Elena Parasco Celebrates the Inspirational & Communal Act of Trading Your Heroes
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
Unpacking the artistic, emotional, and intellectual considerations behind WNW Member Elena Parasco’s projects is a rewarding exploration into the creative journey. Her work is a celebration of the crossroads where community meets action meets spontaneity. It’s rooted in both a specific moment and place while simultaneously tapping into monumental concepts central to our history and our myths: sports, femininity, heroes. All three are in play in Elena’s latest and strongest project yet, a limited edition trading card series titled “Trade Your Hero For Mine.”
For the New York-based Director, heroes are not simply for idolizing alone but for exchanging with others; such a transaction can be more valuable than the exchange of ideas. A proactive celebration of heroes guarantees an endless reserve of fresh inspiration as well as deep connections with those around you. Elena’s candor, passion, and self-reflection in our interview below speaks volumes about the effects that a hero-trading approach can have on your creative energy. Elena also talks about the role neurocinematics play in her work, what her creative mission is at this stage, and why audiences are often more up for a challenge than they get credit for.
Tell us a bit about your creative background. Who is Elena and how did she get here?
My background is in cognitive science, and the effect of both image and sound on the brain. Almost all of my work comes from this point of reference. It’s pretty much all I’m interested in, and is innately woven into my approach as a creative. From my focus on conscious vs. unconscious storytelling, to editorial techniques, to my incessant attention to sound design.
After graduating from Wesleyan, I got my start in immersive art installations and working with artists; I was interested in challenging, participatory experiences. Soon after, I found my home in the agency world and the content side. I transitioned from smaller shops to The Mill to eventually going freelance creative directing and directing content.
But I landed here mainly because I saw a lot of content being made that just didn’t speak to me. Like, at all. And I thought, “Wow, content right now is missing an entire demographic that would love to be tapped into.” I mean, I love when content speaks to me. Makes me feel seen. Feel heard. When content really hits the mark and is executed well, it can make you feel like you were just given a direct voice in the most indirect way. It’s a cool effect.
So after a few years of facilitating artists and creatives, and feeling pretty unheard, I just kind of said, “Fuck it. I’m going in.” I left my job, went freelance, and I believe at that point I went right into concepting downtowngirlsbball.
What do you see as the turning point in your creative career so far?
I would say two projects undeniably brought me to an alternative level in my career, and more importantly, defined for my own self what I stand for as a creative.
Happyokay, a personal project from a few years ago, was a multidisciplinary performance and film that included the NYC Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet, Juilliard, Caroline Polachek from Chairlift, and was in collaboration with this incredibly talented and nimble Amsterdam-based performance collective called House of Makers. I saw what they were doing in the Netherlands, and I just wasn’t seeing it here in NY.
For this project, I wanted to take classical arts, mainly ballet and sound, and re-contextualize it for the millennial generation. Juilliard played live deconstructed classical music, which interacted with a stereoscopic soundscape, which interacted with 360° video projection mapping (hey, it was cool at the time), and all of which interacted with the live, three-part ballet performed by soloists from the New York City Ballet. It was one-night only, free, and open to the public. So essentially anyone could come watch Juilliard and the NYC ballet perform in this crazy light installation designed by this amazing light designer from the Dutch National Ballet, who legit flew himself on his own dime to this Bushwick space just to be a part of the project. Over 400 people came through, and it was live-streamed in HD from five different camera angles to over 20 countries around the world. And people actually tuned in. People in China, Indonesia, Brazil. That night, oh man, was fire.
In addition to creative directing the project, I directed all the video content. For me, the films were about how we can place ballet into a more intimate, democratized setting, without deflating the challenging nature of the classical art form itself. Instead of just cranking the volume and throwing around laser beams, we wanted to consider new ways in creating a more visceral sense of closeness with the dancers, which up until that point was a quite formal relationship with spectators. We wanted to break that down while also dipping them into this digital space that I felt classical ballet was still virgin to at the time.
