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Diana Thater & T. Kelly Mason’s Jump
Screened at Creative Artists Agency April 15, 2005
“The existence of ashes, doorknobs, and windowpanes.” This is how
Bob Dylan responded in 1969 to an interviewer asking if he was sure of anything.
His retort has some resonance with T. Kelly Mason and Diana Thater’s
recent film project Jump - and not just because his music is a central component
of it. A kind of serious, literalist attitude can be seen masking a kind of
playful epistemology in Dylan’s words as well as the artists’ work.
The film was screened in a controlled setting in which the space and apparatus of presentation were consciously constructed. There is no randomly coming-and-going, watching the film on one’s own time - it was screened at selected times, for a limited audience (RSVP’s were necessary), and in a theater-like screening room within the Creative Artists Agency - a big name Hollywood talent agency. Just as Thater and Kelly disrupt the invisibility of technological media by exposing devices and using the surrounding architecture as a surface in their other installations and performances, they make the process of watching a film “visible” with Jump.
The roughly fifteen minute 16 mm film consists of various scenes in which a number of adolescents (somewhere close to twenty) jump rope while a live band plays different versions of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965). The setting is a large empty industrial space, that you later learn in the credits is the Art Center College of Design’s Wind Tunnel in Pasadena (where Thater is a faculty member). Throughout the film, the process of filming is made apparent - from the visibility of camera equipment and moving blankets (two of the artists’ regular tactics) to the inclusion of cuts and breaks in the action and music. Through such maneuverings the artists constantly interrupt the expected seamlessness of the audio-visual experience.
Jump in no way resembles a narrative - rather it uses time to unfold more of an associative exploration of meaning and signification. And it’s a loaded exploration, for sure. The young jump ropers are clad in gym uniform-like clothing - running shorts and form-fitting, bright two-tone t-shirts. These bodies in puberty bounce along to Dylan’s repeated anthem, bearing on their shirts slogans that sound as if they could be part of the barrage of incomplete truisms and advice in Subterranean Homesick Blues: “Go somewhere near to complicated,” “How far out now,” “What machines kill fascists now.”
Subterranean Homesick Blues is often cited as one of the first songs to be used in a “music video.” Of course, like Jump, it was film, not video, and it wasn’t produced for MTV, but rather for a 1966 documentary film about Dylan’s first tour in England by D. A. Pennebaker. In the well know bit, Dylan reveals cue cards with the lyrics written on them as the song plays, with some of the words strategically changed. The text in Jump, hopping around on kids’ t-shirts, seems an obvious allusion to Dylan’s own sign play, as much as to the common notion that t-shirts make great billboards.
In a 1997 conversation between Thater and Mason in Site Street Magazine, Thater said that she was “interested in taking apart romantic notions of the art form.” Jump certainly continues this mission of deconstructing their medium and presentation. But what should viewers take away from the implication of Dylan and the associations of politicized aesthetics that come along with him. The irony of pubescent kids, wearing sound bites and jumping around to the song that the 60s radicals, the Weatherman, took their name from is hard to miss. However, it’s also hard to miss that everyone in the film seems noticeably white (as were the Weathermen). It’s a little more than ironic that we demand our representational culture to be more diverse than our own neighborhoods.
What does it mean to expose the mechanisms of production and dismantle the romanticism of art today? Is it enough to leave the cables exposed and the cuts unedited while the equally necessary infrastructure of economic and cultural capital remain unnamed? Maybe Mason and Thater are asking us to consider the larger context surrounding the showing of the film - how the homogeneity of the film’s cast compares to the demographics of the audience, for example. The banal, material manifestations of our political values could shed light on quite a bit in this age of public relations and targeted marketing. But then again, maybe I’m asking too much from a literal interpretation of ashes, doorknobs and windowpanes.