When Deborah Johnson told me to keep an eye out for the blue house that “looks like a broken cake,” I wasn't sure what I'd find, but as I approached her Clinton Hill home, the description made perfect sense. The sky-blue house slumped as if it had been over-frosted by a child. Johnson is no stranger to translating images into words and more often, music into stunning visuals. If you've been to a Sufjan Stevens, M. Ward, Wilco, St. Vincent, Lambchop or Calexico concert in the last ten years there's a good chance you've seen her work.
Johnson, a Florida native who attended Maryland Institute College of Art with “art star” aspirations, was gradually drawn away from traditional forms toward event installations and collaborative efforts. While focused on video during her senior year at MICA, she found herself inspired by projections at scratch DJ concerts, like Kid Koala and DJ Shadow. “I don't know what's going on,” she told herself, “but I want to do that.”
Rather than hustle to get her work into sterile, silent galleries, Johnson began putting her efforts toward live projections at concerts in Chicago, her newly adopted city. Johnson was only 25 when Wilco hired her to transform their formerly simple concerts into multi-media spectacles during their A Ghost Is Born tour. The first year was spent “throwing spaghetti at the screen,” she says, recalling the creative process, but after a year on the road and “a lot of humiliation and learning” she became comfortable as a visual performer.
After two more years of work with Wilco, Johnson headed to New York where she set up her first apartment in Clinton Hill and began working with Lambchop and Calexico. Eventually that work led her to a meeting with Sufjan Stevens, her longest collaboration to date and one that is still on-going. At first Stevens just wanted Johnson to do a straightforward slideshow of photographs he already had. “Oh, you don't really need me for that.” she said, “You could use PowerPoint.” But once Stevens understood the breadth of Johnson's skills, he changed his tune. That collaboration birthed several more, including her current project: a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music entitled Planetarium, with Stevens, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner which premieres at BAM March 21. From the decorative and ornate visuals of Steven's Avalanche and Illinois tours to the “apocalyptic space rock opera” of The Age of Adz, Johnson appreciates the chameleon-like requirements of teaming up with one of the most prolific and admired musicians working today.
At home, however, Johnson has the luxury of collaborating only with herself. After a series of apartments throughout the city (everywhere from East Williamsburg to Midwood to Soho) she's landed in Clinton Hill again. There she lives the creative professional dream of having a studio that does not double as her living or bedroom. Her decorating ethos involves keeping herself constantly visually inspired and creating small narratives with the artwork she's collected over the years. “So often I'm taking a lot of disparate things, like music, lyrics and imagery and figuring out how I can make some kind of narrative arc with it. So it's nice to have that spill out into the space.”
Of course there are plenty of concert posters around the apartment too, which remind Johnson of how far she's come in only a decade. She's recently finished up work with St. Vincent, one of the rare but prized opportunities she has had to work with a woman performer. It was also one of the only times her technology was limited almost exclusively to lights, though that didn't stop Johnson from thinking big. The requests she posed to her lighting designer, Ben Stanton, required lots of creative leaps. “Can you make the lights look like the Rockettes? Ok, now I want the lights to look like an Elizabethan headdress.” Johnson showed me a rubric in which she had assigned each song a set of images, patterns and colors to dictate the lighting movements.
“I would love to work with more female artists,” she said, citing the legendary Siouxsie Sioux as a dream artist. In past collaborations with women she's had the opportunity to come at a project from a different angle, with a whimsy and softness that is evident in her apartment. While working with the Japanese pop star, Chocolat, Johnson says they were just “giggling the whole time.”
“But my other fantasy is doing visuals for Nine Inch Nails or White Zombie,” she admitted, wide-eyed and giddy, “White Zombie would be awesome!” •