Michelle-Land: A Conversation with Michelle Ellsworth by Alex Stein

photograph of Michelle Ellsworth
Michelle Ellsworth

This is the first in a series of Alex Stein interviews with visual and performing artists.

Her friends sometimes refer to Michelle Ellsworth as an “artstronaut,” which even I, with my kneejerk antipathy toward anything cutesy-clever, kind of like, because the term is not only cutesy-clever, it is also entirely accurate. Michelle Ellsworth is an artstronaut. She did the training, donned the gear and launched herself into deep space.

In 2010, for a period of several months, Michelle and her family lived in the Boulder, Colorado apartment next door to mine. When I discovered that she had moved in, I called a friend and tried to explain my excitement. “It’s like if you were a Christian and Jesus moved in next door,” was the phrase I finally offered. “So, you’re a Christian?” asked my friend, in some confusion.

The first time I saw Michelle perform, she was in a gallery at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. This must have been in the late ’90’s. She served up mostly spoken word stuff, a series of word soups, on a platter of simple dance gestures, with a side order of starry charisma.

To get a sense of her various talents and genres, her ability to remake objects into ideas, her ferocious discipline, and her bone deep communion with the works of her hands, go to MichelleEllsworth.comAlex Stein

Michelle Ellsworth: So, I got a fancy award this year. It was a shocker. I couldn’t believe it. The United States Artists Fellowship. They are very generous and the money that comes with it is just to support you as an artist. Fifty thousand dollars. It’s Rockefeller and Ford money. They awarded me the James L. Knight Fellowship, in dance.

I’d received a letter telling me I had been nominated and that just for applying I would automatically receive one hundred dollars. ‘A hundred bucks!’ I thought. ‘I am psyched! A C-note for the family! Whoo-hoo!’ I was totally working it for the hundred dollars. So when I actually got the award, for a moment I felt a little confused. Along with the award came the implication that my work didn’t totally suck. I went over certain possibilities in my mind—the quality of my work, the nature of my work, the what-is-the-what of my work, and the only thing I was able to settle on, in terms of feeling anything like worthy, was that I am a super-hard worker. I don’t know if my pieces accomplish anything or have a relative value on some permanent scale, but I was able to tell myself with confidence that I always work on every piece just as hard as I possibly can.

My relationship to my work is one of devotion, such that if—at two a.m., when I am making what I believe to be my final edit on a difficult, or on a not so difficult, piece, just closing the book on the thing and readying myself for a well earned sleep—I feel the piece ask me to go and get a live snake or to re-video a recent hamburger burial, or to create a whole new section of the piece with Chia Grass and a rash on my neck, I do not even hesitate. That’s the only way I’ve been able to come to terms with my work. If I do everything it asks, at the end of the day there is no question of whether it is good or bad, or who likes it or doesn’t like it.  All I can do is not drop the ball. All I can do is everything it asks. Even when the deadline comes and I have to perform the piece in front of an audience, I keep working. Between one performance and the next, I routinely tweak content, listening to what it is telling me. Reconsidering its needs. I’m very interested in that aspect of the work. The doing of it. The live engagement.

I talk about this with my students all the time. How sometimes an artist can get lucky and land a piece the first time. But that mostly what I see are artists who feel that by spending such and such an amount of time working on their piece they have discharged their responsibilities to it. ‘In your minds,’ I tell my students, ‘you have the idea that it takes a certain amount of units, let’s say X units of life force to complete a piece of choreography or to make a banging video or to create a powerful installation and all I am suggesting is the possibility that whatever figure you have in mind for your X, the more realistic figure is probably five hundred times that amount.’

In one of Bruce’s climbing magazines [Michelle’s husband is the considerable Alpine climbing figure, Bruce Miller] there was an article about how certain climbers get to be so much better than other climbers. The article suggests that in the case of people who are twice as good as you, it is not because they work twice as hard, it’s because they work, and have always worked, just a little bit harder than you do, maybe three percent, five percent harder, but on a continual basis, so that over the course of years, like bank account interest that accrues on some base of capital, that extra effort accrues, and having accrued, is paid back into the capital, growing it ever so slightly, so that the next three to five percent bump of effort pays out from a slightly more substantial base. Play that practice out over the course of ten or twenty years, and work the numbers. Pretty soon that climber is twice as good as you are. It’s like that, said this magazine. So I have been talking to my students about doing the extra one percent. Just waltzing the piece one more time around the room. Which is not to kill it by over-analyzing. I’m all about ‘First thought, best thought.’ I’m a fan of intuition and suddenness. But, don’t see the two sides as mutually exclusive. I say to my students, ‘Okay, first thought, best thought, granted, but what about the next thought? And the thought after that? Can’t those thoughts, too, serve the dance?’

