Olivia No is a 23 year old video and installation artist based in Chico, CA. Her digital work captures personal experiences with mental illness, solitude, and self-exploration of femininity. She is also part of the feminist arts collective, grlrm. Olivia received her BFA in photography at Southern Oregon University.
A lot of your photo and video work mixes real life with selectively edited digital imagery; what sorts of themes are you trying to focus on with this?
[With] my recent stuff, I was starting to get interested in using the aesthetics of glitch, which are very markedly digital. I wanted to be very upfront that it’s a digital platform. I’ve been doing recordings of my daily life; I make all that on my phone, but I like to sometimes go back and do sort of a “magical edit” using that hyper-digital aesthetic and bright colors to make it look almost heavy-handed.
What sorts of tools do you use?
I use my phone always, [and] I use a couple different apps. I use Gliché, which is mostly for photo, but you can do videos on it now; it makes these looping few-second portions. I do some of the editing in this other app called Glitch Wizard––I don’t use that one as much. I do all the sequencing in just Instagram, because that’s where it eventually ends up getting posted; that’s my main platform.
I do have some sculptural work from my BFA show and about a year and a half ago on my website. I have that portfolio, but my current practice is Instagram.
It’s where all the people who I would want to see my art are; it’s what they’re looking at on a regular basis, and I can be in dialogue with their lives. The linear structure of it…it’s always something you’re building up, and you can look back at someone’s feed and see how it’s progressed. The way it archives it is easy to understand. It’s easy to go back and find the progression of my own ideas, which is something that I also focus on.
I’m kind of obsessive in the way I do things; I want to understand every tiny detail of it. I’m super analytical, so I’m always going back over the thing I did and trying to figure out what the connection between those things is. I rarely make things with a fully-formed intention of everything being sought out.
I have these themes I’ve been working with, I have this content I’ve recorded and collected, and at that particular time I’m juxtaposing them together to make a new meaning. I make a new meaning for it, and I’m always self-referencing too. I think Instagram makes you automatically self-referential.
Also, it’s where I am constantly finding news or new artists or what my friends are up to. I don’t need to separate that from my art practice. I don’t want to make divisions in my practice and my life, so it feels very natural to move that way.
Do you think people take your work seriously? Is it supposed to be serious?
My work is pretty sincere, but it’s meant to be humorous and playful. My recent work is referencing being depressed, being anxious, and other mental health things, because that’s part of my experience. It makes me feel better to make the work about those things; I’ve always made work about that without realizing it, or without that being my main thought when I’m working. It’s just part of my life, so it’s going to be part of those things. [Instagram] is my creative output, and I feel sincerely about it.
I feel good when I make those things, but I also have a fear that those things are invalid, because it’s not part of a traditional gallery system or traditional contemporary art world representation. [That] is something I’ve always wanted. The artists I like––that’s the art world world they live in. I will often self-invalidate.
People are already going to not think of [work on social media] as art, but I’ve written about and know that these things are important. This is a platform for “real art”. There’s no such thing as “fake art”. For some reason, I still have this ideology of, “Real, good contemporary art is in galleries and museums.” It’s a stigma. I feel I’m trying to be more proud about it and stop self-invalidating.
That’s connected to a lot of my work too, being about girl culture and feminine things like makeup and performance of self; those things are seen as frivolous. A defense mechanism is to go along with that, but that’s not how I actually feel. It’s breaking that habit.
What do you think of the contemporary idea of “aesthetic”? Do you apply that to your own work?
Everything has an aesthetic. I feel like the work I make has a very performative aesthetic. It’s very effective and visually saturated. That has to do with codes I work with; I’m interested in the girl feminine as the way it’s been marketed for a long time. I’m always questioning where my aesthetics are coming from. Why do I like glittery things? Why do I like sparkly things? It’s wanting to be seen, like something having a very marked aesthetic.
I never think too much about my aesthetic, even though I said it is kind of heavy-handed. I just go with what I think looks bright and playful and interesting––overwhelming even. Anytime [my friends] see something pink and gooey, even though that’s not something I work with as much anymore, that reminds them [of me], because that was “my aesthetic” for a while. I think it’s interesting when each person has their own aesthetic.
arm dance 1, your short video piece, has you swaying your hand around in front of a webcam to “Water Me” by FKA Twigs… Could you explain what is happening exactly in that work?
That video is part of an ongoing series of small, private performances. I used to do these in my studio too, just on my Photobooth webcam. I’m alone in a space, and I’m not doing anything. I’m just aimlessly killing time. It’s about leisure.
Most of them are about me, taking my time alone. I realize I’m being performative even though I’m by myself, and no one can see me, then I have this camera and recording situation where anyone can see it. It’s the odd things we do in private that are beautiful too. Solitude and aloneness is beautiful, and it’s part of my process of learning how to be alone and how to really enjoy it. There’s one where I’m not actually alone; I’m petting my dog. They’re inspired by ASMR videos too, because they’re meant to be ambient and calm, but they’re very low-tech.
work from home is another video in which you scroll through a work of poetry on your desktop that asks questions like, “How old were you when you remember feeling not happy?” Why present the writing in that format?
