Trained as a sculptor, Joan Jonas turned to performance and video art in the late 1960s. Her pioneering experiments and innovations with these relatively unexplored mediums placed her among the foremost women artists to emerge in the early 1970s. In 1972, she completed Vertical Roll, a black-and-white video centered upon a technological glitch common to television. “The reason why it’s called ‘Vertical Roll’ [is] because in the piece there’s a rolling bar of the video, which is a dysfunction of the television set,” the artist has explained. “And I made a piece which is structured by that bar…in which I perform around the rolling bar; all my actions are related to that bar….”
Vertical Roll opens with this bar sliding jerkily down the front of an otherwise blank screen. A sliver of Jonas’s face comes into view at the top of the screen. Turned sideways and towards viewers, it slowly emerges fully. A spoon appears. The artist begins banging it against a hard surface off-camera, creating an insistent rapping sound in time with the rhythm of the continuously rolling bar and the images it causes to skip. All of these images are of the artist herself. She appears in various states of dress and undress, her body always fragmented by the frame created by the bar.
When Jonas made Vertical Roll, television was a widespread phenomenon, and viewers were used to consuming its images. Representations of women in the media, and notions of female identity, have long been among the artist’s chief concerns. By presenting herself in such a disjointed manner, Jonas hinders viewers’ ability to scrutinize her televised image, claiming a measure of control over how she may be perceived.