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Lasers, Latitudes, and Languages: Stephanie Benenson of Harbor Voices

Golob Studios - Blog: "Art: People in Process"

Janruary 9th, 2020

This is the first of a series where we interview public, site-specific, and social practice artists in the New England area. I’ll be talking with them not only about their *amazing* art, but also everything that contributes to the mystery of their process - their lifestyle, their artistic process, and life during and between projects.

This interview is the result of a conversation between Alexander Golob and Stephanie Benenson, which occurred on October 22nd, 2019 in Gloucester, MA. The interview is primarily edited by Rachael Schwartz.


About Stephanie Benenson

Stephanie Benenson is guided by inquiries into the power of exploring personal history through the medium of community storytelling. The results of which are immersive multilingual installations, augmented reality experiences, and other free, community-led public art experiences. In 2017, Stephanie started Harbor Voices, an artist-led community storytelling collective that creates public celebrations of the collective voice. Her laser and sound installations often feature over 100 global voices of ancestral and recent immigration and migration from age 6 to 86 in many languages. The work celebrates empathy, cultural diversity, and resilience by exploring commonalities in stories across history and connecting history to the present.

Through her work, participants deepen their understanding of the immigrant experience, celebrate cultural identity, experience enhanced empathy and acceptance by discovering shared experience, and gain confidence that their voices can be a vehicle for social change. Each project is a collaborative experience between artist and community voices, with at least one educator partnership in a local public school or postsecondary school.


What kind of art did you do? How did you get into public art/this kind of art? Tell me a little about your educational background.

My background is that I grew up on Cape Ann. My father and my grandfather were both painters that worked in the maritime tradition. So having that personal experience related to the arts maritime culture, history, and heritage influenced my work from the very beginning. And that's sort of how I ended up kind of coming up with the idea of Harbor Voices: what is the contemporary expression of this maritime experience that I felt like my family had been depicting two dimensionally in painting for, you know, two generations before me? Who were the people in the paintings that they painted, what is the deeper history and storytelling in those harbor scenes and seascapes?

[Regarding her education]:

So my undergraduate experience was geared more towards marketing and branding, and I worked in that field after I graduated. While I was working in advertising, working in branding, I used to host a lot of focus groups, and I went back to school and started taking painting and printmaking classes. Then, I worked as a painter, a printmaker, for about eight or so years before I went to graduate school.

I got a master's in art at RISD, through their Teaching and Learning through Art and Design department. Through my master's degree, I was studying ways in which social practice can situate itself in different communities and a lot of the social projects practice projects that I had studied were social sculpture projects that were very specific to a geographic location.

And then also, you know, when I started going into this, via my marketing and advertising background I knew how to get to the meaning behind someone's experience of a product or a life experience, that also has helped to feed some of the research that I did about collecting stories and working in new communities.

Tell us about Harbor Voices. How did this happen for you personally? And what sparked the idea?

So I started Harbor Voices in 2017, which is a public art collective that creates collaborative community public artworks emergent from within communities. The work is very place-based, and we currently create light and sound installations, augmented reality experiences, photography, and video art.

The project started with the [Gloucester] mayor's office and Gloucester public school system. I worked in conjunction with city officials to host the work at City Hall, and then worked with close to 75 or 80 Gloucester High School students, collecting stories and working with the teacher. The students collected stories from their neighbors elders, parents, and then came back and talked in sort of a storytelling interview, small group sessions about immigration stories coming in through Gloucester, since the late 1600s- that's 1600s to present!

So what sparked the idea [for Harbor Voices] was actually a class I took when I was at RISD, I believe it was Kevin Zucker’s Experiments in Drawing class. The premise of the class was that you have to define drawing for yourself as an artist. For some artists, a drawing is a preparatory document that will lead to a painting or will lead to a sculpture. And for some people, drawing is categorized by the media that you're using- charcoal or pencil instead of paint. And even, for many more recent artists, drawing has a much looser, broader definition.

For this course it was really interesting because there were a lot of different artists that were coming from different experiences all taking this class - undergraduates at RISD, textile MFA students, MFA and sculpture or installation students- and Kevin's a bit of a legend at RISD. He's a pretty incredible professor, and made a really big impact on my work at the time.

So, one of the exercises was that you could bring in a drawing in any media, so there were people who would bring in a gif or make video art, and call it a drawing. And one of the concepts that I came up with in that class, as I was exploring my identity as an artist coming from a coastal community, was this idea called the Haddock Supper Club, which was supposed to be a community storytelling, social practice piece that was on a boat in the harbor. Gathering people, different people from different places around the harbor, bringing them together over my mother's famous Haddock and clam chowder recipe. I explored this idea of a social practice project where people could come together and share stories in drawing form, and generate works of art based on the stories that were shared. I used a lot of the parts of that idea to develop a proposal in my final months at RISD to launch Harbor Voices.

