In this performance, Bridget Moser is wearing all white in a space that is entirely white. The section begins by her tapping, with both hands, her collarbones: a gesture made when one realizes a piece of jewelry they were wearing seems no longer to be on their body. A mild-to-hot sense of alarm or dislocation. She picks up a very large, very elaborate necklace from the ground and puts it on.
In correspondence with a friend nearly a year ago, I reported on the rewards of a yoga class that focused on various kinds of deep twisting which, although uncomfortable and unnatural, apparently has the effect of wringing out the spine. This would release cerebrospinal fluid which makes you see stars, but ultimately helps soothe the nervous system. In the same breath, I expressed irritation about the show-y, faux deep incantations of yoga teachers and mused about what really might be manifest in that voice.
The friend put me on to Bridget Moser who, at that time, had recently done a set of performances at Mercer Union (a single performance repeated over a number of nights—Moser’s performances are well attended). I watched that performance (All Handles Different, 2014) online and couldn’t get her off my mind.
Each work feels something like an experimental novel, where chapters tend to be brief and each might open up onto an entirely new beat, never dividing from a sense of the whole. She messes with objects from the mundane to the absurd, ripping on built-in meanings or attributing them with new fictions. We’re hearing chopped, screwed or muzak-style renditions of well-loved (overplayed) songs and a heavy splash of self-help rhetoric, through which sincerity and sarcasm somewhat magically run parallel. She uses humour to shed light on ridiculous byproducts—material and immaterial—of our mouth-watering consumerism, and the rhetoric that surrounds it. Lifeless commodities become beacons of our sensibilities.
Have you danced professionally?
When I was three years old I started dancing. Like jazz, tap and ballet sort of situation and then stayed doing it for probably too long. I hit my peak when I was around ten and then just kept doing it but I was not really an athletic person per se.I think there comes a point when you can see who the people are who are like physically skilled and who might make a career out of it, who work on their technique. That wasn’t where my skill set was—I was better at being kind of emotional and expressive. So the artistic side I think I was good at. Like bringing the dance teacher’s mom to tears at age 11 when I danced to Sarah McLachlan’s Angel—you know what I mean? Solo lyrical. Same year the album came out. So I was ahead of the curve on that single for sure.
Your work makes use of some tropes and language that define contemporary self-help: yoga, meditation, and other (sometimes oddball) tools to center the spirit, mind, body. The way you treat these kinds of things feels indulgent but also exacting about the way you perceive the value of these kinds of cultural, emotional currency.
Well, I’m trying to think about what it is I like about self-help. I guess it’s an interest in the language around those ideas, that it’s this way of talking about these really big-deal, impossible kind of things that a lot of people are really preoccupied with. That’s why the whole industry of self-help exists. There is an absurdity about the effort to condense these topics into this really simple, marketable—oh here’s how you fix that.
I guess I feel like the flipside to a lot of the things that I talk about and what I do in performances is fairly confessional—like, uhh… how do you deal with living? I don’t know! I’m not good at it. There’s a clash between those two things that, that’s one way of talking about these things that doesn’t actually address the true nature of what it’s like sometimes to grapple with existing in general. And so, to use that language and manipulate it, there are ways of doing that that can be funny and maybe point to some of those things but then that also works as a counterpoint to sort of… other chaotic yelling that I like to do.
In talking about her exhibition at the Whitney in 2013, Julia Heyward says she’s always been interested in “writing that is closer to how we think than the way we talk.” I get this sense from your writing as well, that we are bearing witness to your private musings. Where does Bridget Moser as person end and where does the performance begin?
For me, that’s a very hard line to draw. Most of the text is coming from a workbook that I constantly have going that is just day-to-day writing, all kinds of things that I’m thinking about, from a weird trend to some dumb thing. But is that because I’m legitimately, personally dealing with those things or am I just thinking about those ideas?
As a child, I would just start crying and my mom would try and help me and then eventually be like ‘do you want to just go to your room and cry it out for a while?’ and I’d just say ‘yeah… yeah, I do.’ She’s be like ‘what’s wrong?’ and I’d be like ‘I don’t know,’ and so then I would just go cry in my bed and it would be totally fine. So I think now there’s this seemingly professional side, and that those things are clearly occupying a much more performative space. It ends up being a combination of those two sides: the private and the performative.
Can you speak about the relationship between your writing and the way it informs arrangement?
When it comes to the things I do physically, there’s a very sharp divide between what I think I’m doing and what I’m actually doing. In my head, it looks like really controlled and so precise and I have this idea in my head like yeah, this is what my body looks like when I do this. Then I watch it back and it’s like watching a child approximate what that thing is. It’s awful.
And it’s the same thing I think with talking— with the fragmentary way I work, I try to keep things sounding different, not trying to keep a consistent delivery, consistent tone or consistent voice. So I might be thinking that I’m doing something in a really different way between two different sections and then I watch it back and realize the difference is almost indistinguishable, like: those are two very similar modes. But in my head, it’s like: one is where I’m copying the way this person talks in a commercial and in this one I’m talking like a teacher that I had one time and I realize like, no you’re actually not doing that [laughs]. And then I’ll try and write things differently but I do think that there are certain phrases or words that I just find so attractive that I’m just subconsciously always going back to.
And then, to be clear, at the same time I’m not really interested in the idea of character. I’m not doing characters, I’m not doing impressions. It’s just about finding different modes that have more subtle distinctions between them. I still don’t think I’ve totally gotten there in terms of delivery but a lot of it is: some of the writing is closer to talking, some of it is closer to just what I think is funny. When the way that I’m framing it doesn’t make sense, but sometimes just feels funny — it’s those moments that I’m interested in. I write a lot for my job, which is ghost-writing for a plastic surgeon.
