Shana Moulton: Cynthia, Suspiria & Psychedelics (Primary, 2015)

Shana Moulton at Primary (2020) Photo credit James E Smith

Shana Moulton grew up in Oakhurst, California, in a mobile home on the edge of Yosemite National Park, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Since 2002 she has been making hallucinatory films, performances, installations and sculpture, often centred on an alter-ego named Cynthia, an idiosyncratic everywoman on a quest for enlightenment through consumer products, New Age spirituality and prescription medicines. This is the full transcript of a conversation that took place immediately after the second of two performances, presented about a month apart, during her residency in the Multiple Points In This Crude Landscape series at Primary, Nottingham. All photographs are from these two performances at Primary and are the work of James E Smith. A substantially  edited version of this interview appeared on The Double Negative in early 2015.

The first thing I’m curious about is the relationship between Shana Moulton and Cynthia in the work, how that alter ego seems important in some way in making certain things possible…do you find her liberating, a way of doing things you couldn’t or wouldn’t do as yourself?

Absolutely, she’s a way to have some distance. I mean, even though I think in some ways Cynthia is really just me wearing a wig – it’s not like she’s someone who has separate biographical details to me, as some alter egos are – she is also a way to execute these ideas that for whatever reason I can’t do as myself, in my own persona. Every time I have a new idea, I seem to need Cynthia to realise it.

So she’s a kind of a catalyst?

Yeah, she’s also a sort of medium separating me from the audience. And because she’s always there, experiencing the things I’ve made, I think I also need her there to show the audience how they should respond. Instead of just showing some psychedelic imagery, I’m also showing someone else watching that imagery and getting into it various ways, so the audience is invited to see and experience the work as Cynthia sees and experiences it. She always mediates the work in some important way I can’t or maybe don’t really want to define.

There’s also that question of whether the materials you use – especially the New Age, medical and consumer materials – are things you’re really interested in and love yourself, or things you’re presenting some kind of critique of. I guess using Cynthia as your intermediary deflects the assumption we might otherwise make that the work represents a position of your own?

Yes, I do like that idea. I definitely hate having to take positions!

I suppose if you were present in the work as Shana Moulton instead of Cynthia we’d expect some position representing your own to be visible. But Cynthia allows you to evade that because she’s the one who is fully immersed in things and that allows you to give nothing away.

I hadn’t thought of it quite like that but yeah, that’s quite keen, because I feel very on-the-line about that whole question. I’m very sceptical about this stuff but I’m also fascinated by it and completely open to it – and the core of what I want to communicate is that you can be both sceptical and a sort-of believer in these things, you don’t always have to put yourself on one side of that line or the other. So, yes, maybe I do need Cynthia to find my way to the position I need to arrive at when I present the work to audiences.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2015) Photo credit James E Smith

The performance at Primary tonight felt like there was a kind of Medieval or Renaissance type of narrative to it, the sort of thing you’d expect to see on an altar-piece about the journey of the spirit from the earthy and mundane realms to the heavens…but it’s all done through consumer products, as if you’re exploring the idea of consumerism as a spiritual quest of its own.

I think that for me, it really is – it’s all I’ve ever known. It’s what I grew up with. Growing up, some of the most exciting experiences were things like going to after-Christmas sales with my mother and aunt, where there’d be these amazing objects on sale. That was the elational experience, to find those objects. So I do feel like that consumer experience is the ultimate, in some ways, and I’m trying to connect that experience of consumerism I had growing up with the things I’ve learned since about various spiritualities and religious practices. That’s my main aim.

I noticed at the beginning of this new performance, where the hands in the video are presenting the decorative balls and the wooden spiral ‘end-piece’ ornament to the audience, that it’s done in a way that seems suggestive of both the QVC shopping channel and a sacred rite.

Yeah, but you know, just look at those balls! They are amazing – exactly the kinds of things my mom or aunt would use to decorate their homes, but also just exactly what they are, these woven and textured balls that really seem to have something ritualistic about them. So even though they are just cheap dollar store décor items, their character is very strong. It does feel like they might have some sort of history in pagan lore or tradition somewhere.

The way you use these kinds of objects seems – from a UK perspective – to have some kind of class dimension to it. I don’t know the precise nuances of the US class system but I’ve always imagined that the kind of California trailer park you’ve used as the setting for ‘Whispering Pines’ equates roughly to something like a UK council estate in class terms. Are the kinds of people who would decorate their homes with these kinds of objects seen as coming from the lower or poorer end of the US class spectrum?

