Art as Active Agent: An Interview With Artist and Educator Karen Yasinsky

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By Carlos Valdes-Lora

Visual arts, animation, and photography faculty member Karen Yasinsky has enough awards and recognitions to her name for two fireplace mantels, if not more. Just recently, she was awarded the 2010 Baker Artist grant as well as the 2010-11 Rome Prize fellowship from the American Academy in Rome. Karen is also a finalist in the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Competition. While winners will receive a sizeable fellowship, all finalists are featured in an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This list of esteemed recognitions only covers the past year, but while the accolades are numerous, it’s the passion and dedication with which she approaches her work and career as an educator that shines through.

As an artist, Karen’s range of experience covers the gamut of materials and media, and it is difficult if not impossible to collectively cubbyhole her work into any particular mode or category. In this interview, we discuss her relationships with the various media through which she expresses with deftness and grace her central preoccupations as an artist and human being: the impossibility of true connection between individuals, the ecstatic pleasure of craftwork and perception, and the communicative power of small gestures and movements.

CARLOS VALDES-LORA:     What films, or what moment in your life, inspired you to pursue animation and filmmaking? Was it sudden or was it gradual?

KAREN YASINSKY:     There was a lot of desire to make movies, working up to it, but I went to graduate school for painting and I was lucky that when I got out of school, I had a gallery in New York. I was able to work towards shows, which I think when you’re a young artist is always so helpful. You know you’ll have an audience, and deadlines always keep your work habits up to speed. But it was my second show and I was making paintings that were sort of cartoony, but dealt with figures and anxieties and tensions — emotions; non-verbal things that were illustrated by these small body movements in the characters. But when I was painting I felt like I was painting the same painting over and over again. I knew the history of painting so well, and painters like Bronzino . The mannerists. Italian fifteenth-century painting. So those were my heroes, and I thought to myself “I’m never going to paint like they paint and I don’t aspire towards painting like that; it’s not appropriate in this age.”

When I was in grad school I wasn’t very social, I just painted and watched films. So I decided I wanted to stop painting after my second show. Critically it didn’t get any attention, so it was easy to make a break. I decided I wanted to make movies, but I wanted to work by myself. But I knew nothing about animation, so I thought I could make my characters, I could devise the narrative, or non-linear narrative as it turned out to be, and work by myself — I could do everything myself. So that’s why I chose to start with puppet animation. And it was— it was like right after that show I decided, “I’m just going to stop painting and do this.”  I took a course at SVA in New York on animation and at FVA, Film Video Arts. So from there I never painted again

CVL:    Were you drawn to puppetry in order to maintain that sort of personal process?

KY:    Well, I had filmmakers that I really loved; like, I think the first filmmaker I really fell in love with was Renoir. I wasn’t interested in constructing a narrative, but I was interested in smaller portions: remembered images from those films, remembered characters that would stay with me and get changed and almost re-written in my head. Stop motion animation was just a way to translate these ideas. I wasn’t drawn towards animation, but it was just the filmmaking tool to do what I wanted to do.

CVL:    A number of your works are adaptations of feature films, such as L’Atalante and Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. What are your thoughts on what some call the problem of adaptation? How important is it to you for an adaptation to be faithful? What is it about these two films?

KY:    They are two films that I love, and the first one, L’Atalante… It was remembered image, and they were static images that I think came from a memory of a whole scene, so in a way it was like taking a film and turning it into a static image that sort of reverberates. So it has time and space, but the narrative is stripped away from it. But I think the reverberation, or sort of wiggle of the image in my head, had to do with the internal lives of these characters but in a non-narrative way. Working from a remembered scene, I start with that image and then I go back to the scene that it came from; it gives me a place to start. I don’t really care about the narrative. While I’m animating, I discover the little things that I’m most excited about.

So in that film that I did, I did a drawing animation and a puppet animation, but the puppet animation, which was called “La nuit” – well, it still is called “La nuit” — I was interested in the scene where they’re sleeping apart because she left him, and the eroticism of this scene, although it’s all suggested, and it’s suggested through light. There’s a scene where light is coming through a curtain or a glass window, and it’s sort of sprinkled across her body and her face, and these small gestures and movements. In my film, people always want to talk about, “Well, she’s masturbating,” and even at the BMA where it was shown they almost put up a sign that suggested it wasn’t appropriate for children, which I thought was ridiculous. It is a self-gratification, self love that’s been true of all of my movies.  These characters can’t talk. My main subject matter is the inability to connect with people on a certain level, and these characters are always trapped inside of this package, which is their bodies. And I think it’s appropriate for stop-motion animation because they are these little packages. Their faces are baked clay so their expressions don’t change.

