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Marcia Custer

Photo by Ben Oblivion
Imagine a bubbly girl on stage belting out shimmery, low-fi pop songs. Now imagine that same girl holding a doll, making explosive sounds in front of an audience at a dingy DIY venue. And again, this same girl wearing an ill-fitting blonde wig, portraying Deb, the divorced mom for a YouTube audience. This is Marcia Custer, performance and multi-media artist living and working in Cleveland, part of a growing collective of performance and body-based artists in the area.

In the oft bizarre realm of performance art, alienating viewers is sometimes an easy task to accomplish. But Custer tends to disarm her audiences using humor in much of her work, “It’s a really good access point for people,” she says. “I like working in spaces where people are disturbed at least mildly. It’s a personal mission to bring people into the fold.” Custer’s work dips into a wide variety of investigations including childhood, otherness, social media culture and self-help. The idea of self-help being particularly curious, as she explains “Everything is now mediated – there’s an article about how to live your life in every situation, which ultimately leaves people very disempowered in making their own choices, using intuition and going with their gut.” She plays with that tension successfully, engaging her viewers in a way that makes them feel simultaneously uncomfortable and included.

As Custer continues to dig into her art practice in a naturally multi-faceted way, she’s also begun to hone in and examine what makes her tick. There is certainly a connection between her work as a bandmate and her performative work, with her solo noise performances existing almost as the culmination between performance and music-making. “My solo noise stuff is what I come back to and feel like what I can grow within.” See her live this weekend with Half an Animal, September 8th at MOCA and next weekend on September 15th at Survival Kit.

Q. Briefly describe the work you do

A. I make work that is often regarded as funny, strange, and uncomfortably freaky. Though I work in different capacities, it is all rooted in live performance. Sometimes I perform solo- at music venues, galleries, and theaters. I just finished a workshop production of a one-woman noise-comedy show at Cleveland Public Theater in April and took it on tour to D.C., Chapel Hill, N.C., Chicago, and Pittsburgh. As a solo performer, I use my body, voice, electronic sound devices, and props (especially my doll Stacey) to bring to light the comically unnerving and uncanny parts of the psyche. It is deeply cathartic for me, and I'm able to work through personal feelings that might otherwise be inexplicable- I find that words don't work well for interior experiences. In a nutshell, I play with childhood toys and make therapeutic noise. I hope that when others witness my performances, they're able to exorcise or process some feelings of their own.

Most recently, I've been focusing on singing with my noisey synth-glitter-pop band, Half an Animal. We are a trio of freak-deaky folks that play danceable music that is one part performance art and one part party. We often bring audience interaction and joy into the mix- our work is inspired by childhood and Northeast Ohio lake hangs and heartbreak. I've also been known to choreograph dances, make installations, and perform in theater productions.

Q. How did you get introduced to your craft?

A. I started going to ballets and Broadway shows as a kid. I loved to dance, express, and entertain. I even got kicked out of the Nutcracker for dancing in the aisles during the Sugarplum's solo! There was something about the truth of the body that I was drawn to- and the ability to communicate without words. I took ballet lessons for a decade but shied away from extracurriculars once I was in High School- I wanted to go to punk shows and hangout downtown and be a teen! I got into outsider and high-fashion, which probably explains my interest in heavy costuming for my characters. I went back to school for dance at Kent State University in 2011 and finished in 2014. Joan Meggitt's (Antaeus Dance) Hawkins-based classes were life changing for me. There was more freedom than ballet, but the practice maintained a style and form that I could read and understand without having to use words!

Q. Do you have any long-standing influences?

A. I'd say a lot of my influences are the people I'm working around right now- my band mates in Half an Animal, people that come through on tour to Cleveland, fellow freaks. I could give you a list of people I am really inspired by that may or may not have name recognition, such as Patti Smith (duh, always), Grace Jones, Laurie Anderson, Sarah Squirm, Faye Driscoll, Mariah Carey, Kathleen Hannah, Alexandra Tatarsky, Ben Oblivion, Leslie Hall, etc... I just went to MassMOCA and saw Laurie Anderson's VR work, and it was mind-blowing. When it comes to topics of inspiration, I continuously find myself exploring self-help (both the expansive, enlightening side of that as well as the treacherous quality of it as a commodity/snake oil), childhood, what it means to be a girl/other, and pop music.

Q. Describe your idea of artistic success

A. My idea of artistic success is simple: To share work with others, in many different communities, and witness those sharing their work with the world. I was able to get a taste of that while touring this summer, and that was eye-opening for me. I also think artistic success means supporting your artistic eco-system/community and hosting people who are doing work you're inspired by- and promoting access for everyone. I am honestly happy to continue collaborating and pushing myself to both make new work and dive deeper into what I find myself constantly drawn back to while working a socially-minded job that gives me the capital to keep doing what i love.

Q. What is your process for generating new ideas?

A. I generate new ideas by improvising with objects, new sound devices, and allowing my body to respond to the moment. I then create a score that is either super loose or super strict (I've used one script in my work before-- and it was a challenge!) There is a lot of improvisation that happens in my work, and I think that's what can make performance special. It's not just a YouTube video that couldn't care less if there is an audience there. The fact that we're all gathered in a space together to witness something happening LIVE is super fun and exciting and risky and I think that kind of moment demands our attention and our reverence. So I like to highlight the fact that ANYTHING could happen- and revel in it!

Q. How do you feel your work affects your audience? (and/or) How do you want your work to affect your audience?

A. After shows, people have come up to me and responded with exclamations like "How do you know exactly what's happening inside of my head??" to "That was SO weird" to "Are you ok?" And I like that there are many different ways to respond to visceral performance work. If people can find themselves feeling sympathy/concern/disgust toward me/the character/themselves/others in the world, then we are all in a better place than before because we're starting to break down our own barriers and let in other feelings and develop some kind of understanding. We need these kind of conversations- with so many more voices to be heard- now more than ever.