Yes, though it’s different in California, where class seems more fluid than on the East Coast – it’s like boom and bust, one minute you might be very rich, living in a big house, the next very poor, living in a trailer park, so class is very fluid in California. As I’ve moved East I’ve noticed it gets much more rigid, the class hierarchies become much more fixed. But I’m not sure what class I’m from myself, to be honest, because of that fluidity. I know I’m not from a really high or really low class, but where exactly I am from on that scale is hard to fix. But in general, because it was a senior mobile home park that I grew up in, as a child I strongly remember the things the people there decorated their homes with feeling very altar-like to me, with even the cheapest plastic items having that kind of aura around them.

It makes me think of the way my grandmother would collect what were often very cheap ornaments, but they were always charged with sentimental value and the way they were displayed and treated was no different to how a rich collector might display antiques and museum types of art-work. So these objects already seem to have the same function as high art objects, just in a different context and setting to the one that’s usually acknowledged.

Yeah, and those things for me are like high art. They’re often much more interesting than a lot of the art you’ll see in museums.

I can imagine that wooden spiral ‘end-piece’ – which probably came from a chain store – cast in bronze and blown up in size. It could basically be a study for some two million-dollar sculpture outside a corporate headquarters or something.

That piece is amazing, right? I love that spiral ‘end piece’ thing. We have a store in the US called Ross, which is kind of like the TK Maxx you have here, and I found this similar spiral piece which had brown mosaic there, and got it for my mom. And, yeah, I’m kind of like in awe of this thing, it’s so gorgeous. And for me a lot of those store bought things are more interesting than the things I see in a lot of Contemporary Art galleries.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2019) Photo credit James E Smith

You’ve also been drawn a lot to the sculptural forms of various kinds of medical equipment – things like neck braces and supports…they were used in this performance to define the body of the dancer in one of the projected sequences you were performing with.

Yeah, and then there’s the arm-chair with the lifting mechanism in this piece, too, which is another medical device. The reason I bought this one here in Nottingham was because my grandmother had one. When she passed away, my parents offered the chair to a good friend of theirs who had lost his leg from cancer. He went to the house to look at it, but when he saw it he said to them: “your grandma, she doesn’t want me to have this chair” and that was that. But it was interesting because it suggested that these kinds of objects become haunted in some way, they take on something of the people who have used them before. So I was really interested in this chair when I found one like it here, and it became the centrepiece for this performance, as you saw. I don’t know if it worked, but that was one of the big reasons for it being there.

It felt like the Cynthia projection was both on and inside the chair at the same time, which did suggest that haunted aspect.

Oh good! I was very excited when I realised the projection and the chair would line up. I’d tried filming myself against the green screen, and it was quite an important, exciting moment in making this performance when I realised that the projection would fit the chair. The chair is definitely the central point around which everything else happens in this piece so it’s good to know it did mostly work.

As you’re lifting the mechanism of the chair, the projection moves with it, then seems to rise out of the chair, as if the spirit’s being exorcised or freed from the object.

Yeah, Cynthia lifts off like she’s going up from a rocket launcher…

Shana Moulton at Primary (2018) Photo credit James E Smith

But it does seem that the narratives in this performance were built around those objects, things like the spiral ‘end piece’ and the chair, and the work was interested in changing the way we looked at those things in some way.

I guess that’s basically also going back to that elational experience of shopping I talked about. Half my time in Nottingham I seem to have spent shopping, looking for things to respond to in some way, and when I found that medical chair in the British Heart Foundation shop in town I knew it would be the centrepiece of the new work I was making.

Also, in there with these objects are things like your clothes, which also perform as animated projections in this piece. The skirt you were wearing – and still have on – looks a lot like a Magic Eye pattern…

It’s not, I mean, I wish it was a Magic Eye, but it’s just a kind of blue marbled pattern, and I found it here in Nottingham, along with this grey marbled shirt. The pattern has a glitchy quality to it that I liked. But there is an important thing in this performance about the body, and the processes of becoming embodied and disembodied, so that was always supposed to be there in the clothes, and there in the surgical braces and a lot of other things too. Making this piece has basically been about exploring the effects I could create with a green screen body-suit, so it’s been exciting to inhabit all these things and have them come alive.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2022) Photo credit James E Smith

One thing I’m sensing from this is that the objects come before the work – that the work is a response to the objects you find, rather than you going out to find things you’ve already scripted into the work. When you made those medicalised clothing sculptures, for example, did they come before or after the performances that included them?

