Joan Jonas, They Come To Us Without A Word Ii, 2015.     Photo Moira Ricci B

A Conversation with Joan Jonas

By Katy Dammers

Apr 6, 2016

This week The Kitchen is pleased to present the North American premiere of Joan Jonas’s acclaimed work They Come to us Without a Word II , which premiered at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale in conjunction with her exhibition for the US Pavilion at last year’s 56th Venice Biennale. Jonas has had a long relationship with The Kitchen, presenting many of her early video pieces here in the early 1970s and later performing several major works, including most recently Lines in the Sand: Helen in Egypt (2004). In 2012, we honored Jonas at our annual gala in celebration of her pioneering work in video and performance.

They Come to us Without a Word II features new compositions by Jonas’s longtime collaborator Jason Moran, as well as a live performance by Kate Fenner. Jonas is joined onstage by six children, as well as one of her studio assistants. Assistant Curator and Archive Manager Katy Dammers spoke with Jonas about the development of this work, and its relationship to her history more broadly.

Katy Dammers: How has this performance changed from the presentation in Venice?

Joan Jonas: The biggest element to adjust to is the space. In Venice it was in a bigger theater with a beautiful stage, and the audience was in a different position in relation to the screen and the action. I think the stage looks beautiful here too in this black box at The Kitchen. Before the audience was seated lower and you really saw the stage itself. Here you don’t see that structure, you just see the screen suspended in the blackness. It’s very special.

The other slight difference will be the addition of two performers—Zora Casebere and Willa Schwabsky. They were in the video in the Venice Pavilion, but they didn’t come to the Venice performance. They’re taking the place of students in Venice who were in certain parts. Those are the only differences really, except for the natural things that happen in a performance.

KD: In the program you’ve included four passages from authors ranging from John Berger to Tessie Gillis. I found the quote by Gillis about readying oneself, the farm, and the animals for the winter season particularly compelling. How did you gather all of the notes in the program?

JJ: I accumulated the quotes over a period of time. I included a passage by Halldór Laxness, and I’ve been working with one of his books called Under the Glacier for years. His quote about the bees is really what inspired me and segued into this piece.

For this performance I edited the ghost stories and added two texts not used in the pavilion—one by Tessie Gillis, from Cape Breton, and some headlines from newspapers in New York after I returned from being in Japan during the earthquake in 2011. I wanted to bring in other kinds of occurrences, the disaster of the earthquake and the relationship to nature and getting ready for winter. It’s a reminder of the rhythms people used to have in life, which are disappearing. Part of this piece is about disappearance, including seasons and animals.

KD: Some of the video material in this work is from many years ago, from your summers on Cape Breton. Why did you include it?

JJ: For this project I worked with some ghost stories from the Cape Breton oral tradition. As I was working I suddenly thought that videos I shot in the 1990s with some young people that I know in Cape Breton would be appropriate. The videos with young women in the landscape working and walking seemed to fit perfectly the tone of some of the ghost stories and the ideas of the work itself.

The multilayered videos that we shot in Westbeth for the pavilion are very rich, while the videos shot in Nova Scotia are simple and plain. Those films were shot on a different camera, and I found it interesting to juxtapose the formats.

KD: Using these earlier videos brings in an element of your own history as an artist.

JJ: When I made the piece I was thinking somewhere in the back of my mind about what I have done in the past and how I could bring it in. But my first consideration is how to tell this story. How do I make clear what I want to say without using language? What happens in these recordings that I’ve made? I don’t think of it as my own history, but others might.

KD: Many people have drawn connections between this work and others you’ve done in the past, particularly with some repeated elements, for example the cones and mirrors.

JJ: I carry elements from one work to another—props, objects, ideas—I’m continually recycling while making new ones. From the very beginning it has been important to me to develop a visual language. But in the end how many new ideas can you have?

KD: One new idea in this piece is working with children for the first time. Why did you choose to perform with them?

JJ: I was thinking about it for a while before working on the Pavilion. The piece is about the environment and the state of the globe, and children are the ones that will inherit this situation. My work is not didactic and by juxtaposing children in the work with the subject, the content, and the reference to animals; it says what I want to say.

KD: How has it been working with the children?

JJ: Great! When we developed the Venice pavilion they came to Saturday workshops at Westbeth for six weeks. I had to have everything planned ahead of time and give them directions. They’re not acting; they’re just performing. They’re doing tasks and little dances. For the Venice performance it was more or less the same situation. They arrived a few days before the performance and did the same actions they did in the videos. They perform with prerecorded images of themselves and their role has expanded as we’ve worked on the performance. The two young women play a slightly different role in The Kitchen performances, and they are also referenced in the video backdrops. I’m interested in the relation between foreground and background.

KD: How did you and Jason Moran work together on this piece?

JJ: We began working in 2005 on a piece called The Shape the Scent the Feel of Things at Dia: Beacon. Then we had more time, and we spent six weeks developing that work. We had never worked together before, and so I would bring the video backdrops and the script and we would slowly work through the actions in relation to the video and the music. I had certain ideas about sound and we would develop it together. Over the years that has become an embedded process.

For this piece we worked together for about four days in June here in New York, and then Jason came to Venice and was there for 10 days. We worked the same way—I structured the actions and movements in relation to the images and sound. My dynamics and movements in the work are inspired by Jason’s music.

KD: Where will this piece go next?

JJ: I would like to keep working with these children. They are going to be young men and women pretty soon, but I think it’s interesting to continue. They’re all special. In Venice it was one of the most pleasurable experiences for me to share the stage with this particular group.

Image: Joan Jonas, They Come to Us without a Word II, 2015. Photo by Moira Ricci.

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