Across various projects in the 1960s and ’70s, Joan Jonas created forms of self-portraiture enmeshed within environments. Engaging a range of media including mirrors, water, and video, Jonas repeatedly emphasized her body’s interrelation with surrounding natural and media ecologies. The resultant ecological portraits offer a model of being that encourages audiences to acknowledge their own embodiment in encounters with nature, whether experienced directly or through mediation. This article excavates this intermedia practice and explores the forms of ecocritical thought her performances and records might produce. Working in an era of expanding media experiments across performance, sculpture, and video, Jonas’s multimedia projects collaborate with the surrounding environment to explore the emergent openness of art in the 1970s. This article takes Jonas’s Disturbances (1974) as its starting point, arguing that Jonas featured the reflective and refractive properties of water to meditate upon the ecological resonances of the myth of Narcissus, the distorting optics of video, and the mediation of nature broadly. Similarly, in recent projection-based projects, Jonas has continued her exploration of the body’s relationship to both nature and media by incorporating her body into projected nature videos. In keeping with her stated unwillingness to “penetrate space,” ecological portraits across Jonas’s career reveal her multidirectional entanglements with spaces near and far, from waves in a pool to global oceanic crises.

Narcissus: Standing above a pool, a woman appears as a reflection on its surface.1 Then, throughout the video, various performers including Joan Jonas are reflected and refracted in and out of the water.2 Narcissism is named for a mythological man and in Disturbances (1974), Jonas seems to explore the imagemaking possibilities of that first reflective medium: water. The video project Disturbances is a little-discussed3 piece that lies at the center of several of Jonas’s practices: reflections,4 video, and simulated immersion. Looking backward, Disturbances harkens to her earlier work with mirrors in the 1960s. Jonas has remarked that “Narcissism provoked by mirrors is also disturbing,” emphasizing the multimedia nature of this myth that has been evoked by various reflective sources in different works across her career.5 Disturbances also points ahead to recent projector-based works that similarly meditate on watery worlds and the media that record those spaces (tellingly, clips from Disturbances were featured in one such piece). With mirrors, pools, videos, and projectors, Jonas repeatedly uses different media to embed herself into environments and both perform and record that engagement for audiences. Yet amid these land- and seascapes, self-reflections of a real and conceptual sense are frequently evoked. If not to explore narcissism, why invoke Narcissus?

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Still from Disturbances (1974) by Joan Jonas; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Image 1.

Still from Disturbances (1974) by Joan Jonas; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society, New York.

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This article proposes that the model of Narcissus has a lot to offer not just for psychologizing, but ecologizing Jonas’s art.6 Most famously, the concept of narcissism in self-centered video projects is one mode of understanding the resonances of the myth in 1970s art.7 However, nature is in fact absolutely integral to the story of Narcissus as well—not simply the reflecting water or his namesake flower, but because of the nymphs in nature whom he offended. Anthropologist Joseph Masco suggests that the story of Narcissus “is also fundamentally a story about ecological retribution, as the Earth spirits offended by Narcissus call down a divine and absolute retribution against him, ending in a death that Narcissus could avoid simply by changing his field of vision, simply by looking away.”8 Attuning ourselves to these nature spirits, we see the mountain nymph Echo as a crucial figure in most variations of this myth. The goddess Nemesis punished Narcissus precisely because he had spurned Echo’s love—achieving vengeance for his rejection of both nature and the love of others. (Echo herself was already cursed with the ability to only repeat the last few words spoken by other people, another form of responding to one’s environment.) Thus, in evoking Narcissus, Jonas might also invoke his female partner, and more broadly the dynamic ecologies of which they are both a part.

Echo: Whether Jonas knew of Echo in the 1970s or not, she acknowledged some of the ecological implications of the Narcissus myth in her writing. In her notebook during the fall of 1970, Jonas makes a reference to “water myths (narcissus, etc.).”9 Instead of seeing Narcissus as a myth primarily about beauty, vanity, or love (responding to its morals) she regrounds it in its aqueous environment (responding to its setting). Even if Jonas was not aware in the 1970s of Echo’s role in the story,10 there is at least this contemporaneous invocation of the story’s surrounding environment. Additionally, by 1997, Jonas stages Narcissus and Echo by performing with a partner, clearly now aware of the duality of the central myth.11 While one scholar has read the presence of Echo in the soundtrack of Jonas’s piece Organic Honey Vertical Roll (1973–99),12 I prefer to focus on the ecological qualities of the myth following Masco’s suggestion. This orientation is also attuned to rising public awareness of ecology during the 1960s and ’70s.13 As ideas of ecosystems and “whole earth” gained traction, so too did the creative practices of artists across a wide range of media, speculatively moving into unknown terrains as humans ventured further and deeper into terrestrial and celestial space.14

Eco-: My ecological focus builds on studies of space in Jonas’s work. In particular, Ann Reynolds has examined many of the same artworks and media discussed in this essay—including water, mirrors, and projectors—and suggests there is an environmental sense of space across Jonas’s performances.15 Ecology will be my core mode of analysis in order to account for not only the surrounding performance space, but also questions of mediated ecological exchanges staged through Jonas’s encounters. In particular, I hope to bring ecological attention to questions of bodily representation. It is the particular relation between Jonas’s devices, portraiture, and ecological thinking that concerns this essay. Not just how is space engaged, but how is the natural environment explicitly brought into contact with the human body across different media? How does Jonas foreground her own engagements with the grass, water, and creatures that move around her? And, how does Jonas perform ecologically attuned ways of being? In sum, this article explores the ecological thought that Jonas’s ecological portraits theorize, stage, and disseminate.

This essay will speculatively envision the stakes of Narcissus and Echo across various projects, probing what relationships Jonas creates between herself and the environment through her use of mirrors, water, and video. I propose that the Narcissus-Echo paradigm is a model of self-portraiture as well as scholarly analysis. Jonas uses reflection, refraction, and electronic distortion to create images that intermingle her body within its mediation (Narcissus, possibly Echo) and these projects can then be teased out to see the ecological dimensions of the works (both Narcissus and Echo). Jonas understood that Narcissus saw himself within a larger environment. When he was looking at the image of himself, he was also fundamentally absorbed in the visual properties of water as well. And crucially, his image appears only because of the responsiveness of his surroundings that returned his image to him. Thus, Narcissus offers a model of praxis to explore the human body and its milieu.16 We can then see that in Jonas’s projects, the human is implicated in its surrounding environments and technologies, with the resulting documents emphasizing points of contact and energetic transmissions between bodies and surrounding space.

The period I discuss coincides with Jonas’s self-described shift to “explor[ing] the possibilities of female imagery” that she explains went “away from a kind of minimalism to represent my concerns.”17 These concerns within female imagery pointedly do not preclude showing a dynamic environment outside of herself; rather Jonas continually brings figuration into the ecologies, landscapes, and environments she engages, depicts, and enters. By contrast with systems-engineering thinking by Hans Haacke or Walter de Maria, Jonas’s imagery focuses on the human body as an explicit part of any ecological system. Her work resonates with how Dennis Oppenheim has described his “body as both subject and object,” a quotation that James Nisbet has interpreted to mean that Oppenheim’s projects like Reading Position for Second Degree Burn (1970) reveal the art object as an “ecological composition.”18 Like Jonas, Oppenheim’s inclusion of his own body makes explicit what is implicit in Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1965), for example, a project that responds to the way “humans bring heat and humidity into the room” but does not show them.19 Unlike making a dynamic—but nonetheless minimalist—water-filled cube, Oppenheim and Jonas directly show the human presence within the environment and the environmental impacts on the human.

