There are two types of “found” objects that appear in the films of Janie Geiser. The first include her many thrift store finds—scraps of wallpaper, rulers and other measuring instruments, anatomical drawings, dolls chipped and worn with use—as well as flowers and leaves native to Geiser’s Southern California home. The second are the many media forms she incorporates, including other films, videos, analog sound, and, increasingly over the past several years, photographs. With this second group, Geiser maintains an eye especially for texture: the flatness of a dot-matrix pattern on newsprint, the hypnotic tempo of a video roll, the uncanny double of a photographic negative. Such qualities, however, are not presented as “belonging” to a particular medium, but migrate across them, as when Geiser rephotographs a film off a television monitor in Ghost Algebra (2009), or mimics the layered appearance of video using photographs in Flowers of the Sky (2016). In addition to being objects, this second group of found materials offer a particular kind of view all their own. Accordingly, Geiser treats these as both objects to be handled and images that offer a glimpse of another world nested deep within the ones she creates.
All of Geiser’s materials are animated in this way, not only in the traditional sense of stop-motion techniques, but in a more associative and suggestive manner, as if these objects from the past were given the ability to move and collide with each other. This creates a sense of mystery, as when, at the beginning of The Floor of the World (2011), letters appear through a clearing of dirt, later removed by a paper shovel to uncover a black and white photograph of a girl. The earth opens up, then swallows back up, its many secrets. Or when, in Kriminalistik (2014), we see a nineteenth century illustration of a detective peering over a body from a large camera mounted on a tripod, the crime yet to be identified, much less solved. So often we hear the static on a record player, the indeterminate sound that precedes, or follows, a song. Like so much of the objects that Geiser uses, this part of a recording that is normally taken for granted is given new, strange life. In Geiser’s films, we encounter the familiar, the forgotten, in unfamiliar and unexpected ways.
Multiple pasts come alive in Geiser’s films. This speaks to the density of the frame, an often crowded cluster of images and objects layered over each other, always passing across one another, and covered, at times, by deep shadow. Just as we see photographs in their negative reverse, we also hear songs played backwards, creating an effect of simultaneity where all moments from the past are active at once. Objects are loosened from their historical fixity and made to interact with elements that came from elsewhere; this is, of course, the nature of collage, where different historical moments are placed in spatial proximity to each other. Here, the juxtaposition is equally temporal, a recombined and heterogeneous past alive and buzzing in an unfolding and uncertain present.
Geiser’s films offer narratives of a sort, perhaps better described as narrative echoes. These vague reminders of familiar film scenarios, especially those of danger and intrigue, are affirmed by haunting snippets of music. They are also organized around central characters: toys, paper cutouts, people in photographs and moving images. These figures are bound up in their material conditions, but they also exceed them. The doll in Ghost Algebra, for example, does not sit inertly, but is made to act, wandering through a video landscape and peering into the photographic space of a bunker, perhaps to spy a distant or coming war. Geiser’s characters are caught in between: they travel through various spaces, and they can even see well past them (as the boy in Kindless Villain (2010) sees ancient Egypt through a telescope), but their movements are often restricted, as in Arbor (2012), where a group of people seated on a lawn are kept behind a superimposed fence.
These barriers are also obstructions to our view, and we see these figures through layers of latticework, irises, and, in Cathode Garden (2015), the criss-crossed lines of a security envelope. But security, such as it is invoked, is only an illusion. Instead, Geiser’s figures are insecure, trembling like paper unsettled by the wind, and, through a variety of technical means, passing in and out of view. Sometimes they are obscured by translucent patterns that pass over them, or they are blurred to the point of indistinction. In Arbor, a number of individuals are literally painted out of the photograph, leaving behind no trace of the people that once were there. One way of understanding these indeterminate figures is as a form of loss and forgetting. In such a view, Geiser’s practice of returning to the anonymous remains left in thrift stores everywhere becomes one of salvage and at least partial restoration.
Another way of approaching Geiser’s characters is to imagine where they go after they disappear from view. Instead of dematerializing, we might think of them as transcending their media forms, and reaching for a place that exceeds our ability to represent it: in short, the sublime. Geiser has explored unknown, otherworldly places before, as in the ghostly haunting in The Fourth Watch (2000), the extreme distance indicated by the title of Ultima Thule (2002), and the Tibetan concept of the afterlife evoked in Terrace 49 (2004). With her most recent film Flowers of Sky, she returns again to this mystical otherworld by examining two photographs of a ritual performed by the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic secret society. Working with two densely populated photographs of this group, the first seated for a meal, the second gathered around an empty chair around which small nooses are hung, Geiser reveals the faces of the participants in successive strips, sometimes rolled across the frame, or revealed as though seen through the blades of a fan. Over these images, Geiser overlays gently falling white and pink flowers. As the appearance of the photo-strips increases in speed and density, the ritual intensity builds. A man is seen falling down the center of the frame, and, as if the magnetic balance of the world had been altered, we see a rush of flowers floating upward. Through cinema, the film seems to suggest, as do all of Geiser’s works, we may be able to achieve what these people long dreamed of.