Film Scratches: Janie Geiser on the Life of Objects
Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
An Interview by David Finkelstein.
Janie Geiser has been making objects come alive in performance works since 1981 and in films since 1989. She has an unfailing eye for choosing objects that are broadcasting loudly on a psychic spectrum, a poet’s ear for creating haunting sound collages of music and ambient noise, and an expert way of combining simple stop motion animation with complex visual textures to create unforgettable films with the haunting qualities of dreams. In this recent email conversation, Geiser reveals some of her working methods and the sources that led to her films.
Your films are generally made using old, found cultural artifacts, such as illustrations from old books or magazines, postcards, old pieces of fabric, or personal items such as dolls, jewelry, or maps. This use of old materials seems to me like a generic signifier that your films do not depict the immediate, sensory experience of the world around us, but rather they concern themselves with the inside of the mind, with memories, both personal and historic.
I’m interested in objects and what they can tell us both about the tangible and also the intangible. For me, the interior and exterior worlds are not so separate. Each informs the other in a never-ending call and response, and there is a lot of bleed between the two. For me, the films exist at this place of bleed, of intersection, of seepage…
One of my motivations in working with found/recovered objects is to examine the evidence of their use, and of their disuse/abandonment. Rust is a living thing. Decay is an organic process. Rips and tears attest to a secret past. These objects may have outlived their original owners and functions, but they also might contain clues about their previous lives. As in archaeology, they allow speculation, yet we can never know much definitively. I like the sense of mystery that they evoke, a mystery about the way that there are limits to what we can know, but no limits to what we can imagine.
I’m investigating the emotional life of the objects, which includes my projection onto these objects. That doesn’t mean that each film is strictly autobiographical, but certainly they are kind of an emotional autobiography. They are communicating something that is deeply felt for me, whether it’s a response to war, my father’s death, a specific set of memories, or the embedded emotional life that is seeping from the material itself. Each film is a particular terrain, an elliptical emotional narrative with a sense of progression but without a real plot.
I made paintings, objects, and performances before I made my first films in 1989. I still make objects and performances, but I don’t paint much any more. I studied visual art in college, but soon after, I came into contact with a lot of dance and performance (in Atlanta, where I lived) and began experimenting with a kind of visual performance—using puppets, objects, and other things to create performed narratives. I really had no interest in making performances with people as the main characters, although I enjoy seeing actors on stage in other people’s work. I see performance as a natural extension of my visual art practice, and I see film the same way.
When I first started making performances (in 1981, before I started making films), I would use a dream as the starting point for the narrative. What I’m interested in about dreams is not their “dreaminess” or sense of wonder or fantasy; I’m intrigued by the logic of dreams. Events follow each other without chronology, one-person morphs into another, but there is usually an emotional logic that is recognizable to the dreamer, a kind of truth, even in the nightmare. This logic, or the exploration of it, is something that I have built upon; a kind of reverie in the making of the work that allows for an elliptical, emotional, and often-interior narrative to develop through the use of physical objects and images.
Many times, it seems as if these found materials themselves are the genesis for the film, as in the illustrations of stage make-up techniques that form the basis of The Hummingbird Wars. Old things really do contain information about the passions, daily lives, and the tribulations of the people who made and used them. You seem to be using film as a way of listening deeply to found cultural artifacts, and allowing your intuitive response to the “voices” of these objects to guide you into an investigation of the life and history which is hidden within them. Talk about your use of old materials, and its importance to your films.
I often do work in response to these objects and images. In the 2012 film Arbor I came upon a cluster of about 8 photographs for sale in a thrift store. It’s not often that I find a group of photos, unhinged from a photo or scrapbook that are from the same short window of time. These small black and white photographs depicted a group of people on a hillside, in various configurations: lounging on a blanket on the ground, standing alone or in small groups looking toward something unseen, or sometimes at each other, but rarely looking at the camera. From the clothing and the landscape, I imagined this to be a hill in some Mediterranean country, just after WWII. This might or might not be literally true, but it now becomes true to the fiction.
