Observando el Cielo (2007)
Observando el Cielo (2007)

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

Jeanne Liotta (New York, 1960) calls herself a “professional amateur”, and beyond that particular declaration there’s more than 30 years of amazing work in different fields of art. Of course, she’s better known as one of the best avant-garde filmmakers of all time, but her intertwined work that consists of installations, photography, field recordings and films transcend the experience of cinema in so many different ways. Desistfilm had a chance to talk to her about her initial “intuitions” as an artist, and how did she adapt to the different formats she ended up working with.

Desistfilm: Jeanne, let us start by making a confession: We discovered your work about 10 years ago, when I wasn’t even writing about cinema. I stumbled across your website and what caught my attention was the opening frame in there. You have a text that really resonated with me, and immediately thought “oh, this is amazing”. The text reads “to inspire ambition, to stimulate the imagination, to provide the inquiring mind with accurate information told in an interesting style, and thus lead into broader fields of knowledge, such is the purpose of this work”. Where did you find this?

Jeanne:  That’s so funny. This was from an encyclopedia. I have a set of old encyclopedias from the 30’s called the Comptom’s Picture Encyclopedia. In the front page of each encyclopedia you could see this phrase, and I always loved it as a child, before the internet, like a way of finding information on your own, like you did in this old books. I would always open then and read, so I thought this was great because this is how I learn to follow my own interests, you know? So I scanned it and make it my cover page for the website. So far you’re the only one who has asked about it.

Desistfilm: As far as I know, you had no formal training in cinema; so, how was this kind of intuitive thing that led you to it?

Jeanne: Well, I studied in the theater, which was my formal training. The theater is a very collaborative place.  I think that working with others in collaborative settings in which we have music and set design was that attracted me to that in the first place, and that was the main thing behind it, the collective way of working. It was an active time when I was in university in the eighties, you had the Eastern Village and that whole situation, that special moment, it was kind of being in the moment: the musicians were making paintings and the printmakers were in bands, and I was young and with my eyes wide open and trying to do a whole lot of things. I always liked photography when I was youngers so I started experimenting making slides for projections in a theatrical sense… so little by little I found my way first exploring with slides then projecting with film, actually performing with film, and then just making films by myself. It was a funny work, I also played in a band (drums and percussion).

Desistfilm: Really? Are you a drummer then?

Jeanne: More like a self-taught drummer, sort of… and untrained one (laughs). But that was one way of participating, being in collectives. I just worked with a lot of different groups, a lot of political street theater; I had a lot of activities in between.

My first discreet film, with proper soundtrack, beginning and end… I was already 28 years old when I did it. So it was a way of waiting until I needed to do it.

Desistfilm: Something that is quite particular, you know, after talking with filmmakers for two years now, is how many of them started doing theater. It seems like the performative aspect of theater was a big influence for many of them.

Jeanne: Yeah, I think it makes you very aware of space, so that’s very important. Earlier today I had one person asking me about my projection performances, and I thought, well, I don’t do it a lot, but I like to have some pieces (I did two pieces last year), I like to preserve that sense of unknown, and to try something for the first time, like projecting something in public when you don’t have control of all the elements when they occur. That’s exciting.

Desistfilm: And I’m saying this because there’s a lot about your work that makes you more of a complete visual artist in all the sense of the word, your installations, projections, performances, etc. Did all that come by the same primal intuition? Because contemporary art is such a specialized thing, very specialized, with a lot of formal training, and I think is remarkable that you made your way into this world by following your own instincts…

Jeanne: Yes, I’m a professional amateur (laughs). I think what you say about the art world is true about all aspects of society now, I feel like we’re, pushed for professionalization, so I think the matter of being resistant is important to an artist. To resist, that’s really an important position that we can’t give up. We’ll just continue our amateurism! (laughs) it doesn’t mean we can’t sell our work or something like that…

Desistfilm: I completely agree, and I find very stimulating that for a “professional amateur” you’re so articulate about your work. You know, I’ve been talking to different amazing filmmakers which can’t really seem to explain their work because it’s so intuitive for them, they’re kind of “lost in space” when you get face to face with them. They can’t even verbalize things properly. Hence this concept of the “illiterate artist” becomes so common nowadays…

Jeanne: As a professor, I’m speaking all the time about cinema. I teach a class on the history of the avant-garde and I make up how I want to describe it, it’s my class and I can talk about it however I want.  I also teach in a graduate level program, which is completely interdisciplinary and it’s only studio visits. I’ve been doing this for about 10 years so it’s quite beautiful for the faculty as well as the students… There are no classes, we just meet one on one and it’s an exchange of language as well about how painters, photographers, writers, etc. talk about their work. It’s a great experimental school in that sense, so A: I practice speaking in those things a lot and B: Of course it is intuitive, but what does that mean? For me, that’s a question I want to know, why is this. I’m intuiting and how does this work and where am I actually moving towards and why I’m interested in these things. I ask myself those questions. I hate when people just say “it’s intuitive”. Okay, but, what do you mean? Explain it in some language, give me something to work with here!