They’ve always come before. That’s because the impetus behind those costumes was simply wanting to see what those medical devices looked like attached to clothing and covered in the same fabrics you’d use for a dress, in a sculptural way. It was mainly a tactile thing I was interested in with those pieces at the start.

So if it’s the case that the performances respond to and grow out of the objects you find, that explains why shopping might be such a crucial part of your working process. You collect the things then work out some response to them. You don’t set out to say something specific before you begin?

Absolutely. I start by gathering things together and lining them all up beforehand because I never know what I’m doing until I’ve lined up those things, made some video, and gone through testing out my own responses to all the different elements I’ve collected. It’s usually fairly late in that process when it all comes together and I finally know what the work is going to be.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2023) Photo credit James E Smith

Another thing I found fascinating that might relate to this is the technical side, because it all looks very makeshift on one level but is also incredibly precise. I’m guessing there’s not much detailed or heavily technical programming going on and it’s more a case of setting up the projections and then you having to keep your own performance aligned with them? There’s a moment in this performance where you’re dancing, and your dance moves could seem slightly shonky, viewed on their own, but then they’re so precisely matched with the projections behind you that they’re clearly not shonky at all.

Yeah, it’s nice to be able to do that, because when you’re physically not a very good dancer, like me, or even a very strong person in general, like me, then just by lining things up in the right way I can maybe still create some magic from this very imperfect body.

Which also works thematically, because the projected body you’re dancing with at that point is made up of surgical appliances – things that were designed to perfect or change the body in various ways.

Yeah, I worry that I’m predicting my own future by using all these medical devices. I’m sure I’ll probably need ’em all at some point.

Have you ever had to use any of these devices for their real purpose, or only in performance?

Not so much. I mean, the only thing I’ve had problems with so far is carpal tunnel, so being upright computer-wise has become a problem for me and I’ve had to wear wrist braces for that. But I feel that having had carpal tunnel, that need to focus on posture and uprightness has informed the work in a way. It’s that constant struggle against gravity to stay upright and not fall or lose balance. So, yeah, I guess it’s already happening! I also did have scoliosis. When you’re a child there’s a test they do to see if you have scoliosis and I refused to do it because I didn’t want to take my clothes off. Then much later, when I had carpal tunnel, they saw I did also have minor scoliosis, so there’s that too.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2026) Photo credit James E Smith

Regarding the Primary residency more widely, have you found it fitted in with or diverged from your usual ways of working?

For me it was difficult, because with the job I have in Germany there was so much coming and going back and forth between here and there – and there was a proposal in the beginning that I was going to buy all this fabric and make this giant fabric structure, but that didn’t really happen. I realised that the space I was working in is unique, and when I saw how projection was working in there, quite late in the process, I thought ‘this is a once in a lifetime thing, and I should utilise how this projection works’. Before I got here I’d also read the interview with one of the previous resident artists at Primary, Edwin Burdis, about how the space reminded him of ‘Suspiria’ – so I had that in the back of my mind, too, even before I got here, that this place was like something out of ‘Suspiria’, it was a former dance school with the dance mirrors still installed where I was working. And because ‘Suspiria‘ is one of my favourite films, this final performance was my chance to bring all that into the work. I don’t know if you noticed it, but the ceiling projection is exactly the same stained glass ceiling window that is shattered when one of the girls killed in ‘Suspiria’ falls through it in the film.

But in your piece the window shatters as Cynthia rises towards it.

Yeah, because it was supposed to be a kind of reverse ‘Suspiria’, so in the film, the girl is killed by falling or being pulled down through the window, but in my piece I rise up through it. It ended up with the symbolism actually feeling kind of Christian, which I hadn’t really anticipated. It felt like an Ascension or something, like a church ceiling with painted heavens and a body rising towards them. But I had intended the reference to be much more about that reversal of ‘Suspiria’ and about an obvious reference to Dario Argento’s horror film rather than anything Christian.

I suppose that Christian iconography is sort of already there in ‘Suspiria’ anyway, given that it was a film made by an Italian raised as a Catholic.

Absolutely, and when the girl falls through the stained glass in that film, I mean – I really don’t usually like horror films, at all – but that movie is so beautifully shot and designed that I wanted to try and approximate something of what was going on in that sequence.

There’s also the operatic aspect in both ‘Suspiria’ and the work you showed tonight, with music and sound as an integral element in both. I’m not sure I recognised the music’s sources, so I don’t know if the music you selected had any particular significance for the meanings in the piece?

Well, there was a remix of Enya in there, and the final song is something made by a friend of a friend, so if I wanted to use it again I’d have to ask permission – until I’ve done that I’d rather not say exactly what it was. But it is the song I always listen to when I’m on an airplane as it starts to take off and ascend into the sky, so it does have that link to the part where Cynthia is rising up towards the ceiling. But what I mainly love in that song is that there’s a real shift that happens, where it starts off kind of drone-y, but then switches to being really uplifting, and the first time I heard it, it just blew me away. I probably won’t use this song ever again, to be honest, but for this piece it was perfect and just had to be there. Listening to that song while taking off in an airplane is also great.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2016) Photo credit James E Smith

I guess there’s an interesting link there to that sense of consumer versions of spiritual experience you described earlier. The aircraft rising, especially that moment when it breaks above the clouds, always has this ‘arriving in a kitsch Hollywood idea of Heaven’ feel about it.

Yeah, it’s incredible. And it’s for real. It’s unbelievable that we can do this. I’ve been travelling on planes a lot lately and I really have to try hard not to start getting blasé about it, you know? There’s this great Louis CK routine where he talks about people on planes who are always complaining about flying and he’s like: “Come ON, you’re in a fucking chair, IN THE SKY”. How can you ever just take that for granted?

Perhaps that relates to other kinds of things, too. I can only try to imagine what my great-great-grandparents would have made of it if a blue plastic moulded foot-spa suddenly landed on their table. It would seem alien, like something out of the most incredible science-fiction. But it’s also created to be disposable and its existence is helping to destroy our ability to live on the planet.

Yeah, I’m kind of asking that question, too, but without ever trying to answer it or take any fixed position on it. I definitely don’t want to be answering anything!

Shana Moulton at Primary (2024) Photo credit James E Smith

That refusal to reveal your own position, which you’ve said is ambivalent anyway, might mean the Magic Eye-style patterns that seem to appear in your work quite often can be read as a kind of metaphor. We look at art like this and try to find the meaning in it in something like the same way we might look for the image in those Magic Eye patterns. Though I’d also have to admit I never could see Magic Eye images myself, for some reason, despite trying to when they were doing the rounds.

Really, you never got one? I’m so sorry for you! The first time I finally ‘saw’ one was incredibly striking, though it was also when I was still a teenager and everything was kind of exciting then anyway. It was also around the same time I first tried acid and it felt like a similar thing, to see this three dimensional image in a flat piece of ordinary paper, like a hallucination. It was really amazing.

You do use a lot of psychedelic imagery. Is the history of that psychedelic aesthetic something you’re particularly interested in? Your own work’s use of it often seems to hover between traditional cosmic and spiritual aspects of that aesthetic, but also the way that during the nineties, after the rave thing, so much mainstream advertising and commercial TV started using it too: endless depictions of head-rushes and visions when you drink a can of Coke or drive a particular brand of car. Things that you’d only previously have seen in underground and counter-cultural films…

Yeah, it’s something I’m more or less interested in. I came of age in the nineties and I saw all of that culture get subsumed into the mainstream, which was really depressing when it started but at a certain point also became very interesting. But for me some of the most inspiring or exciting things to read about and look at right now are scientific research studies into how psychedelic drugs can be used with people who are terminally ill, and how these things can really help them deal with the situation of their impending deaths. There’s a documentary called ‘The Spirit Molecule’ which I took some of the sound from in the other performance I showed here a few weeks ago, and that’s a research study on DMT. A friend of mine also took part recently in a psilocybin study at Johns Hopkins University, so those are things I’ve been finding really inspiring in general. They seem to be going back to the research that was stopped after the 1960s – in the States at least, I don’t know about elsewhere – but around the time of the Nixon administration was when it all stopped in the US. But now they’re picking up some of those threads of that earlier research and whenever I read new research in this field it feels kind of life-altering to me, and I would really like to be a part of it. I did try to get onto that Johns Hopkins study but you had to live in Baltimore, so it didn’t happen.

Have you ever worked with scientists or researchers as an artist?

No, but with something like that I would love to. I do have a sort of fear of psychedelics, so I kind of dabbled with them as a teenager, but I was always really on the fence with it all. But now I feel like if I were in a hospital, under proper supervision, where they could bring me out of it if they had to, I could allow myself to go a lot further with it.

I can imagine for some people a hospital setting for something like an LSD trip would be more disturbing than, say, lying on rugs and cushions in a yurt somewhere. But that’s also interesting, because maybe that’s part of the aesthetic of the work you make: it’s often akin to a simulated psychedelic experience in a controlled setting, including some of the trappings of the hospital environment, such as all the surgical appliances and screens you use.

