Angela Serino in conversation with Shana Moulton on her project “Decalcifying our pineal glands” at SYB’s residency (September 2013)
Angela Serino: The hectic rhythms of modern life often put lots of pressure on our bodies and minds, a pressure that we try to release and to compensate in several ways, playing sports or being closer to nature being among the most common.
About that, one of the most fascinating things I've seen in Beijing (where I am presently writing from) in recent weeks is how Chinese people actively use the parks and the green areas of the city. In a lake close to where I'm staying, young and elderly people gather from the early hours of the morning to practice various physical activities: swimming, fishing, walking, Tai Chi, playing table tennis or just simply using the sports equipment available in the park. What struck me is that they participate next to each other in an almost nonchalant way, without being touched or disturbed by the others nearby. In contrast, when I walk in a park in Amsterdam, I feel that I, and the other people, are very aware of each other’s movements, what we wear, how much we sweat, etc. Perhaps this is another way in which different ideologies manifest themselves (Chinese communism versus Western individualism). Or perhaps there is more that I will untangle over the coming months.
Can you speak a little about what your ideas are on how people care about their body, for example by participating in sports in the open air, in parks or in nature, and how this is important for you (and Cynthia)?
Do you find differences in attitude between the US and Europe?
Shana Moulton: I think that in the US adults don't use outdoor space for recreation. It seems like outdoor recreation is confined to children, walking the dog, jogging and a few group sports like basketball, baseball and tennis. It’s very rare to see someone exercising outdoors in an unselfconscious way on their own but near other people, practicing martial arts or yoga or whatever. I know that I would feel uncomfortable doing so, but one goal I've always had in life was to learn Tai Chi, so that when I'm older I could go practice in parks and be the lone woman doing Tai Chi. For myself and Cynthia, what I'd really like to do outdoors is leave my body behind and fly over the landscape. But I also think this difference is related to how comfortable people are with their own bodies and physical abilities. In the US you would only practice sports in public if you are very athletic. But it seems in China everyone practices physical activities in public regardless of their ability. I didn't notice a huge difference between the US and Europe regarding this, besides there being even less group sports practiced in public, and rarely any solo sports.
Angela: ‘Decalcifying Our Pineal Glands’ is the title of your project at SYB. It suggests an attempt to crack open the rigidity with which we think. We know from neurosciences that over time, the connections between our neuronal cells tend to diminish if not properly stimulated. When this happens, we become less open to changes and start ‘ageing’, at least at a cerebral level.
Can you tell me more about the 'techniques' that you experimented with at SYB to defy this (risk of) rigidity of thought and also expand a little on the relationship between thought and body, thinking processes and physical movements that its title suggests?
Shana: The idea that our pineal glands become calcified as we age and less able to perform their natural functions is terrifying to me, and I wonder if it’s related to losing the sense of wonder and creativity we have as children. The pineal gland has been thought of as the third eye in some cultures, while Descartes regarded it as the seat of the soul. We know it produces melatonin but some scientists believe that it also contains DMT, a powerful hallucinogen, which is released into our brains when we die.
Several websites recommend the following things for decalcifying the pineal gland:
Avoiding all things fluoride
Citric acid (LOTS of lemons will work)
Raw apple cider vinegar
Regular Meditation and Chanting
General Healthy living
We taught ourselves some of the basics of Tai Chi, we performed musical chanting, we cooked and ate only healthy vegetarian food, emphasising garlic and lemons (with the exception of some chocolate and stroopwafels), we did the scientific seven-minute cardio workout, we gazed at the sun with our mouths open, aiming the sunlight at the roof of our mouths, and we used fluoride-free toothpaste. Another recommendation for decalcifying the pineal gland is imbibing natural entheogens (not for everyone): Ayahuasca, Psilocybin Mushrooms, peyote, changa, cannabis, salvia, DMT and more. Read more here
Rather than taking DMT we found a great documentary called The Spirit Molecule, which is about a Medical Study from the ’90s where participants took DMT. The participants were interviewed in the documentary and just hearing about their experiences was enough to help decalcify my pineal gland. Quotes from some of those interviews have gone straight into my work. However, we did partake in the cannabis entheogen for pineal decalcification. I'm not sure whether or not these practices were actually working on my pineal gland or not, but for me it was also important to work on building healthy rituals into my daily life/artistic practice, and SYB Kunsthuis seemed like a perfect place to start to do that.
Angela: In your films you usually work alone, but at SYB you decided to spend the six weeks with several of your friends and colleagues, such as Noa Giniger, Lucy Stein, Andrew Kerton and Nick Hallett. How did this collaboration go? How hard or exciting is letting someone else enter Cynthia's universe?
Shana: All of the collaborations were very different. With Nick it’s more clear cut because although we work on the story together, he makes the music and I make the visuals. Lucy already had a script in mind, so I mainly helped her execute that script, making my mark with the cinematography, editing and effects. Andrew and I were more loose, organic and experimental together, as were Noa and I. It’s difficult for me to collaborate on projects that feature Cynthia, as she is so autobiographical and personal, so I usually don't, besides musically with Nick. A lot of the collaboration involves how our attitudes towards art and life intersect. Sometimes it was even difficult to come to an agreement on what to eat, where to sleep, how clean things should be or where to bike, but for the most part those things were pretty smooth.
