As I scour archives of early video art, I begin to find Jill Kroesen everywhere. She is a performer who appears, fearlessly, in a number of experimental performances from the 1970s; these are the early years of video art, deploying the same tools as television but seeking a vocabulary of its own. Jill pushed at the limits of performance, mixing biography, art criticism and pop culture, in scripts that can be read as early examples of fictocriticism.
Jill worked at the experimental NY arts venue, The Kitchen in the late 1970s, where she hung out with Laurie Anderson and David van Tieghem and performed her own work, some of which exist online as fragments. Perhaps most famously, she took a lead role in Robert Ashley’s video opera, Perfect Lives, a reinterpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in which Jill dons a series of eccentric costumes and outlandish hats, appearing as a shapeshifting character as she moves through the afterlife.
But then around 1985, Jill disappears from the world of performance art. She falls off the map.
I’ve sent emails, stuttering into the Internet… to the Whitney Museum, who mentions Jill in an exhibition on NY Loft performances (2013); to an all-female band, “Women’s Hour”, who mention Jill’s extraordinary sets and costumes in a radio interview (2014). I send email after email, connecting infra-thin fragments into constellations that build up an iridescent portrait.
And then, one day I find a reply from Jill in my inbox: “I have received a note from Greta Hartenstein at the Whitney about your interest in my work,” she writes. “I’d be happy to speak to you.” And so the conversation begins to unfurl. Jill, it transpires, lives in a town called Rancho Mirage, a resort in the Southern Californian desert where she runs a small hotel. I’m curious to understand what happened in the mid 1980s, why she veered away from the epicentre. I pour questions into emails, which she answers honestly but epigrammatically: this leaves me wanting more. “I stopped making art when a bunch of life events collided,” she tells me frankly. “Manhattan got expensive and my father stopped supporting me. I fell off a horse. My boyfriend left me. All these things happened at once, and so I moved on.” So she adapted, found new company – working in special effects at HBO and Cinemax, and later managing the archives of the ballerina Gelsey Kirkland. Eventually she moved west. “You’re welcome to visit,” she offers. “I’ve got an archive that I’m just starting to organize. And the weather is great!”
“To my delight, she sends me a parcel stuffed with scripts, photocopies of reviews from The Soho Weekly News, her drawings, a few typed discussions and even a student’s essay. “I was told it would be an experience to remember,” writes Ann Mary Masterson for a literature class, “and I was warned of Ms. Kroesen’s avant-garde style! But the production surpassed all of my expectations.”
I devour Jill’s scripts, which date from 1974-1983. All her works take the form of parodies, positioning themselves as faux-naïve recitals that entangle gossip with world politics, enmeshing public health policy with degrading comments thrust at her on the street.
Jill studied at Mills Centre for Contemporary Music in Oakland, which in those days was directed (and radicalised) by Bob Ashley, an ambitious composer who expanded “opera” into something spoken and vernacular, located in the supermarket, the living room and on television. Based at Mills throughout the 70s, Bob enticed a group of artists to gather at the college, an extended family that included the composer Terry Riley, a jazz pianist called “Blue” Gene Tyranny who collaborated with Jill and Bob in Perfect Lives, the writer Kathy Acker and new-music pioneer Peter Gordon – all of whom ended up in NY together during the early 80s. Jill studied the harpsichord and the blues, and began to write her own plays and performances. “Bob’s gift was attention,” she recalls, “He brought together thinkers, inventors, artists, and it all worked around his charisma, his desire to break conventions.”
In her first play, written in 1974 and titled Fay Shism Began in the Home, Jill plays an androgynous character, Fay, who like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando shifts gender, morphing before the audience’s eye – and Jill first fills her bodice with stuffing, later using the same material to pad out her crotch. Fay Shism is about power relations: the masochistic forces that belie relationships, a kind of fascism in the home, and as the political and personal bleed together Jill reveals violence at the centre, a garden variety of chauvinism. There’s an immediate voice-as-style in Jill’s work that grows outwards from this script, structuring each subsequent work as a fable laced with innuendo and convulsing with a brutality that’s just below the surface. In another play from ’79, The Lowell Jerkman Story, Jill’s writing is smutty and lickerish and witty all at once, as she croons the “Penis Envy Blues”:
ooo sometimes I envy you men
You get taken seriously when you talk, You don’t get raped when you walk
I’m going to be a man someday, get a dildo and call myself Jay
Stick it all the way into you, Oh boy do I want to
Graduating from Mills in 1974, Jill moved to New York, helping out with screenings at The Kitchen, touring with Perfect Lives across Europe and performing her own work. Sifting through the extracts that remain of her performances, I became absorbed by a polemic fable written in the early ‘80s called Excuse Me I Feel Like Multiplying, which encapsulates so much of her artistic project. In it, Cold War negotiations (the SALT armament talks, which culminated in 1979) are remodelled as the drama of soap opera, in which the superpowers are personified as bickering, frivolous typecasts. Jill as the USSR, sits inside a cage made from stretched foamcoare, facing the USA, embodied as a fading cowboy with toy pistols and a rancher’s hat. A malicious debate ensues between the superpowers regarding an undeveloped country, known between them as “Raw Material”, personified as a boyfriend they squabble over; and finally all three are ravaged by The Virus, a woman adorned with an oversupply of small balloons pinned to her body. On one level, Jill reduces superpower politics to the mechanics of the playground, the trading of toys and insults; and yet on another level, it’s about the body – power represented as bodies that shiver with infection, reduced to the same state of vulnerability.
It’s the virus that intrigues me the most, perhaps because I’ve been thinking about the productive possibilities of negative states like falling, failure or disease. I’m intrigued by this virus who, like the superpowers, feels like multiplying too, and I read the virus as a negative state that’s full of potential: not multiplying biologically, but instead expanding in a distinctly feminal dispersion – to sprinkle and strew and sow the unprocessed self. This is what Jill did so spontaneously: oversharing, being vulnerable, revealing the intimate.
Thirty years later, and Jill’s work is resurfacing: it’s being dug up and remapped. A 2013 show at The Whitney called “Rituals of Rented Island” looked at object theatre and loft performance in ‘70s Manhattan, and featured Jill’s work alongside Yvonne Rainer, Vito Acconci and other notable figures of the era. Since Jill’s body was always entangled with her work, it’s not surprising that she finds herself impelled back to the centre, stirred into motion – like the Agave Americana, a desert aloe that flowers every 30 years. “Since my inclusion in the Whitney show, I’ve been working on a new piece,” she tells me. “Suddenly it feels like the time again.”
This piece previously appeared in The Still Point Journal, issue 1, autumn 2015.