Janie Geiser in studio

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

I would like to recover some words with a previous exchange with Louisiana-born artist Janie Geiser, which aptly reflect on how I still feel about the work of this wonderful American experimental filmmaker, author of masterpieces of collage cinema such as The Red Book (1994), Ghost Algebra (2010), Valeria Street (2018), Reverse Shadow (2019), among many others. Janie also works in installation and performance with expanded cinema and puppets, and co-created Automata, an experimental film and puppet theater in Los Angeles.

As with all Janie Geiser’s work, one may ask what hides beneath this complexity of layering, of this multiverse of images that dialogue with each other, as entangled in a wild dream of someone’s trauma, of the presence of memory made oneiric, of the materiality of objects we once owned and cherished, coming back as a feverish phantasmagoria, an inescapable flow of synaptic pulses, palimpsests where nowhere leads to somewhere, where the interstices of the moving image that constantly play in our brain crash and cross tangentially, where everything adds like an equation we know the answer of, but can never quite work the details; the complex intertwining of numbers and procedures that would make us decode the underlying secret of our mind.

We talked with Janie about her own interests and processes behind her hybrid work, and decoding, unveiling this underlying secret of hers.

Desistfilm: After watching your work, not only your work in film but the work that you do with performances, the use of puppets, or your installation work, I was kind of curious to find out how your first formative years as an artist were…

Janie Geiser: Well, I was not one of those children who grew up drawing all the time. I was curious about drawing as a kid, but also cautious. I was in a big family and much of our play was around games and sports. I didn’t know any artists.  One time, when I was 7 or 8, someone gave me a little book about how to draw, and how everything was made out of cylinders, circles, and cubes.  I tried some of the drawings in the book, I enjoyed seeing my own drawings emerge, but I would mostly hide them–it was a very secretive activity for me. I was worried (really for no reason) that I might get made fun of for doing these drawings.

I had an aunt who lived in another city who made things all of the time.  I would see her every summer. She braided rugs, made clothes and household objects, dolls, etc.  She taught me how to crochet. I would spend a lot of time with her when we visited.  She enjoyed what she did, and I took that in.

I was a good student, it just came easily to me, but I was quite bored. My favorite class in high school was French, because my teacher was funny and very animated.  She pushed us to work hard but she also wanted us to enjoy the language. So when I went to college, at the University of Georgia, I started out as a French major. I thought that maybe I could be an interpreter or translator, I could travel and live an unconventional life. I always knew that much about myself, that I wanted to move beyond the somewhat limited choices that women in my mother’s generation had.

But, once at college, I wasn’t excited about the way that we were studying French, it still felt a bit like high school.  I learned that I could take an elective art class in my second semester.  I just could register for Art 101, I didn’t need a portfolio . My academic advisor said “why do you want to do that?” (laughs). But I was determined to finally follow this impulse.

I was lucky, because I had a great teacher for Art 101, Richard (Dick) Olsen. The class was called “Art in the Dark”.  We really did start out in the dark—he would project large images of Franz Kline paintings, and other abstract paintings, on the wall. We had a few seconds to get the gesture of the paintings down on large paper with fat black charcoal.   Beginning this way, with action and gesture,  he let us know that nothing was wrong, that you could make mistakes, that the mistakes were part of making art. It was exhilarating to make these gestural marks, I felt alive in a way that was really like nothing else.

I knew from this first class that this is what I want to do.  I could connect to the world through my body and mind in so many ways. In “Art in the Dark”, we did eventually transition from wild gestures to drawing from observation, but by then I had developed some confidence and patience, and I had the desire to learn. Unlike many of the students, I didn’t have any art training, I didn’t know how to draw, but I did have the desire. While in the art program, I studied drawing, painting, sculpture and metal work. Because I had so much to learn and was excited by different forms and materials, I didn’t end up specializing in one area.

Ghost Algebra

In my final semester, I took a weaving class. For some reason, in that class,  I made a puppet that was woven and stitched. I had seen another student doing a hand puppet show on campus, and I had become curious about the form. The puppet that I made wasn’t a portrait of anyone, it evolved from the stitching organically, but it kind of looked like Charles Laughton (laughs).

