Joan Jonas born 1936 Draw Without Looking 2013

On 28 February 2013, Joan Jonas performed her newly devised work Draw Without Looking for BMW Tate Live: Performance Room. Her performance at Tate in the McAuley Gallery, coincided with the presentation of her earlier work The Juniper Tree as part of the exhibition A Bigger Splash at Tate Modern. The Juniper Tree – which was represented in the exhibition by artefacts including props and scenography – was Jonas’s first performance in Britain at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1979.

The Performance Room piece differed significantly from Jonas’s earlier performances: rather than being performed in front of an audience, Draw Without Looking was live-streamed on Tate’s YouTube channel and, for the first time, on Tate’s Facebook page. The Performance Room series invited artists to create a piece of performance to respond to the space of the McAuley Gallery. The work would be performed only once, for an online audience, viewing the work ‘live’ but through a live-stream rather than in the same space as the performance. Viewers watching from around the world could comment and ask questions through social media channels while the performance was happening, and these formed part of a live question and answer session after the performance between Jonas and curator Catherine Wood. After the event, the live-stream was archived on Tate’s website and YouTube channel, allowing continual access to the performance at any time and from anywhere.

Jonas’s work for Performance Room brought together a range of artistic mediums that the artist had previously used. A series of Jonas’s abstract videos was projected onto the back wall of the small gallery space, which was marked by a blue wall painting. That painting, in turn, paralleled the works on paper which were dotted around the space and displayed during the performance. Another, larger projection depicted a collection of crystals hanging from strings. Patterns of small star-like specks of refracted light from this projection, moved across the wall as the crystals swung. The crystals referenced an earlier work called Reanimation, shown at Documenta in 2012. Jonas remarked that they reminded her of the snow and ice imagery that had been projected onto the wall of that installation.1 Intercut in the same frame were flashes of movement by a shadowy figure, occasional shots of mountainous landscapes and a pair of hands moving the crystals, making them swing and rotate.

Jonas occupied the space in front of this projection, completing a set of actions from a series of instructions she had written in the form of a poem. She began by reading a significant section of the poem, which included phrases such as ‘imagine a floor plan’, ‘ask a friend to give you a sentence’ and ‘write a story’.2 Once the reading had been completed, Jonas enacted a number of the instructions using the minimal props that surrounded her. On a pad of paper she drew shapes without looking at what she was doing. She also painted on the back wall of the room, moved sheets of material around in front of the projection, put on masks and waved flags. Although the instructions were not enacted in the order Jonas had read them, each phrase of action could be distinguished from the previous one and so Jonas physically embodied her poem. A sound composition by Jason Moran and Andy Sambi played during the performance, which Jonas occasionally responded to by making sounds with props, effecting a kind of call and response. The hands moving the crystals in the projection did so in rhythm with the music, creating a hypnotic sequence whereby the crystals also seemed to have become musical instruments.

The changing colour and intensity of the lights from the projections, with the flecks of light dispersed by the crystals, alternately obscured and illuminated Jonas’s movements and actions, while the screens and sheets she picked up distorted the images projected and hid her movements. The masks and flags similarly obscured elements of her body – the face, the arms or the entire body alternately – replacing them with elements of the projection. Likewise the music and chanting formed sonic layers with Jonas’s own voice. The prevalence of the voice and rhythm of the performance leant it the tone of a ritualistic incantation. This visual and aural layering of textures and technologies – exemplified by the combination of her casual, handmade painting and high-tech video art – worked to produce an almost entranced dream state, which drew together elements of Jonas’s past artistic works in the new medium of a live-stream performance. Jonas repeatedly referred to the notion of ‘magic’ happening during the performance, and Draw Without Looking created some kind of alchemy, bringing together the material and the digital to create a single cohesive work.

Acatia Finbow
October 2015