During the 1970s and ’80s, as video blossomed into a fully formed artistic medium in New York thanks to works by Joan Jonas, Dara Birnbaum, Bill Viola, and others, Ulysses Jenkins was charting a similar but different path in Los Angeles with videos of his own. Like some of these artists, Jenkins was performing for his camera and meditating on a deluge of imagery that appeared in mass media, often through the form of appropriated ready-made footage that he manipulated. Unlike many of those artists, he used his videos to speak to the experience of being Black in America. There are obvious takeaways from Jenkins’s work from this era: that histories of racism are all around us, that there are more pictures in the world than we need. But boiling down Jenkins’s videos from this period—his most productive—does them an injustice, as they prioritize opacity over easy answers with their dense and often deliberately nonsensical montages.
Despite not being quite as famous as many of his contemporaries, Jenkins is an influential artist who has shaped video history, even if some don’t know it. Having gotten his start as a muralist, working at times with Judith F. Baca on projects such as the sprawling Great Wall of Los Angeles, he later took up performance and video, and came into the orbit of artists such as David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and others. As an educator at the University of California, Irvine and as an artist, he has proven influential to generations after, with videos such as Mass of Images (1978)—in which Jenkins threatens to smash screens displaying racist stereotypes of Black Americans, only to fake out the audience and swing his sledgehammer at the camera instead—acting as classics. (That video, as well as others by Jenkins, are currently being hosted on the Criterion Channel as part of a modest survey devoted to the artist.)
Now, Jenkins is the subject of his first retrospective, which is traveling to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles this month after first appearing at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia last year. Curated by Erin Christovale and Meg Onli, it features 50 years’ worth of performances and videos. In January, ARTnews spoke with Jenkins by Zoom to hear more about the show. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Before you moved into video and performance work, you started out as a painter. You worked on murals for Judith F. Baca, and also did some independently. What made you ultimately move into video and performance work? Did your painting career influence you at all?
I was interested in independent films, in particular Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song  by Melvin Van Peebles and Easy Rider . You had some really interesting social messaging. What a lot of people do not recognize, because they’re not film buffs, is that Sweet Sweetback was actually an experimental film. I somewhat recognized those qualities in the film, so I followed my interest in that to working with a Portapak and video.
What about those films interested you?
I would say I was intrigued by the activities that were involved in the making of those films. I started to recognize that it’s not easy for an independent filmmaker, and especially for an African American, to get funding to actually produce the kinds of work that you wanted to make.
What you said about the independent mode is interesting because you were connected to various groups that were not very institutional, like the collective Studio Z, for example, which you were lured into by David Hammons and also included Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger. Did those independent art activities influence you, too?
Once again, the African American arts community was not really being recognized. As a matter of fact, the reason why I pursued mural painting in the first place was because it wasn’t easy for African Americans to get exhibitions. For the most part, when it came to my collaboration with Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger, we had come to a place where we said to each other, “If one of us gets a show, we all have a show.” I was doing video and painting murals in the early ’70s. In those times, as artists of color, we were left on the outside of the so-called arts community, so that’s why we pursued the strategies we did.
As the history of video art is commonly told, the video art scene was centered around New York during the ’70s and ’80s, the medium’s formative era. Many of the most famous artists of that time were white, and the technologies they used were hard to come by. Were you able to access the same technologies that they were able to use?
Well, that was the whole reason why I stayed close to educational institutions, because I could get access to their editing facilities. The Long Beach Art Museum’s video program really supported independent video. It made it easier to get an opportunity to edit. Gary Lloyd, one of my professors at the time, introduced me to Nam June Paik, who was doing a residency at UCLA at the time. [Lloyd] also made it possible for me to edit Two Zone Transfer  by giving me the combination to the editing labs at UCLA, which you had to sneak into, if you weren’t a student, which I wasn’t. I got a call at 11:30 p.m. telling me to be at the studio at the editing bays by midnight. I could get in, lock the door, and stay in there and edit that video. I mean, people were beating on the door. “Who’s in here? What’s your student number?” They wanted in, and I just stayed in until the morning until I got it edited. When Nam June was at UCLA, I showed him my video Two Zone Transfer. That was a pivotal moment for me because he liked it. He told me it might not have been something he would have produced, but he liked what I was producing. And that gave me the fortitude to make the change that I was about to make in grad school, from painting and drawing to video, or, as the medium was called then, intermedia.
