One night at “legendary uptown Athens bar” Swanky’s in the spring of 1980, as Jo Andres took in the sight of a friend and fellow dance major shifting and sliding over the dance floor in jeans and a T-shirt to Devo’s frenetic cover of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, she must have felt a measure of satisfaction herself, despite the lyrics: This was her undergraduate thesis dance piece, the culmination of four years of scholarship and practice within the School of Dance, and the other young artists she’d learned so much with were right there with her, watching the solo and bringing it to life. Maybe this was also the night that Andres, BFA, ’80, MFA ’83, realized one field of art simply wasn’t big enough for her. This epiphany would soon lead her to enroll in the School of Film's graduate program. And maybe, even then, she had a premonition of the decades of performances, films, visual art, and experimental work that would fill the decades ahead.
Andres’ passing in January 2019 prompted a celebration of her artistic legacy at the 46th annual Athens International Film + Video Festival (AIFVF). While her projects have screened at the festival in the past, when Director of AIFVF and of the Athens Center for Film and Video David Colagiovanni learned about her passing, he began examining as many of her films as he could.
“Everything I saw in her work and read about her, it was amazing,” Colagiovanni says. “I thought, ‘That’s the type of artist we need to celebrate: a strong woman, a dancer, a filmmaker.’ She did everything.”
Andres belonged to a tight-knit group of mutually supportive artist friends from OHIO who moved to New York City in the early 1980s and continue to support each other today.
“We all agreed that the only place to go with our degrees was New York,” says Mimi Goese, BFA ’82. “It was the most vibrant place for experimental art. In New York, we would all be roommates at different times, we kept track of each other by proximity, and would be included in each other’s performances and films.”
Lucy Sexton, BAA ’82, (College of Fine Arts 2003 Outstanding Alumnae Recipient), who danced the solo in Andres’ thesis back in 1980, recalls the busy, early years in New York.
“We all landed and found our way, getting jobs in bars and cafés,” says Sexton. “The East Village had a vibrant scene, a crisscrossing of dance, punk, experimental music, and theater. Annie Iobst, BFA ’82, (also the College’s 2003 Outstanding Alumnae Recipient) and I worked at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, and we began having performances there,” Sexton says. Sexton also received the Ohio University Alumni Association’s Medal of Merit in 2012.
Sexton and Iobst collaborated as the performance art duo DANCENOISE. Goese sang and performed with art band Hugo Largo, while Andres created what she described as “film/dance/light performances” that took place in a range of art spaces and nightclubs.
The creative overlaps between the friends meant they supported each other with choreography, performances, makeup, props, film, and video projects, Sexton says.
“We were interested in making statements, in pushing the envelope,” she says. “When we would perform in night clubs, people hadn’t necessarily come to see us. So, we had to get people’s attention, and the work had a certain edge.” Developing that edge brought the artists together even as they developed their own distinct modes of expression.
When Andres began her well-known project, the 1996 film Black Kites, Sexton assisted with the script and Goese played the lead. The film stars Croatian actress Mira Furlan as narrator, actor Steve Buscemi, who Andres married in 1987, and their son, Lucian. The dreamy, non-linear work draws on the 1992 wartime journals of Bosnian visual artist Alma Hajric, who survived the siege of Sarajevo by taking refuge in a basement shelter. Black Kites aired on PBS and was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. A singular element of Black Kites, and of much of Andres’ work, is the film’s innovative visual effects.
“She created films like a painter or a sculptor,” says Colagiovanni, “using the physicality of material to its fullest potential. There are lots of practical—not digital—effects. When she uses these, they’re seamless, there’s an illusion they create, you don’t notice that they’re built and layered. It requires a really intense understanding of material, being able to look through the camera and see what can be transformed that way.”
Goese confirms Andres’ ways of seeing things differently.
“She had a different way of seeing which was clear in her work. Because of her eye, things had to have a distinctive look, they had to be unique,” Goese says. “Jo created illusion and magic through low-fi, using water and fire. You wouldn’t see her using high-tech equipment for effect. Even when she did have money…it was still a question of how she could make things in an unusual way. She didn’t want to follow the pack.”
Sexton attributes this experimentalism to Andres’ intrinsic creativity.
“One of the extraordinary things about Jo was that she was a creative artist in so many different forms,” says Sexton. “She started in dance, she used light and film, she combined dance and film, and then she made visual art that showed in galleries. She followed a real internal desire to create in different realms. It felt to me like she was constantly moving and exploring, figuring out how she might create in this context versus that context.”
Goese connects that fertile creativity to the School of Dance, where they first met.
“There was something special about the school and Gladys Bailin,” Goese says, recalling the school’s director emerita and OHIO Distinguished Professor of Dance. “The focus wasn’t on technique but on expression, choreography, and the creation of dance. I think when you get this petri dish of a small group of people spending years, day and night, together, pushing each other, having a healthy competition, then you end up being sure of what you can bring to that group.”
The AIFVF tribute included a screening of four of Andres’ films and a panel discussion. The commemoration brought Andres’ work to a wider audience.
“So many people are talking about her now,” says Colagiovanni. “Different curators and arts centers have gotten in touch saying they didn’t know about her but want to program her work. The festival feature provided us an opportunity to really help get her work out there and give it the platform it deserves. People need to see her work. It’s fantastic, beautiful, and wonderful. It’s sincere.”
Asked what advice Andres might offer students at Ohio University today, after decades of insisting on creative integrity and generously supporting her friends, Goese has a quick, clear answer: “Don’t compromise.”