I’m wondering about the dynamic that you perceive between yourself and the props you use? How much do the objects inform what you do and how much do you dictate their function?
In terms of working with objects and things like that, a lot of the final choices come from playing with things, moving things around and then finding something and being like oh, I really like doing this and why is that? Or, it’s funny that this is like this, and then ‘ok,’ which maybe there was less of in that 8-11 performance. I mean I like to think that it’s fairly even. The things that I choose I usually have to see somewhere—I don’t generally work with things that I already have, I’m usually buying things.
Sometimes there will be something there that just right away, there’s some weird attraction to it or I could see that it’s multipurpose, or it’s just weird. Like one time I found this fiber optic topiary there that was being sold as a Christmas tree but it’s like this bulbous—the shape of the plant makes no sense—and then it lights up multicoloured, shooting multicoloured… just like, no part of it makes sense. They were severely marked down because clearly no one would buy that because they would just be like, ‘what is this, I don’t want it.’ On the bottom there was just a series of handwritten prices, progressively slashed. They didn’t have any display models out so I didn’t totally know what it was going to look like but I was like ‘I’m going to trust you guys.’
In another interview, you mention that sometimes projects start with a certain moment that you think is interesting and then you experiment with different elements around that initial thing in an attempt to amplify it or figure out the nature of your attraction to it. Was this the case for your most recent series of performances at 8-11? Can we talk a bit about how that developed?
Well, I was kind of hesitant about doing a performance there just because the literal space is so small that the options would be: do a whole bunch of performances for a really small audience, and then I thought ahh, I don’t want that. And they had brought up the possibility of seating people outside and doing the performance outside. I thought, what if we turn the actual façade into a weird TV in the window and then make everyone sit outside out in the cold—except, it was like August when we were thinking of this so no one was thinking October: it’s cold out or raining.
That was one starting point and then thinking about what it would look like to make everything white in there. We had to create a partition between the front and the rest of the space, and then I thought of getting a full white suit. And there were also other things like that bar across the door, which is really annoying visually but you can also hang something on it, like the pants which look really nice there.
So the idea was about being able to play with the light and the black out. I’d wanted to do something with the abundance candle for a while and I wanted it to be so that when the lights went out, it would be burning: that would be perfect. So the background began to inform the direction of where the performance was going. And then I had that ironing board—I hated that ironing board. I didn’t buy that ironing board, I just took its cover off. It has this weird latch that lets you move it back and forth but it locks really easily which makes it really difficult to make it change positions at home, like it’s really hard to wrestle back into a closet. But for that, it was really good ‘cause I could do all this stuff that I wanted it to do that only that ironing board can do. It had to be that ironing board.
What about the Mike Tyson speech?
Oh yes, that. Well, there was this occasion in my personal life where I thought: if I run into this person, the only thing I want to say to them is that Mike Tyson speech where he says, I want to eat your children. I didn’t run into that person, which was good ‘cause I had it memorized. It is actually, as an improvised text, a really impeccable speech. You watch it start, and it just kind of comes out nowhere and is brutal—and incredible, though not as truly horrible as some of the other things he said in his career.
What does the audience do for you?
The audience is kind of like a double-edged sword—in Toronto specifically, usually not when I’m somewhere else where people maybe don’t go in with expectations. Or maybe I’m saying that because I’m talking about the audience at Doored, a monthly thing that happens here where a lot of the same audience will come and people know that it’s performance art but it’s overlapping with comedy so they’re thinking I’m here to laugh, this is going to be funny so then they just laugh at everything, even things that are not jokes. They’ll just laugh ‘cause they’re just like [imitation of a chuckle], it feels great to laugh which makes me feel really good, obviously I like it a lot and I feel very good about it and I think about some ways I can improve the performance. But then in other ways it’s like… you lose a lot of it too because there are these quieter moments, or less sort of silly slapstick happening that get lost when you have people just laughing nonstop. So that’s tricky.
You’ve done some films in the past, and more recently for Mercer Union, but have been live performance-heavy for a number of years now. As a performer primarily, how do you deal with situations where your work is called for as a static entity?
That’s something that comes up kind of frequently, where people are like ‘we’re interested in having you do something, but what can you do? Are you interested in leaving your object in a room?’ and the answer is usually just like no, it’s so not the same thing to just come in a room and see like, a chair. That’s just a bad Duchamp rip-off. So yeah, that’s a thing I have no idea how to deal with yet.
Part of me is really excited by the idea that these things only exist for certain expanses of time. That’s still something so exciting and unique to performance and is hugely important to it and to the experience of it. And then there’s another part of me that still finds video extremely satisfying. It’s such a different way of dealing with time. [The video-making] process can be changed by the performance aspect of a process. It can be really stretched out, and doesn’t end when the performance part of it ends. Then there are still so many decisions that can be made with those fragments or sections of recorded performances.
Maybe the problem is that I don’t even know what my videos are, ‘cause they are in a weird space between a video and a performance and I would like to figure out what that is — or rather what that could be. But I don’t know how to do that without more time and money. It’s hard to make a video without some of those things. And I wish I wanted to still make things but I have less interest in tha. To do that would seem to be like doing it for the sake of putting something in a room when I can’t be there, which for me is not a great starting point for an artwork.
You can’t do it.
Bridget Moser is a Toronto-based performance artist. In 2014, a feature was published about her in Canadian Art and there’s another upcoming in C-Mag. Last year, she was listed on Blouin Art’s Top 30 Under 30. Her most recent project was at 8-11 in Toronto’s Chinatown and she’s currently working on a new piece for Toronto’s TPA.
The writer wishes to thank Spencer Stuart, Lindsay Lachance, and of course, Bridget Moser.
Follow Jaclyn on Twitter @jacbruneau.