Video was extremely laborious at the time. It really required a lot of knowledge and intelligence of how to use those machines, right?
Well, of course. But at the same time, a lot of people were really persistent. They were cutting the actual tape as if it were film. And then when they spliced their video, they would use scotch tape to tape the sections of the video that they wanted to select together. Of course, that was really bad on the video heads of the actual machines. Actually, in some ways I taught myself what the notion of editing was when I shot my first video, Remnants of the Watts Festival [a 1972–73/80 work documenting the Watts Summer Festival]. For that video, turning the camera off and back on was the editing process. Music really became a teaching tool to me. I would count the rhythms of sections I wanted, and I would turn the camera off and back on in time with the rhythm of the song.
Now that’s in-camera editing! I was also really struck while reading your memoir by a comment that you made about how video is a new form of oral storytelling. You’ve also referred to yourself as a griot, which is a West African oral storyteller. Do your videos function as a form of storytelling, and why is that important to you?
They do, because I’m in some of them. I was teaching at UCSD [at the same time as] David Antin, who was Eleanor Antin’s husband. We would have these conversations about the ways in which we could deconstruct narratives. David was really into the notion of how poetry is constructed, and this was around 1980. When I reflect on it, that was also the time in which hip-hop was emerging. I didn’t even realize that, in Mass of Images, the poem that I read in that video could maybe also be considered a form of hip-hop: “You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know, from years and years of TV shows. The hidden pain was written and beaten into your veins.”
At the same time, I was referring to my audience. That’s been asked of me before: who did I think was going to be my audience? Well, first and foremost, I thought my audience was going to be African Americans. I’ve had people seem to be perplexed. There’s a stack of videos that’s a reference to the group Ant Farm. People did not and seemingly do not put together that the imagery also represents a part of your narrative. I was trying to make a commentary about how in the history of Western civilization, Black people have been misrepresented and presented in these really negative constructs.
And so, having said all that, I go back to Inconsequential Doggereal, where it opens up with the Surrealist notion of having lawnmowers come at my head. I’m waving the lawnmowers on. The question that I’m asking the audience when they watch is why would I want to have myself run over by lawnmower. The fact that I was using lawnmowers at that time in the early part of my career as a metaphor for the Western movement, which was like a lawnmower, mowing over Indigenous people and people of color. It was a visual vocabulary, if you will, that became a part of that video.
Can you explain the term “doggereal”? It’s a play on “doggerel,” right?
The word “doggerel” is a British term that comes out of the theatrical community and is considered negative. The term was used by Marlon Brando when he was playing Superman’s father. In one interview, he said, “I like the doggerel moments in the film.” I was like, “Why would he like something like that? What does that mean?” And so, I looked the term up. It sometimes refers to a comedic verse with an irregular measure. And I thought, “Oh, wow, that’s awesome. He’s talking about the space in between the dialogue that the actors are acting, that there’s an open space, but that space is irregular.” And I said, “That’s Black people. That’s how we’re living in this country.” One time an interviewer asked me, “Are you talking about something negative?” And I said, “No, I’m trying to flip the term.”
Mass of Images deals with media representations, as does another work from that era, Another Rendering of the Same Problem, which focuses on images of Black men in the media. What is your work’s relationship to mass media? Are you trying to subvert it in some way? It certainly seems that way based on those two works.
Well, if the subversion actually works, then yeah. [Laughs.] In Mass of Images, when I come from behind the monitors in the wheelchair, I’m trying to metaphorically say that I’ve been injured by the media. Then I get up out of the wheelchair with the sledgehammer and I start to hit the monitors or smash the monitors, and then I stop. I say, “But they won’t let me.” That’s the controlling reality of the media. If you’re going to be in the media, can you say what you really want to say? I would say to Richard Pryor was doing that at the time. And his show—they wouldn’t allow him to say what he wanted to say. As a matter of fact, they took him off the air for saying things that he was saying.
In other works, you start directly appropriating images, taking them from commercials and broadcasts, looping or rewinding them, and then fast forwarding them. When did you decide that you wanted to start actually using that material directly, because a lot of the footage had been of your own making before, right?