Every year at RISD, the Graduate Studies Department grants money to outgoing seniors or outgoing graduate students to help them to launch a project based on a concept or an idea or something that they have developed while they were in school. You could do it over the summer, or do it immediately, but the terms of the grant were that you got the check in June and you had to use the money by December. [When I got the grant], I took the idea of this community storytelling and thought to myself, “Okay, so I could get a lot of people together to share stories about coming to the harbor. A lot of those stories are going to be based in immigration, because, historically, most everyone who has come through Gloucester Harbor has done so for industry, and there's been a lot of immigration storytelling surrounding it still today.”

I started exploring the idea, but then, realizing that if I started the project in July and made the connections with whom I needed to make connections, I wouldn't actually be able to launch the art piece until December. And who wants to sit on a boat in the middle of the harbor, in New England, in December? Nobody! So that's when I decided that I would start exploring, creating an interior installation and that's where the light and sound came in. Each beam of light represented a voice that was shared in the community storytelling process as community voices were heard.

So it came out of this funding opportunity that allowed me to put this kind of concept - it was pretty resource intensive- into action. And then, out of necessity, I got this small grant and then realized the circumstances weren't exactly favorable to the initial concept.

Where did that food storytelling component morph into light art? And how did the mayor and his office come into the mix?

It was one of those experiences where an artist starts thinking of an idea and goes down the rabbit hole. Originally, the problem was that I wouldn't be able to get people to come together and share their stories, unless I was offering something, some form of generosity that would bring everyone to the table, literally. That's where the food part came in.

Then I thought to myself you know what if I am offering something else that people might be really interested in that could hold their attention, maybe I could offer the sound of people sharing their stories, and then people could listen to each other, but they wouldn't be required to be in a certain place, at a certain time for sharing their stories. So then I toyed with that a little bit, hosted a couple of gatherings where people would listen to some of the more interesting stories that I had collected- and some of them are really fascinating- but I found that people glazed over after a few minutes.

Sometimes with sound art it's really hard to captivate people's attention. Which led me to think, “Okay, well, if I'm trying to get people to experience or to engage in deep listening, what are the ways that other artists have succeeded in doing so, and what are the ways that you can get people to engage and listen?” That led me to explore James Turell-like hypnotic light experiences, ways that you can get people to stop, and meditate, and think, and slow themselves down to focus on something.

Keeping in mind the idea that humans increasingly have the attention span of gnats, and that the people that participated in the launch artwork were teenagers, I kept cutting down the length of the loop of the installation, until I got to an eight minute installation. I could get people to pay attention for eight minutes, and then people that want to stay longer could stay longer. And I did have people lying on the floor in City Hall.

I want to say I spent six weeks collecting stories, three weeks working on creating the sound collage, and then another three to four weeks of exploring different ways to use light.

A lot of people helped you grow Harbor Voices- it sounds like the mayor of Gloucester’s office helped too. I was curious if you could first tell us how that connection happened, and then maybe a little more broadly about how public officials or government agencies have played a part in your project.

So, one of the first people that I contacted when I was creating the Gloucester work was a woman named Nina Goodick (formerly Nina Testaverde)- she’s a close friend of mine. We have sort of a main character voice that is revisited, and she and her mother are incredible storytellers, so she was one of the main characters in our first sound installation.

She was one of the first people that I called to talk to, and she told me, if I was going to create a work in Gloucester and am looking for a site to host the work, indoors or outdoors, that I should really meet with the mayor. So Nina introduced me to her.

I had known from my research and from studying creative place making and social practice that the perfect mix is having a public partner, a community partner, and also a business partner. I think when you're creating work in the public realm, it's really important to have partnership and support from government and public entities. Having all these partners to that are all invested in the success of the work was something that I needed to acquire right away.

[The mayor] ended up being the second person from whom I collected a story-- which was fabulous. She had an incredible story about growing up in the Fort neighborhood in Gloucester. And that was how the relationship began, and she was really excited about hosting the work at City Hall. There's a really big auditorium with blackout shades, so we could kind of create this really intimate experience within city hall.

Have you ever experienced pushback from public entities?

So far, not that I know of!

It’s interesting -- I spend a lot of my time just trying to make ends meet in terms of finances, and it's quite difficult sometimes to also be able to spend a lot of time really tweaking and perfecting technical aspects of the artistic aspects of the work. How did you support yourself during that period? Who do you go to initially for money and resources? Have there ever been public entities that have funded and supported you (commission)? And finally, what would you say are like the pros and cons to that process?

