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Shana Moulton by Bean Gilsdorf

I first encountered Shana Moulton’s work at the Banff Centre in 2012, where I was participating in a residency on experimental comedy. Comedy—like many other fields—is often thought of as a man’s game, and here was a woman making radically potent observations on uncertainty and longing while moving through the world wearing a neck brace and some terrifically unfashionable clothes. “Cynthia,” the character that extends from Moulton, is a figure that embodies both satire and tragedy—one minute swept up in a life-affirming pas de deux with a container of yogurt, the next attempting to assuage her existential dread with eye shadow or bath salts. The friction between these two positions never resolves, and Moulton continues to explore points along the continuum; she produces videos, objects, and live performances that portray Cynthia’s persistent reaching toward something that can’t quite be grasped.

Bean Gilsdorf How long have you been working with Cynthia, your alter-ego character, and in what ways has she evolved?

Shana Moulton I started working with her in 2002 as someone to wear the medical dresses I had been making. I had taken photos of these medical dresses—just as myself, as Shana—and they weren’t really doing anything, so I decided to make a video. I was trying to imagine what kind of person would need to wear a hemorrhoid-pillow dress. And then after I made Whispering Pines 1 (2001) in the grocery store in Pittsburgh, Whispering Pines 2 (2002) sort of put itself together in my mind based on things that had happened in the first one. Cynthia was still in the same state of anxiety and pain. And then the third video, Whispering Pines 3 (2004), happened as a result of what happened in Whispering Pines 2. Those three videos happened very organically, based on associations from each preceding work. Then I moved to Amsterdam to go to de Ateliers, and it took me a while to start making work again because it was such a different environment. The residency was more traditional; you were meant to stay in your studio and work alone. And traditionally the program was largely involved with painting and sculpture. A lot of the tutors were painters, although there were a few video and performance tutors and other participants. So it took me a while to start making work there. I had a really productive studio visit with Martha Colburn, who was also living in Amsterdam at the time, and she said kind of jokingly, “You know, to make the tutors here happy, just reference some art history.” And I was like, “Oh, okay!”

BG (laughter)

SM In grad school, I was trying not to make art about art, but then I realized there were a lot of art-historical references that were also part of pop culture that would be really relevant to this video practice. So after a while, I came back to Cynthia. She became more personal at this point. I don’t really know why, but the episodes I made in Amsterdam, especially Whispering Pines 8, were much more autobiographical, based on anecdotes from my life or other female family members. And they became less “ha-ha” funny and a little more soul searching. That was a turning point. After that, I can’t really say if I know how she’s evolved since. My collaborator, Nick Hallett, was saying he thought she’s become stronger and somehow more determined, but I don’t know… I have zero distance from her. I did at first, but now I have none, so it’s hard to know how she evolved besides describing how I’ve evolved. (laughter)

BG That makes sense. I know you’ve said in other interviews that she’s a very autobiographical character, but it’s still hard for me to ascribe meaning to a character without feeling like I might give offense to the artist who created it. In all my questions, I refer to her as Cynthia and don’t try to project that on to you. It can be difficult to know where the overlap really lies.

SM She’s like a tool. She isn’t all completely me, but somehow she’s a part of me, or some sort of art-making tool.

BG An extension of the self.

SM Totally.

BG I know you’ve been asked this question before, but I want to revisit it. What role does anxiety play in the work, and how close is your own anxiety aligned with Cynthia’s?

SM It’s hard to know if and where they differ. They seem very aligned to me. Most of the narratives in the videos come from direct anxieties of mine. For me, creativity and anxiety are very connected. They’re very productive, my personal anxieties, and it’s been great to make those into a creative force with Cynthia. I still haven’t figured out how to do that without her. I’m trying to do that more in sculpture, but I don’t think it has been as successful as the videos and performances. The sculptures I made need the videos and performances for context.

BG Thinking about her in an analytical way, she’s constantly trying to feel better physically and spiritually by obtaining products that are supposed to satisfy some kind of emptiness. And in Mindplace ThoughtStream (2014) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, it doesn’t work. You have K.D. Lang as the soundtrack, singing the refrain of “Constant Craving” over and over again. Do you want to talk about advertising and the role that it plays in your work?

SM Advertising was always very attractive to me, and it’s meant to be attractive. Before I can remember, my mom said that I’d run out while they were watching TV, watch the ads, and then go back to doing my own thing during the television show. I’ve always been very attracted to them. The ads in the videos are a platform for exactly what they’re trying to do: offer the ability to enhance your life, or change your identity, or live the dream.

BG One thing that really strikes me is that by duplicating the visual tropes of advertising, it provides commentary but is also re-presenting it so the viewer receives it in the same way that they’d receive a regular television ad. You know what I mean? It’s hard to get a critical distance because they’re so similar.

SM Yeah, exactly. For the Activia commercial, I think just putting this really specific context around it is like making it fulfill its ultimate role as a commercial. That commercial is really pushing Cynthia into this new level, this new answer to her problems. During the Superbowl or some other program, a commercial might hit someone at the right time during their television watching day, and this is exactly what Cynthia needed right then and there: in MindPlace ThoughtStream, Shakira guides her to find this particular food for this particular problem. That’s the commercial fulfilling its ultimate context.

BG I’m glad you mentioned the yogurt specifically, because most of the products she interacts with are specifically targeted to women: the yogurt, the scented candle, the butt-toning sneakers that Cynthia wears when she’s walking the maze. Essentially they’re a series of promises for achieving a better, more enlightened, improved state. And they reveal part of the constant pressure on women to be better—healthier, prettier, more relaxed. Would you describe your work as feminist?

