The pioneering filmmaker of the American Avant-Garde brings his focus on the intimate encounters of everyday life to an exhibition that celebrates the influence of the internet
Racing through Venice’s labyrinthine backstreets and rickety wooden bridges, all while looking through a small hand-held camera, is no mean feat. Jonas Mekas has filmed his encounters with the world consistently over the past 70 or so years, and he isn’t about to stop now. He is 92 years old. To say that he has had a prolific career as an artist, filmmaker and poet would be an understatement. A leading figure of the American Avant-Garde film movement of the 20thCentury, his impressionistic films heralded a movement far removed from the large-scale studios and big budgets of Hollywood. Instead, he looked to his friends in the artist communities of New York, from Allen Ginsberg to Andy Warhol, drawing directly upon his own life to build an intimate portrait of an era. The chance encounters and quotidian rhythms of the city keep pace in Mekas’ films, bringing something distinctly human to the anonymity of an unknown street corner or alleyway.
The chance encounters and quotidian rhythms of the city keep pace in Mekas’ films, bringing something distinctly human to the anonymity of an unknown street corner or alleyway.
These records of public and personal life can be found at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, established by Mekas in 1970 to establish an archive of cinema, from past to present. Here, well-known works by pioneering directors such as Bill Viola and Stan Brakhage can be found alongside evocative home video footage open submissions, as Mekas continues his focus on the levelling effect of filmmaking and its tools. In Venice, this breaking down of the hierarchy between director and audience is taken forward. Mekas has chosen to situate his latest exhibition not in the grand palazzos or pavilions of the Biennale, but in Venice’s only Burger King. Titled The Internet Saga, it places Mekas’ work not only at the heart of the modern milieu of the city, but also at the centre of a thoroughly contemporary concern. Even as the online realm continues to integrate with the art world, the total assimilation of the internet into everyday life is already well established.
It is natural, then, that the internet would form a key focus of Mekas’ practice today. In 2007, he uploaded a daily video to his website for ‘The 365 Day Project’, while he has continued since to post regular videos of his encounters with friends, collaborators and his home city of New York. Transported to Venice, Mekas has worked closely with curating team Francesco Urbano Ragazzi to embed decades of his work into the city, both at the Burger King location and at new gallery Zuecca Project Space. We meet as the Biennale gets underway, wandering away from the tourist hordes and towards the Burger King, where local teenagers and elderly folk eat their burgers and look on.
PM: To begin, what led you to situate part of the exhibition at Venice’s only Burger King? How did you devise the layout of the screens and transparencies throughout the space?
Jonas Mekas: Everything that is presented in the Burger King location was produced first for the internet: I had it on my website. Now, you have three different screens, each with a slightly different function. In 2007, I made one little film to put on the internet every day. That was my ‘365 Day Project’, which is now presented on one screen at Burger King, while another screen streams what I am still putting up daily. Every week I add one or two new moving image pieces, which are shown on a third screen. And then I’m using also the windows for transparencies, so it’s about using the space and transforming it into slightly something else. It’s all to honour, or celebrate, the simple place where normal people eat. It’s nothing to do with art; you just come and eat.
It’s all to honour, or celebrate, the simple place where normal people eat. It’s nothing to do with art; you just come and eat.
PM: This accessibility could also be used to describe the online world. What interests you about the internet itself, and specifically the experience of watching videos on streaming sites such as YouTube?
JM: Absolutely, the internet is the people’s medium. Everybody can use it, upload whatever they want, and exchange. It’s the same as Burger King, which is a normal people's eating-place. Anybody can go there. In all of my work I have been filming or videotaping normal and simple daily life. I am not interested in big events. I’m more interested in things that people don't even pay attention to. I’m interested in civilisation; culture.
PM: Would you agree that the internet is, in a way, collapsing time? It enables us to watch huge archives of video, very much in the same way that you have kind of collaged your own archive together here…
JM: Yes it is. Of course, you can go back through the archives and through time with celluloid, but it’s more difficult. You have to find the roll of film and you need a projector, but of course everything is there. They’re in a film museum, the Anthology Film Archives. There we have 60,000 small films from different periods and on different subjects, so it’s also a library and also a memory. A certain period is there on film, but to access it is more difficult. When you record it digitally and put it on the internet, then it is accessible by the touch of your finger. It becomes more available to everybody, easily and inexpensively.
The internet is the people’s medium. Everybody can use it, upload whatever they want, and exchange. It’s the same as Burger King, which is a normal people's eating-place.
PM: So the digital medium is 'for the people'?
JM: Yes, because it’s so easy to send, to record, to access. It’s easier than writing. You can write a letter, but to send it you have to go to the post office!
PM: Do you think that this shift towards a new means and ease of accessing film has influenced your own filmmaking process itself?
JM: Yes, the tools that you use and the methods of dissemination affect what you make. The content is different because new technology enables us to record parts of life that a movie camera could not record or access easily. Before, it took time. You filmed, you developed and then you made a print, but here immediately it happens and immediately you send it. You look at it differently, record it differently, and present it differently. It becomes more personal, much more personal. Before, you felt you should film only something that was really important because film was expensive. Now, you don't think about important or not important. Now you think, "Oh this, I should send this to my friend" and you just send it. It’s right there and it’s so easy. Your choices become very different.
PM: Do you see an avant-garde movement emerging through the new tools of the internet?
JM: Yes! There was The Birth of a Nation in 1915, and now we have the birth of the internet nation. Hollywood was very small and restrictive, it was a royalty nation. Then independent filmmakers came around, and it become more democratic and much wider, bigger and more free. Today, we are a step even further; now, we are all free.
See more of Jonas Mekas’ personal archive at jonasmekas.com.