Interpretations of Jonestown Video Opens Possibilities

Last year, I reported on my efforts to use extracted and severely permutated elements of the “Death Tape” to create  audio recordings. I successfully completed the recordings earlier this year, but unfortunately I did not receive the grant that I had intended to use toward production of the CD. However, there are two other grant opportunities I will be exploring in the fall to move this concept along.

Nonetheless, I did achieve a second goal, which was to perform audio alongside archive Jonestown footage. My first presentation took place July 2008 in Chicago. I selected approximately 12 minutes of footage, including people playing basketball, kids and teenagers playing in felled lumber, people working in the fields and kitchens, and a short “tour” of what appeared to be storage facilities for medical supplies. My goal with using the footage was to present a different perspective on Jonestown, one that didn’t generate immediate, knee-jerk connotations (or preconceptions). To that end, I strove not to include any images of Jones.

I am more than happy to report that by and large my goals were met. The comments to the video included:

• “I thought it was an agricultural film from the 70s, like the kind I’d see in school.”

• “Knowing you, I suspected this might have been something underlying what it started out to be; I thought it was great to see these people going about these everyday activities… it was just like a home video.”

• “The grittiness was really cool looking.”

The only flaw – and it was my own fault – was that my plan to end the video before any image of Jim Jones showed up didn’t work. The DVD player (someone else’s) was already not in an ideal scope line with the remote (and people had moved in front of me) and I wasn’t able to freeze the frame where I’d intended; it actually stopped on a blurred Jim Jones. (At least it was blurry.)

I’d also note that  the audio I created for the video piece was completely different than the recording I am aiming to secure funding for, mainly because the “Death Tape” material is completed and I wanted to be actively responding to the footage sequence and not simply pressing “play.” So, instead of using the “Death Tape” as source material, I used a 1981 Russian synthesizer (a Polivoks, for those curious) and a custom-built effect pedal. The resulting sound— at least for the show in July— was described by a colleague as “Creepy; the video and sound combined like a mix of some kind of Dawn of the Dead soundtrack and a social studies film.” The music had a slight, subtle “off kilter” rhythmic “lurching” to it, as well as some warbling, shifting tones swimming around and supporting the rhythmic element. The goal was to create a faint sense of uneasiness and tension. On its own, the video (save for the botched conclusion) was, for most viewers “innocuous” and, as I’d hoped, not easily discernable as Jonestown: I left the discomfort up to the audio, and the feedback I received indicated that the juxtaposition worked well.

I intend to perform with the video a few more times this year, each time using different video and audio elements, and I am in the process of securing a performance for November 18. One video aspect I am especially interested in working with is slowed down footage of children marching around this small quadrant of planks, as well as slowed down footage of the aerial approach into Jonestown. I’ve noticed that when footage is slowed down—especially on a subject such as children or something vague (like the aerial approach)—the “eerie” component becomes much stronger. If I can incorporate that for an upcoming performance the results could be extremely powerful. Another sequence I am considering using involves where a truck heading toward (or coming from) Jonestown has tipped over, and a group of people are unloading the goods and moving them to another vehicle.

Anyone who might be in the area and interested in seeing any upcoming Jonestown-related performances please feel free to contact me at