Later someone came up to me and said, “Wow, if ballet was always like this I would get tickets and go every week!” I mean, this was kind of the point. The project was a test. A test in how we can keep classical art forms relevant and alive for future generations and how seats at the Philharmonic or NYC Ballet can be filled with young people. No one “gave me this brief” but it was a fun exercise. I mean, these millennials and Gen Yers were listening to Edvard Grieg and watching classical ballet. And they loved it.
People really didn’t know what I was doing with that project. I remember the only one who really believed in me was my good friend and mentor, JR. He would say things like, “Sounds amazing, do it. I totally get it.” The project ended up getting a ton of press which I was not expecting, and the film premiered with The New York Times’ T Mag. I think after that, people really started to take me seriously as a creative.
Because downtowngirlsbball wasn’t reacting to a client brief, I got to take incredible liberties that no one would have believed in on both a commercial and experimental level; I think the 3-minute video portrait balances the two really well, while also emphasizing the impact of non-narrative filmmaking.
What I love about this project is I really got into the “neurocinematics” of it. Holding a strong grip over the viewer by hijacking viewers ISC (inter-subject correlation) levels in the edit, and then I would juxtapose this stylistic, quick-cut grip over the viewer with doc-like, free-roaming images that freed up the viewer to just feel. How I could sculpt the female gaze through a balance of approach to subject, framing, and the edit of the film.
For the sound I ended up weaving together five unreleased tracks from Ricky Eat Acid and creating this voice “vortex” together with my sound engineer. This vortex didn’t just “throw around sound” but instead aimed to mimic the nature of thoughts in a brain, as the piece aimed to capture the mindscape of the contemporary female athlete.
Because when you think, it isn’t algorithmic. (For the cognitive theorists out there, this will open a load of debate, but I’m going to stand by this one). The nature of thought has this stunningly complex nature. We’ve got the conscious, unconscious, illusive reality, perceptive reality, and memory-based thoughts. From meditative to densely populated. It can be chaotic, but then melodic in its own right. So my approach to the sound was to create a dynamic soundscape that composed a shared, internal, and external portrait of the team. Where a wisp of one thought from one of the girls would surface, cut by another thought from someone else, cut by a feeling that’s perhaps free of language all together. Perhaps a memory or sound, drenched in nostalgia. Like the sounds you would hear when you first started playing sports outside in the summertime. I wanted to create an effect that paralleled how these feelings, memories, and thoughts coexist in this gestalt, but more importantly: how these thoughts can be dropped in an instant when engaging in sport. How sport and play can command your mind. Dropping your attention to this single channel of presence.
I was interested in creating a world where the city of New York, nostalgia, sport, femininity, masculinity, and pure presence all kind of ran together. It was just an experiment, but what I love is when people watch it, they have NO idea I put this much effort into it. They’re just like, “Oh cool. Word. Love that film.” I really like that.
For sure, this piece brought all of the things I’ve been working towards together, and made them make sense. The female gaze, nuerocinematics, body in motion, sport, and a strong statement told through an approach that balanced both the commercial and experimental lens. I’m excited to build on this throughout my career.
I wanted to talk a bit about your recent “Trade Your Hero For Mine” project. What was the initial idea behind your trading card series and how did it evolve over time?
Honestly it was quite simple. I was in the NYC subway, talking with my friend, and I realized I needed more female-based stories that were both inspiring and yet spoke to me personally. And stories that were readily reachable. Tangible. I wanted to be able to pull these stories from my front pocket if I ever needed them. And it started with the point blank need: I needed more heroes to look up to in my life. I think it’s important to have heroes. Someone you see elements of yourself in, someone you strive to be. Or someone that just makes your jaw drop. We need them.
