Diana Abells





About the Artist

I cut and paste. My raw materials include my own recorded footage, movies, TV shows, newscasts, and uploads from YouTube superstars and nobodies. I collage such media into narratives as a way of experimental storytelling. These stories are constructed through collective desires, meme culture, metaphors, and viral formulas.

I dip into my own memories, misunderstandings, and desires in playful attempts at defining universal notions of perception. Childhood is my guide. I seek times of instability between experience and thought, and I am interested in how meaning shifts as one learns new points of connection between objects, places, and situations.


2017-2018 Winter Residency




with D. K. Broderick, February 2018

I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about rules. Following them or breaking them and how this relates to your idea, or construction, of an artist? Maybe it’s helpful to quote you directly. You said, “I love that artists have the ability to take on any other discipline without having to follow the rules of that discipline.” I just thought it might be fun to jump into a discussion of rules and rule breaking together.

A visiting artist when I was in undergrad said something along the lines of that and I was just wowed by that because at the time I was double majoring in physics and art. So I had originally thought I would do a science-based career but then was actually really a lot more drawn into the investigative nature of art. That art allowed you to investigate as well but in a really different way. I think in a way we sort of have the luxury as artists to just indulge in whatever really fascinates us. And these areas we might choose to investigate might only be important to us, and maybe it doesn't necessarily lead to a new invention or medicine, but that it leads to new ideas. So for me that was a realization that there were these freer modes of thinking or ways of working. I hadn't really thought about it in relation to what I've been doing right now. But what I have been doing is using found footage and taking it out of its original context or its intended purpose and mixing it into what I want it to be. So in that way I'm interested in a certain amount of taking other material and saying I'm going to re-contextualize it and turn it into something else. I enjoy that permission that art can give us to just go for it.

I also studied science and art in undergrad. At a certain point I had a similar realization to you. The discipline of empirical analysis became one departure point of many. As opposed to an end all method for the ways in which one asks questions and investigates the worlds around them. Do you see any elements of your undergraduate studies in physics, or their ghosts, showing up in your work now?

Physics doesn't play such a big role in my work anymore but in undergrad I took a lot of ideas from physics and funneled them into my work which has evolved from there. It was mostly in terms of trying to take highly abstract concepts out of physics, or abstract ways of defining things through mathematics and trying to understand it in terms of a physical experience. So I did a lot of video work with moving bodies. From there it evolved into thinking about spaces around the body, and then I was working with memory of spaces, and that lead to the memory of specific events, media, objects. Which, in turn, led to found footage. I started to think if I can access that remembered material directly — such as if I can find it on YouTube, or find photographs of objects that I'm remembering — and then use it directly in the work, then I might be able to reconstruct the narrative of my memories around it.

So just to make sure I'm following, you take your personal memories and situate them in other people’s personal objects and/or experiences? And these materials you’re working through are all sourced from the internet?

It’s not so much that the found footage came from other people, but that other people contribute to a catalog of all these different objects and media that I can draw from, and it can allow me to be really specific. For example, one of the most recent videos focused on the Lego Paradisa series. And I had this poster of the series in my room as a kid, and I was able to find the exact poster and buy it on Ebay, and then use it in the video as a sort of raw material. I also found lots of other people’s photographs of their Paradisa Lego sets, which I never actually had, but had stared at in this poster. By finding this material I could try to use it as the real objective moment of my memories, and then rebuild the subjective narrative around the literal objects.

Perhaps it’s a type of recuperation?

Maybe it’s more of an inaccurate re-enactment? This [video, La Vie en Rose,] is something in progress that I have. It’s not so much a memory of mine, but it was specific footage that helped capture some of the narratives I’ve been working with. This was one where I searched through YouTube and discovered that lots of different people were recording the same song at Lady Gaga’s concerts and posting it on YouTube. So the footage I used are four different nights, four different locations, but she's wearing the same costume, she sings the same song. And so it was this weird kind of community of people that had just done this and there’s this conversation, they’re not directly talking to each other, but they're all posting this, so I put their videos together and when she sings it’s all out of sync because she sings it differently every night, not like dramatically differently but enough that it doesn't line up.

In bringing together these separate experiences that share a similar object of interest, whether it be Lego Paradisa or Lady Gaga, when you perform these operations, as an artist, what are you working towards? Or away from? And why is this important to offer to an audience, or to put out into the world again?

A lot of the driving force for what I choose to focus on or pick, because you probably can do this with a lot of different topics, is what sort of evolved out of childhood perception and desire within that. So, for example, childhood desire for luxury things or for beauty. I just felt she was this perfect example, this Disney princess, almost, or embodying that, I think she even says it in the video, that she’s always wanted to wear this pink dress with the blond hair, and the song she sings is in French, it’s “La Vie en Rose,” and it’s all very romantic — so I just felt it was a good example of a really simple, indulgent desire, and by smooshing it all together it kind of starts to sound crazy, but still really captivating, when she sings all together.

A distortion of desire.

Yeah, that’s a good word. There’s this distortion that we can see because we are no longer within that childhood perspective. We can see the bizarreness of it all.

In that you are reflecting on it now, as someone that is no longer a child.

And with this other one, here, with this Lego poster, this was a luxury vacation scene or something. And it just kind of gets mixed up into this choppy abstract bizarre little world that is driven by this imaginative place. I think that childhood perception is this interesting subset of human perception. It’s a point where perception is still trying to figure itself out, give itself and things context. I'm interested in how objective that perception can be. Or the idea of babies just seeing colors and shapes.


