Week 12: Searcher Post

When I first watched Vertical Roll (Jonas, 1972), I struggled to understand quite what Joan Jonas was presenting us with. The disjointed, scrolling shots of Jonas’ body broken up by black bars and accompanied by audio of the repeated clanging of a spoon made for a challenging viewing experience. The constant fragmentation of her body within the video frame made me consider the idea of the fragmentation of one’s identity (possibly in relation to the medium of video?). Then, in the final minute, Jonas’ head enters the frame in front of the video screen, and she stares at the camera. While this conclusion might point to the liberation or unity of Jonas’ identity/body outside the screen or serve as a confrontation of the viewer, I failed to fully grasp the meanings of the film. I still don’t have a complete understanding of Vertical Roll, but this 2020 interview with Jonas provides fascinating context to her work and her fictional screen character of Organic Honey. The interview was conducted by Kristin Poor, Barbara Clausen, and Tracy Robinson from the Joan Jonas Knowledge Base. 

One of the first topics Jonas discusses in the interview is the relationship between film and video. She states her fascination with the connection between the vertical roll on TV sets and the frames of film scrolling by. This fascination is incredibly apparent in Vertical Roll, as it essentially serves as the broad structure of the entire film. Another interesting section of the interview is Jonas’ discussion of how her performances/work was influenced by a video shoot of Marilyn Monroe. Joan explains that she read something about someone watching Marilyn Monroe being recorded by a camera pointed at her, while the viewer watched Marilyn from the side. The viewer was interested in the difference between the camera’s view of Marilyn versus his view of her. This story about the differing views/perspectives of someone influenced Jonas’ performances and the concept of being watched by an audience. Lastly, I was fascinated by Jonas’ discussion of the use of mirrors in her work. I didn’t realize when watching Vertical Roll that the opening shot of a spoon striking an image of Jonas’ face utilized a mirror. While the artist didn’t reveal any of the meanings behind the use of mirrors, it was fascinating to learn about the prevalence of different kinds of mirrors in her performances. Furthermore, it made me consider possible themes of the film relating to the mirror, such as trying to escape one’s self-image or serving as a further fragmentation/distancing of the subject from the viewer.

Week 12: Viewer Response

My experience of viewing Vertical Roll (Joan Jonas, 1972) was certainly a complicated one. The persistent sound of metal tapping, spanning a daunting 18 minutes, not only constantly diverted my attention from the visual but also stirred a sense of irritation in my mind. Jonas’s use of this sound, as I interpret it, follows a similar approach to Buñuel’s famous eye-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel & Dali, 1929). It presents a challenge and even a taunt to the audience while implicitly underscoring that the work is not designed solely for entertainment. As the film commences, we observe images of a woman emerging in the vertical direction, coming closer and then away from the screen. This design not only echoes the film’s title but, more significantly, emulates the operation of a film projector. Given the era when the work was created, it is reasonable to deduce that Jonas intentionally made this choice to illustrate that video art, as an emerging art form, held a broader potential compared to film as it could produce a similar outcome with greater ease. Another piece of evidence supporting this notion is that each segment of the sections in which the motion of the feet and legs of the woman is captured is a dynamic video sequence rather than a static photo as in traditional film projection. Therefore, the audience is offered a series of moving videos instead of images.

As the film proceeds to its end, a woman enters the screen, disregarding and disrupting the projection-like framework. Slowly, she turns her face to look directly at the audience which shatters the fourth wall. After maintaining this gaze for a while, she slowly departs from the screen along with the vertical motion of the background frame. This design distinctly ends the resemblance between this video and a traditional film projection, serving as a vivid reminder to the audience that they are engaging with a completely new medium that can offer diverse presentation forms.

My questions for this work are:

  • First and foremost, what is this video about? Is the woman who appears at the end the same individual as the subject of the video?
  • How can we interpret the breaking of the fourth wall in the final scene?