Studio Visit: Jay Mark Johnson, The Shape of Time


Jay Mark Johnson. Photo Credit Gary Brewer.

Studio Visit: Jay Mark Johnson, The Shape of Time

By Gary Brewer


“Before the new technologies and ideas, time was a river in which human beings were immersed, moving steadily on the current, never faster than the speeds of nature…Photography appears on this scene as though someone had found a way to freeze the water of passing time…”

Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows


Life is an episodic adventure. Our path is defined by will and chance in equal measure. Jay Mark Johnson has had a long and byzantine journey; beginning as a student of architecture in New York City studying with Rem Koolhaus. As a student, he sold two architectural models to MoMA. The first was a student project, a reconstruction of Russian Constructivist Ivan Leonidov’s Dom Narkomtiazhprom. The second a commission from the Smithsonian Institute to reconstruct Buckminster Fuller’s 1928 Dymaxion House. That model was purchased by MoMA.

Later he moved to the Lower East Side of NYC finding that the creative zeitgeist that was unfolding there was more suited to his expanding vision; a place to discover what he needed from a more immediate creative experience, exploring experimental theater and film.

During this time the Reagan administration started ratcheting up our involvement in the wars in Central America, training the military in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Johnson felt it would be more important to use his skills in film, editing and production to help the people fighting against oppression in these countries. He moved to Mexico City and spent 4 years making music, theatre, producing film and programming for the groups working for social justice. Later, he moved to El Salvador where he worked full time writing, producing and directing television campaigns for organizations of the left.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Jay Mark Johnson. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

While in El Salvador, Johnson developed skills using state of the art equipment including a very early 3-D animation system. These skills that would immerse him in film technology and new ideas in time and representation. With his partners, he produced animations and other programming for local advertising agencies, news stations and television shows. They also presented numerous public service announcements in service to the progressive organizations that were still struggling to bring an end to the 12-year war.

After his work in Mexico and El Salvador he moved back to LA and started a production company, one of the very early 3-D animation studios. He was a skilled problem solver whose interests were wide ranging and his ability to find solutions was an asset in the nascent technology of early digital effects in film. This work led him to his use of the slit scan camera, a camera that digitally captures light in a narrow vertical band, it has a motor that sweeps it in a panoramic shot and creates a unified image.

Johnson spent months experimenting to learn what the possibilities of this new camera were, one day from the Venice pier he made a very slow panoramic photograph, so slow that people below on the beach were walking faster than the camera was moving. Later using Photshop he was ‘painting’ out the distortions and realized, “…the things that I was painting out were more interesting than the image. That this was capturing ‘real’ time, duration, and that was the most interesting thing”.

He felt that he could make a unique contribution to the established field of photography and contribute something to the pool of human knowledge by turning off the motor and letting the slit scan camera capture what was occurring in front of it. Objects in motion, cars, trains, people walking or riding bikes would be captured, distorted based in part on their speed of movement. The static objects became chromatic striations, horizontal bands of color. This process produced results that were thoroughly integrated visualizations of both space and time.

Taichi Motion Study #153. Jay Mark Johnson. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

The extension of vision from Galileo’s telescope to Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes enlarged our perspective, showing us worlds we did not know existed and giving us an understanding of the scale of the universe and of our place in it. It literally changed our consciousness, “I realized the potential of this camera’s ability to register a fluid and faithful delineated visualization of events as they occur over time. That brought a few key questions to mind. Time and space are both cultural constructs. They do not exist per se in the outside world. Our understanding of both is the product of cultural traditions spanning at least a few millennia. Also, time can only be represented in spatial terms. My slit scan camera might offer some new insights into those traditions”.  Similar to Eadweard Muybridge, this work adds to our understanding of the physical world we live in.

Johnson’s first project was capturing the movement of a person practicing Tai Chi, the body in motion; small passages detached, becoming a gesture like a paint stroke held in space, the distortions conveying and representing actual ‘time’, the fleeting moments of consciousness dissolving in atmosphere and motion. Afterwards he created bodies of work with dancers, then trains moving through landscapes, farm labor, automobile traffic, coal mining operations and most recently a series of waves breaking along the shore, the hypnotic rhythms of movement, light and atmosphere capturing the sublime elegance of the motion of waves. The images of waves are a rich marriage of form and content; waves being the movement of energy through water like a ripple in the time space continuum, or like light waves themselves.

These works have a deeply beautiful quality, the light waves from the static objects refracting in the lens become narrow bands of rich colors, the quality of the horizontal strips of color chords mimic many abstract painters. These stationary bands of color are a counterpoint to the strange and wonderful distortions of the cars, people and waves in motion. It reveals something about perception and consciousness and of light waves and space, they are sensually rich and represent factual information that is both poetic and intellectually engaging.

Storm At Sea 4. Jay Mark Johnson. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

After years of working in this format of time-based photography, Johnson is revisiting his political activism, not a departure or a break but extending himself, adding another avenue of expression, of participating in our world and contributing his voice.

Johnson has proposed a major project to several cities internationally to create a mock refugee/labor camp with small buildings covered in the language of marginalization on the front and corporate slogans on the back. They are meant to wake us to the power of language, the syntax of oppression and manipulation, each building is a mash up of word patterns that define the ‘other’ or that convey enticements to seduce in corporate vernacular.

As he writes in his proposals, “SIDESHOW: Someday All This Will Be Yurts” is a large-scale art installation addressing the marginalization and displacement of disadvantaged populations around the world. The project raises questions about how language, ideology and the architecture of enclosure are used by dominant cultures to categorize, subjugate and maintain their prominence.”

Jay Mark Johnson. Photo Credit Gary Brewer.

The shape of the buildings and the colored backgrounds beneath the language of corporate slogans is a reference to skin color, the shape of the building suggesting a phallus-it is a play on the sexualized language of seduction, to convey power and desire. The language of prowess “Peak Performance” or “Permanent Endowment” the double entendre a counterpoint to the language and word patterns that disempower people and groups, “Convicts-Converts-Perverts” or  “Homeless-Careless-Others”.

The project entails building 24 small wooden cabins, constrained within groups of chain link enclosures. They are to be exhibited in major public outdoor spaces in cities around the world. It is an ambitious undertaking and one that Johnson feels strongly about.  They communicate the way that language represents power, sexualized, seductive, or how it defines the ‘other’ of how it groups people, disenfranchising and marginalizing their worth.  “I feel it is crucial for me to participate in an open dialogue about issues that profoundly shape our lives.”

We live in a world with forces that shape consciousness, from light, time and space to cultural constructs that seek to influence our understanding of the world and language use that manipulates and separates us. It is fascinating to see the dialogue between the various pursuits of Johnson’s history. It is a journey of meaningful engagement with the world, to contribute to our knowledge and understanding from the way we perceive, to the way we think, always in an attempt to enlighten and extend our understanding both culturally, politically and in the pure pursuit of knowledge.

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