After college, I moved to Atlanta. I gave myself 5 years to see if I could really survive as an artist. I was drawing and making little dioramas, and working nights as a waitress. I was living with a musician who was in a well-known local band. My community revolved around our friends from the music scene. It took me a while to find the visual arts community there.  I started seeing exhibits at some of the smaller galleries, and showing drawings in a local arts festival, and eventually I found my way into a community of other artists, who were starting collectives and non-profit art spaces and organizing shows. It was a big eye-opener for me. It was so exciting to see artists working together to create spaces for work to be seen.

The Red Book

A job opened up at one of these non-profit art spaces, Nexus, a small collective photography gallery and press that had been offered a huge empty school building by the city.They created an interdisciplinary arts center, with a photography gallery and press, visual art, dance, performance, music, and artist studios.  It was alive there, and so stimulating to go there every day, with the energy of all these different artists making work. This time period, I would say, was my graduate school. We were all excited to see each other’s work and process, and we collaborated in innumerable ways; I made costumes for choreographers and theater artists, posters for musicians, signs for the building. I began curating shows even though I really didn’t know what I was doing (laughs). I’m sure you have things like these in your life (laughs) where a door opens, and you walk through it, having no idea what is on the other side, but you can’t resist it.

Life just kept evolving and opening up in that way, as it still does.  I was making a lot of art work, mainly on paper, not all of it memorable!  I was continuing to learn and find my voice. And for some strange reason, I returned to this idea of puppets and puppet-like objects. I made them as objects, and I wanted them to move.  I made dioramas with motorized figures. The dioramas led me to Joseph Cornell’s work, a continuing source of inspiration today.

It’s hard to say what my specific early influences were…they were really everything, everything around me. Pop culture, folk culture, my aunt’s dolls and rugs, music, protests, books, TV, movies, contemporary art, art history, and the art that I encountered in museums, artist-run galleries, and in my friends’ studios.

In college, I had taken art history, it was such a revelation. I got excited about Gothic and pre-renaissance art, and saw the work of Giotto. He is still one of my favorite painters—I love his volumes and surfaces, his gestures and color, his sense of suspended time. But art history in college also had a lot of holes—there were no women who we studied and it was very Eurocentric.  So, like most artists, I sought out other sources and experiences and learned from other artists. Also, through performers who I met at my job at Nexus, I began to see avant-garde performances from groups like Bread and Puppet, the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, and others who might come through Atlanta.  I would visit friends in New York to see art and performance there.

Geiser’s shooting setup – 22 Light-years

All along, I occasionally made puppets and dolls as objects.  I didn’t really consider performing with them. But, coincidentally, there is a center for puppetry in Atlanta. They started to present sophisticated, experimental adult puppet theater. Through a friend, I heard about Bruce Schwartz, a puppetry artist who was performing at the Center. Seeing his work, I encountered a surprising, contemporary form of puppet theater, one that was stylized and had enormous emotional potential.  I began to see shows at the Center regularly and to meet the people who worked there.  At one point, the director of the Center saw some of my drawings and puppets in an exhibition.  He said, “oh, you should make a puppet show.”  I was rather naive and didn’t think about what it might mean to make something in a completely different form, time-based, and working with performers.  But I said yes, and I made a hand-puppet show called Little Eddie from a small handmade, visual book that I had recently created. The book was a miniature fable in fairy tale form that…a kind of political fable in fairy tale form that was really about Ronald Reagan.

From this first performance, I just got hooked, I loved the collaboration, I loved the idea of working in a time-based form, of making objects that could be activated in performance. I began to make puppet performances, still in parallel with my painting and objects.  This has eventually evolved into making performance and film, with the film and installation work as the place of my visual art practice.

Desistfilm: There’s a kind of long trajectory of convergence of different disciplines…

Janie Geiser: Right, right, and kind of an openness to that, an excitement about that. I really don’t know where that came from.

Valeria Street

Desistfilm: Yeah, I can see that, because whenever I’m watching your films (and your work in general), I think one of the things you can perceive is that this discipline that you’ve managed to achieve has to do with different elements merging together. There are a lot of different elements in your films, like collage, you can find photography, film, found footage, blueprints. Everything is kind of combined into this sort of stream of consciousness, in some way, that plays into this very oneiric place and is just fantastic.

Was this something that was very much based on your own instincts as an artist, developing this language? Or it just came from your practice from the start, in your first tries in filmmaking?

Janie Geiser: My film practice began organically, as an extension of the performances. I had moved  to  New York, and I started going to see a lot of films, especially avant-garde films at places like the Collective for Living Cinema, Millennium, Anthology Film Archives, MOMA. I started making films by creating Super 8 film fragments to project as sections of my performances.

