Keep Going Ahead!: Jonas Mekas and the 21st Century

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) presents Again, Again It All Comes Back to Me in Brief Glimpses, which celebrates the extraordinary life and work of Jonas Mekas, one of the true pillars of avant-garde and independent cinema. Running from November 8 2017 to March 4 2018, this is the first retrospective of Mekas’s sixty-year career that has ever been held in Asia curated by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi with Eunhee Kim. 

Let me begin with a prophecy. One day, I am sure, the century will be Mekassian. And when that day comes, this prophecy of mine will be true in at least three ways. On the one hand, more and more artists (perhaps unknowingly) will live the production of images in the manner Jonas Mekas attempted to define, both in his works and writings. On the other hand, more and more people (perhaps badly and unknowingly) will imitate the exercise that the Lithuanian filmmaker carried out on reality, first with his Bolex camera and then with video. And finally, the century will belong to Jonas Mekas because understanding what his exercise meant might just save us from all the apocalypses for which we seem to be destined.

Of course, I was not born yesterday. Although I am quite sure of my prediction, I realize that I find myself writing in the least Mekassian of the ages. As I schedule my trip to Seoul, I consider the plausibility of the outbreak of a nuclear war in the next decade. As I write, I think of the America in which Mekas arrived in 1949, after World War II, and then I think of America today, whose current president has embarked on migration policies based on religious and racial prejudice.

How, then, can I hope to be right? What should all this have to do with the happy images running one after the other in films like Walden, This Side of Paradise, or My Mars Bar Movie? Nothing, in fact. So, in order to say that someday, yes, the century will be Mekassian, some warning signs need to be put in place.

That Jonas Mekas’s work speaks from today, and not just from the 1960s and 1970s—where it is placed in the chronologies of the manuals—seems to me to be clear if you consider a temporal date. In February 2005, YouTube was put online for the first time. A few months later, at the beginning of 2006, Mekas chose to continue his visual diary, not only in films but also on the Internet through the site, where he shared a series of videos produced for that context.

This promptness of reflexes is indicative in itself. The director is the only one of his generation to launch himself so enthusiastically, not so much towards the possibilities given by new technology as towards a new vision of moving images, and consequently towards a renewed vision of the world; indeed, towards a new world—which has become ours in the meantime—where the nature of the image is at once more fragmentary, ubiquitous, and pervasive.

Mekas’s approach to the web is gradual and comes—as always in his case—through practice and never in theory alone. In fact, the artist recalls how he initially saw the Internet as a means for reaching new audiences who may never have even heard of him before.

By sharing short sections of his unreleased films or footage from his archive, however, the filmmaker realizes that an understanding of the web as a functional medium is not enough. The first step, then, is to use the web to go back to images of the past—re-editing them, commenting on them with his own voice, linking them once again to a story that is both his own and that of art. Forty videos come out of this process, and they are all made in 2006 and regrouped into a series titled My First Forty. There is, in this new beginning, the desire to introduce through a vital stream something that risks being seen only nostalgically by others: “No, no, no, these are not memories. This is all real, what you see. Every image, every detail, everything is real. […] It has nothing to do with my memories anymore. Memories are gone, but the images rear, and they are real,” says Mekas in Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, a 2012 film that describes perfectly how much for him the images belong not to eternity, but to a never-ending infinite present.

The second step becomes concrete when the original content is filmed specifically to be posted on the Internet. The facts demonstrate that the digital dimension is neither secondary nor marginal in the economy of the sixty-year career of Mekas. In 2007, at the age of eighty-five, he created one of his most difficult works, a real act of love for life on screen. 365 Day Project is a titanic endeavor that involved creating, editing, and publishing a video for each day of the year. The entire film lasts about 38 hours and, in short periods, describes the thoughts, experiences, and relationships the artist experienced in that time span.

