Benjamin Rosenthal and the ‘Crisis of Masculinity’

photo by Jim Barcus

The Widely Exhibited Kansas City Artist Explores the Facets and Future of Sexuality in Riveting Video Works

In the future, will people still have sex? How will we form our sexual identities? As the popular slogans say: “The Future is Female” and “The Future is Queer,” but what place will masculinity have in our brave new world? Benjamin Rosenthal’s videos and installations are a fascinating dive into hypothetical futures and the ever-changing course of human sexuality. Utilizing his own body, digital avatars and prison-like structures, Rosenthal explores his own desires and feelings toward these topics, not with a mind to educate or argue an ideology, but to make an honest investigation into all possibilities.

The sculpture, “betwixt’ a rock and a [wanton] place, nonetheless” (2018), was part of the recent exhibit, “Benjamin Rosenthal: slickly across the surface [of], [our] sensitive signals” at the Lawrence Arts Center. On the wall behind the sculpture is the five-channel video installation “of spectral glances [in] and [of] prophetic tremors, [not touching]” (2018). (from the artist)

He began exploring his signature themes during his college years. Rosenthal’s early work at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2006, set the stage for many of his future works. “DIAGRAM: Exploding Body Detonates The Mind” is a three-channel, looping video that alternates between archival football training tapes from the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State with shots of Rosenthal manically scribbling diagrams on a whiteboard, mumbling football jargon, shuffling through papers, coughing and hyperventilating. At one point, shuffling through papers, he says “I’m only following directions.” This sense of masculinity in crisis, of a person attempting to follow orders and to fit in, has become a recurring theme for Rosenthal.

Born in Queens, New York City in 1984, Rosenthal returned to New York City after completing his degree at Carnegie Mellon, working for two years organizing weekly lectures for the Bard Graduate Center. Feeling cramped in his tiny NYC apartment, he left the East Coast for the University of California, Davis, where he completed a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art in 2011.

While attending UC Davis, Rosenthal created another three-channel video, “Loops and Bonds.” In it, various people in an “open mic” situation read from strange notes, rules and rituals taken from a fraternity initiation manual that the artist had acquired. The readings are cut and looped in short, repetitive fragments, with each channel setting its own rhythm, competing with the others. Eventually, rope is brought out, people play tug of war and hit a stuffed animal dangling from a rope as an improvised piñata. All of the footage is spontaneous; Rosenthal encouraged his actors but gave them little foreknowledge of what they would be doing. Nervous laughter abounds as strange jargon is spoken and rituals are improvised.

“of techno gods: the ecstasy” (2018), a digital archival print, was recently shown at studios.gallery at Studios Inc, where Rosenthal is a resident artist. (from the artist)

At UC Davis, Rosenthal felt he had been pegged as “only” a video artist. Keen to try something new, he began constructing “Bunker,” an enclosure made of bricks comprised of masking tape and drywall. Inside his bunker, Rosenthal filmed what he termed “Bunker Actions.” The resulting four-channel video shows Rosenthal, shirtless and in the dark confines of his cell, adjusting the bricks of the bunker and applying masking tape to his body. From holes in the brick wall and from the masking tape outlines on his body emerge black rectangular voids created through 3D computer imaging. The entire film feels sexual, carceral and even violent, due to a machine gun-like strobing effect. Similar to “Bunker,” Rosenthal’s “Material Failure: Modernist Shelter Unit” is a large cage made of ceramic “rebar” — long tubes of unfired clay arranged into a flimsy grid.

Rosenthal describes the central theme of these and many other works as “the crisis of masculinity,” the need for boys to prove their manliness and fit into social hierarchies. It was during this time, when the artist was in his late 20s, that he began questioning his own sexuality. These cages and bunkers, panicked football presentations and nervous fraternity initiations all have one thing in common: Power is found lacking, in crisis and on the verge of collapse. While Rosenthal hadn’t initially intended it at the time, all of these early projects can be seen as metaphors for “being in the closet.”

Rosenthal admits that UC Davis was rough and that he “took a beating, some of it deserved and some of it not.” After graduation, he returned to New York in 2011 and wasn’t sure what his next step would be. His next project, “Administrative Maximum: Towards The End Of The Broadcast,” took the form of an interactive HTML website, in which the user explored various game-like situations, filled with glitching imagery. Rosenthal’s body and the strange black “voids” from “Bunker Actions” return, this time allowing the user to poke and prod the cavities to progress through the website. Rosenthal submitted “Administrative Maximum” to the Stuttgarter Filmwinter-Festival and was surprised when he took the first-place prize. For the first time, Rosenthal felt his work had found an audience who really understood it.

The following year, Rosenthal moved to Kansas City when he was hired as assistant professor for Expanded Media at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, a post he continues to hold. In addition to landing a full-time job, he saw his career take off.

Since 2012, Rosenthal has participated in dozens of exhibitions and film festivals around the globe, including Chicago, New York, the Canary Islands, Israel, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Istanbul, South Korea, Beijing, Thailand, Athens, Venice and Toronto. He has had numerous residencies, including Ox-Bow, Signal Culture in New York, The Charlotte Street Foundation and Studios Inc in Kansas City.

In 2014, Rosenthal had a solo show, “Oh When The Saints,” at the Kansas City Arts Coalition. The five-channel video installation filled the darkened gallery space with floor-to-ceiling projections of 3D animated soldiers in black combat fatigues, moving in strange, synchronized actions. The projections flash with strobe effects, illuminating the monochromatic soldiers. In one channel, a soldier smashes his own head into what looks like a photocopy machine. The cryptic installation is militant, menacing and unsettling.

