Ester Geislerová and Curator Christelle Havranek in Conversation

You come from a creative family of many artists and actors. How does your artistic practice tap into these two different worlds?

Sometimes ambivalently. I’ve taken something from both worlds and created a hybrid of my own, which is my favourite form of expression. These are video installations where I work with actors or acting as an art form and with the language of film. I’ve been around the film industry since I was five years old, and it’s natural to me, so I wanted to make use of that. When I started studying at AVU (The Academy of Fine Arts in Prague), I had a kind of “student” vision – to build a stronger bridge between film and the visual arts.

Do you have any references or role models that influenced you in bridging these two worlds, or do you feel like a pioneer in this regard?

I was always drawn to video art at exhibitions, like a moth to flame. But I’ve rarely found video art that evokes emotions in me. Perhaps it’s because video art back then was dominated by conceptual minimalism. My mother taught multimedia at FAMU (Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), and she would bring me various videotapes, whether it was classical animation, experimental formats, or classic films. I grew up watching those, and then later on I was glued to satellite TV and MTV, which had short formats that inspired me.

You mentioned cinema and video, but I’d be interested to know how you perceive the element of performance in your work. Would you like to further explore this particular level?

As much as I enjoyed learning about performance in art history and the period when this kind of art was most active, I’m not particularly fond of it in galleries. I have a desire to reach audiences through video and through film techniques rather than on the spot. I want to have more directorial control over my works. I want to embrace the audience with image and sound, consciously play with them a little bit, sometimes confuse them, but at the same time give them a lot of things to think about and to feel – something that they will take away from the gallery.

Could you remind us of the connection between your graduate exhibition and the former Zenger Transformer Station, now the home of Kunsthalle Praha? What did this building mean to you back then? Why did you choose this space?

I knew that I needed a big space where viewers would be free to move around and go from video to video. I also knew that the space needed to be darkened. The transformer station was an abandoned building on a pretty prominent corner in Prague, but the structure was later home to a bar called Kokpit, and concerts and exhibitions were held here, and it had a lot of charm. FAMU used to screen films on the terrace here in the summer. The curator Viktor Čech also organised an exhibition here called Pohyb na místě [Movement in place], which included my video Little Dance, so I am actually exhibiting here for the third time now. By the way, that exhibition also included works by Daniela Baráčková, the architect of What We Should’ve Said but Didn’t. On the ground floor of the building there were these separate cubicles, each about a metre wide, which had probably housed some transformers. Viktor thought I could put my graduate exhibition there, one video in each cubicle. But then we went up to the attic, and I realised that it was the space I needed – perfect for nine projections. Viktor then helped me install everything, so I owe him a big thank you!

That video installation, entitled Kvíz (Quiz), explored stereotypes associated with female identity. Intimate relationships, romantic love, illusions, and drama are dominant themes in your work, which you approach from both a personal and a collective perspective. What interests you about these themes, and why do you feel the need to keep exploring them?

If I look way back into the past, I would say it began around the time my parents separated – even though it was very dignified and they remained friends all their lives and by doing so they actually showed us what it should look like when two emotionally intelligent people split up.

After that, we were a home of four women. We learnt early on to talk about what we were feeling, about our emotions connected with the breakup of our family. And then when I started having my own early romantic relationships, like in secondary school, I noticed that it was a little easier for me to talk naturally about what we were experiencing than it was for my peers. What entices me about all of this is the big range and combination of emotions and the desire for understanding.

Would you say it's because your mother encouraged a culture of communication and listening at home, and going to therapy was a normal way for you to deal with family issues? ​​​​

I think it was because our mom found enough strength and love inside herself not to close off that family path – so that we all continued to see each other, including my dad’s partner, for example, and then my mom even looked after our half-brother. It was selfless and admirable of her. She set a kind of internal compass for us as to what love should look and feel like.

I’ve always found the endings of relationships interesting because there’s an awful lot of ambivalent emotions, neither bad nor good. It’s actually both an ending and a beginning. There’s some pain, but there’s also a strange kind of pleasure or a feeling of being alive. Something kind of snaps or switches on – a certain melancholy. At the same time, anyone who has gone through this knows that it’s not that simple and that breakups are hard. They can cause lifelong trauma, but they can also challenge you to try to get something good out of them – to get over it somehow or to turn the experience into something more interesting, more powerful.

