Interveiw by Marco Antonini
. . .
Shana Moulton’s videos and performances are in many respects the product of her own fears and anxieties. Surrounded by hysterically colorful and studiedly kitsch scenarios, her filmic alter ego, Cynthia, is obsessed with her health and well-being. In Shana/Cynthia’s hands, inoffensive and awkward medical and orthopedic devices are transformed into surrealistic machines and gateways to parallel realities that are directly linked to her perceived psychological and physical illnesses. Her adventures mirror the insecurities of whole generations while also exploiting stylistic forms and tropes excavated from the recent history of mass-mediated culture.
Marco Antonini: When did performance and video respectively arrive in your work? What came first, and what is the relationship between the two disciplines? Where is it all going?
SHANA MOULTON: Performance definitely came first, actually, since I was in high school. My art program in high school was basically nonexistent, so I spent almost all four years heavily involved in drama, which hasn’t informed my current performance practice much but at least gave me the courage to get in front of people, and it gave me the ability to get into character. When I went to college at Berkeley, I majored in Anthropology, and it wasn’t until my third year that I started taking art classes. I took one called “New Genres,” which was mostly performance, taught by Kevin Radley, and it basically changed my life. I think he converted a lot of non-art majors—he emphasized how necessary art making was to life, and he introduced us to the history of performance with footage of Iggy Pop concerts and sermons on presence in rock’n’roll. He always encouraged us to draw from personal life, insisting that every one of us had lives or histories interesting enough to make work about. It was therapeutic—rock’n’roll identity politics for all. I took his class over and over until my fifth year at Berkeley when I had enough units to complete an art major. I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to art growing up in rural California, but my other early inspiration was my uncle, Chuck Moulton, a poet, astrologer, activist, and major force in the art community in Fresno, so it seemed natural for me to be involved in this performative, everything-goes direction. I was pretty much purely interested in performance by the time I finished college, and it wasn’t until my second year in grad school that I started making video.
Antonini: Were you already making works that you would consider "yours" today, or was it just tentative stuff?
MOULTON: As an undergrad, I was making what I thought was exciting performance, but it was all assignment-based. I did just revisit two ideas from these recently though. One is at the end of my video Sand Saga, when I eat my beauty mask off my face. I originally did that as a live performance in the “New Genres” class. The other one is where I use a transparent anatomical doll called the Visible Woman that I’d had since I was a child, and I removed fishing-lure worms, which my dad used to bring home after work, from the doll’s body in a sort of quasi-surgery, while a zoomed-in view of that doll was projected over me. They were both very intimate, classroom-based performances, but I’ve recently felt connected to the more bodily direction I was going in then.
Antonini: Do you think your work is naturally going back in that direction?
MOULTON: I don't think I ever really lost it. It's always been there in the medical-device dresses or the orthopedic dresses, the phenomenological experience of being in a body or the hypochondria, but the older work was more abject, and I’ve been getting back in touch with that aspect again with the worms-as-organs in one recent performance and the eating my mask off my face, and the reference to the pig’s-blood prom scene in Carrie in another performance. Anyway, I started to make videos only after I’d made all of these dresses with medical devices embedded in them that were meant to be shown as sculptures, but people kept telling me that they needed to be “activated.” One of them was a dress that I made with a hemorrhoid pillow embedded in the fabric. The character I thought up for that dress is where I got the idea for Cynthia, my alter ego in the videos. So, when I got the idea to create a narrative for these dresses, the videos started.
Antonini: Your video technique is often very rudimentary, favoring quick solutions and an editing process that looks very spontaneous. Is this immediacy connected with the way you perform?
MOULTON: Definitely. When I started to work with video, I was explaining to an adviser about the home videos I used to make as a child with my brother, cousins, and friends. My adviser encouraged me to explore that direction and think about that energy and creative spirit. I wanted my videos to show their connection to home-video aesthetics and also to use effects in a very economical way. The first effect I made, with the help of a friend, was done just by cutting a hole in the top layer of the video, so you could see the layer beneath, and this hole, which was the hole in the donut of the hemorrhoid pillow dress, became a sort of portal for traveling from one layer—or world—to the next. It’s a very simple thing, and it's probably my most common trope. Later I learned to greenscreen.