The problem that always pops up — and problems are always good, otherwise you’d be bored and you wouldn’t make your work — how to structure something; and I think that’s a problem that continues to make my work change. But then I decided to structure it like a comic strip, where these scenes are just put next to each other, and they’re related but there’s no intended progression through time, certainly a non-linear narrative. And what part is a dream? What part is real? And in the end for me it doesn’t matter; it’s just the images. My next work is always sort of in reaction to the thing that I finished, so with that one I had main scenes that are certainly from the [original]. The other things I put in are related to the film but they have a little humor, which wasn’t a part of the [original]. They have more to do with my ideas about these characters.

The second animation I did based on that… It was definitely a reaction to the problem of structure I had with that one, and wanting to try something where I didn’t have to make those decisions, so I chose to literally copy the beginning of L’Atalante.

It was drawing animation, and I decided just to literally — and I’d never done a drawing animation before — animate the beginning of the first ten minutes of L’Atalante faithfully. My idea was I would draw frame-by-frame using a light box. I didn’t rotoscope it; I just made up my own cartoony animation of it. Even though you’re tracing, the line is never in the exact place, so the lines are always wiggling or moving so that it never resolves itself. So, I thought there would be some sort of visual tension in that formal tension. It wouldn’t just be a cartoony copy of the beginning of L’Atalante. I had a residency in Prague and I spent two months in a closet drawing, and then when I got it back it was indeed just a cartoony version of the beginning of L’Atalante. I took a few months, finished the puppet animation, then came back to it and gave it fantastic ending. It was sort of my idea of L’Atalante compressed. That is probably my only narrative cartoon-like film. There’s nothing in it I would change, and it’s an easy film.

And then working from Au Hasard Balthazar was similar. I wanted to work with Bresson, and I wanted to for a while. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers, and he uses actors as models. He asks them not to interpret or express anything. That’s what my little people do. I direct them; they do nothing.  So I choseAu Hasard Balthazar. I love all of his films; it’s definitely one of my favorites, if not my favorite. But I had seen it twice in one week and I was so incredibly moved both times. I kept crying afterwards even though I knew what was going to happen. I’d seen it several times even before then. But I realized it’s about the craft of filmmaking, how he’s able to construct something so artfully that gives me the pleasure of having to do the work to understand where the redemption lies in the film. It’s not an easy film — none of his films are easy. You’re really left with this struggle I think that’s both emotional and intellectual. It is a film about redemption, I think, or the impossibility of redemption, but I think in the end there is this very uplifting feeling that’s filled with hope. For me, it was about the beauty of that last scene. It stopped being about narrative. That was something I was really interested in with all of his work. It is about the narrative which he so concisely structures, but then it’s also about the image, the beauty of these small motions that pull away, not my attention, but you get a dual reading of the film while you’re watching it. There’s the actual thing going on and then there’s this incredible beauty that raises you up. His content I think you have to struggle with, but then there’s also this push-up when you watch them.

That’s what I would love to do with my work. So I did the puppet animation film and then I wanted to get away from narrative and go back into a drawing animation. I got really interested in Robert Breer, who’s more of an experimental filmmaker. Do you know his work?

CVL:    No.

KY:    There’s one on this DVD. It’s in the library. [Referring to Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde (1947-1986)]

CVL:    Oh, nice.

KY:    But it’s just, it’s very fast drawing animation; it’s non-narrative, so I wanted to work like that with images constantly changing. Without any narrative, but based on an image that contains some kind of narrative tension —

CVL:    Within itself?

KY:    Yeah, Yeah.

So, I finished that, and there’s nothing dark about that movie at all; it’s fun. I still really like it and there’s nothing I would change about it. But I wasn’t done with Balthazar yet, or Marie, specifically the character. There’s a scene where’s she’s talking to the nice boy — I forget his name, Jacques?

CVL:    When the two of them are sitting together on a bench?