Desistfilm: The first thing we discovered in your work was your “science period”. You did you came to that interest about cosmos, the space, etc. How does that relate to the human experience in general for you as a filmmaker?

Jeanne: Well, I have no science training at all. As a New Yorker, I was born and raised in NY. I didn’t know anything except the moon, Orion’s belt, and the big deeper, and that’s it. It wasn’t like I moved from any educational space.  So, the story I always tell is that I was visiting some friends in the country (that’s how I know about nature). I was staying one night and I managed to get stuck outside at night by myself. Long story short, I slept in a hammock outside at night, it was really scary and I kept waking with every little noise, so every time I woke up I found out that the sky was in a different position, and I never saw that before. Somehow I thought we had some movement from left to right and my experience was not like that. Everything was twisted, the moon was different. It was disorienting and very scary. I didn’t feel grounded at all, I felt like “Here I’m I in this giant ball and there’s all this space out of control”.

So when I woke up in the morning I just couldn’t shake that experience and I thought to myself “Can I make a picture of that? How can I describe that feeling in my own childish way?”. And that was the beginning. I did some stills and tried to do time lapse night photography. I just started investigating it by myself, and it took me a long time! (laughs) So the question about the human experience: that is the human experience, we live on that planet and the sky’s there all the time, for anyone to investigate. Science is just one way of investigating the world and art is another way and you can do it, you know? And for me, even if it took some patience and discipline, it was also out of my own curiosity, so I just proceeded… that’s all I can say. The shooting was amazing, because I had to live through all that time… in Observando for example, you see 20 minutes of film but it took seven years of shooting. I personally had to live through all that material. That was intense. Editing is the work. Constructing something is the work.

Desistfilm: You know, what I find curious is that you talk about your own curiosity in your work about the stars and such and that totally relates to the history of humanity and its own curiosity about what is surrounding us. Also being a really small part of this infinite universe and trying to understand our position in it. In that sense your work becomes much more interesting to me, because it shows a different perspective on these scientific things.

Jeanne: Yes. Yes.

It’s interesting, because it took such a long time that while I was making Observando…, I was making a lot of other things at the same time, because I had to have my engine going, you know? So I made a lot of work while I was working on Observando…

Desistfilm: Yes, you’re quite a prolific filmmaker!  Let’s talk about some of your short films I love: Loretta which you described it to be something of an aria, am I right?

Jeanne: Oh yeah, the soundtrack uses a Verdi requiem. I worked with a composer which I know from my theater days, and I liked the idea of using a composer who works with theater. It was a theatrical gesture for me. The operatic nature of our life, the drama…

Desistfilm: After your science project you made so many things: Crosswalk, other installations, but it’s kind of hard not being in the space – time thing of this particular form of art… Did you start doing installations recently or is this something you’ve done for a long time?

Jeanne: Yeah, I make a lot of stuff in the studio, and a lot of it doesn’t get shown. It’s been more recent, like I did a show in Denver, at the museum where I showed some of the collages that I made around the scientific subject as well as some photos and photograms. It’s difficult; people come to the studio and say: Oh, don’t you make films? And I say, yes, I make a lot of things (laughs) so it’s really more a matter of opportunity, and it’s difficult to make installations if you don’t have a place. In the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to have those spaces.

About Crosswalk, I wanted to talk about that, because I do have these other films that are more in form of a documentary. And I did three shows in Anthology last year, a retrospective of 20 years of film, and it was hard to organize all of these films that some people might think are disparate, that are not united. So in the end I made three sections: Science, text (because I work with poetry), and I.R.L (In real life), so I had some works that crossed over to the other sections, it was really interesting stuff. Those things are all related to me, because all my work speaks back and forth with itself, so I had to create these artificial categories. Crosswalk for example, was a kind of ethnography I suppose, but it also has sound, and Observando… which has a lot of what you call “field recordings”, were gathered them in a very similar way than the other film. So in that way they feel related, the methodologies are very similar.

Desistfilm: Yes, your work has this particular strength of being well related to itself. There is a dialogue going on in your body of work. It’s integrated, and that’s amazing because for such a prolific artist, your work comes as well interconnected.

Jeanne: I know, it is a problem. That’s why hardly anyone writes about my work, I’m not easy, I’m sorry! (laughs). However I think, I hate to be the science girl: If people writes about me that’s usually how they approach it, you know? There are so many subjects that are interesting to me and that’s perennial, and that will never go away, there’s more and more to be interested in, so I will continue to do things like the Gertrude Stein installation, which was a poem that I loved, so I used this grid and occupying during a period of time. How else can we experience duration besides film? So it took the whole summer to read the whole poem. I changed it every other week and I photographed it in a website for people to keep track of it. It was just an experiment of using the letters of the alphabet as material. It was a very interesting thing, language works that way, you know?

Desistfilm: Yes! It would be an excellent subject for an essay in semiotics.

Jeanne: I will leave that to you! (laughs) I don’t do essays, I just make art.