The Enduring Influence of Joan Jonas at MIT and Beyond: Part II

Professor Emerita Joan Jonas taught at MIT from 1998–2014, and her pioneering performance, video, and installation works from 1960 onward have secured her a place in art history’s firmament. Influence, however, is a more personal and earthly matter; it occurs in the minds and studios of working artists, from workaday problem-solving to the heights of inspiration and everything in between.

To comprehend more fully Jonas’s extraordinary impact ahead of her work for the 2015 Venice Biennale’s US Pavilion, we asked several of her former MIT students and colleagues to share lessons she imparted that made an enduring impression on their artistic work. Jonas’s approach to her class, as these alumni recall, was characterized by openness, boundless curiosity, and vigorous exploration. In this interview series, Pia Lindman, Grady Gerbracht, Sohin Hwang, Rebecca Uchill and Sung Hwan Kim trace the lines of influence from their own art practices to the inimitable work of Joan Jonas.


New-York based artist Grady Gerbracht earned his Master of Science in Visual Studies at MIT in 1999. Gerbracht has taught at top universities including the Cooper Union School of Art, Stony Brook University, and The University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is co-founder and creative director of NoMoSA, the Nomadic Museum of Sonic Arts, and co-founder of Projeto Lomba Alta, an international artists’ residency in the south of Brazil.

Gerbracht’s cross-disciplinary work focuses on the ordering systems of everyday life. His projects employ art, architecture, technology, experimental spontaneously composed music, sound and social dynamics to render these systems temporarily visible. Gerbracht is also a percussion-focused multi-instrumentalist; in many of his works, he uses architectural spaces as instruments to be played rather than places to perform.

Firstly, what class did you study under Joan Jonas, and when?

Joan came to the Visual Studies Program at MIT as a visiting guest artist in the second semester of my first year, which was in the spring of 1998.  The program was very small at the time—only about six people. She came to teach a class on performance.

What had been your art experience prior to this class? How did your work change during the course?  

Joan’s class had a profound and immediate influence on my work, which is still evident today. Until that point I had never been able to relate to performance art because of negative associations accumulated during my undergraduate studies at Cooper Union where I had seen quite a few student projects that reinforced stereotypical tropes of performance from the 1980s.

At that point my naive understanding of performance art only involved bloodletting, nudity or testing the limits of human endurance. Since none of these were the focus of my work, I had little interest in it.

Joan’s class provided me with a laboratory where I applied performativity as a tool to directly express concepts that were important to my work, within my personal aesthetic. Once I was able to claim it as my own, performance became a more direct route to share ideas and experience with my audience.

Grady Gerbracht, Commutes: NJ Transit Series, image on bus window. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Grady Gerbracht, Commutes: NJ Transit Series, image on bus window. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Do you remember any anecdotes from the class, or from your fellow students, related to Joan Jonas’s instruction or critiques? 

I know Joan had a profound influence on other artists who were in the class like my friend Michael Rakowitz. In fact, Michael and I collaborated on a project for the class entitled Transient Occupations—a nomadic performance, which involved the two of us occupying various public spaces with a large mobile inflatable structure. One can easily see how this project opened new avenues of expression for both Michael and me, which are evident in our work today.

Did you find some of these lessons applicable to other types of work (outside the performance tradition, or outside your artistic practice altogether)? 

Performance is very direct. Instead of describing something or discussing it, one just does it. That directness can be and should be applied to all aspects of life.

What was Joan’s general approach to the class? What was a typical day?

There was no typical day. Joan always allowed us the space to apply experiential aspects of art and performance to our own work. I recall her providing us with texts from John Cage, Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett and others for inspiration or consideration. She also encouraged us to bring our own texts, videos, etc., that were influential to our thoughts or artistic process. We did short performative exercises during the classes as well.

Grady Gerbracht, 62931-62943, video still frame. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Since you also assisted Joan with her studio production, could you elaborate on your role on her projects outside of MIT?

After graduating and moving back to New York. I assisted Joan in her studio with audio and video editing, photography and technical advice for the audio and video parts of her sculptural objects and installations. I helped document her performances, and helped install several exhibitions of her work at Pat Hearn Gallery.

Once I began my career in academia I stopped assisting Joan, but we maintained contact and she later participated in a curatorial project I was working on, Four Axes, Four Tales of the Body in Space. This project involved distributing a recording of a site-specific performance to seven collaborators from diverse backgrounds. Each participant was given the same compact disc and architectural section of the stairwell in which the performance took place. Joan and the other collaborators were asked to listen to the recording and respond visually to what they heard using the provided diagram.

How has your training with her continued to manifest itself in your studio?

Many of my projects—62931-62943, Site & Sound: KIASMA, Commutes: NJ Transit Series, Graphic Notation, Commutes: MTA Series—have performative aspects.

Written by Sharon Lacey, Arts at MIT

Posted on April 10, 2015 by Sharon Lacey