Antonini: I think the home-video aesthetics are really important in terms of the camerawork.
MOULTON: Camerawork is very important to me, but it shouldn’t be distracting. I stay away from the shaky handheld camera approach and rely heavily on my tripod. I’ll often envision a scene as a still photograph or tableaux before I come up with a plot, and then I make the set with just one camera position in mind. In that way, they are more related to photography.
Antonini: You use very mundane situations and environments, [crowding] them with kitsch and adding over-the-top narrative and visual twists. The performances feel much sparser in comparison.
MOULTON: When I’m making the videos, I’m usually trying to challenge or entertain myself, which sounds selfish, but my work only started to grow into its own when I stopped thinking about the audience so much. But, when I prepare the performances, I think much more about the audience. I feel that the performances become less narrative and that I can be more abstract in them. The immediacy of the performance liberates me to be spontaneous, freer with associations, and more about surprise, while videos are self-contained units.
Antonini: There has been more performance in your work lately.
MOULTON: Ever since I moved to New York. It feels like there's a higher demand for performance here. It seems like performance is having a moment. But it's also related to the fact that I don't have a studio.
Antonini: You basically use your desktop-edited video as the setting of your performances.
Antonini: How much of you is there in Cynthia, your video alter ego?
MOULTON: I initially thought of the alter ego as a separate entity, a single emotional state, a heightened form of inner anxiety and hypochondria, but then I decided that I wanted this alter ego to become more developed, and in the process, she basically became me. So, now the work is very diaristic, and everything comes from a combination of things that have happened to my female relatives and me.
Antonini: Do you project the life or the personality of other people onto Cynthia?
MOULTON: The series “Whispering Pines” is titled after the mobile park where I grew up. It was a senior park with lots of widows that I would visit as a child. There were people there who make puzzles or who have lots of cats or birds, or that sort of thing.
Antonini: Avon ladies?
Antonini: Are there aspects of your work that are overlooked or not discussed as much as you would like?
MOULTON: The logic of the videos is never really discussed. The most important thing for me is the way that the narrative develops and the ways that associations are made.
Antonini: Do you use storyboards, or do you improvise?
MOULTON: I usually start with one nugget, a scene, usually revolving around a particular object, as in the case of the Avon reflexology glove in Whispering Pines 4, which an Avon lady/witch-healer uses on Cynthia to heal her carpal tunnel and then uses as an eye-shadow palette to give Cynthia a makeover.
Antonini: In terms of inner logic, apart from the unexpected and crazy twists, the videos are very consequential. One thing leads to another in a graphic and direct way.
MOULTON: I suppose that what I'm most interested in is storytelling. I don't like writing, so short videos are, for me, the ideal way of conveying a certain kind of narrative logic. And it’s the unexpected and crazy twists that I’m most excited about making. I don’t often hear people talking about imagination or the collective unconscious, and I’d love to hear what a good Jungian psychologist would have to say about the work. In the past year, I've been going to a lot of film festivals, and a lot of people assume that I know about film, but I don't. I'm coming more from an artist-messing-around-in-the-studio-with-a-camera history. I'm trying to catch up with film history now, and I wish I’d been filled in on all of that at an earlier age. I learned so much about video art in school but not much about experimental film. I feel that many contemporary filmmakers and video artists have a lot in common; they [seem to be] converging in many ways.
Antonini: Maybe you could further discuss the relation of your work to television.
MOULTON: I grew up on six hours of TV a day, and the serial format of the work and the production quality is definitely related to TV soap operas. Until recently, I never thought about film while making the videos.
Antonini: There’s definitely a cross-pollination. The media industry is more open to visionary and weird stuff nowadays. Do you see the art world as the perfect stage for your work?
