PRINT Summer 2015


Still from Joan Jonas’s Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, 1972, video, black-and-white, sound, 17 minutes 24 seconds. Photo: Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

“ORGANIC HONEY” “Organic Honey” would be a cool drag name today. And in the early 1970s, Joan Jonas’s performance alias must have been gratifying to her peers—an inspired jab at countercultural pretensions and gender roles, a sardonic and playful recasting of the narcissistic hippie chick as Porta-Pak Conceptualist. Jonas’s description of Organic Honey as an “electronic erotic seductress” captures the character’s archetypal and shape-shifting qualities. She’s stylized, campy, mythical, and mediated. In conceiving her, Jonas was influenced by the conventionalized movements and expressions of Noh theater, as well as by the work of postmodern choreographers associated with Judson Dance Theater and the Grand Union, such as Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. Their interest in improvisation and quotidian movement, untrained dancers, and the use of everyday objects as props freed Jonas to make posing, getting dressed, drawing, tracing, and operating electronics the stuff of her mysterious performances. As Organic Honey, she investigated feminine presence, artifice, and identity while testing the formal properties of video technology, putting live feeds to particularly brilliant use. She discovered that a closed-circuit setup has the potential to dramatize that quintessentially feminine performance: self-surveillance.

Jonas’s groundbreaking 1972 video Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy—an autonomous work related to a performance of the same name, also from that year—begins with the artist’s transformation into the electronic seductress. Facing us, singing to herself, and assessing her image in an off-camera monitor, she dons Organic Honey’s signature plastic mask, with its beatific half-smile, and adjusts her hair around the elastic strap. She carefully puts on a showgirl’s feathered headpiece, switches a light off, and poses briefly. She completes her look with a sequined bed jacket before holding up a jagged piece of mirror. She’s looking at herself, checking out her immovable doll face from various angles, but she’s also testing the mirror’s possibilities. When she tilts her head back it reflects the ceiling, becoming a dark hole in the shot.

Mirrors are a recurring element in Jonas’s work, dating from her first (pre-video) performances. When she uses them to unsettle an audience with its own reflection, to fragment or crop figures, throw light, create spatial illusions, or inspect her body inch by inch, she’s also, of course, exploiting the mirror’s cultural potency, its status as a sign. Though narcissism’s namesake is a mythological antihero who personifies male vanity, inertia, and self-destruction, the trait has come to be associated with women. Jonas confronts the gendered character flaw head-on—performing it, breaking it down into actions and rituals. Unlike Narcissus, who becomes paralyzed at the sight of his image in the reflecting pool (and then drowns), Organic Honey is restless and methodical.

After tilting the mirror shard at the ceiling, she turns her back to the camera and holds it in front of her so that we can see what she sees: her masked face. Is this what Jonas means by “visual telepathy”—is it when the performer and the audience share access to a closed circuit? With mirrors and monitors she offers an alternative to filmic voyeurism, but she also confronts us with its intensification. You feel like a voyeur when you watch Organic Honey, in danger of drowning with her. But as the tape proceeds, you feel more and more like you’re watching a private ceremony of formal experimentation, not solipsistic self-regard.

An atmosphere of unease is established by Jonas’s increasingly frenetic activities and heightened by the intermittent sounding of an electric buzzer. At one point, she fills the frame with a box, roughly extracts a collection of household objects—a hand mirror, a doll, a coin purse, a roll of tape—and hurriedly traces them on newsprint with a felt-tip marker, producing a scribbly AbEx bird’s nest. It’s the buildup to the emotional climax of the piece’s nonnarrative arc. Presently, we see Jonas again; her real, unmasked face appears in a mirror. Standing over the reflective surface, she strikes, hammering at her own image. Her grimaces of effort and anticipation as she cracks the glass are the only true facial expressions in the piece. Though for the remainder of the tape Jonas toggles back and forth between herself and Organic Honey, she remains as dispassionate and inscrutable as her masked alter ego.

Despite its myriad and ingenious distancing strategies, from stylizations of gesture to televisual abstraction, and its lack of anything resembling autobiography, Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy feels intensely personal—an effect of Jonas’s inimitable, magical sensibility and the bold positioning of her own body at the center of her project. There’s an enduring confrontational energy in Organic Honey’s sly humor and seductive deconstructions, and an uncanny prescience in her investigations of self-representation and display, narcissism, surveillance, and gender performance. Clairvoyant as well as telepathic, Jonas anticipated the contemporary ubiquity of the live feed, our endless opportunities to monitor and broadcast ourselves.

Johanna Fateman is a musician, a writer, and an owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is working on a book about Andrea Dworkin.