Decolonization of Self: Interview With Travel Writer/photographer Marcus F. Benigno

Photo + Video + Film Interviews
by David Miller Jun 7, 2010
Marcus F. Benigno lives out of his backpack and is on an open ended project to document sustainable action worldwide.

Artist Cecelia Webber photographed by MFB

SO MANY writers seem entrenched in commodified thinking.

They isolate whatever they’re writing about from its temporal, historical, environmental, and cultural context, thus reducing it to or framing it as a kind of commodity.

I’m always looking out for writers that seem aware of this and are doing something new. I was stoked to find Marcus F Benigno’s website A Sustainable Feast last week.

MFB’s subjects are people and projects that challenge conventional paradigms. Throughout his work there’s always a sense of maintaining a historical perspective, remembering what has been tried (and perhaps failed), but instead of conjecturing about “the future” (an act which often seems to derive from commodfiied thinking), MFB focuses on individuals’ sustainable actions as the necessary, ground-level response.

I immediately wrote MFB asking for an interview. We emailed the following questions / answers back and forth:

Name: Marcus F. Benigno

Age: 24

Cultural heritage / Ethnicity:

Languages spoken:
French, Filipino, Arabic, German

Based out of: My 90L Eagle Creek Backpack and cafes with wifi

Palace of Palenque in Chiapas (MFB)

Education: B.A. International Development Studies, McGill University, Montréal, Canada

Current work / projects: 1) Personal travelogue and reports on sustainable constructions worldwide; 2) documentation of youth involved in sustainable/green action (photography, copy)

Writers / Journalists whose work inspires you: Hemingway, André Gide, George Lakoff, Miranda July, among others

Photographers whose work inspires you: Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Jimmy Chin, Balazs Gardi, …

Artists whose work inspires you: Audrey Beardsley, Paul Klee, Olafur Eliasson, Charles Spearin, …

Books / magazines / media currently reading
: Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Rory Stewart’s Places in Between, Twombly’s Frank Lloyd Wright Essential Texts, Monocle

Latest MP3 downloaded:
An album called Fónok by Czech duo, Dva

Last concert attended:
Mahler’s 5th @ the Hollywood Bowl

[DM]: In your blog’s “about” page you write:

“Jaded by academic discourse and journalist frivolity (with which this author has cavorted and gained much insight), mfb is on a lifelong hiatus committed to the decolonization of self and the exposition of sustainable action across the globe.”

Several phrases in that sentence resonated with me, particularly “decolonization of self.” Can you elaborate on what this means?

[MFB]: Everyday, I make decisions whether they be conscious or routine. The belief that I make these decisions autonomously is an illusion. The rationale that guides my choices is dictated by a sphere of influence external to me as an individual. This system is a naturally occurring, socio-cultural phenomenon that is neither good nor bad.

A mural at the Casa del Pan in San Cristóbal (MFB)

However, when the sphere of influence mutates into a sphere of imposition and starts to limit the epistemological framework of the individual through conditioned desires and identities, then that individual has been colonized.

Postcolonial critique and a subsequent reappropriation of identity preconquest are no longer sufficient. What is necessary now in an age of globalization in flux is an active attempt to decolonize oneself. Our collective consciousness and education must no longer be contingent on vocation and capital as an end and must be liberated from the polarization of abstractions (gendering/non-gendering, heteronomy/queering, etc).

The goal is not to vivisect the inherent (imposed) drives that impel us but to meditate upon and mediate these forces by acknowledging their inescapable hold on our existence and from there challenging its role on our perception and actions quotidian. Just as the realization of perfection or nirvana is impossible, the decolonization of self in the postcolonial era is an unattainable state that we must continue to seek.

The second part of your bio that resonated with me:

“Cited as a ‘culture vulture’ by an anonymous reader, Marcus F Benigno (mfb) is a professional traveler and expert sciolist who specializes in everything but nothing including print design, social and cultural commentary, urban nomadism, and photography.”

