It’s Okay to Laugh: The Political Turn in Bridget Moser’s Prop Art

Bridget Moser, 2019. Photo by Yuula Benivolski.
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When we meet on St. Catherine Street in Montreal on a chilly Thursday afternoon in October, Bridget Moser tells me she has recently been crying in her hotel room. A parrot on a TV show had died. “It was really sad,” she explains, laughing, but also meaning it.

We’re hunting for place to sit, somewhere without loud music. This proves surprisingly hard, so we keep marching side by side for several blocks, walking quickly the way people do when they don’t really know each other. Moser is sore from the previous night’s double performance of What Will Stay You Alive (2019) at VOX for the MOMENTA biennale. She’s about to perform the 26-minute solo again in three hours for “an international delegation of professionals,” who will turn out to be mostly curators from Canada and not the incongruous assembly of foreign businesspeople I had imagined. Moser thinks she should probably stretch or something.

“Is the performance physically demanding?” I ask.

“No, my body just sucks,” she laughs.

In person, Moser’s sense of humor is frequently wry and self-deprecating. In performance, she inverts this tendency: however outlandish, silly, or ungainly her gags, her earnest delivery is unwavering. The trick goes beyond mockery; there’s real love in the mix, or at least empathy for many of the characters and archetypes she channels. If there’s any deprecating to be done, she leaves it to the audience, like a dare.

It’s a dare that some people are willing to take up. When we finally find a quiet cafe, Moser tells me about someone in the audience the night before who was demonstrably put out by the 33-year-old artist’s brand of absurdist prop comedy. Moser’s partner, the artist Paul Tjepkema, who shoots all her videos and came along for the trip to Montreal, reported the scene to her afterwards: a disgruntled woman decided to telegraph her displeasure by turning around in her seat several times, making faces and gesturing derisively, and finally taking out her phone.

“I love that,” Moser tells me, with an expression approaching genuine hunger. “I want more of that.”

Moser relishes the idea that others might be judging or criticizing her, but the much more common response is a kind of incredulous awe. She plays to her contemporary artworld audiences, but her performances would slay for almost any crowd. Drawing on clips from popular songs and television shows, incorporating improbably charming products from the demented reaches of Amazon-era capitalism, and propelling her body through distorted choreographies of the most inane, desperate, and unlovely sentiments, Moser’s performances are – to use the yardstick of our time – obsessively watchable. The best part, though, is her physical abandon; in both her videos and live performances, Moser launches into each scene and gesture with the zeal and unselfconsciousness of a teenage YouTuber who’s been cast in a David Lynch dream sequence.

Her performances are constructed along a brisk series of loosely associated provocations, or “bits,” in the cellular fashion of a standup set or a sketch show. Rather than employing a narrative through-line or any grand thematic framing to make the work cohere, she accompanies herself with a small congregation of props that all share a strict color palette. Her scenes operate more like impressions than jokes, minus the clap of recognition; the material is both more familiar and more elusive than, say, mimicking a famous person (though there’s some of that, too). With each successive mini-skit, she dances farther into the unstable – and much more satisfying – space between understanding and wondering. Though she relies on props, she doesn’t need the crutch of a punchline. For audiences, the surprising discovery is that neither do we.

Moser’s magic is that she nails the un-gettable. Why does bursting out of an inflatable pink coffin and declaring “I’m not finished yet!” feel so hilariously precise, and yet unplaceable? Part of the answer is that huffing one’s own CO2 back out of the aforementioned pink coffin, or miming a conversation between two platform yellow Crocs, or telling a plastic smiley-face bag that “somebody’s cooking the books,” isn’t comedy. It’s art, and more than that, it’s new – as new as any of the moments in art’s history when audiences and critics had to stop and say, “Is this art too?”

Bridget Moser, 2019. Photo by Jean-Michael Seminaro.

Skepticism has dogged Moser throughout her career, mainly from other artists and artworld impresarios who take issue with all the laughs. She’s unfazed by the haters. If she’s a clown, then she’s a fighter clown. I’d noticed her expression harden like a boxer’s when I asked about the unflattering aspects of her work – sensing, perhaps, a veiled slight. And her eyes began glinting dangerously when I tried to ascertain what she considers a misinterpretation of her work.

“I’ve had people tell me that it’s not actually funny, which I think is a misinterpretation.”

“Who are those people?”

“Mostly men.”

Moser’s work has sometimes flummoxed her peers in the contemporary artworld. Even at the MOMENTA performance I attended, the audience was strangely stern. After loosing a few solitary giggles into the cramped exhibition space, I became the person continually turning around in their seat. Why was no one laughing? The international delegation of professionals at MOMENTA weren’t having it. They studied Moser’s hijinks as if contemplating a Rothko.

