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Ulysses Jenkins first encountered the word “doggerel” in the late ’70s in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. Marlon Brando had used it in an interview about his role in Superman (1978), leading Jenkins to run off to look up the definition of the peculiar term.1 It turned out to be the word he needed to establish language around the video work he was making at the time. The term, which refers to a comedic verse with an irregular measure,2 usually has a negative connotation and can be used to describe work—be it a stanza in a poem or a filmmaker’s editing technique—that is poorly expressed. Brando was using it to convey his fondness for the interstitial scenes in Superman, which relied more on gesture and action than dialogue, but to Jenkins, the word doggerel described the Black experience—the daily feeling of traversing regular spaces while experiencing an irregular set of challenges. This feeling of discomfort, which Jenkins often observed was influenced by mainstream media, motivated him, as did a burning desire to capture this emotion in his film and video work.
Early in his career, Jenkins saw the limitations of popular media and the ways that it enforces systems of white supremacy, but he also believed in the visual medium’s potential to offer individuals the ability to share narratives of their own, counteracting the popular media monolith. In his videos, he took on a self-reflexive role as both witness and subject, giving him the freedom to defiantly reframe the ideas about Black people that mass media (film, television, the news) was churning out with wanton disregard for the tokenized caricatures it propagated. Jenkins’ prescient interest in visual technology’s capacity to impact representation and community-building—another of his driving, lifelong interests—is all the more relevant in our media-centric contemporary world. The steady rise of self-documentation over the past half-century has proved that our universal desire to capture and preserve our most authentic selves is best achieved, it turns out, by making sure we are the ones both behind and in front of the camera.
Jenkins’ video Inconsequential Doggereal (1981), marks the beginning of his “doggereal” series—the title intentionally misspelled. In each of the three films, which he produced in the ’80s, Jenkins plays with the malleability of time, storytelling, and memory, using jarring supercuts to give the work a choppy and Dadaist quality. Alongside frenetic editing glitches, the camera zooms in and out, rewinds, and repeats a series of seemingly-unrelated clips. Local broadcast news stories, Jenkins sitting and standing in the nude, a couple lustfully washing the dishes, psychedelic shots of space, a looming lawnmower, and a slew of other offbeat scenes shuffle and bounce. Together, they make up a 15-minute phantasmagoria that reminds us that memories aren’t always linear or fixed. Time can, in fact, be bent.
Even if Jenkins pulls from the saturated media landscape in what feels like a haphazard manner, the film is highly self-aware. His comedic timing reveals itself with a surrealist edge as Jenkins makes a case for critiquing current media with a sense of humor. The myth of heteronormative domestic bliss is put into question when the exchange between the couple washing dishes is replaced by scenes of couples fighting. Throwaway lines from broadcast news stories resonate when Jenkins repeats phrases like “less take-home pay” that reveal buried ledes—during the time this film was made, the exciting prospect of a higher minimum wage was rendered abysmal against the rising cost of living in Reagan’s 1980s. Moreover, Jenkins reminds viewers that through the skill of video editing, one has the power to transform or remix existing narratives, bending them to reveal alternate stories.
Jenkins is best known for his groundbreaking work as a Black video artist, but his prolific career also includes painting, photography, and performance. He was able to drift into various circles as a sort of interloper at the intersection of L.A.’s art movements. From the city’s mural movement to its various film collectives—including the L.A. Rebellion, a group of Black filmmakers who came out of UCLA—he’s found community in many seemingly distant corners. In grad school, Jenkins studied with Betye Saar and Charles White at Otis Art Institute, and later, other members of the Black arts movement who were driven by a new “Black aesthetic,” which endeavored to develop a separatist cultural identity that celebrated the Black experience in all of its facets. Because Jenkins had a hand in all of these movements, curator Erin Christovale fondly dubbed him the “godfather” of so many of the Black artists working at the forefront of video today.3 The Hammer Museum cemented his legacy with Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work, recently mounted in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. During a conversation with Jenkins, curators Christovale and Meg Onli revealed that it took them over four years to whittle down his teeming archive into a single cohesive exhibition.4
Born in Los Angeles in 1946, Jenkins began as a painter, influenced creatively by his father, a barber with a penchant for doodling, and his mother, who was a singer and garment worker. Jenkins was taken by the East L.A. mural movement of the ’70s and started pursuing commissions—eventually designing multiple segments of The Great Wall of Los Angeles (1974–84), a half-mile-long mural initiated by Chicana muralist Judy Baca that tracks the history of California through events and important figures from marginalized communities. But it was while Jenkins was working on murals and living in Venice Beach that he got his hands on a Sony Portapak.5 Released in 1967, the innovative, handheld video camera was a game-changer for his creative work. With the still relatively-new television technology booming as a consumer product, artists like Joan Jonas, Bill Viola, and Nam June Paik were embracing the burgeoning medium. Jenkins would do the same, though with a viewpoint unique to Los Angeles and his doggereal twist.
