I caught a few episodes of Whispering Pines, multimedia wrangler Shana Moulton’s deranged New Age soap, when the artist visited Portland for 2008’s PDX Film Festival, so I knew what to expect, more or less, from Moulton’s appearance at the Works: she would don something unflattering to play Cynthia, an incessantly ailing schlemiel seeking spiritual breakthroughs in a dazzlingly bright and artificial world cobbled together by trickster After Effects gods.
I did not expect I would be so moved by something so ostensibly silly.
Whispering Pines 10 is the most elaborate iteration (that I’ve seen) of Moulton’s cracked universe yet, a forty-minute oddball extravaganza with an original libretto and score by Nick Hallett and an exhilarating feat of cyborg synchronization by Moulton, who performs against a video tryptich, interacting with the larger central screen like a human arrow cursor.
The narrative, such as it is, finds Cynthia experiencing a sort of baptism by Mac, as her world of New Age kitsch—think a Sedona crystal shop managed by QVC chatterboxes—morphs into an Apple desktop before delivering her to a transcendent encounter with a God-like spinning beach ball of death. This is not to mention the soprano (Daisy Press) delivering words of encouragement backed by a synth-pop score reminiscent of Stephen Merritt’s sappier moments. Or Cynthia’s face’s transformation into a butterfly. Or Cynthia’s struggles with a Pilates ball.
Or, most remarkable of all, the sheer thrill of watching Moulton match her movements to the world on screen—she “turns on” lights with perfectly-timed taps, for instance, and “dries herself off” by see-sawing along with a floating towel—which is a bit like watching a mad genius with a photographic memory play Simon.
There are certainly precedents for Moulton’s particular brand of lunacy. The video-performer interactions recall Wynne Greenwood’s work as Tracy + the Plastics, while the chintzy palette and cheap post-production put me in mind of Ryan Trecartin (A Family Finds Entertainment, I-Be Area). But Moulton’s hyper-superficial creation is stitched together and patched at the fragile parts with a sturdy sincerity, an empathy for one nutter’s frazzled attempts at understanding. Moulton’s apparent affection for Cynthia’s damaged longing extends to every one of us, who are all, more or less, totally confused and willing to do/try/be anything if it means grasping just what in the hell is going on.
An overly simple reduction of Moulton’s vast ongoing project? Possibly. Probably. But that is how I was moved, and the reason I eagerly await Whispering Pines 11. Oh, plus the face butterfly.
SEE IT: PICA’s ninth Time-Based Art festival continues through Sept. 18.