Are artworld crowds the absolute worst? I asked Tjepkema about it after the show. “Maybe they don’t know they’re allowed to laugh,” he guessed. For her part, Moser was equanimous. She likes to make people laugh, but she also appreciates a more attentive and serious-minded audience.

Moser says she’s been running into (mostly male) gatekeepers from the beginning, who accuse her of frivolousness. “That word comes up a lot,” she tells me. Conversely, attempts to take her seriously have sometimes been condescending. One time, the art writer Robert Enright asked her if the “semi-feminist undertones” to her work were purposeful. She laughs, shaking her head: “It’s this idea that I could live my whole life and then make vague feminist statements by accident. No, that’s backed up by some lived experience.”

Like some of the more robust characters she lampoons – the boardroom orators and entitled white ladies – Moser tends to deliver her opinions in clipped, declarative sentences. To conclude her performance of Chaotic Neutral at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 2017, she announced, “The painting should be destroyed!” (a clear echo of the famous backlash to Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, 2016). But she won’t wander out onto a limb if she’s not confident. Lacking a ready answer to an interview question, she’ll pause and then say, “I don’t know, I’ll have to think about that.”

In conversation, however, her decisiveness is a fast, playful current. It’s as though she’s experimenting with telling the bluntest possible truth, though she knows it might be bullshit. The first time we met, I asked about her relationship to comedy. “I hate most of it and I dislike a lot of it,” she replied. Though she admires comics like Stewart Lee and Reggie Watts, most standup comedy ends up with “somebody doing misogynistic, racist, homophobic jokes, and it’s not funny.”

While the famous older men who roost over the comedy world – Chappelle, Seinfeld, Burr, Rock – are seizing the current moment to loudly wallow in wounded feelings about political correctness, Moser thinks they’re just sad that their jokes aren’t funny anymore. Meanwhile, look at TikTok, she says: kids these days are weirder and funnier than ever.

Moser hates improv even more than comedy. She spent a year on her high-school improv team, however. “I still feel residual embarrassment,” she says. “But it taught me a lot about surviving being deeply embarrassed in front of people. Now I find it funny to do things that seem embarrassing.”

It was this willingness to do and say embarrassing things – to make of herself an unhinged or unflattering display, and to dredge up the humiliations of an all-too-human physical body, especially in an age of mandatory personal branding – that captivated me when I first saw her perform in the picture window at 8/11 Gallery in Toronto, back in 2014. Titled TENDER OFFER PART 1, the work begins with Moser making a dramatic entry in a white suit to the strains of a knock-off Moby tune played on a synthesizer, whereupon a computerized voice starts asking her probing questions, like, “Have you ever pre-emptively deleted an email from Shopper’s Drug Mart because it contained coupons based on previous purchases affiliated with your Optimum card and you preferred not to be reminded of your prior bodily ailments?” To which she shakes her head, unconvincingly.

TENDER OFFER PART 1 contains many of the signature moments that continue to reappear in her performances: aggressive head-banging (Moser makes great use of her long, straight blonde hair: sometimes as a curtain, sometimes as a hurricane); elaborate prop gags (e.g. she rides an ironing board as a motorcycle); personal wellness pep talks, trivial rants, florid confessions, and defiant motivational sermons (at one point she proclaims “I’ve got to light my abundance candle!”); as well as dramatic musical crescendos, heavy breathing, balletic transitions, pregnant silences, and fervid “videostyle” dancing.

Watching her perform, you start to realize the extent to which most performance – especially serious performance – strives to seduce. Moser, with a toilet plunger planted on her stomach and her chin tucked into her neck, rejects all that. To me, she’s bold as hell.

“Does it take courage to make your performances?” I ask.

“No. Not at all,“ she replies, waving away the idea. “A lot of the reaction is, ‘Oh, it’s so brave.’ But it’s really not. I know exactly what I’m about to do and I’ve chosen it for really specific reasons. I get super nervous before performances, especially if it’s the first time. But only because I’m worried I’m going to fuck it up.”

“I guess you’re not putting yourself out there.”

“No, not at all.”

Two months later, I still feel mystified by this response. But Moser is clear: ascribing vulnerability to her work is a mistake. Maybe a sexist one? Would anyone ask a male comic if he felt scared to portray himself in an unflattering light? Certainly, Moser’s work belongs squarely in the feminist tradition of abject art, of which Cindy Sherman’s allegorical self-portraits, and especially the sumptuous crookedness of her more recent digital selfies, offer an illuminating parallel.

Bridget Moser, 2019. Photo by Jean-Michael Seminaro.

Moser’s latest work Scream if You Want to Go Faster (performed for the first time at the EMERGE festival at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal on November 20, 2019) included a sequence in which she wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “MEATBAR” and pouts submissively, “I’m a pathetic little meatbar, you would never stoop so low as to eat me, would you?” She identifies more strongly with multimedia performers like Laurie Anderson and Julia Heyward, who drew on theater, dance, and music to make work that playfully refracts dismal commercial culture and the eminently silly world of high art.