Some of the figures are then systematically erased, as if they had to be expunged from memory for some unforgivable disloyalty, or as if they had died. (The sound of church bells in the film supports this latter idea.)
Of course, I really don’t know anything about these people. But one thing that seemed likely is that some of them were no longer alive. These photos were found in a thrift store, not in someone’s home, not in a box under a relative’s bed. They were now unmoored, they had lost their original context. So, my narrative about these people and their afternoon also included something about their vanishing. In the end, I removed them from the images, from the visible temporal world, and returned the hillside to an unpopulated state.
The film was shot on 16mm, but I had to do a lot of manipulation of the photographs, prior to shooting. I also created negative doubles of the photos, and acetates of them, so that I could cause the images to shimmer, to disengage from themselves. I often manipulate found images in order to use them in ways that seem vital to each film.
I removed figures from the photos by painting them out. But the final figure was removed more violently, by scratching at the paper, removing the image from the top layer, and leaving the white, tattered paper ghost, a kind of physicalizing of ephemerality.
The genesis for my film Lost Motion was when I found a toy figure of a man with a coat over his arm. He seemed to be waiting for a train, meeting someone who would step off the train… This sense of a narrative was suggested by the figure; I began to gather objects and images that would allow this fiction to emerge. I had several old toy train cars, and a few other figures that were probably from train sets; my father’s stamp collection (suggesting travel) and also letters began to figure prominently. Color was another key element; I even used colored gels on the lights. As the film developed, it also began to include new environments, such as a kind of industrial landscape that I created with erector set parts. It took a dark turn, partly from the objects that I found for this section.
With Ghost Algebra, as with Lost Motion, I started with a found figure, this time of a girl in a seated position, the seam of her manufacture prominent, like a spine on her side. Her paint was chipped, and she had an intense look in her eyes. She became a witness to war and to its aftermath, looking through windows and peepholes in bunkers. I had found a book in Prague that documented, through photos and diagrams, various military strategies from WWI. I have always been intrigued with graphs and charts, with diagrams and practical drawings. I also have collected a number of old medical anatomy books, and also some educational charts, in relief, of the body from various views, inside and out. These played a role in the film, standing in for the dead, and also for the living, with the large eye in profile, like a cutaway to the girl’s eye as she watches and sees. Objects fill with blood (watery red gouache paint), which started as a small dripping in a set of clocks and turned into a flood. Ghost Algebra began a series (The Nervous Films) centering around childhood and war, as well as on a kind of anxiety that is both physical and emotional. The other films in the series include Kindless Villain, Ricky, The Floor of the World, and Arbor.
Sometimes I’m trying to get at my own memories or events within my family. Immer Zu was a response to my father’s illness and death and The Secret Story was an attempt to re-enter my childhood ideas about my mother’s childhood, how I created her history for myself which was really not her history but my own imagining of it, from hearing family stories. Once an idea is sparked from one of these memories, images or objects, I begin to either make objects/images, or hunt for things that will expand on the original impulse.
I have always been interested in objects. As a child, I often picked up little things from the sidewalk: shiny paper, a metal remnant of a toy or bicycle. I enjoyed my grandmother’s collection of spoons, as well as a collection of salt and pepper shakers. I was also always interested in miniatures; there was something thrilling about seeing objects like beds, sewing machines, chairs, etc. reduced in size.
Somehow, these discarded or collected objects suggested their life that had already been lived. I could create fictions in my mind about their pasts. But also, as single objects in a grouping on a tabletop, they created another kind of meaning, one that could change through rearrangements.
As an adult, long before I started making films, I kept up this practice, without thinking much about it, informally gathering mundane or inexpensive objects, often gathering them into arrangements, shrines, collections. I was so excited when I found out about cabinets of curiosities.
Are you particularly interested in the ways we manipulate our own memories?
