Thursday, May 28, 2009

Interview: Object Mobile creator and proprietor Laura Moulton on Bing Lang Girls, pocket mustaches, and looking for the helper

Telling our boss we were going out for a quick cigarette, this individual mitochondrian of the vast leviathan that is PDXWD wandered into the south Park Blocks yesterday to visit the Object Mobile and its creator/proprietor, Laura Moulton. We later emailed her some questions about the project, which she was gracious enough to answer:

PDXWD: So how did this project get started? Did you have an idea and then look for funding or a program, or did you get funding or get involved in a program, and then develop the idea later?

Laura Moulton: I was one of a group of artists invited to submit a proposal for an art project through the Oregon Arts Commission's "Percent for Art" program. The main stipulation was that it somehow involve the Smith Memorial Student Union building, and students in and around it. In this case I was accepted first based on a general proposal, and then I developed a more specific idea of what I wanted to do as time went on.

PDXWD: What kind of art pieces/projects/installations have you done in the past?

Laura Moulton: An early print project I did was called the "Taoyuan County Cowgirl Gazette" which was basically a very weird 'zine my friend and I made while living in Taiwan. It featured reviews of different "Bing Lang" girls (scantily clad betel nut vendors who worked in little brightly lit booths), scandalous suggestions for classroom management while teaching English, and an odd crossword puzzle that caused even the most hardened expat to stub out a cigarette at the bar and pick up a pencil. After I moved to Portland, I worked as a temp at the post office during a Christmas holiday and I put together a homemade yearbook for all of the temps (complete with the requisite photo, hobbies, and inspirational quote). There was a surprising amount of hugging after I distributed it. My sidekick Ben and I ran the literary journal Gumball Poetry ( for about 9 years before we closed it down, and that was a project that distributed poems in gumball machines across the States and published online as well. More recently I helped create Project Hamad, a website that features the story of a Sudanese man named Adel Hamad whom the U.S. detained for more than six years at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. This past fall I attended the weekly art lectures for PSU’s MFA series and created a 'zine about each artist and lecture, which I then distributed to the MFA students in January. I also make collage and work with encaustic wax, though it's been a while since I was doing that regularly. I'm raising 2 small children, so I have to be more careful with the hot tins of wax.

PDXWD: Who made the Object Mobile itself? What is it made out of? How did you transport it
to the site?

Laura Moulton: The Object Mobile was designed and built by Greenworks Design Studio, which is basically comprised of designer/architect/artists including my brother, James Moulton, as well as the artist Kari Merkle, who among other things designed and installed the beautiful red velvet upholstery behind each typewriter. It's made out of wood and has plexiglass boxes which feature meaningful objects contributed by PSU students.

PDXWD: Where did you get the objects and writing that are already displayed?

Laura Moulton: I gave my two student assistants, Rozzell Medina and Crystal Baxley, empty freezer bags with a collections form in each, and they set out to gather objects from PSU students. Each object is labeled and has a brief description contributed by its owner. It's a great collection: a Dopey mug from Disney on Ice, a doll, a mixed tape, a pair of ankle socks that say "You can't afford me," and so on. Some really funny, tender contributions.

PDXWD: Where did you get the typewriters? What kind of typewriters are they? How did they handle the stress of being transported?

Laura Moulton: The typewriters are from a very cool old shop in St. John's called "Ace Typewriters." The owner is named Matt and he reminds me a lot of the writer Tim O'Brien. I was standing in the store with my brother James, studying all the different types of antique typewriters there, when I reached in my pocket and felt this terrible hairy thing. Since Matt was in the middle of telling me about the features of one of the typewriters, I tamped down a yell and when he was finished, I fished the thing out of my pocket and held it up in front of my brother. "Did you put your fake mustache in my pocket?" I asked him. Matt laughed, which is how I knew he was a good sport. There's a great story about him and his family's history with typewriters here:

So far the typewriters are holding up, though they are ancient Royals and by the end of today, the ink was getting faint on the page. The other problem is that we're all so used to this light, feathery typing on laptops now and these typewriters call for a serious finger-peck to make an impression. So as people sat down to describe their object, I think it was more of a workout than they'd anticipated. Hopefully not too much.

PDXWD: What kinds of difficulties did you encounter in getting this project completed?

Laura Moulton: Ugh. Bureaucracies. And just trying to spell the word "bureaucracies."

PDXWD: How have people responded to the Object Mobile? What have they asked you?

Laura Moulton: The Object Mobile is visually arresting and I've watched people spot the thing and then make a beeline for it, peer into its windows and really get into it. It's had a very enthusiastic response so far. I think people mostly asked about where the objects came from, whether the students will get them back (they will) and so on.

PDXWD: What kinds of things are people writing about? And what will happen to the things they've written?

Laura Moulton: A mushroom-shaped cookie container. A ring. A handheld tape recorder. A harmonica. A dirty little bunny. And many more great ones. My plan is to compile everything into an online 'zine (available in a pdf) and there will also be a print copy on hand with the final installation in the Smith building (2nd floor, just outside the elevators).

PDXWD: What will that installation in the Smith building be?

Laura Moulton: The permanent installation will be one wall of the Object Mobile, complete with the plexiglass windows that will feature several objects donated by students for the permanent collection. It will also have an explanation of the project, photos, and a hard copy of the collection of object descriptions (both typed and drawn) contributed by students who have participated over the last few days.

PDXWD: What has surprised you about the project? Any unforeseen events, feelings, thoughts, insights?

Laura Moulton: I guess with all the focus on building the thing, I hadn't given as much thought to how it would be to finally have it installed and interacting with the public. I had some really nice exchanges with people today, and I look forward to meeting and talking to others in the next two days.

PDXWD: What will happen to "the rest of" the mobile after Friday?

Laura Moulton: To be determined.

PDXWD: What will be next for you? Are you working on any other projects?

Laura Moulton: I have in mind a project called "Look for the Helper" that comes from an idea I got while reading "Mr. Rogers Talks With Parents." It's based on something his mother told him when he was a kid and he was troubled by some kind of terrible news article. She said that in every sad newspaper story, there was always someone who was trying to help the situation (doctors, nurses, friends). So that's how he approached media in general: he looked for the helper. I've got some different ideas going about that -- no specifics I want to trot out just yet. I'm also at work on a novel -- it's a bit slow-doing, but I remember: the oxen are slow but the earth is patient.

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