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.