Jonas Mekas: ‘I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments’
The legendary independent film-maker talks about avant garde, utopia, his latest projects, the importance of history and improvisation, and why he rarely films anything outside his close circle of friends
by NATASHA KURCHANOVA
Jonas Mekas, the founder of experimental American cinema, was born in the small village of Semeniškiai in Lithuania in 1922. Having fled the village after its occupation by the Soviets in 1940, he and his brother Adolphus went through many wartime hardships, including confinement in a labour camp in Germany and life in a displaced persons camp after the war. In 1949, Jonas and Adolphus were brought to the United States by the UN Refugee Organisation. After arriving in New York, Mekas became involved in the avant-garde art scene, first frequenting Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, then arranging his own screenings and making his own films. His early film Guns of the Trees (1961) and a documentary The Brig (1963) won Grand Prizes at the Porretta Terme Film Festival and at the Venice Film Festival, respectively. Later, in the 60s and 70s, he developed his signature diary style in such films as Walden (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Lost Lost Lost (1976), and others. Apart from making films, Mekas developed a discourse on film as an editor and a writer. In the 50s, he founded a journal, Film Culture, which became a mouthpiece of the American cinematic avant garde, and ran an influential “Movie Journal” column for the Village Voice. As a leader of experimental film-making, he also established long-lasting institutions serving the field, such as the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives.
Mekas began making videos in the late 80s. His 365-Day Project, which is being screened monthly at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, was made in 2007, when he decided to record on video every single day of his life that year. I met with the artist at the gallery before the screening of his daily videos from August 2007.
Natasha Kurchanova: Thank you for taking your time for this interview, Jonas. You have given many interviews in your life, and your work reflects your life in such an open and sincere way that it can be called a self-interview of sorts.
Jonas Mekas: Diaristic work is always self-referential. I am always with myself and my friends. Whatever you want to know about me, you just look at my films, and your questions will be answered.
NK: Precisely because of this self-referential character of your work, I will focus only on those points that I feel need more elaboration. Apart from the issue of self-referentiality, you established the genre of diaristic film to document the presentness, to give attention to the moment as it happens.
JM: Usually, a small, personal moment. It’s about my life and the life of my friends. It’s very rarely that I go outside of my close circle. It does not matter what important event would take place, let’s say, in New York. I have no wish, no personal need to film it. But I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments.
NK: Despite your focus on the present, you have a fascinating history, which includes your and your brother’s escape from the labour camp in Nazi Germany and your eventual arrival in New York in the late 40s.
JM: Yes, you can read about it in my book I Had Nowhere to Go. I had several “lives”, so to speak. One life I left in Lithuania; another life I left in war- and postwar Germany, and yet another life in Brooklyn, and still another in Manhattan’s Lower East Side …
NK: Was there ever a question for you about what to become: a film-maker or a painter?
JM: No, I never questioned or thought much about what I wanted to be or do; I only did what I wanted to do. I was like this from childhood. I never wanted to be anything or anybody – it was not a question of becoming, of wanting to become: I think I became what I am at age six when the muse of poetry entered my body. I never wanted to do anything else.
NK: Is time important for your work, because you are concerned with the present moment?
JM: I also pay a lot of attention to the past. I am aware of my own personal history and I am interested in history in general. I am a bundle of everything that preceded me: we all are. So, here I am, filming this small daily moment of life … And I am trying to get to its essence, to the essence of that moment. And this essence, during the moment of filming, incorporates all of the past: the way I see what I am filming, the way my eye moves, the way my body moves, camera, on what detail I’m focusing – all my past is concentrated, involved in that moment. The present itself becomes inconsequential, only a pretext, a two-dimensional surface from which light reflects into the lens.
NK: You also made some important films about Lithuania.
JM: There is a lot of Lithuania in my film work. In 1971, after 25 years of exile, I was given a chance to revisit my mother. The result was Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), a film which, curiously enough, differently from what I am doing now, used the “present moment” to consciously record, seek out memories of my past, of my childhood. The film Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2008), filmed directly from the TV news, of course, was still another, complicated variation of the “present moment”. And the two first reels of Lost Lost Lost that deal with the Lithuanian postwar immigrant community in Brooklyn, still living in the past and trying to keep the dream of that past alive, is still another variation on history and present. So, you see, there is a lot of history and memory in my work.
NK: You also write poetry. Why do you write your poetry only in Lithuanian?
JM: One can write poetry only in one’s native language. Poetry is too subtle a tool to be used by someone who did not grow up with it as a child. There are prose writers who did not grow up with English, but they wrote in it – such as Nabokov or Conrad. But this is impossible in poetry. Many have tried, but there is no poet that I know who wrote successfully in an adopted language. I am not talking about some forms of modern poetry such as concrete poetry.
