In honor of the soon-to-be-unveiled American Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, featuring works by the performance and video art pioneer Joan Jonas, Art Bytes is featuring one of her most influential works: Vertical Roll from 1972. An early example of video art, this 19-minute composition fixates on the physical properties of the then-novel medium but is also about the subjectivity of time (especially recorded time).
The piece, which derives its name from the downward tumbling of the video stills, is in fact a recording of a video monitor that has been slowed down to achieve the “rolling” frame-by-frame effect of the video. The monitor is showing a live performance by Jonas, who flits in and out of the shot—a hand here, a pair of feet there, then suddenly a torso draped in the belly-dancer garb of Organic Honey, one of the artist’s alter-egos. The soundtrack to the piece is a simple, incessant beat, seemingly synched to the rolling of the video image but revealed to be a live performance in the fleeting moments when the rhythm falters.
While it certainly foregrounds the structure of video, Vertical Roll is also a feminist artwork. Denying the viewer the conventional sight of a complete, continuous female form (an expectation that seems to have changed little in the intervening decades), Joans’s body is fragmented and largely out of view. This distance becomes even more apparent in the final minute of the piece, when Jonas moves herself between the camera and the monitor—revealing the images previously on the screen as mere recordings. While the now-empty monitor continues to shift in time with the beat, Jonas slowly wanders into the frame and turns to look directly into the camera before rolling herself down and out of the shot.
For more by Joan Jonas, check out her backstory and advice for would-be artists here.