In the three sections and coda, I show different foci of ecological thought in Jonas’s ecologically oriented work. I argue first that mirrors reveal nontotalizing views of nature that foreground human presence, then that a watery milieu permits Jonas to show human bodies in bidirectional engagement with their environment, and finally that television and projectors enable Jonas to explore how layers of media mediate both the body and the wider natural world. Some of these performance projects operate simultaneously in person and at a remove, including aspects of corporeal intimacy and distant “telepresent”20 mediation. These two conceptual levels enable her projects to explore ecological consequences within and beyond her immediate surroundings. In so doing, Jonas tests out an awareness of environments for her own self and offers audiences the resulting ecological portraits as models for how to see and engage environments in daily life.21

Jonas has described three performances on beaches—Jones Beach Piece (1970), Beach Dance (1971), and Delay Delay (1972)—as part of a shift in her art following a trip to Japan toward “working in the medium of deep landscape space.”22 Her concept of landscape as medium emerged in these early outdoor performance pieces, and interacts with contemporaneous projects undertaken by various installation earthwork artists with whom she was friendly and with whom she sometimes collaborated. Consequently, we must situate her video and performance projects that deal with space from the 1970s within contemporaneous discourses of space in the field of sculpture.23 There are a number of similarities between how Jonas conceived of space and how these artists explored new sculptural effects. Arguably, this similarity is even more enhanced in academic hindsight due to Jonas’s connection with Rosalind Krauss. Jonas cowrote an article on her use of space with Krauss, and a decade later Krauss wrote “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” which has subsequently profoundly shaped the way 1970s sculpture has been understood.24

Environmental artworks emerged at a time when sculpture was in tremendous flux, particularly with regard to preconceived ideas of architecture, landscape, and structural engagement. Krauss writes that in the 1960s “sculpture had entered a categorical no-man’s-land: it was what was on or in front of a building that was not the building, or what was in the landscape that was not the landscape.”25 Mirrors were a crucial part of this spatial distortion, much as they came to be for Jonas’s performance work. For example, Robert Morris’s Untitled (Mirrored Cubes) (1965) placed cubes out in a field, with mirrored surfaces that reflect the surrounding grass and sky, making it hard to decipher where the cubes begin and end. Krauss describes these cubes as “forms which are distinct from the setting only because, though visually continuous with grass and trees, they are not in fact part of the landscape.”26 Here, the mirror is a form that gestures away from the cubes’ status as built architecture since the cubes almost disappear into the landscape. The mirrors can be attached to freestanding structures, but they can also be disparate elements distributed within space, which is a technique that is even less obtrusive. For example, Morris also placed mirrors amid a sea of discarded matter, allowing the mirrors to merge with the space in his “thread waste” pieces (c. 1968). Similarly, Robert Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1–9) (1969) featured small mirrors that were not freestanding and had to be propped against roots or buried in sand; thus, they were not “architecture,” only elements in a landscape.27

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Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1–9 (1969); © 2021 Holt/Smithson Foundation; licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1–9 (1969); © 2021 Holt/Smithson Foundation; licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Rather than structures performing interventions in architectural space, these projects, like Jonas’s performances, are temporary interventions in the landscape. Smithson in the Yucatán refuses to shape the environment himself, submitting more and more to the situation already there. Jonas’s practice in the 1960s also utilized mirrors that she moved out into nature. For example, in various versions of performed Mirror Pieces, Jonas takes the mirror outside.28 Chrissie Iles compares the photograph of Mirror Piece I with Smithson’s Yucatán mirror project through their shared interest in ritual and myth29; however, one can relate the two formally in their shared attention to redirecting the eye out to physical space, a function of their shared use of mirrors as a form of practice divorced from medium. Jennifer L. Roberts eloquently describes how Smithson’s mirrors function: “In each of these constructions, he had rejected the specular potential of mirrors, emphasizing instead their capacity to ‘generate incapacity’—their tendency toward dispersion, fragmentation, or cancellation of visual data.”30 Jonas similarly describes the mirror as her first “technological tool” that is “a device that transmits light.”31

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Mirror Piece I (1969) by Joan Jonas; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Mirror Piece I (1969) by Joan Jonas; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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This effect can be seen in Jonas’s performance Mirror Check (1970). Jonas stands in front of an audience, undressed and using a hand mirror to inspect her body. Here she is Vanitas, perhaps, but even then an ecological focus emerges. When she looks at her hand mirror she sees an image of herself, but this self-check is “an image which no one else can see.”32 At most times, the mirror is not showing her body to the audience. Thus, by holding the mirror, Jonas presents two images to those who watch her: her physical body and whatever the mirror catches, be it glimpses of her skin, the room, or even the audience. With larger mirrors, this second “image” is even larger, an effect captured during a Mirror Piece performance in which a photograph documenting the event catches Smithson’s whole seated body in the audience.33

If we focus on the photographic results from Smithson’s project, we notice that there is a proliferation of images within each image. As Roberts has argued:

The Yucatán Mirror Displacements present two pictures simultaneously, a di-vision: a view of the landscape at which the camera points, partially obscured by the mirrors, and another view (usually skyward), partially caught on the mirrors. Neither view is complete, nor can the two be consolidated into a unified spatial whole. 34

Smithson’s photographs of the landscape fail as singular views, a term here intended in the possessive sense contained by nineteenth-century images like stereographs, for example. Historically such photographs—often called “views”—“were means of appropriating some distant place through an image, of seeming to be somewhere else by being absorbed in a ‘view.’”35 Now, in Smithson’s project, we do not have such a view since the mirrors are disrupting the unitary, un-tainted image of the landscape that this tradition of nineteenth-century travel imagery expects.36 His square mirrors seem to create miniature square photos within the square photo format, the better to publish in the square-printed Artforum from which he received his commission.

By contrast, Jonas’s Mirror Piece mirrors are full-length and therefore more anthropomorphic. The images in the mirror seem to comment upon and alter her body—a focus not on how images might render the world, but rather how bodies exist in the world in and between images. If Mirror Check emphasizes “dispersion” by catching the light of the room or the audience, then the photograph Mirror Piece I from 1969 seems to emphasize “fragmentation” and “cancellation” by reshaping (the image of) her body. Rather than show her face—the locus of identity, the source of Narcissus’s fixation—she turns the mirror out, toward the photographer (/audience), thereby causing the mirror to instead capture her legs.

On one hand, the mirror doubles her legs, but we can also think of the mirror, following Smithson’s “incapacities,” as “a cancellation of visual data.”37 With this framework, the mirror cancels her head and torso, replacing them with an image not just of her legs but also the grass, which then replaces her body with the grassy space Jonas has placed herself within. Like Smithson’s non-intervention, Jonas advocates for interrogations of space that do not penetrate space: “My own thinking and production has focused on issues of space…ways of dislocating it, attenuating it, flattening it, turning it inside out, always attempting to explore it without ever giving to myself or to others permission to penetrate it.”38 Rather than allow her and her performers to appear as clear figures in the landscape in this work, Jonas produces orientations that instead allow space to enter them. Like Echo who cannot speak but can only respond to her environment, Jonas produces effects that are minimally intrusive, yet reactive to other bodies, beings, and natural features around her. Through the mirror, different aspects of the landscape are captured, offering multiple directions of views in the act of photographing the space. The photograph is no longer a view of a narrow angle before the camera, but can capture and demonstrate aspects of the environment beyond its original orientation, including that which is behind the camera.

