Artist Talk: Shannon Plumb

Uploaded by BrooklynMuseum on 19.08.2010

The Center is celebrating its third anniversary in March, for which I'm delighted. Please
come in and have a seat. Terrific. And we've had scores of wide ranging programming in
the Center since our opening in 2007. And it has been extremely successful, it's been
a lot of fun for us. My name is, I should have said, Elizabeth Sackler, in case you
didn't know. So, this is my home away from home. And it's been a delight and a joy to
work with the Brooklyn Museum in opening the Center and in working its continuation, and
the programming that we do here. And here's Catherine Morris, who is our wonderful curator,
joining us today. So, I'd like to welcome you all to our exhibition space, to our education
facility dedicated to feminist art. Our mission is to raise awareness of feminism's cultural
contributions and to educate new generations. And as we move on, we'll have even more new
generations about the meaning of feminist art and of feminism in our society and, indeed,
in our world. And last autumn, actually, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at
the National Academy of Arts. And it was a panel with the extraordinary Leslie Dill and
the great painter, Natalie Frank, and the fabulous and talented Shannon Plumb, who you
will meet and hear from today. And it was a very special panel, actually, because those
of who know anything about the National Academy know that generally they don't hang paintings,
except for those painters who are members of the academy. And when they were hanging
this particular show, they realized that if they didn't put in contemporary artists, they
were leaving out a whole slew of women artists who are really important at this moment in
time. And as a result, there was one entire gallery dedicated to contemporary women artists
and none of them were academicians. And it was the first time in their 100 plus year
history that that had happened. And they asked me to moderate this panel with three of the
artists who were in the show, and Shannon was one of them. And it was a wonderful panel.
And it was at that time that I invited Shannon to come here and to talk about her work, because
she is part of Reflections on the Electric Mirror, which you may have seen some of her
work already. And we're going to see more today. So, we planned this together, she and
I, a few months ago. And I'm delighted that today has arrived. The wall didactic here
for Commercials, which is the name of the piece that's up in the Electric Mirror, reads,
Plumb's wordless performances reflect the influence of famous slapstick comedians from
early days of film, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Commercials evokes a past
era of exaggerated physical comedy enhanced by its occasionally old fashioned score and
grainy black and white visuals. Plumb presents a series of short ads, many of them hawking
products marketed specifically to women. If you haven't seen it, I really encourage you
to go and look at it after this presentation. Indeed, Ken Johnson, in the New York Times,
wrote in the New York Times review on May first, 2009, that Shannon Plumb is, a terrific
comic performer. She makes mock television commercials in the flickering silent movie
style and adds rousing soundtracks of jazz, rock, folk, and country music. Portraying
a student with attention deficit disorder, and an absurdly bewigged model for a shampoo
ad, a patient suffering side effects from a stop smoking pill, and other characters,
Miss Plumb is hilarious. Comparing her to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton might sound
like a stretch, but it's not. Couldn't ask for a finer praise. Shannon wrote about herself
in 2004 for the exhibition. Behind the Curtain, which was at the Aldrich Contemporary Museum.
She wrote, When I was growing up, my grandma said instead of playing with other kids, I
would sit behind a curtain making up a world of my own. And I started these films in the
studio where I put up curtains, so no one could see. Almost all of the films have been
shot without any witness except the camera. And I think it's really going to be a pleasure
to hear from Shannon herself and to see additional films that she's brought with her. And then,
she and I will have a dialogue afterwards and open up to Q and A. Please help me in
welcoming the very wonderful, Shannon Plumb. Thank you, Elizabeth. It's been an honor to
show here at the Center, I just want to make sure you know that. So I should start out
telling you how I make my films. You know, I work all alone, so my films are silent.
