Inside Isa Benn’s World: Synesthesia, Asperger’s & Magical Realism

Twenty-six-year-old Isa Benn is a Toronto-based filmmaker and visual artist who transforms her visual-sensory ‘handicaps’ (namely synesthesia and ideasthesia) into her own artistic expression. It is through this lens she examines themes of experiential culturalism, colour, class, sexuality, gender, and magical realism. Some of her recent work is soon to be published in an art book on banned Instagram portraits.

We chatted with the prolific artist this week.

SDTC: Can you talk a little bit about your synesthesia and ideasthesia. How do they manifest themselves? 

IB: It took me years to realize everyone was not having the same experience as me. I mean, I always knew everyone was an individual and perceived the world through their own eyes, but I didn’t know to what extent I was “different.” When I was eighteen years old, I met a university professor who would go on to be a great friend, Valérie. She was a synesthete herself, and amongst many other things we had in common, we communicated very similarly. I couldn’t figure out why I felt so comforted and comfortable with her manner of speech, expression and friendship. The way she moved her hands, the words she used (very few followed her thought process, in its complexity, interwoven nature: highly visual, sensual, visceral). I understood everything she said, meant and thought.

One day, years later, we sat down and she began to discuss the different levels of synesthesia and how it affected her life. I was shocked. “I do all of those things!” I said, sitting across from her in a cafe in Bushwick, Brooklyn. We discovered over time why I had such adept knowledge of what she called ‘spatiality’; why I was more than just a visual learner but completely immersed in the visual-spatial-sensual.

There are many layers and kinds of synesthesia and ideasthesia. I have all of them, as someone with Asperger’s at the level I have. Some have one or two, most have none. My world is very connected. Examples of how include, my seeing time as a spinning wheel. If you said “Are you free this Thursday?” I would see time as a roulette table, from birth to death, from the cambrian explosion to the civil rights movement. It would spin and spin and quickly land on Thursday, like a pop up book/roulette table. That is how I see most dates in space and time. I would feel the senses of what I associate with Thursday. Depending on the date (the number) I would see colours associated with that specific date-number; I could even feel the weather of Thursday and see many Thursdays throughout my life compiled in motion. It’s basically like my brain plays connect-the-dots with everything. I see and physically feel sounds, taste colours, identify inanimate time and space concepts like months and dates with personalities, colours and feelings. I have all of the kinds and thus, could go on. The point is best explained as a sensory connect-the-dots, I think.

The way this plays into my art is, I’m very good at creating feeling. I understand feeling, space, time, touch, sense in a way that I used to find distracting. I still do, sometimes. I used to be described as high maintenance, ‘sensitive’, quirky etc. by teachers, friends, family, and now understand that certain lighting, texture or sound is very distracting or distasteful or even pleasurable to me. I’m a really good story teller. I can verbally create a scene for you, so you feel you are physically there; I can film a scene so it feels very sensual, very physical, very visceral by use of colour, sound, light, texture. We are all very sensitive to these things, I’m just extremely sensitive. But, because of that, I understand sensuality, as in, I understand the senses and how to create a mood, feeling, idea, how to create a moment, a memory and make it feel real.

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Can you walk us through a typical day in your life, from getting up ‘til going to bed?

Every day, I wake up in a haze of excitement, sometimes nervous jitters and exhaustion because I only sleep like two or three hours a night (which we will discuss later). I start out in pure feeling. I hear the endless brain chatter, but barely care about it. I immediately start in on ideas, notions, quotes, visuals. Like when I wake up, my brain starts downloading new software, new information…

By noon, I almost completely remember who ‘Isa Benn’ is and start living life ‘as’ her again. I respond to questions more. Prior to noon, I mostly look confused and annoyed. That’s why I should really be in business mode between 6 am and mid-day.

I work all day, as an artist, sending emails, applying for grants, reaching out, reaching out. My day is split into my creating, drawing, writing, photographing, filming etc. and then trying to bring my attention back to business, administrative work, applications.

