Five(ish) Questions: Elisa Kreisinger
Elisa Kreisinger is a digital video artist, feminist, executive producer at Refinery 29, pop culture pirate, and host of the podcast Strong Opinions Loosely Held. We snagged a conference room at her office in Manhattan and talked about her love of the internet, her feminist mash-up videos, artistic appropriation, predictors of future cultural phenomena, and the serenity of death...especially at 5:00pm on a Monday. Meet Elisa.
Let’s jump into our chat when we started talking about why Elisa went from being an independent artist into the corporate world. The Five Questions begin about three quarters of the way down.
Elisa: I want to be creative and I want my creative labor to be paid for and recognized and seen. Right now in the digital economy, the best place to do that is at a digital publisher. I used to do it outside as an independent producer and artist, and I loved that, but it didn’t afford me the stability that I wanted to be able to save for a house, have a 401K, have health insurance, all that stuff, it sounds really basic and boring, but it became super important to me. Not only as I got older, but for my creative freedom because I’d spend a ton of time figuring out how to get health insurance or how to do this or how to do that, loopholes, and not making anything creative.
Me: Is film your primary medium?
Elisa: Digital video for sure. I love the internet, I came up on the internet, I came up with internet video. Those are my people, that’s where I tried to make the most change initially. I love editing, I don’t like being on set, I don’t like leaving the house, so doing video mash-ups was really a way for me to use the language of pop culture to talk back to popular culture and make these critiques and little video montages. Remixing Sex and the City, remixing Mad Men. These are shows that I really loved and enjoyed, but I also wanted to be a fan and critic of it at the same time. Taking it apart, putting it back together was not only a great way for me to learn how to edit, but how to convey a critical perspective through video in a way, in a language that people already know and understand which is popular culture.
Me: You’ve been here for two years. Does your primary creative output go to Refinery 29?
Elisa: It does, yes.
Me: Have you curbed your personal output?
Elisa: I have, yes. I came here to make feminist mash-up videos, and I learned that the audience wasn’t really having it. So in this shift—you have to remember that digital video started out mostly on YouTube. YouTube in 2008 went to a Content ID system where major production companies and distributors were uploading their content to YouTube to build a library that all other content uploaded by users was being crosschecked against. So every time you’d upload a video, it would be crosschecked against Content ID to see if anyone else, a publisher, held that content.
The initial impetus for this was to stop piracy. It was all about people not uploading a full episode of The Simpsons. Instead it caught a bunch of digital publishers who were just making user-generated content while it was doing that. It was kind of like the dolphin caught while fishing for tuna. That was really troublesome. I spent half my time, instead of making new work, trying to get it through the legal system on YouTube, fighting for it to be released, fighting against copyright violations from AMC, from BravoTV, NBC Universal. And it became really hard to continue to critique media and use the fair-use activism point of view that I was trying to use, in a space like YouTube that wasn’t exactly the democratization of content that we thought it would be. So I got involved in some really cool activist stuff at that point. A lot of internet video creators were getting together to write DMCA legislation that would allow the ripping of DVDs. What we did was a bunch of us wrote testimony that said this is a pretty vital part of fair use and free speech, so the ripping of DVDs, meme culture, copyright on the internet, it’s got to let up because you already have a whole bunch of people making this stuff, and doing it in a way that’s like The Daily Show, only more participatory, and how are the laws going to match that. So that was really fun. The DMCA—we got the restrictions lifted and that was great. Another thing that came out of it was the copyright office white paper on fair use and looking at meme culture and copyright culture online. So that was really fun.
It was the first example for me of how internet culture, us on the ground, and technology especially, is so far ahead—twenty years probably—than the legal system.
Me: I know what you mean. As a musician, I know the feeling, I’m on the other end of it. I’m a creator and our stuff’s just out there floating around and who knows who’s using it. It can be a frustrating process for the artist because you’re like, “Oh well, am I getting credit or paid for my work?” There’s a point where you have to let it go, for us as a band, and there’s a point where you have to fight for it. It depends on where that line is for you. But it’s interesting to hear from the other side. Parody, fair use…it’s super important.