And I do super eight film. And the camera is usually on a tripod, and I run over here
and perform a character. I use a tape on the wall as the center, so I know where the center
of the frame is. Most of the films people think are funny, and I've been trying to figure
this out, where that comes from. But the thing about them is I focus on the imperfections
of people. And so, for this talk, I was like, where does that come from? Where are these
imperfections? So I think I'm going to go over here. So what I did was I put together
a quick, little version of growing up. And I'm going to show you what the perfect world
was for me and then what the imperfect world was. This is the perfect world. This is what
I thought was perfect. So with Paul Newman, I think I still want to be like Paul Newman.
He was cool, and I aspired to be so cool. He cooked eggs and that was amazing to me.
So this is obviously the perfect world. Growing up, I remember at 14, 10 came out. I think
I was 14 or 13, and I was like, I am never going to look like that. And that was it,
I didn't have to worry after that. So play. And then pause. Donna Summer. If I could sing
Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain like her, I would have had it made. And I actually
think this was my first performance. I remember I put on a robe, I was like seven years old,
and it had a big star on it. And I think my dog was there. And I had a broken microphone,
and I just belted it out. I think I was watching the reflection of myself in the sliding glass
doors, and something was there that I think came back later. So she's an inspiration,
but she's also in a perfect world. OK, play. And then, this next lady, pause, is my Aunt
Jean. Aunt Jean had one white eye and one brown eye, and she was born like that. So
she was immediately imperfect from the beginning. And we lived together, her, my grandmother,
my grandfather, and she was with us. And still, she's alive, but she's kind of a strange lady.
She tells Italian jokes, in Italian, and then translates them. And the Italian people go
to Heaven and the Polish people don't, so, she's that kind of lady. And she lived, she
lived in the same house with us and with my grandma and grandpa for 20 years. And her
and my grandfather didn't talk for those 20 years. They wouldn't, in a tiny space, like
walking past each other in the hallway, they couldn't, they wouldn't say excuse me. So,
they would, they were committed to silence. And it was strange, I'm telling you. OK. Play.
And then, this is Grandpa. Pause. My grandpa was really grumpy. And he stayed most of the
time in the basement. And I remember when dinner was ready we would pound on the floor
with a broom to tell him to come up. You know, its five o'clock. But the thing I remember
about him, I mean he used to stir his ginger ale to get the bubbles out. He had these weird
things going on. And late at night, I would never go to sleep on time. Then, like eleven
o'clock at night, Grandpa would sit in his chair with the remote and I would have to
watch what he was watching. And most of the time it was Benny Hill and Bonanza. So, I
know I had some inspiration from those two shows. And then, play and pause. And this
is my papa. And this is Shirley. These are my grandparents from the other side. And Papa
was also quite a character. He always had a bleeding head because he always bumped into
things. He put Mercurochrome on. So, he always had these orange stains on his face. I found
out later that he had tunnel vision. And that is why he was always bumping into things.
He didn't know where the side of his head was. So, he also had coffee stains all the
time. He always spilled hot coffee on himself. And Papa, I mean I could keep going with Papa.
He had false teeth. When he was 32, he said he was going to take out all his teeth because
he didn't want to go to the dentist any more. And so, he had them taken out. And he had
false teeth put in. So, the false teeth were also a big comedy piece as well. And, I think
that's it. So, what happened was, I think, in some way, I aspired to be in that perfect
world, do you know? But, I honestly, it's like when I tried, I just constantly was turned
down. There was like, your lips aren't big enough, they're too thin, your eyes are too
big, they're not small enough, you're out of proportion, your breasts are too small.
I mean, there were so many things and I, and I wasn't perfect. So, I decided, OK, I want
to be in the movies. But they're not going to let me in. So, I'm going to make my own
movies. And I found this great quote from Samuel Beckett, if I can find it now. So Beckett
says, Ever tried, ever failed, no matter, try again. Fail again, and fail better. So,
these are my films. Would you tell us, briefly, the story about how you started making the
films. And then somebody said to you, you are creating works of art. And I recall at
some point your having told a story about, well that hadn't really occurred to you that
that's what was going on, or somebody talking about the value of it, of your work. I still
wonder about that. But I don't know, I can't remember a particular story. But I know that
my mom still doesn't really, she doesn't call me an artist or anything. She's never said
they were art. But I think a couple of my friends were, I would screen these before
there were any galleries or anything, for my friends. And my one friend, he was an artist
and wanted so bad to be in the galleries. He told me, You have to do something with
these. You can't just keep playing them on the wall. So that might have been the point.
