Interview with Performance Artist Ellie Dicola

I first discovered Ellie Dicola's performance and video work after both of us were selected to take part in "The Feminist Sex Shoppe" a group exhibition curated by Malika Ali in Los Angeles, California. The show features work from artists that explore concepts of sex-positive feminism. I went over to Ellie's website and this introduction to her newest project really intrigued me.

HipsLipsTitsPower: I wish I knew why I feel so anxious. My apartment is freezing yet I am feverish. Oh god, is there anybody out there? My love has forgotten me ’cause I fucked everything up. When the sun sets in my town at 4 pm in winter and it’s pitch dark this way, dinner time feels like the middle of the night. I am alone. I get antsy when I don’t know where my man is at. I have to go out later to a techno show, through the driving rain and wind. Chat me now before I lose it. (HipsLipsTitsPower on pornhub.com Warning: NSFW)

I have perused the endless video grid of bare bodies - close crops of breasts and vaginas, the come hither-ing of seductive mistresses, and bare-backed men with abnormally large penises and I asked myself, does art live here? Can art Live here? 

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

The short answer is yes. How could I not without totally hating myself? However, my process of understanding and embracing feminism, not just by its social parameters but also in what it means personally, is evolving. First, we can't talk about feminism without talking about intersectionality, and I am dedicated to that process of learning. There's no custom-made answer that works the same way for everyone. So a lot of what feminism means to me is radical acceptance without projecting an idea of an 'ism' onto what feminism should mean to each woman. My own feminism is problematic; that's part of the work. So part of it is accepting that I'm not a perfect feminist. 

What female creators do you admire, inspire you?

My god, so many. Almost all the artists that inspire me are women who make work from the overt position of femaleness. Eva Hesse making ephemeral sculpture within a Minimalist tradition that was entirely male. Her objects were really time-based works, cyclical, embodying a process of waxing, waning, and deterioration that's so organic and was really radical in the monolithic era of its time. Trisha Donnelly, who also works within a male conceptualist tradition but brings an esoteric voice to the work, creating her own system of symbols and magic, unapologetically explaining nothing. She rode into her own gallery show on a horse, announcing herself as a messenger declaring the Emperor's surrender, and rode out. There's no documentation of it; she asks you to believe. So her work is belief-based. Contemporary sculptor Karla Black's rich butter-creme pinks and peaches. Genevieve Bellevue, a young emerging artist who goes by the handle GorgeousTaps and works with social media, performance, ritual, and life-as-art, exploring themes of S&M, embodiment, and live action role playing. Elizabeth Axtman who works between disciplines on themes of love and hate, cultural history, and identity starting from these really emotional foundations. I'm drawn toward artists whose practices refuse static definition and rather illustrate interdisciplinary thinking and time-based trajectories.

Then there's the tragic woman, the Sylvia Plath. It's almost a cliche even to be into her, but I am. I'm fascinated by female madness, sadness as a form of resistance. It's like maladaptation as a political stance. Refusing emotional integration with a world that's fucked, turning the mirror back outward. Contemporary singer Lana Del Rey is the queen of the Sad Girls, and also fucks with our notions of female authenticity, embracing the cliche to go beyond it. I love Beyonce, but her flawlessness is so predictable. I wish she'd lose her shit once in a while, show me the honesty of a train wreck. Or maybe, in the case of Del Rey, it's not honest at all, maybe it's all lies. But she's got me, I'm eating it up.

What medium or art process are you most drawn to? Why?

I've been working heavily in video for the past ten years. A lot of that is practical - I can work from anywhere, from my one-room apartment, without needing accouterments beyond my camcorder (which is not even HD) and my computer. Lately, set props have been coming from the street - shed flower blossoms, or what I find stalking florist shops and gathering what they throw out at day's end. It keeps it simple, lets me focus on ideas not tools. So I'd say the process of starting from content (though my work is by no means neatly, opaquely conceptual), and shifting medium according to what best serves content. If I host work online, I want to understand the site I'm hosting on (like pornhub). I want the site to be part of the work. Same with building installation on a specific physical site, which I sometimes do as a sort of side thing. I'd call my work 'new genre'; I perform in almost all my video, I write, I hand-stitch it all together even though it's largely digital.

What sort of themes/ideas are you exploring in your practice right now?

The HipsLipsTitsPower project, hosted on pornhub but extending into other avenues too, is at the core of my practice currently. Self-identification is the primary question, and even just the act of asking questions versus providing answers. I'm more interested in the questions. What is embodiment, feminism, or even being female? Is there a place within that identity, that is the shared conception of feminism, to be totally fucked up? Because I am. And using my body, in the videos, as a site where these questions are raised, to me, speaks about desire and refusal, sex and death. It's all highly autobiographical content, and it's all absolutely emotionally true.

Tell us more about HipsLipsTitsPower - and why its hosted on pornhub.

HipsLipsTitsPower is a media-based project, somewhere between net art, cinema, and experimental poetics. It's loosely under the alter-ego of a character called Queen of Fate, but everyone in the art circuit knows it's me. It's a video diary, like what LiveJournal was for many of us but upgraded to media-circa-2015. I say a lot of things through this project that I don't run around town saying, or conveying through work otherwise. I can be totally fucked up here. It's pornhub, no one cares. It doesn't matter if you offend anyone on pornhub. Not that the work is setting out to do that, at all. The content is pretty sexual even if not in a literal pornographic way (I'm never nude exhibiting my lady parts in the videos, though if my idea called for that, I'd do it). I assert that the process of self-identification and embodiment, which is what the project's concerned with, is inherently sexual. Especially the female body; it simply cannot be desexualized. The psyche is sex. Life is sex. That's why I chose pornhub, to take that to a real place that's all about sex. I wanted to see what would happen on pornhub; the site has a social media element, and I wanted to interact with other users. So much of the content on there and in the porn industry is really misogynist, and I wanted to challenge that not by being like, 'Here's a feminist manifesto for you to consider', but just by the project existing there in all its fucked up glory. Some dude with a dick avatar is not gonna get what he expected when he goes to my videos.