Right. There was a process that I discovered called paramnesia, which is the mental process of seeing an image and then [having] image recall. A lot of people don’t know that that’s the secret element in commercials. If you watch a commercial, how many times do they repeat a message in the commercial? I had actually been studying the creation of commercials as part of my understanding of the media. As I explained it to my students, when you’re driving down the highway, you see a billboard, and as you go down the highway, you may see it again. At the same time, you may see something that reminds you of that commercial or that billboard. It stays in your mind. I was trying to replicate that process in Inconsequential Doggereal.
I was also struck by how, in your memoir, you talk about your experience in Hawaii and the displacement that you felt there. You were starting to contend with the role that colonialism had played in what you call a “paradise” there, and then you mentioned going back to California to feel your “true inner displacement.” How does that inner displacement inform your work, if at all?
When I went to Hawaii, [I met] the local people and they would tell me their stories. When I was living on the big island Hawaii, there was a local guy who had a tattoo that went from his shoulder down to his waist of a Black Panther. Now, this is 1972. When I asked him what it represented, he said a Black Panther, but he also told me these stories about all the hippies were coming to Hawaii, calling it the Garden of Eden, nirvana. He said, “Man, they’re taking our land and claiming it for themselves.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s the same thing that happened in California with the Mexican populations.” I started to see that it was about the stories of how the colonial experience happened in Hawaii, where Queen Liliuokalani is eventually convinced by the Americans to choose them over Britain or any other commercial entities that were trying to get a hold of the islands. That day actually gave me the real reality of the notion of what I’ve been calling multicultural art or, in other words, the inclusion of people of color in the mainstream of our society. It was like an awakening.
Some of what you’re saying shows up again in your performance Columbus Day: A Doggereal.
You’re really on it!
Tell me a little bit about that piece.
The last part of the of the of the title, Doggereal, was me trying to make a doggerel. After having been in Hawaii, I said, “Well, that’s what was happening here with this so-called celebration of Columbus Day?” It’s unbelievable. On MSNBC last year, they actually had an interview with descendants of the original Native people who were at Columbus Day, and they gave a whole other definition of what we were celebrating, which was really the beginning of a genocide.
When I did that performance, it was the first time I used my metaphorical symbol of the lawnmower. I had a lawnmower in the center of this new gallery in L.A. called LACE [in 1980], and within the grass catcher of the lawnmower, I had all these artifacts of our current contemporary culture: toys of buildings and cars and all these different things that are now modern technology. I also had a carcass of a dead squirrel. I also had some gentlemen who were musicians working with me—a jazz player, a musician who was playing saxophone, a person who was playing percussion on drums. And I had a Brazilian guy playing a berimbau, a stringed instrument. He was doing this Brazilian dance. I was trying to stop trying to make the commentary that has become a global metaphor for the destruction of Indigenous cultures. Again, oral tradition: I was telling a story of which I’m telling you now in terms of this whole relationship to the ending of Indigenous culture for the profit of the coming colonialists.
I was trying to mimic again a metaphor by Joseph Beuys, who used a dead carcass in one of his performances [How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, from 1965]. The gallery called me a few days later, asking me to come get this carcass out of here. The smell! The Health Department came in, and was going to close them down. I said, “Well, I guess my metaphor worked right?”
Arguably a little too well in that case.
But see, those kinds of strategies were being embedded in the work, if you will. It was saying that Columbus Day is a tragedy that we’re celebrating.
In your memoir, you mentioned that when you came to New York during the ’80s, no one understood the work—not Black curators, and not white ones either at mainstream institutions. But now, you have a survey coming to the Hammer from the ICA Philadelphia. Do you think the reception of your work has changed?
This is the first time that I am having a solo exhibition, though my first exhibition at the Hammer was when I was included in “Now Dig This!” by the curator Kellie Jones. That was also where I was got noticed by Erin Christovale [who co-curated the Hammer survey]. I’ve gotten a lot of support lately from EAI [Electronic Arts Intermix, a prominent distributor of video art], which actually distributes my videos now and they’re in New York and I have had several conversations with them. Since the Philadelphia show, I’ve heard of a lot of people who wanted to see the show. What can I say? It really turns me on. [Laughs.] Can I say that?