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I knew Casey Jane Ellison’s work, Touching the Art (2013), was good when I stayed to watch the entire second season twice on a screen in the New Museum’s lobby during “Surround Audience,” the 2015 Triennial; the video is a three-part series in which she interviews various art world luminaries, including Catherine Opie, K8 Hardy, Clarissa Dalrymple, and Kembra Pfahler. I also knew it was good when, at home later in the evening, I re-played it during a dinner party, and my best friends watched it with the same gusto usually reserved for Beyoncé music videos.
Embodying a persona that is, in turn, hilarious, childish, antagonistic, vulnerable and chummy, Ellison asks female artists, curators and collectors—males were pointedly excluded from the set—questions that they would generally be too polite or offended to answer, such as, “What is success? Like, should I hang myself?” By disarming her subjects, she allows them to open up. “It’s being rich and being well-loved by everyone you like to have loving you,” Dalrymple responded to the question.
If her career successes over the past year are any indication, she’s certainly loved by more than myself and my drunk BFFs—loved, across all kinds of disciplines. Along with doing a monthly stand-up comedy show at Otherwild in Los Angeles, she was also recently hired by B.B. Dakota, a clothing brand, to create The Right and Left Brains of Casey Jane’s, a six-part series that will air on the brand’s website this autumn.
I recently sat down with Ellison in a coffee shop in Venice, California. Offers of daytime drinking and/or getting stoned—“when in California...”—were politely ignored for a more sober experience.
Brienne Walsh So I went to the New Museum and saw the triennial, “Surround Sound,” and your piece Touching the Art (2013) was the one that I loved. It was hilarious. It was the only thing I wanted to stand and watch the whole time. Who approached you? Was it Ryan Trecartin?
Casey Jane Ellison Yeah, both Ryan and Lauren Cornell. We’ve known each other a while, and we’ve worked together on some stuff. I worked with Lauren and the New Museum when I showed Aboveground Animation there. And I was in one of Ryan’s vids. I really love them.
BW So you started out doing 3D animation, but comedy as well. How did you get into the niche of visual art, or in the art world?
CJE I was just telling my friend, or my therapist (laughter), the story of how I started doing this. I went to an inner-city college prep school. It was public and they just drilled it into you—like how to get into an Ivy League school, how to get into college. Everyone goes to college from that place, so I felt like I had to, too. When I was applying, my mom said, “Go to art school,” and I was like, “Okay, I guess I‘m gonna go to art school.”
CJE I was just open to anything. It was a very hands-off kind of experience. The school was in Chicago, and it was very make-it-what-you-want-it-to-be. There was no campus. I feel like that‘s kind of been my trajectory—make things happen by yourself. Then when I graduated, there was no economy, so it was the same type of self-teaching thing.
BW Why did you leave New York? Why did you come here to LA?
CJE I don‘t know. There‘s a lot of struggling. I don‘t know if I was cut out for it. I don‘t want to say I had to leave, but it just didn‘t make sense. It suited me in some ways, but you have to be so rich to live in New York, to be comfortable.
BW It‘s not a forgiving city. It's so hard. But it‘s not that different in LA anymore. When I used to come out here, I‘d think people were dressed so differently. You‘d go to a restaurant and the food would be different.
CJE It‘s all homogenous. I have a joke sometimes that I tell. It goes, “What’s the difference between New York and LA? In New York, you cry in the street, but in LA you cry in your car.” So it‘s a little easier. But LA has its problems, too. Since I‘ve moved here I‘ve been very isolated. You can really lose yourself in yourself. But I don’t want to keep talking about the differences between New York and LA.
BW So tell me about this project you‘re working on.
CJE So this clothing company, B.B. Dakota, approached me and they wanted to do something. I asked, ”What do you mean?“ And they said, “Make something—we will love whatever you do.” I worked so hard on this six-part narrative video series with branded content. It‘s a branded content sitcom, which is something we’re coining. It‘s really good—it integrates visual effects and real life struggles. Anyway, it‘s called The Right and Left Brains of Casey Jane’s. So she goes through all these problems, and then we cut to the right and left brains talking shit about the situation, sort of informing her how to behave. She‘s a little nuts. Anyway, it‘s really amazing because B.B. Dakota is extremely self-aware. Everything that shouldn‘t happen in a branded content piece happens to my character; she goes to the gynecologist, she gets beat up, she doesn‘t like her sister. Real life kind of stuff. It‘s comical and hyperbolized, and it‘s just amazing to me that this company is interested in supporting an artist instead of just spending all of their ad money in very traditional ways, like paying certain bloggers to blog about their brand. I think this generation knows when they’re being pandered to, and we’re open to it as long as it’s good.
BW That's kinda why I think Trump is so successful. People are now aware that all of these candidates are just talking heads run by political machines funded by rich people. And then you have Trump, who’s clearly racist and misogynist but not part of the system we’ve become so suspicious of. That‘s why he’s so successful. We’re sick of being treated like we don‘t know we’re being bought and sold.
CJE I had that feeling wash over me when I watched all these people laugh and clap to his blatant racism.
BW I was actually thinking of it yesterday because I was writing this blog post—I have a blog—and I was on JetBlue and every five seconds they were trying to charge me for something. Then you end up spending like a thousand dollars to fly somewhere. So I wrote a blog post, and immediately JetBlue started tweeting at me. But they weren't like, “We’re sorry”; it was antagonistic, like, “Didn't you know you just have to turn off the TV for it to be free?” I just thought it was so bizarre for a brand to be so antagonist towards criticism, that maybe now there’s this trend to respond more aggressively to it. Your work maybe isn‘t aggressive per se, but it makes people uncomfortable. You sit down in front of someone and you immediately ask a question you aren‘t supposed to ask, or aren‘t supposed to talk about. So in terms of the branded content that you’re working on, how does it fit into their brand of clothing? Are you wearing the clothing?
