Vertical Roll

Critical Review: Joan Jonas's Vertical Roll

I watched Joan Jonas's Vertical Roll, a number of times and because of this I ended up viewing the tape in two different ways. In my first impression I saw the piece as a rhythmic malfunction where the viewer undergoes fragmentation and repetition. After seeing the tape a couple more times I metaphorically associated the frames as a depiction of women and how they are viewed in our society.

At first, I took the film for what it was a technical exploration; this tape was made without edits and uses a technical feature only found in video production, the vertical roll. "A vertical roll results from two out-of-sync frequencies, the frequency signal sent to the monitor and the frequency by which it is interpreted" (130, Crimp). When they are both the same it makes the image stable; and by doing this Jonas creates a series of perceptual illusions. The rolling pictures and constant banging sound of the wooden blocks create a regular, structured rhythm for the viewer.

Consistently throughout the tape the roll seems to jump slightly, almost sticking the bottom of the screen, and whips back up. In one particular sequence, Jonas bangs a spoon against a mirror, creating the illusion of a relationship between the sound and the image disturbance (the rest of the film isn't spoons at all but the banging of wooden blocks). Another sequence shows Jonas marching towards the foreground of the screen with only her legs and feet visible. She begins to jump up and down completely in sync with the banging rhythm, and not entirely in sync with the vertical roll as it hits the bottom of the screen. Some say, and I would have to agree, that it appears Jonas is jumping over the roll, like that of a "electronic jump rope." By far the most interesting sequence has to be the one preceding this, where Jonas drops to the ground and places her hands on the floor. Her left hand is down and her right palm up. As she pats upward with her right hand, the roll produces the impression of the hands clapping together.

The tape concludes with Jonas's head in front of the screen, with the vertical roll still appearing behind her. It appears that Jonas's head is being hammered down, out of the picture revealing a simple white space.

After I read more information about Jonas, and viewed the film again I started to see the film metaphorically. As Jonas herself has stated, " . . .all of my performances are concerned in part with the image as metaphor. There is an emotion in the image that cannot be translated. The image contains it. The performance sees herself as a medium, information passes through." Keeping this in mind when watching Vertical Roll, again I saw Jonas's view of how women are depicted in society today, especially through the eyes of males.

In a few sequences Jonas is shot naked wearing two different masks. The masks have a done-up type look to them, with these fake smiles. Like many of the women in our culture, who will not leave their bedroom without "putting on their faces." The sequence where Jonas is dressed in a dancers' costume, which has a dominatrix look to it, the viewer gets to stare at various parts of her body as the camera zooms in to her torso, her lower back, chest, etc. The shots get repeated through the use of the vertical roll, emphasizing a male's fantasy of what a woman should look like. Jonas is not only wearing a skimpy outfit but she also happens to be a particularly thin woman; weight is just another issue consistently presented to women day in and day out in today's society. At the end of the tape, the viewer gets this eerie stare from Jonas herself; the face naked of any make-up as well as emotionless. The viewer gets the feeling that it is the woman finally getting to stare at and inspect the man.

Whether someone reads the tape the same as I did is irrelevant to the fact that the piece is expressive, holding our interest almost hypnotically, and jarring our thoughts well after it is over, even if it's just the redundant sound of the banging blocks playing over and over in our heads!

--Dawn Ambrose,2001

Vertical Roll response

I could not understand the movie because the constant motion and the sound effects. It was like nails on a chalk board to me.
--Helene Dacey, 2000

Although this film is not aesthetically pleasing or easy to listen to, Vertical Roll is truly a work of art. Jonas makes a connection between the movement of the frames and the sound she adds. Hence, the video's sound and movement give off a mechanical feel. Personally, I felt that it was amazing to see this kind of video since most of the other early video art contained recordings of performances. Vertical Roll was not exactly a performance, but an overall collection of performances to test the spectator's visual and auditory tolerance.
--Eva Jones, 2000

Joan Jonas Work