I want to turn to a schematic framework offered by J. Sage Elwell about the relation between body and nature in art of the 1970s. Writing about Hans Breder’s mirror photographs and Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas series (1970–78), Elwell writes: “Breder juxtaposes body and nature. Mendieta fuses body and nature.”39 Breder’s images feature nude bodies with mirrors in different landscapes—doubled, fragmented, and embedded in nature—and are strikingly similar to Jonas’s work, so much so that we can test Elwell’s schematic on Jonas’s 1960s performances. While Mendieta’s portraits do fuse body and nature, this framing overlooks the illusion of continuity Breder’s (and Jonas’s) mirror can sometimes afford. While some examples of Breder’s work emphasizes strong disruptions between mirror and non-mirror landscape space, others are like photographs of Mirror Piece I, which create leg-creatures that seem whole, at least for a moment. Like Mendieta’s Siluetas, which surround the body in plants, dirt, and other facets of the environment, mirrors too can achieve assimilating effects by returning reflected images of a continuous environment.40

But even in the most creaturely of resultant images, distortions are noticeable. All of these photographs use the locus of the body to manifest the mirror’s presence and thus the mirror’s distortions. Without Jonas’s body, the doubled grass in the mirror might be indistinguishable from the rest of the lawn. For example, in Smithson’s Yucatán project, some mirrors do seem to disappear while others capture bits of sky—consequently only in using several at different angles could he ensure their presence would be obvious. In featuring body and mirror together, the body and landscape are simultaneously overlapping, distinct, and co-constitutive. Like Roberts’s concept of “di-vision” in Smithson’s work, the body blocks visual access to some of the landscape in Mirror Piece I while other pieces of the landscape (seen in the mirror) enter where we expect to see the body. By manipulating mirrors like Mendieta manipulated elements of nature around her, Breder and Jonas produce records of interactions that, to paraphrase Elwell, mark “fusions” that are always also slight “juxtapositions.”

The resulting photographs are simultaneously portraits of people and portraits of place, with the two impossible to disentangle: a landscape with a person and a person (or leg-creature) produced out of the landscape. Jonas’s mirror interventions achieve impermanent interactions with space, yet remain legible to us because of photographic documentation that captures that brief moment in time. While Oppenheim’s sunburn photograph successfully captures time-based effects of his environment—as sunlight imprints on his body, in a way reminiscent of photography41—Jonas’s photographs are often less temporal in scope. Instead, moving image recordings of other performances are what allow us access to her more dynamic, processual ecological portraits, as in her film Wind (1968) or the video Disturbances. Jonas’s interest in temporal change and environmental flux is manifest in Wind, which focuses on environmental effects visible at human-perceptible timescales as performers attempt to stand upright against strong winds. In Wind, “Nature was given a psychological role”42 as the wind batters actors on a shoreline, forcing performers to react to their surrounding environment. In this work, Jonas used natural features as the “props” or even fellow actors around which performances were structured, surrendering some artistic agency to her surroundings. We see wind at work and watch as people are forced to react to ecological space. In recording it on film, we see how chance affects a performance, but also receive a portrait of a place and time that preserves random weather effects as well as individual actions and reactions. Thus, much like Mirror Piece I, a film like Wind can be understood as an ecological portrait in two senses: offering portraits of ecologically attuned figures responding to a place and a portrait of that site-specific ecology and its constituent assembly.

Jonas’s Disturbances operates in a similar way to Wind by focusing on a prolonged interaction with space. Shifting from the beach to the pool, Jonas explores similar concepts as performers respond to a resistant surrounding, immersive medium. Both works capitalize on a moving image medium’s capacity to show movement, waves, and other time-based effects of the film and video mediums. In Wind, we cannot see the other actor, only its effects.43 With water, however, we have a slightly more legible character that allows Disturbances to not simply show how people react to space, but also examine the visual logics of that space.

In shifting from mirror portraits of a person in an ecological relationship to what might be better understood as a portrait of various ecological relationships, we might ask who or what constitutes the Disturbances of the title? Anthropologist Anna Tsing encourages humanists to think like ecologists who consider disturbances not simply as harmful events to a landscape (though manmade ones often can be, disastrously so) but as actions or events in an ever-shifting ecology.44 The performers disturb the water, the water disturbs our view of the swimmers, and the resultant video further disturbs those elements.

In Disturbances, it is difficult to track who is performing when. Without a clear narrative, we cannot think simplistically about the disturbance as a cause and effect; instead, Disturbances forces us to think about the multiplicity of encounters in a space, embracing heterogeneity and multifocal storytelling. Jonas appears at the start of the video, and several other people outside and inside the pool are not clearly definable—dressed in all-encompassing fabrics or nude, and only ever shown through reflection and refraction. Jonas and Jonas’s performers surrender to the visuality of the space that Jonas has selected, allowing bodies to warp in the resulting video she produces. The video is assembled from several different shots, and in each one the camera is mostly fixed in place and always focused down onto the pool where performers jump in and swim. This vantage point allows us to see how their bodies are reflected on the water’s surface (a narcissistic effect) as well as distorted by the surface as they swim underneath it (an environmental one). While it starts with a figure staring at her reflection (Narcissus), it proceeds through various other effects that distort and dissolve the body (Echo, who crucially remained as just a voice after her body disappeared). For example, at times in this video project, no body is in the frame and the audience only sees the water. At others, Jonas (or someone else) is entirely illegible under the ripples of the surface, thus drawing our attention to the boundary of air and water. Often, both effects overlap, as when a figure pacing left to right above the pool’s ledge just outside the frame is then joined by a swimmer also making tight loops in the water.

Image 4.

Still from Disturbances (1974) by Joan Jonas; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Still from Disturbances (1974) by Joan Jonas; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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As discussed above, Jonas believes that video shifted her work to focus on “female imagery,” but in Disturbances, we strangely see a form of “female imagery” that does not have a strong figure-ground distinction from space.45 In her recording of herself and others, the environment is an essential constituent part of her self, so we might ask what the environment, specifically a watery one, offers to Jonas.

The underwater imagery in the 1974 Disturbances evokes photography and film of the early twentieth century that Jonas has cited as an influence on her early video projects. In an interview, Jonas stated that her video work was influenced from the start by early Russian and French films, and she specifically mentions an underwater scene from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934).46 Again, in a 2005 interview, Jonas describes L’Atalante as an influence, explaining that Vigo’s ability to create what she calls “another fantasy world” and “another magical world” inspired her to construct her “private world” in video.47 Similarly, in her recent work Moving Off the Land (2016–20), Jonas included a film from 1928 by the French marine documentary filmmaker Jean Painlevé, perhaps in a nod to the avant-garde’s fixation on the underwater in this earlier period across documentaries, short films, and feature-length films. And though Jonas does not reference it explicitly in interviews, Man Ray’s Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929) might be a further potential reference point. A figure from Disturbances who walks underwater and paddles with their arms in wide arcs evokes the balletic movements recorded in a section of Man Ray’s film recorded in and around a pool, specifically an underwater juggler whose hands move in sweeping arcs and a woman walking on the pool’s bottom who uses precisely the same gestures.

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Still from L’Atalante (1934) by Jean Vigo.

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Still from L’Atalante (1934) by Jean Vigo.

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Image 6.

Still from Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929) by Man Ray.

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Still from Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929) by Man Ray.

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Image 7.

