Exploding Plastics Inevitable

Tracy + the Plastics, Can You Pause That for a Second?, 2003/2014, performance and video, sound, color, 25 minutes 11 seconds. Wynne Greenwood.

Artist Wynne Greenwood is the creator of electronic art-punk band Tracy + the Plastics, 1999-2006, a video and live-performance hybrid in which she played the parts of all three members. Always working at the outer limits of what one could practically and conceptually pull off in a small rock club, the queer-feminist virtual bandmates presented an alternate world that was in turns abstract, fantastical, and all too real. (I had the pleasure of witnessing many of these legendary performances in the early ’00s while my own band Le Tigre toured with Tracy + the Plastics.) Recently, Greenwood re-performed and documented her work from this era. The resulting videos play in an L-shaped procession of monitors alongside her more recent video and sculptural work in “Kelly,” her solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York, which is on view until January 10. I caught up with Greenwood as she put the finishing touches on her installation. —Johanna Fateman

JOHANNA FATEMAN: I’m interested in the cultural moment when this all started. There’s a semi official consensus around the approximate dates of riot grrrl as a historical movement—its first wave, anyway. It began in 1989 and ended in 1996. Maybe that’s arbitrary, but I find it personally useful. It makes sense to me because after ’96 there was this floundering around in our scene, what could be called the post-riot grrrl scene. And then in ’99, new projects, among others, emerged that were based more in home recording, digital sampling, and video. Le Tigre started in ’99. So did Tracy + the Plastics. What was happening?

Wynne Greenwood: Aside from the floundering of that period—that’s a good word for it—The Need was happening in the mid-1990s. I’ve got to cite their influence. They were important. [The Need was a Pacific Northwest–based lesbian neo-prog rock band composed of Radio Sloan and Rachel Carns that dissolved in 2001.—JF] Their use of electronics, their experimentation with recording processes, their persona-making, and their graphic style—it all related to what I wanted to do but was not yet doing.

JF: They had a strong band culture, their own mythology. It was so artificial and alien to the indie-rock realism of the day.

WG: Also, they were my introduction to a feminist community, a queer, post–riot grrrl artist community.

Left: Promotional sheet for the Need, 1997. Right: The Need performing in 1997.

JF: Wow, I’m just now remembering that I first met you, or first saw you perform, while I was on tour with The Need. I was along for the ride, selling T-shirts for them. You were in the band MeMe America that opened for them at a tiny Smith College show organized by K8 Hardy. Like in ’97. Is that right?

WG: That’s right! MeMe America was my band with Sally Scardino. We used video and a drum machine along with guitar and vocals. That was right after I dropped out of college. And then a couple of years later, I sent you a VHS tape that got stuck in your mailbox. It was an early, single-channel representation of Tracy + the Plastics.

JF: Yeah, it got stuck. That was right when Le Tigre was writing our first record. I remember feeling like we were all deconstructing the idea of a band. If punk deconstructed rock, and girls deconstructed punk, now we were deconstructing girl-punk. Why should a band be “a band” at all? Like, with instruments. Of course there were other reasons we turned to electronic music and sampling. It was something new, plus it was cheaper and easier.

WG: Yes. After MeMe America ended, I started performing solo sometimes, using Tracy as a stage name. I was also working on a separate video project, developing the characters that would become the Plastics. By 2000, I had incorporated the video stuff with live performance and I went on tour. All of the songs, the backing tracks that I sang with, were recorded onto VHS tapes. I performed as Tracy. Nikki and Cola’s heads appeared on two monitors that were on stage with me. They didn’t talk to each other yet though.

Excerpts from Tracy + the Plastics, Can You Pause That for a Second?, 2003.

JF: So, can you break it down for everyone? Who were the different characters?

WG: Nikki was the keyboard player and she was the artist, or the one who really wanted to be an artist but was in a band, maybe by accident. Cola was the drummer. She was the most “political.” She was very antagonistic. Her voice got a lot deeper throughout the project. She became almost monosyllabic, more like a drum set. Tracy was… Well, at the beginning, the goal was for Tracy to be a dude, a heavy-metal dude. I love the name Tracy because it’s unisex.