Last spring a researcher was writing a paper on religion and art and I was asked about my religious upbringing and its relationship to my work and I realized just how profoundly and consistently I had transposed tenets of my religious training into the practice of my art. Sometimes I find myself singing hymns from my childhood in which I have replaced the word God with the word art. It’s freaky but accurate.

Probably one of the reasons I got the USA Fellowship is I am not particularly derivative of any genre. I’m a kind of hybrid-combo-platter and I’ve made only the pieces I’ve wanted to make and that has come from the impulse to just embrace the things that I most want to embrace, to just reach out in joy and terror toward the things that I feel called toward, which as it happens, are often the very things that people find the least attractive about me.

When I was young, for example, I got criticized for speaking too quickly and if I had listened to that criticism, internalized it, made it my own, it would have turned me toward more traditional forms, forms less sincerely….I don’t want to say ‘authentic’…that’s such a sticky word….let’s just say they would have been forms less sincerely from Michelle-Land. Those things that artists are told are their weaknesses can provoke some of the most interesting realizations. I have a thing for speed and density. You have to find your thing, whatever it is, and track it, however it evolves. You have to find your home. Your aesthetic. I am always trying to make work that moves more swiftly and that is as dense as I can tolerate. Sometimes I tell my students, figure out what your weaknesses are, find what people don’t like about your work and determine the things that you yourself find particularly troubling. This will all be valuable information. Like gold.

Bruce and I share a driveway with our neighbor. A dirt driveway. One day I came home and found it had been paved over with black tar. Our neighbor did the paving. I got disproportionately worked up about it. The ugliness. The brutality. That’s when I started working on what I call my Transformational Object Healings of Places. I got my son, he was twelve years old, and three of his friends, to wear these enormous vinyl dresses I had made for them, and each, in addition, carried fifteen felt bags of various sizes slung over their shoulder. The bags contained such items as Red Vine licorice, carrots (sliced julienne style), potatoes sliced ditto, ice, pine cones, canisters of Morton table salt, and white ceramic eggs of the size that an ostrich might lay. I directed my impromptu troupe to use the items to create giant mandalas all over the driveway. It was fun and it was funny, but mainly it was functional. I took photos. I created a record. It was a resolution for my feelings of conflict. That is how I know in what direction to push. Toward whatever is the thing to which I am resistant.

For students, it can work the same way. If you hate a class, if you hate its subject, if you hate the professor, that’s money. Now you just have to figure out what is causing your reaction and determine how you can resolve it within yourself. Maybe you spit into a tiny bottle and glue it under the desk of the offending faculty, with a poem about how much you hate the class, a poem that has been burned to ash and combined with your spit in the tiny bottle, and then maybe you collect those tiny bottles over a career of twenty years in higher education and label them and present them in some way. It’s about taking other people out of the loop. You don’t have to actually spit on another person, literally or metaphorically, if you just take your spit, and honor your frustration or resentment with that person, and put it in a bottle and seal it up and label it. Close the loop, that’s what I say. If I am getting funky about somebody, I take care of it in-house. I’m doing it for myself. There is something pleasing about having a frustrating encounter with a collaborator, for instance, then going home and making a motivational video that expresses the sentiment, ‘Don’t collaborate!’ It honors the frustration and after it is done, it is done. Contained. Collected. Labeled. It’s all just more information. You’ve got to keep gathering the information, trying to improve the technology.

Alex Stein: Your series of motivational videos seem to demonstrate some of the things we have been discussing here, in terms of your work ethic and of turning your weaknesses to good creative account. May I ask you to talk about how you started making these?

ME: I was having my first solo show, in New York, at this really great gallery. I was twenty-six years old, I was living in Boise, Idaho. I had been raised in the Mormon church. I was pretty anxious about this gig and I was working on it as ferociously as I could, and finally I went to my mister-at-the-time, my Mormon-mister, the man whom I had married at the age of twenty, and I said, ‘Oh, baby, I am so stressed out about this show, and I need encouragement, can you give me a pep talk?’ and he said, ‘Sure,’ and then after a moment he said something like, ‘You are too cute; don’t talk to strangers.” That was it. I was totally disappointed. That’s not going to help me at all, I thought. I was super-bummed-out from his pep talk. I can do better than that myself, I thought. If the situation won’t give me what I need, how can I simulate it? I decided to write a script for him to recite to me. And then I thought, but it’s not just his language, it’s his delivery. I didn’t trust his delivery. I felt that his delivery was going to be weak. And that it was ultimately going to be another disappointment for me. And so I asked myself a fundamental question. One that I have been asking myself ever since. Who can love me the way that I love myself? The answer is that nobody can. If want to have love, I need to be love. That’s when I set up my first video camera and started making motivational videos. Because I knew exactly what I needed to hear and I knew exactly how to deliver it. And why would I put anyone else in the loop on something like that?

