Introduction by Joan Jonas
I started by making drawings in notebooks in the mid-1960s. I was living in a very small apartment, and I had small notebooks and I made drawings of birds and other things. I also wrote down ideas and thoughts in the beginning. Then in the late 1960s when I started doing my work, I continued to use them in the same way. But the notebooks got a little bigger. I mainly use them to write down my thoughts and my ideas about work and to make drawings. And sometimes personal things, like dreams. And also lists, there are many lists. Sometimes I would also take notes after I saw a film or a performance or a theater piece or an exhibition. In general, the notebooks function like a work diary. During the time that I was thinking of one piece, I would be writing in a notebook ideas related to the process of that work.
The way I always begin a piece is to sit down and write down my ideas, and write down images. Those ideas and images don’t necessarily end up in the work, but that’s the way I begin a piece: I begin to think about what I could do. I don’t know where I’m going to start, so I began by writing in my notebook, often with nothing specific in mind. I use them to prepare ideas and as a first moment of writing down things.
I try to start a notebook with each new piece. With each new piece I try to start a new notebook. A lot of the notebooks are not finished. I like to start new ones. For example, if I would go to Canada, or go on a trip, I would take a new notebook. It wouldn’t necessarily be in relation to a new piece, but it might be. I like to separate the pieces from one another. But there’s no system, no coherent system. Also, some of them are much more carefully marked or made, and I’m not sure if I ever thought they would be published or that people would see them, but I liked the idea of having them look a certain way.
In terms of returning to or referring to the notebooks when I was developing work, I think often what I would do is go back to the last notebook and write down, copy all the ideas that I’d liked or that I hadn’t used, into my new notebook. So there’s a lot of repetition.
The 1970s notebooks are much more detailed, with sketches and stage directions. When I worked in the ’70s and into the ’80s, there were many more notes related to specific works. I think in the ’90s and until the present, because of video documentation, more or less a lot of it is in the video, that energy. And later, when I started teaching full time I would use them as a combination. I’d use part of the notebook for my teaching and part for my own work.
—Joan Jonas, April 2020