Even in her public posts on social media, Moser doesn’t seem to hesitate in revealing things that others might find embarrassing. For several weeks in October she was posting her “Snore Score” on Instagram, from an app that recorded her while she slept. At the time of this writing, she had 35 nights worth of recordings of what she calls “the worst sounds in the world.” (Her highest score was 87; a typical user’s score is 25.) Telling Moser that she’s brave is just a roundabout way of asking her why she’s not scared of bullies.

“What is the thing I’m supposed to be risking?” she wonders aloud, over a vegan quesadilla a few weeks later, the morning after the EMERGE performance, when we return to the question of why people think she’s brave. “Nothing.”

Moser wasn’t always this insouciant. Her first public performance, at a Montreal DIY art space in 2010, was “very poorly received,” she says. It involved holding up a Furby to the opening strains of The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” song. “To be fair, the performance wasn’t good. But, the reception was, ‘Oh, you’re making fun of performance’.”

The negative reaction put her off performing for a while. Then, in 2012, she participated in a two-month Experimental Comedy Training Camp Residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, led by the American performance artists Michael Portnoy and Kira Nova.

Moser hadn’t realized it was a performance-based residency; she planned to make videos and do some writing. “Then I got there and they said: ‘Okay, everybody has to perform every week’.” On the first day, Moser showed her video Wherein the Part of Horatio is Played by a Succession of Inanimate Objects (2010), in which she throws sunglasses at household items to the sound of one-liners spoken by the character of Horatio Caine, played indelibly by David Caruso, in the opening sequences of CSI: Miami. The video is weirdly, disconcertingly funny – classic Moser – but lacks the authentic pathos that would both temper and elevate her surrealism once she moved into self-portraiture. Now secure inside the frame, Moser’s ability to create meaningful contact with her audiences enables her to make even broader lyrical and associative leaps, without leaving us behind.

During a studio visit at the residency, Portnoy challenged Moser to do everything she wanted to do in a performance and see what it looked like. The suggestion proved to be a critical catalyst for her subsequent work. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what I should be doing’,” says Moser. “I cannot imagine what my life would have been if I had not done that residency.”

Though Portnoy doesn’t remember the encounter, he says he’s followed her work from afar: “There’s a very clear line from her first performances at Banff to her current work,” he wrote in an email. “The awkward dramatic tension, the critique of ‘the good life,’ the misuse or abstraction of common household objects, the warped lyricism, the abject, obsessional movement were all there, but now she’s deepened and complicated her approaches and knit them into a fuller aesthetic universe.”

Before the residency, in the years since graduating from Concordia University with a degree in studio arts, Moser had been working at a cookware wholesaler and manufacturer in Montreal called Orly Global Trading. She designed packaging and wrote copy for trade magazines. “Check out this sexy ceramic non-stick we’ve got,” she mimics. “It was really depressing.”

Still, Moser’s experience as a cookware designer has informed the bleak consumerist quality of her current work. “It was a time when I would be surrounded by 20-foot-high piles of household objects,” she says. “It felt completely stupid.”

“Stupid” is a word Moser turns to often, though usually to describe the things she loves most. For example, one major benefit of her time as a cookware marketer was attending the Chicago International Housewares Tradeshow, where she would visit the Pantone booth. What’s Pantone again? “Color. They sell color. Which is ridiculous,” Moser explains. “That was where I would spend the most time, because it was just very good text.”

Color has figured more and more strongly in Moser’s work as a defining formal element. She tends to build off a core object and then search for other things that closely match. In the Scream if You Want to Go Faster performance, it was the lime green and baby blue of the Meatbar shirt. “I don’t really like those colors, so it was difficult.” She had seen the Meatbars in stores (amazingly, actual bars made of “grass-fed beef” called Meatbars really existed, though they have since been discontinued) and then a friend found a shirt with the logo on it at a secondhand shop, which felt like destiny.

While her relationship to color has deepened, Moser’s basic approach to making performance has remained pretty consistent since the Banff Residency. Returning to Toronto, she became a mainstay at the storied alternative comedy series “Doored,” run by the artist-duo Life of a Craphead. Working steadily, she refined her practice: an intensely solitary process of semi-indolent, semi-panicked grazing for material, playing around with funny objects in her bedroom and writing scripts by hand. She doesn’t share unfinished work and never uses an “outside eye” the way choreographers often do, instead relying exclusively on her own instincts and meticulous planning. When she performs a new work, it’s the first time anyone has seen it.