It was such a pleasure to make that first video. To look into the camera and say to myself, “I am with you! I will be there for you!” It was meaningful for me. And I just kept making them. I had to. After the show ended I entered into what I now understand to be a predictable and inevitable post-performance depression, so I had the issues from that to work with, and then I just started making videos for everything from, “Go on! You can do it! Make that phone call!” to ‘I should have stopped talking, but I didn’t and that’s not the end of the world,’ to advisements on my inter-personal relationships, my creative process and my general grooming. Whatever occasion arose, I made an occasion of my own to meet it.

Thalia Field is one of my favorite poets. We were on a panel once, talking about our work in front of an audience of mostly students and instructors and Thalia said, “I want you students to really pay attention to what Michelle is doing with her motivational video work. It is a fascinating lesson for us all. Consider if she had made just seven or eight of these videos. How pathetic would that be? If she had made ‘Don’t Be Insecure,’ ‘Not Feeling Good Enough, ‘My Mom Is Coming,’ a few others,’ –and then stopped, wouldn’t we say, ‘Phew, that is just sad. A piteous spectacle.’ It is because she has made over two hundred of these pieces, that the project has crossed a threshold of meaning and become art.’

AS: Would you talk a little more about religion?

ME: Sure. So my first husband and I were very Mormon and I was very productive during that period. I felt like I was getting resistance from said husband and that was helpful to me in refining an aesthetic. When someone is being resistant, that can be something to push against to get clarity. And then, in the ninth year of our marriage, I started making a piece about Clytemnestra and her decision to kill Agamemnon. I had been adapting poems, shorter ones, mainly, for performance, for many years and I felt like I wanted to do an adaptation of something big. The Bible was my first thought. But the Illiad was just sitting there. So I did this feminist reconstruction of the Illiad, based on Fitzgerald’s translation, in which I played all the parts myself, interacting live as Clytemnestra, with videos of Hector, say, or Agamemnon. The entire time I was working on this piece, I had a terrible ankle injury that was hobbling me, and as I finished writing the piece and was looking back over it, I realized it was a story about a nine year war, the length of my marriage at the time, and about a woman who decides to kill her husband, which in our culture could be a description of divorce, and that, maybe this was too far a reach, but one of the central protagonists of the Illiad is Achilles and his vulnerability was his heel and my injury was literally of my Achilles tendon. ‘O, my gosh,’ I realized, ‘I’m getting divorced.’ I had been embattled for nine years and I was hobbled and I was going to end up like Hector, getting my body dragged behind the back of a chariot, if I didn’t get myself out of there.

AS: Do you resent your religious background?

ME: I believe that extreme religious training, indoctrination, submersion, as a young person, is some of the best experience an artist can have. It offers access to story and mythology and imagination that is difficult to find anywhere else. There is a children’s song that we used to sing.  “I will go, I will do,/ the thing the Lord commands—/ I know the Lord will find a way,/ He wants me to obey.’ And I still sing that when I am making a piece. Now, though, I sing with stridency. I am militant. ‘I will go! I will do!/ The thing the piece commands!—/ I know the piece will find a way!/ It wants me to obey!’

In Mormonism the Holy Ghost is described as ‘that still, small voice,’ to which you must listen. It will whisper to you. And that is how I think about my pieces. I’m always leaning into them, with my ears, to listen. And with my nose, too, leaning to breathe them in.

Much of my work takes place in a self-referential loop, as a demonstration of two central themes: the dangers of narcissism and of the handiness of independence. Which are also both basic tenets of Mormon thought. Mormons believe that we are inescapably free and that we must always be prepared. Be prepared! This is one of the basic precepts of Mormon thought. So, naturally, the theme of preparedness comes up in my work all the time. I don’t have a ten year supply of canned goods and toiletries stored away, but I did build a hundred-and-fifty pound dress, with boxes sewn into it, that I could wear. The boxes were called boxes of pain. In one box was a prickly pear cactus, in another was a faux mouse that a real cat had mangled, a third box contained nine-volt batteries. Depending on the amplitude of my emotional state, and what I was trying to avoid, I would choose one box or another and put my tongue on its content. So, for example, instead of making a sure-to-be-dissatisfying phone call to a difficult family member, I could just put my tongue on a prickly pear. And instead of another dead end talk with my husband, I could put simply put my tongue on a nine volt battery. I’d get the same shock of bitter discharge and full body shudder, but without the added insult of another futile engagement. I’m about taking the other person out of the loop. I’m about closing the loop. About making the hundred-and-fifty pound dress if that is what I think it will take. Talk about being prepared. I was preparing for the end of my marriage. Preparing for the end of what else would end with that marriage. A box of nine-volt batteries. A cat mangled faux mouse. A prickly pear. Oh, yes, I was certainly prepared.