SM Absolutely. I’d describe it as feminist, just because of how you described it. But there’s also a comfort in these products… satisfaction isn’t the right word, but there’s a feeling I get from looking at [women’s] magazines, the feeling that there are things out there that are going to make you better and happier. I get a sort of pleasure out of reading these magazines and seeing these products or even buying them, even though I know that somehow this isn’t healthy. I guess in the videos I’m trying to figure out what that is, or maybe I’m just reproducing it in Cynthia. I don’t use these products, but I love reading their advertisements because they feel like the promise of a new, improved self. I’m trying to get at that in the videos. It feels really contradictory in my own life, and what I stand for and what I believe in, but I just really enjoy looking at these things.

BG Cynthia is a very hopeful—and in some ways, guileless—character.

SM Yeah.

BG So it makes sense that buying the product, even if it doesn’t change your life, the promiseof it changing your life is enough.

SM Yeah. I have friends who are really into makeovers and facials, and I don’t do those things but I love hearing them talk about it. I love watching women talk about buying jewelry and doing their nails, these things that I don’t do myself.

BG Within the concepts of self-actualization and self-help, your work often seems particularly American to me. American-ness doesn’t have a state of being, it’s about constantly becoming. Do you find that non-American audiences have a different read of the work?

SM I was worried about that in Amsterdam, and that was another reason I stopped working for a while. I actually show the work more in Europe than in the US, but that could also be because I’ve lived there a lot over the past ten years. I do think there’s a more black-and-white reading of it in Europe, where it’s seen as a critique of New Age culture or commercial culture. For me, it’s not. I mean, yeah, there’s definitely humor and skepticism and critique, but it’s definitely also an embrace of some aspects of commercialism, just showing the pleasure that I get or that Cynthia gets from these things. I do think sometimes that maybe the critical reading is not quite accurate.

BG Let’s talk about where the satire leaves off and the empathy begins, because these are parodies, but at the same time there’s something really poignant about Cynthia and her various quests.

SM I get the most satisfaction from my work when someone sees that, while there’s satire and empathy, there’s also sincerity. I don’t know where one starts and one ends. I grew up in a household where humor was really important, and so was empathy. Coming of age with Saturday Night Live and Pee Wee’s Playhouse, it’s just a state of mind that I was raised with. I have no idea where one ends and one begins. In some particular scenarios, I could say, “That is more satirical, and that is more sincere,” but the goal is to try to be both at once.

BG So that when you’re looking at them as a whole, they’re mixed.

SM In the beginning it was probably more satirical, and so then when I became more aware of what was going on—and became more serious about it—that was when I decided to also make it have some meaning or something beyond just satire or humor.

BG The video sequences are very associative and fantastical, yet they also seem oddly self-evident, in the same way that when you have an abrupt shift in a dream it seems totally logical and you don’t really question it. Since you mentioned storyboarding before, how tightly do you script these before you start shooting?

SM Those first three videos were storyboarded; I had a great professor in grad school who really encouraged me to do that. When I started working again in Amsterdam, it evolved into this new way of working where I would have a particular idea and would film that idea, execute that idea on video, but wouldn’t finish it or the full narrative until later. Usually it was a matter of having a few associative ideas and then figuring out how to connect them later. That became a really productive way of working, and I think I’ve been working that way ever since, so I let myself not know what the full video will be until I’ve already made parts of it.

BG How does that change when you’re working with collaborators?

SM With the performance work I do with Nick Hallett, it’s a different way of working. We’re both developing the narrative together. As the songwriter he has to write the lyrics, so it’s a totally different process, and it’s really hard for me, like “Errrg.” But it’s a great way to balance the solo work.

BG In terms of the performances, is there a different mental process than what you do for the videos?

SM Yeah, I guess I feel like I’m allowed to be less narrative with them. It’s more of a montage, like with the videos I perform in front of, because my live presence is the thing that’s holding everything together. And with the performances especially, I do think more in terms of how I can work out visual gags or tricks with props, and how they can enhance the meaning of whatever is happening. The other thing that’s important for me is the planning, working with the video, and thinking about how that’s going to influence my actions as a live performer, because putting together the video that will be the backdrop for the performance is always the first part. And then while I’m doing that I’m working out how I’m going to physically interact with the video. The video editing is setting the stage for how I’ll be reflected live.

BG When I was writing up my questions for you I was thinking of control: trying to control one’s own environment, or trying to control all the negative aspects that contemporary life brings to bear on a woman. And how much of that is trying to maintain a sense of ownership over one’s own body and one’s own space—like Cynthia’s—and the idea that the products she buys can ameliorate those negative effects.

SM Yeah, I think that’s also probably another aspect that I haven’t considered. But what’s really important besides having total creative control is the idea of narrative control. Personally, that’s an issue I’ve had with psychedelics; the inability to give up full control during a psychedelic experience has always been a sort of blockage for me. (laughter)

BG Is that an ongoing quest or is that mainly in the past?

SM Well, mainly in the past, and part of the reason I haven’t returned to those things is fear of losing control. But I remain completely fascinated and inspired by those past experiences, and also frightened and wary. It’s part of this self-actualization, something that I plan to deal with in the future. I don’t know if that’s relevant… well, yeah, I’m sure it’s relevant somehow.