A Soap Opera About Solitude Indoors: Whispering Pines 10 Launches Online For Free
A woman wants to save the world, but she can’t leave the house. If the premise of Shana Moulton and Nick Hallett’s Creative Capital Project, Whispering Pines ∞, sounds familiar, the timing is not entirely a coincidence. The tenth episode in Moulton’s cult video art series, Whispering Pines is a cross-platform opera, written in collaboration with composer Hallett. In 2018, the first chapters of a new, made-for-internet adaptation launched through the New Museum’s digital portal. Considering that much of the world is isolated indoors due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Moulton and Hallett have made the entire online work viewable, for free. But pay attention for clues—to gain access to the finale, you need to figure out the password.
We spoke to the artists to learn more.
Alex—Can you describe the project in your own words?
Shana Moulton—Whispering Pines is the video art series I began in 2002, and is named after the mobile home park where I grew up, near Yosemite, California. I appear in them as my alter ego, named Cynthia, who is essentially me when I am alone, feeling anxious, alienated, or filled with existential dread about how I can prevent aging and illness. But she is also me when I have a creative or mystical revelation.
For this tenth episode, I was inspired by Julia Butterfly Hill’s 738 days tree-sit, which took place between 1997 and 1999, the same time as I was studying performance art. She effectively saved a 1500-year-old California Redwood and surrounding trees from being logged. I saw it as both activism and as a durational performance, in the tradition of Tehching Hsieh’s year-long pieces. It was the kind of work I imagined I would do as an artist, blending my surrealist/absurdist approach with that type of direct activism. But I have yet to find a way of doing it. In Whispering Pines 10, Cynthia becomes an expression of that failure.
Nick Hallett—The music I wrote was a sort of fan fiction to Shana’s earliest videos. I wanted to get into Cynthia’s head, and hear what the voices inside sounded like. Now Shana and I have been working together for over a decade. I’ve gotten to see Cynthia grow as a character. She keeps getting closer and closer to nirvana with each new chapter. Fancier too, as Shana’s aesthetic develops. I draw on a very specific part of my voice to channel Cynthia’s world, that I love to keep coming back to. But the musical vocabulary has definitely expanded as well, due in great part to our sound designer, Jeff Cook, who has been with us since the beginning.
“Self-care has never been more important, on a global level. The creative potential of solitude is going to be completely rethought.” — Nick Hallett
I wanted the mixes for internet to sound more like an engineered album or soundtrack, than the live opera, which was expectedly more formal. I’m thrilled that Whispering Pines 10 can now be experienced the same way I was introduced to Shana’s work.
Alex—What’s interesting to me about your choice to launch all episodes online for free is that it’s a moment where we’re asked to experience drama without leaving the house. Isn’t that the plight of Cynthia? I feel like we’re all in Cynthia’s position now.
Shana—Cynthia both suffers from and is inspired by her isolation. She definitely has moments of bliss. I am pretty comfortable with staying home alone for days on end. Since I grew up in a senior mobile home park, I didn’t have a lot of playmates in the neighborhood, and I learned to rely on myself for entertainment.
But I also think a lot about the alienation of seniors in general, and particularly right now. Even though I started working with this alter-ego in my 20s, I think her plight is most connected to the senior demographic that I grew up with—people that spent a lot of time alone and who cultivated fantasy worlds in their homes, through decor, puzzles, pets, and soap operas.
Nick—Perhaps this is Cynthia’s moment. Self-care has never been more important, on a global level. The creative potential of solitude is going to be completely rethought.
Alex—I couldn’t agree more. Can you talk about the various iterations of the work? It’s amazing to me how many different platforms this exists on!
Nick—Shana’s practice encompasses performance, video, and the plastic arts. I approached her about the idea of collaborating on an opera because the Whispering Pines series was already bridging these gaps in the contemporary art world. All it needed was music. From the beginning, the project wanted to take all the possible forms. It just needed time. Developing it as a live performance allowed the music to shape the story, which is what opera is supposed to do. I call Whispering Pines 10 an Eco-Feminist Gesamtkunstwerk. It has been acted on the stage, installed in galleries, and viewed in screening rooms. There are animated GIFs and ringtones. A little snippet was aired on British television. Now the work lives online.
Shana—This new stage of the project rolled out in several phases. The first three chapters of the web site were released with New Museum’s online exhibition platform, Rhizome First Look. That section also screened at Galerie Crèvecoeur in Paris and Canada Gallery in New York. The multi-channel video installation version was first shown at Gregor Staiger gallery in Zurich and included six channels of video, five of which were looping animations.
Alex—How have the various audiences for this work responded? I wonder how other people connect with Cynthia.
Nick—Shana and I made the opera with kids in mind, but our audience is the art and performance worlds. When we played it at the Warhol Museum, the sound designer couldn’t find a babysitter for his daughter on the night of the show, and brought her to the theater. I was thrilled. She might have been six or seven. Afterwards, I asked what she thought. Without pause, she pointed out, “That wasn’t about anything,” as if it even needed to be explained.
The artist Penny Arcade had made the exact remark a few years earlier when the show premiered at The Kitchen, but I understood it a lot better coming from this young person. I hope more parents will share Whispering Pines 10 with their children.
Alex—So you received the Creative Capital Award in 2013 to adapt Whispering Pines 10 for the internet. How has Creative Capital been helpful to your work?
Shana—When we started this project we both lived in New York city, but since I moved to Germany, and then California. It’s been challenging to maintain a regular work schedule. The slow-burn timeframe has given me time to learn new technologies and tricks. How can I make a video environment look like it’s interactive when it’s actually just green-screened? How can I replicate the 3D animation with 2D tools and tricks?
I normally have a tight turn-around or have intense deadlines and pressure to bust out material really quickly, but this award has allowed us to work at our own pace. It’s been nice to sit on this material and work more carefully on it than I have in the past. It’s given me a deeper relationship to the work. I appreciate the lack of intense pressure I have had in other working scenarios.
Nick—Incredible pathways opened up for me as a result of getting the Creative Capital Award. I became more sought after as a collaborator, which shifted my career. Your professional development courses taught me how to navigate the terrain. I even started a business for my practice.
Ironically, all of this delayed production on the website. Creative Capital has never pressured us to premiere. They have let the work just be itself. This is a slow-burn project, which is why we used the infinity symbol in the title of our application!
Read more about and watch Whispering Pines 10.