Video Vortex: A Conversation with Shana Moulton


The American artist Shana Moulton is best known for her “Whispering Pines” video series, wherein she plays a house coat-wearing alter ego, Cynthia. Cynthia is infirmed by psychic and physical illness, and bewitched by the “magical” healing properties of dream catchers and crystals. Forever looking for a cure, she explores the deeply American dissatisfaction of body and mind.

Moulton’s aesthetic and conceptual sensibility includes the use of talismanic iconography, a gesture made famous by Kenneth Anger, whose use of symbolism ran in line with his fidelity to occult practices. Equally, in Moulton’s work, one finds the irreverence and self-reflexivity of Mike Kelley, whose art has often explored humanity’s devotion to ritual. Moulton’s videos feature the artist engaging in over-the-top health and beauty regimes wherein extra-thick, goopy green facial masks, and exercise videos helmed by a spry Angela Landsbury, for instance, become metaphors for the absurdist ceremonies of daily self-care we engage in.

Moulton’s videos owe much of their feeling of newness to the fact that they eschew art historical tropes in favor of under-explored narratives of American pop culture. They reveal the sentimental pathos around the culture of chronic illness and home health care; one is left to wonder how the aesthetics of American pain have become so deliberately twee. Moulton’s videos are packed with mirth, and yet the issues she addresses are far from humorous. Her practice also ventures into the realm of performance: On May 10th, she’ll stage a performance at Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool, to celebrate the closing of her exhibition there; on April 2010, she’ll present a weeklong program at the Kitchen in New York. Here, the artist talks about the relationship between performance, video art and avant-garde film in her work.

AIMEE WALLESTON: I am curious about how you developed your process and aesthetic sense. You use digital video: As a young artist, were you more inspired by experimental film, or was your inspiration more based in video?

SHANA MOULTON: I grew up in a small town on a solid diet of TV and video rentals; television has been my main touchstone. My first exposure to anything remotely experimental was Twin Peaks and that had a huge impact on me. And still does. In fact, someone just noted this connection in a negative review of my work and I had to agree with him. I started to make episodic videos after seeing pre-YouTube videos on, which had several serial video shows made by artists in Milwaukee, as well as the flash animations on the Paperrad website. I was never a big fan of Alex Bag and had only seen one of her videos, but recently saw some at a screening at Electronic Arts Intermix and was totally captivated and in stitches the entire time.

I don’t feel connected to (not yet, at least) many aspects of film — the art of projection, the material quality of film, some of its history. I will probably always stick to video. I’m even reluctant to start using the new, more filmic aspect ratio for video and TV (my preference for the 4×3 ratio probably also has a nostalgic impulse). But in the past year I have become acquainted with parts of the experimental film community. I wouldn’t say video art is replacing it, but experimental film certainly has to contend with it.

AW: You show your videos at film festivals as well as at art spaces. What feels different to you about those two settings?

SM: A seated, captive audience makes it easier to draw people into a narrative over a length of time. At several screenings and festivals I’ve been able to present three to five videos from my “Whispering Pines” series — around 40 minutes worth — and then appear on stage in front of a projection and perform live, in character, for 15 minutes. This, for me, has been a surprisingly effective format. The question and answer period following most of the screenings is another aspect that rarely happens in art venues. The first time I was asked to give a Q&A I almost refused. I had just performed and had poured Pepto Bismol all over myself; I was nervous about breaking that fourth wall and being put on the spot. But I went through with it and got useful feedback and found I was able to dispel some misconceptions of the work. I now enjoy that exchange.

Galleries are better for accessing the tactile or immersive qualities of my work-installations with props or specific carpeting or seating can enhance the experience of the videos, and although I’ve mostly made single channel pieces I’ve started making multi-channel installations and projecting onto objects. Right now I’m working on video installations for a show at the Migros Museum in August and Art in General this fall. Another reason I started to make video and performance is because I often want to go and physically interact with installation and sculpture, or see someone interacting with it.

AW: Do you enjoy the culture of film festivals? It’s a different world than gallery culture.

SM: Since I’ve been attending film festivals in the past year, I’ve discovered work by people like Stephanie Barber, Michael Robinson and Ben Russell. They all have been involved in both experimental film and art venues and make both videos and films among other things. I first encountered their work in the experimental film world and it surprises me that I don’t often hear people refer to their work in art circles. Or why people I’ve met in the experimental film world aren’t aware of an artist like Keren Cytter, and why her work doesn’t show at film festivals as much as is does in galleries and museums (although that maybe different outside of the US). Or why they aren’t as aware of video artists like Michael Smith or Alex Bag. Maybe its pointless to try and figure out these divisions; one can’t do everything and there is more and more overlap between them, anyway. But much of it is new to me and I know that I would really be missing out if I’d never seen works by all of the above. I was encouraged to see works by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger in art school.

I attend the Light Industry screenings that Thomas Beard and Ed Halter put on in Sunset Park as often as possible-it’s been a good way for me to learn more about historical and contemporary experimental film. They also program video art and other new medias and are trying to bring these worlds together.

AW: You’re including performance more and more with your work-how linked is that with the videos you make? Does one require the other?

SM: I don’t think one requires the other. That said, my ideal format is to show several videos from “Whispering Pines,” and then appear live as the main protagonist in front of a video made specifically for the performance, and interacting with that projection. Thus far all of my videos have been performance based. Not all of the performances include video projections but in the past five years most have.

AW: Your work has a character-driven narrative, I would say. Is narrative important to you? Have you ever thought of doing something long-form – say, a digitally filmed, feature-length video?

SM: I am open to someday creating a feature-length film. I’m not dead-set on doing so though, one reason being that until now the only actor I’ve really worked with — except for a small handful of others including my Mom — is myself. Unless I become comfortable with other actors or characters, I will keep it short. However, I am working on an evening-long performance that will debut at the Kitchen; it will include other actors, at least in video form.