I toyed around with a few different things; one was having an actual, printed scroll-type piece. It was meant to be this stream-of-consciousness poem, and I wanted the way you read it to be alienating almost. I came up with that format playing around, trying different ways of presenting it. At the time, I was interested in this idea of me performing, even though I’m not there, or just the body performing on the computer when there’s nobody there. That started with this other video I did that was also a scrolling video––it was a screen recording of me on Tumblr at night––called A Girl on the Internet at Night. There was that element of watching someone in live-time, but it’s a recording of an earlier event that has that feeling of re-experiencing.
I also felt like it read as a manuscript too, but it was a regurgitation of readings and found text. A lot of the readings were about specifically the state of young artist’s careers and the “art life”; what it means to have art and life combined. It was stuff that I even felt was over my head. I was interested in the writing, but I feel like it’s really inaccessible to me. It’s interspersed with other stream-of-consciousness thoughts, like notes I kept on my phone. I have a very text-based practice. It was interspersed with my own thoughts and the stuff I was regurgitating. That title, work from home, [is] about making work from my bed too. I’ve been interested in that topic of my domestic space constituting and facilitating any activity and reactivity.
Poetry seems to be somewhat of a recurring theme in your practice, from videos to photo captions to personal Tumblr posts… Why communicate through text like that? Why poetry?
I feel awkward talking to people and always have. I feel like I write much better than I speak. I’ve always kept notebooks and journals, not always for art, but for personal reasons. I’ve always loved reading poetry. I’m interested in how the pairing of images and words together creates something completely different, but it still leaves opportunities for people to interpret things differently. I want it to not be a descriptive text; if I’m adding words to something, I want it to add complexity. I don’t want to be able to exist without the image there, and vice-versa. I’m still figuring out how I am using text, but it’s something that I can spend time composing. It’s a way to gather content that I always have on hand. I have little notes that I’ve written to myself or combinations of words or quotes I’ve pulled from something. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a “maker”; I’m a poet and a scribe. That’s how I do most of my art.
How do you see your work in relation to the contemporary art world? Where do you think you stand?
There are many different art worlds that you can be a part of; it’s up to you what is best for your practice and your goals. I still don’t know that. I know that I want it to be something that can support me, but I have this unrealistic expectation that contemporary art in galleries is “valid art”. That is art that is “respectful and good”.
I feel kind of lost right now. I don’t really know where I stand in the art world. I feel disconnected from the bigger art world, because that’s all in the cities. All the cool artists that I like get exposure like that. My friends, who also live in small cities––their practice is not invalid either just because they’re not in a city––they’re showing their paintings in a coffee shop or something. I had a period where I had this unrealistic expectation of how it should be.
Right now, I make work that’s pretty immaterial, so it can be shown just on a webpage; that’s the perfect venue for it, and that’s the best way disseminate it to people, but it is interesting to try to figure out how to exhibit that work in physical spaces too. That’s something I was really interested in towards the end of my BFA. A big concern I had with that was trying to re-articulate all my work that was digital into immediate space.
Do you feel like your university experience prepared you for being the artist that you wanted to be?
Yes and no. I think there were opportunities to be prepared, but they came late. They came late at a point where I had all this other stuff I had to consider that––I thought at the time––was more important, so I didn’t focus on that. I’ve had to figure out a lot of things on my own and in my own time. It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely hard when you’re someone who is fucking sad, and you have all these other things that are a priority.
You also underestimate how much of a priority having your art career should be. I am only recently realizing that is actually really important to me, and I can put it before these things that seemed important at the time.
I’m just growing up as a person. I rushed into school and rushed through school.
Do you feel like the type of work you make is more encouraged or discouraged by the institutions you’ve been involved with?
I’ve always had strong support for the work I was making; I was my harshest critic. My professors and my co-conspirators in school were way more supportive of what I was doing than I even was for myself, which is weird, and I didn’t realize it at the time. I expected people to not like it and to hate it, and it was the complete opposite. I would get really good feedback and lots of support, and people liked what I was doing. All the stuff that hasn’t worked out for me…it’s me, you know? There were some people who didn’t get it, but they weren’t bothered by it necessarily. There was not that much resistance; I didn’t feel that from other people.
Do you have any current or upcoming projects?
I do have––with [the collective] grlrm––[a] show coming up in Montreal that is at the end of this month. There’s going to be some kind of web-interactive video chat performance, and we do have a Tumblr that is semi-regularly updated.
I’ve been making videos––I’m trying to do more. I have some stuff on my computer that I have yet to publish from the lone performance pieces, like arm dance 1 and dream day 1.
I’m trying to move, so that’s taking up all my energy and time, but I want to be making more videos and more sculptural work too. Right now is an incubation period for a lot of stuff. I used to be bummed and down, but I’m gathering content all the time; I’m still thinking about things constantly. I’m not in a place in my life where I can produce a lot. That’s how I’m interpreting this weird time in my life.