Reflections on Projections: Interview with Joan Jonas
Interview by Steve Miller
Steve Miller: Each of Musée’s issues has a theme and this one is “risk.” My understanding is that your work is refreshingly outside the commercial world that dominates the contemporary conversation. Do you consider the path you took a risk?
Joan Jonas: Well, it was a plunge into the unknown and I do believe that you have to take risks. I think many artists take risks, and some don't, I suppose, but I always believe that you should be continually on the edge and never at rest and never content with what you've done so that making the work is always challenging in some way.
Steve: I read that in Jones Beach in 1970, you had the audience view the piece from a quarter mile away. That does seem riskier than containing the audience in a traditional white box or auditorium. Were you interested in the distance affecting audience attention, or did you feel the audience concentrated more because they were so far away?
Joan: I wanted to work outdoors and I think at that time I wanted to get away from these “white boxes,” the gallery space or the indoor space. Outdoors was an unexplored territory for performance, and I was primarily interested in the way distance affects the audience's perception of movement, prop, and sound. It flattened space and created a sound delay. The Jones Beach piece was then reconfigured for New York and it was called Delay Delay. You see an action and then you hear the sound depending on how far away you are or how thick the atmosphere is. The audience viewed Delay Delay from the roof of a building on Greenwich Street.
Steve: You went to Japan in 1970 and you were really quick to notice the Sony Porto Pack on that trip. Film was always a recording option for you. What made you choose video over film and continue that choice today?
Joan: Well, film cameras were more complex than the video cameras at that time and the films I made were always shot by a filmmaker, not myself directly. For me, the video camera was just a natural place to go. And so, at that time, those early Porto Pack cameras were extremely simple devices and they required very simple lighting. For instance, by turning the light meter the picture becomes beautifully washed out and another effect was made by pointing the camera into the projection of itself, causing feedback, which I used for The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things in 2005 at the DIA Beacon. I asked “What are the peculiarities of video?” This video system gave artists a way to make what I called “little films” at the time in their studios with very simple technology. But they were videos.
Steve: So, your video Vertical Roll is widely talked about. What was the conception behind getting that image to repeat, and then finally presenting the head of a woman?
Joan: To set the vertical roll going all you had to do was to turn a little knob on the TV set. A black bar continuously passing from the top of the screen to the bottom carried the image. It was a device particular to video and it referred to frames of a film visibly rolling. It’s recorded off a TV set by a second video camera because you can't make this effect in camera. The camera person recorded the scene, while feeding the images to the monitor. It was made in Venice, California in Robert Irwin's recently vacated studio and the process involved rehearsing the whole piece over and over. There are no edits. It's one continuous shot. One reason my face comes in between the camera and the monitor at the very end was to reveal the structure and the space.
Steve: The duration of a performance creates a sacred space such as the kind of space and time you get when you observed the Hopi snake dance, for example. You've been asked the shaman question. I think Joseph Beuys with his coyote exploits this kind of shamanistic activity and authority that I think he's looking to project. You've resisted this role, which I can understand. Why do you think you get this association?
Joan: When I first began to shift to performance from sculpture I continued my research in shamanism, magic, and ritual. In studying art history I explored how art begins in ritual and myth. I studied early Greek and Chinese art as well as the art of other cultures. I thought of my first performances as ritual but my ritual in my contemporary context. One reason I resist the role is because I think it would be pretentious to say that I was a shaman because I'm not. It's in there, it's in the process. On the other hand, I could say that I love working outside with the spirits of nature. And I include animals like my dogs with their special spirits as animal helpers. Now, I'm working with oceans and fish. It is a new experience to perform with life in the sea as represented in the video projections. I refer to images and movements that might be called miraculous, like the movement of bees or the choreography of the octopus. One could see the spiritual in this but I don't pursue that purposely. It is simply there in nature.
Steve: I know you've been influenced by poets such as H.D., Hilda Doolittle, and you mentioned Artaud in other interviews. What was Artaud's effect on you?
Joan: When I went to Japan I was very affected by the Noh drama. Irish poets were drawn to the Noh because of certain similarities to Irish poetry and mythology such as the presence of ghosts, and the love of nature. I mention Artaud as a reference to someone else who was drawn to other cultures and rituals and, so, to inspire myself.
Steve: You wonder why bees construct living spaces that reflect the structure of their eyes, and glaciers and volcanoes inspire your travels. The sea is a marvel. Did you think of this? Or, any thoughts you might want to add on our world and our relationship to nature?
Joan: What's going on in the world today is horrifying. It's very sad. Every day while working with the oceans, I read something tragic about something that's happened to the dolphins or the fact that fish are losing their sense of smell. I try not to focus on those sad things in my work; I have since 2014 focused on the miraculous aspects, how creatures function; their beauty or, for instance, how bees make honey. How did that happen and how can they make these hives shaped of units similar to the shapes in the construction of their eyes? Nobody has answered that question. This is amazing. I refer to fish that are disappearing. But I am not explicit. It's just that I think that children should know about the existence of fantastic animals before they go away. And we should know them as well and understand how close we are to all these creatures. You know, we're made of the same elements.
This interview has been condensed and edited. To read the full interview with Joan Jonas, read our latest issue RISK and learn more about her artwork.