Art Work #3: Jill Bumby, Anonymous Performance Artist
Welcome to installment three of the series colloquially known as "ART! WORK! WORK! ART! ART! YEAH! BUT MOSTLY WORK!" I'm thrilled to bring you this latest interview, as it is simultaneously aspirational, brutally honest, and full of fantastic advice. Jill Bumby is a performance artist who, along with her counterpart Gill, has appeared everywhere from Art Basel Miami to the Whitney Museum of American Art (and about a zillion places in between). I can't tell you how I know her, but suffice it to say that she's amazing. I'll let her take it from here:
So here's my act: Since 2008, I've been part of a performance duo known as The Bumbys. You will find us at fancy parties and big events all over the world. (We also have an app.) Gill & Jill Bumby are anonymous and costumed, we do not speak, and we can't hear you because we are listening to loud music on our custom headphones. What we do is sit at a table for hours at a time and type up a fair and honest appraisal of your appearance using electric Brother typewriters that half of our clientele haven't seen since college, and rate each person on the decimal scale between one and ten. It's a little narrative about you typed on an index card that you can keep forever in a frame (or ball it up and throw it away like some teens tend to do). The reason we wear masks is because it's not about us, it's about you, and also to keep the mystery alive.
The first time I saw Gill Bumby do his thing solo at a party, I knew that I had to be involved. He needed a counterpart to take it to the next level, and I needed a creative project to balance out my day job. It all came together really quickly, first by working with an art gallery who sponsored us at Art Basel that same year, then we started getting hired by a lot of brands. We got a manager and some team members who deal with the public and do our talking for us. It's shocking that it's still going strong almost 10 years later, but it makes sense, too. People really want to know how they come across to strangers, and they always will.
So! You’re a performance artist. And a writer. And you work in Big Book Publishing. What came first? How’d you decide to do more than one?
I've always been really bossy and opinionated, and I'm an extrovert who enjoys working behind the scenes in support of creative projects I believe in. In high school I was a cheerleader and I organized a punk rock show to benefit a charity for my senior project. I was always inserting myself into the conversation. In college I considered studying art history, but a friend thought that was lame—"Why not just be an artist?" I remember being really shocked by that—I didn't have any talent that I knew of; I couldn't draw or play the guitar, I'd long since given up ballet. My creative strength was being in the moody pictures my photographer boyfriend took of me, and appreciating the fact that the Pixies were a perfect band. (So naturally I studied to become a social worker.) I never wanted to admit that what came naturally to me was writing, that I could in fact make a living as a writer. And yet many years later I do. I live in New York City and I've been living the dream in book publishing since 2000. Working with authors is stimulating to say the least—it's like being a therapist—so I think that's why I keep at it, because it certainly isn't the money. Ten years into my career, I had more confidence about my own skills. I started to publish some pieces here and there. Then I got the Bumby gig, where I could apply my skills as a reader of human behavior. Ghosting other people's books makes sense because as Jill, I'm literally a ghost, writing.
I'm the equivalent of a working actor, not famous, but known in certain circles and consistently employed. Every once in awhile I get treated like royalty and get to be in rooms with Tina Fey, or I'm on location in Paris or something. (Though often the location is New Haven at Zane's bar mitzvah, and I'm sharing a dressing room with a living avatar.)
I'm busy and creatively challenged, but I have to have all the balls in the air if I'm going to make the kind of money that allows one to live in Brooklyn and afford healthcare. My work in publishing is "at large," so I only need to take on book projects that I think I can contribute to in a significant way. I have employers, but no one is really the boss of me. It's a 1099 existence.
Is there any such thing as a typical day in the life for you? Do you work 9-5 at any of your jobs, and if so, how do you fit in your other creative work?
I have an office in Manhattan to go to whenever I like. I like the middle of the week for that. I take meetings and bounce things off colleagues and read manuscripts. Naturally I have a "home office," where I work Mondays and Fridays. We're hired to Bumby typically several times a month, and much more during the holidays. There is often travel, so I base my schedule around my little trips for our performances. When I'm working on a book, I work every night late, usually until 3:00 or 4:00 AM. I sleep until 10:00 on days I work from home, then I just keep going until all the work is done or I hit a certain quota. I rarely, rarely take any time off, lest I miss something. My idea of a holiday is a Klonopin at bedtime.
What are your thoughts on “the market” for creative work? You move between a lot of different markets—do you see anything growing, shrinking? Any big misunderstandings that outsiders have about the inside?
