Showbeast: Artists at Play

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“Showbeast” describes the artistic team made up of Ben O’Brien and Erin Gleason, and titles their eclectic video projects. After the duo graduated from college, they moved across the country to a warehouse in Oakland and began to create art in earnest. Gleason’s film background came in handy, along with O’Brien’s resolve to shed his “slacker ways.”1 Learning how to make felt puppets was the achievement which kick-started their projects.

The name “Showbeast” comes from O’Brien’s pre-existing character Snowbeast – he preferred “Squid Wheels,” for a while, but “Showbeast” won out. The show is based on two puppet friends, Mark and Casey, and human characters Snowbeast and Starbeast. The team originally intended to produce a full children’s show, but due to budget and other constraints they haven’t yet made a full show, although they are currently working on a complete thirty-minute piece. Instead, they have been creatively flexible, sometimes combining their children’s show with music videos, which also gives them a chance to work with local musicians.

They have also had to work at improving the technical quality of the show. Learning how to work with green screen and audio required time, and many of their early videos are “scrappy.” Their work has definitely become more professional, but the lesson, they say, is to “accept your limitations, and work with them.”2

One element which has shaped their work on this show is an emphasis on collaboration, as the duo say that making films is inherently collaborative, and a lot more fun. Working with others, and being accountable to another person, is a great motivation to actually get the project done. Early on, living in a warehouse made it easy to find extra help. Later on, with some experience behind them, they began to collaborate with local artists and musicians. Some recent music video/children’s show pieces include a Dope Body collaboration, and one project with Dan Deacon in a cat suit. Image

One element which makes Showbeast particularly successful is the sense of play they bring to their work. Gleason and O’Brien both admit to watching “children’s” shows like The Puzzle Place and Mystery Science Theater into their teenage years. In an article filmmaker Abigail Child discusses the phenomenon of “T.V. Kids,” raised on television and images which have influenced their art and aesthetics.3 In Showbeast, this absorption of television is evident in the use of typical children’s show tropes, as well as in their “commercials.” But the filmmakers also make these familiar ideas their own, with a sense of imaginative, childlike play that turns these concepts and images into fertile ground. For example, “Baltimore Beastwork” plays with the idea of a commercial in a comic and uninhibited way. Another video, “Baby Eisenstein,” very closely resembles a real show for babies – and perhaps in some way, is meant for children to watch – but also subverts that genre, to comedic effect.

It is evident in their videos that they are doing something that perhaps few adults really do – that is, they are playing. Most obviously, the green screen lets allows them to create fantasy worlds, and the puppets and costumes add a sense of whimsy. Showbeast displays a willingness to get weird, and the strength of even the most scrappy videos is in the offbeat comedic sense. The basic narrative of their shows is usually simple, often with deux-ex-machina plot points, but interest is sustained through the visuals, music, and unexpected juxtapositions. For example, the video “Woof Woof” includes elements of their children’s show, but the whole second half is overrun with dog-headed musicians and other visual effects, playing off the music. The result is a mix of sketch comedy and psychedelic music video – but the combination, consistent and entertaining, works.

In all, Showbeast is a rare treat, combining playfulness, art, and collaboration in a highly enjoyable show.

1In-class presentation February 29, 2012

2Ibid

3Wees, William C. Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films. 71.

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