JF: Tracy was like a drag king. I mean, you have a cool mustache naturally, and then for Tracy, you sometimes drew another one on top of it.

WG: Yeah. Tracy totally wanted to be a drag king as well as a disco singer. I was very influenced by the gender-queer drag culture of the time. Drawing a second mustache on was a way to claim the first one—as a gender expression, but also as a statement against straight, sexist beauty standards. Now I think it’s more acceptable to have a mustache, but only if you’re considered beautiful, desirable, or even interesting according to rigid cultural norms.

JF: Yeah. So, with these characters, and their interactions, I feel like you broached some sensitive stuff, new territory. You were looking at the dynamics of a “girl band.” While our scene was radically honest about a lot of stuff—or wanted to be—no one was really publicly addressing tension and dysfunction between feminists, or specifically between feminist bandmates.

WG: I don’t think I set out knowing I would explore how women are creative together, but from the very beginning there was tension in Tracy + the Plastics. I remember the first time Cola spoke directly to Tracy. It’s missing from this show because I couldn’t find the original backing video, but in that early scene, Cola is wearing the same outfit as Tracy. She’s even wearing a headband that says “Tracy” on it. And Tracy asks her, “Why are you wearing my outfit?” She replies, “Well, anybody can do what you’re doing.” Their exchange was a way to establish the band’s questioning of authority. Who’s the leader? And why? And what’s that about? When I was in high school, I used to think that if I were in a band we would all be soulmates. I was yearning for that kind of relationship and this was a way of confronting that desire. Confronting the reality that relationships and collaborations are imperfect.

JF: I think the utopian idea of sisterhood is disproven every time women try to do anything together, which isn’t …

WG: … it isn’t a bad thing

JF: Right, it isn’t a condemnation of feminism to say that. It doesn’t mean women shouldn’t do things together.

WG: Yeah. And I want to name jealousy and competition as pieces of the larger cultural context that we can’t escape when in relationships. I don’t want to escape it. I want to deal with it and represent the complexity of that struggle.

The Need performing at Rice University in Houston on April 2, 2000.

JF: I’m just scanning down this row of monitors, seeing you transition from un-synched to interactive video, and your move from monitors to projection. Then you begin using green-screen and animation.

WG: Right, the green-screen stuff started in 2002. It was important to my work. There was so much layering going on already, performance on top of performance, and then the green-screen environments allowed me to create portals to cut through those layers.

JF: It’s a huge amount of work, and your practice evolved over the years. I always knew that, but it’s hitting me now, seeing it all in one place. I want to ask the basic question: Why? Why revisit and reperform Tracy + The Plastics?

WG: Well, there was no documentation. I performed mostly in rock clubs, in bars, and there is no record of that happening. I realized that this would all be lost. In my personal archive, I had many of the props I used, as well as the costumes and the backing videos. But to represent the performances I knew I’d have to recreate them. Before I started, I wondered why someone in the future might look back at this project. What would it tell them? I thought it would tell them something about the physical experience of media. Fundamentally, Tracy + the Plastics was about video and mass media, about media’s messaging and how we hold that in our bodies, how we create and hold our identities. There was something very physical about the way I wanted to work with the technology. With the band, I created a situation in which I would physically encounter video versions of myself. I was forced to negotiate and coordinate my body, my responses and timing to share space and time with these characters. And I did this just before the advent of social media, and the mass production and use of mobile phones with video. That said, I’ve been really wary of this project becoming just about asking, “Remember when?” It’s really fun to nostalgically compare this stuff with the present day but… that’s not my point.

JF: Well, I think that archives exist for when we all die and no one can say, “Remember when it was crazy to have a mustache?”

WG: But wait, that’s actually an important question to ask! So, do I have to write that question on top of the archive so that people will remember to ask it?

JF: You mean how do you create the historical context for this for future viewers? Well, that’s not your problem. You can’t do everything.

WG: Also, I don’t know what to do with this stuff now. Should it be free online? Who hosts that? I can’t do it.

JF: Yeah, me neither. Was it difficult to reperform the material? Did you have trouble looking back at the old stuff?

Left: Wynne Greenwood. Right: Tracy + the Plastics, Parts, 2001/2014, performance and video, sound, color, 26 minutes 28 seconds. Wynne Greenwood.