In a sense, I’m working with the objects and images to mine the field of memory, whether cultural memories or my own memory, or simply the idea of memory. It’s an area of fascination for me: what we remember, how we remember, and the moments when a forgotten memory resurfaces for some reason (a scent, seeing an old friend, being in a site of childhood memories, etc.) In the films, the objects act almost as Rorschach blots, allowing space for the activity of memory and also of fiction. Fiction is a kind of manipulation of memory.
Several of your films seem to be a depiction of a distinct way of viewing the world. For example, Kriminalistik can be seen as a depiction of the mindset of a detective, who looks at the world as a set of clues to a crime. Kindless Villain reminded me of the point of view of a child, who views the world from a position of real powerlessness, especially when confronted with adult abuse. Do you agree that some of your films are examinations of a particular way of viewing the world?
Definitely, and also they can be kind of an examination of how those positions were formerly depicted and explained. Kriminalistik grew out of a two-sided book page that I found. It refers to forensics, and the page consisted of various boxed areas depicting the scientific process of examining a crime scene. As in TV shows today, it was a reenactment. A tall tripod stands over a body, but that body doesn’t seem to be a real dead body, only a model for the artists’ engraving. The various tools used to measure and examine are put on display in their own boxes. I used these images to stage my own reenactment of the reenactment, keeping the film almost exclusively limited to these images, although I did allow one or two other source materials to come in. The partitioning of the frame into sections was a parallel to the methodical approach depicted, and to the partitioning of the page.
Kindless Villain started with a truly found film: I found it on the street in the East Village (in New York City). People were throwing films away in the early 90s, before film became fetishized. These images came from an educational film about Fort Marion in Florida, in the Spanish-American war. While a narrator tells us about the soldiers who were trapped there, starving, two boys wander the fort and re-enact some of the events. One boy takes off his belt and chews on it as the narrator tells us that the soldiers were reduced to chewing on the leather in their belts and pouches. At another moment, both boys act dizzy, walk crookedly, and fall, showing that the soldiers were exhausted and weak.
I loved the performances by these boys, who I imagined were related to the producer or director, because they are certainly not traditional actors. I loved the way that they try to seriously depict the situations that are described, but the fact that they are in their own clothes in their own century in this ancient fort just heightens the narrative. They are playing war, as most kids do. It’s a sad thing that this is one of our favorite games. All games come out of children seeing the adult world and re-enacting it, as if to practice for the future.
I didn’t want to tell the story of a particular battle, but I did want to present some sense of these two boys playing at war, with the uncanny situation of really being in a fort. It’s also like a two-person Lord of the Flies, with one boy ultimately seeming to be the strong one, and the other the weak.
At the time, my son was about 11, and we had gone through lots of battles and action figure play. So I was really in touch with the way that we play as children, reenacting the conflicts, real and perceived, of our lives and of the world. I used the soundtrack, John Barrymore’s Hamlet, to suggest deeper ideas about betrayal and vengeance.
The Nervous Films series focuses on childhood and war. In Ricky the soundtrack contains excerpts from an audio recording that a father sends to his young son. Many images in the film suggest that the father is away at war. The camera tracks along dense foliage, suggesting to me that the child is trying to imagine his father’s jungle environment. There are many images of soldiers and airplanes, and the soundtrack includes folk music that must be from Laos or Cambodia. In the implied narrative of Ghost Algebra, the figure of the young girl seems to retreat in fear from images of soldiers and male violence. Talk about your interest in war and violence, particularly from a child’s point of view, and its place in your work.
Ricky started with the found recording. The record was one that would have been made in a record store or on a home recording system that could press single 78-rpm records. The record intrigued me almost as much as I was put off by it. The man, the father, sounds loving and genuine but also patronizing. The time period (40s or early 50s) does suggest that he was away, and he doesn’t talk about what exactly he is doing. So I did imagine him to be a soldier, away at war, and that he never came home. I was thinking he might be in Korea or in Europe during WWII. I had started the film with some magic lantern slides I had been shooting them on a light table, so I shot much of the film that way, whether shooting botanical illustrations, slides, paper cartoon scrolls (Jektor Films from the 30s), or translucent objects.