Requisite publishing rant: It's hard for writers who have been at it since the days when you could write for (or edit) a magazine—there's barely any print publications, and there are almost no words in them anymore. The focus is on pithy roundups and slideshows. The going rate for published journalism or feature writing around the year 2000 was $1-$2 per word; now you write a piece for the Times for a few hundred dollars. You write for free constantly, or receive your checks 4 months after the fact. The book publishing marketplace is abysmal. If you sell 10,000 copies of your book, it's like a huge sigh of relief that you're on the better side of normal: think about how much that sucks. Advances are low; there aren't enough publishers. The kind of writing I've historically been paid to do—personal essays, memoir—is currently not very in fashion. With book purchases post 2016, people are mostly trying to make sense of the perfect nightmare we've found ourselves living now. And Bill O'Reilly is still a bestselling author. That shit is dispiriting AF.
Besides creative writers, I know musicians, actors, fine artists, comedians, dancers, fashion designers, and performers of all kinds, and to the naked eye, all of them are making it (especially when it comes to critical acclaim and publicity), or their progress looks glam to their siblings back in the home town. But just because your play gets produced and got a couple of good reviews doesn't guarantee anyone will come to see it. Everyone I know in NYC has multiple sources of income. A partner or a roommate to help with expenses is also a must. Another issue is that people who consume art are often reluctant or resentful that they have to pay for it. Indeed it often feels like we're all just performing for each other, or trading our rejected New Yorker cartoons for dental work. In the most capitalist of societies, Americans want artists to be socialists.
What’s it like to both produce creative work and work in publishing where creative work is bought and sold? Is it awesome to have one foot on each side of the aisle, so to speak, or is there any cognitive dissonance there?
Publishing money is so much smaller than the average person realizes, I think. Advances are distributed over the course of at least 2-3 years, and they're untaxed and commissioned. Even if you're an author with a major press, the odds are against you, and you have to do it again and again to stay afloat. Every writer I know is a hustler. Most are parents, which must add an extra layer of pressure.
My side project is more about maintaining a social life at this point—especially easy to do when you don't have to talk to strangers and no one knows what you really look like. The Bumbys are kind of like a band. We have a rider that calls for Red Bull and alcohol. They have to feed us. We have handlers that take care of all the equipment. We're supposed to have a private room behind the scenes where we can remove our masks and chill between sets. But other than that we get paid an hourly rate to write, so the money is like, moderately successful Midwestern stripper-sized. And I'll take it!
Do you have any tricks, tips, or magic spells that you’d pass along to someone who wanted to do what you do?
No matter the medium, you have to do whatever you can to project confidence to the point where you believe you are the only person who can make your thing, or tell the story from your point of view. You have to be assertive and go after what you want. We have a team based in L.A., too, and we often need alternate performers or handlers, but I wouldn't say people are beating down the door to join us. I was basically the only stranger to ever put myself up for the job—Gill's real life girlfriend was getting her MFA, but had no interest in taking on the performative aspects of the role—so I became Jill just by asking if I could try.
Since the writing is stream of conscious, and I only have 3 or 4 minutes to dedicate to each person, I do tend to repeat myself or reflect on certain themes. I keep a list of amusing observations in Notes on my phone, funny lines that I come up with in the shower or strike me on the train in the AM.
On the way to the gig I'm typically in the "Time to make the donuts" zone: This is my job, and if I didn't do it then humanity's collective mood would suffer. If I allow myself to break character and let nerves get the best of me, it's excruciating and the writing suffers.
If you roughly divide your income up into percentiles, what does it look like?
The last couple years have been pretty evenly distributed: 1/3 day job, 1/3 freelance, 1/3 side project.
What are your thoughts on our collective cultural obsession with the “hustle”? Do you enjoy it?
I think I need it or I'll get really depressed. I need to be able to Bumby or I can't justify the gowns and the shoes I've accumulated, which of course I decided long ago were part of the character. I think I will think about work on my deathbed! I'll think about love and family too, but it's all related.
Are there any career/creative moves you’ve made that you regret? Any that turned out to be far more lucrative (in any sense, not just financially) than you expected?
I've definitely made career moves I've regretted. It's a tradeoff—a steady ten-to-seven job, which always comes with a loss of control, or more control and less job security or financial perks. I decided long ago that I needed to be my own boss in some key ways, so in that sense I'm living my dream and I try to remember that. But my address these days will never match the glory of the one I had back when I had the more corporate job.
Every once in awhile I'll get to work on a high profile book that will either boost my income or just lead to some cool experiences. I've gotten to meet a lot of celebrities. I've appeared on reality television. I once had a breakfast meeting with Pharrell, then Bumby'd him a year later. That was a gift because I was able to quote his own advice to me back to him. I'm obsessed with pop culture, which enables me to keep it together in front of any personality because I believe I know them, at least in my imagination.
Do you have a “muse”? Any sort of spiritual practice? How does that affect your work?
My muses are marijuana, champagne, and fear (the two former probably cancel out the latter, but it all connects). Also Rihanna.