Interview - Jayne Loader

By Carey Young, 10 January 1997

A fine example of Renaissance-Womanhood, Jayne Loader is an author, film-maker, hyperfiction writer, website designer and now multimedia producer, best known for her wittily apocalyptic documentary film, The Atomic Cafe. Released in 1982 to worldwide acclaim, the film culled footage from 50's US pro-nuclear propaganda films to weave an absurd and hard-hitting sequence in which there is no narration: the clips alone pointedly illustrate how naive and trusting were 50s folks in the face of the mighty US government's will to nuclearity.

Her new and stunningly-designed CD-Rom, Public Shelter, seen first in the UK at the recent Lovebytes Documentary festival in Sheffield, continues the film into equally challenging dimensions. Uniquely featuring a mass of recently-declassified government documents and sensitive material 'leaked' to Greenpeace, these are combined with over ten hours of audio material, 400+ photos, 78 video clips from The Atomic Cafe, and 1900 fully searchable text files. The result is a comprehensive, content-rich archive of the US nuclear operation in times of war and peace. A Web site further complements the CD-Rom, providing hundreds of links to global nuclear information sites.

CY: It's 14 years now since you released The Atomic Cafe. How do you feel now about the film? Has it changed at all for you?

JL: I think it still holds up very well, I'm proud of it. I mean, I think it changed American culture in certain ways in terms of how people see stock footage and other propaganda. For example, it really influenced advertising. It made stock footage kind of cool and trendy, so a lot of advertisers started to use that in their work. That's the place you can see it most clearly, and it really led to the growth of a commercial stock footage industry where one didn't exist before. I find that very interesting. The other thing is that it made people more aware of propaganda, as a tool, and how the government has used that propaganda apparatus to get its point of view across, especially to kids in schools.

CY: That's what's so frightening, that we were taken in so easily.

JL: Well, Atomic Cafe didn't end the arms race, Ronald Reagan did that by bankrupting the Soviet Union, so it didn't quite stop nuclear war!

CY: There was a lot of media interest in the film in the eighties, wasn't there?

JL: Yes, but it was also because there was so much fear in the eighties, that we were all going to die in a nuclear war. I mean, it's something that's hard to imagine now, if you're 16 years old. People aren't afraid of nuclear war any more - they have other things to be afraid of like AIDS...

CY: Well, it certainly hit me like a sledgehammer! And the absurdity of the information which people actually believed at the time is very ironic with the benefit of hindsight. But do you think we're still deluding ourselves in a similar way? Are we still that naive?

JL: Well, I think we are deluding ourselves, but I think most of the propaganda today comes from multinational corporations via TV and advertising, so we're probably deluding ourselves about different things, like this particular perfume is going lead to our ultimate happiness with the man of our dreams.

CY: You left film making not long after The Atomic Cafe. Why was that?

JL: Well, I had a really terrible experience with my last movie. I made this film about animal rights, and I got to the point where I was about to cut the negative, and my producer came to me and told me that all the money was gone, and there was a discrepancy in the figures. He shut the production down, and we went to court, but nothing was ever resolved. One of the investors died of a heart attack from the stress of losing all his money, so it was a very, very unpleasant experience for all concerned... and particularly ironic since it was a little film to help the animals... By the time the film finally crashed and burned the politics had changed so much that animal rights was not quite so powerful a movement in the US as it once was. Interest tapered off to the point where I could not find anyone who was willing to give me the million dollars.

CY: This is the reality, isn't it, I mean it's consciousness-raising, but on the other hand, you've got to find the right wave and surf it...

JL: That's exactly right. I couldn't justify asking anyone for a million dollars to make that film, as it wouldn't have made that back. It's almost like, everyone's against nuclear war, because it's easy to be against nuclear war. You don't actually have to do anything to be against nuclear war, but to support animal rights you actually have to do something, you have to stop eating meat, or wearing fur, it's a much more active disposition, more controversial.

CY: So in market terms, then, it's not a dead cert.

JL: Exactly. That was the kind of response we were getting from distributors and funders, they were saying 'This is a brilliant piece of film, but, hey, I like to eat meat!'

CY: Did you envision another project when you were making The Atomic Cafe, did there seem to be something else there in an embryonic form?

JL: Well, we wanted to do a project about the realistic consequences of a nuclear war, a fiction film, and unfortunately we wrote it at the same time as Nick Meyer was making The Day After, so that kind of blew us out of the water because he did basically what I wanted to do. Then my work-partner and I, who was my boyfriend at the time, split up and that drew us both into a dead zone for a while... then I wrote two books...

CY: Yes. I'm very interested in these transitions. What I'd like to talk about first is the process of moving into multimedia, because what I find fascinating is that the structure of Public Shelter as a CD-Rom is very similar to the non-narratival film-collage of The Atomic Cafe, yet it's totally different. You used a very destructured film as the basis for a CD-Rom, there's no narratival 'script of God,' as you call it.

JL: Well, I was basically trying to replicate the same sort of found footage approach, but with multimedia it has more layers, more stuff, you can get more on the disk than you can get onto a film... A lot of the best clips from Atomic Cafe were used in the CD-Rom, though - there's quite a crossover.

CY: Were you very conscious of a sort of choreographic process when you were designing the CD-Rom - the way you placed the viewer in the information?

JL: Well, I wanted it to be like a Web experience, so you wander round and explore at your own rate, like you do on the Web or in a game. I wasn't interested in a highly structured approach... It's much more a freeform improvisation than it is a symphony!

CY: Really? To me there's a strong tree structure to the CD-Rom.