During my studies, I curated the exhibition Miluju tě, ale už mi neříkej, že mám velkou hlavu! [I love you, but stop telling me I have a big head!] at the AVU Gallery. It was a joint exhibition of more than twenty artists, who I asked to give me works they had created either when they were in love and under the influence of hormones or after they had broken up with someone and were filled with heartache and sadness. And the audience had the chance to observe whether these biochemical processes in our bodies improve the artworks or make them more superficial.

Can you describe the genesis of the exhibition What We Should’ve Said but Didn’t, which is in some way related to the project Terapie sdilenim [Sharing Therapy]¹?

My second most recent exhibition was aptly titled Personality Postponed, and it opened at the Artivist Lab two weeks before the national quarantine was imposed and then ended early due to Covid. It was thanks to this period and its impact on society as a whole, including my fellow actors, that I began to observe how strange a profession acting actually is. The lectures Sharing Therapy LIVE and RESET gave me a lot of food for thought about relationships. My friend and colleague who leads the lectures, couples therapist Honza Vojtko, said something from time to time that really stuck in my mind. And another impetus was my renting of Atelier 22. I thought, since I have a studio, I should create something.

I was also inspired by conversations with my partner. Our relationship has motivated me from the start; I care about him, and I didn’t want to repeat my past mistakes. I gradually came to understand just how much I could open up, how much I could talk about everything I felt. As I wandered down my mental avenues concerning the two of us, I thought: “If only you could feel this. If only you could see what I see, feel what I feel.” And because my partner is an actor and knows how to put himself in other people’s shoes, I had the idea to give him my words so that he could inhabit them. Then I suddenly started thinking of other actor couples and individuals who I subsequently approached for the project. Because for a long time now I’ve wanted to work with them in my videos, not just myself.

Were they easy to persuade, or was it hard to get them on board for the project?

I think they were a bit cautious. Relationships are a sensitive subject, and it’s a specific job. I stressed that the work should bring people together rather than divide them. That’s why I invited Honza Vojtko as an expert consultant – so that the actors could consult with him about their texts. Relationships are organic, and they change. One couple that I approached has since broken up. Each couple had a different dynamic. Some knew the concept beforehand, others were told during the preparations, some only found out the “secret” on set. So, each couple was an individual situation, which was also interesting for me to observe. I had a concept, but life itself turned up.

What have you learned about psychology and human relationships through your various activities and roles – as a mother, artist, actress, creator of Sharing Therapy, volunteer, and certainly others I may not be aware of?

Great question. I observe relationships only as an artist, not as a relationship expert, which gives me a lot of freedom in how I work with them.

Thanks to our lectures, I learnt a lot of things: how much our childhood defines us, how important it is to have time for myself, and the ability to ask myself openly why something is happening to me. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have parents who pass on or disclose the basics of emotional intelligence. And it’s probably a cultural issue as well. It’s also a relief to realise that there are some people we just don’t mesh with and that we should only surround ourselves with those we do.

Culture is one thing, and then there’s family. Even families within the same culture can be very different. I am reminded of the words of British author Alain de Botton, who explains in his book A Therapeutic Journey (2023) that as children we learn emotional language as perfectly as our mother tongue. At an early age, our emotional skills (fear, hate, trust, love, etc.) are influenced by the environment we are born into and how we are treated by our loved ones. As adults, we can try to unlearn or change this emotional language (e.g., trust more, fear less), which is similar to learning a new foreign language. But we will always have the “accent” of our native emotional language.

Yes, that checks out. I’ve also learnt how important it is for us not to hesitate to seek out mental health professionals if we feel like something is wrong or missing. I get the impression that going to therapy or seeking psychological help still comes with a bit of a stigma and a “label”. Many people still feel that going to therapy is shameful or that it’s a trend. If so, then I believe it’s one of the best trends we can have, because in order to heal as a society, we have to start with ourselves. And – unfortunately – thanks to Sharing Therapy, I’ve observed that intimate relationships are becoming shallower. The exhibition What We Should’ve Said but Didn’t subtly urges us to work consciously on our relationships. I feel like we don’t often see the people who “know how” to have relationships and succeed in them naturally. Or perhaps it’s that happiness occurs in private? I would like for the exhibition to improve people’s ability to sympathise, both with themselves and with others. Let’s keep multiple perspectives in mind, not just our own.

