Frequently using her masked self as medium—both a material and an agent of transmission between worlds—Joan Jonas brings forth hints of catastrophic natural forces along with startling and often chaotic tensions, whether between nations or within an individual psyche. “The performer,” she has famously said, “sees herself as a medium: information passes through.”1
A key figure on the international circuit for five decades, Jonas (b. 1936, New York) is an artist well known for her pioneering work in video and performance. Beginning this month, she represents the United States at the 56th Venice Biennale with a multi-media exhibition, “They Come to Us without a Word,” whose video components feature music composed and played by jazz virtuoso Jason Moran. This is their fourth collaboration. The two will also offer a live performance together in Venice this July. “They Come to Us without a Word” was curated by Paul C. Ha and Ute Meta Bauer.
Over the years, Jonas has drawn from fairy tales, medieval sources (Icelandic sagas, Irish poetry, Dante’s Divine Comedy) and epic poetry, a well as the writings and life stories of art historian Aby Warburg and Imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). “They Come to Us without a Word,” with its allusive narrative and imagery, was prompted in part by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness’s visionary novel Under the Glacier (1968) together with diverse fragments culled from ghost stories and scientific writings on natural phenomena. Certain images, objects and ideas were derived from the artist’s visits to Japan—one of them last year, when she studied traditional kite-making and used the form to create brightly painted paper works. Jonas has also been inspired by the music, storytelling and rugged natural environment of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where she has spent summers for decades.
In 1970 she acquired a Sony Portapak in Japan. Her first video, Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972), gave rise later that year to a performance of the same title. Such cross-fertilization has continued in many works, including Vertical Roll (video) and Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll (performance), both 1972, where at various moments she donned a mask, a feathered headdress, platform shoes and other costume items in order to explore the illusions of constructed identity, particularly female identity. (Organic Honey is her collective title for all related projects involving the recurring persona of that name.) Jonas has since worked frequently with both live-feed and prerecorded video shown on monitors and as large-scale projections.
Jonas’s works typically encompass objects, found and created images, texts, sounds and sampled music. Thematically and formally, she has recurrently offered a double: for Organic Honey, a masked alter ego along with a videographer who shadowed her during performances, and, in recent years, a younger performer echoing her movements. The artist has long included her dogs in performances, evoking the “animal helper” of myth. Mining her own catalogue, she frequently repurposes works, for example treating her 1970 performance Mirror Check, in which she scrutinized her nude body by circling it with a hand-mirror, as the prelude to Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll. From the outset, Jonas has seen herself as a visual artist creating pictorial yet volumetric spaces (based on her art history and sculpture studies) in which to move instinctively (she is not a trained dancer or actor), prompted by the “aura,” as she has said, perceived in objects or by passages of music or text.
Organic Honey marked Jonas’s decisive break with the minimalistic repetition of actions (in dance), forms (in sculpture) or phrases (in music and poetry) favored by her contemporaries in the downtown New York art scene. With Organic Honey, she added back much that had previously been pared away—costume, a theatrical persona, myth, magic and ritual, all reimagined for her artistic community.
The following interview, condensed and edited from material for Rima Yamazaki’s film Joan Jonas: Reanimation (2013), was conducted in Jonas’s New York studio not long after the artist’s work Reanimation premiered at Documenta 13 (2012). Begun by Jonas in 2010, the project culminated not only in her performance with Moran during the final weekend of the show in Kassel but also in Reanimation (In a Meadow), her multi-media installation in a pre-fab house in the city’s Karlsaue Park. Reanimation contains some of the seeds of “They Come to Us without a Word,” a work that addresses Jonas’s ongoing concerns with, she says, “landscape and natural phenomena” and “the ocean as a poetic, totemic and natural entity, as a life source and home to a universe of beings.”
Jonas has long been an influential teacher—in Amsterdam, Stuttgart and Cambridge, Mass. (where she is now professor emerita at MIT). In 2014 she joined the gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, and her 2014-15 international schedule includes solo shows in Italy, Sweden and Norway.2 Jonas recently participated in the Taipei Biennial 2014 and performed Reanimation with Moran at HangarBicocca, Milan; the Musée du Louvre, Paris; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She is currently the subject of a series of events, “Joan Jonas is on our mind,” at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (through June 30).
