A Studio Visit with Karen Yasinsky by Dwayne Butcher
Karen Yasinsky is an artist working primarily with animation and drawing. Her video installations and drawings have been shown in many venues internationally including the Mori Art Musuem, Tokyo, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art, NY, UCLA Hammer Museum, L.A. and Kunst Werke, Berlin.
Her animations have been screened worldwide at various venues and film festivals including the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant Garde, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Baker Award, and is a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin and the American Academy in Rome. She teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Film/Media Studies.
Karen Yasinky and I recently met at her studio. We talked about Chloe Sevigny, ribbons, dots, arthritis and working at Johns Hopkins. This is part of that conversation.
Dwayne Butcher: Your background is in painting, how did you transition into making films?
Karen Yasinsky: I was making paintings with small cartoony characters in varied clusters suggesting interaction – violent, erotic, tender and weird. I felt like I was stuck – making the same painting over and over again and began to experiment with collage, painting on large prints of old photos and some embroidery projects. I love film and wanted to make one but did not want to work with people. I had the idea that with puppet animation, I could make my actors and control everything myself. Without having to talk to collaborators I could channel these internal suggestions about being human straight into the animation. So I began puppet animation and that expanded to include drawing animation and other forms of moving image making. I love all the different parts of it which exercise my different active and meditative needs for image making.
DB: Your films incorporate several different elements within the same piece, puppets, animation, found footage and original footage. How did you begin creating films with several different elements within the same work?
KY: Well I’ve always been drawn to narrative and started to make movies out of a love of cinema (and had mostly been exposed to narrative film). When I started with the puppet animations they were made from simple sets and hand-made animation models. It was only when I became frustrated with this format’s tendency to lead me straight into narrative that I began to reconsider cinematic structure and mixed media within a work. Seeing a Bruce McClure performance made me realize that sound and image could generate an intense, pre-emotional response – totally independent of narrative – that the individual then translates into motion. So you have people at the show that are ecstatic and those heading for the door feeling the effects of an audio-visual aggressor.
I realized that certain visual ideas I had were best represented by different media. I could create the fragments with the intent of a pre-emotional response or I guess an emotional response independent of narrative. I want to really move people deeply and I want to surprise them. Ideas about poetic structures have also been very influential, and Jack Chambers’ film Hart of London. It uses a flow of images from diverse sources that take on an elegiac purpose although you are able to consider them disembodied, as facts, that over time, totally knock me out.
DB: Can you talk about your creative process? You mentioned you never use a storyboard, something as a video artist myself finds fascinating, how do you begin thinking about making a film and how do you then make it?
KY: I start with a remembered image from a film, book, story, music or some fascination (not from my own real life). Then I have to make it and in the process of creating the film fragment, visual and aural connections begin to occur. Then I make those and start to put the fragments together in a metonymic way. Each fragment retains its associations for me but these are not apparent in the film stream or structure. Some residual power gets attached to the image or fragment (picture or sound) that allows it to stay. The short films take a lot of time working this way and I often will start with or need to put in a tiny sequence of very labor intensive animation. But all the time that this takes allows me to reconsider what I have in the movie and see the fragments more clearly as fact, devoid of the passionate attachment that I had to their source impetus. And yes, I’d rather spend 3 days on a frame of animation than clean brushes. I also hate to have to wash my hands so much. Maybe I’m just not into cleaning at all.
DB: You stated you are more into the “Experimental Film World” as opposed to the “Art World.” What is the difference and how is it these two do not, cannot relate or exist together with the same works?
KY: Well it’s mostly a matter of exhibition – film festivals and individual screenings as opposed to gallery shows. I found the whole experimental or avant-garde festival world much more interesting, supportive and generative of good things than what I had experienced in the art world. That said the film world gave what I needed when I didn’t even know I needed it, which was dialogue. From what I see in the gallery world now, dialogue and experimentation are there. And my work in the moving image has branched out again into drawing, and writing and installation ideas. I guess I was into 2-D visual art, shifted to movies and now have expanded to include both. I think moving image works are enormously successful in both worlds/exhibition spaces. It was a more personal thing for me related to where my work was at the time when I stopped painting.
