Posted by | Raven Munsell | Posted on | March 17, 2013
Ali Aschman and Jeremy Bessoff in conversation with Karen Yasinsky on the occasion of the screening ‘Fire is a Fact: An Evening with Karen Yasinsky’, a program of short puppet and hand-drawn animations from 1999 to 2012.
Ali: When Jim Trainor introduced you last night at Conversations at the Edge, he described your work as being “private” and stemming from a “secret imagination”. The early puppet animations that have more of a narrative structure do seem to communicate emotions and experiences that seem very personal. Is there an element of revealing your own psyche in making these works?
Karen: I don’t see how it cannot, but it’s not literal. When I look back to when I was a painter, before I started animating, my paintings were very similar to the animations in that they were cartoony and had little figures that were pushing or pulling or touching. So when I started animating, it was about those little interactions and gestures. In developing characters throughout the narrative and the animation, I think I was going towards emotions, not necessarily from my own life, but ones that I was interested in. In grad school I had studied Freud and did a lot of reading about psychoanalysis and that definitely went into these early works.
Jeremy: When you’re thinking about theory and also making work, I sometimes find it hard to negotiate the two—how to represent that I understand the idea, and how it relates to my project, but then visually communicating that idea seems very difficult, and I’m wondering how you deal with that.
Karen: It’s a great question because this is all done retrospectively. I was reading Freud and then making these animations probably a year or two after that, so I see now that they were influencing, but I wasn’t setting out with these Freudian ideas when I was developing the characters. Even in my later work, these things that I read are influencing me but I’m not setting out to describe the ideas with animation—whenever I’ve tried to do that it doesn’t work, it falls flat.
Jeremy: So you’re kind of absorbing this stuff and it comes out unconsciously, it leaks out intuitively.
Karen: Yeah, and I think for me it was just that I needed to narrow my subject, and the most narrow I could get was a scene from a film. It was very specific, and then within those confines I could just let my ideas go. So everything that these little things would suggest to me could become very important.
Ali: In No Place Like Home, Who’s Your True Love, Still Life with Cows and I Choose Darkness there seem to be power relationships at play, where one character is weak in some way and another dominant – whether that be through an absence of body parts such as torso or head or eyes, or an ability to stand up, or to protect themselves. With the exception of Still Life with Cows in which both characters are women, it seems like this power position is related to gender. Can you speak about that?
Karen: I often get the question at the end of a screening of my films if I have a problem with men. And the answer is no. But the movies are about struggles to connect and usually it is a heterosexual relationship between a man and a woman, ideas of fear, about giving yourself over, and connection, fear of the unknown. After finishing I Choose Darkness, I was really through with all of that because it was heavy, and it was part of, I think, every movie I did. The subject matter was these relationships, trying to find something in another, and then being thwarted in some way through one of the party’s fears or inabilities to connect.
Jeremy: And then your medium changed once your subject changed. Is that fair to say?
Karen: Well my medium changed for this subject reason, I thought if I start with puppets I have to deal with relationships, and I think I realized I’m making these melodramas. Music was a big part of it too, it was composed for the films, and I just felt like I want to do something else. This happened at a point when I saw this film, Heart of London by Jack Chambers, which has a strong, but at times really difficult, structure relating to his ideas. I also started thinking about the artist Bruce McClure, who does projection performances and creates these feelings that are totally detached from narrative that you have to interpret as emotions. Some people leave his performances feeling anxious, like they just had an assault upon them, because the light and sound is very intense. I think some people have a very negative experience, and I had an ecstatic experience. Some people really love it. So I really got interested in how to manufacture emotion through formal means—leaving it up to the individual to interpret.
Ali: Jim Trainor lent me a DVD of your work that had with it an artist’s book with still from Who’s Your True Love? along with writing from various contributors. Is that a medium you often use, and how else, if at all, does writing feature in your practice?
Karen: I loved making the book. It was a catalogue for a residency that I did at the American Academy in Berlin. But I love fiction. I read a lot, but I don’t write. But I do consider what I do in my head as I’m putting a movie together, be it animating or editing in the later work, a form of writing and connecting. I’m thinking about writing something for the new movie that I’ve started, but it’s something I’ve never done before so I’m a little reluctant.
Ali: It’s a different medium of storytelling.
Karen: With that book I was asked to do a catalogue of the work that I did in Berlin, but instead of focusing on me, I found the three fiction writers whose work I felt was very close to mine and I worked with them.
Jeremy: Who were they?
Karen: Lydia Davis, Miranda July and Lawrence Krauser.
Ali: Last night you mentioned the puppets rubbing themselves and each other as an autoeroticism you inserted because of the idea that films need with sex or violence. However the way they are touching seems much more awkward and sinister than it does sexy (which is not to say that sex cannot be awkward and sinister). Can you extrapolate on your use of those gestures, which are very powerful?
