiful for a day”. Each of those blooms are only open for one day. They open when the sun hits them in the morning and then they close and wilt when the sun sets. That piece is titled “It’s true that this mute figure is an angel.”

L: God damn. Where’d you get that?

R: It’s a line from Roland Barthe’s “A lovers discourse”.

L: Are all of the titles from A Lovers Discourse?

R: Most of them.

Phantom Pregnancy- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterPhantom Pregnancy

L: How long did it take you to build the white sculpture hanging over the creek?

B :Rya and I spent close to a month building that thing. It’s probably 7 feet tall by 10 feet wide. We built it in my front yard, and it took forever because it’s so huge and we were trying to decide what “language” it was going to speak. The form and the shape and how it was going to interact with its environment.

R: It was so heavy and awkward. We almost died trying to hang it on a branch over the creek.

B: We scouted locations for it around my neighborhood, and decided on the creek in front of my neighbor’s house. We loaded this giant sculpture up in the back of an ’85 Chevy truck, and it looked like a spaceship riding in the back of this shitty old pickup. This was on a Sunday, and church was letting out at the Dry Creek Baptist Church as we were driving past at about 10 mph. All of the good God fearing folks were in the parking lot staring at us as we drove by in our slutty creek clothes with our spaceship.

L: So how high is it off the ground?

B: It’s probably 6 feet off the ground.

L: It’s so non-egomaniacal that it fits right in and doesn’t seem like it’s trying to dominate the surroundings.

B: I think there’s a good dialogue happening between it and the environment that it’s in.

L: Like they’re having a play date.

R: I equate it with the monolith in 2001:A Space Odyssey. It’s just a figure that appears.

L: It came in from the other dimension. I’m sure less evolved people than we are can’t even see it.

B: The title of that piece, Phantom Pregnancy, refers to a clinical diagnosis that occurs in women and men where they exhibit signs of pregnancy.

Masculinitude- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterMasculinitude

L: All of these images are so beautifully composed, but not in a precious way. It seems more tapped into sacred geometry. Were you consciously trying to manifest certain energies that way? Each picture resonates with the other in different ways that aren’t predictable, and they change depending on your mood when you look at it. I’m not sure I’ve ever even experience this kind of love you’re dealing with.

R: Well, Benjy and I have done a lot together. Our project in Tennessee, and living in the country together. Us leaving the confines of LA, and moving to Tennessee in ’08 to kind of do this utopian experiment. All of this work was made at the end of that. I wasn’t even living in Tennessee still. I had moved to New York City. I was coming back in integrals to make this work with him. It was rooted in my longing for nature.

Self-portrait of me by you- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterSelf-portrait of Me By You

L: So Rya, I feel like I have to ask you about this piece where you’re draped over the horse.

R: That was actually the first piece that we shot for this series. I’d had this idea in my head for a long time. I grew up riding horses, so horses are very dear to my heart. So I asked Benjy if he’d help me with it. At the time we were building a goat barn at our neighbor’s property.

B: The goat barn we were building was right next to where this photograph was taken.

R: We were building this goat barn for our friend Billy in exchange for rent at Sassafras. We took our lunch break, and we borrowed one of Billy’s horses for this shoot. Billy had hired this local kid to come out to his farm and cut hay on his tractor. He kept driving by really slowly while we were shooting. This kid was barely out of high school, and he said to Benjy “I don’t know how you can keep your hands off of her when she’s up there like that”.

B: I just told him that I get to see it everyday.

R: So Billy went to the local gas station the next day, and overheard this kid telling a group of guys what he’d seen the day before. Then he told everyone “I’m going to mount her like a rooster”. The next day he showed up to drive the tractor and his girlfriend was with him and gave me the stink eye all day.

The dream of the union forms another figure- Benjy Russell and Rya Kleinpeter

The dream of the union forms another figure.

L: So tell me about this photo of Rya with a vacuum cleaner, her legs splayed symmetrically, balancing on four bottles of….

R: … generic Hawaiian Punch. It was like four for a dollar. It’s cheaper to buy that than water in Tennessee.

B: The title of that piece is The dream of the union forms another figure.

L: I love your titles. They really make another facet of the whole origami piece unfold.

R: It’s an objectified thing. it’s not even a human form.

L: I’m getting that. There are a ton of things you think of when you see a vacuum cleaner going up a twat. I don’t really want to spell them out, but it’s so fun. “Is society vacuuming out my period____?” I’m channeling Werner Herzog right now. “Has the red soda destroyed the body of woman?”

R: The other character in these works are the complimentary colors. Nature is the third character, and complimentary colors are the fourth character.

By weeping, I want to impress someone- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterBy weeping, I want to impress someone.

L: Their teamwork seems effortless. It doesn’t feel like you’re making some didactic statement. Specifically in the image where you’re spraying the yellow paint onto the yellow racket out of a red can against the blue sky. This image with the layout and grid pattern reminds me of harmonic resonance, and how it affects the body of the viewer. It’s a known thing that heals your body. The Greeks and the Egyptians had these healing temples that were managed by, I don’t know, sacred geometry priests. You would go in and just stare at sacred geometrical shapes that I imagine were mounted on plinths in these big rooms. You’d stare at the certain shapes, because they’d have an effect on your body. It’s very similar to that.

I see it in existence, not in essence- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterI see it in existence, not in essence

L: So let’s talk about this sculpture that’s in the field of yellow flowers. What types of flowers are they?

B: The locals call them buttercups, but I’m not sure what the exact name is. That’s my front yard.