¹Terapie sdilenim [Sharing Therapy] originated and first appeared on Instagram in 2018, when Ester Geisler shared phrases people use when breaking up. These posts sparked a huge response and the hashtag #terapiesdilenim became a phenomenon.

Tomáš Pospiszyl

What We Should’ve Said but Didn’t

The basic layout of Ester Geislerová’s current exhibition can be summarised as follows: In the videos, we watch performers – mostly actors – interpreting their assigned texts in a situation reminiscent of a casting or a screen test. The participants are mostly unaware that the monologues relating to interpersonal cohabitation were written for them by their loved ones. The texts which they are performing and which seem like ordinary fictional scripts actually express what their partners or other family members want or need to hear from them. Other videos in the exhibition give the participants the opportunity to experience their innermost desires: the ideal outcome of relationship conflicts or their dream roles in theatre or film. While these may be beautiful, in reality they are bizarre, a bit ridiculous, or at first glance unsustainable in the long run. Thanks to the camera, human desires are laid out before us. More precisely, thanks to techniques we know from the worlds of film, theatre, or relationship therapy, we experience a simulation of the fulfilment of hidden desires.

As viewers, we work our way to a similar discovery gradually. Only in time do the questions that are fundamental to the project emerge before us: Who are the authors of the texts, and what is their relationship to the performers? Who creates the parameters of the filmed situation, and what do the participants know about it? And above all, what is the point of such a complicated – albeit fascinating for the audience – production?

The initially obscured narrative and the images go beyond their basic points and beauty, and their overlap is in fact conventional. Most of us believe that the aim of art does not lie solely in the creation of a neutral aesthetic, nor is it a mere (though important) trigger for straightforward emotions. As we know well from anthropology, for example, art is an active social agency. Events unfold through art that could not otherwise take place. It helps us learn about ourselves and the wider human community. In addition to this reflection, art is also an important instrument of change. And this is also the case with the exhibition What We Should’ve Said but Didn’t.

Its author, Ester Geislerová, seemingly fits the idea of a creator who fluidly engages in a number of disparate or even contradictory activities. Her career is split between art and acting. In recent years, she has also been giving public lectures on interpersonal relationships and communication, which she conducts in tandem with psychotherapist Jan Vojtko. Although the extensive and complex video installation at Kunsthalle Praha at first glance falls into the art category of Geislerová’s interests, it actually interconnects all of her fields of activity. The author applies her experience from the film industry and applied psychology in her artistic work, something she has been doing since her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Even then, her works made use of methods associated with filmmaking: hidden camera, dubbing, asynchronous sound, or appropriating the format of a television programme. These methods were not an autotelic post-production strategy per se, but rather a personal need – the artist’s attempt to understand her own interpersonal relationships or the gender roles she was expected to fulfil.

One of the main tools that Ester Geislerová works with in her new project, besides the possibilities of the moving image, is acting, which is something she has plenty of professional experience with. The acting profession consists in the performance of different characters, and it has its own special contradiction, which Denis Diderot captured in his eighteenth-century essay “Paradox of the Actor”. He discovered that a successful actor is not a person who performs real experience, but a person without emotions who can perfectly imitate external expressions of emotion. Diderot also notes another handicap of sensitive people: They are usually unable to react nimbly to arguments and situations in their lives that affect them too strongly. The right answers and reactions usually occur to them only after the fact. Diderot thus used the term esprit de l’escalier (wit of the staircase) to refer to the condition in which it is only after we leave a situation (and reach the bottom of the stairs) that it occurs to us what we should have said. Both of Diderot’s observations play an essential role in this exhibition. The authors of the individual texts have retrospectively formulated ideas that they failed to express in conflict situations. They then insert them into the mouths of their performers, who – with professional perfection but at the same time unaware of the true context – render them convincingly.

Compared to theatre acting, film acting is characterised by a number of specific features, which were outlined by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. While theatre actors communicate directly with the audience, when someone acts on camera, they aren’t addressing any particular person – not the audience and often not even their fellow acting partners. Film actors play for the camera, presenting their abilities for further processing and critical analysis, which only comes ex post.

We can consider Geislerová’s 2019 video Selftapes, which reflected on her many years of acting experience, as a precursor to her current project. For this work, she reached out to casting agencies and requested all available footage of her own on-camera auditions for roles she was ultimately not chosen for. She edited this footage and intercut it with shots of herself, as if she wanted to break free from the conventions of the acting industry.

