The Motivational Video Archive
November 20, 2017
During a particularly bleak semester in college, an observant professor of mine gently introduced me to the Motivational Video Archive. The site is a compendium of low-fi self-help videos, like proto-makeup tutorials for the soul; its creator and star monologist is the artist Michelle Ellsworth.
Ellsworth is known for witty performances that often involve digital archives of fanciful, faux-scientific procedures. The Archive is an unadorned webpage with a video player embedded in the middle. On the right-hand side runs a scrolling table of contents listing over one hundred self-help videos. Ellsworth doles out stern admonitions (“Dump the Girlfriend,” “Don’t Call That Person so Often,” “Don’t Say Normative”); offers situational insight (“Ex Is Getting Remarried,” “Killed Neighbor’s Fish”); addresses creative struggles (“It Feels like Your Project Sucks”); and provides character analyses of friends (“Sean You Suck,” “Berry Get a Job,” “Tory You’re Great”).
The early videos, shot on VHS starting in 1992, sport tracking lines; later ones, which reach into the present day, are filmed on her iPhone. She films each two to five minute video in one take, and doesn’t edit: at the end of some early videos, a single eye presses blearily close to the screen as she scrambles to shut the camera off. Some are funny; in others, she greets viewers with a stray tear on her cheek.
The woman in the videos is charming, goofy, and immediately likable: a worrier who advises taking notes on one’s feelings before expressing them, so they don’t come out “so feeling-ish.” She’s the kind of parent who points out to her kids that Michelangelo probably couldn't swing on the monkey bars either. We learn she is an Ingmar Bergman fan with a thing for poets. When she allows her neighbor’s fish to die, she worries she is incapable of love. Her advice to herself—and by proxy, to us—is funny, but not glib. On personal problems especially, Ellsworth is loving and precise. “I think you’re a kind and thoughtful kitty,” she says in “Suppress Feelings.” Instead of et cetera she says “Doot-da-doo!”
The Motivational Video Archive was not, at its outset, an art project. Instead, it was a repository of videos that Ellsworth, now 50, has made for personal use, to coax herself through difficult life events and creative blockages. The videos “are like used Kleenex in the corner of my room,” Ellsworth told me. She makes new videos in times of personal need, uploads them in periodic dumps, and then doesn’t think about them. When I asked her why she uploaded them to the internet, she explained that in Boulder, where she lives and teaches in UC Boulder’s Theatre & Dance department, one has to evacuate every year for wildfires. She’d rather have the videos online than risk losing the VHS tapes in her bathroom cabinet.
Ellsworth was raised Mormon, and credits her religious upbringing for her “odd obedience” to creative projects. “I was trained in reverence for your work,” she told me. She studied ballet seriously as a child, and still thinks of herself primarily as a dancer. At 22, after a brief stint in New York, Ellsworth’s then-husband got a job with the frozen food company Ore-Ida. (“You know tater tots?” she asks.) The couple moved to Idaho. There, Ellsworth began composing performance pieces that featured instinctive mixtures of words, sounds, and gestures. She also danced with objects, finding that augmenting her body with a soda can or a video camera resulted in a different “neighborhood” for movement.
When Ellsworth was 24, she was offered her first solo show at Dance Theater Workshop in New York City. Before she departed for the East Coast, Ellsworth asked her husband for a pep talk. The advice he mustered was obtuse and useless. “He said something like, ‘You’re really cute. Don’t talk to any strangers,’” she recalled, laughing. “I remember thinking, that doesn’t help me at all.” Ellsworth had an epiphany: “I was the most qualified person. I knew exactly the advice I wanted to hear and how I wanted to do it.” Ellsworth got out a camera and filmed her first video.
“First Video” begins with Ellsworth bobbing her head to the rhythmic piano intro of John Cale’s “Paris 1919.” (With few exceptions, this song plays in the background of each motivational video. Ellsworth says she likes the lyrics’ “militant exorcism.”) Unlike her later videos, there is no stated topic, but we can feel that the energy of a good psyching-up is being mustered. “C’mon sister,” Ellsworth chants. “Go for it! You can do it!” When the song begins, she belts the lyrics, pausing every so often to growl. “You’re a ghost, nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah!” She sings, her voice veering earnestly out of key. She seems unfiltered, slightly naive, and clearly not really sure whether or not she is, as she insists at the video’s end, “Good, really good.”
As videos accumulate, viewers chart the choices Ellsworth has made over the course of her ensuing adulthood. And so, the Archive is one of the few resources that shows the evolution, in real time, of a creative woman’s adult life. A wedding ring flashes on her finger, then disappears. “Don’t Have a Baby” is followed by “Baby’s Coming.” New videos bring pixie cuts and spacious apartments with better light. When Ellsworth becomes a professor at UC Boulder, we see her against a backdrop of bookshelves piled with volumes on dance and philosophy. We don’t know how many kids she has, or even that her name is Michelle. What emerges are internal struggles: Her life could be ours, too. Ellsworth’s emotional shorthand is one that other sensitive, ambitious women might find achingly familiar. “You don’t have to make the cabbage!” she shouts in “Visiting Mom.”
