Shana Moulton, I’m Sorry (and other important things)

Marc Chagall

‎”I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment.” – Marc Chagall

Shortly after I published “The Economics of Ephemerality” I got a thoughtful and polite, if strongly worded FB message from Shana Moulton. She rightly took me to task for miscontextualizing her work and, bluntly, being a dick. And she’s right. SHANA MOULTON, I’M SORRY! Shana wrote a bunch of stuff about the financial challenges she – and most artists I know – face, which I’m not going to share here. But what really hit me where it counts was when she described her practice which is at once very different from theater or dance based practice, but equally intentional and rigorous:

The other reason I don’t work with all of these performance experts is because I prefer to work by myself–I prefer the artist-alone-in-their-studio/Susan Cain–introvert mode of working and my set of references is largely with artists who’ve also worked that way: Eleanor Antin, Pipilotti Rist, Miranda July, Alix Pearlstein, Mike Smith, Joan Jonas, Cindy Sherman, and I came of age as an artist during the west coast DIY 90s and the outsider-artist fad of the early aughts. I do everything on my own, including camera, editing, acting, costumes, props, etc, and I plan to keep it that way because I’m interested in finding out what is possible on one’s own and I enjoy working this way. I don’t make music so I was happy to join Nick in this collaboration but I’m not interested in working with a large group of people or in trying to measure up to the skills or craft of people trained in dance or performance.

Her email was a splash of cold water in the face for a bunch of reasons including:

1. I’m 100% Pro-Artist

At the end of the day I don’t really care what medium someone works in. I am now and have always been 100% pro-artist. I have been working in the arts for more than 20 years in various capacities and have always tried to make sure artists are paid. I believe in artists and creativity in general and when I set out to write these critiques it has never been my intention to slag an artist. Pretty much all artists, in all disciplines, except for a very, very few, work very hard for no money, often losing money to show their work as an “investment” in their “career”. This condition is too much to go into here, but no doubt there is a big conversation to be had about work, value, cultural production, “professional vs. amateur” and outdated, wrongheaded romantic ideas of the starving artist. My criticism is for the institutions and the frameworks that privilege some work over others, that assign value without interrogating their assumptions. Someone named Justin Hoover left an obnoxious comment on one of my essays saying, “Bad taste is real taste and good taste is the consequence of other peoples’; privilege. Fuck your ideas of good or bad.” While I fundamentally disagree with his thoughts on taste and the implication of total relativism that defies calling something “good” or “bad” (only in SF could someone embrace such a fantastically naive and simplistic idea with such unquestioning conviction). But I don’t disagree that privilege plays a role in valuation and who becomes an arbiter of value in our society. But rejecting all legitimate cultural critique on those grounds is, frankly, the worst kind of foolishness. Which leads me to Point #2.

2. DIY, Punk Rock and Technical Amateurishness

Like Shana, I’m a child of the 90’s. Well, I’m a little older, so technically I guess mid-80’s to early 90’s. I grew up when you had to actually go to a record store to find new music, when you sent SASE’s across the country to get ‘zines and mixed tapes. I was a bored suburban teenager reading Flipside and buried somewhere in the boxes of old crap in my parents’ basement you will find have the first issue of Spin Magazine I bought in 1985, the one with Annie Lennox on the cover, where I first learned about the Meat Puppets. One of my favorite books growing up was the 1980 edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll edited by Jim Miller. It was my bible for discovering music and I think it was Greil Marcus who wrote there of the Velvet Underground, “[They] proved that technical amateurishness and deliberate simplicity were no barrier to artistic communication; art rock could never again be equated with complexity, no matter what British progressive-rock bands enamored of the studio might think.” So it’s not that I don’t respect and appreciate technical amateurishness, I do. For me it is about two  intertwined elements: context and frame.

I studied theater in college and was always interested in experimental, unconventional work – that’s a long story for another time. But when I graduated in 1990 I moved to Seattle and quickly became completely disenchanted with theater in a box that people have to pay tickets to sit and watch. Politically activated by Gulf War I and the anarchist and leftist punks I met while sleeping at the protest encampment at Seattle’s  Federal Building, I got more involved in other kinds of performance. I ended up doing a lot of politically and socially conscious spoken word, opening for bands and touring around to poetry and spoken word venues on both coasts. Consistent with my political beliefs I rejected virtuosity as an expression of privilege, as exclusionary of marginalized voices and I held on to that for years.

I moved to NYC in October of 1995 and it wasn’t until 2004 or so, after I had worked at Performance Space 122 for a few years, that I really started to open up to virtuosity and complexity again. Frankly, I had grown disenchanted with amateurishness as an aesthetic. Political performance started to seem simplistic and pat while amateurishness in art-making, much like “alternative” or DIY in the wider culture – seemed to have become a fashion statement or marketing tactic more than an authentic political choice or artistic proposition. As I reacquainted myself with my training in traditional theater, I married that to my love of the experimental and avant-garde and began to delve more deeply into what has come to be called Contemporary Performance. I started to pull together all the knowledge I had acquired in various disciplines and through my peripatetic creative wanderings, trying to make the aesthetic and intellectual connections that I suppose other people do in graduate school. As I mentioned in an earlier essay, I saw lots of performance in all kinds of places and as I saw more work, the more I craved dramaturgical rigor, formal experimentation, innovation, craft and virtuosity. I knew what things looked like when people were unskilled, I became more interested in what artists could accomplish through the application of skill and practice. The further I moved into skilled performance, the less patience I had for the  unskilled, depending on where I was seeing the work, depending on context.

