‘After I finished IS IT REALLY SO STRANGE? in 2004, it became difficult for me to make another long film. I was left with the question of how to continue a body of work under adverse circumstances, since the conditions of funding and the technological possibilities for independent filmmaking have changed radically over the past twenty years. Experimental filmmakers of previous generations have found ways to cope, ensconcing themselves in academia or becoming technical fetishists—repairing cameras and going on eBay to find 16-mm projector parts. That is not my situation. I thought it was more important to do things that were in keeping with my interests rather than rigidly adhering to an arbitrary form like the feature-length film.
‘I began to adopt a practice more like that of an artist than that of a filmmaker. An independent filmmaker puts everything into a project that can take years to realize. Every thought, every feeling, every bit of money goes into one movie, and if that movie is a flop (as it often is), financial and emotional devastation follow. It is a very difficult way to live one’s life. My first two films each took approximately six years to make, and I was lucky. The films were screened, they were released on video, and I was able to make more of them, but I got tired of the protracted struggles. I have come to prefer the way many painters work, making several pieces at once, switching from one to another, and ultimately producing a number of discrete works.
‘Becoming more prolific and being less attached to any one work has been liberating. If someone doesn’t like a particular movie of mine, it doesn’t matter much; there are plenty of others to see. For me, it is most important to continue making work and to be part of a discussion—to be present in the world. I think artists are a bit better at doing this than filmmakers are. Even highly successful feature filmmakers go silent for a while.
‘Those who make theatrical films have the privilege of getting the undivided attention of a group of people for a certain amount of time. Cinema spectators walk into a theater, they all see the same movie, and they have a common experience that allows for a discussion. This sounds old-fashioned, and I suppose it is. The experience of seeing art is more in tune with contemporary society as a whole, where distraction is the rule. Most art spectators wander in and out of galleries looking at moving-image works in a casual way.
‘At first I considered this distracted attention nothing but a problem, but then I came to understand that a different context provides me with an opportunity to make another kind of work. A long film produced with an economy of means must have a sustained argument, narrative, or visual strategy to lend it coherence. An artist can produce a work that has an extreme and concentrated visual impact, almost like an abstract painting, and this possibility is entirely appropriate to the cinema. Many of the first films projected in public offered brief views of subjects that were thrilling and sublime, like Niagara Falls or, in the earliest instance, a train arriving at La Ciotat station. Independent films have neglected the cinema’s genius for providing cheap thrills, but big-budget films certainly haven’t. Critics ridicule movies that consist of almost nothing but explosions, but they fulfill an enduring need in spectators. From the very beginning of cinema, that’s what movies have been, explosions! So I am making my own explosions, in another context.’ — William E. Jones, Artforum
William E. Jones @ David Kordansky Gallery
Sexuality as a Utopian Promise
WEJ on Luther Price
william.e.jones @ instagram
ONE GREAT READER, SERIES 2, NO. 5: WILLIAM E. JONES
WEJ @ goodreads
VERN BLOSUM, PHANTOM
An Invocation of Ghosts: William E. Jones’s “Killed”
WEJ @ MUBI
Enterprise Square USA: A capitalist hallucination
William E. Jones, by Stuart Comer
William E. Jones Pleas for More Translations of Yayoi Kusama’s Writing
WEJ @ Letterboxd
Top 10 – William E. Jones
William E. Jones: Urgency and Impermanence
William E. Jones: Punctured
THOSE FRAGMENTS MADE ME FALL ASLEEP: WILLIAM E. JONES’ “FALL INTO RUIN”
Towards Law as an Artistic Medium: William E. Jones’s Tearoom
Halsted Plays Himself by William E. Jones
Interview with William E. Jones
William E. Jones – CRUISING THE PUBLIC DOMAIN (Italian)
William E. Jones in conversation — May 18th, 2019
LUIGI FASSI To approach your work, it’s useful to talk about your professional activities and your background. I know you are an art professor in Los Angeles, and you’re also involved in the gay adult industry. Is that right?
