PRINT April 1974

Joan Jonas: Making the Image Visible

THE RECENT, UNTITLED VIDEO/PERFORMANCE PIECE by Joan Jonas is more striking for its video than for its performance elements. Theatrically, the video imagery dominates the spectacle insofar as the live performance is most interesting in terms of the way it is reconstituted on video. This enables Jonas to focus on what might be thought of as anesthetic interrogation of the conditions of representation in video. Her video imagery is predominantly representational, but her treatment of it bypasses a concern with the referential or representational significance of the imagery in favor of a preoccupation with the representational power or scope of that imagery. That is, Jonas seems less concerned with what the imagery represents and more involved with how much it represents.

The piece begins with the audience assembled in an area defined by the presence of three television monitors and a camera. Two of the monitors face each other on a slightly diagonal north-south axis. Initially, these monitors determine the lateral limit of the audience. Spectators, seated on cushions, cluster around these monitors. Both the spectators’ distance from the monitor, and the spectators’ posture are highly evocative of everyday, home viewing of television. The third monitor is in front of the audience on the set of the performance. A camera, placed in front of the performance area, keeps the audience back from this third monitor, assuring that each spectator will have at least two, and in some cases three, distinct vantage points on the video imagery.

The first section of the piece is all video. The monitors click on. The image is black-and-white; a group of people are surveying land. The images are representational, but there is no narrative, or apparent continuity from image to image. The dialogue adds little that is not obvious from the picture.

The fact that there are three monitors unavoidably invites the spectators to scan from one monitor to the next in order to reassure themselves that each monitor has the same image. That it turns out that the monitors are synchronized, however, does not abate the motivation to scan from monitor to monitor because in the process of checking the synchronization of the monitors one is struck by the apparent degree of abstraction in the monitors farthest from the viewer.

Because the content of Jonas’ imagery seems to have neither narrative nor allegorical significance, attention is directed to the image itself. In this respect, the function of the three monitors is to give the audience several perspectives on the same image. The front monitor, in this context, is important for the way it contrasts with the monitors on the sides. The image on this monitor is recognizable, but at the same time the extreme degree of schematization of information involved in the black-and-white video transmission is placed in relief by the distance of the monitor. This distance predisposes one to look “at” the front monitor rather than “into” it, making the physical structure of the image as much a matter of attention as the content of the image.

What is striking about the physical structure of the video image is its minimalization of information. One proceeds from the farthest monitor to the nearest scrutinizing the image for detail. That the subject matter of the piece is land surveying makes the illusion of depth an important issue. There are many compositions employing strongly articulated diagonals. Strings lead from surveying markers in the foreground to the background. Yet one is still struck by the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to judge distances between objects. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate objects on the landscape. Distance cues, like texture and tonality, and details are diminished in the black-and-white video process. Jonas takes this fact as the esthetic ground for her piece using the disparity between natural vision and black-and-white video recording as a means to promote a variety of perceptual discoveries on the part of the audience. In the opening sequence of land surveying, she succeeds in establishing the central theme of her piece as the active exploration of the limitations of the video image.

Images of land surveying give way to an image of a woman running in place. Her head is cut off by the top of the frame. As she runs, one of her knee-socks falls down, and she moves out of the frame. She is succeeded by a wooden beam which swings into view. The camera pans to the right on the motion of the beam revealing Jonas and a woman. These two move behind the wooden beam making the forward/backward orientation of objects the salient feature of the composition. The camera holds the women and the beam in medium close-up. The area behind them is uniformly white and presumably solid. But it is impossible to get an idea of the distance between the foreground objects and the background. This spatial ambiguity is emphasized when Jonas walks behind her partner, and stands on her left side. Whereas the land surveying images had proposed the problem of distance in the video image in terms of long shots, this second sequence states it in terms of closer shots.

The third sequence of images that follows on the monitors involves special effects. The basic, initial motif of the mixing here is a loft, different views of which are superimposed over each other. Unfortunately, this sequence has nowhere near the conceptual clarity of the preceding sections. Here and there interesting images evolve that suggest that different layers of superimpositions are in the same spatial continuum. Yet this general display of video pyrotechnics seems, on the whole, uninventive, perhaps because the possibilities of special effects are so well known through television advertising.

This unhappy lull in the piece is not effectively broken until the end of the section that is exclusively video. In this last sequence, an image of two women appears. One, Joan Jonas, is wearing a kimono. She sits in the foreground while the other woman sits in the background. The camera switches to a closer shot of Jonas. As she caresses herself the camera zooms back. Jonas stands up and walks around a screen in the back of the set, and the woman in the background walks forward to Jonas’ chair. Jonas reenters, and walks toward the woman seated in the foreground. The camera zooms in. The sequence ends with a tight shot of a postcard held over the eyes of the seated woman. The basic strategy of this section involves the play between tight framing and medium shots. Since the sequence is nonnarrative, the alternation of the frame by zooms does not function ostensively; it merely includes or excludes objects and performers. Here, Jonas juxtaposes the bracketing aspect of the frame with the screen, behind which she passes, identifying the two, in order to define the frame functionally as a visual barrier.