Angela: You have collaborated with Noa Giniger a few times in the past. On the occasion of Noa’s ‘Zimmer for FAB’ at SYB (2011), for instance, you realised the video ‘The Frisian LandEscape’, and now ‘Trusting Your Company’, where you ‘play a private conversation to black cows later to be eaten by humans who would then contain our secrets’.
Even though at first glance your works seem very different – I would say you work with the ‘addition’ of elements while Noa is clearly for ‘subtraction’ – there are areas in which your interests overlap. You have mentioned a common interest in the ‘objects’ once. Can you expand on this a little bit? Could you give us an example of how this collaboration with Noa has brought something else or new to the realisation?
Shana: I think that is a really good way to characterize how our work is different, addition vs subtraction. A discovery I made while working with Noa was realizing that one thing that connects our work is its personal and emotional nature. That may be more obvious in my work, but I think both of our practices are very much about analyzing our own feelings, hopes and desires –feelings that often include sentimentality and magic. And I think for both of us, objects serve as vehicles that stand in for or express those feelings. We both have very emotional responses to objects in general. In Beetsterzwaag for instance we went on a lot of missions to collect objects, and for both of us this is the starting point in the creation of work.
Angela: Via this link you can watch ‘Quin Quag’ (2001-2002), a very compelling video work by the artist Michael Smith, where he plays the role of a real state entrepreneur who purchases a piece of land previously occupied by an artists' colony. I love the ironic and witty way in which he weaves together all these narratives, from the idealised vision of an artist colony of the past to the actual life of the artists there, to the rebranding of the place for wealthy managers and business people in need of a temporary retreat to recover from the stress and anxiety of their life and regain a better balance with their inner selves. Some of these situations resonate somehow with Cynthia's stories, or at least their premises.
Can you comment on this idea of a temporary retreat in remote places as a possible way out; a temporary break from an unsatisfactory life? How does this work for Cynthia?
And how does a residency like SYB work for you, Shana, as an artist?
Shana: That is funny. I'd never seen this video! I know Mike Smith and Joshua White – in fact, Nick introduced me to Joshua White, as they work together on the Joshua Lightshow. Mike Smith's videos have been a huge influence on me since I was a student. I really love his work. But one thing I've realised since I've met him is that I think he approaches these kind of subjects with total irony. For instance, he made a video at Burning Man, another type of ‘artist colony’ or experimental community, and his character in the video has a cathartic or transcendent experience there. But after speaking to him about it I realised he has a very critical and ironic attitude towards Burning Man. I went to Burning Man three times in the ’90s and loved it! I had amazing experiences there – and even though I can make fun of Burning Man, I also have a sincere appreciation and reverence for it. In fact, I wrote about this before, coming more from the carnivalesque angle, but I think this also applies to the idea of the artist retreat:
The line these events walk between Carnivalesque resistance and capitalist complicity is what most interests me about them and this tension was raised in a recent exhibition by Mike Kelley and Michael Smith at the Sculpture Center in New York City. There they presented an installation which included video of Michael Smith's Baby Ikki persona, an adult-baby alter-ego he originally developed over 30 years ago, gallivanting around Burning Man and interacting with the other revellers. In a New York Times review of the show Roberta Smith thought that the artists were portraying the festival as "naïve and disingenuously complicit with capitalist consumerism. She claimed that their installation portrayed the desert festival as "a symbol of what Herbert Marcuse called ‘repressive desublimation’, which reroutes unruly and rebellious instinctual energies into politically harmless sybaritic indulgence, escapist entertainment and spiritual delusion."  However, Alan Licht, in an Artforum review of the show, observed that "Burning Man, with its policy of ‘radical inclusion’ and admonition of ‘no spectators’, could be appreciated as Beuy's theory of social sculpture made manifest, a mini-society as a work of art to which each member contributes and, indeed, is expected to participate in rather than observe." I wasn't able to discern which interpretation was closest to the artist's intentions in this show, and my personal experience of events like Burning Man and renaissance fairs is always conflicted. I usually find myself striving for the Carnivalesque but reverting to lethargic consumption or spectatorship.
Angela: Cynthia's stories have developed over the years as videos in the series ‘Whispering Pines’, but more recently also as live performances.
Can you tell me a little more about how you experience these two different ways of working?
Shana: I started making live performances before I learned to make videos. I stopped for a while because they'd become more and more elaborate and it was too much work for something that just happened once. But when I realised I could make a performance set out of a video projection I started to make them again with my newfound videos skills. For me, one big difference between making the performances and videos is that I feel more at liberty to be abstract or use montage in the performances, whereas in the videos I feel the need to construct a solid narrative. I think those approaches are based on what I enjoy the most as a viewer of performance or video. Because the performance is always tied to a video that is playing straight through, there isn't very much room for chance or the unplanned, besides things going wrong. Throughout the performance I'm concentrating on what I have to do next and timing, so there is less room in my brain to concentrate on acting. It’s as if I were a puppet controlled by the video I've made, and most of the rehearsal takes place in my head as I edit the video on my computer. While making the videos I do have the luxury of making six versions of a shot and getting the right expression on my face and the perfect angle and timing, so there is more control. Performing is more like forcing myself to create a scene in one shot with no errors. The audience is important too. If they are laughing it’s much more fun and a lot easier!
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