WILLIAM E. JONES I teach in various art schools in Southern California. Until recently, I also worked for Larry Flynt, producing a line of DVD compilations of material in the archives. Through various acquisitions, Flynt now has a library of approximately 750 gay porn titles produced from 1970 to 1999. My job was to make bargain DVDs (four hours for ten dollars) composed of scenes from these old movies. Now that many people get access to porn via the internet, the appeal of such DVDs is limited. When the line of DVDs I produced was no longer profitable, it was discontinued, and I was laid off.
LUIGI What interests me most in your work is the way in which it deals with desire. In many of your works, the dynamics of desire are inextricably interwoven with the awareness of social control and repression. It’s a sort of dialectical contrast that makes your art very intriguing, bringing together romanticism and struggle, nostalgia and subversion.
WILLIAM E. A work that invokes desire without acknowledging some wider context may be pleasant and digestible, but it doesn’t particularly interest me. Sexuality can be an agent of social control, as anyone can see by turning on a television. But it also has a utopian promise, something that cannot (yet) be reduced to a coercive formula, an enforced cheerfulness, a new style of conformity. The pursuit of sex allows people of different social and economic groups to mix. I suppose what I say is tinged with a nostalgia for homosexuality’s former outlaw status, at least in the capitalist West. Is it possible for people to be free as sexual beings, rather than resigning themselves to being ‘good citizens’ acquiring partners, real estate, children, etc.? Perhaps a satisfactory answer to that question is one of the things I am looking for when I make my work.
LUIGI So you look back on homosexuality’s former outlaw status in the US as a time when paradoxically, sex was still able to create a space for resistance and individual/collective agency? That sounds really interesting, because it poses the question of whether homosexuality could and still can be analyzed as a cultural niche able to resist or even disrupt the power of capitalism and the commodification of personal relations.
WILLIAM E. This is a difficult question to endorse fully, because I have always believed in the struggle for gay rights, and I don’t wish to take back any of the advances of the movement. To situate my answer within the realm of contemporary American politics, I think that the recent legal maneuvering around the issue of marriage has had the effect of silencing much dissent among queer people. We did not bring the marriage question to the discussion; it was imposed upon us by our adversaries. The political strategy meetings where ‘gay leaders’ replaced universal health care with marriage equality as the main goal of the American gay rights movement were a catastrophe from which we will not recover for a long time.
LUIGI Sexuality becomes a tool of political and social critique in all your work, as in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, which shows the brutal exploitation of young men in the porn industry run with Western money after 1989 in Budapest, Prague and Moscow. Can you tell me more about how you look at the relationship between sexuality and politics?
WILLIAM E. In the Socialist East, political power was not dependent upon money at all, though one did get material rewards for loyalty to the party. In America, where our recently elected president raised nearly a billion dollars in campaign funds, everyone with the slightest degree of political awareness knows that money and political power are connected. The young men who appeared in post-1989 Eastern European porn were just figuring this out, and clearly would do almost anything for money. What kind of power could they exert in this context? They had only their bodies, their availability as sex objects, to use.
LUIGI Your most intense work to me is Tearoom, shown this year at the Whitney Biennial. Together with Mansfield 1962, it’s very raw footage, encompassing all the themes that run through your work and highlighting strategies of social control. Can you tell me how the work came to be and how you got interested in the whole story?
WILLIAM E. The historical circumstances of Tearoom were not especially well known, but they had a personal importance for me. I was born in 1962, during the period between the arrests in the case and the first appearance of the suspects in court. Mansfield, Ohio is an hour’s drive away from my hometown of Massillon. While I was growing up, no one ever talked about the dozens of men convicted of sodomy or the tactics used to round them up. I knew nothing at all about the cases until I happened to find a film about them on the Internet. Some years ago I found a police instructional film called Camera Surveillance. It made use of amazing surveillance footage of men having sex in a public rest room. This film inspired me to do a substantial amount of research and was the basis of my video Mansfield 1962. Later, a friend gave me the email address of someone he thought would know about the original police surveillance footage. This man, the filmmaker Bret Wood, told me that a former Mansfield Chief of Police had been keeping the footage in his garage for many years. When Wood asked about it, he simply handed it to him. Wood very generously allowed me to use this footage. My first viewing of the tape was one of the most intense experiences I have had as a spectator. I then attempted to make various interventions in the material, but none of them ‘improved’ it in any way. I ultimately decided not to modify it. Tearoom is essentially a found object, partly because I wanted to retain the sense of awe I had when I saw the footage for the first time. My lack of intervention also makes a great multiplicity of readings possible. A central paradox of Tearoom: it is strictly ‘factual’ and was made with very specific intentions, and yet it is mysterious.
