Ulysses Jenkins is an artist of extremes, an innovator who has probed the limits of a wide range of aesthetic modes for over five decades. Though he’s best known for his video art, a medium whose conventions he has been instrumental in defining since the 1970s, he has also produced documentaries, performances, public broadcasts, paintings, murals, and writings. Through these various forms, he has sustained an incisive critique of Black representation in mass-produced media, returning frequently over his long career to the themes of pop culture, gender, and global capitalism with a sense of playfulness that bends time and space.
Central to Jenkins’s methodology is what he calls “doggerel” (sometimes spelled “doggereal”), a set of strategies through which “metaphors expand and ask questions of themselves and ourselves,” as he wrote in 1985. Named after a literary term for silly poetry with irregular rhythm and rhyme, Jenkins’s doggerel encompasses elements of comedy, absurdist performance, surrealism, dadaism, collage, montage, and technological disruption. The concept codifies his experimental practice and his emphasis on ritual and nonlinear forms; it is also, as curator Meg Onli notes, a response to the possibilities and limitations of video itself. Using and abusing the medium’s playback technology and portability, features that gave it the semblance of being a uniquely democratic format, Jenkins sets out to track the frenzied order of our modern visual culture. At the same time, he chronicles a specifically Black psychic response to that order, whose effects are so pervasive that the racial alienation at its heart can be difficult to grasp.
Since the beginning of his career, Jenkins has been using preexisting footage as a foundation for his work and radically recontextualizing it with his editing techniques and stylized screen persona. Mass of Images (1978), his much-analyzed examination of the racist history of minstrelsy and vaudeville, is an early example of his methods and a touchstone of Black video art. At the beginning of this four-minute recorded performance, Jenkins slowly appears from behind a row of two big, clunky televisions, with one smaller one teetering on top. He takes a few deep, shaky breaths and says, “You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know,” before retreating behind the TVs, waving his hands like a bogeyman. Then, shots of Jenkins are spliced between stills from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Hal Roach’s Our Gang (1922), and Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927), as well as images of blackface and actors like Bert Williams and Hattie McDaniel.
Who is this spectacular character Jenkins embodies here? With a sledgehammer in his hand, he has an inexplicably physical presence, breathing heavily, looking exasperated and exhausted. He’s adorned with an American flag scarf, sunglasses, and a translucent plastic sphere on his head. On his shirt is an Adidas logo obscured by a bathrobe so that all we see is the word “id.” As if to disrupt the cliché of the direct-to-camera talking head so prevalent in the 1970s, Jenkins’s head is often out of frame. He inches toward the lens, too close for comfort.
Though he seems to be the embodiment of the id, this weapon-wielding character never achieves catharsis. As the critic and curator Aria Dean notes in an essay on Jenkins, he taunts but never smashes the televisions. “Why doesn’t Jenkins smash them?” she writes. “It is because ‘they won’t let’ him.’ The line ‘they won’t let me’ betrays a wholehearted desire to commit the act.” Jenkins’s griot character tells a story that suggests the effects of an anti-Black mass media on the inner life. Looking into the camera, he repeats his lines:
You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know
from years and years of TV shows.
The hurting thing, the hidden pain
was written and bitten into your veins.
I don’t and I won’t relate,
and I think for some it’s too late!
His poetic speech stages the problem of Black stereotypes, building tension but never releasing it. This lack of resolution can be found in many of Jenkins’s subsequent works, and became all the more pronounced as he experimented with more abstract and fractured styles over the years.In the cut-and-paste Inconsequential Doggereal (1981), Jenkins returned to this idea of a “mass of images you’ve gotten to know” and continued his merciless assault on the media, but this time at such a rapid speed that the effect is less cerebral than corporeal. Here, his editing—what he calls “visual collage”—is as disruptive as it is balletic; the fifteen-minute video was made as an exercise when he was teaching at the University of California, San Diego. Jenkins overlays and rewinds clips, replaying them to conjure the effect of a record skipping, and the sequence of shots—a lawn mower cutting grass, a football in the air, a black ass, a couple fighting, a Ferris wheel, Ronald Reagan, news about low wages, clips from a science documentary—go by so quickly that it’s hard to know what exactly is going on. Along with ZGrass (1983), an early use of computer animation in the history of video art, Inconsequential Doggereal exemplifies the vibratory, abrupt, tense editing that characterizes much of Jenkins’s art in this period.
Like his work, Jenkins’s life has been vertiginous. He was born and grew up in civil-rights-era Los Angeles, a newly integrating city that was also the bastion of the flimsy politics of racial representation he would later critique. Living between Culver City and Crenshaw, he saw Hollywood not just at the movies but in his everyday surroundings. “When I was a kid, the whole area around La Cienega and Jefferson was just open fields and they used to shoot Westerns near the vacant lots,” he recalls in Doggerel Life: Stories of a Los Angeles Griot, a memoir he wrote in 1990 that was finally published in 2018.
Despite the formative influence of moving images, he began his career in other art forms. Jenkins studied drawing and painting at Southern University, a historically Black college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He earned an MFA from the now-defunct intermedia, video, and performance art department at Otis Art Institute (now known as Otis College of Art and Design), where Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons were his classmates. At Otis, he studied with the well-known artists Betye Saar, Chris Burden, and Charles White. As James Hannaham recently wrote, Jenkins had a “quiet influence on and comradeship with artists—Black and otherwise.”
