William E. Jones’s nearly 8-hour video Rejected (2017) zooms in and out of single holes punched in each of some 3,000 historical photographic negatives. The motion is constant and without interruption. We move into the empty circle of one image for a few seconds, then withdraw from a hole in what we realize is a different image before another cycle begins. Jones found these injured negatives as digital scans in the collection of the Library of Congress, where they landed after the Farm Security Administration (FSA) unceremoniously dismissed them from their effort to document the Great Depression, casting off—for technical and political reasons—images by Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and John Vachon, among others. The official images had to illustrate poverty explicitly enough to suggest the need for aggressive government programs like the FSA. Between 1935 and 1939, if the FSA director, Roy Stryker, found an image unsuitable, he punched a hole in the negative or ordered his staff to do so. Jones resuscitates the artifacts through the intimate and possibly erotic act of forcing the holes to visually expand and contract.
The holes also enter the pictorial space of the surrounding images, sometimes suggesting a mystical hovering orb, an oversize political lapel button, or a pie in the face à la John Baldessari’s sticker-covered visages. Mostly though, they indicate the presence of buried narratives. In one photograph, a group of men josh and jostle as they get off work, their heads so close together they almost become one. Other shots are poorly composed, blurry, or underexposed depictions of outhouses, storefronts, uneven porch steps, and children sitting in the dirt. Everyone is nameless. Jones notes that he went to this archive wondering if he could find what he might consider queer or homoerotic images. He found a few suggestive situations—including a motel scene—and potentially flirtatious, romantic, or lustful glances. They’re needles in a haystack, though, like secrets in a repressed time, excised from the official FSA narrative. Still, throughout Rejected, images are rehabilitated and made powerful. This is what the Great Depression looked like, a view less instrumentalized than a lot of what we’ve seen before—more commonplace, perhaps, but also more full and familiar.
This summer, just inside the entrance to David Kordansky’s new gallery space in Chelsea, a framed silkscreen print announced Rejected as one of 12 videos included in Jones’s solo exhibition “Survey.” The earliest was completed in 1998. The most recent is from 2017. Conventional or one-dimensional cinematic practices are nowhere to be found. The group would be at home alongside 1960s-era films like Bruce Conner’s cut-up A Movie (1958), Andy Warhol’s durational Sleep (1964), or Kenneth Anger’s morbid, homoerotic biker flick Scorpio Rising (1963).
Within the gallery, you could sit on a bench watching Rejected and turn to see shorter pieces like Psychic Driving (2014). The latter film’s found and altered footage can be abstract visually—interrupted by staticky zigzags and colorful, skittish, flickering lines and bars—but it centers on a VHS recording of a 1979 investigative report, originally broadcast on TV, about the CIA’s psychiatric experiments in brainwashing, involving shock therapy and LSD. In one part of the approximately 14-minute video, a victim of these despotic experiments who thought she was being treated for depression explains the agitation, fear, confusion, and pain she experienced. “Dammit all,” she says, “I could have maybe had a different kind of life.” Here, as elsewhere, Jones uses relatively minimal means to bring to light forgotten pages in history, refreshing them with surprising, abstract, or punk inflections, and giving us good reason to look again. The results feel, at times, eerily or devastatingly contemporary.
In The Soviet Army Prepares for Action in Afghanistan (2011), for example, an anxious piano sonically races against an equally fretful violin for 3 minutes as found imagery shows an abstracted and already disintegrating landscape exploding. Soldiers jump out of the way of fire, but with motions that look gymnastic or balletic. The absurdity of these exaggerated theatrical movements adds humor to the otherwise difficult-to-watch piece, pushing it toward anti-war parody. Similarly, Jones’s video Shoot Don’t Shoot (2012), about 4 minutes long, puts the viewer in the uncomfortable position of a police trainee required to consider using deadly force against a stereotyped Black suspect. The found material appears to be from the 1960s—unfortunately, times haven’t changed much.
The main character in Jones’s 2021 novel, I Should Have Known Better, is a scrappy Los Angeles art student who makes a film not unlike Jones’s The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), which was also on view at Kordansky. The aspiring artist suggests a view of the past that might shed light on Jones’s use of history as material: “To hide the disparity between utopia and real life, socialist states manufactured their own realities,” he explains. “Their heroic propaganda had an erotic dimension never officially acknowledged, and consequently, these peculiar images, which nearly everyone preferred to forget, were irresistibly attractive to me.” With intense and contagious attention, Jones critiques the violence and propagandistic deceit of states and societies, and illuminates the peculiar dimensions and shameful histories they communicate despite themselves.