In all my projects, I look towards creating a kind of “new guard” of more accessible female role models. I am more interested in platforming stories that don’t feel completely out of reach. Like, “hey, maybe I could do that too.” In January 2018, Trade Your Hero For Mine was born out of this thinking. And I thought, let’s go back and re-appropriate the source, where the first imprint of heroes was made in my own life and so many others: sports and sport trading cards.
It was a two-fold decision. I am always looking towards creating work that incites a participatory response, where the physicality of people connecting outside the digital space isn’t lost but is actually sparked. And for me, using this as the primary medium for this project created an exciting new challenge: how do I carefully reconsider a millennium of male-dominated visual sports language, yet create something that still naturally lives within the world of trading cards. And also features women. And is shot by, designed by, and made by, women, down to the typeface. I hadn’t seen it done before. And that was wild to me.
I decided it was important to branch out and tell a story outside of the North American athletic circle. So I went down to Mexico City and after meeting Mexico’s National Women’s Ice Hockey team - a women’s sports team that made it further in the Olympic Tryouts than any other, a team ranked number one in their country, and a team people don’t even know exists - I decided to profile these incredible women.
I shot their portraits in the female gaze. People have a lot of questions about what the female gaze is, and for me it’s capturing women exactly “how they are.” Active protagonists of their own story, sirens. Gentle, soft, funny, badass, curious. Women free of male permission into their own athletic pursuit. They aren’t your source of entertainment, nor sexual objects, nor do they need to express an overtly tough exterior. Females, and female athletes especially, can be and need to just be them. Femininity is wildly complex, and I want to celebrate that.
From the photoshoot, to the film, to designing of the cards with lead designer Ana Thompson, I knew I just wanted to really understand the origin of each decision in design, color, and shape in sport iconography to make sure we were creating a new discourse around female stories. PS: Ana is this badass, Brazilian tomboy, and insanely talented designer and art director.
Together we decided to incorporate intuitive and poetic messages within the trading card deck. In both the English and Spanish versions, we headlined each card with the Spanish saying “Sé Una Chingona” (BE A BADASS GIRL), and instead of stats and championships, when put together, the back of each card read as a story. From forming the team, to playing with boys, to the pride they have of their beautiful country, to what the formed sport-sisterhood feels like. All told from the voice of each player.
What I loved about the final product of this project is that the cards don’t feel soft. But to me, they are incredibly tender. Especially when the team talks about what they had to sacrifice to create and push this team forward. How much love they have for their country. I was excited by how this project both subtly and successfully straddled this line of both soft and hard, while still standing on its own when placed against a Michael Jordan rookie card.
What was the most rewarding moment from TYHFM?
So many rewarding moments, oh man. A legit outpour from the online audience on this one. Something I was absolutely not expecting. Mexicans, Mexican Americans, people in the sports community, people who have never even picked up a ball or a puck.
But the MOST rewarding, had to be this, hands down:
Not too long after the cards went live on Victory Journal, a stranger DM’d me on Instagram, saying that they couldn’t afford a deck. (Even being the National team, the girls have to pay for their own ice rink time, and in Mexico ice rinks are expensive and rare. When I learned of this, I decided to have all proceeds from the sale of cards go towards the team, so the decks aren’t super cheap.)
He sent a few photos of some Olympic trading cards he had featuring female track and field stars, and one of Usain Bolt, with the message: “Trade your hero for mine?”
Question mark. I was dead. He wanted to trade his heroes, for new heroes. This message embodied a huge part of what this project is all about. It also showed how “trade your hero for mine” works. How it functions. It proved that these girls could stand up to great Olympic stories, like The Bolt.
This team, their heart, their pride, their dedication, these are heroes. A new genre is forming. The game is changing. People care. Even about printed trading cards. Like, who knew? I was honored to witness firsthand how change can happen, especially in the greater sport conversation. The next morning I sent him a deck, and he sent me his cards. We traded. They’re still above my desktop now.
What does the idea of “trading heroes” mean to you?
It means challenging antiquated ideas and constructs for what constitutes a hero, as these heroes often formulate the very first constructs of what and of whom we strive to be.
