Joan Jonas

Joan Jonas, Reanimation, 2014. Performance view, HangarBicocca, Milan.

Born in New York in 1936, Joan Jonas is a pioneer of video and performance art, known for her continuous and seamless merging of cutting-edge technology with historic, ancient, and often ineffable source material. Her latest work, They Come to Us without a Word, 2015, will debut at the US pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. The piece, which Jonas discusses here, incorporates videos, drawings, objects, and sound and extends her investigation into the writings of Halldór Laxness. For more, check out’s video of excerpts from this interview. The fifty-sixth edition of the Venice Biennale runs from May 9 to November 22, 2015.

I MOVED BACK TO NEW YORK in the mid-1960s to pursue an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. I was married at the time, and we had an apartment on the Upper East Side. My ex-husband was a friend of Henry Geldzahler’s, so we were connected in an indirect way to all the downtown events. For instance, I first heard La Monte Young in those years, which had a deep impression on me. Not long after, I decided to switch from sculpture to performance, having been inspired by works I’d seen by Living Theater, Lucinda Childs, and Claes Oldenburg, among others. I also began taking workshops from dancers—Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton—because I wanted to learn how to become a performer and to move in front of an audience. The switch didn’t seem like a big change because, like other artists in that era, I became interested in combining different aspects of the time-based arts—for me, dance and film—to create my own language. It was also important to me to reference literature and poetry. It still is.

I wanted to have my performances last, and that’s why I started making videos. From the beginning I worked with video and I thought of the medium in terms of what is peculiar to it, as compared with film. My early work had an immediate and positive response. Although the audiences were small, word spread very quickly.

Frankly, I never liked the term performance art, as it limits people. It’s like a lot of women don’t want to say their work is “feminist” even though it might be—my first few works were certainly affected by the women’s movement. I think that one’s work continues to be affected and one continues to be concerned with such issues. You don’t forget them and you don’t leave them out; it’s just that they are no longer focused on in a particular way.

At certain times I recycle some of my early videos. For instance, in Reanimation, 2014, I use Disturbances, 1974, which was shot in a swimming pool, though in Reanimation it is more about representing a watery world. While working on my new piece for Venice, which deals with ghost stories that come out of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—an area I’ve visited and lived in since the ’70s—I suddenly saw that I’ve made visual references to ghostlike images for years without thinking of them as ghosts.

From the beginning I was interested in the people and landscape of Nova Scotia. I’ve always been attracted to mythology and folktales, and when we first went there I loved that the older people still believed in ghosts and told stories about magical things that happened in nature. I was very drawn to that culture. Also the fiddle music from there is beautiful. For the Venice piece, nearly all the background footage is from Cape Breton, which I shot over various years. It interests me to mix different video technologies, to compare the way things looked then with how they might look now.

I made a video last summer with my dog wearing a GoPro in Cape Breton and mixed it with footage from two other video cameras that I had. It interested me to see that footage against the other format. In the ’90s I shot videos that I never used, of young women performing in the landscape of Nova Scotia. I do a lot of that kind of work when I’m there, and I don’t necessarily use it. But in a strange way it fit perfectly into this current project, and so I like very much seeing this square format all of a sudden appear in the present rectangular format. I find it very interesting to see those technologies intercut with one another. I think it’s part of the process.

I’ll go to Canada again in August. It will be the first summer in which I won’t have an immediate deadline of new work. I’ve gone through many stages of processing for this Venice project—doubting, being excited when it was accepted, and then being scared that I couldn’t more or less come up to the task of being in that spotlight, which is what it is. It is quite complex to be representing a nation. It’s the most focused upon show in my experience. But now that my work is almost ready in the pavilion, I am simply happy to be here, without thinking on what it means to represent the United States. Of course I am excited to be selected; it is a great privilege, and I made the piece with this place in the back of my mind. It is wonderful to be in the context of the Biennale with so many good artists past and present. I most enjoy seeing new work by others, being able to do a new piece myself, and to have people see it all.