Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: When did your career in art begin, Ben?
Ben Schot: I wanted to go to art school when I was in the final years of secondary school. My art teacher was Ad Braat, a local sculptor who liked my drawings and advised me to enroll in art school. Once I had made up my mind to follow his advice, he prepared me for the entrance exam of art schools with a couple of private lessons in the summer of 1971. I still have one of the many drawings that I did in that summer. I was 17 at the time. Braat’s enthusiasm and his expressionist, alcohol-fueled views were inspiring and liberating. They loosened me up and made me feel a bit more confident about my work, but his teachings weren’t much of a preparation for art school, which for the greater part consisted of formal and technical trainings in those days. I failed the entrance exam that year, and the next, and then was drafted for military service in 1973. Other sources of inspiration in 1970-71 were a school trip to a large Dali exhibition at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the scene around a countercultural café that Bob and Mimi de Rooij, a married couple from Rotterdam, had started in the small country town where I lived. Bob and Mimi were also at the heart of a club that screened films by Godard, Fellini, Bellocchio and many others in the school auditorium. For a couple of years those films and the café were wild orchids in the dunes of cultural life on the island where I grew up.
Once I had refused to do military service and had to go through the long procedure for conscientious objectors to be officially recognised, I started studying English at home awaiting the outcome of the procedure. I was recognised as a pacifist conscientious objector in 1976 or 1977 and then had to do alternative military service – the longest possible time the authorities could hold you. All in all the procedure and service took some 5 years. Not long after having been relieved from alternative service I obtained a teaching degree in English and together with Joleen, my then girlfriend, left the island in the south-west of The Netherlands, where we had lived until then. Joleen entered the art school of Utrecht and I took a job as an English teacher at a secondary school in Gouda in 1979. After having taught English for a year and a half there, I became restless. The desire to be trained as an artist flared up again. I quit my job and took classes to prepare once more for the entrance exam of art schools. This time I was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts in the Hague. That was in 1981. I was 27 at the time. I did art school in The Hague for two and a half years and then switched to the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, where I lived. I graduated there in 1986.
John Wisniewski: when were your first exhibitions?
Ben Schot: My first group shows were in 1986 and 1987 in Rotterdam, not long after I had graduated from art school. Then, in 1988, I showed a couple of large drawings in combination with sculptures by Eric van Solm, another starting artist, at CBK, the Arts Centre of Rotterdam, and in 1990 I did my first solo exhibition at Galerie van Kranendonk, The Hague.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us the story of how sea urchin books began?
ABOUT SEA URCHIN EDITIONS
Sea Urchin is a small and independent publishing house. It specializes in works of the historical avant-garde and the counterculture. Sea Urchin publishes both Dutch and English works. Sea Urchin also distributes the editions of a number of other independent publishers and labels from various parts of the world.
Sea Urchin Editions • P.O. Box 25212 • 3001 HE Rotterdam • The Netherlands
Tel/Fax : +31.10.4366349 • Mobile phone : +31.625368646
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Ben Schot: Already at art school I looked for ways to combine texts, drawings, photos and found images. Books are perfect for combinations like that. In those days I sometimes put together primitive hand made ‘books’, loose sheets of paper crudely taped or saddle-stitched together. I made those for private use, unique copies as a sort of notebook or sketchbook. Then, after I had left art school, came a couple of xeroxed and saddle-stitched editions in runs of 5 or 10 copies, which I handed out to friends and colleagues. And then, with the help of subsidies and grants, followed offset printed artists’ books in runs of some 500 copies, which I published under an imaginary imprint. When I came across an Edgar Allan Poe tale that was set in Rotterdam and had some money left from a grant, I decided to publish it under the imprint ‘Sea Urchin’, which was a reference to my youth in Zeeland, where my father made a living as a fisherman, and to Jean Painlevé’s surrealist film ‘Oursins’. The Edgar Allan Poe tale was published in 2000-2001. I had no idea what it meant to run a publishing house or what to expect, but to my surprise the book was well-received and sold reasonably well. The next year I published two books: Dutch translations of a scatological tale by Serge Gainsbourg, an old hero of mine, and of ‘Les Champs magnétiques’ by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, experiments in automatic writing that marked the beginning of Surrealism. For those translations I hired Jan Pieter van der Sterre, a respected Dutch translator, who taught me a couple of things about producing books, distributing them and getting them reviewed. The two books were well-received and especially the Breton/Soupault edition was widely reviewed in national newspapers. I used individual grants that I received as a visual artist from what is now called the Mondriaan Fund to produce more books in the next five years, such as Henri Michaux and Pier Paolo Pasolini translations. The director of the Fund at the time was Lex ter Braak, who was very sympathetic towards Sea Urchin, and didn’t seem to mind subsidies intended for visual art being used for literature. So, it’s fair to say that Sea Urchin began as a side product, as a logical extension of my practice as a visual artist.
John Wisniewski: What may inspire you to create, Ben?
Ben Schot: That’s a difficult question. I don’t really know. It also depends on what I’m working on: making books is a different process from drawing or writing. True, making books the way I do now, hand made editions of 15 copies, each with a hand drawn cover, comes close to drawing. I even like to think of them as drawings in the guise of books. And both products require concentrated manual work, thinking with your hands and eyes. But before I reach that point in making books there has been the process of selecting and designing texts or poems. In that selection process I have always consciously followed historical lines in literature that interest and inspire me. For instance the influence of Edgar Allan Poe on the European avant-garde. Or Nietzsche’s influence. Or both Nietzsche’s and Poe’s: now there’s a powerful brew that will take you places.
And then drawing… I’ve always liked drawing, even as a kid. I think for me as a kid it was a way of getting out of here, of opening another world. I had a lot to get away from where I grew up. It was also a way of expressing myself at the time. I remember on one occasion drawing a sort of mourning card when I was a kid after our cat had been run over by a garbage truck. As a way of expressing grief. But strong emotions like that don’t normally inspire me to start drawing nowadays. Maybe a kind of inner tension does. A subconscious inner conflict that builds up and needs the process of drawing to be sublimated, much like a dream. I don’t know. Usually the destruction of an older drawing or using a rejected drawing for the start of a new one is part of that process. I guess my drawings are fuelled by both destructive and creative impulses. Bastard babies that stare at you. Daddy?
I don’t think of myself as a writer but I write on a regular basis for Sea Urchin and I used to write articles for magazines in the past. Those texts require a lot of research, thinking and phrasing, work behind the computer. I don’t always feel like that. The inspiration for those texts is down-to-earth: you tackle a subject and try to communicate it in the best possible way. I hate translating prose but translating poetry can be a truly inspiring, challenging and rewarding process. Some poems scream to be translated, other resist, you have to find out and look for diamonds in liquified fat.
John Wisniewski: could you tell us about upcoming editions At sea urchin?
Ben Schot: Dreams! Dreams!
John Wisniewski: have you met many great poets, while operating sea urchin editions?
Ben Schot: No, not many. I was told they live on Mount Olympus, but I’m afraid of heights and allergic to laurel. But seriously, of all the well-known and lesser known artists, musicians and poets I have met and worked with since I started Sea Urchin, a couple stand out. Mike Kelley was a great artist: a keen, original and subversive mind. It was a real pleasure having smoked a pipe or two with Hugh Hopper; what a gentle and beautiful soul he was. Having met Mick Farren backstage at the same venue in London where he tragically collapsed a year later, was unforgettable. And having seen William Levy on a regular basis in the final years of his life was a true privilege. They were all great, each in his own way. But they’re gone now. Their spirits embedded and preserved in their works. I will only mention the dead here. The living, dear friends and colleagues, have voices of their own.