In What We Should’ve Said but Didn’t Ester Geislerová uses film acting in a paradoxical way, deliberately turning it on its head. The texts interpreted by the actors here directly relate to specific people and to the performers themselves. The camera serves not as an instrument of depersonalisation but rather as a magnifying glass under which the writers, actors can examine the fulfilment of their very personal visions for the realisation of the given texts. The catharsis occurs – and we can find it captured in one of the videos – when the performer learns who wrote their monologue. It is the beginning of another process, one no longer documented, which will undoubtedly have an impact on the couples’ continued life together.

Constructed in this way, Ester Geislerová’s screen test resembles an original therapeutic method. At the same time, it remains linked to the technical possibilities of recording images and sound. The psychological possibilities of audiovisual technology were already apparent during the infancy of video art in the early 1970s. According to Rosalind Krauss, a portion of the artistic video production of that time can be labelled “the aesthetics of narcissism”. Indeed, the first video cameras and VCRs made it possible to create a closed television circuit, which artists used as a kind of electronic spring. They could gaze at themselves in it – like the mythical Narcissus – or even talk to themselves, and they used these electronic tools to explore their own subjectivity. We can encounter a similar psychologisation of the possibilities of the moving image in the present day as well.

In recent decades many artists have been inspired by the intersection between specific forms of theatre and therapy. Brazilian director Augusto Boal has been developing the concept of the Theatre of the Oppressed since the 1970s. It is based on the dramatisation and collaborative re-enactment of traumatic social problems, allowing those involved to analyse their situation and inspire change. It resembles the method known as constellation therapy, which can be applied to problems in work collectives or partner relationships. A distinctive tradition of psychodrama and improvised theatre can also be found in the Czech Republic in the practice of dialogical acting founded by Ivan Vyskočil. The discipline serves as a means of self-discovery, and it has even found its way into the curriculum of the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

From among the examples of artistic works straddling the boundary between film, theatre, and social therapy, let us mention just two – both of them nearly a quarter of a century old. The first is a work by German director Christoph Schlingensief, whose action Foreigners Out! Schlingensief’s Container in the year 2000 applied the format of an elimination competition in the style of Big Brother or American Idol to the situation of the incipient migration crisis in Europe. He cast real asylum seekers in Austria in his game, and they were meant to compete for residence permits. The rules of a reality TV show being applied to “real” reality sparked outrage among the audience. Schlingensief’s work demonstrated how ill-prepared Austrian society was for the challenges of globalisation. A year later, British artist Jeremy Deller staged the historical reconstruction The Battle of Orgreave, which was a re-enactment of the bloody clash between striking miners and the police that took place in 1984. Participants included not only people whose hobby is re-enacting historical battles from, for example, the times of the Napoleonic Wars but also strikers and police officers who personally took part in the event forty years ago. The re-enactment was patterned on documentary film, in which reconstructions of historical events are commonly used, but it also served a therapeutic function. It was an opportunity to bring together parties that had remained hostile, even after many years, and to allow them to view the traumatic event as finished history.

Ester Geislerová’s approach in What We Should’ve Said but Didn’t is more intimate but all the more intense. The audience of the exhibition uncovers different levels of the depicted relationships. These are sometimes chilling, sometimes humorous, or sometimes simply fascinating. We do not learn how the stories end. We can only guess what effect this “therapy” had on the lives of the couples involved. Did it help them to have better relationships? What the audience gets from the exhibition is, above all, an awareness of the porous but hopefully existent boundary between acting and reality, between art and life. The tension between the two gives rise to an energy that moves people’s lives forward.

Tomáš Pospiszyl

Jan Vojtko


“When I started working on the video installation What We Should’ve Said but Didn’t back in 2022, my working title was Bridges. For me, the symbol of a bridge aptly represents the path we set out on when we communicate. I am interested in the moment when and how two people stop understanding each other. What happens to our social skills when communication becomes too painful? Why do the words of others sound like they’re from another planet even though we’re speaking the same language? The aim of my work is to search together for a path to understanding and to give ourselves the courage to set off in different ways across the bridges that allow us to connect and sympathise with each other.”

Ester Geislerová

Have you ever noticed how bridges have completely lost their novelty?

Someone might appreciate the architectural appeal of a bridge, someone might admire the engineering skill that was used to connect two points, someone may incorporate a bridge into their composition when they want to take an interesting photograph.

