Audience Reaction to Benjamin Bennet's "Sitting and Smiling"

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Sitting and smiling is a series by YouTuber Benjamin Bennet, in which Bennet stares smiling at the camera for four hours without saying a word. His videos get thousands of views, and he has almost two-hundred-thousand subscribers. Ever since he began posting videos, people explored their possible meaning or purpose. Bennet was quoted in an interview saying, "There My inbox is full of people asking me why I'm doing this, but I don't think that question is really applicable to this type of activity”.

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Despite this, there is no doubt that Bennet is “performing” for the youtube community, but how far does this go? Could his videos be described as ritualistic? A ritual is defined as “a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony”(Cambridge Dictionary). Although there may not be a ceremony being performed, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a form of ritual. Through this essay, I not only prove that his videos are indeed a form of ritualized behaviour, but also that this performance makes the performer experience a “second reality”, is a form of fixed action, and builds a sense of collective identity.

One of the largest parts of a ritual is that it makes the performer experience a “second reality”. This is undoubtedly true for this series as Bennet often seems to be almost in a trance, remaining unfazed even as the unexpected happens. In his fifth episode, a thief broke into his house while he was filming, but ran out after seeing that he was streaming. In his 52nd video, he urinates himself while streaming, yet doesn’t move or even look slightly uncomfortable.

This not only shows his dedication to his performance, but also proves his “second reality”. In these situations, any person would have reacted very strongly on impulse. In an interview with Vice, Bennet states “I had an idea that it was somebody breaking in, but I knew from the beginning that I wasn't going to move. Then I heard him, you know, creeping up the stairs towards my room, and he opened the door and said "Hello? " and I didn't move, and he closed the door and left the house. And then I just finished the session. I found out he had kicked in the door. ” (Bennet). Using this, you can imply that Bennet has very good self-control, but also that he is willing to sacrifice things for his art. Although Bennet has talked specifically about his videos not being a form of meditation, Bennet is clearly in a state he would not normally be in during these videos. If he noticed someone breaking into his house while he was not performing, he would call the police. Much like an actor on stage, Bennet sticks to his guns, and will always carry out his performance to it’s fullest extent.

Another very important part of a ritual is to be a fixed action. A fixed action is something instinctive in a species that is almost always followed through. For the series sitting and smiling, the fixed action would be smiling, as smiling is contagious and often makes people feel good about themselves. Another example of a fixed action is the act of the audience watching. All of his videos are live streamed before they are posted, and many people stay to watch Bennet during his performance. Although the act of watching someone may not be a fixed action, the curiosity of his performance is. Similar to 4’33 by John Cage, people aren’t coming to be blown away by an amazing performance, but are there to watch something interesting that they can analyze afterwards. The mix of curiosity and awe is what I believe the second fixed action is during this performance. It is within human nature to act on curiosity. As people discovered his channel, many people thought he was “weird” or “creepy”, and would often watch his videos to see if he actually sits smiling for four hours straight. Despite the extremely similar content and presumably tedious nature of the videos, people watch them, and even go as far as to donating money, so he can continue carrying out his performances.

Another form of ritualistic behaviour shown in Sitting and Smiling is that it creates a sense of collective identity. This is shown in part, through his live streaming. Although there is no communication between Bennet and his viewers during his streams, people talk to each other, and in many ways, this builds a sense of community. People who watch his lifestreams usually fall into two categories: people who regularly tune into them to chat or to watch his performance, and people who’ve heard about Bennet online who are curious about his content. This creates a growing community of people who are willing to watch his weekly streams consistently. This community aspect during the livestream is a very interesting part of the performance, as it almost makes the audience a part of the performance. This is extremely interesting, as unlike in 4’33 by John Cage, the audience would not feel like they had to be held back or reserved.

In conclusion, the series Sitting and Smiling by Benjamin Bennet is an excellent example of a ritualized performance, as it makes the performer experience a “second reality”, is a form of fixed action, and builds a sense of collective identity. Bennet said in an interview with Vice, “Yeah, you could definitely place this into a performance-art context, and I definitely am interested in performance art and relational aesthetics. I think it's actually not so important what I consider it to be—it's more important what the viewer considers it. It's not necessary for me to categorize it” (Bennet). Bennet argues here, that in performance art, a performance artist’s interpretations of their work how the audience interprets it. Bennet never thought his series would ever amount to anything. In his own words, he only made the series because he felt it was something the internet lacked. Despite there being no one on his lifestreams at first, as well as there being no way to monetize these videos, he kept to it. I feel this is a very important part of performance and art which has been lost today.

People have forgotten hat they should be performing for themselves as much as they are for the audience. At the end of the day, people perform to send a message, express themselves, teach, or to transform, and although the audience is important in all of these, people do this because they are passionate about it. That is why Bennet has found so much success in his odd method of performance, and what I believe we can learn from his dedication.

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