Still from Disturbances (1974) by Joan Jonas; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Still from Disturbances (1974) by Joan Jonas; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Jonas has made this direct connection between avant-garde aesthetics of the 1920s and her era of videomaking around the time of Disturbances through Vigo. Regardless of exactly when Jonas encountered the films of the Parisian avant-garde—and if she saw Painlevé’s and Man Ray’s films before Disturbances—taking the analytic tools of feminist scholars of surrealism offers us a way to read Jonas’s images from the 1970s through to the present. There is a form of proto-ecological portraiture in surrealism that embraces indeterminacy and foregrounds relationships to outside space. Margaret Cohen proposes that the more well-known formless qualities of surrealist photography (achieved largely through the use of mirrors and close-ups) were frequently produced in that same period through visions of the underwater world: “The physical qualities of underwater optics, indeed, have an extraordinary resonance with a number of visual effects important in surrealist art.”48

Cohen adds to key ideas from Krauss’s 1985 essay “Corpus Delicti,” which had described how surrealists were interested in animal mimicry that merges self and setting in a way that resonates with Georges Bataille’s idea of the informe.49 Krauss does not discuss watery images, but does trace a wider practice in 1920s photography in which bodies are shown “as if submitting to the possession by space.”50 Krauss offers a media theory explanation for this crisis, suggesting that the proliferation of photography created this crisis of representation, quoting Roger Caillois, who wrote that “the living being, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but is one point among others.”51 This framework perhaps helps explain not just the desire for the dissolution of the self achieved by images taken of people underwater, but also the positive valences of re-embedding oneself into other, more familiar forms of media like water. Relatedly, Mary Ann Caws describes an interpenetrative mode of “seeing one thing through another”52 in surrealist practice that almost perfectly describes the visual imagery in Disturbances showing overlapping images of bodies above and below the water. In the pool, there are both immaterial reflections and bodies swimming below, demonstrating that water is a medium of reflection (when above) and buoyancy (when within). If ecology should be understood as a field showing the interconnections between all matter,53 then Disturbances reveals how the artist and her artwork are inseparable from the environmental qualities that shape her creative work.

Krauss suggests that the concept of the informe might help dissolve gender, but her analysis of a crisis of representation does not discuss the possibility that this rejection of traditional representational models might have been more enticing for women artists.54 The male filmmakers cited above sought out new aesthetic possibilities in the underwater world, but the alternative possibilities and visualities achieved underwater were perhaps even more liberating for photographer Rogi André and artist Jacqueline Lamba—women artists who, like Jonas, used the underwater world to dissolve categories of gender and humanity, and even space and body. For example, André produces a photograph of Lamba in which her limbs become unrecognizable as she swims underwater, escaping gendered imagery through an escape from the human.55 Cohen argues that water produces these perceptions of hybridity. Lamba’s body, which is both human and creaturely, is very much like Jonas’s intermingling of the pair of performers or their bodies intermingling with space. Thus, water offers up hybridity by producing a sense of susceptibility or permeability of figure and space—especially in Jonas’s work.

Whitney Chadwick suggests that dissolving bodily representation was a strategy of surrealist women artists that emerged again in the second half of the twentieth century. She writes that “women deeply internalized this refusal of bodily and psychic fixity” proposed by post-Enlightenment thinking and surrealism in particular, suggesting these strategies had an afterlife in contemporary art from the 1980s onward (although arguably it is already present in the 1970s with Disturbances and performance art more broadly).56

Like Vito Acconci’s claim that performance caused him to be “at least invaded by the space around me,”57 Jonas consciously creates a similar effect in Disturbances—as a performance in a pool acting with water, but also in the visual record she produces that captures the refraction that further confuses boundaries. This effect of surrendering to space is a product of any performance (like the phenomenological component in Acconci’s performances) as well as the medium of water (through the distortions it creates). Jonas’s other performance work is staged in different settings, so in a real and conceptual sense, it is contextual and variable. But the use of the disorienting and destabilizing effects of the pool brings instability into the work itself on a formal level. Now it is not just the unique qualities of each performance that reveal art’s susceptibility to time and space, but the record itself—the watery video Disturbances—that visually captures Jonas’s own openness to outside space.

Jonas’s image of inverted inner and outer space achieved by the movement of water over her body almost literally invokes a wider dissolution of the self in theatrical productions of the 1960s and ’70s. Gillian Turner Young locates Jonas’s work within this era of theater, citing the scholarship of Elinor Fuchs who writes that the “interior space known as ‘the subject’ was no longer an essence, an in-dwelling human endowment, but flattened into a social construction or marker in language, the unoccupied occupant of the subject position.”58 This vacant self is then constituted by social situations or—as in Jonas’s work—environments. Rather than something totally intrinsic, the vacant self shifts attention toward the conditions that constitute the subject in her context: on stage, in daily life, in pools of water, or floating within a video monitor.

Reading the pool as a way to theorize the openness of 1970s performance also opens its formal qualities to questions about 1970s video. Jonas has since used a pool as a metaphor for the early years of video: “It was also fascinating to see yourself. It was like looking into the pool and not being able to look away.”59 Whether this thought is what sparked Disturbances or whether Disturbances has since structured her thoughts on video, we cannot know. However, the distortions of water are enhanced by the video’s black-and-white imagery, which compresses tonalities and renders the aqueous refractions even more disorienting. Consequently, in Disturbances, Jonas is never interacting with just an aquatic space, but also always with the video medium itself.

The environment shown in the video is a real space, but I argue it also functions as a metaphor, a space for theorizing video’s modes of representations. Jonas theorizes through performance by standing by the pool and staging actors who swim, play, look around, etc. From an investigation into milieu, we also get an investigation into a modern technological medium that is simultaneously physical and metaphoric.

This orientation of the Narcissus story toward ecology but also technology (or media ecology) is in keeping with Marshall McLuhan’s description of Narcissus as a myth about technological extensions. Most succinctly, he says: “Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.”60 This line of thinking resonates with Krauss’s invocation of narcissism as the medium of video, and in this sense is perhaps a technological trend that can be applied to all new technologies that might always drive new modes of (self-)portraiture. But McLuhan’s more significant analysis is the way Narcissus is understood as part of a closed system:

The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.61

By contrast, Disturbances does not present reflections in this way, because the figures who gaze at their reflections eventually look away and even dive into the pool. Thus, the water as a mirror and video as a mirror both fail to create McLuhan’s closed systems, a possible shift that Jonas stages from Narcissus to Echo that enables the work to be a meditation on water and video. Rather than a meditation on one or the other, Disturbances permeates and flows between the layers of mediation, understanding each medium as part of an interrelated system in which Jonas is performing. We also do not get any undistorted views of bodies—recorded through transparent air—rather, we only ever see Jonas and her performers through a reflection or refraction. By refusing to present herself directly to the camera, she evades the type of clear, video-mirror-Narcissus imagery that Krauss critiques, of figures staring directly at cameras and televisions that capture and share their own likeness. Instead, through the water-Narcissus image, transmitted on video, Jonas produces a work that theorizes issues within video through wider notions of medium more broadly, in this case through water.

In the 1970s, television produced a crisis of representation since this new reproductive technology includes the possibility of presenting “lively”/live versions of one’s self and can also broadcast in multiple places at the same time. Similarly, Acconci describes a naive fear that television and video projects might hold real creatures: “Television space is fishbowl space. There’s a world going on in there: that exclamation might be made by a child-person looking, from out of the large world he/she is in, into the small world behind either the aquarium glass or the TV screen.”62 These ideas—perhaps even fear—of people manifested by the television set is made more real in Lynda Benglis’s Now (1973), where the artist stages her performance by acting with her own image. By confronting the multiplication of the body head on, Benglis emphasizes the secondary, reproductive nature of video.

Disturbances confronts the multiplying and disembodying effects of television through a double exploration of medium. While Benglis confronts her double, Jonas asks what would it be like for her image to be doubled, transformed, and dislocated from herself as it changes across various media conditions—first water and then video. Jonas explores doubling metaphorically by featuring doubled acting partners who are indistinguishable. The pair stand as one reflection at certain moments, then move apart, revealing themselves as two bodies. At other points, while underwater, they are similarly indistinguishable. Rather than just create a double with technology—with video as Benglis does with the video she performs with, or with mirrors as Jonas herself has often done—in Disturbances Jonas chooses instead to make a “double” in reality. This real double is then doubly doubled as each performer confronts their reflection in the water, staging the exact imagery that Jonas referenced to make sense of first encountering video.

Disturbances is also concerned with the spatial dislocation of one’s image as light proliferates through different media: light passing through water and air, and then light emitted by electronic signals. The first real-world approximation of television’s/video’s dislocation is achieved with the refraction of the pool. This shimmering space makes her image (viewed from air) dislocated from where she actually is underwater. Seen through the boundary of air and water, Jonas appears as a distorted play of light through the real effects of refraction. Then finally, the resulting video truly disintegrates her representation further, rendering this already distorted appearance in three-dimensional space as black-and-white patterns on a bulging video monitor. Similarly, several scenes of static appear in the video, emphasizing the media condition of video as another layer of mediation essential to Disturbances as a performance in space. In one shot, white horizontal lines on a black screen appear between two shots taken from further away. The ripples on the water appear horizontal to the camera, making the types of disruptions to video (the static) and water (the ripples) appear visually equivalent.

While “fragmentation and transformation were at the core of Jonas’s early tapes and performances”63 such as Left Side Right Side (1972) or Duet (1972), there are different effects of that transformation in Disturbances. Jonas’s approach to her self-image in Disturbances is distinct from the fragmentation in her other projects such as Mirror Check or Vertical Roll (1972), works that often create “a series of ridiculous abstractions.”64 Rather than just fragment herself, Disturbances assimilates the surrounding space into her body as the ripples interfere with her reflection or refract the body’s presence underneath. Disturbances shows her body as it is affected and changed—but not destroyed—by the milieu in which she immerses herself. Since video (and especially broadcast television) can dislocate images and transmit them elsewhere, perhaps Jonas consciously sought to stage performances that specifically emphasized place, thereby regrounding herself in surrounding grass or water. Though the image of her body and bodies generally often disappear in Disturbances, they are always replaced by an elemental return to a watery ur-form.

These translations and distortions speak to the self-reflexive practices of early video. Dora Imhof argues that Jonas’s Disturbances focuses on process, while, for example, Nam June Paik’s related works with television-aquariums emphasize the apparatus.65 Also focused on watery environments, Paik’s TV Fish (1975–88) and Real Fish/Live Fish (1982) staged live fish inside of televisions that have been converted into aquariums, exposing their similar shapes and logics. While Imhof’s framework captures the sense of waves that Jonas theorizes in the recording process, it does not capture the sense of real dislocation that Jonas encourages us to see in the confrontation with the video monitor. This dislocated quality is especially relevant since Disturbances would be displayed inside of one of these—as Acconci says—“fishbowl” devices. While I propose the video Disturbances (as an autographic entity) is a conceptual meditation on media, the video display (as an allographic performance, requiring a viewing public) contributes a secondary layer of meaning.

Reynolds reminds us that in the original viewing context there would be yet another reflection in the Disturbances, namely that of the viewers on the television screen: “it would also have been eventually overlaid with reflections on the glass surface of the video monitor of the people and other aspects of the larger environment surrounding it in the exhibition space.”66 The appearance of their own reflections on the television screen might be a key moment of rupture that implicates other systems, media, and apparatuses for viewers of the work. Rather than watching a performance recording—simply viewing performers’ bodies in motion, watching the water—the audience might be triggered to see the video as being about video self-reflexively only by this quality of their own reflection (in the double sense of the word, literally on the monitor and then conceptually). Jonas believed seeing her image in video evoked a reflection in a pool, and for the audience, their reflections on the monitor might evoke the reverse, moving from a reflection on the video apparatus to imagining their image within video or recalling other videos they had seen.

These relays between the recording context, natural visual effects, and the television apparatus produce a platform for a number of different media questions. Disturbances does not produce McLuhan’s closed loop or Krauss’s narcissistic relay of mirror and self; rather, it stages an openness between bodies and places at various levels of mediation. The multitude of possibilities Disturbances can produce is captured by the term “electronic elsewhere,” coined by Jeffrey Sconce and then used in a recent volume to open up the multiplicity of places—lived and imaginary—that video might engage, depending on whether we think about the viewing context, method of transmission, the apparatus, and so on through different frameworks.67 While used to gather different methodological approaches to space and television, this term can also be used as a heuristic to capture the simultaneous placelessness and place-specificity of television and video both.

In an era of domestic televisions, viewers might situate Disturbances (and other video works experienced on monitors) within a wider televisual culture that relies upon the continuous dislocation and multiplication of distant people and places. This reflection might point to media ecologies within the home like the sensory environment of domesticity. Or, Disturbances’s watery milieu might specifically point viewers to consider the mediation of natural ecologies in newscasts or even nature documentaries—an environmentalist quality (in the sense of advocacy) that has become central to Jonas’s recent performances. All such interpretations, however, would likely engage questions of space, which Jonas had questioned through her body, pools, videos, television monitors, and galleries—always evoking ecology in an expansive sense that enables her commentary on mediation to go anywhere media are present (which is everywhere).

Across these early career projects, Jonas’s body continually retreats into the surroundings as she or her performers dance with the wind, blend into grass, and blur into aquatic then electronic waves. In recent performance works, Jonas extends this principle to efface her body almost entirely in Reanimation (2012–14) and Moving Off the Land (2016–20). Covering herself in a sheet, she achieves another fusion of self and environment, albeit this time within a highly mediated encounter with the natural world that involves film clips, old video projects, and projectors.

The blank sheet catches the projected material, with the image curving on her (now far less perceptible) body. In these projector-based projects, Jonas is not clearly legible, but her body and tools are nevertheless present as part of a larger media assemblage. Reynolds describes how these recent projects collapse space and time because of the simultaneous presentation of video and performance:

Through her gestures and these visual transformations, [Jonas] subtly disrupts the internal logic of the prerecorded, projected image’s space and its figure/ground relationships by weaving them into her space and into the present, a space and time she also shares with her audience.68

The time of the video is obviously different from the live performance, but the timescales evoked in the imagery are also vast. This temporality is achieved not just through an exploration of life and ecosystems that have emerged on large timescales, but also through a recycling of her own work that creates biographical timelines as well. Jonas’s interest in aquatic spaces has continued from some of her earliest work in Nova Scotia in the late 1960s and Disturbances in the 1970s through the more recent Reanimation and the Moving Off the Land performances. In Reanimation, Jonas reuses clips from Disturbances, thereby exploring both aqueous and media milieux. During her performance, she calls attention to the sense of watery movement in her earlier video by overlaying footage of four objects she arranges on stage with “slow and graceful movements” that make them appear to “float or swim to the bottom edge of the portfolio, or by default, to the bottom edge of the pool.”69 In a recent interview, Jonas says of the reused footage from Disturbances that “in Reanimation it is more about representing a watery world,” which suggests that this aim of creating or describing a milieu was always there in her earlier video.70

Similarly, in Moving Off the Land, she also creates drawings of sea creatures, reads texts about the sea from various authors, and interacts with (sometimes multiple) projected images of the underwater world. During the course of this performance, images of creatures leap off one screen and onto another, as Jonas moves a circular scrim between the projector and the main screen. She enlivens the images to make the entire stage simulate an underwater space, and—as throughout her career—submits her body to the process. Rather than engaging water directly as she did in Disturbances, in these recent performances, Jonas immerses herself within footage showing watery worlds. Images are made by projectors and screens, not water or mirrors. Yet Jonas still engages with and disturbs these images. Using her own body and a small scrim, Jonas enlarges certain parts of the projected images, thereby distorting the prerecorded videos throughout the performance. Like reacting to wind or water, in Moving Off the Land, Jonas says that her “movement is choreographed in a slightly different way in relation to the presence of fish in the projections.”71 The milieu is now the media milieu—an archive of images72 as well as the projection space audiences view them in—but this project is still invested in making interventions and submitting one’s body into one’s surroundings. Jonas now submits herself to her own curated media ecologies: substituting water for light, the pool for a projector, human doubles for projected animal actors.

Image 8.

Performance still of Moving Off the Land (2019) by Joan Jonas at Ocean Space, Venice; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph by Moira Ricci.

Image 8.

Performance still of Moving Off the Land (2019) by Joan Jonas at Ocean Space, Venice; © 2021 Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph by Moira Ricci.

Close modal

The pool in Disturbances allowed Jonas to stage a confrontation with the dislocation of the self that television and video threatened, and we can see her recent performances as continuing that legacy of interrogating media through aquatic world building—only now in response to an even more screen-dominated world that is dealing with greater ecological crises.

Like Donna Haraway’s idea of “situated knowledge,”73 Jonas stages situated performances, making legible and explicit where the human body intersects with ecologies—whether natural beaches, manicured grass, or the water inside artificial pools. Similarly, hoping to ensure that bodies are foregrounded in scientific practice, Natasha Myers asks: “How might biological imaging technologies and practices engage bodies, rather than alienate them?”74 Myers consequently proposes “body-full” vision as a model for visualizations that helps prevent conceptual abstractions and artificial distance. Like Myers, Jonas seeks a form of engagement that is bodily. Jonas’s specific practice of orienting herself and her performers toward wind, water, or projected animals also resonates with Eva Hayward’s concept of “fingeryeyes,” developed from an ethnographic study of a marine laboratory. As a mode of multispecies contact, “fingeryeyes” builds from the complicated sensory perceptions of coral to acknowledge the bidirectionality of scientific encounters.75 Reacting to the movement of creatures on video, Jonas similarly ensures that recording is not a one-way engagement. While Jonas is not a scientist and is not participating in direct relationship to the animals that have been recorded and re-projected, her method refuses to allow a coherent presentation of a virtual world effaced of human presence.76 What audiences encounter is a human body interceding into views of the underwater world, a step toward acknowledging the bodies and labor “behind the scenes” of science or any nature documentary and—in a wider sense—the human presence behind most ecological crises.77

Jonas’s artistic projects bring her into seemingly direct contact with animals in a way that mirrors the immersion paradigm that is increasingly common in zoological enclosures.78 Writing about an immersive exhibition of jellyfish, Hayward describes a scene that could just as well be a description of Jonas’s performances: “The Drifters exhibit, an immersion into ocean waters through sophisticated display technologies, constructs an interface, maintaining and blurring the distinction between being immersed in water and being immersed in built natures and display apparatuses.”79 And here is the crucial point made by both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Jonas: “immersion cannot happen without the body.”80 Jonas immerses herself and explores what it means to be in contact with media, milieu, ecologies, etc.81 And by putting herself there, she asks the audience to do the same. After acknowledging Jonas’s body as part of each artwork’s ecology, viewers might begin to perform similar self-reflection about their own day-to-day impacts on their surroundings. Furthermore, with her recent performances, Jonas emphasizes that media help constitute these ecologies. Thus, the self-reflective, critical stance that immersed bodies encourage is not just reserved for physical immersion in natural milieu. Jonas shows herself being attuned to the movements of animals on screen, acknowledging their status as living (or perhaps, once-living) beings in a way that is media agnostic about how she encounters forms of life. We know to tread carefully around sensitive animal life in a national park. What Jonas instead encourages is to apply this sensitivity to all forms of life, whether encountered in person or through media.

The intimate worlds that Jonas produces in Disturbances and recent performances create spaces akin to how Timothy Morton has described their concept of queer ecology. Morton proposes that “life-forms constitute a mesh, a nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level: between species, between the living and the nonliving, between organism and environment.”82 Coincidentally or perhaps tellingly, Morton calls this the “liquid life” of queer ecology.83 By staging her own interrelationships with environments and images—frequently with watery imagery—Jonas shows how she always exists in something like Morton’s mesh, making clear the personal stakes she has in protecting creatures and ecosystems that are under threat.

Whether laying on a grassy field, moving around a pool, or performing within a multimedia installation, Joan Jonas—starting always with her own body—attempts to manifest ecological relationships at intimate and global scales. She repeatedly stages a form of (eco-)narcissistic presence that shows human bodies as part of landscapes, environmental interactions with those bodies, and the potential impacts of these interdependencies between and across media. In so doing, she foregrounded larger shifts in art of the 1970s toward indeterminacy and openness, while producing a model of ecological being that she has continued to practice in her mediated performances.


One source suggests that the woman at the start is Joan Jonas; however, I could not independently verify this. The Electronic Arts Intermix database entry for Disturbances states: “The tape begins with Jonas, like Narcissus, leaning over a reflecting pool.” “Disturbances,” Electronic Arts Intermix (catalog description),


A catalog of Jonas’s work lists two performers in the video (Ellen Draper and Joan Jonas) although there are at least three performers, since there are several shots that show three people at one time. Joan Simon and Joan Jonas, eds., In the Shadow a Shadow: The Work of Joan Jonas (New York: Gregory R. Miller & Co, 2015), 200.


One discussion of Disturbances in relation to water is Dora Imhof, “Liquid Video: Das Flüssige als Motiv, Metapher und mediale Reflexion bei Joan Jonas, Bill Viola, Pipilotti Rist und Doug Aitken,” in Verflüssigungen: Ästhetische und semantische Dimensionen eines Topos, ed. Kassandra Nakas (Paderborn, Germany: Wilhelm Fink Verla Joan Jonas: They Come to Us Without a Word: United States Pavilion, 2015), 127–42. Another text that focuses on the idea of mirrors and screens with sustained attention to Disturbances is Ann Reynolds, “How the Box Contains Us,” in Joan Jonas: They Come to Us Without a Word: United States Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia, ed. Jane Farver (New York: G. R. Miller, 2015), 20–29.


Some scholars focus on just the mirror (without attention to water as a reflection), but these accounts do not discuss environmental resonances nor comparisons to other mirrors in 1970s art fully. See Anja Zimmermann, “The (Im)Mobile Trap of the Reflective Surface Self-Construction and Image Construction in the Work of Joan Jonas” in Johann-Karl Schmidt, Joan Jonas: Performance Video Installation 19682000 (Stuttgart: Galerie der Stadt Sttutgart and Hatje Cantz Verelag, 2000), 97–103, or Chrissie Iles, “Reflective Spaces: Film and Video in the Work of Joan Jonas,” 154–63, in the same volume.


Joan Jonas, “Transmission,” in Women, Art, and Technology, ed. Judy Malloy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 118.


Eric C. H. de Bruyn describes a new ecological turn in media theory that can better evaluate contemporary art in a special volume of Grey Room. See Eric C. H. de Bruyn, “A Proposal: Must We Ecologize?,” Grey Room 77 (October 2019): 58–65.


Jonas is mentioned in Krauss’s essay as a foil to the narcissistic trend Krauss has identified, falling under Krauss’s second category. “There exist, however, three phenomena within the corpus of video art which run counter to what I have been saying so far. Or at least are somewhat tangential to it. They are: 1) tapes that exploit the medium in order to criticize it from within; 2) tapes that represent a physical assault on the video mechanism in order to break out of its psychological hold; and 3) installation forms of video which use the medium as a sub-species of painting or sculpture.” Krauss is correct to identify Jonas’s Vertical Roll as employing that second strategy since in this piece Jonas actively distorts the recording mechanism through asynchronicity; however, it must be noted that Disturbances and most of her other video works are not engaged in any such distortion of the video medium. Instead, many of her projects present quite straightforward recordings of performances that instead achieve any non-narcissistic effects through other means in real space and time, not via manipulation of the medium or the apparatus. Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October 1 (Spring 1976): 50–64.


Joseph Masco, “The Six Extinctions: Visualizing Planetary Ecological Crisis Today,” in After Extinction, ed. Richard Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 83–84.


From a notebook, circa 1970 in the Joan Jonas Archive, qtd. in Gillian Turner Young, “Telepresence: Joan Jonas and the Emergence of Performance and Video Art in the 1970s” (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2018), 128.


Intriguingly, in 1972, Jonas also did hint at a triad in relation to the myth, writing “narcissism: there’s three of me, they are later than I, they are past, they are what I just did, they are black + white selves, I am colored, one (little) two (middle) three (one).” This notebook entry invokes both video (the black-and-white selves) and performance (her flesh, in color). Thus, like the earlier entry from 1970, this 1972 entry reveals a return to the myth of narcissus that is again tied to questions about how to achieve its effects—earlier with reference to water, and now with performance and video. Jonas’s notebook, qtd. in Young, “Telepresence,” 128.


Narcissus and Echo, performed with DJ Miller at the World Wide Video Festival, Amsterdam, in 1997. “Video/performance artist Jonas and music/performance artist/DJ Miller are collaborating for the first time in this unique project, loosely based on the myth of Narcissus and Echo, a story that has interesting structural possibilities in relation to the systems of sound and video. In this case, for instance, the closed circuit system of camera and projection/monitor/image—in Narcissus and Echo, both parts of the myth are self-reflective as well as interactive. Joan Jonas plans to mix three pre-recorded tracks with two live tracks, weaving a twenty minute narrative around the implications of the myth.” “‘Narcissus and Echo’ by Joan Jonas and DJ Spooky (USA),” 15th World Wide Video Festival,


Siona Wilson, “Abstract Transmissions: Other Trajectories for Feminist Video,” in Abstract Video: The Moving Image in Contemporary Art, ed. Gabrielle Jennings (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015), 50–65.


“The changing faces of ecology during the 1960s and 1970s were paramount not only for land art, but in fact for a wide range of artistic media and movements including sculpture, gallery installation, performance, photography, film, and video.” James Nisbet, Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 4.


In the late 1960s, Robert Morris wrote: “Further work in space, as well as deep ocean stations, may alter this most familiar approach to the shaping and placing of things as well as the orientation of oneself with respect to space and objects.” Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 3” in Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1993), 29–33.


Reynolds posits space as a key practice for Jonas who does not see space as neutral and seeks to acknowledge their histories. In her conclusion, she opens up the question of ecosystems invoked through sound and suggests Jonas is attuned to “human and animal, organic and inorganic.” Reynolds, “How the Box Contains Us,” 28.


For an overview of the intellectual history of “milieu,” see Georges Canguilhem, “The Living and Its Milieu,” trans. John Savage, Grey Room, no. 3 (Spring 2001): 6–31.


Jonas, “Transmission,” 126.


Nisbet, Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems, 170.


Mark M. Jarzombek, “Haacke’s Condensation Cube: The Machine in the Box and the Travails of Architecture,” Thresholds 30 (Summer 2005): 101.


Gillian Turner Young suggests this framework and proposes that Jonas used several outmoded technologies that created “presence at a distance” in her work in the 1970s. Young, “Telepresence,” 18–23.


The split between performance and documents has a vast intellectual history, but I want to invoke these terms to explain the ways I see Jonas developing ecological models (in performances) and communicating those to audiences (via documents/records).


Jonas, “Transmission,” 119.


Iles notes Jonas’s friendships with Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Richard Serra, which helps bring the discourse of space from debates around landscape and sculpture into Jonas’s work. Iles, “Reflective Spaces,” 54.


Rosalind Krauss most famously explores the ideologies of these different projects in her 1979 “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” essay, published in October in 1979. There is a great deal of overlap between Jonas’s work and Krauss’s descriptions of sculpture, and I posit that there is a distinct possibility that Jonas’s projects from the 1970s were informing Krauss’s thinking. Together, they wrote “Seven Years,” which was published in TDR: The Drama Review in 1975, one year after Disturbances, and one year before Krauss’s “Video” essay. In their verb list of ways Jonas manipulates space, we see similar types of transformations that Krauss discusses in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” and “Corpus Delicti.” For example, the two of them write that Jonas engaged space by “dislocating it, attenuating it, flattening it, turning it inside out,” whereas Krauss looks at projects that emphasized displacement in sculpture and surrealist photography, and writes about “inversions” achieved with the camera. Thus, it is possible that Jonas’s process and the imagery in Disturbances inspired Krauss’s writing about sculpture and similar profilmic effects in avant-garde productions of the 1930s. Joan Jonas and Rosalind Krauss, “Seven Years,” TDR: The Drama Review 19, no. 1 (March 1975): 13; Rosalind Krauss, “Corpus Delicti,” October 33 (Summer 1985): 34.


Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 36.


Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 36.


In her Greimas square of expanded sculpture, Krauss proposes Morris’s mirrors are between architecture and not-architecture. She calls this corner of her square “axiomatic structures,” which feature some “intervention into the real space of architecture” through various techniques including partial reconstructions, drawings, and mirrors. Krauss categorizes Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements at the opposite pole, between landscape and not-landscape, which she says are “marked sites.” Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 41.


By contrast with this landscape/not-landscape project, Jonas has also created pieces with architectural resonances such as May Windows (1976), an installation piece that has sound and video.


“Jonas’s sensibility is perhaps closest to Smithson’s use of mirrors, in its connection of a transgressive disruption of space with myth and ancient ritual.” Iles, “Reflective Spaces,” 156.


Jennifer L. Roberts, “Landscapes of Indifference: Robert Smithson and John Lloyd Stephens in Yucatán,” The Art Bulletin 82, no. 3 (September 2000): 553.


Jonas, “Transmission,” 117.


Anne Wagner, “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence,” October 91 (Winter 2000): 78.


Wagner notes that “Some audience members, like Robert Smithson, whose reflection is captured in the photographic documentation of the piece, seem to have remained altogether unruffled by the forced encounter with their public selves.” Wagner, “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence,” 70.


Roberts, “Landscapes of Indifference,” 556.


Tom Gunning, “‘The Whole World Within Reach’: Travel Images without Borders,” in Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel, ed. Jeffrey Ruoff (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 27.


Jennifer L. Roberts compares Smithson’s series to writings of John Lloyd Stephens from 1841, and argues that he was aware of Stephens, so this intergenerational dialogue is appropriate. Roberts, “Landscapes of Indifference,” 544.


Roberts, “Landscapes of Indifference,” 553.


Jonas and Krauss, “Seven Years,” 13.


Mendieta posed for some of Breder’s mirror images. J. Sage Elwell, “Where Embodiment Meets Environment: A Meditation on the Work of Hans Breder and Ana Mendieta with an Accompanying Interview with Hans Breder,” in Arts, Religion, and the Environment: Exploring Nature’s Texture, ed. Sigurd Bergmann and Forrest J. Clingerman, Studies in Environmental Humanities 6 (Leiden, Netherlands and Boston: Brill and Rodopi, 2018), 175.


Mendieta’s work can be understood as a way of engaging the trope of women and nature, as well as the sexualized female body in modern art. Gill Perry, “The Expanding Field: Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series,” in Frameworks for Modern Art, ed. Jason Gaiger (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with The Open University, 2003), 153–206.


Heather Diack, Documents of Doubt: The Photographic Conditions of Conceptual Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 4.


Joan Jonas, “Oad Lau (1968), Wind (1968)” in Johann-Karl Schmidt, Joan Jonas: Performance Video Installation 19682000 (Stuttgart: Galerie der Stadt Sttutgart and Hatje Cantz Verelag, 2000), 70.


The way wind is shown resonates with the presence of air and wind in the paintings of Sandro Botticelli. Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Imaginary Breeze: Remarks on the Air of the Quattrocento,” Journal of Visual Culture 2, no. 3 (December 2003): 275–89.


Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 161.


We may see Anton Ehrenzweig’s concept of “dedifferentiation” and “low-level scanning” in this form of representation, an idea that appears in scholarship about Robert Smithson. Rather than encourage her audience to adopt that viewpoint, Jonas insists upon it by having various distorted surfaces. See Roberts, “Landscapes of Indifference,” 556, and Ann Reynolds, Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 206–7.


Joan Jonas and Joan Simon, “Interview,” in Schmidt, Joan Jonas: Performance Video Installation 19682000, 29.


Oscar Faria, “Joan Jonas: anything but the theater,” Vector [e-Zine], July 2005,


For more on the relationship between the underwater world and aesthetics of dissolution in “Corpus Delicti,” see Margaret Cohen, “Underwater Optics as Symbolic Form,” French Politics, Culture & Society 32, no. 3 (Winter 2014): 18.


Rosalind Krauss, “Corpus Delicti,” October 33 (1985): 49.


Krauss, “Corpus Delicti,” 50.


Roger Caillois, “Mimétisme et Psychasthénie Légendaire,” Minotaure, no. 7 (June 1935), 7–8, trans. and qtd. in Krauss, “Corpus Delicti,” 50.


Mary Ann Caws, The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 13.


Nisbet, Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems, 2.


While these works by men might be doing productive deconstructive work, it is important to note that the examples in “Corpus Delicti” only include photographs of women made by men—ignoring the contributions of Dora Maar, Rogi André, and Claude Cahun to surrealist discourses of bodies, animality, and spacelessness.


Cohen, “Underwater Optics as Symbolic Form,” 18. This series is also discussed in Georges Didi-Huberman, “Ninfa fluida (a post scriptum),” in Botticelli Past and Present, ed. Ana Debenedetti and Caroline Elam (London: UCL Press, 2019), 251–54.


Whitney Chadwick, “An Infinite Play of Empty Mirrors: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation,” in Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation, ed. Whitney Chadwick (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 14.


Vito Acconci, “A Discussion with Terry Fox, Vito Acconci, and Dennis Oppenheim,” Avalanche 2 (Winter 1971): 98–99, qtd. in Suzanne Hudson, “Feedback: Vito Acconci and the Space of His Public,” Critical Matrix 14 (2003): 8.


Elinor Fuchs, The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 3, qtd. in Young, “Telepresence,” 220.


Jonas and Simon, “Interview,” 29.


Marshall McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 41.


McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover,” 41.


Vito Acconci, “Television, Furniture, and Sculpture: The Room with the American View,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture in association with the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990), 125.


David Ross, “Joan Jonas’s Videotapes,” in Joan Jonas, Scripts and Descriptions 1968–1982, ed. Douglas Crimp (Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, 1983), 124.


This quote refers to a performed variant of Vertical Roll that similarly used a mirror like Mirror Check. Kathy O’Dell, “Performance, Video, and Trouble in the Home,” in Hall and Fifer, Illuminating Video, 149.


“Es findet also wie in Disturbances eine Verschränkung von Motiv und Medium statt, die jedoch andere Mittel und einen anderen Fokus hat: [Weibe’s] TV-Aquarium rückt die Situation der Rezeption in den Mittelpunkt, den Fernsehkonsum und den Apparat, während bei Disturbances der Prozess der filmischen Aufnahme im Zentrum steht.” Imhof, “Liquid Video,” 131.


Reynolds, “How the Box Contains Us,” 26.


Chris Berry, Soyoung Kim, and Lynn Spigel, “Introduction: Here, There, and Elsewhere,” in Electronic Elsewheres: Media, Technology, and the Experience of Social Space, ed. Chris Berry, Soyoung Kim, and Lynn Spigel (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), vii, xviii.


Reynolds, “How the Box Contains Us,” 22.


Reynolds, “How the Box Contains Us,” 27.


Joan Jonas, “Interviews: Joan Jonas,” Artforum, April 22, 2015, (emphasis added).


Sonia Schechet Epstein, “A Conversation with Joan Jonas: Moving Off the Land,” Museum of the Moving Image, August 9, 2018,


The footage that is projected includes recordings of aquariums made by Joan Jonas and other, outdoor, underwater ecologies filmed by David Gruber and Cynthia Beatt. David Gruber and Joan Jonas, “The Process Behind Joan Jonas’ New Oceanic Work,” Flash Art 326, June 17, 2019, https://flash—


For more on this form of embodied knowledge, see Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): 575–99.


Natasha Myers, “Visions for Embodiment in Technoscience,” in Teaching as Activism: Equity Meets Environmentalism, ed. Peggy Tripp and Linda Muzzin (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 255–67.


Eva Hayward, “Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals,” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4 (November 2010): 577–99.


Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).


Emma Marris, “The Nature You See in Documentaries is Beautiful and False,” The Atlantic, April 12, 2021,


Recently, zoos have been creating zones of encounter between humans and animals that are safely mediated but nonetheless seemingly immersive. This is a development from an earlier model of natural enclosures that mimicked the environments of animals, since now humans are also seemingly immersed in that seemingly wild space. See Nigel Rothfels, “Immersed with Animals,” in Representing Animals, ed. Nigel Rothfels (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 199–223.


Eva Hayward, “Sensational Jellyfish: Aquarium Affects and the Matter of Immersion,” differences 23, no. 3 (2012): 172.


Hayward, “Sensational Jellyfish,” 174.


The precise terms one uses would carry different epistemological focuses and consequently delineate distinct ecological zones. Christina Wessely describes the emergence of these terms precisely to deal with layered and overlapping environments in aquariums in the early 1900s in Germany: “Attempts at limiting the proliferation of milieus could be carried out only through conceptual work. Terminological limits were enlisted to contain proliferating milieus, giving them contours and boundaries as environments (Umwelten) and surroundings (Umgebungen), habitats (Lebensräume) and living areas (Lebensbezirke), biotopes (Biotope) and ecosystems (Ökosysteme).” Christina Wessely, “Watery Milieus: Marine Biology, Aquariums, and the Limits of Ecological Knowledge circa 1900,” trans. Nathan Stobaugh, Grey Room 75 (May 2019): 54.


Timothy Morton, “Guest Column: Queer Ecology,” PMLA 125, no. 2 (March 2010): 275–6.


Morton, “Guest Column: Queer Ecology,” 275.