They have no context of like, that’s a box, made out of cardboard, versus it’s just a rectangular blob, versus highly subjective, where it’s totally invented. So I think in childhood perception there’s this weird mix of both because kids see things and don’t yet understand the context, so maybe they are seeing it as-is, but then they will make stories up, they'll lie about things, they'll have really vivid imaginations about things, so I think it’s just a really interesting state for talking about perception which I think is always interesting in terms of art. It drives a lot of things.

And the ways in which not being able to readily make sense of an experience can become a grasping for meaning and for relation.

I think that the misunderstandings, or confusions, are really interesting. And that's what I'm trying to get at with my work. The hope is then to maybe instill that in a viewer. To suddenly feel a jolt back to unclear perception through abstract storytelling.


I enjoy that permission that art can give us to just go for it.
— Diana Abells

Perhaps this is a good segue into exhibition strategies. Let’s talk a little bit about your strategy of introducing structures into exhibition spaces. Structures that often serve to support your video work within the space of the exhibition.

I would say that video is my primary medium, but I have always been interested in not just having it on the wall on a TV as if it were a painting but trying to figure out how a physical experience can tie into it.

The structures seem to exist somewhere between architectural form and sculptural object. How do they amplify or complicate your video works?

I can try and be concrete about that, and say with the stairs, I was definitely thinking about how I can make an object that you have to enter into. I was definitely thinking about the doubling of architecture and object. And I also wanted to link back to childhood experiences of my own in terms of experiencing spaces and a sense of crawling into spaces or using spaces in a way that they weren't intended. The idea of the space under the kitchen cabinets or under the sink — that you could open those up and kids like to sit in there and pull stuff out. And it becomes an architectural room. So this under the stairs space was this in-between space that is interesting for kids because it doesn't have a defined or set experience.

Alternative uses.

Yeah, like its not definitive, it’s not like this is this space only, and that’s why we use it.

And things are stored there. Which brings us back to memory. And the internet.

Yeah, the other thing I had been thinking about was museum spaces for children. Particularly I had been visiting this children's discovery museum in Acton, Massachusetts, which is from the area where I grew up. I had gone there as a kid, but then went back to it because I was really interested in the architecture of the building and a lot of the experiences there are built into the architecture. If you’re going to experience some of the exhibits you had to crawl into a space. Or you enter into a little room or a closet kind of space to see these things. In one of the more experiential exhibits, there’s a space under a staircase and inside that spot they had just a video, on an old tv, and it was all video footage of under the sea, and its dark in there, they didn't have any lights on, it was just the video, and there’s a cushion and you can just sit there and watch. I just thought that that was this really indulgent moment. And it didn't necessarily have a curriculum around it or a specific task associated with it that you had to do.

Beyond exploration.

It’s just this sort of sensual moment to be immersed in. And there’s something cozy about that. That I like, too. Something comfortable, or fun about it. I think in general I'm interested in humor and funny situations, too.

There’s also a way in which you can't really separate the video and the structure. They both make the experience. Which is interesting because you're not looking at a screen on a wall, you're looking at something that resembles a familiar structure, but you don't really know what it is exactly, or how to engage with it exactly, and then there’s this secondary experience of video. And it all feels like its playfully unsettling in a way that I guess you're expressing is reminiscent of being a child and childhood perception.

Playfully unsettling is an interesting phrase. Because I am interested in the darker side and the light hearted side mixing together — like this is a fun little playhouse, but then there’s an amount of voyeurism where somebody could look right in at you through the small window or large peephole. There’s this sort of uncomfortableness. The particular video that’s in here, "Watching Wendy," was actually shot in that children’s science museum. I brought my camera and this doll and I sort of had a game of house that unfolds in there. I had gone on a day they were closed to the public, so there were no visitors at the time, but there were some people working outside and in the attic space. And there’s a little window into the attic. So I didn't realize they were there while I was recording, and they were in the shot, and I don't think they saw me, but there was like this weird moment of ‘I didn't realize they were there’ feeling. And then I kind of incorporated that in the video as I saw them several more times while I was there. So I kind of set up the doll to be watching them, too.

So that was interesting, you’re sort of superficially playing house with the doll, you're in this fun museum, and then there’s also like this watching — like are they watching me, am I'm watching them? Or as you said, maybe we are watching each other without even realizing it.

I think that for me was a big thing as a kid. And I use a lot of my own memories of experience in my work too. So just looking out my window at my neighbors all the time. Just watching them do stuff. I felt like that was a very strong clear memory that I had so that element of watching in the video fit well with my past experiences.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a few more videos, and one I am finishing here is about my memory of a particular National Geographic issue. It was an issue from 1991 about the Gulf War. It contains a lot of really scary images of war and destruction but I would secretly look at it often as a kid, and I had no context for what was going on, it just seemed like an alien world. My starting point for thinking about that experience is this really great situation in the children’s book Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary, where Ramona liked to look at this book of wild animals and there’s this particular image of a gorilla that really scares her but at the same time she finds it really fascinating and mesmerizing. I find that to be an interesting moment of the uncanny where it’s super familiar or desirable but it’s also really repulsing and horrifying, and that is something I’ve been thinking about in my work.


I would say that video is my primary medium, but I have always been interested in not just having it on the wall on a TV as if it were a painting but trying to figure out how a physical experience can tie into it.
— Diana Abells

Photos by Walker Esner