The All-Natural, Totally American, Completely Anxiety-Free Woman

by Brent Smith

Performance artist Shana Moulton speaks into the abyss of consumer longevity through “Cynthia,” her mute alter ego
After 13 years of being on the scene, it’s hard to say if anyone really knows new media and performance artist Shana Moulton. Even her website bio is nothing but a cryptic birth chart handwritten wildly by a mystic uncle.

Her most recent short video MindPlace ThoughtStream—at once funny, spooky, lonely—comes to life in the multimedia installment Shana Moulton: Picture Patter Puzzle Door currently on display at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Since 2002, Moulton’s video projects feature her alter ego, Cynthia, who seeks self-discovery through the ritual of mass produced items, and meets the viewer at the confluent intersections of metamodern kitsch, New Age anxiety, and digital landscape magic.

There’s a dark, Lynchian hilarity to MindPlace as Cynthia mutely confronts social expectations in female wellness, and the perpetual promise of commercialized individual transformation. Using the actual Mindplace Thoughtstream biofeedback device as catalyst, she goes deeper down the rabbit hole, honing in on the quandary of the external world being just as unreal as the computer screen looking-glass of our online innerspace—with all the wondrous SFX of an early 90s sitcom (think Twin Peaks meets Out of This World with a minty glaze of Magic Eye 3D). Its culmination is the intercut of an Activia commercial starring Shakira, with Cynthia’s face superimposed onto the pop diva.

In our “liquid modernity,” as described by Zygmunt Bauman, our identities remain in constant flux and mobility, lending our emotions, relationships, and self-expressions to be perpetually scrutinized and packaged by advertising firms.

The “transcommodification” (to borrow from Leerom Medovoi) of the New Age movement, and the multibillion dollar industry of self-improvement points to a financial culture that invests in our fears and self-doubts, rather than helping to quell them. ‘Mindfulness,’ for instance, has become a strategic corporate buzzword—a lexical change from the more traditional moniker ‘meditation’—used to counter an otherwise burnt out, inefficient workforce.

Moulton seems to take these ugly truths with stride, and a knack for locating the beauty. Strolling through a corporate chain and its multitude of branded units on shelves is as familiar as strolling through a forest and its multitude of organic forms. “It’s definitely a generative process,” she explains. “It’s never overwhelming.”

Her work is a hypnotic suggestion, a reminder to keep our eyes open when navigating our saturated milieus of product placement and prescribed identity.

When you start a video project, are you more of a conduit for ideas, or do you actively fabricate the sorts of allusions that you’re making?

In terms of idea generation, and especially with Activia, it was a bit of both. I saw the commercial, and for some reason it reminded me a lot of the art I’d been seeing recently. There was something that resonated aesthetically that I felt a lot of the younger artists were trying to get at, and so I had it in the back of my head as something to bring into the dialogue.

That was really a great moment. How did you manage its incorporation so seamlessly?

I did a residency in near Cambridge at a place called Wysing [Arts Centre]. There was a lot of public art on site, and one piece in particular was a temple that this British artist built in 1990. It had an effigy of a carved goddess doing a pose you find in a lot of goddess art. I became interested in this kind of imagery and what it meant for feminism, especially in the 60’s and 70’s in California, and my conflicted love for that kind of second wave art. Anyway, it eventually hit me, like, ‘Shakira’s doing the same goddess pose! This is the Activia temple!’ It was one of those lightbulb moments. That’s generally how the process goes. A lot of the creation of the narrative is finding solutions to string these different elements together. Like, I know I want to use this commercial, and how do I connect with something else?

How did you become interested in Biofeedback?

It was through my late uncle, who was a poet and astrologer. He was also a bit of a hypochondriac like me. We still had some of his old biofeedback books, so I kind of knew of it. When my mom became ill, I was thinking of ways for her to supplement the medical treatments, and biofeedback was suggested a lot. I actually got the device for her in the first place, but she never ended up using it. After that, I became interested in the potential of that as a framing device.

Tell me about the labyrinth imagery in the video. There was one used for walking meditation, and then there was another micro version which was superimposed on top of your head. Are these worlds you envision, or do you just stumble upon these kinds of locations?

I just come across these things. This particular labyrinth is in San Francisco. The version that was on my head is actually a map of the labyrinth for blind people. So there’s one you can physically walk on, and then there’s a sort of braille version that you can trace your finger through. It looked like a brain to me. So when I realized I needed to use the Jill Bolte Taylor TED talk, it was another lightbulb moment to put these things together.

