Film/Art | Another Space of Reference: The Performances and Videos of Ulysses Jenkins

By Jesse Cumming

“The content of my videotape involves documentary subject matter. The visuals combined with music are the attempt to create the mood of the community…in certain sequences light reflections create forms in space.”

—Ulysses Jenkins, “Comment on Video Tape” (1977)

“This is called Black Montage. This is a conglomeration of some of the great Black heroes in American history.”

—Ulysses Jenkins, Remnants of the Watts Festival (1980)

Greater than the sum of its individual elements, interests, or artistic approaches, there is a cumulative electricity that runs through the work of American artist Ulysses Jenkins. His is a practice that invites audiences in while at the same time reaching ever outward. That the retrospective exhibition Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation at Berlin’s Julia Stoschek Foundation is able to channel and replicate such gestures elevates it to a rare, thrilling experience. Following two revelatory presentations at Philadelphia’s ICA and Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum in 2021 and 2022, respectively, the international debut presentation of the exhibition further solidifies Jenkins’ belatedly vaunted status in the realms of video and performance art, both within and beyond the context of his West Coast ecosystem. 

Similarly, while the work itself remains rooted in and responsive to Jenkins’ North American context, the Stoschek presentation serves to amplify the transnational thematic present across several of the artist’s videos. Brilliantly and beautifully co-curated by Erin Christovale and Meg Onli, with work drawn from across decades of Jenkins’ practice, the show’s installation is so thoughtful and comfortable that it’s easy to forget the inherent challenges associated with the presentation of both performance and video work, be they issues of documentation, duration, or sound. Inviting and enriching, Without Your Interpretation is the rare moving image–oriented exhibition that serves to invigorate rather than drain the more time one spends with it. 

Of all the adjectives typically associated with video art of the ’70s through the ’90s, it’s rare to hear mention of the medium’s depth. Beyond the imposing CRT monitors often employed for gallery presentations, the early and adolescent years of video are more often associated with a flatness of form and limited image quality than any sort of aesthetic or conceptual expansiveness. Immersing oneself in Jenkins’ practice, however, one is immediately struck by the remarkable sense of volume inherent in his decades-long work in video. While the genesis of most of the projects as live performances before their migration to single-channel video is undeniably a leading factor, their eventual reinterpretations are uniquely considered in terms of space and environment. Compared with the swaths of cassettes and open reels from the same era that captured performances in a primarily documentary mode—resulting in valuable, if often inadequate approximations of the original event—Jenkins’ videos not only retain their original liveness, but are also enhanced by a concerted, conceptual use of the medium that elevates the work. The result is dynamic, with a perennial freshness unhindered by the now-antiquated technology. With the video aesthetic serving as more than pat trappings or flourishes, Jenkins’ videotapes are the result of a considered meeting between two different modes of expression, guided by an exceptionally talented practitioner of both who remains acutely aware of each form’s nature, limitations, and possibilities. 

To extend the refined spatial understanding in the videos into the realm of the metaphorical, one might understand Jenkins’ conceptual interests and approach in terms of the vertical and the horizontal. On the former axis we repeatedly find a layering of history, influence, and inheritance, ranging from references to ancient art and the legacy of slavery (and, by extension, its lingering traces born out in minstrelsy and other racist stereotypes), as well as the nature of Black art pedagogy, mentorship, and inspiration. This historical-minded approach exists alongside a comparable horizontal axis, which places Jenkins’ own life and work alongside those that populate his constellation of collaborators, while broader consideration of Black American life and artistic expression are considered alongside the North American Indigenous experience and global experiences of Blackness.

Appropriately, for work so considered in its approach to space, the exhibition installation is refreshingly perambulatory: with little by way of a fixed or linear trajectory, the presentation instead assembles a series of separate alcoves and screening rooms in loosely chronological order, often with a single work presented alone, or accompanied by photos and print ephemera. Yet even as the exhibition invites the audience to drift through Jenkins’ body of work and experience its own, internal sense of layering, visitors are initially greeted by a prelude comprising two early landmark projects, with a photo documentation of the performance Just Another Rendering of the Same Old Problem (1979) installed opposite the early, iconic video Mass of Images (1978). Pointed in their engagement with interrelated questions of race, representation, and the power of media, these pieces offer a groundwork for subsequent projects that engage with similar themes in ever more layered and expansive undertakings.

Shot in raw black and white, Mass of Images begins with Jenkins emerging from behind a stack of television sets in a studio. Donning a shiny mask and sunglasses that give his face the same reflective quality as the television screens, with an American flag scarf wrapped around his neck, the artist suggests a conflation between an individual—particularly Black Americans—and the cumulative yet limited representation that domestic media had offered until that point. “You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know from years and years of TV shows,” Jenkins proclaims, the point furthered by the inclusion of still images from The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Jazz Singer (1927) alongside early Black performers like Burt Williams and Hattie McDaniel.

Questions of representation and media—particularly the internalization of the latter’s harmful messages—is an essential element of the exceptional Two-Zone Transfer (1979), which is present in one of the richest and most fully realized of the exhibition’s rooms. A fine example of Jenkins’ twin interests in layered and comparative considerations, the video’s examination of the relationship between media, daily life, and dreams begins and ends on a bus. While the title of the work, and the ticket Jenkins purchases, suggests movement across the city, it also suggests the oscillation between conscious and unconscious states of being. 

“Most performance events occur in the cultural context of Caucasian environments. This performance brought the audience into contact with another space of reference,” reads an archival text by Jenkins displayed nearby. “The element of travel through time and place was used to transfer the viewer’s consciousness into a Black consciousness via a dream.” Accordingly, Two-Zone Transfer soon drifts into this realm of the oneiric, with Jenkins surrounded by a trio of Black men wearing rubber Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford masks, each smeared with shoe polish to approximate a DIY blackface, in a typically Jenkinsian bit of complex layering. They take turns invoking stereotypically harmful talking points about Black Americans, particularly their innovations in music. Blurring invocation with refutation, the final half of the piece shortly finds Jenkins—still, or again, in the realm of dreams—lip-syncing to James Brown’s Live at the Apollo while sporting an almost entirely unbuttoned shirt in a fog-filled living room, alongside three back-up “singers” swaying in unison. 

In addition to the video itself, the exhibition installation features a vitrine with historical material (including an exhibition poster designed by Jenkins’ former classmate Kerry James Marshall, who also appears in the video) and a sculptural project that mounts the manipulated masks from the video alongside an emptied television-set façade, a vinyl record, and a straw dress. (Refreshing in its tactility and a welcome moment of pause amidst the bounty of the moving-image works, one almost wished to have encountered more such sculptures throughout the show.) A final and particularly pleasing element is the room’s burgundy carpeting, which is present in over half of the exhibition’s various screening rooms but in this case feels like an extension of the video’s living-room performance sequence. 

Taking up particularly prime real estate in the exhibition are two of the most provocative, densely layered, and rewarding projects from Jenkins’ oeuvre, each an example of his ever-deeper embrace of video technology and experimentation at the turn of the ’80s. Originating in a 24-hour collaborative performance, and featuring appearances by Senga Nengudi and others, Dream City (1983) is a non-narrative, non-linear mashup of punk, religion, and spirituality. Across its endlessly energetic six minutes, the original footage of musical performances and a shirtless Jenkins is run through multiple layers of colourful manipulation, cut against additional material, and guided by layered soundscapes. 

Described in an accompanying note as “a metamorphic ritual in time,” the piece is the first to incorporate Jenkins’ Griot alter ego, an appropriate gesture for a performance piece that invited participants to share their dreams and centres on the act of recitation. In lieu of dream analysis, however, Jenkins here offers amplification, exploring and exploiting the capabilities of video technology to project fragments of the fantastical onto equally fragmented glimpses of Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Yet despite this immersion in the dream realm, the film never entirely abandons the real world, incorporating references to real-estate queries and the stock market—the stuff of nightmares. 

Next door to the expansive presentation of Dream City at the Stoschek stands another foundational Jenkins work, Inconsequential Doggereal (1981), whose title contains a term that, although deliberately misspelled, has served as a sort of guiding ethos for the artist (it makes another appearance in the title of his recently reprinted memoir, Doggerel Life: Stories of a Los Angeles Griot). In an undated, presumably contemporaneous text entitled “The Nature of Doggerel,” Jenkins writes that “my work…is a didactical multi-layered content: experimental, documentary and narrative, yet my structure is doggerel; it is contemplation…I have composed an evolving sequence of rituals, which are in constant state of metamorphosis. The rituals are concerned with social crisis and survival.”

Inconsequential Doggereal itself is one of Jenkins’ most ambitious and accomplished feats of assemblage, wherein the ever spatially aware artist undertakes a radical experiment in flattening, examining the ways in which the then-standard means of delivery—namely, broadcast television—can locate the commercial on the same level as the artistic, and even the pornographic. Part plunderphonics, part kitsch, part essay film, Doggereal rapidly moves between sourced television clips, original footage of couples in both harmony and discord, and Jenkins himself in various staged sequences, before a final passage holds on him in a foggy clearing with a football, fully clothed and then entirely naked. Throughout, the exploitation of and plays with cinematic and televisual devises is accompanied by William Kraft’s cinematic score, which elevates even the most rough-hewn material to the realm of popular culture and beyond. Jenkins would later revisit Doggereal’s technological experimentation in the entirely abstract, computer-generated Z-Grass (1983)—a colourful, frenetic time capsule of sonic swirls, demented carousel music, and distorted, unintelligible voices—before later bringing it again into dialogue with his more characteristically performance-based work in later pieces like the music-driven Peace and Anwar Sadat (1985) and the Video Griot Trilogy (1989-1991).

Almost tucked away inside the Stoschek exhibition, one particularly rich alcove presents three black-and-white videos installed on monitors, each engaging with Black artists and movements: King David (1979), a studio visit and discussion with artist David Hammons; Momentous Occasions: The Spirit of Charles White (1982), about the American painter; and Remnants of the Watts Festival (1980). Arguably the single most indicative work of the three is the White tribute, particularly the space it gives to interviews with the artist’s students, who speak about the tremendous impact his guidance and support has had on them. In line with Jenkins’ overarching commitment to questions of Black pedagogy, influence, and inspiration, he here situates and examines the individual not simply in terms of their creative output, but also by the vibrations they’ve produced in and through the community around them.

It’s an outward, community-oriented gesture that Jenkins himself, now an elder artist at 77, can take credit for as well. As artist Cauleen Smith writes in the exhibition catalogue, recalling their encounters during her time a student with a playful nod to the maestro’s own techniques, “There are things I inherited, or maybe appropriated, from him.” Of course, there is no greater evidence of this intergenerational influence and guidance than Without Your Interpretation itself. Experiencing Jenkins’ work through the lens of Christovale and Onli’s exhibition, one is buoyed not just by the work itself but also by the richly felt sense of influence and appreciation between artist and curator. The result is an exhibition as an act of tribute, elevation, and gratitude, one that continues to spread ever farther and further. 

jcumming@cinema-scope.com Cumming Jesse