“It’s challenging enough to say yes” was Jonas Mekas’ answer when proposed to exhibit a selection of his videos in a Burger King for The Internet Saga, a collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale. The curators of the project, the duo Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, are not new to exhibitions addressing the web, as they collaborated with Miltos Manetas for the Internet Pavillion, on the occasion of the 2009 Venice Biennale. But while the Pavillion is still linked to an idea of spatiality, and it recalls the traditional format of national participation in the Biennale, Saga indicates a long-term, non-linear temporality. This shift in the word used denote, according to the curators, a structural change of the Internet itself, which is no more a defined virtual space but, instead, a form of temporality intertwined with the everyday. In other words, it indicates the shift from Myspace to FaceBook’s Timeline.
A long-term, not-linear narration, almost a Saga, is the feature of the work of Jonas Mekas, who recorded, in film or digital video, great parts of his life. Mekas, born in Lithuania, arrived in the States in 1953, after being imprisoned in a camp in Elmshorn, Germany during WWII. Two months after his arrival in New York he borrowed enough money to buy a Bolex camera, and began recording moments of his everyday life. He got involved in the American avant-garde film movement not just as a filmmaker, but also as a critic, organising screening and archives: he started the magazine Film Culture together with his brother Adolfas in 1954, while in 1958 he began his Movie Journal column in the Village Voice. In 1962 he founded the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and in 1964 the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, which eventually grew into Anthology Film Archives, managed in collaboration with other experimental filmmakers, among them, Jerome Hill, P. Adam Sitney and Stan Brakhage.
According to Mekas, filming is a poetic activity: it deals with finding, and keeping track of, the lyrics in everyday situations, whether in a Patti Smith or Madonna concert, or in the rain falling outside of the window. In his research, Mekas experimented with different technologies, including the Internet:
“Changing technology pushed out film so I switched to video. Then, avant-garde movie theatres – in universities, colleges, galleries, and museums – began switching to video and computers. So I embraced the Internet.”
With these words, Mekas is referring to 365 Days Project (2007), a collection of short videos filmed throughout the year 2007, and uploaded, day by day, on the artist’s website. All together, the videos create a sort of visual journal of the artist, an intimate insight of his domestic environment, his friends and thoughts. 365 Days Project transformed the artist’s website into a time-line, where every day was punctuated by the uploading of a post, but it also marked a shift from a collective viewing of the artist’s films, in a Gallery or a theatre-like environment, to a private and interactive one, as the videos are available for the user to be seen on any device, and, browsing through the different days of the year, it is possible to create a personal montage.
Mekas’ lifelong activity is articulated, in The Internet Saga, through a series of venues, both physical and virtual: the Burger King, located inside Palazzo Foscari Contarini – a traditional Venetian Palace that, despite now housing a fast food restaurant, still maintains his original decoration -, Spazio Ridotto, a new space devoted to digital art close to Piazza San Marco, and The Internet Saga website, that gathers all the links relating to the project.
In the Burger King venue, The Internet Saga appropriates the entertainment apparatus that is generally used to create a neutral, but familiar, background in the restaurants’ dining rooms: the TV and radio system. The three screens on the upper floor of the restaurant play a selection of videos of concerts in loop, performances, and everyday activities chosen by Mekas from his online diary, fully available on his website. Two of the screens are close to each other, their sounds almost overlapping while presenting scenes at different rhythms. It’s up to the viewer, then, to choose which screen he should pay attention to, for how long, or if to pay any attention at all, re-creating the same dynamics of the distracted consumption of images experienced while scrolling a web-page.
In the internal court To Petrarca is played, an audio poem composed by poetry reading, recordings from the streets of New York and from Andy Warhol’s funeral. The 70-minute audio poem merges with the sounds of Venice, creating clashes between the sounds of tires on concrete and the ones of the vaporetto boarding the Fondamenta. The unconventional location creates a mixed audience, composed of people both interested in the exhibition and regular customers of fast food.
Spazio Ridotto, instead, is the venue chosen for the Sleepless Night, an event hosted during the Opening of the Biennale, where, after a talk by the artist, a selection from Mekas’ archive was screened all night. Also on that occasion, it was up to the viewer to browse through the various material, popping in and out of the venue, choosing if to and how long to stay in there. Until the end of June, Spazio Ridotto will hosts screening of Mekas’ The Birth of a Nation (1997), a four channel projection that portrays 160 filmmaker and artist friends who, together with Mekas, created the history of underground cinema.
Through this work, and, overall, through the figure of Mekas, The Internet Saga pays homage to a way of producing – and thinking about- moving images that largely informed the aesthetic and the distribution strategies in the web-era.
Moreover, the materials gathered by the whole project, succeed in portraying Mekas as a pioneer of the experimental cinema, who for his whole life has not been afraid of exploring different possibilities offered by new recording and distribution technologies. A research still not over, as Mekas pointed out during his Sleepless Night talk, “when my camera will be broken, I’ll start filming with my phone”.
Irene Rossini studied a BA in Philosophy at the University of Bologna and, later, an MA in Visual Art obtained at IUAV University of Venice. She has been involved in the exploration different fields, ranging from art publishing to critical writing and sound experimentation. Unable to escape the dynamic of immaterial labour, she lives and works where her laptop is.
 Hans Ulrich Obrist, Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Interview with Jonas Mekas, C International Photo Magazine, April 2010