Ben Bennett sits and smiles—a lot. For four hours at a time, the improviser and performance artist from Columbus, Ohio sits and smiles in an uninterrupted stream. And this isn't even the only time he's endured such a creepily tedious performance: The video below is only one of 27 that Bennett has posted since July of 2014 of his smiling marathons, each one the same as the last. One of the strangest aspects of this project is its apparent lack of explanation. Bennett’s website, where you can watch all 108 hours of him “sitting and smiling” is frustratingly sparse, featuring only a “donate” page, an email address, and video after video of him staring into the camera.
I find myself rolling my eyes at the pretentious weirdness of this video, and yet caught up in its mystery: What is Bennett’s purpose? What does he feel as he sits and smiles? Does his body begin to hurt? Is he approaching Enlightenment? Is this art? Is this narcissism? And what am I supposed to feel as I watch him? Is this joyful or terrifying? Does he need to pee? Do I need to pee?
My own response evolves as I watch. The minutes tick by, and Bennett’s frozen smile becomes increasingly disturbing to me. As it sits, unwavering on his face, what begins as an expression of pleasure and affection is shaken free of its meaning; the smile is devoid of reason and sense, an alien arrangement of skin and tongue and teeth, saying nothing and meaning nothing. I am staring into the face of emptiness, the great void that lies at the heart of all human experience, that which lies beyond symbolization and articulation. I am gazing into the gaping maw of the Real. Or, um, maybe that’s just me.