I ask myself about the audience you are targeting...are people who use pornhub looking at your work, or are your bringing an outside audience to the site? Can you talk a little bit about this - viewership?

I brought the project to pornhub vs tumblr or instagram et al because I wanted the site to be meaningful and inform my work beyond just an audience who already knows me, and beyond the art circuit where 'curating the internet' has become a thing, especially locally where it's like, so much online promotion. So first of all, the pornhub project is fiercely independent, unfacilitated. There's no need for that whole middle liaison, and I feel it gives the work more agency and more accessibility directly between me and the audience. Get to know me! Also pop-up ads all over the place are part of the work! My video ends and an ad pops up that says 'Limp Dick?' or 'Dude, get that thing out of my face!' with a cum shot. Sorry to be so crass. I still really want to interact with users on pornhub, especially female sex workers who are either porn stars or uploading these amateur videos of themselves or whatever. My vids have like 4,000 views so someone's looking. Maybe interacting with users on pornhub is not turning out as fruitful as I'd hoped, but hosting the work there still informs the content. I grab moving image shots from stuff I see uploaded there and work that material into my own sometimes, and I think about how my videos will be framed by pornhub as I make them. It's more sexual than a lot of my other work. I can do what I want. Although I did get temporarily banned from pornhub because I tagged one video as 'snuff' not even fully knowing what exactly that meant! So I'm learning. But yeah, there is an audience based through people I know in Seattle who follow it.

You are also a writer. Is that a separate practice, or do you feel that your writing and performance go hand in hand?

I feel they're fused. I do write reviews of other work here and there for an online publication called Art Nerd Seattle, but it all feeds into this life-as-art/art-as-life mode of being. A lot of my personal writing is related to the same themes as my other work or written for other projects.  

Text seems to be an important aspect of some of the videos I've seen. Can you talk a little bit about this convention. Why these words? Why at that moment?

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Text comes from the scripting and automatic writing I engage in as I'm conceiving video-performance work. It moves in frames just like an image comes through a moving frame, a disjointed narrative, time disrupted, non-linear, and this is not even on purpose, it's just the way I think and work and speak. I'm often in love with a set of words and the way they fit together even though I don't know anything about actually writing poetry. So this one phrase, isolated, really resonates compositionally, but it's not attached to a beginning, end, or real structure. But sometimes I feel the moving image needs help, like it's too opaque, too oblique, and the words help anchor some of my ideas with the work. It's frenetic, like a disassociative state, a mad mind. If I feel like I might not even exactly know what a moment means, I can assign meaning by placing a certain set of words on it.

What goes into the process of planning a specific piece? Is there a lot of planning, set design, any improvisation?

There's a lot of plodding around in my head, and a lot of improvisation. I do script videos, because it's a big effort to move the furniture in and out of my room to make space to film, so I like to feel prepared with some kind of structure in mind, like here we go, film it all in one take. Especially with the HipsLipsTitsPower work, which draws heavily on a diaristic format, there's journaling involved, automatic writing, just to identify on a really basic level what I even am and what I'm feeling, why I feel something should be given voice on a public level. You know, whatever it is that draws someone to the work - it's visually engaging (I do engage set design for this reason), it's a compelling persona, it explores sexuality and everyone responds to sex, or it's female and fits within a feminist dialogue, or just that people like to spectate a good train wreck - there has to be something beyond just the individual pathos. So I think about that when working on a piece. Also I really make the piece in the process of editing, more than filming.

What kind of head space are you in when doing a performance? Are you playing a roll, or is this you?

Oh it's absolutely honest on an emotional level even if I adopt a role to convey it. Sometimes I'm really vulnerable and tender, sometimes I'm a bitch, sometimes I'm hysterical inside. I'm always trying to get at something that's going on, a breakup, trauma, definitions, whatever. I'm inspired by cult of personality, personas and alter-egos, refusing a singular stance, not being didactic. It's self-preservation in a way. If you're going to present your heart on your sleeve, there has to be some boundary between yourself and the other that allows that process to safely take place, even if just the question, 'Am I Real?'.

What kind of reactions do you get towards your work - from the public/galleries/online viewers and also friends/family/people close to you?

The community where I live, Seattle, is really supportive. I love it. I love that you can do whatever you want here. I'm going to contradict myself though, and say I've been censored a lot - in grad school, because my work wasn't conceptually resolved enough; through city-sanctioned programs, because it doesn't sit pretty enough; my work doesn't fit traditional venues because it's unprofitable, can't be sold. Everything and everyone who's been supportive has been sort of renegade, and there's a definite element of 'fuck it', irreverence, I'm just gonna go for it. The more I say fuck it, the more women, in particular, as well as feminist-identifying men, seem to come out of the woodwork and say, 'I relate to this'. So a pattern of shared experience emerges that I feel is relevant in a broader socio-political context. The pornhub work is about that, bridging the content of what's ultimately a diary and taking it to a very real social space. I wish I got more feedback and interaction from users on pornhub, which I'll address in a following question. And my family has no idea what I do; they're religious and conservative and just want me to get a nice professional job, and I'm sure they'd be mortified. Haha.