Ricky was my first fully digital film, so I had to figure out how to get around its flatness, its clean-ness. One way was through the sound, but I also increased the materiality of the materials through shooting on the light table. I also used a scratched acetate lens that came from an old Mac laptop that we had let our son destroy. It was already dead, and we were curious to see inside. The monitor part had so many layers, besides the glass: about 7 layers of various thin lenses and surfaces. The lens that I used, when held about an inch or less from a surface, doubled the image. I could use it in a very improvisatory way to create motion in static images, and it heightened the textural quality of the footage, as well as serving to obscure and reveal.
One stylistic feature, which reappears through almost all of your films, is what I call an “extreme vignette.” The images are only seen through a small circle at the center of the frame, surrounded by black, or else they are seen through an opening, which is an irregular trapezoid. I read this effect in many different ways, depending on the context. At times, the small image suggests a narrowed mental focus, as in Kriminalistik where a detective is trying to focus on the one element of a picture, which provides a clue to a crime. At other times, the partially obscured images suggest deeply buried thoughts or feelings which are hard to imagine, hard to remember, or painful to think about. In The Hummingbird Wars these partially hidden images may suggest that examining cultural fragments only gives us partial information about history or culture, and we have to extrapolate from the pieces, as an archeologist does from pottery shards. Also in Hummingbird, there is much use of fabric and petals, analogous to theatrical curtains, to ceremoniously hide and reveal images. Here the obscured images seem to refer to the drama of choosing when to hide and when to reveal an image. Talk about your use of framing devices generally, and the significance of images that are partially obscured in your work.
Of course, these reveal the strong influence of early film, which used vignettes (among other reasons) to draw attention to an area of the frame, or to heighten the significance of a particular image or moment. As with the MacBook lens, these mattes do often obscure and reveal; they hide information or just allow some to pass through. I think you’re right that this can have to do with the selective aspects of memory, both my own and the larger cultural memory. I also use them to break up the frame, to move the viewer’s eye to different areas of the film frame, and to create certain visual rhythms. Additionally, when working in superimpositions, it’s often advantageous to create black areas on the first pass, so that the superimposition lives in a different way in those areas.
When I first started making films, I saw Ernie Gehr’s Rear Window, where he interrupts the image by using his hand in front of the lens. I love this film; it makes a clothesline in the wind become a transcendent event. I’ve adopted many interrupters in my work, placing objects and cutout mattes close to the lens as another form of matting. There is an emotional dynamic to working this way, as it manipulates light as well as image, and suggests certain powerful emotions.
I’m interested in the way that the sound collage and the visual collage in your films interact with each other. Each seems to comment on the other, at different times, but rarely in an illustrative way. (There are a few startling exceptions, such as when the dog barks in The Hummingbird Wars.) Do you make them at the same time as each other, or does one come first? How careful are you to match and align the moments, or to misalign them?
I usually start working with sound about 1/3 of the way into the process, although there are a few films that started with sound. (Ricky is one; the rain in Ultima Thule was also a key catalyst.)
Once I have shot enough so that I can start to edit and a section of the film seems to be emerging, I will bring in sound. I just did this today — I’m rephotographing two panorama-style photographs from the late 40s. The photos are from related events, some kind of dinner and initiation ceremony of a Masonic-like group. I have a small section that might start the film, but I wasn’t sure about it, as I knew that the choice of the sound could move it in many directions. I started listening to some records that I’ve recently digitized, and found a small section of music that I built something out of, mostly repeating a phrase, with variations, for the minute or so of this section. Now I can see that I’m on a good track with this, and the music helps me to know how to shoot. The music has no obvious relationship to the image, but they create a new relationship.