Professional life has been no less hectic for Moran (b. 1975, Houston), a 2010 MacArthur fellow who last year was named artistic director for jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., after serving as the Center’s artistic advisor for jazz since November 2011. His collaboration with Theaster Gates, Looks of a Lot, premiered in Chicago in May 2014. In February 2014, Moran’s Holed Up, responding to the Rauschenberg works in the Menil Collection, made its debut in Houston. He recently joined New York’s Luhring Augustine gallery, where he is now slated to have a solo show in 2016.
In addition to collaborating with Jonas, Moran is also preparing works of his own for Venice. Two installations with recorded sound from an ongoing series titled “Staged” will be on view in the Arsenale. Each replicates the stage area of a historic New York jazz venue—the Savoy Ballroom or the Three Deuces. On May 6, Moran and his group The Bandwagon will perform on the Three Deuces stage, and the band will return about five times during the run of the exhibition. In the Biennale’s Arena section, Moran and his wife, noted mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, will offer a project reinterpreting prison work songs from the American South. They will appear on May 6; for the duration of the Biennale the songs will be performed three times a week by Italian singers.
The 10-year working relationship between Jonas and Moran has evolved into a close friendship. (Moran and his wife named their twin sons, now seven years old, Malcolm and Jonas.) Their collaboration has both confirmed and extended Jonas’s reach as a sound-maker, especially her investigation of the percussive use of found objects and toys. Her Venice videos will also incorporate children telling ghost stories. Moran, meanwhile, has realized his desire to perform in a visual artist’s project as well as to create his own installations.
Moran’s album All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller was nominated for a Grammy in 2015, and the film Selma, for which he wrote the score, was an Oscar nominee. Invited by director Ava DuVernay, who he says “didn’t want a score that oversold the movie,” he produced a soundtrack that has echoes of his work with Jonas. “Even the first cut in the film is from The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things , a reimagining of its final song. Working with Joan all these years prepped me for playing the narrative in Selma.”
JOAN SIMON Would you like to introduce Ozu, who is here with us?
JOAN JONAS Ozu is my dog. He’s going to be a performer. He hasn’t started yet.3
SIMON In the tradition of . . .
JONAS Zina and Sappho. I began to draw Sappho’s image again and again in Organic Honey and other pieces. Then Zina performed in almost everything I did for a while.
SIMON How did you and Jason meet?
JONAS I was beginning to work on The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things and I was looking for a composer to work with. My friend Adam Pendleton, who was showing in the same gallery I was at the time, said to me, “I’ve been listening to a very interesting composer, Jason Moran.” Then I opened up the newspaper later that day and there it was: he was performing that night at Lincoln Center. So we got tickets, Adam and I and Olivier [Belot, director, Galerie Yvon Lambert], and went to hear him. I liked his work very much, of course. I called Jason up the next morning. He was in the phone book. I introduced myself and said, “Would you like to work together on a piece?”
JASON MORAN They say the things that you are looking for are looking for you, and I think I was looking for this kind of opportunity but wasn’t sure where it was going to come from. Then magically my phone rings and on the other end is Joan. I was not aware of who Joan Jonas was. But I liked the things she said—“this performance, it’s happening at Dia:Beacon.” I had been wondering how my music could get out of concert halls and clubs and festivals, and then Joan offered this portal into another world. That summer we began working on The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. It was a grueling summer, but amazing.
SIMON How did you start?
MORAN We went up there to visit the Dia:Beacon space—vast, with a concrete floor and columns like a parking garage, in this old factory. Joan started to talk about screens she wanted to use and other ideas. I was thinking, Where is the piano going to be and how is it going to sound in here?
JONAS Then I sent you the text, didn’t I? We didn’t see each other again until mid-August or something. It was amazing. I’d never worked with anyone like that before. We went up there every weekday for six weeks and basically worked out the soundtrack. I brought the projected video images that were finished. We started from the beginning of the piece. We had the text. We’d look at an image and Jason would play and I would move, and so we worked together.
MORAN She had also sent me Folkways recordings of old Americana music. Plus, I now had a new outlet, which was to follow how she moved and then to think about text as well. It was a new way to work and to make sound, and then to try to charge her as I played, too.
