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Hans Ulrich Obrist recommends Jonas Mekas’ Walden

Hans Ulrich Obrist recommends Jonas Mekas’ 'Walden' Jonas Mekas isn’t just a filmmaker. He’s someone who reproduces the reality of the world we live in. From 1968 onwards, he’s shared his own life with his audience. I stress this because I always believed in generosity and in sharing things and experiences. That’s probably why I became a curator. I will never forget when Agnes B. introduced me to Jonas in 1995. We all met in Paris, at a small café near Les Halles. While I was conducting my first interview with him, he kept on filming me and the people in the café and the life on the street. He persuaded me to film my interviews as well. That was the moment when I understood that never stopping to do interviews and never stopping to film is, literally, to be working on a never-ending, non-linear narration. I saw the continual effort of interviewing people like a huge polyphonic novel. The next day, I bought my first small digital camera. Without him, I would still have my audio archive of spoken interviews, but I wouldn’t have my twenty-five hundred filmed interviews.

When Mekas started shooting his non-narrative films in the late sixties, it was pioneering work. Walden (1968/69), along with Lost, Lost, Lost (1976) and Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971/72), are films without any conventional narration. Yet none of these films are narratively random, as they consist of hundreds of scenes that were taken by Mekas on a daily basis with his Bolex 35mm camera. They’re like filmed diaries. I asked Jonas what had led him to creating the blueprint to diaristic cinema. Interestingly enough, he said he was most influenced by the late nineteenth century Italian novel Cuore by Edmondo De Amicis. It tells the tale of a young boy from the perspective of his diary entries, mostly detailing his experiences at school. It’s fascinating to me that Walden, a milestone of non-narrative cinema, was so strongly influenced by De Amicis, but Mekas’ broader connection to the experimental novel, or nouveau roman, is clear. When Alain Robbe-Grillet “invented” the nouveau roman at the end of the fifties, it was a similar situation in literature. Robbe-Grillet considered the classical novel a “dead” medium, particularly its narrative dogma. In Mekas’ films, only time progresses linearly, but not the story. I chose to recommend Walden because I have the feeling that now is the perfect time to rediscover it. While watching it, you become aware of its prophetic approach to storytelling.

Recently, Mekas asked me to do a new interview with him, this time for his own book. During our conversation he announced that Potemkine Films would be releasing all of his diaristic films for the first time on DVD later this year. He confided, “I consider my diaristic films to be basically narratives, only they are modern narratives. Me and my friends are the main protagonists and really, it’s very conventional. There is no one story. There are hundreds of little stories […] and you can tell everything about me from them.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist is an archivist and curator of contemporary art. For the last issue of Electronic Beats, he interviewed Carsten Nicolai at 4 A.M. in the artist’s Berlin studio.

FOTO: © Jonas Mekas courtesy of Re:Voir Video

Published April 10, 2012.