What did you do? I went to Anthology Film Archives. I don't know if you know. And Jonas
Mekas is a huge avant garde filmmaker, but I had no idea who he was at the time. I didn't
know about the Beatles until I was 24, so that's where I'm coming from. And when I went
to the Anthology, these guys were coming out, and they had these cool hats, and they had
these strange accents and I'm like, Hi. I have a video. I want to know if
you can look at it. And so they said, Sure. And I got a call a week later and Jonas was like, I want you to do a show
here. And so pretty much ever since then I've just, every year they've made sure that I'm
showing my work there. And I think he was the one who was like, Look, you have to keep
doing this. You know, keep going. And that's kind of where it started. Where did the ideas,
where did the germ come from, the inspiration come from for a new film or a new series of
films? How does that begin for you? I mean it seems like everything is inspired by people,
I think. Well, it comes from everywhere. I think right now it's a strange time for me
because I have all these ideas but yet I'm not sure which ones to execute. I don't know
where the ideas come from. I mean the subway, I ride the subway all the time and I know
that someday I'm going to do the subway. I'm inspired everyday that I get on the subway.
So there's, it's endless, I think. So you don't think about your work as evolving? Or
do you? Do you have a consciousness about your work as a whole and where it's moving?
It's interesting because I think what I, doing this talk has helped me a lot. Because I had
to think about really what's going on with the work. I think that there's an evolution,
a conscious evolution in the filmmaking of the work. So if you are a filmmaker, like
a lot of the filmmakers will say to me, Oh, I see what you're doing. You're really evolving.
Because I'm going from silents, black and white, each series has its own tiny little
thing. The green screen was with The Park, Maximus in the corner. So every time I'm trying
to do, move ahead in making films. But the part that I'm wondering about is evolving
in an art way, which I'm not always sure what exactly art is supposed to be. So I'm getting
a little tripped up trying to figure out that world. Because conceptually I love to be clever
and like think of really, I know the people I like are real conceptual in the art world.
Do you know who Adrian Piper is? I do but I don't know her work. OK. Because Madison
and 34th Street reminded me of her series The Mythic Man, where she puts on, it was
very early, it was in the early 70s. Where she put on a costume and went through the
streets of New York and it was documented. And capturing people's response and her relationship
to the environment around her. And it just sort of reminded me of that, except you're
really doing things very differently. With that in mind, because Adrian's got an incredible
sense of humor as well, but I'm curious to know what you meant earlier when you said,
Well, I'm not really sure why people find these funny. Or where does humor fit into
them? Does humor drive you? I mean you're very, you're wonderful to listen to, to hear
you talk. Because just your thinking is rather amusing. I think I am amusing. So, and then
the way you express yourself. So how does that all fit in? I mean are you self conscious
about it? Are you aware about it? I think I'm just this, two months ago I was like,
I'm going to a clowning class. Because I never ever, I set up a film, the first film I ever
did, it was just funny. I was like, I don't know? And I was kind of disappointed. I was
like, wait a minute. You know, I don't want to be serious. I got things to say. But then
I was like, but it's funny. And the next film was funny, and the next one was funny, so
I was like, I can't fight it, I'm not a control freak, so I'll just go along with it. I think
I have to learn to say the bigger things that I might want to say, how to incorporate the
humor in those, because it's a tough balance. I sometimes think that's where the art really
lies, sometimes. Is in content. Is in content, yes. I think I'm trying to step, there's so
much just about people that I think is important, but I think when it comes to saying more,
the things that really bother me, I don't know where that's going to fit in, the humor.