In other words, though he is known for his individual style, he has always drawn on collective wisdom and collaboration across disciplines. His early work was public and communal in nature; he participated in the making of many iconic murals in his hometown, including the Great Wall of Los Angeles and the Crenshaw Wall. Though he is often relentlessly hands-on—stay for the end credits of his videos and you’ll usually see him listed as editor, producer, star, writer, director, and cameraman—he began to show up less as the narrator of his work, and in his later years replaced his on-screen presence with a host of other characters and friends.
When predominantly white art institutions weren’t interested in collaborating with him, he made spaces of his own where fellow artists could feel safe to hang out and create. In the 1980s, Jenkins founded Othervisions Studio, a hard-to-define collective project uniting and supporting multimedia artists, dancers, and musicians like Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, and May Sun. Othervisions offered a site of solidarity and a hub of experimental play during a wild moment in the history of American video. Still in its youth, the technology was constantly changing, and the culture of MTV was growing fast, exerting an influence on video artists while absorbing their influence in turn. Jenkins’s work from this era, including Dream City and Without Your Interpretation (both from 1983), registers as a somber rejoinder to Reagan’s Hollywoodization of politics and instrumentalization of “diversity,” against the backdrop of state neglect and the AIDS crisis.
Over the decades, Jenkins has continued to chip away at what he called, in a treatment for Inconsequential Doggereal, a “repressed media unconscious.” In 2007’s Notions of Freedom, he choreographs a subtle shift from exuberant presentations of African American music and culture to documentary footage of demonstrations and racial violence. The steady drip of imagery begins with the performative, cultural, and celebratory (Chicago rent parties, Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, a Randall’s Island swing concert, pictures of jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday) and moves to more violent and political material (fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, the Watts Riots, police cars, the March on Washington, an assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in his coffin). This montage conveys the inseparability of Black cultural history from pain, terror, and state-sanctioned suffering. The longer the video plays, the more difficult it is—for the eye, the ear, the psyche—to erect a clear boundary between practices of freedom and modes of domination.
Jenkins’s subject matter is often unsettling, but it would be a mistake to not mention how laugh-out-loud funny some of his work is. The depressing moments are interconnected with humorous ones, as in the wacky Two-Zone Transfer (1979), a performance video starring his Black Otis classmates Ronnie Nichols, Greg Pitts, and Kerry James Marshall. Two-Zone Transfer moves between a minstrel scene featuring hilariously warped masks of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, a church service, a dreamscape, and a James Brown concert, weaving together a cunning exploration of charismatic masculinities. Jenkins shows how to approach the avant-garde with lightness and style, and some of his comic effects come down to wardrobe choices: the over-the-top get-up in Mass of Images, the square sunglasses and sneakers in the pseudo music video Peace and Anwar Sadat (1981), the sleek modern-dance costuming in Cake Walk (1983).
Last year, Jenkins was honored with his first major, comprehensive retrospective—a long-overdue tribute. The sprawling exhibition Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation was first held at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania last year, and is now at the Hammer Museum. Seeing the breadth of his work in one place, you notice his serious and longstanding relationship to the concept of multiculturalism, and his engagement with critiques of how that buzzword has been deployed by the government and corporate media. One of the exhibition’s thematically organized sections, “Multi-cultural Ideal?,” features The Video Griots Trilogy (1989–1991), a complex suite of videos that uses archival photographs and footage to reimagine a syncretic world history along alternate routes of migration and indigeneity. Through this meditative revisionist history accompanied by a soft, melancholy soundtrack, Jenkins deflates the false idols of globalized culture under capitalism. For him, Blackness is not something to be tacked on to our understanding of the human experience, as if it were decoration. The true meaning of multiculturalism takes root in practice, through politically strategic collaboration that pushes against commercial imperatives and structural stratification in our society.
Jenkins delves further into this theme in Remnants of the Watts Festival (1980), which exemplifies a documentary mode that he has played with occasionally through the years. The film surveys the Watts Summer Festival, a flourishing Black-nationalist cultural event and parade that took place in Southeast Central Los Angeles in the 1970s. Completed with the help of Video Venice News, a media production company that Jenkins founded in LA in the early 1980s, the documentary is one of the collective’s few existing works, and it exposes the racial antagonisms surrounding the festival. While in conversation with Black Arts Council cofounder Cecil Ferguson, Jenkins, from behind the camera, describes how “Black people getting together” gets painted in the news as violent and unsafe, particularly for white attendees. This context lends a fraught and bittersweet quality to the rest of the footage. On the one hand, the piece is a chronicle of how the festival devolved from a community-organized celebration to a corporate-run and LAPD-surveilled event dominated by Coors beer, Salem cigarettes, and the military. On the other, it is also a beautiful archive of Black getting-togetherness. It evokes the thick presence of what could have been.In its exploration of dance, sound, sexuality, and the psychosocial undercurrents of race-thinking that hold the United States together, Remnants is like the rest of Jenkins’s oeuvre: it dives into the thorny sensorium of contemporary life. His fast-and-furious art, fueled by his evergreen critiques of new media and his interest in technology and communication across time and space, is something of a primer on our age of screen saturation. Today, in a time of impossible grief, these works encourage us to keep myth-busting, keep getting together, keep filming, keep archiving, and keep experimenting.
Images courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York