R: Literally, that’s his front yard.

L: Whoa! These hanging sculpture feel like if aliens had come down and scribbled them in the air.

B:That piece was much lighter than the other sculpture. Smaller wooden pieces and I held it together with yellow electrical tape at the joints. It was probably six feet tall.

L: I love the triangles that are in it. It also looks like an astrology chart. As if someone were to sculpt a horoscope.

B: I like to see them as figures. I usually see a face in it. Almost like a portrait.

I know that you know that I know- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterI know that you know that I know.

L: Which brings us to the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

B: I feel like that image summarizes Rya and my relationship as a whole. There’s a psychic conversation happening and different languages being spoken. It almost predates language.

L: And when symbols unfold, they release about ten billion levels of things that are coded into them. It’s how hieroglyphics work, but it’s how it also works subliminally—affinities revealed by unpredictable combinations?

B: And familiarity.

L-You’ve found a way to express that with materials.

R: Trying to find out how the hieroglyphs talk to the flower bulb.

B: That’s an amaryllis bulb that my late husband bought for me.

R: And then I painted the hieroglyphs.

B: She did. We painted the thought bubbles on the wall, and Rya painted hieroglyphs in hers and I hung an amaryllis bulb from the ceiling in mine.

L: I think pleasure has been exiled from this punitive, evil society, but these images are so deeply pleasurable. This one with the three UFO diamonds. The shapes in them, the geometry mirror the diamonds on your solar plexus, Rya, created by the rope where you’re suspended from the tree.

And the night illuminated the night- Benjy Russell and Rya Kleinpeter

And the night illuminated the night

B: We wanted to try and create a sculpture similar to the other two white sculptures that we had built, but made out of light. Using a similar language, but out of a material that is the definition of impermanent. It existed for only 1/60th of a second. It’s called And the night illuminated the night.

Another morality-Benjy Russell and Rya Kleinpeter

Another morality

L: In the progression of pictures, it’s sad to go from the hummingbirds to the cage, but at least the hummingbirds are outside and and the diet coke is in jail. And NOW… here’s Rya wrapped in a gigantic leaf!

B: It’s a giant elephant ear. That piece is called A very gentle glove.

A very gentle glove- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterA very gentle glove.

L: I love the white shovels by the way.

B: I really appreciate them as sculptural objects.

I love you is not a sentence- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterI love you is not a sentence 


R: I think what Benjy and I are playing with the idea of is using ourselves as sculptural objects and the objectification of  one another. To place that person on a pedestal and to say I love you and to humiliate you at the same time. Love is so humiliating.

L: Yeah.

R: To love someone so much so that you can not only project your own fears onto someone, but to project all of your emotions onto them. To put them into a situation where they feel compromised. It’s ultimately about vulnerability and to make someone empathize. To make someone so vulnerable so that they understand you. That’s what these photographs are about. We made each other so vulnerable, and there was growth from that.

B: Whatever she needs me to be I can, and whatever I need from her she can be. Sometimes you’re the object and sometimes you’re the objectifier.

R: To be the object of someone else’s affection, to play the inanimate object in order for someone to project onto you what they want you to understand.

L:That’s being self aware enough to consciously allow that to happen.

B: And being comfortable enough to get to that place of vulnerability.

L: It’s a really scary risk, because we’re not taught to do that. We’re supposed to stay separate and take responsibility for our own actions and not trust anyone else. Your heart isn’t safe in anybody’s hands 99% of the time probably. I’m just making that up.

R: But to do this and create this space, where Benjy and I aren’t lovers, well, we’re lovers of a different kind, but to do these things to each other in a safe place, we had to know that it was going to be ok. Also, the images that don’t have a person in them are in honor of the other. They’re gifts that we made for each other. To project the utmost adoration of the other.

L: The whole society should be a gift society.

B-Well, Rya is such a beautiful person that I want her to have beautiful things.

L: Same to you. Why can’t everybody be like us? I think this is a doorway to global peace. It embraces both the so called perverse and frightening, but yet it’s so beautiful, with such a light touch.

R: Take your horror and give it to someone else. Project your horror onto someone else.

B: And heal from it.

R: Hold it and cradle it and allow yourself to be as abject and vulnerable as you want to be and make something beautiful out of it.

L: That’s what parents are supposed to do in the first place, but it doesn’t or didn’t fit in with the paradigm of the moment I guess.

We are our own demons- Benjy Russell and Rya Kleinpeter

We are our own demon

L: I’m so in love with the hummingbirds.

B: We shot on my front porch. I set up a small studio with a white backdrop and a hummingbird feeder against it. I just sat out there for 5 hours photographing hummingbirds. That piece is a collage and the only image that’s digitally altered.

R: The hummingbird on the left side of the frame is the only female bird in the frame. All of the others you can tell are male by the red markings on their throats.

B: It’s the one female going up against all of the males, but she’s obviously the one in charge.

L: It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I really want it! It’s so evocative of a billion things. It’s beautiful on it’s own without ascribing meaning to anything, but then hearing you talk about it, and hearing about the dom thing in the other work, it’s really intense.

It's nothing for you to be someone's festivity- Benjy Russell and Rya KleinpeterIt’s nothing for you to be someone’s festivity

Rya Kleinpeter is a multi media artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. 
She is one half of the performance duo known as INNER COURSE.

Benjy Russell is a lover(not a fighter) based out of Dowelltown, Tennessee. He’s a Sagittarius that enjoys gardening and inter-dimensional travel.