Video artist/musician Wynne Greenwood, the mastermind behind the art-punk "trio" Tracy and the Plastics, has fashioned herself as a sort of "riot grrrl" Wizard of Oz, replete with the smoke-and-mirror projections of her own fears and desires. There's just one major difference: In a Tracy and the Plastics performance, in which Greenwood performs as all three band members, any curtains behind which the wizard might hide are continually being torn down by the wizard herself.
"Art that knows itself, or knows where it came from -- that's what I'm interested in," says the 26-year-old recent Brooklyn transplant who just released her band's second full-length CD, Culture for Pigeon (accompanied by a DVD), and will soon complete her master's degree in fine arts at Bard College in upstate New York. "One of the faculty was recently talking about 'The Hollywood Moment,' that ultimate feeling that Hollywood movies create, which is to get hold of every sensory organ and say, 'We're going to take you out of yourself.' But the problem is, it also takes itself out of itself. I feel like those moments could be so much more delicate if the music and image were more aware of each other, or integrated in a more interesting way."
Projecting her alternate personas of Nikki, the art-purist keyboard player, and Cola, the political activist drummer, onto a video screen and performing alongside them, Greenwood essentially renders her band members as real -- so real, in fact, that sometimes even she is confused about who ultimately is in control.
"At first, when I would pick out outfits for the band to wear, I would think it was just an exaggeration of a performance we all go through every day when we're dressing," she says. "But the one moment where I thought, 'Okay, this is getting to be totally absurd,' was when I was videotaping Nikki, the keyboard player, and I was like, 'I don't want her to wear this outfit.' But then [as Nikki] I thought, 'I have to be able to wear what I want.' That's when I said, 'This separating needs to stop.'"
All of which begs the question: Is it art, or a multiple personality disorder? Greenwood laughingly admits that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
As a queer artist, she says, the disorienting yet empowering process of making videos is similar to the process of coming out -- and each process continues to inform each other. "Just the idea of being deliberate about it and having the power to say, 'This is who I am, this is what I want, this is my desire' -- which is not necessarily the 'normal' desire I've been shown all my life -- it's similar." As she states in the album's liner notes, "Once I started the process, the goal became clear."
But Tracy and the Plastics is much more than gender theory set to gimmicky melodies, as Culture for Pigeon proves. Layered over retro keyboards and electro-beats, Greenwood's versatile vocals -- which have inspired comparisons to P.J. Harvey, but in fact share a closer kinship to those of her pals from Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre -- elicit an utterly visceral response. It's the intensity of the music that drives the video creations as well.
Given her affinity for integrating music and video, one might assume Greenwood cut her teeth on MTV videos, when in fact she was weaned on her father's collection of old reggae records and did her best to avoid MTV altogether. "MTV totally terrified me as a kid," she recalls. "I would flip past it as fast as I could and close my eyes. I must have been 6 or 7 when I first saw Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher," and I thought, 'I'm going to be that nerdy kid that gets terrorized when I go to high school.' And Twisted Sister -- I was like, 'What is going on?' I was totally traumatized."
Certainly she wasn't the first to be haunted by the image of heavy metal glam bands, but it follows that Greenwood would be drawn to the medium as a means of making some sense of it. "The first video I had other people besides myself in I made about five years ago, and I remember thinking, 'I just want to make my friends look so tough, I want to make them rule the world in this video,'" she says. "There's just something about having that kind of control."
Recently, the Whitney Museum in New York City tapped Tracy and the Plastics to perform as part of its prestigious biennial -- a highly coveted stamp of approval from the art world establishment, one that could prove problematic for an artist who constantly addresses her own outsider status in her work.
"I was, of course, so honored," Greenwood says. "But I also remember doing this a few years ago and going to Kinko's and staying there for hours making flyers for shows that probably five people would come to. And I remember that being the best, most hopeful place to be in."
- "Art that knows itself, or knows where it came from -- that's what I'm interested in," says Wynne Greenwood, aka Tracy and the Plastics.