James Benning

James Benning talks about Two Cabins

Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007–January 2008.

Several years ago, filmmaker James Benning built first one, then another small cabin on property he owns in California. Modeled on the redoubts constructed by Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber), Benning’s cabins are the subjects of Two Cabins, a new book edited by Julie Ault and published by A.R.T. Press.

I HAD BOUGHT A “TURNKEY” PROPERTY IN THE MOUNTAINS, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s. I realized building a second cabin would be akin to what I had done when I made the film American Dreams in 1984. I had started that film with images of baseball cards, with Henry Aaron, to which I added political speeches and popular music. At the time that also seemed too cute, which is why I added excerpts from the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who wanted to shoot Nixon and who did shoot George Wallace. This gave the film a counterpoint, crossed the wires between good and bad. As I was building the Kaczynski cabin I imagined it as a kind of sculptural version of American Dreams. But as I did more research about Kaczynski I found him to be much more complicated than Bremer. Bremer’s diary does show that he had a political side (though he often contradicts himself), but the diary made it clear that his main desire was to become infamous. Kaczynski may have started his bombing campaign from pure anger, but from the very start he also had a goal, that is, to destroy the technological society before it destroys us. And here he makes arguments we should pay attention to.

The project is still growing; this book, though an important labor of love with my friends Julie Ault and Dick Hebdige, isn’t the end of it. I added a library, and this summer I’m considering building furniture of the type Thoreau and Kaczynski utilized. I’ve also made a number of films. Two Cabins pairs views out of my cabins’ windows with field recordings taken in Lincoln, Montana, and at Walden Pond—sites of the original constructions. Nightfall was made nearby, a little higher up in the mountains, and is a ninety-seven-minute study of changing light, from daytime to complete darkness. It’s a portrait of solitude. Nothing happens—no wind, no movement, just changing light. I’ve shown it in Berlin and Newcastle, UK, so far, and both audiences were very gracious. Now I’ve just finished a third film, which is two hours long, consisting of four shots off of my porch in spring, fall, winter, and summer—in that order. It’s a grand view of the mountain, the valley, and trees, and in the corner of the image you can just see part of the Kaczynski cabin. Each shot is thirty minutes long, and for half of that time I read text from Kaczynski’s unpublished journals, and some other diverse sources including the Manifesto, and a prison interview from 2001, and some unpublished pages that the FBI confiscated at the time of his arrest and auctioned off last May. An artist friend bought them for $43,000 and gave them to Julie, who had been a big influence on that artist’s work. He knew she and I were working together on this book, and because of his generosity we had access to unpublished writings. It’s the first time I’ve made a text/image film in twelve or fifteen years. I should add that Julie takes the ownership of Kaczynski’s journals very seriously. She believes they should be archived properly and not misused. My intension is not to exploit, but rather to show how complex Kaczynski’s thinking is. I believe his warnings are just. Of course I find his methods wrong, but then again I pay taxes, which have been used to kill lots of innocent people over the past fifty years, so I guess I’m not so innocent myself.

This whole project will keep evolving as I get a better handle on what it says politically. I want to understand solitude, and relating to nature, as both of these men wrote about it. I want to know how one’s senses become more attuned to what is around us. We don’t practice paying attention anymore; we’re bombarded with too many things, we have too much to do. Being in the cabins helps me retain an attention span that allows me to look, listen, and feel deeply. When you’re in the woods, everything is important—whether a track on the ground or a noise in the distance. You have an entirely different way of relating to your environment.