Installation photograph from Benjamin Rosenthal’s “Oh When The Saints,” (2014) a five-channel video installation featuring floor-to-ceiling projections of 3D animated soldiers performing pseudo-religious actions in a post-apocalyptic landscape. (from the artist)

In 2015, Rosenthal travelled to the small village of Húsavík in northeast Iceland for a residency at the (now closed) Fjúk Arts Centre. Rosenthal described the area as “beautiful, but harsh.” During the summer, the sun was out nearly continuously, making sleep difficult. His studio was a renovated fish freezer. He spent his time drawing bunkers, which he describes as “techno-spiritual terrorist training camps” and “very queer.” It was also during this time, while continuing to think about these solitary structures, that Rosenthal came to realize his own queer sexuality. In 2016, at the age of 30, he came out of the closet to his friends and family. “It happened when it needed to,” he said, “on my own terms. It wasn’t a coming of age story. My identity was fragmented, queer identity is fragmented. It happens in pieces and moments.”

Queerness and Technology

That sense of fragmented identity is on full display in Rosenthal’s 2017 work “from this side of space to the other side of the signal,” created during a residency at Signal Culture in Owego, New York. Using both contemporary digital video animation and early analog video equipment, the seven-channel video installation depicts many strange sights. In Rosenthal’s words: “Computer generated bodies and body parts glistening with video material generated via this system perform actions that queer the line between digital, physical and analog, homoeroticism and violence — entangled within a fragmented high-modernist grid. A voice from the other side of the signal attempts to lure the viewer into some act of connection, of crossing over, only to be perpetually interrupted by barriers of interference.”

Disembodied fingers writhe and probe each other in this still from “from this side of space to the other side of the signal” (2017). (from the artist)
In an installation photograph from the seven-channel version of “from this side of space to the other side of the signal” (2017), human bodies and body parts are entangled within a fragmented high-modernist grid while signs and signals interrupt virtual landscapes processed through a wobbulator. (from the artist)

In one scene, two 3D animated bodies lounge near each other, putting their fingers into USB computer ports implanted in their abdomens. In another channel, disembodied thumbs wiggle and climb over each other.

Rosenthal says that he doesn’t want viewers to search for specific meanings in his work, but “to experience it, to pick a fragment and enter it.” From a critical and theoretical standpoint, there are similarly many points of entry, but none is more compelling (for this critic, anyway) than the merger of sexuality and technology, the body and the machine. The popular slogan “The Future is Queer” comes to mind, as does the Left-Accelerationist phrase “Inventing the Future.”

Rosenthal’s most recent works like “other side of the signal” depict new forms of queer sexuality in which technology acts as a medium for sexual interaction. Queerness, having been historically repressed in public spaces, has been operating in digital spaces for decades now. Dating and hook-up apps have largely replaced the riskier “cruising” behavior of wandering around in public, trading secret signals and furtive glances.

But the connection between queerness and technology goes deeper than that. Technology isn’t only a medium for sexual interaction (like dating apps, sexting, cybersex etc.), it could, or perhaps will, play a role in a “next phase” of sexual evolution. Technology is changing the field of sexual possibility. The future may provide entirely unique forms based on mechanical appendages, virtual reality, brain interfacing, genetic manipulation or technologies yet unimagined. The ability to imagine these futures, hopeful futures without the violence so often perpetrated on queers, is a liberating activity. But Rosenthal’s videos are not mere science-fiction accounts or fantasy daydreams about future sexualities. To borrow another Accelerationist term, the videos are a hyperstition, that is, they might not only be a fantasy, but their existence could even push us towards that future. Ideas are contagious, after all.

There is a third, and perhaps more disturbing aspect to this connection between technology and sexuality. Technology could become the object of sexuality, the object of desire itself. Already, people suffer from internet addiction, game designers use psychological techniques to create highly addictive games, people fall in love with fictitious computer-generated Instagram models and conservative voices point to online pornography as a cause for slowing birth rates in developed nations. This is surely the most dystopian and reactionary implication of Rosenthal’s films. By interfacing sexuality and technology, we might not desire each other’s affections, but come to desire the attention of the machine. We might become so integrated that sexuality and technology are indistinguishable, that sexuality only becomes possible if one is “plugged in.”

And there is no denying that the worlds depicted in Rosenthal’s films are fairly hellish. There is no narrative or narrator to guide us. There are incomplete bodies, partially naked, contorted and trapped in confined spaces, engaged in strange behaviors. The films are full of strobe lights, glitches, static and other signals associated with mind control and brainwashing. While there is no full nudity or explicit sex in any of Rosenthal’s works, any uptight person might still call the films obscene, and perhaps rightfully so. There is a very compelling fear within many anti-technology sympathizers that our bodies may become too connected to machines, that we may lose our autonomy and become enslaved to a larger apparatus. After all, if the machines are going to take over, why not target us at one of our weakest points? Why not target our sexual desires?

So we have three modes: technology as a sexual medium, technology as a new sexuality and technology as sexual enslavement. Two offer liberation and the other a vision of domination. Both technology as a new sexuality and technology as enslavement are the ultimate forms of “the crisis of masculinity,” in which the old traditional and patriarchal notions of sexual identity come crashing down in an orgy of new modes and new desires. Rosenthal’s own personal story and exploration of sexuality through his art give great weight to the liberating implications of technology, but the dark mood and tone of his films point to more sinister readings. That Rosenthal gives weight to all three of these modes speaks to how his films are not pointed ideological works, but a full and honest exploration.

Are Rosenthal’s films only metaphorical fantasies or are they a prophetic roadmap to the future?

Only time will tell.

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

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