WG: I started gathering the backing videos and taking stock of them in 2013. By that time some were twelve years old! Luckily, I had already passed through the phase where I was like, “This is the most awful thing I’ve ever made. I’ll never show it to anyone,” and I’d gotten to the point where the old work gave me joy. I have a lot of compassion for my younger self.

JF: Right, so it was like watching student work. Someone else’s student work.

WG: Totally. All of these shows were reperformed and documented in 2014 and 2015, which means that this is my thirty-six or thirty-seven-year-old body standing next to my early-twenties body on the prerecorded video. I had some questions about this that are hard to summarize. For example, I wondered if I should lose ten pounds because I weighed less back then. Ultimately it was liberating to not lose weight and to say, “This is my body.” It was a moment of shoring up my own feminism and… love. I did grow out my hair so I could have a similar hairstyle, though.

JF: You wanted to look the same.

WG: I did. I wanted to create the illusion this documentation had been made at the time. And I wanted complete uniformity. Every video here was shot with the same framing, the same hairstyle.

JF: Why’s the show called “Kelly”?

WG: So, the show at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery in Portland, Oregon last fall was called “Stacy.” It brought together the two bodies of work that bookend my practice thus far: Tracy + the Plastics and my More Heads work. For my More Heads videos, I perform dialogue for my head sculptures. The series is about how we, as individuals, internalize oppression and violence, and how we recreate it in our personal relationships. Seeing these works together revealed my own strategies to me. I could know them better, use them better, and work with them more intentionally. Like dialogue! I had never really thought about how important dialogue is to my work. That sounds ridiculous because that’s all Tracy + the Plastics really is. And with the More Heads videos I was returning to that, to giving voice to characters. Anyway, I called that show “Stacy.” I was kind of riffing off of Tracy + the Plastics’ imaginary friend Stacy, who was their manager. She was out of work and they employed her. And then, when you go to those websites for baby names and type in “Stacy” they tell you that people who like “Stacy” also like “Kelly.” The heads don’t have names though.

*View of Wynne Greenwood: “Kelly,” 2015–16, New Museum, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse.

JF: They look like Mr. Potato Heads, this little group over here.

WG: They do. You know, I never had a Mr. Potato Head.

JF: Did you want one?

WG: I thought they were really cool.

JF: Wait, I still don’t understand actually. Who is Kelly? Are you creating her during this residency? 

WG: No. No it’s just a way to hold space.

JF: Ok, it’s just a title. Next question: You’re not engaging with art history and theory as much as you are with feminist history, like the history of the political movement called “feminism,” or the history of various feminist subcultural aesthetics. And then there are also pop-cultural references, regarding the history of gender and performance in pop culture. Well, I guess my question is: Is that true?

WG: Yes and no. Yes, because I began this project outside of the context of the capital-“A” Art World, and because I am very committed to speaking in an accessible language. I’m not talking to art people, necessarily. The theories I’m interested in are not divorced—they can’t be—from political questions about how we live. With my newer work, I’m trying to situate queerness within conversations about peace, cultural peace—and violence. For example, the most recent piece I made is a conversation between a head made of fake bricks and a head made of decorative butterfly wings about “compromise.” The heads’ materials really inform their personalities and ideology. Also, I love the way that feminists talk and take time to hear each other. I like that still water treading. You know, “We’re not trying to get there as fast as we can. We’re going to sit here and deal with it.” I think that really comes out in my work formally, in the way that I edit, the pacing.

JF: I hadn’t thought of that, and I feel like it really illuminates the sense of queer-feminist cultural history that’s embedded in the work beyond your surface references.

WG: Yeah, I am always considering the formal qualities of what I do. For example, I think of the deadpan or “flat” affect of my characters as a response, or a dramatization, of video’s flattening of the picture plane. And I collapse time, create impossible simultaneity, by pairing live performance with prerecorded material. But then, I can’t help but ask: How are these formal qualities or capabilities of video and performance also queer strategies, feminist strategies? And how can they be used in the creation of new realities and experiences?

Wynne Greenwood’s “Kelly” is on view through January 10, 2016 at the New Museum in New York.