The formula works. Over the years Moser has performed at the AGO, Mercer Union, the Vancouver Art Gallery, Xing (Raum) in Bologna, Italy, and the Fusebox Festival in Austin, Texas, among many others throughout North America and Europe. In 2017, Moser was shortlisted for the Sobey Art Award, Canada’s most prestigious contemporary art prize for artists under 40. Moser used part of her $10,000 winnings (that shortlisted artists received) to get her cat spayed – a stray that she and Paul managed to entice into their home one cold winter’s night – and to buy Paul a Playstation. She’s increasingly in demand. In March of 2020, Remai Modern in Saskatoon will host her first solo museum show, titled My Crops Are Dying but My Body Persists, which will include an exhibition of objects and video works, as well as a performance of Scream if You Want to Go Faster.

Bridget Moser, 2019. Photo by Yuula Benivolski

Moser has been able to maintain financial independence from the artworld. A year after finishing the Banff residency, she started working as a ghostwriter for a plastic surgeon in Toronto, a job she still holds today. “The alternative option would be writing grants all the time, which I just don’t want to do,” she says.

There’s an irony to this work, as plastic surgery certainly belongs to the category of activities she might spoof. Look past the gags, and you’ll find Moser consistently militating against the forces of destabilization – that is, anything that inspires self-doubt or fear. She mocks the voices that seek to undermine people’s sense of security and worth, from Alex Jones and Jordan Peterson to self-help gurus and religious doomsayers. But her job is speaking directly to those craving external transformation.

For Moser, the job challenges her “to rethink how I understand bodily autonomy,” she says. “Of course you want people to feel like they don’t need to change these things in order to feel good, but we still live in a culture that makes some people feel that way, so it seems even shittier to be like, And now we also want to shame you if you choose to change it.”

Having a well-paying job also gives Moser the ability to buy material for her art. Shopping is critical to her process. Moser lives just off Toronto’s Yonge Street, a ramshackle tourist drag that cuts the city into east and west. When she’s upset or stressed, she walks a couple blocks down to the Eaton Centre, a mega-mall, to hunt for props and materials. “I like to try something on and then think about it for four hours and just walk around before I commit to it.”

Moser used to be a regular at Honest Ed’s, Toronto’s famous department store for bargain-priced goods. Most of it was useful stuff and “10% was the weirdest stuff that nowhere else could sell.” She knew the layout well and would “do the route” in about three hours. Honest Ed’s closed in 2016 and, for Moser, nothing has replaced it. Now she mostly shops online, but she hates it. “It’s hard to know how something will be until you can touch it and do stuff with it.” Maybe one in seven things she buys online actually makes it into her work.

Her go-to for online shopping is Amazon. “It’s very evil,” she says, though she acknowledges that “it’s nice to have the algorithm to work with.” Search terms like “self-massage tools” or “self-comfort” have surfaced memorable objects from her performances, like the arm pillow in What Will Stay You Alive. The inflatable coffin she found on Instagram. “That one’ll get you,” she says, with mock ruefulness.

The morning after the EMERGE performance, we meet at a restaurant in the student housing area of McGill University, down the street from her hotel. It had been a crazy week. Workers at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal had gone on strike just before the festival, including the two curators who’d invited Moser to create and perform new work and with whom she’d felt a good connection. She’d joined the picket line as soon as she arrived in the city and was ready to cancel her performance, but the workers reached a temporary agreement the day before Scream if You Want to Go Faster was scheduled to debut, so she went ahead with it. Now she was feeling a bit drained and disoriented.

With Scream, Moser is experimenting with more overt and assertive politicization. Early in the performance, she delivers a cascading series of demands, which she would later describe as a “whiteness list”: “I’m not here for nothing, I’m here for me, for the consuming and destroying, the hoarding and decluttering, the binging and purging, the insatiable wants and unnecessary needs, the hiding and avoiding and rationalizing, […] the will to change and the desire to hold on tighter, the shock of a reality too complex and painful to reconcile oneself to, and the luxury to ignore.”

Commenting and reflecting on “whiteness” and capitalism have always been prominent ingredients of her work, especially since 2015, when she says she got “bored of rehashing my own anxieties over and over again and the lens had to shift.” But she’s found that her audiences don’t seem to be readily catching these themes, and she worries about it. “I always feel like when I want to talk about those things, I shouldn’t do that, because it’s so literal, or not abstract enough to be art,” she tells me. “But sometimes I feel like I’m talking about something and then realize later that no one else is picking up on that part of it.”

The question of lucidity – of how clearly to telegraph her ideas and messages – is “a problem I have to keep working on,” she wrote to me later in an email. Thankfully, Moser has built a form for her work that is so reliably fascinating and satisfying, she has given herself a durable artistic structure in which to keep experimenting. “I want to show you a solution, but I have none, because there is none, only a never-ending process of trying again,” she says in the final moments of Scream. “So try again.”

 

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