But it was really difficult to use Super-8 in performance so I decided to move to 16mm.  I took a class at the Millennium and to learn more about light, shooting, and editing. The first 16mm films were still fragments projected in performances.  My first stand-alone film was a section of a performance, but I could also show it in film screenings. That led to making films as separate entities as well.

My performances are always kind of sectional or episodic. Within a performance, there might be something happening in one part of the stage, and then something that begins to draw your eyes somewhere else on the stage.  So film was another material to use this way and to bring a different, more ephemeral, less linear form into these works full of physical objects.

The film sections sometimes included people (as opposed to puppets or animation). For example, I did a performance in 92 called When The Wind Blows, it was about childhood and violence. I shot a small group of girls playing games, like hand-games and blindfold games.  I projected these film sections three or four times on the puppet set.  It didn’t make the puppets “real” like people, instead it heightened a kind of physical reality that they had, and it made the viewer forget that there was any difference.  Using film in the performances allowed me to do things that I couldn’t do with the puppetry and vice versa. It was another way that I was able to bring other elements. In my art practice, I had often used collage, in the sense that I mixed media and forms in one piece.  So this merger of film and performance kind of grew organically.

I would say that there was another early formative element that was important. In my twenties, I became quite obsessed with dreams, with practicing lucid dreaming, and recording my dreams to understand more of the structure of dreams. I was most interested in the non-linear vernacular of dreaming, the non-sequitur structure, the ways that geography and sequence are constantly subverted. The first puppet show that I made, Little Eddie, emerged from a dream. The dream was the core, and the piece evolved from that starting point. The non-linear structure of dreams informed the structures and editing in both performance and film.

Ghost Algebra

Desistfilm: Would you define yourself as a planner? Do you plan a lot ahead before making a film, or do you just go through the senses, appropriating different materials and putting everything together. How much of your work is planned overhand? Because there seems to be a precise articulate design in every film of yours.

Janie Geiser: I’ve used a combination of approaches, but over time I have done less and less upfront planning. I would say the most planned film was my first stand alone film, Babel Town (1992). It was a puppet film, filmed live with performers, so I storyboarded it as a way of creating a script.  That film was frustrating, I was trying to bring live performance into film, but I didn’t like the limitations. After that, I turned to frame-based filmmaking, it gave me more control, and I could also work on my own.  It became more of a studio practice like drawing.

The Red Book (1994) was the next film. The Red Book emerged from a series of little painted books that I had made, in response to several dreams and to a book that I had recently read.  So I had some key images before I started shooting, and these formed a kind of loose storyboard, but they weren’t in any particular order.  Starting with those key images, I made hand painted figures and sets, and also gathered collage elements. When I started shooting, those images and objects were the skeleton of the film, but I improvised the movement and created scenes as  I shot.

The book was called The Man With a Shattered World by A.R. Luria.  It was a case history of a man who had lost his memory after being shot during WWII in Russia. The book is about his attempts to reconstruct his life without his short term memory. He had retained some distant memories, but his short term memory was so damaged that he couldn’t remember something that he had said as soon as he said it. How can you build a sense of yourself when you can’t internally construct a sequence of moments? He wrote his life history by speaking a line to his mother, who would write it down and read it back to him so that he could quickly compose the next sentence.  It took him 25 years to write this.  I became sort of obsessed with this book,  the ideas about memory were so resonant.

I actually tried to get performance rights for the book, to make some kind of work in response to it.  The publisher denied my request.  So, I  decided to work with some ideas from the book in another way.  This was in the same time period that I was having some particularly vivid dreams, so these threads merged in The Red Book.

In The Red Book, the main character is a woman.  The painted books were the visual starting place. I imagined a narrative underneath the images. Like The Man with a Shattered World, this woman has a traumatic event (she falls from a building, or she jumps, it’s ambiguous).  Doctors pull her apart and put her together but something is missing.  She spends much of the film wandering, trying to piece things together.  She finds her way back to her place but, upon entering, the room spins and spins.