KY:    And it’s all in profile, and what she’s saying is extremely melodramatic, which is weird for Bresson, but she’s saying it with a very dead pan face. I mean, it’s a powerful scene but it’s also a little absurd in the Bressonian world. So I wanted to rotoscope that, and I always have a first idea and I don’t know where it’s going to go because animation takes so long. I started to rotoscope it, which is just digitizing the footage and turning it into thirty still images per second, and then tracing each one. I turned it into a line drawing; just her face. So I started to pull apart the image, like thinking, “how do I…” [pauses].

Oh! I remember what happened — This is going to be convoluted!

Do you know who Bruce McClure is?

CVL:    No.

KY:    I guess he does projector performances and I’ve been looking at a lot of experimental film. He did a show in Baltimore. It’s work with lots of strobing; lots of noise. More than half the audience walked out at intermission, and it was a small group. But for me it was exhilarating; I loved it. And I thought, “Well, why do so many people not like it?” The people I talked to — friends of mine that left — said that they felt like they were going to have a heart attack. They found it an overly aggressive assault; assaulting in all ways: physically, aurally. They just wanted to get out of there. And I felt it was so exciting because you’re taking something that isn’t physically hurting you but it’s something you might associate with aggression: loud noises. But you’re not being hurt. Suspend that jerk-reaction emotional response and allow yourself to choose what emotion to attach to it. For me it was like ecstasy, some kind of weird, non-physical ecstasy. I actually read something about his work later and that’s how they described it. It’s the only way you can apprehend it. It’s weird that those two emotions —but not so weird — the feeling, “I’m going to die. This is too intense,” and having that be a negative thing, and then the other side of it being great.

I want to work with emotions, but I wanted to do something where the physical look of the film would take away the emotion that was inherent and easy to read in the sad girl talking, and Brahms. They used a very emotional piece of music. The viewer would pop out of that emotion and have to face the fact that they’re looking at an image on a screen. What I did was I drew the image like old TVs, when the reception goes out the image starts to scroll down. So I did something like that, and then at times I hand-pixelated everything…

CVL:    Oh my god.

KY:    With just little dots and changed the colors. And then I started a strobing with color, going through the spectrum, and every other frame having a different color. The frames in between were just white with black lines. I finished that, and again there’s nothing I would change about it, but it informed what I wanted to do next. The first image will be based on a film, but then it has nothing to do with the narrative of the film, or its specific character. In a way I’m not going to have to deal with that question of being faithful to the actual source. People ask me about that a lot, which I don’t think about, but it must be an issue if people see the film and they ask me about it.

CVL:    You have mentioned that Bresson’s use of gesture in his films appeals to you. How difficult is it for you to get across these sorts of gestures in stop motion animation with your models?

KY:    It was easier when I had these really nice models made that can hold and are capable of making subtle gestures. The models, the skeletons that I used to make were much cruder. Whenever I wanted something slow, like hands touching faces, often the hand would bounce back and not stay where I wanted it to. But it’s what I do so I can’t say if it’s difficult or not. I think why animation, stop-motion or drawing, suits me so much is because I already know so clearly, even though I may not be able to articulate it at the time I’m working, what I want, and not having to tell anybody else. I can be the actors at the same time by moving these models. Sometimes I get the footage back and it’s not quite there, but I also think they’re small movies and sometimes I feel I’m setting the bar too low. They’re nothing compared to the source, so I’m not holding myself up against that.

CVL:    So, you might say those films function as a jumping-off point.

KY:    Yeah, a starting point or a springboard. I make short animated films, and I would love to make a feature narrative film like Bresson. I think that would be my goal, but I know my nature, I know my life and I don’t have it in me. I guess I don’t want to make the sacrifices to do that.

CVL:    When you say a feature, do you mean live action?

KY:    Yes. But I don’t want to work with people.

CVL:    I hear you.

KY:    But I think I could work with people. I see people sometimes and I think to myself, “I want to work with that person.” Just how they look and how they move. And I guess that’s how you find your actors when you’re a director. My life would change if I started to do that. Maybe I will still.

CVL:    How has your experience as an educator informed your work? Has it been affected positively or negatively?

KY:    Positively, definitely, because when I started working here — I guess I’ve been here five or six years, I hadn’t worked with undergraduates before. Having to be prepared for class and having to give a lot of information I wasn’t used to. My way of teaching — and I worked with graduate students — would be to bring in different films or video art that I was interested in, I felt were provocative in different ways that my students would also be interested in, screen it and say, “So, what do you think?” I tried that my first semester at Hopkins and…nothing.