I would say probably for the six months after graduation, when I was launching this project, I benefited a lot, psychologically, from still being in student mode. And I think that, as an artist, putting yourself in a situation, in a residency like that, or in an art school, can be extremely liberating psychologically and for the work, because you're creating work without the expectation of it needing to hold value to anyone or anything else except itself and your experience of the work’s creation.

[With regard to public entities supporting my work,] Harbor Voices has been in a few cities- I've had quite a few inquiries about a lot of the New England cities that will be celebrating their 400th coming up in the next five years. Those are all very city commission-like, because my work explores storytelling, past, present and future. And talking about local history is incredibly crucial to, I think, to anchoring the work. But the feedback that I've had from most of the initial meetings that I've had with those entities has been “We want a Harbor Voices installation for x event at our 400th. But the funding has to come from a public-private partnership or a grant, like an Our Town grant or similar.”

And so that's something, as an artist, I made some assumptions about after I launched Harbor Voices- that I wouldn't have to have as much of an active role and trying to fundraise around the work. Increasingly, I'm starting to realize that these partnerships, when they're born in these initial conversations with public, nonprofits, you name it, that everyone's sort of rolling up their sleeves together to make the work happen.

[For other funding,] I mainly go through a proposal process. I try to come up with the concept first, and then put it forward and ask for funding. It's hard because I feel sometimes it takes more, or an equal amount of time to fundraise as it does to create the work itself. It is a tough thing for me to square - it doesn't seem like the best use of an artist's time but, for a lot of us, it is a reality, working in the public realm.

Especially with social practice, I think that a lot of this is new to a lot of organizations. Particularly, I'm finding that my wheelhouse, the sweet spot that I found for my practice is that a lot of smaller cities are very, very approachable for my kind of work. So, for a lot of them, they've hosted a lot of public art projects, but not all of them have done social practice-based public art projects.

This project has been around since 2017. How has the experience evolved in terms of fears like finances? Where does the money and anxiety come from, and how has that may be impacted your work? Do you feel like that's impacted your life?

I'm trying to figure out exactly how to answer this question. For me, having come from a family of artists working in the arts, as a kid I used to work in our family gallery selling paintings that were my father's and my grandfather's. My childhood experience was very much living paycheck to paycheck with my dad, not knowing if he was going to sell a painting, or what was going to happen if he didn't. And the experience of that has put me in a place of having walked into this career knowing that I wasn't doing it because I thought that it was going to really give me a lot of financial security. But I'm also coming from a place of privilege: today, I am one unit of a family, and we are all very supportive of each other and that experience has offered me the opportunity to be able to pursue things for which I'm not always getting paid well.

One of the things I always insist with every project that I create is that every artist that touches the work gets paid- and that includes myself. I think it's extremely important I never ask any of the contributing artists in Harbor Voices to do anything for free, because artists’ time needs to be valued. I think it's incredibly culturally important that artists and arts organizations stand for that. Additionally, knowing that I have to continue to be very mindful of grant cycles, be very mindful of the projects that I'm participating in, because it's important for the work to come from a community of support of the people who are very interested and invested in the work.

How do you balance trying to be in the "here and now" with the art that you're doing, while also looking forward and planning for those grant cycles? I feel like that can be a pretty daunting task, especially since a lot of public art projects can last, from the onset of the concept to the actual creation, a year, two years - it can be a little while.

Well, when we were in the National Art Strategies Creative Community Fellows cohort, one of my mentors was Madeline Sayet, who said to me, "sometimes when I get frustrated about getting a grant for a project or not getting funded for a project, I’m reminded of an artist friend of mine that said to me ‘Remember when we used to make work just for the sake of making work, not because somebody was willing to pay for it?’"

And, when she said that to me, it clicked- while it is a difficult time for an artist whenever a grant opportunity doesn't come through, or a project falls apart at the last minute because of funding, when I’m trying to plan around grant cycles, or planning around other people funding the work -- especially because Harbor Voices is a nonprofit-- I think of what she said. It also provides opportunities for me to step back and say “you know what, I've got to keep creating work regardless.”

For example, when I created the work with the Gloucester community, I had a little bit of extra time that wasn't filled. I said to myself, “Oh, I remember there was a teacher at Veterans Memorial Elementary school that said she was really interested in doing this,” and then you go and you just make work, or you work with a community just because they were interested in the work.

