BY Alvin Curran in Interviews | 16 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

Out of Space

Joan Jonas talks about the evolution of her work and the importance of myth, music and history to her thinking

BY Alvin Curran in Interviews | 16 JUN 09

Born in 1936 in New York, USA, Joan Jonas began working in performance art in the mid-1960s. She first incorporated a live video camera and monitor into her now legendary 1972 performance, Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy. Since then Jonas has continued to explore the dislocation of physical space, myth, music, archetypes, history and literature, drawing on influences from H.D. to Dante, often collaborating with a wide range of composers, musicians and performers. Jonas continues to find new levels of meaning in the themes and ideas that have fuelled her art for over 40 years. Over the last 12 months she has staged performances at the Biennale of Sydney, Australia, and the Yokohama Triennale in Japan. She spoke to Alvin Curran in Venice, Italy, where she will be exhibiting in this year’s Biennale. 

Alvin Curran  You and I are both part of the experimental and utopian dreams of the 1960s. What are your reflections on this time? Do you see any similar tendencies in today’s young people?

Joan Jonas  In the mid-1960s I switched from sculpture to performance. I was inspired by the happenings of people like Claes Oldenburg and the dances of Yvonne Rainer and others. I went to Greece for a year and lived in a tiny village in Crete, where I observed certain rituals of that culture. These threads run through my work: the inspiration of the 1960s and the connection to other cultures. Back then we didn’t study beforehand what we do: we invented it and did it. But now students learn these things in school and it could be a handicap for them because everything becomes academic. Historically I think we are in a period of mannerism and fragmented memory – a time which is also totally fascinating.

AC  Were you caught up in an awareness of the revolutionary potential that was going on during the 1960s?

JJ  Yes. When I began my own work in the late ’60s and ’70s I was on the edge of something but nobody was looking at ancient history; they were looking at each other and into the future. But I don’t feel that applies to the present.

The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, 2004-5, performance documentation, Dia:Beacon, New York, 2005. Courtesy: Dia:Beacon, New York; photograph: Paula Court

AC  I don’t either, unfortunately. But I’ll come back to the question of politics later – it’s a thread that can be seen in your work from the beginning. I’m interested in your understanding of space as an all-purpose term that often denotes the physical and metaphysical theatres in which we artists work.

JJ  I was interested in how painters deal with the illusion of space and figures in space. In the history of art, sculpture is a three-dimensional form that you walk around but, in the 1960s, space itself became another material. In my work I have to find a space that already exists or make a space in order to transform my everyday being into a performing being. Also, sound changes depending on the space, and space, in a very interesting way, alters and generates sound. Finally, the overall metaphysical or mental space that we all have is important to me and with the advent of the computer, we’re all more aware of our mental space and how our brains are now digitally represented. But nature is my spiritual space and has been since childhood.

AC  In your work, you become the object, gesture or even the colour or pattern that you often bring together simultaneously. In your recent pieces you often make a drawing with chalk on the end of a stick, roll up the paper and then throw yourself almost violently on it and emit blood curdling yells.

JJ  I don’t want my work to be about making a precious object, I want the drawing to be part of the action and then thrown away. In the case of the crumpling of the paper, I don’t know why it occurred to me, but I had to get the paper out of the way.

AC  It makes a great sound.

JJ  It’s a wonderful sound, but when I first did it some friends were horrified; but I like those moments when the audience might be disturbed because I’m destroying something that they think is precious.

AC  But you’re also transforming it.

JJ  Yes. Like the scream, these are non-verbal things. In Reading Dante, I scream but I howled in the early pieces. It’s a way of expressing something that’s inexpressible in words: anguish. In Lines In The Sand [from 2002, based on two works by the writer H.D.] it’s a scream about the world situation. In The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things [2004] it’s a kind of ritualistic operatic with anguish. In my work around Dante, he wanders, so the scream represents different things. If I could sing, I would sing, but I can’t. But I can use my voice in certain ways; the scream is primeval.