By nightfall though, I’ve lost all control, and am in pure creative mode until around 4 Am and then I try to sleep before I do it all over again.

I think a lot of people don’t really know that being an independent artist is basically being your own business. You’re an entrepreneur. You’re always crafting today, tomorrow, this month, next year, ten years. You’re building, constantly. On the weekends, I try and network – which is a nightmare, as I’m a total introvert, but am perceived as extremely open and extroverted human. I know that sounds stupid and like “woe is me, everyone talks to me”, but as an introvert, it’s pretty tiring. I’m usually quiet for like three days after a weekend of art parties, opening, dancehalls and other random chatter.

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What was your reaction when your artwork was banned on instagram? 

Artwork gets banned on instagram a lot. Like, really good art. I remember that “period piece” that got banned. There are so many ways to be disappointed in humanity, always, and that was definitely one for me… There are so many women on instagram – beautiful women, appealing to heteronormative male fantasies. They expose themselves, and that is their choice and right. The issue is, when a woman is showing pubic hair versus being ‘groomed’ to the male fantasy, suddenly there’s backlash. A woman half naked is fine, but a fully naked woman, hairy, bold, overweight and gorgeous, becomes an issue. Instagram, in many ways, supports a very hetero-normative, male gaze, which is restrictive to all the different kinds of beauty and life experiences there are. The internet is supposed to be a place of free expression. Hate groups can have instagram accounts (I, myself, have been messaged by many a racist, queer-phobic group peddling their ideologies) and there accounts get reported and rarely taken down… And yet, a beautiful woman, showing a period stain is offensive and immediately reported/taken down. That says something about us, as a global culture: something truly heartbreaking.

I started trying to find someone doing something about this, before I decided I had to. I found some girls who were forming a group for Random House [for book of banned portraits]. They liked my work a lot and said they would like to use it in the book and I was so excited to be a part of a group of hairy, gorgeous radicals (being hairy is radical, don’t you know!) and my goal is to just keep pushing my ideas of beauty. I started drawing images of women with different body types, hairy and alone, isolated… It just kind of happened. It was what I felt.

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Who/what are your major artistic influences?

It’s really hard for me to say that I have any influences outside of just life. I always want to name people and no artists ever really come to mind. I love great artists throughout time. Amazing artists who push the boundaries. You know, basquiat, Kahlo, Klimt, Bjork, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, Brando, Poitier, Liz Taylor, Laurette Taylor, Toni Morrison. People who inspire me, truly, are like James Baldwin. I could listen to that man speak and practically orgasm. He’s so intelligent. He’s so well spoken. He speaks on deep seeded issues with a passion and ease I can only aspire. I get very personally affected, as I’m sure he was, but he was so good at retorting sans outright emotion. I love bell hooks, Jane Elliott, Eckhart Tolle. I think I look up to art, more as a concept, that those who practice ‘making’. More, a way of life. Which is why sometimes, I view an ‘artist’ as a creator, even of thought and concept. Like Baldwin, hooks and Tolle. Jane Elliott to me was a sociological artist. Even, Jill Bolte Taylor. To me, I aspire to change cultural landscapes and so, a Buddhist monk in protest, can be an artist. Even just a regular queer/woman of colour/trans, gay/immigrant living their life boldly can be art to me. I find life inspiring, I guess. Living well, living presently, living vulnerably, if you’ve done those things, I have and do look up to you or aspire to live my best version of that life.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve been given when it comes to your artistic practice?

I don’t think I’ve ever been given one great or even good piece of advice, as an artist. More so, as a person. And, not even directly. “Be in the now” is the best piece of advice for any artist and human being. “Presence.” The greatest advice I’ve ever been truly given is someone expressing living similarly, aspiring similarly and ‘making it’… Such as Bjork, a notorious introvert… Or, someone who changed the world, like Nelson Mandela… or someone who teaches compassion like Tich Nhat Hanh. The best advice, like the best revenge, is living a good life.

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