JL: There is, but it kind of grew organically, and the same with the Atomic Cafe, it grew out of the research, unlike most documentaries, where people look for stock footage to match the points they want to make. They want a cutaway which shows this, and they want the elephant to go from left to right across the screen, and then they want the baboon to swing down... They find the stock footage to match the preconceived notions of what should be there.

CY: I was wondering if you felt a sense of loss of control through the non-linearity of the viewer's experience on the CD-Rom, because Atomic Cafe was edited so tightly?

JL: You do give up a lot of control. When I make a film, I can do almost everything myself except cut the neg or print the film... Whereas I can't programme, I'm not a graphic artist, I need those people. This is a much more collaborative form.

CY: So did you miss the ability to specifically juxtapose pieces of film or information? Are there ways you'd really like people to navigate from one image to another, because there's such a great juxtaposition?

JL: Well yes, but Atomic Cafe took five years to make, whereas I made this in a year. If I had had more time, I would have used more techniques of hyperfiction, which I'm using on my Web site. We were going to have an animated front end, at one point, that was an animated 3D bombshelter. You'd navigate through three-dimensional space, and click on the TV in the corner. Then our animators decided it was so beautiful that instead of the $12,000 we'd agreed on, they wanted $50,000. So we just said: 'Take it, we don't want it'. Animation is the single most expensive line item on these CD-Rom projects. Animators are like the primadonnas of the multimedia world, I think.

CY: Perhaps it was for the best... One thing I was wondering concerns the 'zeitgeist', if you like - did you choose the looser structure of a CD-Rom to match the shifting political structures of the nineties?JL: Well no, not exactly. Film is more linear and more narratival, and so is the novel. So I mean you have to adapt yourself to the form, and make it work for you... for me it just has more twists and turns and nooks and crannies - dead ends, possibly! But most people these days don't want complexity, they want sound bites, propaganda, easily digested issues - Public Shelter is not that.

CY: Did you have any legal tussles over copyright?

JL: Not yet! But I've tried to use material which is in the public domain.

CY: That's one of the things that's so shocking to a British audience. None of that's available for us, unless there's a leak - transcripts of official conversations, press releases about governmental policy...JL: Well, you can go to the US and get it - I mean it's free! There in the archives for anyone to use. It was paid for by taxpayer's dollars, so it's free, except for the reproduction rights. It's really a great resource to plunder!

CY: But how do you find specific pieces of information? I read that you have to write to the army, and that they've been quite difficult with you.

JL: Well, for Atomic Cafe we just insinuated ourselves in, but now it's a much more difficult, formal process.

CY: They saw you coming!

JL: We ruined it for everyone else! With Public Shelter, Greenpeace gave me a lot of material, but for the bulk of it I plundered government Web sites.

CY: It's like an advert for what you can achieve using the Web. I don't think that people really know those type of sites are there, or what they have on them.

JL: But if you go to my Web site, you can find all the links to all the different government sites. There are a lot which have really sensitive photographic databases, for example, or scientific history.

CY: And it extends the CD-Rom into a global project.

JL: Into cyberspace, whoo, yeah!

CY: Well, it's how it should be. We need all of this information, and America is so central to all things nuclear; for me the project reaches a new level of power when it has a global reach. Do you see yourself as an activist?

JL: Well, no, in that I don't go on any marches or anything like that, but I do consider my work activist work, which people can use to further their own political ends. I'm not a joiner, I don't like to go to meetings or any of that. I prefer to let people decide for themselves.

CY: Tell me a bit about your Web site, WWWench. Can you describe the process you've gone through to go from film, to writing, to CD-Roms, to the Web to erotic hyperfiction? Is there a continuous process involved?

JL: I don't know if there is or not. I've always been a writer, and I've always done this collage-art, so they were two different parts of my personality. The thing about the Web is that I've been able to bring them together - bring all the talents that I have on both sides of my brain into one whole!

CY: I can really see what you're saying, because it seems to me as if you're treating the text in WWWench like an art-object, an art-experience, you're tempting people to look at all those links, you're trying to get at people's subconscious... There are so many references to sex, I mean, I'll be honest - I looked at those bits first! But it felt to me like I was somehow complicit, I'd fallen into your trap.

JL: Yes! Exactly - and I tried to be a bit subversive. If you follow the links in The Slut's Code of Conduct, which is the new one on the site, you can go from prostitutes' unions to hardcore pornography to, you know...

CY: Did you feel any inner turmoil at putting the hardcore stuff on, or was balance the thing?

JL: Well, there's so much of it out there that it would have been stupid to ignore it. Sex is one of the main reasons that guys get on the Web. The Hustler Website is the single most profitable on the Web right now. They have something like 20,000 guys paying $30 a month for that site! Playboy and Penthouse are the same... this is what people are willing to pay for. Yeah, I want to comment on that, because it's such an important part of the Web.

CY: If you've trawled through the highs and lows of Net sex, do you think that Net censorship is a possibility, or desirable?

JL: Censorship is only possible in a place like Singapore where you only have one service provider, but most countries aren't like that, I mean there must be thousands of service providers in the US. When I was in New Zealand they were saying they had censorship and within five minutes I'd gotten onto a hardcore site! But you don't encounter these sites without really looking for them, that's the truth of the matter. They don't pop up on your screen without your active collusion!

Public ShelterWWWench

Limited edition copies of Public Shelter on CD-ROM (windows format) areavailable from Lovebytes at £29 each + £2.50 postage. Call [0114] 275 9330


email: lovebytes AT

Carey Young c.young AT