Elisa: Yeah, for sure. I think there are levels of taking and ripping though. It’s one thing for indie artist—I don’t know how big your band is—to sample and pull from a larger band in the pop culture landscape. I feel like for artists to sample other artists without consent at a lower level, not lower, but…
Me: I know what you mean. My band has a smaller reach than Pearl Jam.
Elisa: Yeah! So it’s different than David and Goliath. Which is why that Richard Prince case is so interesting where he sampled—so Richard Prince is an appropriation artist and he’s been sued multiple times. Some people think he’s a total klepto thief, other people think he’s totally brilliant. Where’s the line, is he aware of it, no one knows. He did a series called Rastafarians. He took pictures from a photo book of another artist. This artist spent time with Rastafarians in Jamaican jungles and photographed, published them in a book, then Richard Prince ripped out pages of the book, painted on the people, put some pastiche montage on top of it, and put them up in a gallery for millions of dollars. That is not really, to me, transformative. I think taking all the Real Housewives and making them into feminists—maybe I’m just biased because it’s my own work—but that, to me, you’re transforming the meaning of it and taking it out of its original context, that to me shouldn’t be removed from YouTube for copyright violation, whereas the Rastafarian images being painted on and put on a wall and sold for millions of dollars…
Me: Yeah, drawing moustaches on it.
Elisa: Exactly! So he’s famous for doing that. It’s not surprising, but when we talk about it terms of YouTube and digital content creation, you would never go into a gallery—and no one did go into that gallery—and pull those paintings off the walls. But you would go to YouTube and pull that shit off in a second. It just shows you a hierarchy of digital and content production.
So I came here with that background making feminist mash-up videos in 2008, Content ID threatened the future of that work, I spent some time working in consulting and making TV relevant for a digital audience essentially, so working with Bravo to do Real Housewives mash-ups, for example. The internet really changed when Facebook decided to go head to head with YouTube in terms of providing video content. YouTube is the number two search engine after Google. It’s owned by Google. Facebook is the number one social media site. The majority of the world’s population is on Facebook for better or for worse. They had an audience, they had the world watching, and they opened up the flood gates to video with the goal of going head to head with YouTube and content, so that changed things a lot. Suddenly you have video coming up in your feed against your mom’s post sharing a recipe or so-and-so’s baby video and that really changed the content game for publishers. Publishers were already there, they were getting their site traffic from Facebook. Coming in here to a digital publisher that’s already preferred, I didn’t have to start my own thing and build up four million followers, Refinery already had that. So I had an audience. When you’re in your feed, and you see something you recognize like the Bachelor, the Bachelorette—one of the first videos I did here was taking the two women who were pitted against each other in the Bachelorette—two years ago at this point—but instead of making them fight over these men, I made them fall in love with each other. And they were the ones who got the house and rejected the men and got to come out. People were like, “What episode of the Bachelorette was this? I can’t believe I missed this?”
Me: People didn’t get it.
Elisa: Right. Because they weren’t finding it. It was delivered to them in their feed. So I really had to pivot there and think about the type of content and the tone and move to supercuts.
Me: Know your audience.
Elisa: Yes. So that’s been a change. When you ask if I’m enjoying making stuff for Refinery, I don’t really make that stuff anymore because there’s no audience. But it’s not because I don’t think the content’s good, it’s because the platform has continually changed and challenged me to make new stuff. That original format isn’t working in a feed-based algorithm. Nor was it working on YouTube. So how is it working and where is it working? On television on a late night show. In a Sam Bee sketch. In a political comedy show like The Daily Show. It still works, it’s just not viable—and it pains me to say this—but it’s not viable right now in the feed. I like being paid for my creative labor, it’s just not the same labor. Not because the economy has changed, but because the platform has changed.
Me: It’s amazing how much I don’t know. I’m old school. I listen to records on vinyl and make music on a guitar. It’s almost quaint. So hearing all of these things from you is just, wow.
Elisa: It’s fascinating because the one predictor of these things is teenage girls. Look at what teenage girls are thinking about or listening to, and then in ten years you won’t feel so bad.