AC  The sound in your work is musical, including sonic elements such as wheeling wooden objects across the floor, or pushing painted or video screens. With the cones you make a trumpet-like sound. These are so stunning in their simplicity and spontaneity that they often upstage the music. I find it curious when you say you wished you’d studied an instrument. I think you have a musical voice.

JJ  Well, thank you Alvin. When I work with a composer I like to make it a collaboration. Music written by other people inspires me to move and make my own kind of dance and movement. My early work had fragments of music, without much pre-recorded music but more and more of my pieces now are filled with music and sound.

The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, 2004-5, performance documentation, Dia:Beacon, New York, 2005. Courtesy: Dia:Beacon, New York; photograph: Paula Court

AC  How did you become the artist, Joan Jonas?

JJ  When I was a child I attended a progressive school and every morning they said, ‘what do you want to do today?’ And I replied, ‘I want to paint’. Later, at Mount Holyoke, I started making sculpture and had a teacher named Henry Rox who encouraged me. For some women it was very difficult to choose such a career, but my father gave me the courage to say I want to be an artist. For women then it was not the same as it is now. There were none teaching in art schools; now there are many. I was inspired by women writers; they were my role models. There were female artists, but not many.

AC  If you could narrow it down, what is it you think artists do?

JJ  They translate.

AC Which relates, of course, to the linking of things. Your work is close to the romantic idea of the gesamtkuntswerk. You are a voracious assemblage-ist of light, colour, electricity, sounds, words, signs, symbols, dreams and oracles. How did this all-encompassing project become so natural for you?

JJ  When I shifted from sculpture to this activity I do now, I made a statement that I didn’t see a difference between forms, which were, of course, being broken down at the time by other artists too. We were all living in close proximity and these ideas were circulating. It’s lucky I started out in a minimalist atmosphere because even though I broke away from it, it influenced me and I learnt about form from it. I remember somebody saying at school there are no rules until you break them; I have never forgotten that. \

AC  Does it matter to you how critics define your work or is ambiguity a definition in itself?

JJ  Theatre is a very general word that describes so many things. I’ve always said that one thing you have to be willing to do as an artist, like a comedian, is to make a fool of yourself. When you take chances you can discover things. Art audiences are very tolerant and don’t always expect something highly polished. Lately I’ve been thinking I’d like to return to a more precarious approach. 

AC  Do you subscribe to the idea that an artist only makes one work in their lifetime?

JJ  Threads run through an artist’s work their entire life; I’m still working on ideas that I began exploring in the 1960s or ’70s and combining them with new ways of structuring, interpreting and representing content and storytelling. Basically my work is a way of storytelling. One of my inspirations was Matisse saying that he always looked at his early work to find the thread that ran through it when he began something new. 

AC  You mentioned a need to become, once again, more spontaneous. Where is this need coming from?

JJ  The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things [2004–5] was a work I put everything I know into, with all my ongoing devices. After that piece it was hard to go on to something new. I loved to participate in that performance. That’s why I stayed with it for a while. I think older artists feel more constrained because people expect things of you. I have made many mistakes in my life, but now I don’t have much time left, I don’t want to make too many more. But on the other hand I think it’s a very healthy thing to do. Anything could fail anywhere along the way. I’m struggling now with how I might reinvent myself; how to find something that interests me.

AC  The inspiration comes by thinking up things that are going to excite both you and your public.

JJ  Yes. Infernal Paradise [2008] was partly inspired when I went to Mexico last year. The young artist Carlos Amorales (whose wife, Galia Eibenschutz, is in the piece) told me about a modernist, overgrown monument around a lava field in Mexico City. It became a location for me; I also used images of objects I’d videoed a few years before in the anthropological museum there.

AC  Is Dante also a new discovery for you?

JJ  I had never read Dante before I started doing this project, so it’s definitely a new world for me but not an easy one; I had to approach him in the most eccentric way possible because he’s such an icon.

AC  Will the work around Dante you’re working on for the Venice Biennale be a new one?

