Joan Jonas’s enduring influence at (and beyond) MIT, Part I

Posted on April 7, 2015 by Sharon Lacey

Influence is not thrust upon the follower from the side of the precursor. As art historian Michael Baxandall argues in his work Patterns of Intention, the later artist influences the way the work of the former is viewed through appropriation and engagement with the past.

To comprehend more fully Joan Jonas’s extraordinary impact, we have asked several of her former MIT students and colleagues to share lessons she taught them, which have made an enduring impression on their artistic process and work. Jonas’s approach to her class, as these MIT alumni recall, was characterized by openness, boundless curiosity and vigorous exploration.

In anticipation of her new work made for the US Pavilion as part of the 2015 Venice Biennale, it is an opportune time to reflect on Jonas’s lasting legacy at MIT. Jonas taught at MIT from 1998-2014 and is Professor Emerita in the MIT Program in Art, Culture & Technology (ACT), part of the School of Architecture and Planning. Her pioneering works in performance, video and installation since the 1960s to the present, have secured her place in the art historical firmament. To be truly influential, however, an artist must inhabit the minds and inform the studio practices of other working artists – from their workaday problem solving to the heights of inspiration and every task in between.

In this interview series, several MIT alumni — including Pia Lindman, Grady Gerbracht and Sohin Hwang — trace the lines of connection from their own art practices to the inimitable work of Joan Jonas.

Joan Jonas, Reading Dante. Cell Block Theatre, Sydney, 2008. Photo: Greg Weight. Copyright Joan Jonas. Image courtesy of the artist.
Joan Jonas, Reading Dante. Cell Block Theatre, Sydney, 2008. Photo: Greg Weight. Copyright Joan Jonas. Image courtesy of the artist.



Pia Lindman was Jonas’s first teaching assistant at MIT in the Visual Art Program in the late 90s. Lindman received her Master of Science in Visual Studies from MIT in 1999, after which time she became Jonas’s studio assistant in New York. She was Lecturer at the Visual Studies Program at MIT (2004-05), then a Fellow in the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, MIT (2005-06), and the following year, Artist-in-residence at Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT (2006-07).

Currently, Lindman is Professor and Head of Environmental Art at the Aalto University in her native Finland. She helped create the “Beings and Things” program, which is designed to inspire a dialogue between natural sciences, humanities, and art. She is also Head of Biofilia, a base for biological arts at the Aalto University, and the only wet lab of microorganisms that is for artists only.


When did you first meet Joan, and what was your role in her performance class at MIT?

I technically never studied under Joan because I was the TA for her performance workshop, but in practice, you learn as much being a TA as you do as a student. I was the only student at that time in the Visual Arts Program that had a practice of performance art. I was also the only woman student at that moment.

When I entered the school, Dennis Adams, who was then the head of the program, asked me to come into his office. The situation was this: I was the only woman artist in the program, and I was also the only person doing performance art and feminist-inspired art. He said, we need to find you a teacher. I had never been treated in this way before; suddenly, I’m offered this opportunity.

He offered me a list of some of the artists he had contacted, and I thought, these are people who are my gods, or goddesses. These are the central figures that have inspired me to do feminist performance art, and I could never have dreamt of one of them in the same room with me. Coming from Finland and a different culture and situation, it was amazing. Absolutely amazing.

And that’s when Joan was approached to become a professor at MIT. We talked about it in 1997, and Joan came in Spring 1998. Dennis had done this research that even though they didn’t really have an MIT professorship to offer anybody — the department was full with Ed Levine, Dennis Adams, and Christopher Hitchcock as full professors, and Julia Scher and Barbara Brougel as lecturers — MIT had special earmarked money for a woman who was distinguished in her field to be hired as a professor to increase equality in the university. It was also symptomatic that all the professors were men and all the lecturers were female; Dennis was really intent on rectifying the situation.

What had been Joan’s influence on you prior to meeting her? Did your expectations differ from the reality of the class? Were there surprises?

