Her performance is immediate, genuine and self-aware; her sceneries look highly fantastic and surreal: L.A.-based artist Geneva Garvin aka Geneva Jacuzzi is diving chameleon-like through surreal fictions, while reflecting on topics like female identity, expressiveness and the fractured self in her music.
Geneva Jacuzzi is an unresting shapeshifter, travelling through time, space and psyche. Collecting artefacts from various sources and aesthetics, she is cooking up her own brew of subcultural mythology. The result tastes of avant-garde theatre and retrofuturism alike. Inviting Robert Wilson, Philip K. Dick and Devo, Kate Bush and Siouxsie Scioux, into the coven, Geneva is eventually doing her very own magic. She’s creating a distorting mirror of the outside and inner world that reflects back a schizoid circle of freaks, archetypes, goddesses, mimes and cyborgs.
We met Geneva a few hours before her gig in Vienna for an interview.
What’s most striking about your art is that it’s always a mixture between making music and performance art. Usually DIY producers don’t have these well-prepared settings. Why do you think it is necessary to put an emphasis on the theatrical aspect of your music?
I think that they’re all just ingredients, different pieces of one form of expression. In the fine art world, music is not considered to be art. I think it’s all art in a sense and I think music is the ingredient that expresses an emotional aspect, because music is one of the best ways to create an emotion. When I’m releasing a record, I don’t like to think that I’m just a musician. Because I’m really not a normal musician. I record at home, I play all the parts and I record it all myself. I only record a song once. Sometimes I don’t even remember how to play my songs! They’re pieces. They’re moments. And then they take on a different life, when they get presented to the audience. The music informs the concept.
Your performances are always hybrids. They look very heterogenic. Who creates the scenery and costumes for your videos?
For each video it’s usually a different person or it’s me. As far as costumes go, that’s my least favourite thing to do, so I try to get other people to work on it. It’s always something I leave to the last minutes. I worked with different people, like my friend Seth Pratt for “Dark Ages”. He made all these costumes out of paper. He was the only real designer that I worked with. My sister, Courtney Lynne Garvin, helps me a lot with costumes too. She is brilliant and we’ve been collaborating a lot lately.
You’ve also been collaborating with video-artist Jennifer Juniper Stratford. How did this come about?
We’ve worked on different things together. She’s very talented and also a very strong female, but has to put up with a lot of bullshit in her job. We bond on that: having to deal with unnecessary roadblocks, being a female and getting basic things done. In every industry, men are really smart in the sense that they have their boys‘ club. That’s one of the disadvantages a lot of women have to face: we don’t have the girls‘ club. We try to prove something by doing it alone- it’s a much greater struggle. Guys have figured that out. That’s why women find it very difficult to work with other men, because they’re all buds, all high-fiving in the background. That’s why we need our girls to high-five them too. (Laughter) I love working with her, because we work really well together. No bullshit, you know.
What’s puzzling about your aesthetics is that they’re highly referential, heterogenic and eclectic. You combine artefacts from different subcultural strands, but also from mythology, Sci-Fi narratives and cyborgs.
Well, I’m a big Philip K. Dick fan and I think it is very relevant to write about this in a philosophical way now, especially because of our technologized psyche and our dependency upon machines. It’s the exploration of what is human vs. the object, our attachment to objects and things that portray characteristics of humanity. And I feel that this is important to explore because our own bodies are like technology. There are useful, they’re pretty, they’re not pretty, they’re fat, they’re skinny, they are not working well and we have this sort of separated view of what we are. It’s interesting to explore the cyborg, the humanoid machine that we created. It also attaches to our theological roots of making idols and gods. The cyborg is right for exploration on a conceptual level. I like to incorporate that. And it’s also very feministic, because the objectification is always like a paradox. We don’t want to be objectified, but we want to be the object of love.
Growing up in a trailer park, being home-schooled and your family being Jehova’s witnesses, you had a very isolated childhood. When did you first stumble across subversive aesthetics and countercultural concepts?
I think as far as me getting exposed to anything interesting, that didn’t happen until later in life. I was very sheltered growing up; good music and art didn’t really turn me on until I was in my early twenties. When I started to perform solo, I had this gap and thought what’s the point of performing solo? It didn’t make sense. I obviously couldn’t play all the parts myself, so most of it, if not all of it, is going to be pre-recorded, which is what solo-artists do. They have their pre-recorded music and they play one keyboard and that’s that. To me, that seemed like the biggest scam of the century. I felt like it wasn’t enough to make a show and through that I had to think about performance art. I thought of Bauhaus theatre and Expressionist avant-garde theatre and things like that. Around that time I started writing a play (“Dark Ages”) with my friend Casey Obelisk, who introduced me to 20s/30s European avant-garde theatre. I don’t even know that much about art. I just go straight to the myth, straight to the source, straight to the history of a place and when you pull that in, it automatically references to other artists, who have done the same thing without me even knowing about it. It seems like I’m actually a lot more versed in art and culture than I really am. I’m just incorporating the very basic elements of geography and culture and when you start mixing things up, it just ends up looking really cool. (Laughter)
Your lyrics are very poetic and surreal. Sometimes I was reminded of “Écriture automatique”, then again of cut-up techniques of William S. Burroughs. Are you collecting words that you collage afterwards?