In the films that followed The Red Book, I did less and less planning. I found that I really liked working in the moment, sort of performing with the objects and images under the camera.  I usually begin with some kind of “known”——some images or sounds, an idea, a response to something in the world. I might find an object or photograph that suggests a potential film. I begin to film when I’ve gathered together enough elements that seem to fit together. The Secret Story (1996) is the film that followed The Red Book. I had found an old wooden toy figure of a woman that reminded me of my mother, but also of Snow White. Then I just started gathering objects and images that could work together with that figure to tell the story of my mother’s childhood, from my memory of the stories that she had told me. As I continued making films, things kept moving in this direction, away from plot or linear narrative, suggesting emotional narratives that existed underneath the images.

There’s a kind of gathering things, that is sort of the planning phase, when I have a critical mass of materials that I think that can work together. And, as I wrote you about Reverse Shadow, there can be a gathering of storms as well, the emotional resonances and emanations of these materials merge with whatever might be happening today, in the world, in my thoughts, in the connections that are catalyzed by the images. All of these things come together in the editing, where the film really forms.

Desistfilm: This exercise of appropriation, which is what you do a lot. Why is it so crucial for your work?  Why do you think you need to rescue certain memories, certain stories, those elements that appear in your work?

Janie Geiser: These images, objects, and memories give me the tools that I need to process being alive.  They help me to get at what’s underneath the top layers, underneath what I’m experiencing in the world or ruminating about.  Sometimes, this relates directly to my own experience or my family, but, often,  its less direct, working through a photograph of strangers or a discarded toy.  I’m trying to get at the meaning of things, while being aware that meaning is completely elusive.  But something is stirring in there…

Desistfilm: Like the theme of your father’s absence in Valeria Street, something very powerful…

Janie Geiser: Yeah, yeah, and that’s really directly related to me and my family and my father. But, as in Flowers of the Sky (2016), where i rephotographed two panoramic photographs of a Masonic gathering, I found those color slides of my father at work and really needed to explore them, which led to Valeria Street (2018). It’s collage—finding the materials first and then imagining/figuring out how to activate them with intent. Always, even before I knew I was an artist, I had a fascination with materiality, you know, I was the kid who would pick up the shiny wrapper in the street and put it in a box and maybe not do anything with it, but it was there. So, that has served me well, I’m good at looking for shining objects that might have a story to tell. Objects have histories, they gather information; they kind of speak, but their words need deciphering or translating, that’s the process of working with them. Their  stories might be plot-less, they  might be complete fiction, but there is something very true in them, I think.

Flowers of the Sky

Desistfilm: Definitely, it’s like little ghosts coming to life again. Your images seem haunted by some spirit or inner narrative that is always developing…

Janie Geiser: I think that objects have emanations, I don’t know what they are and I want to just dig at that.

Desistfilm: I wanted to ask you about your multidisciplinary work. What do you think you find in, for example, your performances with puppets or your installations with visual arts that you don’t find in filmmaking? Or vice versa, maybe.

Janie Geiser: Well, I think there’s something to live-ness that I really love. I started making performances before I ever made films, and  I still like to engage with that liveness. In a sense, I’m using space in not dissimilar ways in live performance and in filmmaking. In performance, I might want to draw focus to one part of the stage with a single theatrical light; in film, I might use an iris instead, but it’s really for the same purpose. The process of making performance, though, can be quite different from film. Performance involves a lot of planning, rehearsals, collaboration with a group of artists; film is a more solitary and intuitive practice for me, like painting.he performances allow for the excitement of collaboration that I had discovered in my twenties, with all these people working together, and it can really come together in surprising ways because of this process. My own internal process is similar in each form,  but the final performance work is always deeply affected by who I’m working with, and I always learn a lot from my collaborators.

In my films, I often create the sound collage, because I can bring sound in while I’m editing digitally. I sometimes work with composers on the films, but I always collaborate work with composers on performance works. Each form evokes different kinds of experiences for me and for the audience.

I co-founded a little space here in L.A. called Automata, and we show whatever exciting puppet theater we can find in L.A. This weekend (February 2020), an artist named Zach Dorn is doing a terrific show with puppets and objects and live-feed video, using a toy train set and handmade puppets and objects.I’m not involved in it as a creator in any way, I’ll be going to his performance, and I love to see people arriving and so excited about seeing something very low-tech using objects.  Its actually kind of transformative. Its a different feeling from sitting in a room watching a film.Neither one is better.There are distinct forms that offer a range of experiences— I like what each offer, as well as their hybrids, and I don’t think of them in a hierarchical way.  Each form allows for a different experience of space and time, as well as possible live interaction with the audience or viewer.