SIMON Between the two of you there was a process of call and response, and you even played a duet together, Joan using various objects, Jason on the piano.
JONAS And Jason used some objects with the piano.
MORAN I had a Pellegrino bottle that I placed inside the piano and that in a couple of performances broke inside the instrument, causing minor tragedies. I would put paper inside the piano. I had these enormous cowbells that I also put inside the piano and banged at some point. The piano became the drum and the cowbells the drumsticks. It’s what we call prepared piano technique—something John Cage really perfected. I thought about using that in The Shape, the Scent, since it has just solo piano the entire time. How could I make that feel more like an orchestra, rather than just someone playing piano in this great space? Now the piano becomes a sound machine rather than simply a piano. In what we call a duet, Joan has an array of instruments—Kerbangers, bird calls . . .
JONAS . . . bells . . .
MORAN . . . an array of things, some of them things you see in a kitchen. In Reanimation there’s a great moment where Joan has some paper and she makes this movement, this sound—it’s like a snare drum but not like any snare drum I’ve ever heard before.
SIMON After The Shape, the Scent you worked together on Reading Dante . How different was that process?
JONAS For Reading Dante I asked Jason to give me some music.
MORAN Joan also sent me the Divine Comedy, which I reread because I hadn’t read it since high school. I started to write pieces on the computer—not on a piano but at a synthesizer—and I e-mailed Joan the songs. It was our first electronic collaboration. We put together a mix of songs for the background score.
SIMON When did you begin to compose electronic music?
MORAN It was something I’d thought about for a long time, but as a musician I generally performed acoustically, even though I had other leanings. So I decided to switch the ratio this time and really focus on electronic sounds.
SIMON Joan, what did you do with the electronic files?
JONAS I chose the ones I liked the best and placed them in different parts of the piece with appropriate images. I don’t think I mixed too many sounds, but there was a little bit of mixing. The sound is there pretty much the way he sent it to me. I basically arranged the music.
SIMON The Reanimation project started up in 2010?
JONAS For me. And then Jason came in a year later, in 2011, up at MIT.
SIMON What was that MIT presentation like? What did you do?
JONAS We had about a day to rehearse—for Jason to see the footage and to see what he was going to do.
MORAN Mostly we talked about the instrument. MIT has this old Bösendorfer, an Austrian piano, a concert grand, an enormous instrument that really went untouched unless a student passed by and played it under the stairs. Suddenly, I thought, Oh wow, here’s this instrument that has extra notes at the bottom of the keyboard and that allows for other sounds. In the first version of Reanimation, some of the things that I did, like the low rumble in the Iceland scene, came from being able to make the sound on that piano. I then replicated it for the performance at Documenta. It was that piano that we quickly put a form around at MIT—and there was tension about how that would work.
JONAS I think the music evolved quite a bit after that in quite a fantastic way.
SIMON Is the music scored? Is it written out?
MORAN For most of Joan’s pieces, I write a score in the form of directions for myself, and then I write one little phrase of music. It’s more like, OK, when you hear this sentence, shift. Or when you see this image, the woman under the water [Disturbances, 1974], shift—or begin transitioning. It’s really like a cue sheet, because so much of what I do is also based on when she moves in the space. It’s a loose score, a text-driven score. As an improviser, my nature is to take a theme and constantly rework it. And that’s the kind of approach we use when we work together, too.
SIMON How is the duet in Reanimation, where you also use toys and found objects, different from the duet in The Shape, the Scent?
JONAS From my point of view, it is much more dynamic and developed because I performed with Jason’s group at the Whitney [during the 2012 Biennial], and that was a thrill. You don’t know you can do it until you do it. That was a step along the way toward Reanimation. The whole of Reanimation is a duet—we are interacting all the time. Much more than before.
SIMON Tell me, Jason, about the part in Reanimation where Joan creates her sound from paper.
MORAN I’ve played with a lot of really great drummers, some of the best who have ever touched the instrument, and there’s a thing that some of them do: they know how to make the snare drum shout—like [Moran makes a sharp snare drum sound]. It really breaks the air, shatters it. People are taken aback in their seats, and that is how this paper comes across.