As in other films by the director, in 365 Day Project, there are scenes from quotidian life—a flower, rain, high volume music—and memorable events such as a Madonna concert, a party with Günter Grass, or a conversation with Harmony Korine. Of course, even looking at only a small part of this exquisite collection, some points of continuity with film reels are clearly recognized: an almost performative way of filming, where the images are born from the reaction of the body holding the machine; the front frame of the objects; the frequent use of camera editing; the self-portrait; the decision to show moments of individual happiness beyond any other criterion of relevance. Yet 365 Day Project is not (only) the continuation of cinema with other means. The rhythm of the work exposes Mekas to a different temporality, which changes the artist’s relationship with himself and with the spectator. Followed with meticulous discipline and releasing a clip each day for 365 days brings the film apparatus to temporarily coincide with writing for the first time. No longer condensed in a film but shared daily, the visual diary for which Mekas is known becomes a diary in all its effects—employing both its mode and frequency. At the same time, the nature of the images changes. Scenes from the life of the artist and his friends are no longer embedded in a flow that puts them in a continuum, from which at least a part of their meaning depends. In contrast, episodes that appear day-by-day on the timeline are isolated in the unity of a post, thus gaining value in themselves and by themselves.

Nothing seems to change, but everything actually changes. The philosophy of time that Mekas embraces reveals itself more clearly as a philosophy of the present moment. Each video that makes up 365 Day Project is different from the others in terms of subject, yet has the same vital quantity and momentum. In this sense, each post contains the following and stands for the previous ones, despite its irreplaceability. Through the lens of Mekas, a celebrity coincides with a newly blossomed flower, which in turn stands for the energy of a song sung out loud. And so the indivisible wholeness of life—just the one we see on the screen—expresses itself in every moment that is lived, filmed and donated to the spectator.

In 365 Day Project, editing seems to play a minor role, at least because in each of the clips the number of cuts is noticeably reduced. Filming prevails over editing and the camera is used as if it were an open window. Yet this is only true if the part played by the spectator is ignored. Those who look at the work in front of the screen are, in fact, given the possibility of composing the film, choosing what to look for, how long, and through which devices. The mobility of the eye in front of the screen, even though it is also activated in Mekas’s works that are distributed on multiple screens—such as the Destruction Quartet or Travel Song—in 365 Day Project becomes more articulate. Whether the gaze is like a viewfinder on the smooth surface of a smartphone or freely wanders in the panorama of a 27-inch, the spectators confront the images alone and thus become part of an intimacy that does not belong entirely to the life of the artist.

Once again history must be taken into account. Ryan Trecartin makes his first feature film, Family Finds Entertainment, in 2004, and is immediately compared, among others, to two New American Cinema Group filmmakers: Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. VVEBCAM, Petra Cortright’s first video performance, is posted on YouTube in 2007; while Amalia Ulman starts Excellences and Perfections on Instagram on April 19, 2014. In the same years that Mekas rethinks his cinema for the Internet, a new generation of artists begins to think about the temporality of moving images in the era of digital platforms. Despite obvious differences, 365 Day Project and the works I have referred to share substantial features which make them, in different ways, symbols of the last fifteen years. All four are, from the viewpoint of the artist, exercises of the self on the self [1]; they take place in a gap between the living, the live, and their temporal deferral; they are placed in a horizon of signs where their status as works is not defended by any institutional context. Dispersed in the leveling of the web, they are confronted directly and constantly with audiovisual objects not inscribed in the field of art.

The reasons for this synchronicity should be explored in depth. I would just like to limit myself to a hypothesis, which is perhaps counterintuitive. I wonder if the experience of the cinema of Mekas—but more generally of the New American Cinema Group—had in the 1960s in some way anticipated many traits of today’s digital culture. Could this not explain the naturalness with which the Lithuanian director felt that he had to move his cinema in that direction?

I reread the First Statement of the New American Cinema Group and, in fact, see many affinities. First, it should be remembered that the filmmakers who at that time recognized themselves in the group did not adhere to particular style-based beliefs. Their goal was to advocate a different way of producing films, as far away as possible from the praxis of those of Hollywood. In the first and second point of the manifesto—dated 30 September, 1962—one reads:


  1. We believe that cinema is indivisibly a personal expression. We therefore reject the interference of producers, distributors, and investors until our work is ready to be projected on the screen.


  1. We reject censorship. We never signed any censorship laws. Neither do we accept such relics as film licensing. No book, play or poem, no piece of music needs a license from anybody. We will take legal action against licensing and censorship of films, including that of the U.S. Customs Bureau. Films have the right to travel from country to country free of censors and the bureaucrats’ scissors. The United States should take the lead in initiating the program of free passage of films from country to country.