But although her life is frequently characterized by child rearing and interpersonal turbulence, Ellsworth’s deepest struggles remain artistic. A frequent topic is procrastination. “I know you’ve been sitting around today, feeling kind of weepy, kind of under-confident, kind of paralyzed,” she begins in an early video, “Don’t Think—Work.” “It’s cool that you feel that way! But you know what?.... Let’s channel it into the work!” She grows teary. “You just have to make the work.” Another video, “Go to Work,” looks to be made nearly a decade later. Ellsworth is older, but her problem is the same. “We dicked around for four hours today!” She says cheerfully. “And are we happier? Is your skin better because of the little chia seed snack that you had?” Her voice warps, this time with amusement. “No, it’s not. You look the same. I’m sorry. Get to work!”
Other videos address creative self-worth more broadly. “You gotta find the loophole within the piece, the crack,” Ellsworth says in “It Feels Like Your Project Sucks.” In “Admit You Want It,” filmed in what appears to be Ellsworth’s mid-thirties, she says, “I know you have fear about saying you want something, because you have fear that maybe you won’t get it. And you know what? That’s right! You might not get it. But I still think you should just say it. Just say it….” Crying, she points one resolute finger at the camera. “You have gotten so many things that you wanted. Some you did not get, but there are many that you did…Just once…Let me hear it. Let me hear you say you want it.” She could be talking about anything—we never learn what “it” is—but something about her urgency makes me think she’s talking about ambition. The video is both sad—I recognize the instinct many women have to shy away from articulating the extent of their ambitions, even to themselves—and affirming. Ellsworth keeps pushing herself forward.
As a young person, it was deeply instructive for me to see this side of artmaking, so rarely made public: the constant uncertainty, the cajoling, the plying oneself with treats to get oneself to work just a little, just this morning. So much of making art is taking oneself by the elbow and frog-marching oneself into the studio: a sense of split personality isn’t unusual, it’s necessary. At the time, I thought that only unserious artists worked this way—that is, with unrelenting, crippling self-doubt—but Ellsworth made it clear that that’s just the way it is. If the feelings of urgency never let up, you’re lucky.
These days, Ellsworth works primarily in her basement and her garage, preferably for long, uninterrupted periods. She begins by drawing fanciful objects, like an “L-shaped coffin” or “wooden bikini.” Her carpenter husband fabricates what she draws. A month after we spoke, I emailed Ellsworth to see if she’d made any new motivational videos. (During our initial phone conversation, she admitted that she might make a motivational video that very evening because she felt so inarticulate while talking to me.) She said she had.
The new video, “Bury Diet Coke,” was about a ritual she’d invented involving burying the soda in her yard. She’d developed the practice after drawing a picture of herself on her deck surrounded by buried, unopened cans. Intrigued, she’d acted out the drawing in real life and found the process energizing. “It’s like I have a superpower,” she told me. “Everyone else only sees trees and rocks.” Ellsworth has enacted the ritual 11 times. Like the motivational videos, the ritual both was and was not an artistic practice, and was funny without being a joke. “I am not lying to you, [burying diet cokes] is profound and amazing and exquisite,” she says in the video. “It works on so many levels.” “I’m very literal,” Ellsworth told me. “I’m never kidding.”
Ellsworth sometimes goes a while without making any motivational videos because she starts to feel like they’re a bad idea. “I always try and talk myself out of making a video,” Ellsworth told me. “It’s an awful idea to video yourself talking to yourself. But then I start liking the idea of awfulness,” she said. “And I slip out the camera again.”
I return to the videos again and again myself, sometimes just to siphon off some of Ellsworth’s pluck and resolve in the face of bleak creative problems. Other times, it’s to commiserate with someone who feels as resistant to working as I do. Or even just to contemplate how aging might look and feel. It’s rare to be able to scrutinize someone’s face in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties. Most women simply don’t appear in public for that long. I listen for clues for how middle age and art making might alchemize to form stronger retaining walls for criticism, creative or otherwise. “I’m glad you aren’t understood by the masses!” A middle-aged Ellsworth says in “Didn’t Get What You Wanted.” She seems happy.
Other times, I visit the Archive to apply Ellsworth’s life advice to my own. On friendships and romantic relationships, she’s a remarkably solid guide. I watch “Dump the Girlfriend” when I’m having friend troubles, and “Love is Good” at the beginning of a new relationships. (“‘Real’ doesn’t mean ‘permanent,’” Ellsworth reminds us firmly.) I watch “Ugliness” when I feel unattractive. “So you’re ugly. Cool,” says Ellsworth confidently, a glint in her eye. “Do not fight it. You’re ugly and you’re free and you’re true.”