Jonas Mekas. 365 Day Project

In 2014, while working for ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, I curated and designed the exhibition Jonas Mekas. 365 Day Project. The filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas has been one of the most influential figures in experimental film since the 1960s. In his films, videos, and installations, Jonas Mekas frequently centers on the complex of biographical memory, simultaneously exploring the technological singularities of the various "mnemonic devices" he audaciously uses: classic 16mm film, digital video systems, internet based video platforms and other forms of non-collective reception beyond the movie theater.

For the 365 Day Project Mekas recorded a video on every day of 2007. The resulting collection of videos forms a fragmented audiovisual journal. We see landscapes, live recordings of public events, concerts, gatherings with friends such as Jean-Jacques Lebel, archive footage and Jonas Mekas himself, sitting in his Brooklyn kitchen and speaking directly to the camera, reflecting on philosophical questions. In the exhibition, the project is presented as an installation of 52 screens that enables the viewer to watch the videos both individually and simultaneously as a large mosaic of moving images. Tthe filmic technique of montage is spatialized and the construction of a timeline thus left to the viewer.

Installation sketch for 365 Day Project

One of Mekas’ main artistic principles is the "re-use", the recombination and composition of footage from different spatial, temporal and medial contexts. His films never just represent reality but trace the abstract nature of reality beneath its specific surface without abandoning representation in favor of abstraction. This inevitably draws our attention to the technical apparatus, its restrictions and artifacts. "Mekas on video" is thus always also "Mekas on video", Mekas (like in Self-Portrait, 1980) reflecting on the limitations of his medium and, en passant, on the numerous ontological questions that are so often the only substance of more conceptually oriented formats.

Installation view of 365 Day Project, photo © A. Serexhe

At the same time, Mekas’ work often confronts the viewer with lights and colors of an unexpected intensity indicating a mode of perception that transcends time and space and creates an alternative rationality that bridges past and present – a rationality that follows a consequential logic (as Adorno calls it) which derives its rational conclusions from singular phenomena rather than from notions of meaning. Proust’s "place-names" are Mekas’ grainy shots of the Lithuanian landscape of his childhood, of the sun setting behind the World Trade Center (as in WTC Haikus, 2010) and the cliffs of Cassis (in Cassis, 1966). In an interview Mekas explains this approach to color: "Scott McDonald: The color in the first two reels of Lost Lost Lost is gorgeous. Mekas: Much of it is time’s effect on the early Kodachrome. I didn’t like it in the original color. As it began aging, I liked it much more and decided to use it." And: "McDonald: Walden is the film of yours I’ve seen most often. When I first saw it, I was conscious primarily of the diaristic aspects. But, more recently, I’ve been just as aware of the changing film stocks and the different tintings of the black-and-white footage. It now seems simultaneously an exploration of your personal environment and of film materials. Mekas: Those are all controlled accidents."

In Mekas’ work, film’s revolutionary potential, which Walter Benjamin recognized in the technique of montage, is a potential of light and color as well. In addition to cuts, Mekas uses exposure to detonate "the dynamite of the tenth of a second" so we can follow him, the "Flaneur with a Camera" (another exhibition title), and "calmly and adventurously" travel a world burst asunder by film.

Mekas' personal calendar in the exhibition, photo © A. Serexhe

We encounter the same subtly subversive method in Mekas’ digital works as well. He artfully employs the often criticized indifference of the digital towards its content in order to critically frame the heterogeneous material of the 365 Day Project and at the same time to join it into one single work. His works are "home-movies" (as he himself calls them in Walden, 1969): movies about one’s home, about the loss of one’s home and, at the same time, movies that playfully explore the aesthetics of amateur film and video. The automatic exposure mode of Mekas’ ordinary camera plays an important role in this process. Its regular malfunctions obscure the time differences between the recordings, adding an apocalyptic darkness even to banalities, befogging every single "day" with the greyness of early digital video.

Exhibition space, photo © A. Serexhe

Nevertheless, also in regard to its content there is more to the 365 Day Project than the idea of an ultimate video diary. A complex network of allusions pervades the whole project. Deviations in the repetition of place and perspective create a vast number of cross references. However, Mekas aesthetics of the preliminary allows no arbitrariness. As Mekas wrote in 1962: "Improvisation is the highest form of condensation, it points to the very essence of a thought, an emotion, a movement. [...] It is an ability that every true artist develops by a constant and life-long inner vigilance, by the cultivation – yes! – of his senses." The documentation of everyday life creates aesthetic correlations that outreach everyday life.

In the video dating from February 20, 2007, we see Mekas as he buys a newspaper in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Starting with a view through the glass door of Mekas’ apartment, the camera pans around, almost intuitively capturing the snow-covered city, passersby, shops and Mekas himself wearing a colorful knitted hat. He enters a newspaper kiosk where the electrical light makes the camera’s exposure automatic jitter. Mekas picks out his papers. For a second a headline is visible: "Happy to be alive". Mekas pays, thanks the cashier and leaves. He walks back in the opposite direction of his own footprints from a few minutes ago.

This seemingly random event, however, is contextualized by the video dating from February 19, 2007. Here we see Mekas wander a snow-covered landscape in Lithuania. We hear him say in Lithuanian: "It should be right here. Here was the room. Here is the table. Here is where I was born." He sits down in the snow. Someone says: "Put your ear to the earth and listen." Mekas lies down and presses his ear to the ground. As Mekas’ description on the project’s website puts it: "It's snowing, it's / all white in Lithu- / ania, in the village / I was born and which / is no longer there / as I put my ear close / to earth and listen / to it on the spot / I was born". Mekas’ hat slides down. For a moment, a strangely familiar image unfolds: a man in the snow, his hat next to him, in a hostile landscape. The viewer is reminded of Robert Walser who has died alone in the snow and who himself reminds us of a character he created, Sebastian from The Tanners, who also froze to death. Mekas, however, quickly stands up, forms a snowball and starts a snowball fight, "happy to be alive".

Such delicate connections between memories and radical presence, between fiction and documentation are characteristic of Mekas’ work. "As I am moving ahead... glimpses of the past linger" was the spot on title of his last exhibition in Prague. Mekas is always in transit, moving from the past to the present that always puts a new complexion on the past. For Mekas – as for Robert Walser, for that matter – the walking through life and the daily routines are the starting point of all aesthetic processes: "I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know any more for sure what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street." Deriving poetry from such spontaneous events is the core of Mekas’ art as a poet and as a film maker.