NK: Apart from the questions of time, I wanted to ask you about space. There are several related statements, which you have made in recent years, about the human need to search for an ideal space, a safe harbour – in a word, utopia. There is a video on your website from 2005, called Notes on Utopia, in which you take a stance against utopia. Can you elaborate on this?
JM: The only utopia that is possible for humans as they are is the individual, personal utopia. “Personal” could go as far as one’s family or a village. Once it gets outside the confines of one village, it becomes something else.
NK: In connection with this, I found an interview, which you did with the critic and curator Jérôme Sans. There, you call yourself a regionalist and say that the idea of globality or internationalism is a silly one.
JM: One grows up in a specific community – a family, a village, a city. I grew up in a village of 20 families. Within the 5km radius of this village, I knew all the places where I could find mushrooms or wild strawberries, things like that. But once you get further out, the fields become more and more general. I knew that in the villages 15km further, people spoke already in slightly different accent and they could find mushrooms there that we didn’t have in the woods of our village. I am a regionalist, because I am formed by the region in which I grew up. My language, and even my body, what I ate, was affected not only by my mother, my father and my neighbours, but also by the nature around me, the land, the weather, the water. All those things are regional. The idea of internationalism is good, but it cannot be applied abstractly. As it is now, it’s applied only where it’s good for making money, for the good of the corporations. But if we’d apply it for the good of the people, then, instead of having 200 countries in the United Nations, we’d have 2,000 or more! To really become international, you have to become regional, which means to respect specificity and desires of each smallest region, each area that has its own past, culture, land and language, and wants to be independent. Then we’ll have the real United Nations and real internationalism. But that’s only my fantasy. Neither China, nor Russia, nor the US, nor Spain, nor any other nation will agree to it.
NK: This goes along with your stance against utopias and ideologies of utopias?
JM: Yes, because I cannot live in Brooklyn and think, behave and move as they do in Beijing or Buenos Aires. Climate, food, culture, history is unique in Beijing and Buenos Aires. There are no equivalents to them that can be found in Brooklyn. We should respect that, as we should respect any nationality’s culture, its uniqueness, within a particular country, area. If you want to impose uniformity, as some corporations and countries are doing, then you destroy the natural development and growth of everything that is on this planet: you introduce force and violence. I am absolutely against that. I am against corporate mentality of the civilisation. I am for regionalism.
NK: Do you consider yourself an American?
JM: I only live and work here. I am here as an island in myself. And this island was formed in many places. When I left Lithuania I was 20, so I was already well formed in my first, “native” stage, in thinking and feeling. But one has, like I had, to go through rebirths and crashes and nervous breakdowns in order to jump forward to other levels. I made myself open to the new ideas and nourishments that new places and situations opened to me. I was like a rocket launched into space: they propelled me forward. I needed all those stages for my growth. Often people say: “Oh, you must be very sad that you had to leave your country, you were uprooted.” No, I was very lucky that I was uprooted, because that brought me eventually to New York! And I was, of course, lucky to grow up in a small village where we sang folk songs and worked in the fields and breathed nature. These were my roots, and my life there was beautiful: I think I grew up in paradise. But there are many other levels in culture and human growth and civilisation. And my fate was that my life’s work would be done somewhere else. But I had to go through all the stages: the idyllic rural life, the Soviet and Nazi occupations, the labour camp, the years of displaced persons’ camps, the factories of Brooklyn, and walking through the streets which I didn’t recognise and where I felt like a total stranger. Yes, I had to go through all that. And I am happy that I did.
NK: I watched some of the videos on your website, and in one of them you recorded a visit from Julian Schnabel to your place. Toward the end of his visit, the two of you argued about the idea of the avant garde. Schnabel was saying that there was no avant garde, and you seemed not to agree with him.
JM: My idea of avant garde is the dictionary definition, which means the “front lines”, be it in war or art or a profession. Those who are doing something new and not yet familiar in any field are in the avant garde in their field, and therefore are received with scepticism, and sometimes with bullets. But, of course, the avant gardes of the 20s and 30s came with manifestos: not everything that was done in the 20s in the “front lines” was avant-garde: it was only contemporary … We have this discussion going today, about contemporary art and modernist art. There are those who will say that contemporary art is not modern art … The contemporary art is simply what’s being done now; there is no theory of modern art behind it … Some works are better, some worse, some sell, some don't sell. Some will look at it and will reject it a priori, following the ideas and theories of modern art. So you can look at avant garde as an idea and reject what’s done in “front lines” on the grounds of classicism, or modernism, and take your stand against populist tastes and make a protest of sorts. Or you can forget all these ideas and theories and attitudes and use the word in its contemporary sense: what is done on the edges of technology, art, industry, is avant garde. For example, Apple is in the avant garde of the computer industry, in communications technology. Avant garde cannot die, because it’s a permanent state of humanity.
