William E. Jones

VW (VeneKlasen/Werner)

“I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, the rupture of this bloated organism known as a film.” These forceful words emanated from loudspeakers in a monotone computer voice in the video installation Discrepancy, 2009–, the centerpiece of William E. Jones’s first solo show in Berlin. The text is not by Jones, however, but by Isidore Isou, the founding father of Lettrism, the radical literary and artistic movement now mainly remembered as a precursor to Situationism. And yet Isou’s manifesto-like call, taken from the film Traité de bave et d’éternité (Treatise on Venom and Eternity, 1951), to break apart the unity of image and sound in the name of a “cinéma discrepant” here served as godfather to Jones’s potentially infinite work. Jones is quite serious about carrying out Isou’s call for a nuclear fission of the medium of film, and in a parallel projection of the (to date) six parts of his work—all of identical length and with Isou’s manifesto as voice-over—he presents archival footage that is not only seemingly but actually and quite deliberately incoherent, putting to the test the relationship between word and image, again and again, a bit differently each time. This starts on the far right screen with footage from a press conference. It appears as if the words of Isou’s manifesto are coming from the lips of the official spokesman. The process ends on the left with the abstract, pixelated patterns that arise when one rewinds a Mini-DV cassette. Between these two extremes of the arbitrary, resolutely nonnarrative coupling of image and sound, one sees all manner of footage from old propaganda films, especially from Vietnam and China (with the material often showing signs of damage), as well as a projection that with its many back-to-back leader sequence countdowns looks like a self-reflexive loop. On the one hand, the piece displays a formal language that has practically become canonical in video art, while on the other it refers directly to Isou’s manifesto, which states a preference for the marginalia and by-products of cinematic production.

Beyond the obvious issues of the correlation between image and sound, at stake here is the use of the archive, as well as broader reflections on the conceptual relationship between mechanically executed randomness and conscious, subjective choice. Something similar holds true for Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, Automatically Illustrated, 2009, Jones’s attempt (in the second room of the show) to supplement Mallarm.’s poem “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”—which, with its graphic-pictorial understanding of script and its compositional use of chance, anticipated many of the strategies of the twentieth-century avant-gardes—with line-by-line illustrations provided by Google Image Search. Jones uses a similar technique in the three photographic tableaux—Public Address, 2009; Men with Cameras, 2009; Photo Opportunities, 2009—for which he collected photographs found in the United States National Archives using simple searches: images of photographers, press conferences, and so-called photo ops. Jones’s strategy is both convincing and effective. Yet its very rigor becomes problematic: His conceptual strategy takes on—at least in part—the form of a tautological repetition of his historical forerunners, Isou and Mallarmé. One feels that Jones needs to reformulate his approach to the crucial question of historical discrepancy as rigorously as he has every other element of his artistic approach.

Dominikus Müller

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.