JJ  Versions were shown last year at the Sydney Biennale, Australia and in Yokohama Triennial in Japan, and also in London. Each time I’ve added or subtracted elements. Dante separated heaven, purgatory and hell but I don’t believe in such a separation. One aspect, though, that interested me is the fact that Dante was the first writer to write using vernacular Italian so I want to record lots of different people reading Dante.

AC  So it’s just a reading?

The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, 2004-5, performance documentation, Dia:Beacon, New York, 2005. Courtesy: Dia:Beacon, New York; photograph: Paula Court

JJ  No, it refers to reading and thinking in the present. What interests me is to hear words in relation to images – one person reads a text and then you’ll hear it again read by someone else in a different context. The content is altered. It’s hard to understand it at first. Of course though people in Italy all know it by heart.

AC You’ll be reading in Italian?

JJ No, there’s English and Italian, but mostly English.

AC  What intrigues me in your production is trying to imagine the visual elements.

JJ  I did a workshop in Como two years ago with 23 young artists. I had the students do a sound piece for my performance that we developed together. This included their projected shadows making sounds with all kinds of pots and pans in this fantastic church along with sequences shot in Nova Scotia reflected in a mirror. I found a collection of little houses from a model village, and I recorded children moving them around continuously reading against one of the texts. This became part of Infernal Paradise.

AC  I’m very interested in your compositional process.

JJ  I began the Dante piece before I began the Dante piece; in other words, I made the shadow piece before I decided to work with the text. And then when I decided to work with the text, the shadow piece was appropriate. I sit in front of the computer with a Final Cut timeline and arrange things. This technology is perfect for people like me. In the early 1970s, the minute I got a video camera I realised I could construct layers of live performance in relation to media in the physical space – including a detail of the live action in the closed circuit television. Now I work and edit on the computer.

AC  In an interview with Robert Ayers you said you were trying to build a poetic, non-linear narrative to say ‘certain things’. What things?

JJ  I represent thoughts. Sometimes I don’t like to talk about what images mean in my work, because it might spoil it, but I will try in relation to Dante. For instance, I told the children to move the houses around as if they were trying to make a little village. I filmed it and didn’t think of a meaning at all. Later, I thought about it in relation to the housing crisis. But the meaning shifts continuously.

AC  That’s amazing! I thought you were thinking about it in terms of rearranging the order of the universe.

JJ  I included a well-known passage from Dante alongside the image of the children. It concerns a hungry man in prison with his children and something horrifying is implied. Everybody will have a different way of seeing that, but it interested me to make a very ambiguous connection. Similarly, in The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, I used a collection of images and writings compiled by Aby Warburg for a talk he gave in 1923, when he was recovering from a nervous breakdown in the Kreuzlingen sanatorium in Switzerland. He told of his observations of the ritual dances of the Hopi Indians, My representation has the non-linear structure of a dream; it’s how Warburg inspired me. I saw the Hopi snake dance in the 1960s, and it stayed with me. I could never refer to this amazing experience in a realistic form of course, but Warburg gave me a way of connecting to it without invading its sacredness. I feel close to his ideas of history.

AC  So the text moves in and out of its own metaphors all the time, and is transformed live, as it were, in theatrical time. But there is a hint at the very end, where through text, you seem to want to make a political statement, whether it be about suffering, homelessness or imprisonment. But I also get the impression that you’re appealing for a return to, or a consideration of, the sanctity and spirituality of other times and people in comparison to our own.

JJ  I think that’s what I responded to in Warburg’s writing; he talks about how technology has invaded the space of the spirit. But I try to avoid nostalgia in all my pieces, because that’s a dangerous place. I know that one can’t go back, but it’s a way of referencing the difficulty of the present.

AC  Rudy Fuchs describes your manner of working as one that is forever experimental.  