But hand to heart, for many of us a bridge is… just a bridge. Something useful, something that serves, something that is here with us as it has been with human beings since the beginning of time, and something that people have been constantly improving on  their journey through the ages in order to make the trip as short as possible.

Without bridges, one must take a circuitous route, sometimes many days, weeks, months, or even years longer. This is fine as long as you want to walk. But as human beings we are keenly aware of the limited time allotted to us on the earth. That is why we try to aim ourselves somewhere, to achieve something, to discover something, to learn something about ourselves… and most importantly, to get somewhere. To reach our destination.

Even though that destination is different for each of us.

The symbolism of the bridge has accompanied humankind from our first steps on this earth. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that the bridge is seen as an archetype in Jungian psychology.

First developed by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, the concept of archetypes (from the Greek archetypos, first model, impression) is a fundamental idea in psychology and anthropology, although it is also frequently borrowed by almost all of the humanities. According to Jung, archetypes are universal, inherited, and collective symbols and images that make up the collective unconscious of humanity. Archetypes represent basic patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour that are present in all cultures and may be manifested in myths, religion, dreams, and art.

Jung – and many psychologists after him – argued that archetypes are innate and are a part of the human psychic heritage. These universal symbols tend to appear in dreams and fantasies and can have a profound effect on human thought and behaviour. Jung identified several major archetypes, such as the shadow, the anima/animus, the wise old man, the mother, the hero, and others.

Archetypes can appear in different forms and can be interpreted differently depending on individual and cultural contexts. In psychotherapy (e.g., in dream analysis), the concept of archetypes plays an important role in understanding the internal processes and conflicts in a person’s psyche. Comprehending these archetypes – and sometimes just a touch or a cursory glimpse is enough – can help us to understand ourselves and find a balance in our thoughts and feelings.

It allows us to grow as people.

But this requires one thing – being able to descend into ourselves. Being able to notice not only the things around us but also what’s inside of us.

This can sometimes be tricky. We understand – we get that a bridge is built from one side of the river to the other. We can also comprehend the metaphor – building bridges between nations, between people, between two peoples.

But how do I “build a bridge” within me? What should I build a bridge between? Between the outer world and my inner world? What is that? How is it done? And why is it important?

Let’s see… Close your eyes and try asking yourself: “How sturdy is my bridge between the outside world, other people, and myself?”

What emotions does that idea evoke in me? What thoughts? What fantasies?

Anger? Regret? Disgust? Nothing?

In Jungian psychology, the bridge is often seen as a symbolic image with deep meaning, representing a connection between two worlds or states of consciousness.

A bridge can symbolise a connection between different aspects of our personality or between different levels of consciousness and unconsciousness. Jung saw the process of individuation, by which an individual achieves a wholeness of personality, as the connection of different parts of the psyche.

A bridge often represents a transition from one state or phase of life to another. It can symbolise the transition between childhood and adulthood, between waking and dreaming, or between different stages of life.

In mythology and religion, the bridge often appears as a symbol of the connection between the earthly realm and the supernatural domain.

Crossing a bridge can symbolise transformation or a process of growth and self-realisation. It can be a signal to overcome a certain obstacle or challenge in order to reach the next level of consciousness or personal growth.

A bridge can symbolise all of these things in our inner unconscious world.

It speaks to us, provokes us, forces us to find our unique meaning within ourselves.

How many bridges have you built in your life?

How many have you torn down?

How many have you repaired?

How many have you never completed?

How many bridges have remained entirely in your imagination?

The first bridges were probably built in prehistoric times. The exact date of construction of the first bridge is not known because no written records of these structures exist.

Ancient civilisations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Greece built bridges in order to cross rivers and connect cities and regions. These ancient bridges were usually made of stone, wood, or other local materials and often served not only as means of spanning obstacles but also as symbols of power and technological progress.

The oldest bridge still in existence is located in present-day Tello, roughly halfway between Baghdad and Basra. It was built in the third millennium BCE. It is a testament to the construction of the ancient city of Girsu and evidence of the development of urban centres in Mesopotamia.

Technology and engineering are constantly improving, allowing for the construction of more complex and durable bridges. From ancient times to the Middle Ages and the modern era, thousands of bridges of different types and materials have been built around the world.

Jan Vojtko