I like how, instead of non-ironically branding yourself as a “freelance journalist” or “photographer,” you’re stating that you do a bunch of different things but there’s still a pattern to it, which seems an increasingly relevant response to new media / writing / photography / design / art. The one thing that seems to underpin everything though: how do you sustain it? How do you make a living?

On a jaunt through Petra a few years ago, I met a Spaniard working at the front desk at the Valentine Inn. The day I hitched back to Amman, I was surprised to find him on my route. Like the travelers who frequent the inn, he was on the move. He had setup an informal, two-week agreement with the inn’s proprietor: labor for room and board.

Months before, he had abandoned all his possessions and his profession as a construction worker in Madrid. With a light messenger bag and the pair of trousers he had on, he left eastward edging the Mediterranean and stumbling onto odd jobs and warm retreats along an undetermined route. He recounted similar experiences like in Italy where he had picked flowers in exchange for refuge and sustenance.

This encounter among others led to my own reliance on where stability can only be sought, in the present. Currently, I am wwoofing for a family outside of Stockholm. And still, there are possibilities of farming in Siberia and Thailand. But who knows?

In a section of a blog post titled “The Art of Travel Writing” you write:

In Mornings in Mexico, D. H. Lawrence elaborates the exotic with his interpretation of a Mexican narrative. In classic Orientalist fashion, he probes the Other and suggests nuanced customs like an Indian mindset in which “time is a vague, foggy reality.” Essayists like Lawrence and the contemporary Alain de Bouton have codified the voice of travel literature. Their compositions paint pictorials of whimsical excursions and transitory crossings. Their subjects are accidental and their objectives hedonist.

I see this codification continuing to permeate much of travel writing today. My question though: who was the exception to this? Hemingway, for example–in a Moveable Feast (which your blog title plays off)–would you consider that work codified? What about the travel writing of David Foster Wallace? What about people working right now? Whose writing is “decolonized?”

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is similar to autobiographical works by Gide and Shalamov whose stories forge on a blurring of historical fiction and fact. Their writings compose a cultural memory arguably more valuable than historiographical renderings of social history and the essentialist accounts by travel writers like Lawrence/de Bouton. But in the same vein as my endeavor to self-decolonization, I wouldn’t consider these or any other postcolonial work to be decolonized in their content. Rather, it is a stylistic question of context and genre.

Nic*Rad at the Rare Gallery (MFB) (MFB)

Traveling, learning about people/place/culture, and documenting and sharing these experiences stem from a natural Orientalism, a curiosity of world and culture and the Other.

It is only when one embarks on this exploration from a position of power and superiority, then the “project” is imperialistic and colonial in nature. When I mentioned the stylistic question of context and genre, I am referring to a respective analysis of literature:

Context. 1) For whom is the writer writing/who is the reader? (academia, bourgeoisie, tourists, public, self) What is the writer’s motivation and purpose? (curiosity, capital, science, status/degree, power)

Genre. 2) Where is the writer in the writing? Is the work autobiographical, anthropological, ethnographic? Is the writer estranged from the “subject”?

From your latest blog, you write:

“For the last twenty-eight days and counting, I have flown, trained, bused, rideshared, and walked across Europe. The goal: travel through Eurasia and document urban space, sustainable development and architecture, and people who challenge conventional lifestyles while (re)creating a more viable world for present and future generations.”

Can you list / link some of these people / places / projects that are challenging conventional paradigms?

Soon enough, I’ll be blogging about these encounters. I just haven’t had a reliable wifi connection in rural Stockholm! But the peoples/places/projects include a Berlin-based artist/singer with a project at the La Fayette in Paris, alternative spaces like a coop coffeeshop in Stockholm, a Czech PhD student in sustainable architecture who built a school in the Himalayas, and much more.

What is your current setup for photography / new media production?

The tech’s pretty compact: Canon 50D, MacBookPro, and a Yamaha PocketTrakC24. I left my Lomo at home

Where are you planning to go next?

Helsinki at the end of month, TransSiberian July-August, and then Mongolia and then?

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