I’ve always read a lot about everything, but it’s definitely been great with getting me to find new things to read and talk about. The students also give back a lot. It’s such a reciprocal process. Since I’m an animator and therefore a shut-in, I didn’t have that bouncing back and forth as much, so it is a good thing.

CVL:    Aside from these big projects, are there any others in the wings?

KY:    My longest movie is eight or nine minutes long. The new project will probably be anywhere between half-and-hour to an hour, so that’s all I’m thinking about now. And it has to deal with faith, which is something I thought about working on the Bresson films, but presenting that in a non-narrative way. It’s going to be using maybe photographs in addition to drawings. It’s a 2D animation so it will be different again, but it be related to the last piece about Marie that I just finished. But it will be epic.

CVL:    Where do you see the future of video art and animation? Are the tools changing as much as they in the film industry, for example?

KY:    Well, many more people are doing animation, and the animation that’s being done in the art world is all hand-done animation. Definitely you could edit at home and video cameras now are available where you can approximate single frame, and the DSLRS, that’s very huge. So, that’s new.

There’s a lot of interesting animation going on. I feel like I’m in a weird place, which I really enjoy. I’m not quite an animator. I don’t fit into the animation festivals, and I’m certainly not… I don’t know what I am! [Laughs].

CVL:    [Laughs].

KY:    I’m in between that and experimental filmmaking, and then sometimes short narrative filmmaking. I don’t really care where I am. I see these different worlds in going to festivals and going to galleries. And there is, there is a lot of interesting work going on and a lot of interesting live work that involves puppets, which I’m interested in, which I only started to think about a couple years ago.

But animation… Since I started teaching animation, I’ve gotten more interested in that as a movie form genre, which I knew nothing about beforehand.

I’m trying to think of new animation. Now I’m in love with a lot of old animation like Flip the Frog, and Betty Boop. But the new animated narratives that I see I think are good, but they’re a little predictable in their narrative structure. Pixar is, you know, junk food. It’s fun. That’s more like mainstream moviemaking. Those are just mainstream movies; it doesn’t matter how they’re made. But I like them better than I like probably live action stories, but maybe not ‘cause I haven’t seen that many of them. But there are interesting animators in the art world I know of.

CVL:    At least with filmmaking the inherent issue is that no matter how hard you try you can only capture an external reality. You could argue then that animation might be the kind of medium where you can get closer to something beyond the external reality. What do you feel is the kind of subject matter that finds its definitive form as animation? You mentioned earlier that expressing one’s inability to connect with others is one of your central preoccupations.

KY:    I guess because it’s working with line, it’s about relating. When you use live action, the visual frame is more crowded with information. My puppet animation is so minimal, and my drawing animation, so the tension when two forms almost touch… I guess formal tensions that I think a lot about in painting composition. One of my favorite filmmakers for this is Ozu, because you can really see how the characters will approach the frame within the frame and almost touch it. I think most people aren’t noticing that formal tension, but it’s affecting them in some way.

I’m not so interested in animation for transformation, which is what I think it’s usually used for. I did use it for this drawing animation, though for me that was more like a cartoon, so I didn’t really care about that. What I realized is as a filmmaker I’m interested in the hard cut. I don’t want to make an easy transition just to soften the image on your eyes. If it is a hard cut I want you to have to think about that. I can see myself incorporating photographs and maybe some live-action in this next piece I’m going to do, so it’s a weird time for me to think about what needs to be done in animation when I’m opening up a little bit.

Like that Bruce McClure show. As you said, you can ostensibly capture the external reality in the production, but as soon as it’s screened you’re getting something else. Like in that show, it was emotional and powerful. Whatever he captured once wasn’t just some light in the room; it was something that was having a strong effect, like some active agent. So I see great film as being an active agent on the viewer. I guess when I’m making it I am just thinking, “I love images” so those formal tensions is what I start with.

CVL:    Where can we see your work?

KY:    Right now at the BMA…probably for another month. I’m going to be in a little show at Load of Fun. I have some drawings. I don’t show drawings in Baltimore often. So that’ll be nice.

CVL:    Thank you so much.

KY:    Sure. Thank you.

A selection of Karen’s work is currently part of an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibition will run until June 27, 2010. Don’t miss it.