I do social practice art a lot, but with commission projects I can't tell you how many times I come up with ideas that I think are fantastic, and sometimes they don't always get selected or chosen or to move forward. So I say screw it, and I just try it anyway. And also, whenever you have a gap in your schedule, try to do an artist residency, to create opportunities for learning, or for isolating yourself with a particular idea that you've been kind of ruminating over in the back of your head-- I think that's always a positive way to spend what we might call “downtime.”

Well, so that brings up another interesting point I'm curious about. Public practice and private practice are very linked. I feel like there is sometimes a difference between life in public-facing, social practice work, public art work and the work that you might do in the studio to practice and experiment. Sometimes one can get quite busy, unable to focus on that private kind of ruminations. I know you put a lot of time into Harbor Voices. Do you feel like you've been able to pursue, or do you feel a need to pursue another avenue of creation?

Right. I mean, finding the balance is always really hard. I also think there’s a third part to finding balance -- the public art practice and the social practice, my private studio practice (which are often very connected), but then also the experience of seeking out work and seeing work. I think finding a balance between those three things is really crucial. And there are some weeks that you spend more time with one thing than with another. But because I just launched Harbor Voices, 2018 and 2019 were very public art focused. I think I missed out on seeing some things that I wanted to see.

You're a one person show, right? I know that's a debate - some artists, even muralists or public artists, want to remain their own thing, though they might have an agent or a gallerist to manage them. As you [and Harbor Voices] are moving forward, do you feel like you need to scale up at some point? Or are you going to try to keep it one woman strong? If things keep on growing, would you feel comfortable with giving away some of your decision making instances? Would you be comfortable with that? How do you think that would impact your work?

Yeah, so I have actually a good friend of mine from RISD, Colleen Andrews, that graduated in my cohort, and drops in when things get really intense. She works as a consultant, and she's been with Harbor Voices since the very beginning. She's on my website but she lives out in LA. She’s an incredible designer and strategic thinker and I love working with her.

I do think that the work will grow. And I think, as it grows, the potential for creating deeper, more intensive relationships with other artists is very strong and it would serve the work well. So I think that the answer to that is that I am so open to collaboration, and seeking new partners, and growing Harbor Voices. I love working with people, and I'm a very collaborative person. Part of the reason why I went into public art was because I did not enjoy the isolation of studio practice and independent studio practice. With regards to growing my team “locally,” I don't know, I because my work moves from community to community. We don't really have a home base, it fluctuates - when I created the work in Salem, I was in Salem.

[For the interview, for people who are wondering, we're in a restaurant on a boat right now in Gloucester harbor, and a beautiful Mahi Mahi that was caught a little while ago was just brought to the window.]

Tell me about where we are right now.

This restaurant. So when I did the Gloucester exhibition, one of my storytellers at Gloucester High School was a student in his sophomore year, who told me that his mother had immigrated from Lebanon. He told me she had a food truck, a Lebanese food truck, and was trying to open her own business in Gloucester. He told me how proud he was of her, to come to a new country, and to start her own business. He said her dream was to own a restaurant, and a year later she opened this. And now he's a senior! I just love that - it was one of those things, to see the story that we collected and the story coming to life in the community.

Oh yeah, I mean, that's what motivated me to have my work focusing more and more on storytelling and immigrant stories- it's really powerful to hear the common thread of humanity in all of these different experiences and they've all been threaded together by certain themes.

Right- the notion that, at Gloucester High School, there could be a history class, or social studies class of students together, and thinking that they're all coming from wildly different places and backgrounds. And then, when students start to explore their own immigration history or their own migration history or origin stories, then all of a sudden you realize that there are similarities in their familial experiences, whether it was their themselves their parents or grandparents or great grandparents.

Absolutely. What's your process? What is your timeline for project completion? I know it can be pretty long and extensive.

My timeline. So, it varies from project to project, but I would say that I usually give like half of the time that I've allotted to a project to community engagement, and the other half to the creation of the artwork.

The shortest timeline that I've had was when I did creative work for the Illuminus Festival with Suffolk University in Boston. It was probably two or three days of storytelling sessions, but in a community of students where there was already established trust and camaraderie, and students already knew each other, sitting around and sharing stories. I had a longer period of time to work with students. They have this two and a half hour or so lecture course where we all got together in small groups to talk. Individually, the students shared a lot, but collectively the number of people that were involved was much lower than like Gloucester or Salem, where we have close or over 100 people already participating.

Another example is my collaboration with Punto Urban Art Museum, where we created this two week long, outdoor public art exhibition. There were a couple of months of story collection that happened before the project was created. In contrast, Illuminus was a two night, quick pop up art exhibition. And so it made sense that the storytelling was hot and fast- we all got together we shared stories.

