Related themes


Performing for the Camera

Artists break the molds of video and film, and broaden the boundaries of art.


Constructing Gender

Explore how artists examine the relationship between gender and society.


Vertical Roll

Joan Jonas
(American, born 1936)

1972. Video (black and white, sound), 19:38 min.

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….”1

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.

Joan Jonas, quoted in “Joan Jonas: anything but the theatre,” interview by Oscar Faria, Vector [e-zine], http://www.virose.pt/vector/x_02/jonas_e.html.
Joan Jonas, quoted in “Joan Jonas on Feminism,” MoMA.org, https://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/89/508.
Joan Jonas, quoted in “Joan Jonas on Feminism,” MoMA.org, https://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/89/508.

A recording of moving visual images made digitally or on videotape and available for immediate playback.

One who produces a three-dimensional work of art using any of a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

The visual portrayal of someone or something.

A term that emerged in the 1960s to describe a diverse range of live presentations by artists.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

In Pursuit of a “Female Art”
Like other strong-voiced women artists of her generation, Joan Jonas forged her career in a male-dominated art world. She took inspiration from feminism, which she said had “a huge influence on my life.”2 Vertical Roll is shaped, in part, by what she describes as “a poetic approach to…expressing my relationship to feminism, [involving] a search for whether or not there could be something such as female art, female imagery.”3 The artist chose video for her mode of expression, because she saw it as one of the few mediums that was not yet dominated by men.