Janie Geiser's New Peepshow

Los Angeles-based artist Janie Geiser is known primarily for a host of rich, sensuous animated films that combine objects and cutouts plucked from the past. These things are set in evanescent landscapes, and the films often feel like shadowy memories or dusky dreams. While Geiser has gained quite a bit of notoriety for these projects, which she began making in the mid-1990s, she is also a puppet theater artist who crafts extraordinary live events mixing puppetry, performance, lighting, music, film and other media forms.

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The director of the Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts at California Institute for the Arts, where she also teaches, Geiser is an extraordinarily talented and compelling artist and will bring a new project to life June 9-19, 2011, when she presents the premiere of The Reptile Under the Flowers, which she dubs a "peepshow/diorama performance."

The project, which will run Thursdays through Sundays, brings together 12 scenes, each of which is staged separately at individual "stations" where a team of performers manipulate evocative puppets, as well as mechanical objects and projections. Audience members enter the performance space in groups of eight, and move from station to station to witness the unfolding tale. The story is adapted from an Ibsen play, and like much of Geiser's work, is about characters who are deeply melancholic, suffering some ineffable sorrow.

The experience of seeing one of Geiser's peepshow performances is utterly engrossing. In a movie theater, we suspend disbelief and are absorbed into the story unfolding onscreen. With Geiser's peepshows, however, we hover between a palpable awareness of the extraordinary mechanics that create the story -- performers, puppets, mini-stages -- and we we walk from scene to scene. However, the absorption is no less complete, and indeed, the peepshow becomes like a ritual, a shared experience of story conjuring.

Geiser's work is very much about "liveness," both literally and metaphorically. The artist collects old and forgotten artifacts from bygone eras and invites them to speak and live anew. Her films and puppet events are incredibly moving for their evocative ambience, and the sense of surprise we feel in experiencing emotional connections with objects that become re-animated.

Geiser's characters, although puppets, evoke intense empathy as they thrash about, flailing against boundaries and limits, often reckoning with terrible loss. I think Geiser's work may resonate for us especially now, at a moment when we, too, are trying to understand a sense of being as both animate and inanimate, as virtual and embodied.

We are now often looking at gradations of being and non-being in our own lives, moving from past to a new future, often with regret. I also think Geiser's experimentation is at the heart of what's most interesting in media practices right now, namely the dismantiling and reconfiguring of media forms, a mixing of old and new techniques, and attempts to cobble together new forms that are able to speak to who we are now, in an intensely mediated world.

The Reptile Under the Flowers
June 9-19, 2011, Thursdays - Sundays
The Giraffe Space
1652 W. Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Tickets $15

About the Author

Holly Willis teaches in USC's School of Cinematic Arts and writes about new media art. She is the author of "New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image" and editor of "The New Ecology of Things" on pervasive computing.
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