You may create a new form within the form? Yes. That would be very interesting to watch,
very interesting to watch. Do you choreograph your ideas ahead of time, and do you rehearse
them? Yes, I do. I try not to rehearse them too much, because the first film I showed
you, the Pizza Man, I still believe that there's a relationship with inanimate things, and
I often find, if I'm on a good day and a carefree day, things, they will bump into me, and it's
really cool, so I think what happens is I try not to rehearse too much because I want
that thing to happen with props, and just let them do what they do, and that was with
the pizza dough and the tickets and everything. All I wanted was that one ticket, you might
not have even seen it, but it just floats down on its own, and I was like, oh, that's
magic, we got it! So I do rehearse them, and I choreograph them, but I keep a spot for
improv. How do you get your films to flicker? How do you do that? It's the super eight film
being projected against the wall, and then videotaped off the wall. Ah, and that creates
a flicker. And that creates a flicker. So the question is about the evolution of the
use of music in the films and how it evolves? It's funny, because in the beginning, I wasn't
with a gallery, so I could use anything I wanted, I was taking jazz, and hip hop, and
anything. I could do Elvis Presley if I wanted to, and get away with it. But then it was
started, if I was going to sell work, I had to change, so I started to look for composers.
I tried to use different ones, there's one who did Maximus in the suit, who is amazing.
A composer has to also be able to hit those spots that need a little beat and stuff. Who
was that composer? Dave, oh my god I just blanked. Wilder. Rifka. Dave Wilder. He's
in California. Thank you. He's the last composer I worked with. Do you think there's a difference,
I'll ask Shannon and then I'd be curious to know what you think, that there's a difference
in content? Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are men, and male filmmakers are common, and
you're a female. So what place does gender play, do you think, and do you think, in terms
of the content? I think the thing is, there's a whole world I get to discover, because the
silent times, women weren't really doing it. A woman was not leading the way, she didn't
get to make her own movie. I got to see. Alice Guy Blache? Yes. Yes, at the Whitney. If any
of you haven't seen it, you might go to see that. This woman from France was doing things,
she was a director and stuff, and she was able to but she's been buried, I never saw
her films. I think there is a lot of content that women get to, oh my god, there's just
so much! You play men and you get to have a vehicle to voice what you've been thinking
about men. If I could make a feature movie, it would be like Buster Keaton, the content
would be so different, but it would be like starting all over again in the silent era,
because we would have so much to say. Shannon has two children, if you can imagine that
on top of all this wonderful work. The baby that's in one of the films here, was actually
there when you were filming it. Yeah, and that was the thing I wanted to tell you about.
That series was many firsts. I had my first baby, a first solo show at a gallery, and
my husband had to go away. We were counting quarters to get stuff and we were like, OK
we've got to start working, so he had to go away to work and I had to prepare a solo exhibition
with a three month old baby. Not even three months. Younger than that. I said I have to
put the baby in because I was breastfeeding nonstop. Walker was a lot younger than three
months. It was kind of insane. But he made it work. I was like, what am I going to do?
I know a problem about being a new mom is you don't feel sexy anymore. There's no sexy
at all. I was like, that's one thing. I'd better put Walker over here while I'm doing
this film. Then I'm like, OK he's making it really not sexy. Then it just became not sexy.
The question was about Shannon's experience in acting or modeling. I don't want to take
up a lot of your time, but that was a whole other world that happened. I came here, I
was delivering food in a van. I was delivering to fashion photographers and I would be sweaty
and lifting these heavy things and for some reason they were like, come on we want to
take your picture. I got introduced to the fashion world. That's the place where people
were like, we know somebody famous is shooting you, so we're going to keep you over here.