SIMON What happened that night at the Whitney?
MORAN My wife and I were invited to be part of the
2012 Whitney Biennial. We made a five-day program called “Bleed,” which involved about 25 different performances [by Simone Leigh, Maurice Berger, Liz Magic Laser, Lorraine O’Grady, Kara Walker and others]. Joan brought videos. It was unbelievable. We performed together for 40 minutes, and Joan was fearless. She also read a beautiful poem.
SIMON What poem?
JONAS “Broken Symmetry,” one of the texts [written as a list of performance exercises for students] that will be included in the book [In the Shadow a Shadow: The Work of Joan Jonas].4
MORAN Broken symmetry—the idea is totally perfect for how my group functions. The poem states basically how we play. Her line “Give a friend a sentence” is like, Give somebody a phrase of music and see what they make of it. I hadn’t thought of it as a step in making Reanimation, but it really was a big moment for us.
SIMON Was The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things your first collaboration with a visual artist?
MORAN I think publicly, yes. I had been meeting lots of artists, and following people’s work for years, just as a fan. This was the first time I was invited in. And it changed things. There was a lot of curiosity about how I was recontextualizing my “jazz persona.”
SIMON How would you characterize that “jazz persona”?
MORAN As one attached to history. I’m a bit of a traditionalist, but I kind of mangle things as I perform in a contemporary way. I’ve been on a major record label, Blue Note, for 14, 15 years now. So I’m thought to be in the mainstream of the progressive jazz world. I feel like I’m a torchbearer for jazz, fostering its tradition but its future, too. I’m a person who likes to list names of influential musicians.
SIMON Could you talk about the work you’ve done
with artists—Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson and others—after you began collaborating with Joan?
MORAN I wrote scores for two of Kara Walker’s video pieces and one of Glenn Ligon’s. Glenn also worked with me on my multi-medium Thelonius Monk piece [In My Mind, 2007]; he made a painting for me that we used in the performance. Alicia and I worked with Adam Pendleton on his performance called The Revival . I’ve also worked with Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson. We have a curiosity about each other’s processes, and that’s as intriguing to me as working with other musicians.
SIMON What haven’t you done in your collaborations that you would like to do in the future?
MORAN I’d like to be a performer.
JONAS You mean you’d like to get up and in there?
MORAN Oh man, yeah. That’s what I’d like to do. Beyond applying what I’ve learned about movement, I’d also like a nice paper hat.5
SIMON Joan, do you have any questions for Jason?
JONAS Well, I wonder. . . . Before we met, you had done something at the Walker with Adrian Piper’s art. You didn’t work directly with her, but you worked with her material [The Mythic Being; I/You (Her), 1974)], right?
MORAN I am a huge fan of Adrian Piper, how she works, how she reveals her process in the work, how she writes about it. The Walker Art Center asked me some years ago, during their expansion, to write a work based on their collection, and I singled out Adrian Piper as my focus [in Milestone, 2005]. I was transfixed by the idea that it’s OK to reveal the process. So how can I begin to show my process as a musician? To show that I feel OK that this is in a state of flux? My mind was already being piqued by people like Piper, Bruce Nauman and tons of other figures. Joan opened the door.
1. Joan Jonas in Douglas Crimp, ed., Joan Jonas: Scripts and Descriptions 1968-1982, Berkeley, University Art Museum, University of California, in association with the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands, 1983, p. 139.
2. “Joan Jonas: Light Time Tales,” HangarBicocca, Milan, Oct. 2, 2014-Feb. 1, 2015, with a smaller version at the Malmö Konsthall, Sweden, Sept. 26, 2015-Jan. 10, 2016; “Joan Jonas: Glacier,” Kunsthall Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway, Feb, 7–June 7, 2015.
3. Ozu made his featured debut in Jonas’s video Beautiful Dog (2014).
4. By Joan Jonas and Joan Simon, New York, Gregory R. Miller & Co., in association with Hatje Cantz and HangarBicocca, 2015.
5. In 2013, Moran wrote the score for and appeared in Lorna Simpson’s video installation Chess, his first time as a physical actor in the work of a visual artist in addition to composing music and playing live for one.