Yes, there were lots of surprises. When I was studying at the Art Academy in Helsinki in Finland, I had taken a class that was really really hardcore feminist discourse with some tough women who were totally into cultural criticism and post-Marxist feminist critique, and so these very theoretical texts were my bibles.

When I met Joan what struck me was how strongly her position comes from the 60s and 70s, which is quite formally based — based on the practice, based on the forms, based on a critique of previous forms to make new forms. This formalism goes back to the modern period, and I was very much situated in the post-modern critique.

In some ways, our languages were definitely not meeting. And this is one of the strongest teachings that I’ve had from her; I learned to respect where she comes from. There I was, working through form, and slowly getting out of my postmodern preachiness, and back into practice and embodied experience.

Joan is also very playful with the masks and the space, but playful in a unique way. This is another thing I learned about her, about how she works with space, how she really does that in practice without the theoretical rigidity. I would not be able to do it the same way that she does it.

As her TA, I was watching the way that she was teaching, and I also learned a lot from the way she taught. To me she seemed open-ended and didn’t want to dictate too much to people. She was not banging into everyone’s heads with this or that theory; instead, she really wanted to open up a space for students to explore, and that was also new to me.

Now, in retrospect, I understand that was coming from the 60s, from the foundation of going into spaces to explore with the simplest tools to see what you get out of it. And what I saw happen was that all these students who had never done performance art – those who did not perceive themselves capable of doing something performative like standing up in front of an audience, and these guys who built things and felt that this was all women’s stuff – they all got over their own inhibitions and actually did amazing performances. Now, I understand it’s because she created that space, where you can safely do this rather than just having a theoretical approach.

Then, I learned another thing after I graduated; I started to work for Joan for quite a while, in New York in her studio. I started by teaching her how to do Final Cut editing, but then I ended up editing. Then I started to build the shoots and light them and really managed the studio work for her.

The culmination of that experience was when she had her retrospective at the Queen’s Museum, and I took charge of managing the practicalities of the installation, mediating between her and the staff at the Queen’s Museum. That was amazing; it was a big, big chunk of work. What was amazing too was that I got not only to look at her work, but also work on the projects that she’d done over her career.

We were re-realizing all those installations – the settings, the props, how to modify certain installations that we were fitting into the space of the Queen’s Museum, and how they made sense in relation to each other – really blowing life into the archive.

That was fantastic for me to take another look at her practice. A lot of people who’d never seen her work were reading about it, but had not experienced it. I learned so much back then from working for her and with her, meeting a lot of the people who surround her, and completely getting in touch with that history.

Was it a small group in the performance workshop? How many students were in that class?

Yes, we were six students, counting me.

Can you elaborate on how Joan moved the students beyond a theory-driven approach into a more hands-on practice? Was it an actual studio class, with tools and a shop? What was a typical day? Did Joan walk around and review your work?

Ha! No, I wouldn’t say she walked around and reviewed the work; that is sort of hierarchical. She set up limitations – actually things I still do when I teach performance art. For instance, you can use one thing, one prop, one object. You can interact with it or demonstrate how it’s used to learn how you improvise around things.

Or you give people one sentence, one movement, one prop. Instead of having one person perform separately, which becomes this evaluated performance, we all did it at the same time. That way you also have to relate to one another. If you go on for an hour or two, things really start to happen. It’s amazing that you can have energies converge. All meaning is pretty abstract, but in the interactions, all sorts of things emerge.

I actually used that same technique a few years ago at the Academy of Fine Arts, where I was professor of site-specific art. We collaborated with the opera students, dancers and painters. The first exercise was exactly this kind of improvisation exercise I learned from Joan.

Were most of the students coming from a performance background, or some other art discipline?

Most students I have worked with, as well as those at MIT when Joan was there, did not come from a performance background.

When we did improvisation with Joan, I remember my fellow students, Mike Rakowitz and Grady Gerbrecht said they could never have imagined doing this, but while doing it, they realized a lot of things that fed into their practice.

I don’t know any artist who is so good at improvisation as Joan. She can completely go into her improvisation and sit in it comfortably. So this energy is just coming out. I think that is the energy that takes her everywhere.

