INTERVIEW BY LORETA LAMARGESE
VISUALS COURTESY OF MERCER UNION
I first became familiar with Bridget Moser’s performance art when I turned a corner at the AGO in 2013, entered a Group of Seven Gallery, and unexpectedly heard the instrumentals to Eminem and Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre.” I found Bridget, dressed in a floral suit, at one instance selling us on a cooperate retreat over the minimal beat, and then grumbling about her new “implant,” a silver air duct she held to her chest. I was immediately enthralled. The artist’s performance refused fixity, moving frenetically between different vignettes and voices on stage, all the while straddling the divide between comedy and art. I got in touch with Bridget to discuss her performances and recent foray into video. Like her performances, Bridget’s insight into her own practice is at once pointed and off-centre, revealing how both the minutiae of former day jobs and the immense weight of art history are at play in her work.
Feminist performance art uses the body as its medium to underscore the presence of the artist. In your practice, your body is foiled against everyday objects—a fold out table, squeaky hot dog toys, a toilet seat with a printed ocean scene. The incorporation of objects in performance harkens back to prop comedy. What do you think is gained in the blending of these performative modes?
Maybe it doesn’t include performance per se, but I think the weirdo three-way relationship between everyday objects, art, and comedy extends all the way back to Duchamp and it’s some of those core ideas that have been equally appealing to prop comedians and performance artists along the way. For me, it’s probably mostly about how to deal with being alive. A few years ago I had a job that involved being constantly surrounded by mountains of inanimate objects that the company I worked for sold and, I don’t know, something about being surrounded by that for a prolonged period of time and having to take it very seriously only made the inherent absurdity of everyday objects more apparent.
So, one way that we realize the potential of these everyday things is through presenting them in an art context, against this historical background?
One way of trying to deal with that is to see those objects for how funny they are and to recognize how it’s possible to kind of unfasten them from their usual purpose by interacting with them differently. I could talk about the objects I work with for a long time because I think many of them are perfectly balanced between a kind of magic and stupidity and there’s so much good ground in between those two places to work with. At the same time, I need my body to activate those objects, sometimes to use them or to mimic them or to arrange them. I suppose that my interest might also lie in the ground that exists somewhere in between performance art and prop comedy. There are a lot of grounds to cover.
The inflection of comedy in your practice seems like a move away from the dry, heavy performance art legacy of 1970’s feminist practitioners. I’m thinking particularly of Marina Abramovic’s canonical performances that forced her body to exhaustion. What is gained by using humor as a tool in body art?
I think it’s probably true that most popular assumptions about performance art (and about women who create performance art, in particular) are based in the kind of model you’re describing. I mean Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneemann were staking out this hugely important territory that directly implicated women’s bodies and in some ways required a pretty heavy approach (like, if you want to smash the system, you would do well to use something heavy). But I think people are probably less familiar with a concurrent group of performers that included women like Julia Heyward, Laurie Anderson and Yvonne Rainer, whose work was at times entertaining and funny but equally thoughtful and powerful. And I’m thinking as well about Michael Smith and Mike Kelley who were working at the same time and overtly using humour or comedy structures in their performance work, and I guess what I think is gained in all of those different approaches is a kind of entry point into more difficult conceptual concerns or content. It’s also probably just a big part of the way my mind works where things that are funny create a whole new system of logic and that’s kind of where my brain tends to go on its own. It helps that jokes are usually destabilizing and kind of unhinge meaning from its regular place, which is what I’m interested in doing with objects and performance modes. Just untether everything and see where else it can go.
Watching one of your performances reminds me of switching through channels on television. We’re presented with a multitude of voices that are ultimately filtered through your own voice and body as a source. The role of the audience is to pay attention and keep up with this disjointed medley. What’s your aim in pressing your audience to participate? Is there something at stake in switching from one addresser to many, scattered addressers?
It might come down to the way I like to be treated as a spectator or reader or listener sometimes, which is to be left somewhat in the dark and to be given a lot of different parts without a precise, dominant meaning. I think that brains are pretty adept at generating meaning through association and so by virtue of being presented with two very disparate fragments side by side, most people in an audience will contrast and compare them without even thinking about doing it just because that’s the way we tend to make sense of things. The conclusions they might draw could be totally different, but I want for there to be room for that. One time after a short performance someone came to talk to me because it made them cry, and two minutes later someone else pulled me aside to explain that it really spoke to them about STI paranoia. To be clear, neither of them misread anything.
In saying that no reaction is a misreading, do you mean that your performance style leaves room for different interpretations or do you attempt to solicit certain responses?
Nothing in the performances or videos is random for the sake of seeming funny or weird. Everything is scripted really tightly because the system of associations I’m working with has to make sense to me (I generally require a pretty high level of control… in my life). So switching between these multiple states is about very intentional choices that work together to create a complex whole and for me there is a specific purpose and conceptual framework, but if that was the beginning and end of it there’d be no point in showing it to an audience. And they might not pick up on every reference or citation, but I’m hoping there are enough layers that they always have something to go on.
The television analogy seemed especially poignant to me because of the reoccurring “character” of a sales person that finds her way into your work—one we are likely to come across on HSN. We’re often sold the banal objects you toy with in a seductive manner. What is your attraction to this trope? Why does the “sales pitch” figure such a prominent role in your work?
There are probably a lot of contributors to this! In my professional life I have the pleasure of doing my dream job, which is ghost writer for a plastic surgeon. I spend a lot of my time writing in this voice that is meant to I guess seductively talk about elective aesthetic surgery, but it’s definitely a voice generated by a marketing department. Before this job when I was living in Montreal I worked for a cookware wholesaler for 3 years and part of that job involved writing copy about the pans for magazines (“romancing the pans” in my opinion). So it’s attractive to me because I have a lot of experience with it and it’s a convention that a lot of people are familiar with, and because of that it also becomes something I feel like I can mess around with pretty easily. I got sent to this massive housewares trade show in Chicago one year and spent about two hours at the Pantone booth just because it was thrilling to me, this concept of “the new colours.” How do you sell something like colours? With really fucking wonderful language, it turns out. And improvising with that kind of language is extremely satisfying to me, maybe because it feels simultaneously completely stupid and very clever.
You’ve also produced video works recently, such as I Want to Believe (2014) shown at Mercer Union in Toronto. How does the mediation of video versus live performance change the way we understand your work?
It’s a bit tricky for me to be able to say very decisively because most of the video work I have produced over the past 2 years has been a kind of experimentation that I’m still figuring out, and I guess maybe that’s one thing that it allows more than performance. When I do a performance, I need a lot of different sound cues that require different levels of precision: sometimes they match an action explicitly, sometimes they slowly fade in from silence unrelated to the ongoing action. There’s not a lot of room for improvisation (or mistakes) within the final performance. What’s nice about video is that performance becomes part of the brainstorming/researching/cataloguing/editing process. The work has to continue after the performative part and so all the pieces go into this kind of database I pull from. Then I can write new text, add voiceovers, recontextualize actions, test out different sound treatments and sequential arrangements and basically keep playing with it until it develops in the way that I want.
The props used in your performances and videos are often aestheticized through your handling of them, in the same way that your body is aestheticized by your dance background. In All Handles Different (2014), you address this by remarking on the aesthetic qualities your props: “form, colour composition—aesthetic value.” Can you comment on the kind of formalism at play in your work?
When I was at a residency at The Banff Centre in 2012 with Michael Portnoy and Ieva Misevičiūtė, I remember having a studio visit with Ieva where we had a really good conversation about how, as a performer, the choices you make with objects will project a level of intentionality that can be a really useful or at least malleable tool. Maybe a part of doing work that overlaps with comedy is that there are people who are immediately ready to write it off as not taking itself very seriously. When you’re working with objects, you’re engaging with an aesthetic system, and if you work with that formalism and develop it in some way, you kind of confuse this idea of “comedy.” Like if you choose very specific groups of objects for their colour, texture, and size, and position them and work with them in ways that make conscious formal decisions, you’re not just making jokes, you’re working at a bigger and more complex system.
It becomes clear that you’re aware of what you’re doing beyond the expectations of just doing something funny. And I think some things are just so visually satisfying they can’t be denied. A toilet seat is a near-perfect pre-Renaissance halo. How can you work with a toilet seat and not want to use that? I mean many of the choices are more abstract than that. Sometimes it just starts with, “Oh shit, I think my hair would look good draped immediately beside this towel on this overturned folding table” and then you kind of work out “what that’s all about” and what that impulse means.
Music also figures an important role in your work. Do you think the musical selection in your performances prompts an audience involvement? They are, after all, often songs that are familiar because of their Top 40 status.
I actually feel pretty ambivalent about it! Sometimes it feels bad because it seems like it might just be an easy joke, so I generally have to feel like there is more than just a joke at work. What’s good about it is that you can assume an audience will bring a lot of their own associations to music that is massively popular and you can play off of some of those associations or expectations. But it’s still been the case that not everyone will recognize every song (especially in other countries), so the content of that song has to bring something on its own. Sometimes I will edit the music to focus only on the important lyrics or sounds, but I’m not sure if anyone notices.
I immediately felt cued in and personally addressed when I heard a sample of Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” in “All Handles Different” (2014).
I was looking for the karaoke version of Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” because I really like the instrumental, but then I found a version that had vocals that only shouted the word “YOU” repeatedly and then it was just a case of, well that’s a perfect song now and I must have it. A song that just shouts “YOU!” at you to a really catchy instrumental track for 3 minutes is a perfect song whether you know the original or not. I also think some songs become massively popular for a reason, and sometimes it’s a level of affect where intensely emotional songs bring people to a particular place. It sounds extremely manipulative, but I’m also interested in how that works with audience experience. I know that laughing isn’t the only possible point of entry for an audience that doesn’t typically like performance art. For some people it’s crying. Maybe in both cases, I just hope people might feel less alone.
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