JJ  It’s all trial and error. Everybody sees something different, and many see similar things. Although it is difficult I consider my work objectively. My way of working as a performer is to continuously step in and out of the space of performance. I try to see what the audience will see, but I can’t see myself performing. Although I studied art for many years, I am untrained in movement, speech and choreography and so I didn’t come to performance with a set of rules. This is an advantage because you can really jump in at the deep end without knowing and without being afraid. I had nothing to lose. I also choose other untrained performers to work with. In the 1960s, many dancers were working with the idea of everyday movement being of interest. Steve Paxton, for example, was doing pieces with people walking across the room and sitting down in chairs. John Cage had a lot to do with it. People wanted to get rid of the stylized gestures that were becoming academic.

Variations on a Scene, 1990, performance documentation, Wave Hill, New York, music by Alvin Curran. Courtesy: the artist

AC  Do you ever think about the contribution that your work has made to four decades of art history?

JJ  It’s hard to answer that question. The other day I saw a piece by a young artist who was a student of mine at UCLA, and it was a beautiful film. She told me she was thinking of me when she was making it, but I wasn’t thinking of me when I was watching it. But I’m incredibly grateful; it’s wonderful at this time in my life to have younger people like me and respect me. It gives me a lot of energy and strength and inspiration. That’s very important, to have that audience.

AC  Jonathan Dronsfield wrote about your work: ‘Are the places Jonas creates impenetrable because, as she maintains, they are essentially private? Jonas has often said that she makes the space hers, makes it into a private place and then invites the viewer, the public, into that private place.’ What do you think of this?

JJ  In my early work it seemed I was exposing my inner thoughts to an audience, or finding ways of telling the audience my inner visions, not in words but in images. But art is like cooking: you collect, you chop up, you cook and then you serve. I love to cook and I love to feed people. Before I started getting into my art I cooked every night and never cooked the same dish twice. I also have collected things since I was a child. It’s a continuation of a surrealist tradition of finding things and putting them together and making something new from them.

As for my private world being impenetrable – I don’t think of it being so private. The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, for instance, was very much a spectacular gesture on a large scale. But when I showed that as an installation in New York I simultaneously made two new video works. One, in the sculptural series ‘My New Theater VI’, was a remake of Good Night Good Morning from 1976 in which I repeat ‘good morning and good night’ to the camera. A third piece was me talking to the camera about my mother’s death and how I felt about it, alongside stones and little objects that I found. I did that because I wanted to contrast a spectacular piece with something small and intimate. What is private?

AC  But even in these big pieces you never lose sight of your love of simplicity, humility and the indescribable. For example when you did Lines in the Sand critics were wracking their brains trying to figure out what you were trying to do – a voodoo act or chasing away some weird dinosaurs or what? I just saw those things for what they were; two people with four sticks doing inexplicable gestures that moved the air and that made a little sound.

JJ  Exactly. I’m sure people have always done that, by the way. And then they became meaningful in rituals.

AC  Absolutely. Here’s another quote from Dronsfield: ‘With the emphasis on myth and ritual it is tempting to view Jonas’ art as a resistance towards reason as if she were bemoaning our transition from mythos to logos, from a mythological world view to a scientific one.’ What do you think of that?

JJ  I think that we exist simultaneously in both worlds. But there’s also form, structure and technology existing side by side. What interests me is to work with technology and to use it for one’s own devices.

AC  I personally confront this every day because I make acoustic and electronic music and know the problems in both. I know that, for example, a drum is a reliable instrument whereas a computer is not.

JJ  Yes, there you are.

AC  Speaking of music, our own collaboration took place in 1990 at Wave Hill where we came together in an active and fruitful collaboration. We did further variations in Vassivière in France and later in Berlin. My memories of working with you and of being in three places for extended periods of time are very warm and inspirational. I remember on one occasion Kiki Smith and her mother sitting by a pool; Kiki was doing drawings on the ground and I put loudspeakers in the bushes and in a second floor window of the house. I also remember participating with you in creating a piece of music across a field with wooden blocks, which has inspired me to this day.