AS: You’ve been constructing your own full scale religion over the course of many years. Would you talk about that, specifically?

ME: Many years ago, my long time collaborator, the composer and technologist Michael Theodore, began using an animation software program to create these strange objects and one thing he created was this strange object that kind of morphed and was phallic and had like these hanging chimes and moved in all sorts of different ways and when I saw it the thought popped into my mind, ‘That’s a Mormon sex organ,’ and that was the genesis of my decision to start my own religion. Prior to this, I had only thought of making pieces that could solve problems in the material world, like the failures of democracy and modern psychology to address needs. But this was post-9-11 and the problems of religion on the planet were becoming more amplified, and I thought I needed to address problems in the spiritual world as well, so I decided I should start my own religion and the more research I did the more it became clear to me that the problem with religions is not their doctrines, per se, but their membership. That’s why I decided to start out by making my religion a cult of one. It was essential that it not be a religion that people were able to join. It had truly to be a cult of one. Buddha, Jesus, Joseph Smith, they all started out on their own. It was when they began to get members that things got out of hand.

That piece is called The Institute For Potential Religious Artifacts, Beliefs and Procedures. And since it lives on the internet, TIFPRABAP.org, I can add new elements to it at any point. For instance, I had a show recently in New York. I was going to share the show with another performer. Two performances, one night, one stage. And I said, ‘I will gladly share a show, but it would be most helpful to me if I could go first.’ And they were happy to accommodate that, and I was happy to be going first, but some time later they called and said for technical reasons it was now necessary that I perform second. At first I felt super-anxious, but then I realized, no. No need to be anxious. I could just cast a new religious precept, shine a different light on the event. So I based my new precept in the idea that there is no second, there is only first. It was a handy lesson to learn I could do that. In my religion, the very nature of second is that it is actually first. So now I was psyched that I was going second. I have been able to build into my religion all kinds of useful things. Failure equals success. That’s another very handy premise. A lot of religions already use that one. And you can see why. It’s a super helpful precept. The only advice I have for people who want to make their own religion, other than don’t have members, is don’t write a book, and don’t make a list.

AS: You experienced a personal loss, recently. Would you mind talking about that?

ME: My dad died and that has been difficult. I’ve never been so sad. It’s a record breaker. He and I were tight. He was a profound source of support for me. While he was dying I was working on a piece in preparation for the obsolescence of the Y-Chromosome. Part of working on it was about knowing my father was dying. The father being the archetypal male figure. It is only recently that I realized I had been trying to construct an explanation of death.

My father had prostate cancer and it metastasized to his bones and when I told one of my friends that he was dying, she said, “you are going to be fine, you Mormons have the technology. You can handle this.” I loved the idea of Mormonism as a technology for coping with death.

A few months before my father died, he took me to a beach in Northern California and he told me about the salinity of the ocean, how at the time that life emerged from it, the salinity was ‘zero point eight five,’ which we know because it is the same salinity as the interstitial fluids in our bodies. That’s how we can figure the number of years ago we came out of the ocean. We graph the ocean’s increasing salinity across a span of time, extrapolate a pattern out of that, and project the pattern backwards into prehistory. Zero point eight five; water; salt; cycles—especially carbon cycles—; and the idea of the immortality of the soul. These are the things, right now, for me. These are my things.

Michelle Ellsworth makes solo performance work, performable websites, drawings, and videos. She was awarded the USA Artists Knight Fellowship for 2011. Her work has been commissioned by at Danspace at St. Marks, On The Boards, Diverseworks, Dance Theater Workshop and repeatedly supported by the National Performance Network. Her drawings, spreadsheets, and scripts have been published in CHAIN and her screen dances have been seen around Europe and throughout the U.S. Ellsworth is currently working on a 7-inch recording with drummer Sean Meehan.

  1. Wonderful!!!! Thank you Alex, for your thoughtful conversation with this amazing artist. It is so very rich to hear the back story for her creations. You have the perfect touch for coaxing it out.
    In gratitude and admiration, Beth Osnes

  2. […] “Probably one of the reasons I got the USA Fellowship is I am not particularly derivative of any genre. I’m a kind of hybrid-combo-platter and I’ve made only the pieces I’ve wanted to make and that has come from the impulse to just embrace the things that I most want to embrace, to just reach out in joy and terror toward the things that I feel called toward, which as it happens, are often the very things that people find the least attractive about me.” –Michelle Ellsworth, http://theconversant.org/?p=660 […]

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