Karen: The characters are awkward with whatever they do, whether they are walking, or rubbing, or whatever; I think they get a little less awkward in I Choose Darkness because I had the puppets made for me. In all the early puppets, the hands, the way that I make them, appear bandaged and very ungraceful. It was as if I learned to make hands this way, this is just how I make them, and then they began to define the characters. So all the characters have these mitts almost that are their way of dealing physically with the world and it makes it awkward. So that was part of this idea of the characters.
Jeremy: So your material almost dictated how they interacted with each other.
Karen: That’s right, and if I had a different brain, I wouldn’t have settled for those hands, I would have figured out how to make them thinner and more graceful. Because I teach my students how to make them like that, and nobody wants to work with hands like that!
Ali: Do you see yourself going forward focusing on the more abstract modes of filmmaking that your last few films have seemed to address? Where it’s taking more of a focus on the structure and the surface of the medium of filmmaking?
Karen: Yes, but I still love stories. I think as you go on, your practice changes because of things that you learn and get interested in, but the stuff that it started with never gets lost, never leaves. So the new piece that I’m working on right now, after finishing these two films that were probably the most abstract in terms of structure, I want to get back with a little storytelling, but present it as an element instead of as a structure. So there will be a little story told, I’m not sure how, but within the bigger film. And I do know that it will be language, it will be told with a voice. I’ve rarely used voices in my work, so it’s a new challenge.
Jeremy: So you’re able to tell a story without language, through pantomime, even though it’s awkward as it is translating it through these puppets.
Karen: Well I love silent film. I watch a lot of silent film and I think the best silent film is some of the best film ever made. And it is so evocative but also I think without the use of dialogue, there’s an unreality to it and a kind of surreality that I’m interested in, and it’s also related to this reconstruction, like we’re always reconstructing things. So why try and make something seem really natural when that itself is a construction? So you have a choice of how do you want to reconstruct this thing we’re living through? And just as a matter of choice for me, it’s like silent film. I’ve seen some new silent films, but I’m really attracted to the way gestures were over-determined. Facial expressions, even though my faces don’t move, but that sort of over-determination of gesture and movement in lieu of having language, or as another kind of language.
Jeremy: I was introduced to your work about 13 or 14 years ago and I didn’t even know it, and it actually had a profound impact on my practice so this is why I’m very excited about meeting you. How did you get hooked up with that Joanie 4 Jackie tape project?
Karen: I met Miranda July who started it. She started this video compilation program, where anybody could send in a video and she would make a compilation of ten and send it back to those ten people—so you’re getting your work plus nine other movies. So it was a way of connecting this strange grade of people that were making movies in their bedrooms that nobody else would ever see, and maybe their family and friends wouldn’t understand. I met her at a film festival and we became friends. Astria, who put it together, saw my work at a gallery in New York and asked me to be part of one she was curating. That compilation later went to a festival and that’s where I met Miranda. That’s also why I included her story in that book. Sometimes you meet people and you just want to tell them to ‘get out there’, I think it’s really important to get your work shown. For a lot of people that animate, myself included, it’s a struggle sometimes to get out; I just want to stay home and work, but going to festivals, having screenings, or creating screenings if there’s none going on, with your friends and inviting people, is really good because people show up from other disciplines that you realize that you have this big connection with. Some people that you meet are better at getting work out there so sometimes they’ll just take you along, which is nice. I think that’s the hardest part, when you want to just make things, but you also have to do the work of getting it out there.
Ali: That film compilation is such a great idea. I have a printmaking background, and print portfolios work that way, and I’ve never heard of anyone doing that in another medium.
Karen: It’s still alive, though I think Miranda didn’t have the time to do it anymore, so Bard College now owns the archive and I don’t know if they’re still creating it.
Jeremy: That process almost seems like it should be obsolete, because we have the internet, but on the other hand it’s a lot more intimate. You’re getting your own personal copy, I don’t know if they’re still doing it on VHS… there’s something more special about that than there is in ‘click this link and look at it on the internet’.
Ali: And not everybody wants to put their work on the internet. You only have a selection.
Karen: I have a lot that is password-protected, so I just send it out to people. But also people knew Miranda’s performance work, and she wasn’t famous, and it was sort of underground. A lot of young people knew of her and found out about this, so that little common interest point around her work connected these other people. When I go to film festivals now, it’s like summer camp, because the kinds of film festivals that show my work are filled with kinds of people that all love similar things, and that’s a great thing.
Ali Aschman is an MFA candidate in Printmedia at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Jeremy Bessoff is an MFA candidate in Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.