In Austin, Texas, Cathy Byrd meets seminal video and performance artist Joan Jonas about how context affects each presentation of The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things, a project commissioned by Dia Beacon in 2004. Joan talks about the evolution of her transmedia work since the 1960s and the inspiration she gets from working with jazz improvisor Jason Moran. Joan’s collaborator in The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2005-2006), and Reading Dante (2008), Jason will be featured in his own Fresh Art episode on June 11, 2012. Joan Jonas and Jason Moran perform together this September, in Kassel, Germany, during documenta(13).
Sound Editor: Leo Madriz | Images: known credits noted | Music: Jason Moran, “He Takes His Coat and Leaves” Feature photo from Joan Jonas performance at Dia:Beacon, 2004
CATHY BYRD: Today, I’m in Austin, Texas, with Joan Jonas, a phenomenal artist that I’ve know about for years and never had the chance to meet. She is a seminal video and performance artist who has worked in the transmedia process since the 1970s. In her work, she combines video, movement, music, sculpture and spoken word to create non-linear narrative compositions. She has participated in documenta at least four times. More recently, she presented Reading Dante, at the Venice Biennale in 2009. This month, the University of Texas invited her to present The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, a performance that was first commissioned by Dia:Beacon in 2004, which leads to a lot of questions for me. I read that the piece evokes a snake dance ritual. I know that ritual is very important in your work, but what about that particular dance resonated with you?
JOAN JONAS: It’s a Hopi snake dance which I saw in the sixties in Arizona. It was an amazing experience but I never wanted to do anything with it. I didn’t want to intrude upon the Native American culture because of the way we’ve treated them in this country. Also, it’s sacred for them. I don’t quote anything from that experience. There are no visual images that evoke the Hopi. For years, it was a memory, and it was inspiring because I’ve always been interested in ritual; the ritual of other cultures and the ritual in our own culture. The history of art in the Western world includes ritual; art begins with ritual.I came across this book by Aby Warburg, a German art historian, who had visited the Southwest in the late part of the nineteenth century. He went to visit the Pueblo Indians and saw many ceremonies, and he wrote about the snake dance even though he didn’t see that particular ceremony. I found this essay he had written about his experience when he was a patient at a sanitarium in Switzerland. He had written the piece in order to demonstrate that he had recovered from his nervous breakdown. I was very inspired and moved by this piece that he wrote, so I decided to revisit this experience through his writing.
CB: In your practice, you consistently connect the physical with the conceptual. From the beginning, you’ve taken full advantage of all the new media, props, or technology that was available. Yet, at the same time, you have maintained this really strong affinity for drawing. I think oftentimes that’s left behind.
JJ: I was a sculptor before I stepped into performance in the late sixties. And the one discipline I took with me, besides continuing to think of it as sculpture—making three-dimensional moving events—was the practice of drawing. I’m very interested and I love to draw, and so I try to incorporate drawing in almost all my performances and video pieces. I also make drawings that are independent of my performances. Each time I do a new work, I think of another way to include drawing or painting. In this piece, I make a painting of a snake, which has nothing to do with the snake dance, but it’s my way of referencing that. The content of each work inspires different images that I can draw and integrate into the visual, all-over picture of the piece.
CB: It must affect the palette that you work with as well.
JJ: Colors creep in very minimally. But of course my video is color, not black and white. In the seventies, it was all black and white because that’s what the technology was. So, the color in my work is really in the video. Any other color in the piece is very minimal. For instance, my piece The Juniper Tree. I worked with fairytales at one point, and there are certain colors in fairytales—red and white, green and yellow. So, of course, I bring those colors.
CB: I was looking at the installation today and realizing how much you stage your works and how working on a stage would be interesting for you. But, at the same time, for your early works you were on the street or in your studio.
JJ: Yes, I was all over. I’m interested in doing my work in different spaces. In the early days, I never worked in the theater, for instance. It was always in a gymnasium or outside or in a strange space, like a loft, because that was what was available and what was interesting at the time. This piece was originally commissioned by Dia:Beacon as a site-specific piece for a beautiful, nineteenth- century factory space. It’s this enormously huge basement space with these long corridors of columns. For me, it represented the sanitarium that Warburg was in.
I spend a lot of time on my work and the pieces have a real—well, they exist. So, I want to do them again. This is the fourth time we have done it again. But there just aren’t many spaces like the original basement space. The only space that was comparable slightly was in Brazil in the
Oscar Niemeyer building. But here, Stuttgart, we did it on a stage. It had to be reconfigured.
CB: Has the work evolved in a sense because of that?
JJ: Well, no. I think it didn’t evolve. It changed a little bit. The work itself, it is all the same movements, the same videos, the same props. But because of the change of space, the performance itself has to, in a way, become more intense in order to express the same message. The space itself at Dia:Beacon was a large part of the piece. It was beautiful. So I’ve noticed in this latest version, and also in Stuttgart two years ago, that our performances take on another intensity in these kinds of spaces.
CB: You work with a jazz innovator, Jason Moran. He is with you every time you perform this piece. I’m really interested in the improvisational aspect of how you work together as you are presenting it.
JJ: Jason is an improviser, and he worked with me in the beginning to work out this piece. It was built on improvisation, because that is the way one begins. You play with ideas and then you develop them. We worked together for six weeks, actually. I brought already edited backdrops and the script, but I didn’t have the movements. So we worked on the movements. We went scene by scene. Jason would play something and if I loved it, or if I liked it, or if I found it interesting at all, we’d work with that. If not, then we’d go on to something else. He’s very inventive. So, Jason developed the musical score in that way. We also worked together—I work with sound. He’s wonderful because he’s very open about improvising in that sense. It’s always more or less the same, and his score always has the same motifs for each part. But he embellishes and brings in new sounds and experiments with the piano. Sometimes what he’s doing sounds really electronic. Every time, especially in this version in Austin, he’s bringing something new to it, but I’m always trying to do the same thing. We all move in relation to hearing his music. We’re not dancing to his music, but we’re moving in relation. It’s inspiring for us.
CB: From here, do you have other presentations of this piece?
JJ: We’re trying to work on going to Los Angeles.
CB: Are there other projects you are working on right now?
JJ: I’m working on a project for dOCUMENTA. It’s an installation and there will be a performance in September, again with Jason. He didn’t do the music for the installation, he doesn’t play live. But we are doing one where he is playing live on September 13, 14, and 15. It’s called Reanimation. It’ll have a different name by the time we do it in dOCUMENTA, but it’s a very different kind of piece.
CB: Do you want to talk about the concept?
JJ: It’s inspired by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, in particular a book he wrote called Under the Glacier. It’s about natural phenomena and nature. It’s also basically a solo piece, so it’s a much smaller scale. Jason and I did a performance of this at MIT last fall, and then dOCUMENTA heard about it and invited us up. I’m very glad to be working with him again.