3. Context, or All Performance Is Site-Specific

All work is site-specific, whether in a theater, a gallery or the street. Each site comes with its own set of conditions, expectations and valences. For me, for instance, The Kitchen is a place that I associate with sophisticated, skilled performance. Even the deliberately sloppy Radiohole require an enormous amount of skill and craft to create their work. The last time I remember seeing DIY-style work at The Kitchen was when Wynne Greenwood was doing her Tracy and the Plastics project back in 2005 (2004?) and it was so clearly demarcated as an aesthetic choice. So I think when I came to see Shana’s performance at The Kitchen it was situated for me next to Sarah Michelson, Dean Moss, Radiohole, Richard Maxwell and all the other highly skilled artists coming from a performance background. Its not an excuse – as an audience member I have to try and meet the work where its coming from – but after Shana explained where she was coming from it made me realize how many preconceptions I was bringing. And I have to to admit, if I see something from a self-identified choreographer or theater maker that doesn’t look anything like dance or theater, I’m much more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt .

Anyway – the point is that as I listen more and more to visual art people speak about performance work, as I hear curators like Sabine Breitwieser talk about the work, I realize that I need to try harder to contextualize the work and see it for what it is, not what I think it should be. At the same time, echoing what Shannon Jackson discussed at the recent MoMA event “How Are We Performing Today“, it would be really amazing if a two-way dialogue existed, if visual artists and curators would at least try to understand what performing artists do, what conditions exist in the creation and production of dance, theater and live art, what the aesthetic considerations are and what it means to create in the body, in space and time, in “ephemerality” (which is a myth). It would be incredible if the visual art world would at least make a gesture at acknowledging value in the skill and craft and virtuosity of dance and theater makers. If they are really concerned about “experience” and “ephemerality” then they have to be willing to depart at least momentarily from their object-based values system and aesthetics predicated on materiality.

I hope to write more about this moving forward, about what I think are important texts for the education of dance and theater makers and what it means to create time-based art. I’m still hoping to create a “performance for visual artists” workshop where great contemporary theater and dance practitioners can share their practice with visual artists. A pipe dream, I know, but it would be so amazing.

4. The Appearance of Things As They Are vs. How We Would Wish Them To Be Seen

As I read and re-read Shana’s FB email I realized that not only had I unwittingly grown away from my more open-minded earlier self, I also saw in her my frustration at how my own work is misunderstood and mis-contextualized.

After running for mayor as a performance project in 2005 and performing as a Demon Tour Guide in Les Freres Corbusier’s Hell House at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2006, I quit making my own work. At first I wasn’t sure what that meant, to give up a familiar creative practice as a writer and performance artist. But through my work at P.S.122 I realized that helping other people make their artistic visions come to life was a creative endeavor too. And as I started being more intentional in my curating I realized that it was a creative practice: designing events, seasons, arcs of investigation and ideas. And the harder I worked on Culturebot the more it became evident that it was a creative practice too. Now I find myself in an exciting, strange and new place, one that a lot of people don’t or can’t see – that curating and criticism are creative practices and for me, they combine to function as my art form.

On December 1, 2012 Culturebot.org will be 9 years old. I look back at the very first post and I’m amazed at how well we’ve cleaved to our original vision and how far we’ve come. I’ve been doing this for nine years without any funding or any support – for free, out of passion, pursuing a vision that is only now coming into focus in the eyes of other people. Some people come here and see a blog, some people a web magazine or some such thing. To me Culturebot is and always has been an experiment, a web-based collaborative performance, an ever-evolving exploration of criticism as creative practice, a laboratory for creating a web-native style of writing, thinking and being in an ecology of arts, culture and ideas. This is an art project, a socially engaged work for building dialogue and community, for knowledge and resource sharing; it is a living historical record, however unstable, building a shared narrative where before there was none.

Shana Moulton, I’m sorry. And I’m grateful, too. You reminded me of what it means to be an artist and encouraged me to rediscover the artistry in what I do.

One thought on “Shana Moulton, I’m Sorry (and other important things)”

  1. Rachel Mason says:

    I know this probably goes without saying- but somehow I don't see a mention of music performance as also being of vital importance- and the way in which visual artists/ performance artists engage with music as "professionals" "amateurs" or "professional amateurs." ( re: if visual artists and curators would at least try to understand what performing artists do, what conditions exist in the creation and production of dance, theater and live art) – and indeed- this is a wonderful concept : “performance for visual artists” workshop.

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