At its core, Trade Your Hero for Mine is an activity. An exchange of stories, of role models, in making room for new perspectives. Opening up yourself to new parameters for what a role model is, for what a role model looks like.
Engaging in this action of trade, read, learn, share, play, results in directly placing powerful female athletic stories into the larger, male-dominated sports conversation under a female-led vernacular.
Creating a needed shift away from athletic heroes being defined by their strength, skill, stats, and championships, and instead drawing focus toward personal and shared sacrifice, culture, heart, empowerment, and relatibility.
How does your own experience as one of the few women directors working in sports inform your approach to projects that empower women athletes?
I believe cinematic portrayals of female athletes have been overly mystified, funneled through the male gaze, and hindered; usually, there’s a combination of all three at work. This dates back to the first captured image of a woman playing a sport. In connection to this belief, I believe sports are the most fertile platforms to tell any story. A coming of age film. A story about a sisterhood that grew out of misfits. A story about love for their country. A story about gender. Community. How someone took a stand.
My own experience playing sports, working in sports, being a “creative,” and being a woman, relates to my approach in that: I just want to focus on being better informed about what’s lacking, and how we can reframe and retell a lot of the stories we’re used to seeing in order to create a systemic and dynamic shift.
What’s your creative mission at this stage? What do you feel is missing and what do you want to take up and deliver?
My mission is just to challenge the way we approach and deliver short-form stories to viewers; of which, if it isn’t a personal project, starts with the difficult task of convincing the client that they need to take greater risks in the creative ask. Which is a very complicated and political ladder.
We spoon-feed way too much, and in the work that I’ve done, from Happyokay to A$AP Rocky’s NYFW installation to Trade Your Hero For Mine, I’ve found the greater audience actually wants to be challenged. They want to be engaged with. “Let’s dance. Let’s go. Let’s do this.” is the feedback I’m getting.
If we are consuming this much instantaneous, short-form content on the regular, we at least need to take a step back and draw attention to the fact that not only could we be saying something bigger - which I believe many brands have “caught on to” in becoming less fearful in being more political - but the fact that maybe the very foundations of what we expect the output of the creative to look like are deeply and systemically flawed.
I think generating a balance in creating content that doesn’t pigeonhole your audience, yet offers layers that test, confront, question, or challenge them - even if it just opens their eyes to new ways of thinking that are subtly wrapped up in a feel-good moment - that is my MO.
What’s something you’ve learned on your creative journey that other creatives should hear?
As creatives, sometimes we need to just get out of our own way to realize what’s actually possible. As young creatives, we often won’t see people doing exactly “what we want to do,” they don’t “look like us” doing it, people seem to never “get our ideas,” or maybe success doesn’t come as fast as we’d like.
Too often we are allowing these ideas to seep in and impact us, perhaps even unconsciously, to our detriment. I think societally-imposed projections of “what is possible” and of “what is not possible” get projected back onto creatives daily, and it can be incredibly stifling. But we really need to become more aware of this process, and in turn need to remind ourselves on the daily that these pre-set limitations aren’t real. They’re projections from other people’s fear, lack of imagination, and so on. And we need to continuously check ourselves: Are we pushing our work enough? Are we pushing each other enough?
Ultimately, it’s up to you to choose what impacts you, and it’s also up to you to lead the way. Just because you don’t see it does not mean it can’t happen. Just because this project is going to take 1.5 million steps and potentially 400 initial no’s (cough, my trading card project) does not mean it will not happen, and be your greatest project yet.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Without revealing too much, right now I’m developing my next personal project -- a kind of graduation from downtowngirlsbball. The short film will be a meditation on sport, recreation, competition, dance, and play, with a strong emphasis on sound. I see this film flexing more as an “Act I” for what I see as a life-long body of work on play culture. Really amped about this one. Also sports brands, come find me. Let’s collaborate on this. Experimental sound designers, hey, hit me up.