LUIGI In All Male Mash Up, you present a montage of hundreds of hours of gay porn movies from the Sixties on, focusing on marginalia, such as urban landscapes and dialog scenes, without featuring any sex scenes. The characters range from bikers, to swimmers, to cops, transmitting an unexpected, fascinating image of the American social history over the last forty years. Nostalgia and loneliness appear to be the main ingredients in these documents. What do you think makes these forgotten materials so effective, seen after a few decades?
WILLIAM E. The people who best remember these movies and the milieu they record often fail to see the interest in All Male Mash Up. The work has a much more powerful effect on people who were not even born when some of these scenes were shot. This leads me to conclude that nostalgia is almost entirely synthetic. I suppose Roland Barthes said something like this (far better) decades ago, but I slowly come to my conclusions in my own way. The clone generation that features prominently in All Male Mash Up became the most independent group of urban men in American history. They had sufficient access to money, space and friendly social networks to be lone sexual beings, amusing themselves when they chose with sex, drugs and disco. Though they were the pioneers of Western hyper-consumerism, the presence of so many single gay men pursuing frankly sexual interests threatened conservative notions of the nuclear family, the model unit of capitalist society. As we all know, AIDS brought this glamorous social experiment to an abrupt halt. Men who had lived by and for themselves suddenly had to be cared for; non-stop celebration became non-stop mourning.
LUIGI The ambiguity of nostalgia as a synthetic feeling is really an interesting issue in your work. You seem to create an epistemological shift in the relationship between reality and fiction, opening up a new, unexpected dimension of meaning.
WILLIAM E. What interests me in the material I use—and this holds true for any fiction film—is what I call a ‘documentary effect’. As years pass, fashions, urban landscapes and social forms all change, and the intense interest of spectators begins to break down. Instead of paying attention to the heroine about to be rescued from the top of a building, we notice that the building itself no longer exists in our world. The fiction film eventually becomes a documentary of its own making, a collection of images of dead people miming obsolete social mores in spaces no longer extant. At that point, which could be called the point of diegetic failure, a film can become another object entirely, one superior to the object intended by its makers. Films take on a whole new life and become available to our imaginations in exciting new ways. Porn films, which are generally understood as purely functional, can achieve a radical new status after many years. They no longer hold much commercial appeal, but to those looking for traces of the gay life of the past, even in highly contrived forms, they are a treasure trove.
LUIGI What do you think of the art scene in Los Angeles right now?
