Dear Friends and Readers,
“I am for art which we do for each other, as friends.”
– Jonas Mekas
“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.”
What have we learned from the horrendous political situation in our society, where noise is a weapon to slay our focus and deceive our reason? What have we learned from technological “progress,” and its consuming production and exploitation? How can we wrestle language, so well oiled by greed and duplicity, back into precision and beauty? I seek solace in a 1969 interview with Richard Wisser where Martin Heidegger reminisced on the subject of “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (referencing a lecture he gave in Paris in 1964):
One of the great dangers of our thinking today is precisely that thinking, in a sense of philosophical thinking, no longer has a real primordial relation to the tradition. What the fate of thinking will be no one knows. […] So, I made a distinction between philosophy and metaphysics, and thinking as I understand it. This thinking is in substance much simpler than philosophy but in execution far more difficult. And it requires a new care for language, not invention of new terms, as I once thought, but a retreat into primordial content of our new continuously dying grasp of language. A coming thinker who is perhaps faced with the task of taking over this thinking that I am trying to prepare will have to comply with the words, which Heinrich von Kleist once had written, […] “I come before and behind, the one not yet here, and I bow a millennium before him, before his spirit.”
How can we engage our surroundings and bear in our minds the delicate balance between vision and action, yet still generate the necessary distance to gain true insight? While in the midst of talking to our friend the artist Shoja Azari about these probing issues, he reminded me of the urgent need to recreate our own communal gatherings, where everyone is encouraged to participate in a shared critical forum; similar to Jürgen Habermas’s proposed “public sphere” in the early 1960s, we must reclaim our public orbit. The action of necessity is our only refuge.
We’ve recently lost one of our last counter-cultural heroes, Jonas Mekas. Jonas, my mentor and friend, has profoundly impacted the spirit and transformation of the Rail over the years. As a World War II refugee, Jonas understood and deeply accepted his perpetual dislocation—he even embraced it! Many of us who come from elsewhere—Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, or simply from different states in the US—follow his model with gratitude. He keenly observed culture and recognized his place in counter-culture, supporting the small and fragile, the weirdos and socially awkward, the subtle and powerful who refused conformity, all welcomed into his community, the environment of Anthology Film Archives, his own home, in fact wherever he happened to be at any given time. Most importantly, Jonas valued the beautiful fruit born from different fields of discipline explored by individuals who embraced cross-pollination. It’d be difficult to imagine the work of artists, including Richard Serra, Kara Walker, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Raha Raissnia, among others, without their interests in experimental cinema. Conversely, it’s impossible to separate painting, drawing, poetry, music, films from the works of Harry Smith, Joan Jonas, Laurie Anderson, Julian Schnabel, John Waters, Michael Stipe, Wangechi Mutu, or Adam Pendleton, and the list goes on… In a recent visit to the artist Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio in LA, the spirit of synchronistic collaboration confirmed what we must do: bring our friends and colleagues together to transform our public spheres into unexpected shapes that can reach locales across the US and the world. After 18 years of keeping the Rail free, the Rail, as a living organism, accepts the baton handed to us by Jonas, with great brevity, terrific anticipation, and wide-eyed awareness of the privilege we hold.
One of my favorite among Jonas’s films is As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty because it testifies to the beauty of friends being together. Rail Curatorial Projects is poised to present Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 2: Meditation on the Mediterranean Sea, an exhibition, and Social Environment #2,the on-site production of an issue of the River Rail, both staged as collateral projects at the Venice Biennale this May. In July we’ll present the exhibit Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 2: Occupy Colby College,at the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine. We’re also planning the first US retrospective of Jonas Mekas at Mana Contemporary, with the date still to be determined.
We feel alive and deeply appreciative of what it means to be alive! Jonas has lived his life fully, shared it generously with his friends and comrades, and we, too, will carry his legacy and spirit on a similar path—one that is inclusive, open, rigorous, and driven by a deep belief in humanity. Lastly, on behalf of the Rail, I’d like to welcome Phyllis Tuchman and Joan Kee as our new editors-at-large; send our congratulations to our friend Charles Bernstein for winning the Bollingen Prize for his new book of poetry Near/Miss; and wish a huge belated happy birthdays to our beloved board members Scott Lynn and Juliette Cezzar.
Happy new year with love, peace, and courage,
This issue is dedicated to Jonas Mekas (1922 – 2019).
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.