DB: Your pieces seem to be very violent, with stories of desire and could be part of the horror genre. Have you always been into horror, desire and interested in such violence?
KY: I’ve never been into horror, but into film experiences that lead to huge conflicted, unresolved emotions. People are capable of such extremes that we rarely get to access, but in art we can. Yes, I’ve found these experiences outside of theaters and museums in the past but have always loved books, films and art that deal with human darkness and intense desire. I love risk and have my particular ways of experiencing it in my work and life. At one point I jumped out of a plane a few times and now it’s horseback riding.
DB: While you have been making films for some time, you are also creating these very intricate drawings. You stated that you recently became interested in making installations again, is this the beginning of that?
KY: Yes! I’ve got ideas that involve some 3-D printing, which seems super unusual and weird for me. My movies have shed ideas about using fragments, visual and aural in a 3 dimensional space. That’s new. Before when I showed in galleries I would make a series of works and would prefer someone else to just hang them all up on the walls. They existed as drawings and paintings but I had no consideration of their relation to space or structural/conceptual relation to each other.
DB: Are these drawings at all similar to your animation process?
KY: Yes. Both as individual drawings and as I said before, their function as fragment or metonym that get fashioned into some flowing thing.
DB: As these pieces are created by making thousands and thousands of dots over a period of time, these pieces are incredibility time intensive. Do you ever think of these in terms of time-based media as with the films? Or is this too much of a stretch on my part?
KY: That’s nice but yes, a stretch. I listen to audio books as I make them and get ideas for other things I need to make that I don’t have enough time for. It’s good that way – the pixilated drawings slow me down but allow for the space to make new ideas, often related to the work I’m making. Also I have an idea that through a continual narrowing (having the actual image be a given at the start of a 4 month drawing), infinities opens up. So maybe yes.
DB: As “pixels” are the drawings some sort of commentary on film or really about mark making?
KY: No direct commentary but about re-creating, about repetition and definitely about mark making. It’s meditative and I can consider my hand and it’s intelligence and metabolism. (And impending arthritis.) I’ve become quite intimate with my small marks. When I started drawing animation I thought that if I redraw every part of the frame, even the things that aren’t moving, my animation would work on this other super exciting level dealing with manual inconsistency due to our thoughts and body memories. That was nowhere near apparent in the final animation – it was just a cartoon with all the lines wiggling – but the ideas are still there for me.
DB: You have been working with the Chloe Sevigny cutout recently. Where is this project going?
KY: Where is it going?!! It’s all over the place and every new one that I start generates another idea for one. This might be my first intense remembered image project on paper. The image comes from an old Purple magazine that I saved from around 10 years ago. I found the magazine recently and I can’t say what attracts me to the image but I never forgot it. I do think I’m working something out about it’s power for me through the drawings.
DB: What other projects are you working on or having coming up?
KY: I’m finishing two movies, both with some spoken dialogue and text, which is new for me. And I’m working on a third, which is a long-term drawing animation project. I’m working on a writing project with Stephanie Barber that we are turning into an installation. Then there’s the Chloe series and a Debby Adams installation (born from a movie I made last year). I just had a movie in the Experimental Shorts at the wonderful Maryland Film Festival and two screenings, sort of a retrospective of my movies, at the National Gallery of Art on July 18, which is huge for me. And I‘m very excited about JHU’s Film and Media program joining with MICA in the amazing new Film Centre on North Ave. I’ll be able to walk to work and get colored pens and good coffee on the way!
Author Dwayne Butcher is an artist, writer, curator and chicken wing connoisseur living in Baltimore, MD. Butcher moved here from Memphis in the summer of 2013 and he now resides in a lovely place in Mt. Vernon where the USPS and BGE cannot seem to locate the specific address. He is currently looking for a P.O. Box. In the meantime, he has continued to have international exhibitions, published articles in local, regional and national publications, and has just now perfected his stout beer recipe. To see his work and curatorial projects, visit dwaynebutcher.com and follow him on twitter @dwaynebutcher.