I wrote a lot of the lyrics with Casey, because he’s a playwright and he taught me how to write lyrics. There’s almost a formula you can use when you have a certain idea. You come up with some fantasy, a place, a theme or a character and then you take the simplest dialogue from that. Within that simplicity it creates more abstraction. If you think like an infant, then you can make up songs.
The roles that you’re incorporating are often referring to our collective subconscious and to archetypes.
There was this point where I didn’t feel that I was good enough. Instead of not doing the show, I decided to take that as an opportunity to explore both, my own personality and people in general. You enter your past, you explore your family, your psychology and cultures that surround you and through that you can start to separate archetypes of believe systems. In order to do that and deal with your own emotions, you have to separate yourself from yourself and through that you start to identify with different identities. I turned these thoughts into a play and all of the characters where either aspects of my own personality or aspects of the world around me that I had to meet and conquer, or experience and then move forward and move past it. There are these androids, or these fascist overseers or these idiot monkey men that are dancing for no reason. These characters come into play and I incorporate them in the show and they all have their own unique style. (Laughter)
Your former roommate Julia Holter once said that you had a multiple personality disorder. (Read here)
(Laughter) And you know, it’s funny, because multiple personality disorder is actually considered not to be true anymore. Now it’s called dissociative disorder or something. In the 80ies and 90ies it was almost a fad to have multiple personalities. It’s really fascinating to think about a psychological condition that only exists as a fad. I like to explore things like that too. Even my own performance is just a fad, because it’s based on the public wanting to see me. If no one wanted to book me, these characters…
… wouldn’t exist, you think?
They might exist somewhere in my unconscious, but there’s no reason to free them. That itself makes you a crazy person: when you’re an artist who depends on the public wanting to see you. It is what it is, it’s not good or bad, but if you have your ego attached to that, it can really destroy you. For me, it was just a matter of letting go of a lot of those things when creating characters out of them, so I could release them and allow the character to develop. The outside world influences the characters too.
Was it easy for you to separate yourself from that persona on stage? Even though the stories, scenarios and characters are very artificial and highly aestheticized, your art is very personal at its core.
It kind of started with Geneva Jacuzzi. Even though I showed up on stage in Jeans and T-Shirt I played a character. That’s actually a much more dangerous character to have, because it’s very close to yourself. If someone says they don’t like the song, you actually think they don’t like you. It’s not even about the stage. Any person who goes to work has to have that character when they deal with the public. But when it comes to the service of art making, then there’s really no reason for it. The characters are more exaggerated; if you don’t have characters your ego becomes completely inflated too. It was just safer for me to do that. It was a protection in a way. I’m insecure like anybody else. For a period of time it was actually the only way I could perform. I couldn’t just get up there as myself.
To my understanding, your concepts also circle around questions of female identity, object-hood vs. subjectivity and gaze vs. masquerade. Are you fine, if I label you as a feminist artist?
Yes, totally! I believe myself to be a feminist artist. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but I feel that the core of everything I do is about the feminine. There’s something about female artists that is so special, I think. It’s weird: the creative process is a very feminine thing, but to make art and to present it, is a very masculine thing. It’s difficult, because it’s a very male dominated culture and society. I feel like it’s really important to challenge that and be aware of the feminine aspect of it when I’m performing.
In the beginning it felt natural to reject my femininity as this thing I don’t want. I only liked male artists and there was something really dark about that. I was rejecting myself in a way and I felt like it was really important to embrace that and discover where that hatred came from. Since women are very competitive with each other, they don’t form communities- they stand alone and strong. I don’t feel like that anymore. I feel like that’s part of the base. In the next phase they realize that they need to come together.
And in order for me to get to that point, I had to really, really learn to see what’s significant to my art. To see the femininity in that and to embrace it. Finally, at 35, I am realizing that I shut myself off from so many women in my attempt to be that strong figure, but that was really not the best way to do it. It takes a process to get anywhere…
How is the vibe in L.A.? Is your style in one way or another influenced by this place?
L.A. is a great place. Hollywood, this town creates phantasies that get projected on the globe and the world mimics that as a sort of reality. But then to be there where it’s made and see the characters that are coming up with these ideas and who create these films; the industry that strives around this strange phantasy-making industries, and all the plastic surgeries and the new age… it’s just very amplified! It’s like the crazy teenager from Europe. (Laughter). It’s a rebellion and creates twisted phantasies for the rest of the world.
Are you constantly engaged in a creative project or do you have periods where you don’t have an artistic output?
I have an anxiety about not creating, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s fear of death, I don’t know.
There is a sense of peace that I know is there, and I know that I haven’t touched it yet and the only thing I can think of is to find it through making art. Since I’ve only got a glimpse of it through making art and being creative, the more I do it, the closer I get to something that is the opposite of making art, which is just sitting there and being still.
Until I can do that I’m driven to keep going, going, going. And if it’s not with music, it’s with collage, and if it’s not with collage, it’s with video or writing or make a screenplay or whatever I can do with whatever I have. If I only have a pencil, then it’s drawing. It’s weird not depending on other people for stimulation when you can invent your own stimulation. It’s like an interesting tool and I’m fortunate to have that.
Whenever something looks too easy, I get frustrated. I have to make it more difficult, otherwise it’s boring to me. (Laughter) If I do something well, then I don’t want to do it anymore. I got to do something, I don’t know how to do.
Text by Shilla Strelka
Photos by Alicia Pawelczak