It seems an elusive thing to teach.

It’s impossible to teach. It has to come from within. I always have wished I could have that same kind of energy and open it up without any effort. But we are different kinds of people, so we have to find our own ways of doing it.

If anything, some of the workshops I did in context of my exhibition, “Poison and Play” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, were maybe the closest I came to opening up. That is where I collaborated with an acrobat, and we created a workshop to teach people who are afraid of climbing trees to climb trees.

Joan’s lessons are probably infused into your way of thinking in so many ways, but is there any instance where you recognized her direct influence while you were making or performing a piece?

One thing for sure is that when I was working for her and editing her videos, I was strongly influenced by the way she dealt with the camera — this idea of documentation that was not documentation, and what she paid attention to when she was filming.

For her, it was often interesting to use the camera as a gesture rather than as a documenter. And that actually starts from the early videos that she’s done. One of the first videos that I edited for her was “Lines in the Sand.” It has a lot of footage where she’s walking and walking, and the camera is really walking with her. You can sense the movement of walking, and it becomes very strongly the element of that video.

She also documented some objects on the beach, but she would do it with this certain kind of movement. At some point, I felt like I already knew what she wanted when she wanted something edited. So, I was able to look at the material and start editing. And what it had in it was a certain kind of rhythm, intervals, and movement. It could be very jagged and going back and forth, repeating in different ways. Through all of that work, I learned a different way of thinking about moving image and video.

That’s mind blowing. Within the painting tradition, the brush is commonly thought of as an extension of the human hand, and you think of the tool – whatever that might be – as recording a gesture, but I never thought of the video camera that way. Mechanical and digital means are often considered antithetical to the handmade mark. It is spectacular to think otherwise.

Absolutely. I feel, unfortunately, a certain attitude about how video is supposed to be shot has taken over. And the stuff that Joan was doing, and also previous 60s, 70s, 80s videos, are still more interesting than most of the videos I see today.

Pia Lindman, video still, Banks of Praga, 2002 & 2006. Copyright Pia Lindman. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Pia Lindman, video still, Banks of Praga, 2002 & 2006. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Pia Lindman, video still, Banks of Praga, 2002 & 2006. Copyright Pia Lindman. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.


Do you think that back in the late 90s during Joan’s first years at MIT, anyone outside the class knew what was going on in the performance workshop? Was there an awareness that someone of her stature was on campus? Were you doing any public performances?

No, I don’t think so. Those entities that could have and should have been more connected to us, had very little idea of who Joan is. This was at a time when she was not as well known in the States. She showed a lot more in Europe. I knew about her, but not my American fellow students. That’s the unfortunate truth.

But I think in Europe in general, performance art and immaterial art – art that is not so easily sellable – was sustaining much better because not all art was dependent on commercial sales. That really had made a difference in how well known she was. But that started to change, luckily, right about when she called me to ask if I could teach her FinalCut because she had been asked to contribute to Documenta 11 (2002). And so, my first project was the project that was going for Documenta 11 (2002). That was a moment when things started to accelerate for her.

Were you the only assistant at that time?

No, she works with a lot of people. She works with some people doing the performances. Then she collaborates with people like Jason Moran and DJ Spooky for sound and also Stephen Vitiello. But I was the video editor. But I’ve had a lot of students that I sent her way – even from Finland. Because in Finland at the Academy of Fine Arts they can do arts practice internships, and I’ve had a few students go her way. And only good things come out of that.

You learn so much by working with her, because she’s very open, and isn’t just going to put you in a box and say “archive this.”

When you began working with Joan, her reputation preceded her, and you were already working with performance. Were you especially receptive to what she was teaching you?

Yes, I would say so. But I was also resistant because I was such a hard-core feminist back then. And I was really like, “no, you have to have theory, and you have to bang it over everyone’s heads,” and Joan — quite rightly so — was quite taken aback by this attitude because not everything is that way.

And this was a long discussion between the two of us, which I think was very fruitful, even though not always painless [Lindman added with a hearty laugh].

Unless otherwise noted, all images copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology.