ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Chloe Bensahel as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Chloe Bensahel (b. 1991) is a French-American artist who blends performance, textiles and multimedia to highlight the relationship between language and identity. Inspired by her own inter-generational history of migration, her work investigates narration partnered with craft traditions to give way to embodied or coded language. She was recently awarded a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2021) and has exhibited internationally, at Le Mobilier National in Paris, the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, and the French Embassy in Washington, DC.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Chloe Bensahel: I move between two spheres in my practice. As an artist, I research new forms of language that highlight hybrid or fluid meaning(s). As a craftsperson, I apply that research to textile techniques that have been fundamental to inventing and disseminating new languages throughout history.
I’m drawn to materials that have secret or embedded histories/stories, like secondhand garments or thread made from a manuscript. Right now, I’m working with thread made from invasive plant species – plants brought by naturalists in the 19th century that ended up colonizing French soil.
“Meaning as performance” is another theme that comes up in my practice. For example, I’ve done performances where I deconstruct words “worn” by my ancestors. In search of more performative ways of experiencing an artwork, I became curious about the use of interactive textile techniques in 2018. Since then, I’ve been making more pieces where the viewer’s touch activates sound that emanates from the woven surface, like a live performance.
AE: Tell us about your travels around the globe where you learned weaving techniques from communities in Nepal, Japan and Australia. How have these journeys informed your practice today?
CB: I really wanted to learn how to weave, so I went to Japan, where I found masters willing to take me in and teach me. I discovered a realm where weaving is akin to having a spiritual practice – it is all enveloping. In Judeo-Christian traditions, we’re accustomed to the Cartesian separation of body and mind. In many eastern traditions, such separations don’t exist, since spirit and material are one and the same. Some crafts, like indigo dyeing, even have a goddess. All materials are alive with spirit. I learned how to weave with the knowledge that something invisible was also moving into the material.
At the tapestry workshop in Australia, I got to circle back to European traditions and imagine hybrid traditions in which the material and immaterial go hand in hand. The idea of something encrypted with information is very similar to our smart devices. I find it fascinating that a sacred textile and a smartphone can share functions even if they are from different centuries.
AE: What did you work on during your Jacquard x Google Arts & Culture residency in 2019?
CB: Google Jacquard is a technology invented by Ivan Poupyrev at Google in 2017, and allows for a woven surface to be interactive (like a sensor). I proposed an installation with interactive woven words that would explore the historical and multicultural meanings of “white” as a color and symbol. It was incredible; we went to Japan just for inspiration and had weekly calls with the creative technologists at Google Arts & Culture. Tapestry was very well suited to an embedded technology because the conductive thread was completely invisible, which made the work seem more “magical.” I got to work with the composer Caroline Shaw who is brilliant. Words Weave Words was set up in a huge space at Le Mobilier National in Paris. I decided to build a kind of temple to display the 7 tapestries with words ranging from “sanctity” to “supremacy.” Each letter sang its own sound so that one could hear the word, letter by letter, with their eyes closed. Shaw composed sounds that were both lovely and harsh so that a word as complex as “supremacy” could have both regal and suffocated sounds.
AE: What relationship does the audience have to the intersection of language and performativity within your work?
CB: In Judaism, the Torah is written only with consonants so that the reader completes a word as they read it. Even though reading as performance is written into the Torah, I believe that all text is performed in sometimes pre-determined ways. One does not walk up to a text without beliefs or biases. In Words Weave Worlds I was able to showcase this relationship within language. If one does not touch or hover over the work, one will not see or hear the word. Each letter, however, is independent so that one can “compose” a new word from an existing one. Each person therefore hears what they choose to hear, highlighting the ways in which we often project our beliefs onto things and people.
AE: You are among the recipients of the 2023 Villa Albertine residency. What project will you be working on during that time?
CB: Yes! In 2018, I started working with curators from the Smithsonian to imagine a research project around Magnetic Core Memory. These are beautiful hand-woven objects that allowed for computers to store information in the 1950s-70s. They were woven by women, first at MIT, and then outsourced to Japan, which set the stage for a system in tech in which craft labor is invisible.
I proposed to travel to MIT in Boston to research a new memory technology using new smart textile techniques (magnetic textiles, conductive textiles, etc.). I would be working with researchers to dream up a material that can not only detect or generate information (sound, light, etc.) but also store it and communicate it to someone else. My residency with the Villa Albertine will occur in fall 2023. I’m going in blind but that’s usually when the best things happen.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
CB: I’m a history nerd so anything about the history of text, how civilizations overlap, or secret histories. I also love the history of religions – you learn a lot about why our societies are the way they are.
I also often look to different craft traditions, because, even though they are often not considered as artworks, that work safeguards stories that sometimes date back millennia. One such example is that of Berber women, who invented a secret language that they wove into their carpets.
AE: What upcoming shows or projects are you working on for 2022-2023?
CB: I have a group show at Galerie Horae in Paris with new works made from plant-based materials that have historically been “undesirable” or “invasive.”
I’m also working with the Fondation Banque Populaire on new projects with their composers.
CHLOE BENSAHEL ONLINE: