Baltimore Scene Report

Shana Moulton
Shana Moulton

The Transmodern Festival is in its sixth year, and has become one of the best arts festivals in the country. Even the Washington Post says so. The four day event focuses on experimental/radical/challenging performance, so even after attending for the last four years (and curating last year), the things that happen are still surprising.

The opening was last night. I always like the Thursday event the best because it’s the calmest and it’s easiest to engage the work (the other events are like awesome art parties with people standing in stairways yelling lectures about Nietzsche while other people dressed as turtles float around on skateboards). This year’s fest kicked off with an invocation by the amazing local musician and filmmaker Jenny Graf. It featured a fanfare, orange costumes, and a fruity pigroast. Outside the venue there was an otherworldy installation of foresty forest things and foresty rope ladders stretching across the many floors of the building, and among all that: forest people.

I watched two mindblowing video artists, Animal Charm (LA) and Shana Moulton (NYC). I sat stupefied as Animal Charm (normally a duo but a mono tonight, as only Rich could make the trip) introduced himself and said he was going to slow things down a bit. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cool shades. I have been looking for a new style and I thought this was a pretty good one, maybe I’ll try it out, is what I was thinking when the projection started. It was a video of several different beach scenes cut one after the other. Animal Charm uses found video and edits it together with only basic cuts (they don’t do after effects or any fancy tricks like what the kids are doing on their Macbooks; they started out by splicing VHS tape and that’s pretty much what they still do). The beach scenes transitioned into footage of Benji, that dog, feeding dolphins and then swimming underwater with dog scuba gear on. Okay, weird. I was trying to figure out what I was looking at. I mean, it was obvious that what I was looking at was seagulls and Benji. But I was troubled by the context. What was the artistic value? Does Animal Charm trade just in irony? Does Animal Charm like this campy stuff, or are they making fun of the stupids that did like it when it came out in the 80s? Is there something sublime that is happening in the juxtapositions? That’s what I was thinking as Benji sailed off in a boat and some puppet waved him away, and then that transitioned into, OMG, a stage show of two dudes singing a kids’ song on a stage — and wearing the same outfit that Animal Charm was wearing! Then Animal Charm sang along too! The timing of the effect was wholly successful in unsettling the typical “I’m watching a movie” experience.

Then, while Animal Charm and the dudes on the video were all singing, a video of a baby being born was superimposed onto the screen. It was gruesome. It was awesome. I had never seen a baby being born before. The vagina opens up so wide! It looks like it would really hurt! I mean, babies are basically huge! They always seem so small like when they’re in their cribs and stuff, but if you put a baby next to a crotch you get an idea of how big they really are. Pussies are kind of small and babies are big. They are also pretty much gray. I think the thing I was the most surprised about is what happens to the arms when babies are born: they come out of the vagina too! The entire human being comes out of the vagina, the baby’s arms crossed over the belly in a protective position. I wondered if all the lesbians at the Transmodern festival would think this part of the video was in poor taste but they seemed to like it. After the baby was born, the video and performance continued for about 25 more minutes with many clever games of apposition and one namecheck of L. Ron Hubbard.

I kept wondering about what I was wondering about about what was happening. Was it a mistake to show Sally Field say, “You like me, right now, you like me”? Was it a mistake later to show Sally Struthers for 1.2 seconds? I mean, that’s not ripping too deep into the cultural psyche, huh? But I liked the Sally Field thing because when that thing happened I didn’t know what it was all about. I also learned that people usually misquote it — she doesn’t say “really.” I also learned that as she’s saying it the camera cuts to John Malkovich with a beard sort of going, “Wait, is this happening, people are going to be quoting this on SNL for years.” I’m pretty sure that schooling people on the context of all the corny stuff in the American wingnut media isn’t Animal Charm’s objective, but like the call-and-response effect of some of the videos, it’s something that happened. I just sat there on the floor and kept going “whoa,” “whoa,” “whoa,” “huh,” and while I was doing that I was going, “wait,” “what,” “what do I think about this.” I think now that Animal Charm achieves something new, complicated, and important.

Then I walked around the venue a bit. Transmodern this year is hosted at an amazing Baltimore collection of spacious artist studios. They are punky and good, not lame. They made Baltimore famous, according to Rolling Stone. There was a studio within the studio last night, and it showcased some of the best little pictures I’ve ever seen in one room. I had a smoke.

Then Shana Moulton performed. She traveled in safer water for me. I thought, “Okay, I get this, this is the sort of thing where the artist interacts directly in front of the video projection and becomes part of the film, changes her outfit while inside a striped wrap, dances kinda, wears a blonde wig, pulls tubes from inside her body suit, and other doodads from inside her suit, projects images of women’s health literature, then takes a hot water bottle filled with pink, gooey liquid and pours it over her head and body, then shows a genuinely sublime and shocking piece of footage of a 6-foot arm protruding out of the ground, then extending up a tree while it looks like she, in real 3D life, is floating and singing a really cheezy song.” I knew that was going to happen, and it did, and it was coooool. Her performance was engaging — everyone in the room sat mouth-agape — and I thought it had a nice emotional impact. Like Animal Charm, Moulton’s piece used some devices that were solely kitsch, but they seemed to be secondary to the choreography of her performance.

In both of these video performances there seemed to be an intentional disregard for the conventions of “Serious Art.” I’ve been missing Serious Art a lot in the last couple months, to the point where I get annoyed by things that are overwhelmingly cheeky, flourescent, inorganic, and hip instead of compelling and perfect. I mean, sometimes I actually think that a painter sucks if his pallete includes pink, or if they reference Guided By Voices more than Holst. But I thought Animal Charm’s work, in spite of being uber-hip and sassy, was in the first place challenging and thought provoking. And the flourescence in Moulton’s piece wasn’t mired by how fashionable that cheese happens to be nowadays. The real takeaway was the braininess and the unchinked execution of her performance, together with the complex emotionality and the contrasting of provocative images. Maybe I’m wrong about this, though. Maybe Serious Art is packaged up in these unicorn dreamz nowadays (cf. last month’s Cory Arcangel cover of ArtForum). And if that’s the case, with Animal Charm and Moulton, we’re in good hands.

I think Stephanie Barber deserves a nod for curating that portion of last night’s show. I can’t imagine two performances that could fit together more comprehensively and lead me to so much reflection.

Appendix: It would be worth it to soak up these two videos:
Animal Charm (4 minutes)
Shana Moulton (7 minutes, 35 seconds)