WILLIAM E. Los Angeles’s art scene has been formed by a number of different, contradictory forces. The presence of the entertainment industry reinforces a kind of conservatism, one perhaps with a narcissistic edge. The lack of significant local support for artists compels us to travel constantly, so the provincialism that once plagued Los Angeles art can hardly be said to exist anymore. Many are now speculating about the effects of the recent ‘correction’ in the art market. Optimists look forward to smarter and more adventurous art from Los Angeles. Pessimists expect a retrenchment, a reiteration of this city’s near-compulsory embrace of traditional painting. My own personal position in all this is fairly simple: I produced work on an extreme economy of means before the crash, and I will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
Most of William E. Jones’s films and videos
The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, 1988
‘Every image in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography comes from gay adult videos produced in Eastern Europe since the introduction of capitalism. The video provides a glimpse of young men responding to the pressures of an unfamiliar world, one in which money, power and sex are now connected.’ — WEJ
‘The filmmaker returns to his hometown to construct an unconventional and moving autobiography. Challenging some of the most firmly entrenched notions of filmmaking, Massillon tells its story without a single human actor, by combining beautiful images with a seductive voice-over narration.’ — WEJ
‘In this essay film, the narrator describes how his fixation on a gay pornographic model from a phone sex advertisement leads to a new project, an elegy for a complex, troubled man named Alain Lebeau.’ — upstuffkino
Is It Really So Strange?, 2005
‘Is It Really So Strange? investigates the cult of singer Morrissey which has developed in Los Angeles: William E. Jones interviews contemporary fans of The Smiths and Morrissey and immersed himself in fan nights, concerts and hair grease to record what he found to be a complex world: Theres a new brand of Morrissey fan among the Latinos and Hispanics of Los Angeles fans, gay and straight, discuss what Morrissey and his music mean to them. Based mostly in the eastern suburbs of the city, this unexpected cultural development has seen the growth of Morrissey-themed club nights, the rise of the jet-black quiff and even supports its own Mexican-fronted Smiths tribute act, the Sweet and Tender Hooligans. Is It Really So Strange? allows the fans themselves to speak at length about their lives, their loves, and their brief encounters with their idol. They show their bedroom shrines, talk about the nostalgic fashion of the scene, and reveal the private passions that compelled them to worship this working class Irish boy from Manchester who became a great pop star, then moved to Los Angeles.’ — Viennale
‘In William E. Jones’s silent video “Killed” (2009), a two-minute sequence of 130 appropriated black-and- white stills replays six times in rapid-fire progression on a continuous loop. Each still is a Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentary photograph, taken between 1935 and 1939. What distinguishes these photographs from others of the renowned U.S. government-funded photography project is that the negative for each was hole-punched, signifying rejection by the agency’s head. The resulting puncture, which rendered the negative unprintable as a seamless document, features prominently in the piece as both a mesmerizing graphic element and as an invocation of the ghosts of social documentary photography. With “Killed,” Jones elicits a reconsideration of documentary photography as an agency of social awareness and as an art–not in the interest of reviving it in the literal sense, but out of regard for the type of attention to the social landscape exemplified by the genre.’ — x-tra
‘There might never be a more bountiful kingdom of photography than that established under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration and ruled by the former economist Roy Stryker, some 171,000 negatives made to document Depression America between 1935 and 1942. Though he was no photographer (Gordon Parks joked that he couldn’t even load a camera), Stryker pulled no punches during his reign. “I never took a picture,” he once wrote, “and yet I felt a part of every picture taken. I sat in my office in Washington and yet I went into every home in America. I was both the Stabilizer and the Exciter.”