Desistfilm: I was going to ask you about puppetry, because it’s such a millenary practice from different cultures, that has been around for ages. How do you feel audiences today are relating to this form of art? How is the reaction of the live shows with puppets?

Janie Geiser: I notice even more and more excitement about it these days, actually.And maybe it’s because we live with so many screens in our lives, you know? People seem so happy to be there, watching objects embody us, watching them slip into uncanny-ness. I don’t know, I think it’s the tangible quality of these performing objects. I think  just watching a wooden figure and believing in it is something quite moving and satisfying. There’s something even more real with puppets, in a sense.

Janie’s workplace

Desistfilm: Do you carry an archive of things?

Janie Geiser: Oh yes, I can just show you a number of things from this shelf (shows various objects). A little house, a music box (plays it). These were projector films “moviejector”; I think these were made in the 30’s. A box of threaded buttons, a chair, a partially made boat. All kinds of stuff.I think I’ll send you a couple of pictures of my drawers so you can see what’s in here. I don’t collect like a collector. I see something and I like it, and I think “oh, maybe I’ll use it someday”. I don’t keep everything.

Desistfilm: So, do you think you can tell us what you are doing now, what is coming next with you?

I’m working on a film. I got kind of fascinated with consumer home and interior design software.People can use this software to pretend-furnish their home, or to make floorplans for their dream homes. For some reason, I wanted to use it and incorporate it in a film.  I found an easy-to-use program called Space Designer 2, and I started using it to draw house plans, plan landscaping, and such.  I screen recorded it while I tried to figure it out. I like the way that it looks like low-grade video game imagery.I just started generating this home design imagery, and then separately shooting photo negatives, and other collage materials and edited them all together.It’s very much in progress. It’s very weird,this isn’t really like any of my other films in some ways, but in other ways it is.

Then I’m working on two performance pieces. There are some excerpts on my website, one is called Here/There, which has grown from a collaboration with a former CalArts student who is a veteran of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had made some powerful short performances when he was in school that stuck with me. I’ve always been interested in this strange human impulse toward war, and in the effects on those who get put in the middle of it. My dad fought in WWII, but he didn’t talk about it to us until he was older; I could see that it had a profound effect on him. So, a few years ago, I reached out to this former student to see if he wanted to work together on a puppet performance drawn from his experiences. We don’t really know where it’s going.  I made a life-size puppet and, along with 5 puppeteers, we’ve been developing ideas about the piece through a series of workshop/rehearsals.We are trying to physicalize these experiences in the body of the puppet, kind of like a puppet butoh performance. I have no idea where this is going and that scares me, but Jason has been super open, and this has been a several years’ process.

Geiser’s lightbox on worktable during 22 light-years

Then the other project, which is also on my website, is completely different, it’s called Sound House. I started a collaboration with two composers who I had worked with in a performance of mine that they had created music for. We liked working together, so we just said, “let’s work in a piece from scratch”, and we didn’t have any preconceived plan about this, but we each came with one idea.

At our first meeting, one composer brought some bricks with her and said she loved the sound of bricks, and she showed us some bricklaying videos. Then the other composer said, “I want to create a cube of sound in the room”. And I had come across videos and photos of the people who work underground maintaining the nuclear missiles silos, and showed those to them. These technicians, who are usually in the Air Force, work underground during long shifts, maintaining the missiles and launch stations.They have an elaborate system of codes that they have to use in case they get the call. Two people can open separate boxes with keys that are used to activate the launch. The launch controls are placed too far apart for one person to reach, so  two people have to do it together, as a kind of fail safe, in order to launch. So yes, I got fascinated with the mundane execution of  tasks that, if followed through, would lead to extreme devastation. Sound House has developed into a durational performance that can go on from an hour to eight hours. The elements include moving walls that produce the sound (in addition to bricks), bricklaying, puppets enacting the missile workers’ tasks, and video (both live-feed and pre-made). Sound House is not linear, a lot of activities are happening simultaneously; there is chance involved every time we perform it, as we create “scripts” of activities that vary with each performance. It’s like walking into a NASA work facility, you know, or something like that. We’ve performed in progress a couple of times, and we’ll do a live version of it this fall at the Wende Museum of the Cold War here in Los Angeles. And they’ve invited us to use their archive as source materials for the video sections.

I like to be involved in work that allows my curiosity to get into play, even when the work grows out of very dark stuff.