You're going to stay over here until we figure out what to do with you, so it got really
weird. With acting it was more me. In acting school they told you, you have the looks to
be a lead, not a character. I was like what do you mean? Acting is about being those really
gritty people. They immediately start to narrow your possibilities down. I just saw those
things and did a couple of auditions. As an actor you want to perform all the time. I
was like, what I'm going to wait five years for some guy if I fit his idea. I just said
no, I can't wait. I started these films thinking they were film sketches and they would be
rehearsals for me or practice, then they just evolved. When did you start creating films
for the market, or what was the first film that went out into the art world and began
your career as an artist? What year was it? 99? No, it was like 2004 or 2003. Sara Meltzer
Gallery took me in the summer show that she did, an exhibition, and I was part of that.
I forget what films they were. They were real beginner films, A is for Apple. Not many people
have seen those. I said, Sarah, why aren't you giving me a show? I didn't know anything
about the art world. She said you're not ready yet. I said come on, give me a show. She called
a few months later and she was like, OK, let's do a show. How do you choose whether you're
going to do color or black and white? Is that a financial choice or is that an aesthetic
choice, and do you prefer one or the other? I really love black and white, but it was
an aesthetic one. I went back to black and white for this last one because it was the
movies, and I wanted it to be more romantic. But I feel like I've moved on to color because
a friend told me a long time ago, I was doing black and white, he's a photographer, and
he was like come on, do some color. I was like no, no, no, then I realized that I had
to start going forward. What is the difference for you with color in terms of content or
aesthetic, between black and white and color in terms of your own thinking? This is kind
of funny because this doesn't answer your question, but my mom said that when I was
younger we had a black and white TV in the room that we used to watch, and I asked her,
I was like Mom, when did the world go color? It was like, it used to be a black and white
world, didn't it? I don't know, what was the question? I'm just curious to know how you
perceive the difference between black and white and color in terms of your work? It
feels more modern. For the Olympics, I was so excited because I could shoot in Kodachrome,
which was a thing of the 60s and 70s. It just felt that the Olympics were so nostalgic in
some ways. It does have something to do with moving forward and making it more of a timely
thing. What is your next project that's under way? There's a few of them. I don't. You don't
want to talk about them? The one I do want to do is a text messaging thing, but I can't
tell you guys everything about that. The question has to do with characterization and cross
dressing or costuming and those choices. I remember this together one. I did an Olan
Mills portrait and it was me doing both the guy and the girl. My husband showed it to
his friend, and his friend was like, do you get off on her doing that stuff? Derek was
so proud of it. He showed it off to his friend and was like, wow check out what Shannon is
doing. I don't know. I like the experience. I like to pretend I'm a man and see what it's
like. If I had more nerve I would take it out on the street. I'm thinking about doing
that sometime and see what it's really like. Try to look so good as a man that people don't
know. I like to see what it's like to be each person. I mean, to take some of these characters
on the subway, too. Not just to be a man, but to be a crazy lady. What's she doing?
She's biting her nails. All of that stuff is nice to experience. Not nice, but interesting.
It's very interesting because it's reminiscent really of a lot of very early Piper work.
What you might want to try, which I did actually with my daughter, who is now quite old, was
in grade school. I volunteered to be the Santa at their Christmas party, and did, and it
was wonderful. What I found was after I took the costume off and I was walking down the
halls, and I was seeing kids who had sat on my lap and said, oh they wanted this or they
wanted that, and I'd say to them, hi. They would look at me like, why are you talking
to me? I don't know who you are. Costuming is a wonderful thing, clowning is a wonderful
thing. Especially when it's extreme. Santa is pretty extreme for me. That's why I wanted
to see about the stewardess. I was trying to put this talk together and I was like yeah
the stewardess works, but somehow still its imperfect. In that one I think I successfully
made an imperfect world perfect. I think I'm trying still to be perfect. That's the point.
I don't know, I can't get away from that. I enjoy the failure. It's harder to be perfectly
imperfect. You are perfectly imperfect. Thank you very much for joining us.