MOULTON: I’m enjoying meeting other people in the film community and seeing how that world works. It's been a nice alternative to the art world. Somehow it makes more sense to me in terms of presentation, but I still feel the art world is where I belong; there are fewer limitations, and I think of my practice as including sculpture, performance, and photography; I'm not really interested in the medium of film or working on a feature movie, although I wouldn't be opposed to that. I think It's admirable that Miranda July went from making video shorts and performances to mainstream wide-release movies.
Antonini: Reaching out to wider audiences doesn't seem to be on top of the priority list of many contemporary artists. How do you feel about that?
MOULTON: I started making video because I wanted as many people as possible to see the work. I saw art collectives like Zero TV posting their videos on the Internet back in 2002, way before YouTube, and that was really exciting. That's actually one of the reasons I started to make a series. When I was applying to grad schools, Carnegie Mellon was advertising an "Art in the Community" or “Art in Context” program. I liked the idea of art being involved with people outside the art world, and it was great to be going to grad school in Pittsburgh, at a distance from the pressures of New York.
Antonini: You have also studied in Amsterdam. Was there any difference between the way the work was received there—or generally in Europe—and here in the US?
MOULTON: Definitely. When I was in Amsterdam, at De Ateliers, I initially felt like they really disliked my work, and I assumed that it was a bit of a cultural thing.
Antonini: Do you think they were trying to challenge you?
MOULTON: I was asked to give a lecture explaining my influences, so I showed them some Zero TV, Paper Rad, Miranda July, and Mike Smith. I later heard that some of the European tutors were horrified by what I showed.
Antonini: What year was this?
MOULTON: It was 2004. One of the tutors aksed me: “What are you doing? Trying to make children’s TV?” I thought, "Wow, I'm in the wrong place." I thought most people there were really not getting where I was coming from, and my only references at the time were American pop culture. Finally, just to make them happy, I stuck this Mondrian painting in one of my “Whispering Pines” videos, that painting with the three women.
Antonini: Is that a Mondrian painting?!
MOULTON: Yeah, he made it during his theosophical phase. I couldn't believe it was a Mondrian either. I wanted to shock my Dutch tutors, using one of his least pure works. It almost seemed like something they’d erased from the history books. But my tutors really responded to that video, and it made me realize that I didn’t have to limit myself to strictly pop cultural references.
Antonini: I thought it was some poster from a new age shop.
MOULTON: It's such an odd painting. It's called Evolution. It represents three girls in different states of spiritual evolution reflected in the shape and color of their nipples. Anyway, in the end, I don’t think the cultural differences were totally responsible for their initial negative reaction to my work, and now, I sometimes find that my videos resonate even more with people who aren’t from the US. And, for some reason, my work has shown much more in Europe and on the East Coast than it has in California.
Antonini: Where do you see your work going from now? Your body of work has been quite consistent, so far.
MOULTON: I've been trying to get rid of my alter ego for quite a while now, but since the work has become pretty diaristic, I haven't found a way yet. She has been a great vehicle for trying to convey this storytelling I was talking about, so I still haven't found a way to move on from that.
Antonini: What about projecting your concerns onto other people and involving more actors and characters, instead of referencing only yourself? Or fragmenting your own persona and reflecting it on other characters...
MOULTON: I just don't know how to work with other people. I know it sounds anti-social—I can work with family members, but otherwise I feel sort of embarrassed by the presence of another person while I’m making this work. I can’t fully enter the inner-life mode. It’s not the case when I’m collaborating, and that has been a good way for me to break from this body of work. But I did just made a new video in which I multiplied myself. I play the doctor and the patient. I’m also thinking of removing people completely and going really abstract.
Antonini: Well, the objects in your work are as important as your characters.
MOULTON: Yes, and one of the best pieces of advice I had early on was that I needed to emphasize that and think of the objects as characters just as much as I think of Cynthia as a character. And this is actually another reason I started making videos—I’d see different shows of sculpture or installation, and I’d always want them to come alive and start interacting with each other. I’d anthropomorphize them. Maybe what I’ve always been trying to make is children'' television. I forgot to mention that I also showed my tutors in Amsterdam some Pee-wee’s Playhouse, so, yes, this may be the next step.