CJE Yeah, I‘m wearing it the way I’d be wearing anything. Most of the characters are wearing it; it‘s just like a lifestyle. Sometimes I wonder if lifestyle branding works anymore, where Levi‘s exists and your like, “Oh, I wanna be that person who has that girlfriend,” or whatever. And then, “These jeans get me because they show me who I want to be.” But this is kind of a different entry point, because it’s like, “Do you like feeling awkward? And are you funny? And do you like watching weird shit go down?”
BW Do you talk about your body at all?
CJE Yeah, definitely.
BW I feel like that‘s the biggest thing with women: that in one piece of clothing you feel fat, or something.
CJE I actually don‘t talk about that a lot. The thing I‘m working on right now is about hair removal. Something I‘m always thinking about is how activism doesn‘t exist in real space, or in real life. It‘s all on Facebook or in your mind. You think these things, and then that's it; that’s as far as it goes because these past movements have already happened, and you know it's passé and you know we’re postmodern, but you can't react in space. It's like a surrogacy of activism, where it‘s internalized. Having a conversation about hair removal or how fat you feel, I‘d rather just say those things, declare them, and deal with them that way. I want to have an actual, open conversation about the insanity that happens in your mind with all of these totally trite, dysmorphic situations you go through every day.
BW Yeah, I think about that a lot—that stating something negates it or neutralizes it immediately, so you can move on from having to keep talking about it.
CJE It may be a defense mechanism, too. Like if I say it, then you can‘t say it. But if I called myself fat and then you called me fat, I would still be upset. (laughter) There’s nothing—
BW I mean I have myriad insecurities, but one of them is that my blog, which is important to me, doesn’t get many readers. I met a girl this morning and she was just like, “Oh yeah, I checked out how many people read your blog and you’re right, not that many people read it.” And I was like, “Uhhhhh, you just wounded me. I don‘t want you to come back and tell me, I‘m just telling you!” (laughter)
CJE It‘s hard. I got called a cunt the other day. I was calling a plastics manufacturer for this art object I'm trying to make, and I asked him, like, three questions. I swear, I wish it was recorded so I could critique why he thought I was a cunt. I told him I’d send the measurements, and he was like, “Look lady, we don‘t…” It was under a minute. And he hung up on me! I started crying. I mean I was laughing and crying. When the revolution happens, he‘s the one who’s going to win. He will watch me die in the streets.
BW That‘s a crazy word to call someone.
CSJ I think that was the first time I realized how fucked up that word was. It was so accessible to this person. Not only did he hate me for being a woman, he hated me for this stupid thing. It‘s so much in one word. He was like, “Look lady, we don‘t do custom.” And I said, “Okay, well, let me send you the measurements and you can let me know.” Then he started yelling at me, and I said, “Are you really yelling at me right now?” And he said, “Yeah, I'm yelling at you, you‘re a cunt.” And then he hung up. I learned a lot.
BW So how long are each of the episodes in The Right and Left Brains of Casey Jane?
CJE They’re around two to five minutes each. And together they’re a whole arc of their own, but each individual episode is its own as well.
BW Did you have any other artists appear, like you have in the past?
CJE Yeah, Leilah Weinraub, who you see in Touching The Art. Aaron Brown, who is an amazing filmmaker, co-directed it with me. Natasha Newman Thomas who did the clothes for What The F*shion helped style and is in one of the episodes.
BW I think the thing I love about your work is that you ask questions that I‘m actuallyinterested in hearing the answers to. You hear these typical well-thought out interviews—and it is really hard to give a good interview, you really have to think everything through. But then you ask questions like, “What are you wearing right now?” or “Where are your shoes from?” Those are the kinds of things I'm also interested in hearing. I like that you approach it that way. Would you say that you’re playing a persona or is that really just you? Is there a barrier?
CJE Yeah, I think it‘s an impenetrable side of myself. I wouldn‘t say that I‘m a great interviewer in this character. It‘s very stunted and the priority is to be funny. It‘s more for these people who are educated and want to be a part of this conversation. They can take the lead.
BW So you talk to them before?
CJE Yeah, when I interview them, I‘m a normal person. We do a lot of prep—well, not a lot of prep—but some. I do a lot of prep. And I tell them that I‘m the joke, that none of the joke will fall on them. If it‘s uncomfortable for them that they’re near the joke, then maybe this isn‘t the right thing for them. But no one is ever that uncomfortable.
BW Any other art projects?
CJE Yeah, I‘m doing this shoot. I don‘t know, it‘s a tentative project. It‘s not really going to be released.
BW Are you making money from art now? Or do you have to do other stuff?
CJE It‘s very hard. I do so many non-lucrative things that it sort of works out. I do some acting. That‘s not the main thing, but I do some writing, some web series, some art. So it‘s four professions that are hard.
BW I just wrote a book, and I‘m waiting for my agent to sell it. Getting the book sold would be my dream. If you had a dream, what would it be right now?
CJE I’m working on a project that’s an extension of Touching the Art. If I could get it off the ground, that would be very exciting and great. Sometimes I think I want to be president. (laughter) But don‘t tell anyone that.
BW What would you run on?
CJE Mandatory vasectomies.
BW Really?! No more breeding??
CJE I think we should stop giving women poison and various contraptions, and stop letting men in office handle birth control for a couple of centuries, if we last that long.