Have you heard of Musically? It’s this app where you can mash up songs, take things out of context, make these little videos, and it’s the biggest app for kids under fifteen. But no one else has really heard of it. The biggest predictor of success is looking at what teenage girls are doing. Especially in terms of vocal patterns. Uptalk. Going like this all the time everything’s a question. Teenage girls. A vocal pattern that has been taken by a lot of white dudes in start-ups, which is really interesting, you always associate vocal fry with a Kim Kardashian, lowest common denominator. And then you hear men do it.
Me: How does that go?
Elisa: It goes out… like this… you trail off…
Me: I didn’t even know that was a thing. I’m out of the loop with a lot of things. By choice. To a point. That’s why I love these interviews where I get to meet people who do different things because I’m like, “Whaaat?”
Elisa: Wow, OK. Vocal fry’s big. It’s where you fry the end of your vocal pattern. Ira Glass has it. Every time you hear Ira Glass speak he trails off… Like this… “In this episode… Mother finds her child… In a store…”
Me: That’s annoying.
Elisa: Very annoying. It’s like you trail off with no end. It’s not a declarative statement. It’s a question mark or an ellipsis. Anyway! If you want to keep up to date, see what the teenage girls are doing.
Me: I’ll see what I can do! So let’s move into the Five Questions.
What's one thing you don't know now, but feel compelled to know before you die?
I would love to know what it’s like to travel and immerse myself in another culture for a long period of time. I went on an International Honors Program where we spent the year traveling in different countries, and we went to every continent. We went to England, Tanzania, Zanzibar, India, New Zealand, and Mexico and spent a month, a month and a half in each, and it was great, but what’s it like to live there for a year or two or three. And not worry about a job or saving or whatever.
Me: Is that something that looks feasible to you in your life?
Elisa: Oh, I don’t know. I have no idea. But I think it’d be cool to figure out. Hopefully I’m not too old before I figure it out. Everyone says, “Travel before you get too old.”
The other thing would be major wealth. How do you accumulate major wealth and what are the problems and what’s it like to go through that process of, “What do I do with all this money?” That, unfortunately, is the driver of most success, so what is it like to have the ultimate success in terms of money? What do you do with it? What’s your mindset like when you don’t have to worry about it? Those would be the two things I’d like to figure out. How do you hack the wealth model?
What does success look like to you?
Success to me looks like—hold on, I wrote it down in my phone. We talk about it in therapy all the time. I have five things. Companionship, creativity, critical thinking, comfort, and health.
Me: I love the Cs. We need to turn health into a C.
Elisa: It’s cut. To be cut.
Me: I like that.
Elisa: That’s my model.
Me: So where’s money?
Elisa: Comfort. It’s not a huge concern, but it’s something I’d like to figure out before I die. Not that I have to achieve it, just what does it look like.
How do you define being “in love”?
I have no idea. I think it’s such a manufactured feeling. We talk about it a lot, but the only reason it’s a thing is because it sells movie tickets and books and magazine covers and it helps you buy a ton of shit that you wouldn’t normally need. Companionship is not an infatuation thing, so being in love is realizing that there’s no such thing as that, and that if you are clear on what your goals are, then that makes it a little bit easier. There are times of really great connection and there are times of harrowing misunderstandings. And somewhere in the middle there, maybe there’s an hour of pure euphoria.
Me: Do you think you experience love as euphoria? It sounds like what you’re saying is that love, in this way, is not sustainable.
Elisa: I don’t think it exists.
Me: So what is the thing that is love?
Elisa: Partnership. A connection with somebody who gets you on your level. That’s probably for only maybe an hour if you’re lucky. And then you go your separate ways or whatever. That can be with anyone. A friend, a partner, someone on the subway.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
I don’t know, I’ll be dead. It’s a nice serenity. To not have to worry about anything. It’s a great release. So hopefully nothing. And that’s great.
I think about death a lot. But not my own death mostly because I don’t have kids yet. I think about my parents' deaths, my grandparents’, but I haven’t thought—I’m the youngest in my family, so I don’t have anyone—I’m thinking ahead for them and not for me. Maybe my answer is a product of it being Monday at 5 o’clock, just being like, “Oh my god, death sounds amazing!” [Laughter] Which is terrible and not spiritual at all, but that’s my moment now.