I love working in sound. It is the most liberating thing for me about working digitally. It’s so organic to work on both as the piece develops. Even my non-digital films (most of the Nervous films were shot on 16mm) have been edited and finished digitally recently, mainly because I can create the sound as I edit, in the same program, and not transferring to mag etc. Before I started working this way, I worked with sound designers in Pro Tools. They were doing all of the physical editing, although I usually brought in most of the sound sources. They made huge contributions to those films and I learned from them.
In several of your films, the images split momentarily in two, as if a stereoscopic image is coming in and out of focus. In Ricky, it almost seems as if the little boy has trouble gauging how far away his father is, in his imagination. Talk about your use of this motif.
Yes, I think you’re right, its about simultaneity or ambiguity.
I want to phrase this question sensitively, so as not cause marital discord, but I have to ask about the artistic relationship between your work and that of your husband, Lewis Klahr. Since both of you make short films in which old found objects are animated using a very simple stop motion technique, in both cases resulting in a poetic and surreal form, there is a surface sense in which your work and Klahr’s work are very, very similar, although anyone who becomes more familiar with your work, particularly your use of sound, could still easily tell them apart. Still, to a viewer, it can seem as if Picasso and Braque were married to each other during their analytical cubist periods. (I’m trying to resist a comparison to novelist Nicole Krauss and her husband, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who both published books with almost the same plot at the same time as each other.) Can you say something about how your work and his work have influenced each other?
When Lewis and I met, we were quite surprised to find someone else working in such a similar terrain: manipulating materials to create time-based emotional narratives. I had been making puppet shows for about 12 years, and films for a few years. I had used painted cutouts in both films and performances, as well as using shadow cutouts. The main thing is we both create work where everything in the frame, for the most part, is constructed or found, and where artifice takes the place of the human body. The worlds are something new, not familiar. This is often true with animation, but neither of us considers ourselves animators. For me, animation is one technique at my disposal.
Over the years, we have been each other’s main source of critique and feedback, each other’s fans/boosters. I’m not sure what else to say about this except that, yes, if you look at the work you see how different it is: the materials, the visual rhythms, the sound, and the content, and also the historical time periods. But I don’t feel that it’s useful or necessary to defend these differences. It’s part of the reason we found each other; we really like and admire and respect each other’s work.
Sections of many of your soundtracks consist of the surface noises from 78rpm records. These sounds are often combined with low, ambient sounds such as “room tone” or low breathing. To me, these sounds are like a “sound fabric,” a kind of base stitching which the rest of the soundtrack is embroidered into. They serve to remind the viewer, at all times, that this is a recording, a created artifact, in a way that is more pointed than pure silence would. Talk about your attraction to these sounds.
Sound stitching, sound fabric…yes, like the mattes and the materials and the interrupters and the movements, the sound is a material and also heightens the artifice. The sound is physical, tangible. It’s a layer of the film for me.
Your films seem to be structured musically, in the sense that they are made of distinct themes, both visual and aural, which are developed throughout the piece. For example, in The Hummingbird Wars, there are repeated images of hands juxtaposed on maps, and the color red keeps reappearing, as makeup on faces, in feathers, petals, and fabrics. A fragment of dialog (…drunk?…possibly…) is repeated in several contexts. Do you think of structuring your work by the development of themes? Would you care to give an example of a theme that you consciously developed over the course of a film?
I definitely think you’re right, there is a musical structure underpinning my editing. Coming to film from performance, I have worked with and learned from with composers. The performances often have no language, so the sound is a unifying structural element, but I’ve always tried to veer away from illustration.
I hadn’t used dialogue in the films until, I think, Ghost Algebra. I had found a great cache of 78 records in a thrift store near my house and many were recordings of plays, etc. (such as the John Barrymore for Kindless Villain). It was really exciting to find that drunk?…possibly…section, and then to use it cyclically. With the denseness of that soundtrack, it made sense.