This desire to go beyond mediation figures to erase authority—which seems to resonate, at least in part, in the spirit with which the internet is still used by many artists—corresponds to the statement of absolute malleability of content and images, declared free to circulate not only outside of any territorial restriction but also outside of any authorization. Additionally, as a third element of affinity with the post-internet generation, it is work-around techniques and relatively low-cost solutions that can revolutionize audio-visual grammar. Again, in the first statement by the New American Cinema Group, we read:

  1. The New American Cinema is abolishing the Budget Myth […]. Our realistic budgets give us freedom from stars, studios, and producers. The filmmaker is his own producer, and paradoxically, low budget films give a higher return margin than big budget films. The low budget is not a purely commercial consideration. It goes with our ethical and esthetic beliefs, directly connected with the things we want to say, and the way we want to say them.

The ways in which images are produced have, according to this vision, an ethical and aesthetic relapse. Then I try to trace a parallel. The ease of access to the media and freedom from the economic models of mainstream cinema has meant that in the 60s and 70s, normally excluded or marginalized subjects have instead participated in the construction of a true independent film family. Women, for example: Storm De Hirsch, Shirley Clarke, and Barbara Rubin. The queer, for example: Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, and Gregory Markopoulos. Not to mention that Jonas Mekas himself, a refugee from Eastern Europe, has been recognized as the founder of a movement that, at least in name, is defined as American. I think of the parable of these authors, and I am immediately aware of today’s young artists who, coming from the peripheries of the world and of the art system, have been able to exploit the pervasive force of digital platforms and media to spread their practice in the world.

But the liberating potential of independent American cinema is not only measured in its inclusive nature. Jonas Mekas and his friends first released the moving image from any protocol or format. Through their work, film has faded out of the compulsion to tell a story, expanding beyond Hollywood prose and taking from time to time the form of an essay, poetry, aphorism, diary … The multiplication of linguistic forms has yielded an elasticity of formats, which were released from feature-length standards. In his production alone, Mekas goes from 2 minutes in When to 228 in The Education of Sebastian or Egypt Regained. It needs to be said that this preliminary dissociation of the time and the language of cinema is now fully realized in the endless possibilities of upload and streaming that are offered, but also in the new protocols that the artists of the next generation are called to do away with—from the 15 seconds of Instagram onwards.

The last—and perhaps most fundamental—point of contact I see is the understanding of the ubiquitous nature of images, which are left free to move from one work to another, from one screen to another, from one medium to another, into one continuous combinatorial fitting and replacement game. Always keeping the works of Jonas Mekas as a benchmark, here are some emblematic cases. Walden can be displayed on one or two screens, whilst Travel Song exists in both mono-channel and four-channel versions. And again, Destruction Quartet—which is already featured on four monitors—is then embedded in the installation called The Beast, which has sixteen monitors. And again, the same scene shot at Montauk is mounted in This Side of Paradise, as well as in Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol—but it also appears among the still-movies that Mekas calls “rillettes.” It is a victory of the fragment and frame over the closed work that we should all be familiar with.

I do not know if these few clues I have are sufficient to trace a solid genealogy from New American Cinema to post-Internet. Yet, yes, I can say that there is no one who has seen the future of motion pictures in the way that Jonas Mekas has. Suddenly my prophecy becomes a little bit truer: One day, I am sure, the century will be Mekassian. Indeed, maybe the century is already there. Do we not all have a camera in our pockets that makes us, at least potentially, independent filmmakers? Do we not all, or almost all, keep a visual diary on our timelines where we gather the insignificant and yet happy moments of our existence? Why are we not all—no one excluded—Jonas Mekas? This is, I am sure, the question that will save us one day.

[1]   I borrow this expression from Michel Foucault. Cfr. Michel Foucault, The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom, in Paul Rabinow (edited by), Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, The Penguin Press, London 1997, pp. 281-301.

Text by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi: the essay will be published on the exhibition catalogue, which also features texts by Bartomeu Marí, P. Adams Sitney, Pip Chodorov, Eunhee Kim, Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

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