The tight shot of the woman with the postcard over her eyes ends the exclusively video segment of the piece. The side monitors switch off, and attention shifts to the monitor in the front. This monitor is on the lefthand side of the performance area. On the right is a school desk. Between the desk and the monitor, but farther back, is a white cardboard cone that is about three feet high. The image on the monitor is that of the performance area.

The structure of the situation clearly dictates comparison between one’s natural perception and the video recording. The discovery of the differences between the two supplies a powerful motive force and source of pleasure. For instance, the lighting of the performance area is somewhat behind the desk and the cone. Consequently, the white cone appears as a dark silhouette on the monitor as does the desk. Through the recognition of such relations, the basic material conditions of the video image become occasions for an absorbing play of attention that is primed by an intellectual curiosity in isolating and investigating the limitations of the video image.

As if to assert the disparity between the video image and natural perception even more strongly, the video image goes negative when Jonas walks into the performance area and sits at the school desk. Jonas takes a rabbit out of the desk. Then she toots on the cardboard cone. For the most part, these actions are unrecognizable on the monitor. One moves from the live action to the monitor on an insistent arc of attention searching for momentary glimmers of correspondence between the two.

Shortly following this, Jonas begins to work with a series of images that dramatically elaborate themes of the earlier all video section of the piece. There is a screen behind the cardboard cone. Jonas begins to raise and lower it. On the monitor, the white cone appears black. At points, one can read the image of the cardboard cone as a shape drawn on the screen that Jonas is lowering. The depth between the cone and the screen is incalculable. The theme of loss of detail is also reexplored when Jonas enters the performance area completely wrapped in a blanket. On the monitor, the blanket is a dark abstract shape. No differentiation of tonality or texture of the blanket is registered so that Jonas is an unidentifiable black figure on the monitor.

Jonas’ trump card in this piece is the audience’s familiarity with television. That familiarity includes the recognition that the television image is mediated by directors, often for ideologic al purposes. But such familiarity is still naive in that it grants or assumes that the video image is the visual equivalent of what it records. The fact that the image is mediated by a specific technology rarely becomes the focus of one’s attention. The image is used as a proxy for the event it records. Consequently, the active presence of video technologies is bracketed from perception. Jonas has organized a situation where the use value of the image is undercut by the copresence of the event it records. As a result, Jonas is able to remove the brackets from the physical structure of the image in a way that proceeds through alienation and reflection to a rediscovery of video. This is not to suggest that her work is didactic. Rather, its sources of gratification are intensely perceptual, grounded in seeing afresh a familiar object of everyday life.

A good example of the way that Jonas subverts one’s ordinary experience of the video image occurs in a sequence where Jonas, snapping a leather belt in time with a recording of “Sans Souci,” walks toward the audience. On the monitor, there is a chiaroscuro effect to the lighting that might be characterized as moody. The video image might easily be read as some expensive patio where yet another sultry star emotes world weariness. This familiar image, however, when compared to its natural source loses its affective connotations, and becomes the locus of an intellectual evaluation of its technique.

Unfortunately, the “Sans Souci” number is followed by a routine involving Jonas’ improvised responses to letters written to her by her friends. In a way, this routine seems to attempt to reverse the general format of the piece in an effort to give live performance precedence over its video representation. The mild humor of the performance, here, seems to be a play for undivided attention. This move, however, is highly unsuccessful because it involves a palpable lowering of perceptual tension. There are moments of interest in this segment. But predictably these involve reactivating interest in the monitor.

For instance, when Jonas steps slightly outside of camera range and doesn’t appear on the monitor, one moves from the monitor to the camera, and inspects the camera’s angle of incidence. In this way, the camera suddenly is made an active focus of attention, thus rounding out the reflexive structure of the piece. Drawing attention to the angle of incidence of the camera also evokes a metaphoric correspondence which suggests the origin of the cone-shaped forms in the performance area.

Despite such moments of clarity, the improvisations diffuse the intensity of the rest of the piece. Luckily, it does not end here. Rather, Jonas concludes with a bravura image that sums up the more interesting concerns of the piece. She sets two beams swinging, one behind the other, and she begins to rotate a huge, metal rim that had been concealed behind a curtain throughout the performance. The beams swing slowly as the metal rim turns, and a recording of calliope music supplies a musical cadence that emphasizes the rhythmic movement of the objects. On the screen of the monitor, it is difficult to judge the distance between these objects. Intermittently, it is possible to read the heavy objects as flat patterns thus underscoring the two-dimensionality of the video image.

On the whole, this untitled piece is satisfying. Jonas is fairly consistent in structuring perceptually provocative situations. In this respect, she is expertly supported by Babette Mangolte, her camerawoman, who has a sensitive and intelligent command of the aims of the piece. It is impossible to overlook the rough spots in the work. Nevertheless, one must also admire the economy of the piece which succeeds in making the representational video image interesting by finding a context that makes the image itself “visible.”

Noël Carroll