NK: I am also interested in one of your remarks, when you said that artists are never professional craftsmen, and technical perfection is not a sign of a good artwork.
JM: No, it could be. Technical perfection does not mean that a work does not have artistic merit. Actually, I think that a chair or a pot has to be perfect, art or no art. But an artwork does not have to be perfect. Perfection is endless – where do you stop it? It’s a different matter if we are talking about a specific aspect of a thing – for example, a circle or a ball. A ball has to be round. A circle has to be a perfect circle. Perfection of a ball is in its roundness. But in many of the cases, in what we call art, we are on an adventure with no rational end. You just keep working and working and, at some point, you say, that’s it, it’s done. Maya Deren [1917-61] used to say she never finishes her films, she just abandons them. You say, I could continue, but that’s enough, I want to do something else.
NK: So when you film, you do not have any idea of a finished product in your mind?
JM: When I film, I never know how a particular situation will end. So, I just go along with it, follow it with my camera, and permit this flow.
NK: Do you ever edit your films?
JM: From the 60s on, I have done only very minimal post-editing. I do almost all of my editing during the filming. My filming is like when one paints: all decisions of hand or brush movements are decided during the process of painting. Post-editing is a completely different kind of filming process. It’s a different process and a different result. For me, if I failed to get the essence of the moment during the filming, no amount of editing is going to get it. I just put the film on the shelf, and that’s the end of it.
NK: Could you tell me about the screening tonight of Part 8 [August 2007] of the 365-Day Project?
JM: The 365-Day Project is a good example of what I do in video. I switched from 16mm to video in 1988. But I discovered the internet only in 2004. In 2007, I embarked on my largest video project so far, the 365-Day Project, making one new video piece every day and placing it on my website. I did not miss a single day. It was a challenge because I was still doing many other things every day. I had to decide what I would videotape, tape it, go through all the technical processes until I placed it on the website the same day. The 365-Day Project has been presented now in many different ways in museums and galleries. At the Galerie du Jour and Beaubourg in Paris, and at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, it was presented on 12 monitors, one monitor for each month. In ZKM Karlsruhe in Germany, it was presented on 52 monitors, with sound running on all 52 monitors simultaneously – it was a huge symphony of sound and image. This presentation at the Microscope Gallery is the first try to see what happens when the pieces are projected on a movie screen, one by one. At the end of each month – say, at the end of August, like today – all 31 days of August are being projected on the screen. I think it holds. Only a few seem to work better on a small screen. They are short, between four and 10 minutes each. But all 365 put together add up to about 20 feature films. That’s what I produced that year … I am still continuing making short pieces and placing them on my website, only one or two pieces weekly. The internet offers me the opportunity to distribute my videos in a new way and with minimal cost. In the 60s, many film distributors did not consider the films we were making at that time worthy of being seen, so we had to create our own distribution centre, the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. Still, to distribute our films, we had to produce prints and send them out, which took money and time. The internet makes this process much simpler. You make it, and five minutes later your friends can see it in Buenos Aires and Tokyo. This type of technological evolution affected filming equipment as well. In the 40s and 50s, we had heavy cameras. Then, gradually, they became lighter. Now you can put it in your pocket and do very casual filming with it. So, tools and technology determine the style and the content of the images. It is very personal, like a postcard. There is a big difference between a postcard and a letter, and it seems that we need this very personal content. It is this need that produces new technology and not the other way around. There is a reason why this is all happening.
NK: Which camera did you use to make your 365-Day Project?
JM: Just a Sony video camera. I had a lot of help on the 365-Day Project. My son Sebastian helped a lot, along with Benn Northover. In March 2007, Elle Burchill joined us as technical assistant. She has been involved in the technical aspects of all my current video works. Apart from this series of monthly screenings at Microscope, I have an installation at Burger King in Venice right now, at Palazzo Foscari Contarini. It opened at the time of this year’s Venice Biennale. Inside the palace, I mounted transparencies on the windows in a manner of stained-glass windows you see in some churches. The Burger King was transformed into a cathedral with 768 images on 32 window panels. Inside, there are three screens with three different series of my digital works – excerpts from the 365-Day Project, the First 40 Series, and my current website pieces. They are all running simultaneously. Burger King is a popular, busy eating place where people come to have a hamburger, and children celebrate their birthdays. And it’s not an official art pavilion sponsored by governments. Mine was produced with simple means by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, three enthusiastic, dedicated, adventuresome Venetians. Some take it for a manifesto. It’s called Internet Saga, by the way.
NK: Thank you for this interview, Jonas. Good luck with all your projects, present and future.
• Jonas Mekas: 365-Day Project, Microscope Gallery, Brooklyn, January – December 2015 (Three-hour monthly screenings will take place on 27 September and 30 October 30; November and December are still to be scheduled).