The other day I caught up with Joan Jonas at her studio, around the corner from where she first performed Mirage—Anthology Film Archives’ former Soho location. Forty years ago Soho was inhospitable, even dangerous, with zero amenities. Surrounded by what were then inexpensive, down-and-dirty lofts, Anthology film and video screenings were integral to neighborhood artists’ daily lives. Jonas performed for several nights over a number of weeks in 1976. Her audience included many locals—artist, musician, and dancer friends. They all dined at Food, Gordon Matta-Clark’s wholesome restaurant. Nearby, Richard Foreman presented his Ontologic Hysteric Theater, Jack Smith carried out his midnight events, and Alanna Heiss hosted other happenings on Bleecker Street and at the Clocktower.
Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend had recently launched their Soho galleries at 420 West Broadway, and Jonas later performed at each. Joyce Nereaux directed Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films, and distributed Jonas’s and other visual artists’ media works to museums and art schools. These works leaned towards narrativity. Two blocks away a different media faction congregated at The Kitchen, the alternative space founded by Woody and Steina Vasulka. Artists there knew how to put technical things together.
The Soho community was vibrant and small. Long before the Internet and blogs, artists who belonged to slightly different worlds rubbed shoulders at a handful of restaurants and bars, where conversations ran into the night. Passions and excitement burned strong, as definitions of what art is were revised on the fly.
Jonas has contributed excerpts of her recent conversation about Mirage with writer and independent curator Joan Simon, where she clarifies how MoMA owns an installation that is a reconfiguration of her original performance.
—Mirage began as a performance at the Anthology Film Archives in 1976. [The MoMA] installation is not the performance but is an arrangement or composition representing Mirage that includes all the elements of the piece arranged for an altered viewing experience. I made the first Mirage installation in 1994 and the final version in 2003. One experiences the different video works within the piece simultaneously. This was my last black-and-white video performance, the final in a series beginning with Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy in 1972. The [Sony] Portapak, my camera and recorder, was being phased out. It was time to move on to color and the narrative.
—From the very beginning I was interested in a situation that could be seen in more than just one way. In the video performance, the audience could either focus on the live action or the video detail of that action, or one could scan both and see both simultaneously. After that I became interested in adding layers both in a material way and in relation to the content, and over the years my work has come to represent the way the brain works. We can experience different things at the same time. We can hear one thing, and see another.
—I didn’t begin as a performer. My background is art history, sculpture—the visual arts—that’s what I was involved in. In the 1960s I saw the work of artists Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, and Robert Morris, the dancers Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, and Lucinda Childs, and something clicked in me, and I decided I wanted to make something. I can’t remember what I thought it was—I wanted to perform my work. So I stepped from sculpture into the real space of performance. I wasn’t a dancer, and I never studied theater. I had an art-historical approach and so I thought I had to do some research before I started doing it myself in order to know what had already been done. At the time many dancers were giving workshops, and I spent a couple of years involved in these workshops. What made this accessible to me was that the dancers were experimenting with everyday movement, which meant I didn’t have to be a skilled performer.
—The way I began to compose my work was like beads on a string, with one thing following another. From the beginning I was interested in making images that were structured either in relation to an interior space like a gymnasium (Mirror Works, 1972), the empty lots of downtown New York (Delay Delay, 1972) or the space of the image as framed by the film or video camera and the relation of the live image to the filmed as they develop simultaneously in the video performances. My focus has been on how to alter the image through the media of mirror, deep landscape, and the closed circuit of the camera and monitor or projection.