Jenkins first got what he called “the video jones” during his influential time in a “Blacks in the Media” class at Santa Monica College, after which he made one of his very first films, Remnants of the Watts Festival (1972–73, compiled 1980).6 The work features what is now one of the country’s oldest Black festivals, founded one year after the Watts Uprising in the summer of 1966. His footage captures festival highlights with intimate close-ups, clips from live performances, and interviews on the scene.7 Conversations with festival-goers and organizers tackle serious subjects, like Watts’ tenuous relationship with the police, but these moments are tempered by a casual panning of the camera that bottles up the pleasant buzz of the day in a manner that feels familial, almost like a home movie. Jenkins used the film as an opportunity to not only commemorate the event but to combat the media’s maligning depictions of the community post-uprising. The film was produced by Video Venice News, a media collective Jenkins co-founded to challenge the narratives of mass media—they broadcast their recordings of local events on public access cable television to provide alternative narratives about L.A.’s Black communities.8
Even Jenkins’ earliest films display an omnivorous use of appropriation and self-reflection as a mode of critiquing mass culture and media messaging. Several years after Remnants of the Watts Festival, Jenkins made Two-Zone Transfer (1979), which features performances by his Otis classmates Kerry James Marshall, Greg Pitts, Ronnie Nichols, and Roger Trammell in an investigation of Black representation. The film’s surrealist dreamscape involves a quasi-minstrel show performed in unexpectedly silly Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford masks. In one scene, Jenkins appears as a minister, preaching about verbal expression and slavery (“I want to talk to you about the power of life and death that’s in your mouth!”). Later, someone talks about African aesthetics. And finally, as the closer, Jenkins is seen dancing to James Brown before waking up from a dream.9 This sort of looping cultural reflexivity is apparent in many of Jenkins’ videos—he intentionally utilizes the stereotypical images that he works so hard to combat as a way to explore their omnipresence and incorrectness. Mass of Images (1978) achieves a similar feat by pelting the screen with racist imagery and stereotypes, with actors in blackface and stills from films like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927). Jenkins juxtaposes the footage with a voiceover that says, “You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know, from years and years of TV shows.”10
Against the landscape of the Watts Uprising, the Civil Rights movement, and the accelerating Vietnam War, Jenkins continued to pursue involvement in various arts groups, creating films that highlighted the diversity within these communities. His collective approach made room for artists of all backgrounds to tell (or retell) their stories by making his resources—like awarded grant money—available to others. He was also involved with Studio Z, an artist collective that included David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, and many others.11 When predominantly white art institutions weren’t interested in collaborating with him, Jenkins founded Othervisions Studio, where he made video and performance works, but also ushered in dancers, poets, and visual artists to make work out of the free-flowing incubator.12 In founding the studio, Jenkins created a place for artists who had to check the “other” box when describing their work and personal backgrounds. During this period, he made filmed performances like Without Your Interpretation (1984), which took place at the Art Dock on Center Street in Los Angeles and involved both Nengudi and Hassinger. The work’s political call-to-action addresses topics such as the middle-class indifference in Reagan’s America, the AIDS crisis, and the struggles of other nations. In the film, a kaleidoscopic haze of live music is spliced by images of delicate flowers, waterfalls, and interpretive dance, alongside others that addressed the world’s ills (images of impoverished children, protests, etc.). Despite its trippy nature, Without Your Interpretation is one of Jenkins’ more straightforward films, with a clear directive presented in the form of an acid-trip PSA. It encompasses all of the familiar trappings of his video work—collaboration, multiculturalism, doggerel inclinations, and alternative messaging that rivaled what the mainstream news was saying at the time. Significantly, its title reminds us that subjectivity is key not only to his practice but to our interpretations of the world at large.
Today, Jenkins teaches. He’s been in the art department at UC Irvine for the last 28 years, but he’s also taught at UC San Diego and his alma mater, Otis. As he has looked to West African storytelling traditions as an influence for his films, it’s interesting to consider how Jenkins’ teaching may become another form of verbal history-telling. Just as griot elders pass down their stories by sharing vital histories aloud, a new generation is connecting to the past through Jenkins’ video art and his lessons both in the classroom and the museum, tracking the progress that’s been made since he picked up a camera, and, of course, noting the work that is left to be done. While the accessibility of video technology is taken for granted these days, Jenkins’ revelatory early projects certainly helped to inform the ways we use visual media to reclaim our independent narratives today. Before it existed and lived in each of our pockets, Jenkins paved the way for the front-facing camera, putting himself on both sides of the lens. From the role of police dashcam footage as visual proof in driving conversations about police brutality to TikTok videos that inspire intergenerational and international exchange, the video tradition continues to shapeshift and adapt alongside technology, but it is clear that there is power in being the one to tell your own story—a way of filmmaking that Jenkins pioneered.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 29.