Interview with Ellie Dicola

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Interview with Ellie Dicola

By Emily Pothast October 31, 2017

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


A new-media artist with a background in fibers and sculpture, Ellie Dicola makes work that doesn’t shy from unusual platforms. In 2014, under the member name LipsHipsTitsPower, Dicola uploaded a video to Pornhub in which she had staged herself on a table in a semi-transparent chemise, surrounded by supermarket floral arrangements. As cryptic captions flashed on the screen, she flagellated her thighs with a pair of thorny pink roses as an intimate, performative gesture. The response of fellow Pornhub members may be summed up in a comment from analmaster6969: “What the fuck even is this?”

Dicola uses technology and humor to address the ways that mental health, femininity, and trauma intersect within capitalism’s commodification and consumption of bodies. Earlier this year, she created crazy 4 u (2017), an interactive web project exploring the ubiquity of "crazy" as a pejorative for women who are confident, assertive, or demand respect. Her most recent installation, Notch, Void, and Cashing Out (2017), deals with her experiences at a job from which she was unceremoniously laid off, laying bare the emotional labor that people with anxiety or depression are routinely forced to perform in order to avoid being cast out on the street.

The morning after Notch, Void, and Cashing Out opened at Specialist Project Space in Seattle, the artist spoke about this new installation within the broader context of her current work.

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Emily Pothast: Given your 3D background, how did you get started as a digital artist?

Ellie Dicola: Well, part of it is just strategy. Making work for the internet is a way that I can work in a small space, without having to invest in a lot of stuff I don’t already have. I don’t even have an HD camera. I do it all on my phone and my webcam.

EP: Why make work for Pornhub?

ED: Uploading to Pornhub started out as a joke with a friend, as an unexpected way to get my videos out into the world and in front of a broader audience.

EP: Were you hoping people would stumble on them while looking for porn?

ED: Yeah. I think Pornhub is primarily tailored toward a cisgendered, heterosexual male gaze. I wanted to take my work to a site where that dynamic was really emphasized, and use that tool to subvert the dynamic.

EP: You wanted to give people the opposite of what they were searching for?

ED: Exactly. It was definitely referencing a lot of sexual themes, but more from the perspective of sex as trauma than as pleasure.

EP: The emphasis on trauma is a theme that recurs in crazy 4 u.

ED: For sure. There are three common threads I see going through all of my work: gender and my perception of femininity, experiences of sexuality as they relate to trauma, and mental-health issues, which are linked in a cause-and-effect cycle with the trauma.

Ellie Dicola. crazy 4 u, 2017; screenshot; digital media including embedded video, GIFs, screenshots, chat excerpts, remixed found images, viral content, and sampled audio; closed-circuit website.

EP: Will you describe crazy 4 u for people who haven’t seen it?

ED: crazy 4 u is a multimedia web project created with NewHive. Formally, it uses a lot of screengrabs and remixed content from the internet: collages of listicle headlines about crazy girlfriends and psycho bitches; how “crazy” enters popular culture as a catch-all for women asserting demands or reacting to a lack of respect. One page uses this viral video called the Hot-Crazy Matrix, created by a middle-aged white lawyer, as a point of departure.

There’s also a page called Sick Day discussing not being well enough to sustain yourself within capitalism but not ill enough to qualify for disability. The fear you’ll lose your job fosters the need to perform “wellness” and to be reassuring to those around you. Capitalism and fear of death re-enforce complex, traumatic behaviors.

EP: On that note, you lost your job recently. How much has this influenced your current practice and desire to grapple with these themes?

ED: I had been working at a museum for several months when they hired a group of temporary employees to assist with a blockbuster exhibition. There were lines around the block and people camping out to get inside. We were serving 1,500–2,500 people a day. It was really labor intensive. I was on my feet all day, performing a speech for each new group of people, having to be really engaging and empathetic toward the time these people had spent waiting in line.

The job began to get physically distressing because I have some back issues that were getting more and more painful. So I started self-advocating. The pain got bad enough that (after mentioning informally a number of times that I could benefit from being placed elsewhere) I brought in a doctor’s note. After that, it was like they were tiptoeing around me at all times. I was frozen out of communication, hearing about things from my teammates instead of my superiors.

A week after the exhibition closed, I got an email from HR with the subject, “Departure details.” At first I thought it was a mistake, because they had hired so many temporary employees.

EP: No one communicated with you about your health, or a transition in your role?

ED: No one.

Ellie Dicola. Notch, Void, and Cashing Out, 2017; printed fabric, chains, digital media; installation view at Specialist Project Space, Seattle.

EP: Does Notch, Void, and Cashing Out relate to this experience?

ED: The project consists of three 24-by-60-inch polysatin panels that are digitally printed with three poems. The poems are constructed by remixing language taken from my Employee Manual and Handbook to explore some concepts about transactional dynamics in the professional realm. The accompanying video is documentation of architectural niches and corporate floral arrangements I found interesting while working at the museum.

EP: “Please always remember that the real minimum wage is zero” is an amazing line. Please tell me that was in your Employee Handbook.

ED: [Laughs] No. I saw a similar phrase somewhere on the internet after the 2008–09 crash and recently found it in my bookmarks. I’m pretty sure it was being used non-ironically.

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Ellie Dicola is a visual artist and writer based in Seattle. Her recent projects make inquiry into relationships between gender, trauma, and its attendant mental-health effects, and the emotional labor involved in fulfilling capitalism's performance mandate.

Notch, Void, and Cashing Out is on view at Specialist in Seattle, WA through October 31, 2017.

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