I also think that, when you're working in a community, I hate to leave anyone out. Any voices, or any languages, or any demographic representation. The more time I spent in Salem, the more I realized that, oh, there's an Albanian population here that I really want to get to know. I've come to realize, the more time you spend with the community, it's important to spend that time and think about who you want to talk to, and who you don't want to miss, before the artwork is actually created.

Beyond the actual process of creation, do you feel art can be really stressful to make, and sometimes can be pretty consuming? How do you deal with it emotionally? How do you manage that balance of living and also creating?

For me, the key is a lot of coffee. (I'm partly kidding.)

The older you get, the more elements, I feel, come into your life that require more of your time, and I think it's a good question to always keep in the back of your mind.

Again, I'm going to go back to my experience of having always lived in this world of artists, trying to create and struggling with the experience of creating. One of the things I knew, even when I was six or seven years old, when I hung out at my dad's studio behind our house, was that the amount of time that he spent on a painting didn't always have a direct correlation to the quality or value of the work. Sometimes he could spend three hours on a painting and make something that was stronger than something he labored over for three weeks.

So sometimes when I get to a point where I'm overworking myself and making myself crazy, I step back and think to myself, "do I just need to put this canvas away and pull up another canvas?" Because sometimes, when you're really struggling with an idea, you don’t know the difference between struggle and discomfort. I think it's something I realized in graduate school. If work makes me uncomfortable, that means I think I'm growing, or I'm trying a new idea - which is important-, but if I'm really struggling with something or trying to force it to work, then I have to let it go. Otherwise it will come out looking and feeling forced. Well also, pushing something where you're struggling can cause you to burn out. Artists can burn themselves out, and they end up hating the piece they are working on.

Totally. I think it's interesting- what I'm trying to do is ask artists about their process, because I've always felt that it wasn't being talked about enough. Whether it’s art students going into the profession, people trying to live and work as artists; whether it's Allston-Brighton, or in a more rural area- there's a lot of expectations about how [being an artist] should lead to really unhealthy choices that are harmful to the artist, that can lead to unhappiness or burnout. How do you avoid burnout? Or have you experienced it?

Of course! I think that we all have experienced it. And I think that sometimes when I get frustrated and I want to just completely abandon something, I have to step back and and try one of the other three things that we were talking about- the balance between social practice, studio practice, and getting out of the studio to see other people’s art. Just going out, going to some museums. I feel like experiencing other people's public work always reinvigorates you. Fuels the tank. But I've always been pretty good at making sure I get the sleep that I need.

Do you typically just strategize your time? Like, "if I don't finish this by five or six, or whatever it is, I'm going to go make dinner, or I'm gonna spend time with my family or friends, and then go to sleep?" And then the next day I'll just go back to it? What do you try to do?

Yeah. When I'm working with a very strict timeline or deadline, some things creep into late at night, but I'm more of an early morning worker than a late at night worker, so I will wake up early. When I was studying at RISD, I got up at 4 or 4:30 every morning, drove down an hour and a half to Providence while I was living here on the North Shore. I would occasionally spend a night or two there. And that was fine- I'd get to campus even before the library opened, and I would sit in a coffee shop and get some work done. I've always been pretty good at carving out that time. I think it's really important and healthy for artists to do that.

Oh, totally. I think it's really dangerous to not do that. Otherwise, burnout is pretty severe. Moving beyond burnout, I think what I'm interested in, personally, because I experienced this: when I finish a big project, I experience like a weird dip. It's almost like a high when you work on these big projects and then you come off of them. Do you have this experience?

Right, it's like coming off of a really great week. I read an article about that, because I used to get the Sunday scaries like crazy. I think, when I’m planning something, I find something to look forward to when it's over. For example, when I finished the Punto Museum project, I said "I am going to do this with my family," and "I haven't traveled in a long time so I'm gonna go travel."

But I definitely feel those dips. And, when you're in the middle of a project, you feel there's so much appreciation for the work. Then, when you finish a project and you start getting either rejections for future projects or things don't work out, you can fall into the trap of feeling like you're not good enough, this work isn’t good enough. You can hit those ruts, but you just gotta keep on keeping on.

When you do experience rejection, how do you how do you take it? How do you deal with it?

I think I almost always apply to more than one thing simultaneously. So, I haven't yet found myself in a position where I have five proposals, or five grant applications, that are all out there and all of them have fallen through completely. Diversifying the portfolio, what you're putting out there, helps a lot. There's always something on which you can fall back. And if all of those things do fall through, you think to yourself, "well, what am I going to create because I want to create it, not because somebody else wants me to create it?"

The text of this interview was edited for accuracy and concision.


To connect with Stephanie:

Instagram: @HarborVoices


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