‘In his video “Punctured,” a reformatted version of his 2009 film “Killed,” the LA-based artist William E. Jones has performed a sort of perverse resurrection of Stryker’s perforated negatives, a Lazurus act that’s doubly miraculous because it uses the powers of video animation to raise up the quite-dead world of documentary photography. From 100 perforated images he located in the Library of Congress archives, Jones has produced 4,500 digital files at different scales of enhancement and organized these into a hypnotically syncopated, nearly five-minute-long looped movie. The structural logic is provided by Stryker’s hole itself: each of the hundred images appears for a total of around three seconds, beginning with an enlarged, screen-filling close-up of the negative space of Stryker’s hole, a giant black spot that then smoothly and very rapidly appears to recede in size as the surrounding photograph comes into view. Then, bang, another Stryker reject appears, with the same fast zoom-out, from hole to whole.’ — Eric Banks
Spatial Disorientation, 2010
‘The original footage of Spatial Disorientation is a flight test seen from the cockpit of a U. S. Air Force plane. The material has been edited into a loop that repeats in variations: magenta and green, with motion blurs applied to each individual frame, some blurs parallel to the horizon line in the shot, and others perpendicular to it. The result is a visually complex movie with stroboscopic sequences that are a challenge to the eye.’ — WEJ
sequence of digital files, black and white, silent
sequence of digital files, black and white, silent
The Soviet Army Prepares for Action in Afghanistan, 2011
‘The Soviet Army Prepares for Action in Afghanistan is derived from four shots of a Soviet film called Heirs of Victory (1975) which commemorates the Allied triumph over fascism in World War II. The original film celebrates the military might of the USSR in images of explosions and armed men leaping through flames. These images are subjected to such thorough manipulation that they become patterns flickering like a multitude of abstract paintings, with digital smears standing in for squeegee marks and brush strokes. Slowly the shots become less abstract until they are completely recognizable, though still somehow rather surreal.’ — moviefone
Shoot Don’t Shoot, 2012
‘SHOOT DON’T SHOOT adapts a law enforcement instructional film that trains officers to decide by instinct whether or not to fire their guns. The suspect in this sequence fits the following description: “A black man wearing a pinkish shirt and yellow pants.”’ — Viennale
Bay of Pigs, 2012
‘Bay of Pigs makes further use of documentary, albeit in a more abstract fashion, using a kaleidoscopic mirroring effect on clips from Cuban-made film Girón (1974), a film ‘captured’ by the CIA (and accessed by Jones in the CIA library) on account of its documentation of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion from a Cuban point of view. Though Jones’s treatment of flying war planes crossing the skies effectively disorientates, playing on the misrecognition that takes place for the video’s owners, who see themselves depicted as the enemy, it is edited in such a way as to render the aeroplanes abstract, and an accompanying soundtrack of numerical codes exacerbates this almost mathematical, patternlike treatment of violence.’ — Art Review
Model Workers, 2014
‘Model Workers presents a collection of paper money bearing images of workers. Intricately engraved details are arranged in chronological order; full views of the banknotes are in reverse chronological order, ending at the beginning: Mexico, 1914. The montage includes colonies and the independent countries they became, as well as former and present socialist states. Workers from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe are represented.’ — WEJ
Psychic Driving, 2014
‘In William E. Jones’ Psychic Driving, a 1979 television broadcast, in which the wife of a Canadian M.P. details her horrific ordeal during CIA-backed mind-control experiments, disintegrates into a psychedelic miasma of scan lines and video interference.’ — Letterboxd
Fall Into Ruin, 2017
‘Fall into Ruin tells the story of artist William E. Jones’s relationship with Alexander Iolas (1907-1987), a Greek art dealer from Alexandria active in New York and European cities from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. Iolas had close connections to the Surrealists, to artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme, and to American artists such as Ed Ruscha, Harold Stevenson, and Paul Thek. At the height of his career, he maintained galleries in New York, Paris, Madrid, Geneva, Milan, and Athens.’ — WEJ
‘The soundtrack of Discrepancy, read by the computer voice “Alex,” is adapted from the film Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951) by Isidore Isou. The film is Isou’s manifesto of cinéma discrepant. The fundamental principle of “discrepant cinema” is a disregard of the image in order to privilege written narration. There is no attempt to illustrate the text. The relation of sound and image can—indeed, should—be as arbitrary and opaque as possible. Furthermore, the images are often “chiseled,” i.e., scratched, dirtied, splattered with ink and distressed beyond recognition. Isou engaged in a perverse iconoclasm in a medium conventionally understood to be primarily visual. In his manifesto, he argued that he did violence to the image in order to renew the film medium. He also asserted that “any novelist can make a film without spending a penny.” Discrepancy (2008–2017) follows Isou’s example and presents a wide variety of films, most of them found in the Library of Congress. These include films produced by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Viet Nam, and China, confiscated by the US government, and now part of the CIA Film Library. There are also abstract films, erotic films, and television documentaries in this 12-screen version of Discrepancy, a project that can conceivably be produced in infinite variations, as long as new film footage can be found.’ — Yale Union