JJ  I remember that. Wave Hill is a beautiful place on the Hudson River. We worked with Jorge Zontal who played a golf-playing priest, and we chose beautiful fragmentary texts by Eduardo Galliano from his book Memories of Fire. I wanted to evoke a sense of that landscape being invaded by Europeans. You were also a character in the work because you walked around and performed. I liked having the composer be a living part of the piece. We used both pre-recorded sounds and live music and it took place under a tree, by the edge of reflecting pool, on a huge lawn, and in two other locations. I asked you to make a construction of objects for making sounds and so you built a frame with hanging percussive instruments that became part of the set. You pushed a lawnmower at one point. Where was it you played the Shofa [a horn used for Jewish religious purposes] in the distance?

AC  I think that was in Vassivière and I was actually in a rowboat.

JJ  There was another performer in that one, a German actress, Geno Lechner, who played her violin. I had a microphone I yelled into. It was a special moment. It was wonderful working with you!

AC  Yes! For me it is a constant joy to return to active participation. I was particularly impressed with your recent work with Jason Moran’s solo piano work where the music changes radically from moment to moment, almost in a classic and emotional way. I was touched somehow that you found someone who was able to devote that amount of time to, again, be on the scene to rehearse for long periods of time and have the patience to change things as the rehearsals developed and as you demanded.

JJ As I demanded!

AC  Well, you do.

Lines in the Sand, Version II (detail), 2002-3, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica

JJ I know. Jason was great, that was serendipity. It was the right moment in his life to do something like that; now I don’t think he’d have the time. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy hearing the music being developed. He said that he didn’t know how I did it but sometimes older people have more energy than younger people. It’s because we’ve not got much time left. 

AC  Your storyboard is incredibly detailed and you also write copious notes about what the pianist should play. At what stage do you write these notes?

JJ After. With each scene Jason would try several different things and I’d say I like it or I don’t like it. And then Jason would look at the video and be inspired by it or respond to it. He was so open to the collaborative nature of it.

AC  Absolutely. He’s a good improviser too.

JJ  We did a session with toys and the piano; it was better than it is in the video. I wish I was a jazz musician so I could play with them all the time.

AC  You are a jazz musician, Joan, you just don’t know it. Was he bothered by the fact that he had to repeat this every night?

JJ  He never said he was. But I think when he’s tired it’s not easy. It takes a huge amount of energy.

AC  And he was always playing at very high energy even if he was just playing one note at a time.

JJ He told me that he’d never played for such a long period ever because he doesn’t do that. He does have a piano in his house but he doesn’t practise. When he has a gig he goes and does it and he’s a fantastic piano player. I love working with other people and being able to put something together. That’s why it’s so hard for me to let go of being in certain spaces and moments in time, like working in the Dia Beacon space. That basement is a powerful experience. It has 20 foot ceilings with huge columns.

AC  Now, one question to close on. Have you got anything else on the burner you haven’t mentioned?

JJ  Well, there’s one that I haven’t even started yet. MIT is having their 200th anniversary so I’m doing something for that. It’s going back to Iceland, that’s all I can say.

AC  Iceland with no banking system.

JJ  With no ice. I can’t stand thinking about the poor polar bears.

AC  What would your dream piece be?

JJ  Well, I would love to have an ongoing performance in a beautiful space. What’s most difficult about what I do now is the putting together, the putting up, the taking down, the travel. Also, it’s tough at my age; even for younger performers it’s not easy either. It would be great if I could just go in and flick a switch and invite an audience.

Alvin Curran is an American composer, writer, teacher and sound and radio artist whose work over 40 years has been performed in countless natural and man-made theatres including: the Alte Oper Frankfurt, lakes, caves, castles, woods, parks, a walk-in gardening shed (that included the recorded laughter of John Cage), and the River Thames, London (a concert of ship horns and a floating orchestra). He has collaborated with Joan Jonas, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Margaret Jenkins, Yoshiko Chuma, Achim Freyer Ensemble, and Wanda Golonka and the Ensemble Modern.