I definitely get the impression of Cynthia being trapped in a maze, and I feel like you remind me to be compassionate about things that are out of our control. Going back to feminism, for instance, women are born into a system of codes and rules that are often unfavorable, and they have to learn how to exist to change those codes and rules. Are you thinking about these things as you work?

I guess I feel those things more than think about them. I definitely resonate with being in the maze, and making due with what I have. Making it better. For me, I sometimes worry that I’m lulling myself into some sort of non-action, but I hope the recombination of these codes are doing something. Erik Davis talks about the idea of putting back the pieces of the broken universe together. I was really drawn to that, like maybe there’s some work to be done there. I thought I was going to be like Julia Butterfly Hill when I was younger, and doing something practical like saving this particular tree. But I don’t think I can be practical in what I’m doing. It’s not practical—but I still hope I’m doing some work.

Branding is a big thing in society. People wake up every day and compete to bring us that recognizable brand, and it’s funny when an artist is able to elevate themselves above the visual noise and give us a new interpretation of these symbols.

I have a hard time addressing it directly. I have a hard time saying something is this or that without having a vehicle in front of me to illustrate or embody it. [Brand culture] doesn’t feel quite as pervasive here in Europe. I don’t know a lot about it, but they’ve somehow managed to pull the reigns back on that a bit. But I think it does affect relationships. I don’t know if it’s because I’m from California, but it feels a lot more authentic here. I feel a bit at a loss for how to interact with people here because they say what they mean. ‘I’ll see you later’ means something. It’s hard to get my head around that.

Do power dynamics come into play when putting your performances together?

I basically try to avoid any power dynamic I can. Cynthia is always alone because I don’t quite know how to translate power dynamics between humans. As opposed to Miranda July, who I feel influenced by, but her work is much more about these dynamics. I’ve always avoided portraying that at all because it’s too scary for me. It’s too complicated.

I know it’s a personal question, but do you take active steps in your life to address that?

No, I haven’t really. It’s tough to answer. I do feel like I’ve isolated myself because of it, which I actually don’t mind [laughs]. I’ve made my situation as comfortable as I can. I’m lucky I can make the work I’m making, and that I have a job [teaching], which does have power relations, but it’s pretty minimal compared to other situations I’ve been in. Openings are hard for me, that situation. I leave early, or I have a drink, and that helps [laughs]. But no, I have to say that I haven’t done anything that proactive to rectify my anxiety.

I feel like I’m imitating Barbara Walters right now [shared laughter], or an edited version of her, scripted by who even knows. That realization of dedicating my life to imitating a hodgepodge collection of ideas that was brought to me by a group of invisible people. How do you get around being derivative in the art world?

It’s hard. I probably am derivative. I feel like I owe so much to Paper Rad or Alex Bag or Zero TV. I’m sure I’m derivative and I don’t even know it. We all are. If it’s weird enough though, maybe it won’t be derivative. I believe everyone has their own version of weird.

I didn’t get ‘derivative’ from your work. I think derivative is a subjective word, depending on what kind of lens or personal experience you’re bringing to it.

I think it happens a lot less than we think. I think there’s a lot of odd coincidence in the Zeitgeist. A lot of other people could have used that Activia commercial in some form. If you own those derivative moments, then I think you can do something with them.

It goes back to putting back the broken pieces, and being born into certain codes. If you have the ability to recombine the codes, something joyous and ecstatic can come out of it. It’s like you’re aware, and thus making me aware, we’re all carbon molecules in a chiral chain.

Have you seen The Spirit Molecule? Picture Puzzle Pattern Door I use in the video is actually sampled from that documentary, and the medical research done on DMT. What the Bleep! was another film that really changed by perspective.

I can’t help but think of those gelatinous creatures.

Yes! Who also come in a cold medicine commercial, I think. Those gelatinous animations. I loved that! It’s so awful, that wedding scene is unbearable, but I totally looked at the world in a new way after seeing that.

You mentioned the cold medicine commercial. I can only imagine, in a dystopian world, if children starting buying toys of brand names. Literally asking their parents for the Progressive action figure.

Totally!

To the point of turning our children into living advertisements, and their rooms would just be swamped with these logos. It’s so bizarre, but it’s just play, it’ll never actually get that bad.

Really? I think they would’ve been surprised fifty years ago to have a baseball stadium named AT&T Park. I think Happy Meals would totally have like a Xeljans logo, or Versace. Which would be great actually. I love those logo designs. Those would be amazing toys. Like teething rings. That would be really cool, actually. I love this! My next video!

 

Written By Brent Smith

Interview by Charlie Latan

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