3000 Killed, 2017
‘3000 Killed consists of 2992 images, plus explanatory titles at the beginning and end, without zooms.’ — WEJ
p.s. Hey. ** David, Hi. I broke one of my teeth eating a tortilla chip a few years ago. I thought ‘whatever’ but then it got fucked up and they had to pull the tooth out. So … Good week to you too, sir. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hey, Ben. First, belated very happy birthday!!!! Hm, ‘Censor’ does look quite intriguing. I’m on it. New Paul Morley book, awesome, and on such a rich subject! ** Dominik, Hi, D!!!! Well, I have to fill out this form proving I live here, meaning I have to gather a whole bunch of rent and utility bill receipts and stuff, etc., a big headache, but maybe just maybe this mess is at the end. Bickering family members, urgh, yeah, I know what that’s like very well, which is why I do everything possible to see mine one-on-one. I’ll happily take your love of yesterday, obviously. I’m no fool, ha ha. Thank you. PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT TODAY’S LOVE IF YOU DO NOT INTEND TO HAVE SEX WITH IT, G. ** Tosh Berman, I’ll for sure try to see the Wright film then. Oh, I really loved ‘The French Dispatch’. I thought pretty much everything about it was brilliant and dazzling and a total joy. It’s not his deepest film, but I thought that, in terms of the filmmaking, it’s him at the height of his powers. So, yeah, I adored it. ** Bzzt, Hey! I’m … fairly okay. You’re here! I’m around, let’s hang? I’m pretty free after Wednesday. What’s good? Do you have my email? Let’s make a plan. Great, have tons of French fun! ** Sypha, Hi. Yes, I obviously liked ‘Rocksong’ very much. See what you think. I don’t really know anything about the new ‘Matrix’ either, and I thought the two sequels were pretty hit and miss, but I’m very interested to see what the Wachowskis do with that material, and now that both of them have transitioned I’m even more curious about where they’ll be coming from. Fingers crossed. Well, Andrew’s book sounds intriguing on a plot level. How would you characterise his writing style? ** Brendan, Hi, B! No, I haven’t seen ‘The Card Counter’. I don’t think it has opened here yet, or else I missed it. I’ll find out. I’d rather see it in a cinema, but online will do. Yes, I got your email. I had the worst last week and half +, so I’m only just starting to catch up on things. Thanks, my pal, I’m excited to see the images! Love, me. ** David Ehrenstein, I don’t get drunk anymore, and I’m not a big beach fan, but the moon’s cool. ** Bill, Hi. The Tax Board and I are making progress, and that’s the best I can hope for, it seems. So, we’ll see. I think maybe Hetero_Slave is just a little too tan to be Chalamet, although I haven’t seen ‘Dune’. Seems like he might be tanned in that. I loved ‘The French Dispatch’. What a total pleasure. Just what I needed. ** T, Hi. Yeah, that is tricky: the balancing act between one’s cold face and warm humid body. But good tricky. Oh, maybe if you catch me today, we could meet up today. Tomorrow’s kind of busy. Or else the weekend if nothing else, yes, that’ll work. Your riff/mutation of Fun?fun!’s schpiel is a good idea. What to do with it. Hm … Ha ha, that would quite a day, and I’ll … try, god willing. I hope every Paris store you enter today offers you a free trampoline with gratis delivery. ** Steve Erickson, I envied that sentence. I am less frantic. And very slightly in less trouble. Baby steps = welcome. Everyone, Here’s Steve’s November review roundup with Lotic, Oscar and the Wolf, and Cakes da Killa. Good luck with the booster. We’re required to get one here, otherwise our vax pass will become invalid, and mine’s next month. ** l@rst, Hi, L. The Lim is a goodie. Is ‘Action Kylie’ extremely out of print? I only have my copy, and I’m hanging onto it. Hm. Best of luck. It’s a super swell book, duh. I loved ‘The French Dispatch’ too. I honestly don’t see why one wouldn’t love it, but that’s love for you. Post office, yes. There are two packages waiting for me downstairs at the concierge’s office today, so maybe I’ll get lucky re: yours. ** Right. If you haven’t known the fine and rangy films and videos of Mr. Willian E. Jones, you do now, or, rather, you have a golden opportunity. See you tomorrow.