Yeah, maybe… One of the most life affirming experiences I’ve had recently was being in a hospital and seeing how generous and helpful the nurses and doctors were, how much they gave to people. I know hospitals can be awful places, but they can also be really amazing places.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2017) Photo credit James E Smith

I know we talked a bit earlier about a few of the changes that had taken place in the work during this residency, but I wondered if a final thing could be to ask how many phases and different stages has it been through during the 3 months or so you’ve been working here?

There were definitely different sections to the time, so the first month or so I was furiously making work for a show in London, which meant I was mainly sewing, and I’d intended to bring some of that work back here but never got the chance. So there was that sewing section, then there was the first performance section, when I prepared for that, then finally there was the build up to this second performance, which was really the time when I finally got to fully engage with the space I’d been working in here.

The first performance was a kind of compilation or reworking of existing material with some new sections. Was that about a kind of taking stock before you moved into this last phase?

Yeah, there were a couple of new sections I was trying out there for the first time but that performance is a modular one, so I add and subtract bits to and from it every time I perform it. I added some new sections I’d made here, but it was largely built up from stuff I’d made beforehand. This second performance was totally different. It was all new material, made in specific response to this particular space at Primary, so it felt like making this piece was the point in the residency where I finally engaged with the location. But I’m always constantly recycling and building on older work. For the last 14 years it’s been like that.

Do you see the body of work as discrete individual pieces or as a kind of series? In ‘Whispering Pines’, say, you use an episodic form, where all the parts stand alone, but there is also a strong sense it has of being different parts of a single larger work, like a TV serial or something?

It is all part of the same body of work. One way I see it personally is through my hard drives. There is no distinction between anything on those, it’s just a huge web or rhizome of footage that is just so messed up and scrambled together it’s hard to tell where anything starts or ends. When I move around I have to take six different hard drives along with me and all the old work and new work is in there somewhere, but all on a continuum with no real distinctions to be seen between one part and the others. When I’m asked to stage work, I always think a lot about what works for the venue or the audience at a particular time or place, then select from that massive tangle of old and new material according to whatever suits the space and context I’m working in at the time.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2025) Photo credit James E Smith

There was also quite a noticeable arrangement tonight, in that the audience was kept back and separate from the performance space. It felt a bit like the way the congregation is kept from certain areas in a church or temple, where only the clergy or initiates are allowed access.

That was mostly because I’m a control freak and I didn’t want people to obscure or break the projections, so that was the reason for that, rather than anything more symbolic or considered. It’s probably also a big flaw in my development of the piece, because I realise now that I was so focused on how the projections looked in the space that I didn’t think enough about where people could stand during the performances. I was thinking of the space but not the audience in this case.

But it did have this effect of seeming to ‘sanctify’ the space in some way.

I hadn’t thought of it that way but it’s good if it did that, something positive rather than just awkward, even if it was basically accidental. My thinking was definitely all about wanting to get the projections as large as I possibly could and perhaps I wasn’t very generous to my audience when arranging things mainly so they couldn’t get in the way of the projections. Every time someone did walk by that one projector that had been left a little bit exposed, I’d flinch a little. I guess I’m also not used to working with a space like that or with projections on that scale. It was amazing, but I guess that was maybe one of the downsides!

The scale did mean there were so many details in each projection, and so many different projections, that it was still throwing out details I’d not noticed before on a third or fourth repeat viewing. It was only the second time round that I noticed how Cynthia appears in the surgical side screen after vanishing through the ceiling, for example.

Yeah, that’s good. It gave the piece lots of layers. And one thing I was really interested in was layering the projections. Usually I’ll put everything into the same frame using effects, but this time it was good to be able to see how it could work when several projections were layered instead. The projection of Cynthia in the chair, as she rises towards and breaks through the ceiling, is a separate projection from that of the room she rises through. It was interesting to explore the possibilities of layering projections like that because it’s not something I’ve done before. This definitely felt like a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity to test that way of doing things out!

I guess the only other question would be if there’s anything you’d like to add to what we’ve discussed so far? Anything I haven’t asked about that you wanted to be asked about, maybe?

I think I’d really just like to emphasise the ‘Suspiria’ connection. It’s kind of nice that it seems to have connected up these three otherwise very different residencies of mine, Edwin Burdis’s and Jonathan Baldock’s, in this one space and building, like a kind of relay. So, yeah, definitely make sure that gets mentioned somewhere in the final edit.

Shana Moulton at Primary (2021) Photo credit James E Smith

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