Jimmy Joe Roche talks JHU, MICA, and Baltimore Arts

By Sasha Cea-Loveless

One of the first words that comes to mind when thinking about Jimmy Joe Roche’s work is sticky. Spanning sculpture, experimental sound, performance and video, his work is an amalgamation of meticulous skill and subversive provocation. “How to make a toothbeef sandwich” – one of his most well-known videos – features Roche describing and eating a sandwich smothered in toothpaste.

Roche regularly hosts a film series, Gunky’s Basement, with electronic musician Dan Deacon as well as his own series, Night Zones,  screening 35mm prints of his favorite horror movies. Each of these is an offshoot of the Maryland Film Festival’s Guest-Host program, where artists known outside the world of film screen their favorite selections. Originally from Tallahassee Florida, Jimmy Joe Roche graduated from the film conservatory at SUNY Purchase. There he met his long-time friend and collaborator Dan Deacon, with whom he founded the Baltimore-based arts collective WhamCity. Roche obtained his Masters of Fine Arts in 2008 from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and is currently part of Johns Hopkins’ Film & Media department.

He recently gave a lecture at the new JHU-MICA Film Center as a part of the programming for the student-run Johns Hopkins Film Festival. In “The Tucumcari Earworm,” he shared the soundbites from movies that just won’t quit playing in his head.

I met him later at True Vine, a record store in Hampden where he was playing with one of his new audio modules by Make Noise – here’s some of the conversation we had over the bluegrass record he was messing with.

Q: I wanted to talk about your recent lecture at the new JHU – MICA Film Center. First of course, what did you think about the student effort in putting together the festival?

A: I think that the Hopkins Film Society has been doing great things, if you look in the last two years or even in the past year they put on this event where they had like a live reading at the 2640 Church of The Princess Bride and there were like 500 people there. It was fun – it was just a wonderful, awesome event. They did a great job promoting it. It was in my opinion diverse, there was a cool crowd, and they went off campus to do it! And then also the event we were talking about, the lecture, they reached out to interesting people in the Baltimore arts community like Connor, and Becca, and Skizz. They were thinking about people doing different things in different parts of the arts community. I felt like they were really thinking about bringing people together, and then they obviously did a decent job promoting it because it was well attended, that room was pretty full.

Q: I wanted to jump off what you said about bringing people together – the lectures seemed like a really intriguing intersection of Baltimore Art.  As someone relatively new to Baltimore, it was really neat to see people talking about their different experiences with art and film in the city. How would you say the new Film & Media partnership between JHU and MICA is currently reaching out to this existing community?

A: This is a hopeful vision for the future. Hopkins Film & Media has been working on developing a series of courses and workshops whose goal is to be involved with the community in Baltimore. So there’s the Mellon Foundation that we’re working with to host a series of workshops and labs. And then the Saul Zaentz foundation which is hosting an incubator for many people from different walks of life in Baltimore to submit ideas to possibly get funding – so it’s an incubator for ideas. I think those are both pretty bold and positive.

Q: I’ve seen a lot of funding recently going towards the Film and Media center and fueling this partnership, so I think there’s definitely a lot of momentum in this direction.

A: To use a word like momentum – a lot of the push is to try to do things that are not insular to Hopkins or insular to MICA, but that get the broader community who are interested in arts and film in our city, and even beyond that, into the things that we are doing and to do things that are hopefully interesting to everyone. Not that everything has to be interesting to everyone, you know like, sometimes I want show a horror movie and not everybody is going to watch one but I mean, I think it’s also in the way you promote it and the scope – to make something feel like it’s open to the public.

Q: I saw plenty of excited faces at the JHU Film Festival, but for a lot of the students I met, this seemed to be one of the first times they had been exposed to the art community in Baltimore. Many Hopkins students had never even registered for MICA classes before, even though they regularly work at the jointly owned Film & Media Center.

A: To speak from my own experience, I used to work at the Hopkins Digital Media Center and for many years there I partnered with the Transmodern festival and the artists that they brought in. I hosted a lecture of WhamCity artists called “Research” which was Dan Deacon, Dina Kelberman and Ben O’Brien talking about their research and the things that they love. And so I for years have really tried to host these events that part of my goal was to get Hopkins students, artists and people in the community just in the same space and to vibe on the same stuff. That’s just something that’s been important to me, and I guess could be one of those things I bring to my experience as a professor and as someone teaching art to Hopkins students. I really care and am really invested in the arts community in Baltimore, like the permaculture. I like to think of it metaphorically as the kind of forest floor, the glowing moss of these spaces and all the different artists and everything that everybody is doing; keeping it rich and keeping it alive. Trying to turn the community’s lens towards the cool stuff we’re doing at Hopkins but also vice versa – to get Hopkins kids to be aware of everything that’s happening in Baltimore and the kind of life of Baltimore Arts.

Q: How do you see this relationship developing among students?

I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight, but let me tell you of an experience I had the other day. The new film center opened in August. I remember when I used to go in there on the weekends, I’d go in there sometimes at odd hours. In the evenings, on a Sunday… it was dead. Like motion sensor lights off, it just felt like there would be no one in the space. I went there the other day to get ready for a film shoot I was doing – it was like 11, maybe 10:45 AM and I walked into the communal space in the back and saw a group of Hopkins students and a group of MICA students writing, talking… it was obvious they were working together on a project. It felt markedly different to the experience I was having in August. So I think that maybe over time, and it may be several years, there’s going to be a slow pollination of Hopkins and MICA students becoming friends, working on projects, getting to know one another, figuring out what Hopkins students are more interested about MICA students and vice versa. I do believe that it will become less of a rare bird and more like something – speaking for the experience of a Hopkins student in Film & Media – like one of the things they can expect, to form interesting relationships with some MICA students through their four years. I think that will be hopefully cool, and an eclectic part of their experience as young artists.

Q: You mentioned you worked at the DMC, so clearly you had exposure to Hopkins students seeking out creative media. You probably have things to say about the students that go there. I know some students use it as more of an on-campus Kinko’s, but there’s definitely a lot of personal projects going on there.

A: I think a lot of people at Hopkins have been pushing for a long time to get the visual arts to be taken more seriously and to try to create more time for students to be able to do those things and get credit for them, and maybe get minors and majors, to just have a foothold on campus. I think for a long time it was harder for students to fit “art” classes – lumping film production into that but also painting and drawing – into their curriculum and make it work. I definitely think the school, in my opinion, has gotten that message over the last few years that students really care about that, and I think that’s really good. I mean obviously I’m an artist so that’s there my head’ss at, but I think Hopkins students are really hungry to be able to have a “creative” outlet within the curriculum of their Hopkins experience.

Q: Right, a place like Hopkins does not leave much room for passion projects – so why do you think this is so important to students right now?

A: Here’s what I believe, and this is part of my passion for why I teach film. I think that film and digital media and moving images in general are a form of language. I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t speak French. But I think I could communicate a lot about human experience and complex ideas to someone who speaks a different language because there’s a universal aspect to the visual language.

What I’m trying to say is, another way to understand human beings and to communicate more richly and understand the way people see the world is through understanding media. That’s important. And I think that at a first-rate, world-class university like Hopkins, having people teaching and thinking about visual language just in the same way they think about history, literally language you know, semiotics – I think it just enriches your experience.


It’s not just about making beautiful things or making things to put on a wall or having a show; I think it’s about communication in the 21st Century – to be a really effective communicator.


It’s not just about making beautiful things or making things to put on a wall or having a show; I think it’s about communication in the 21st Century – to be a really effective communicator. I honestly believe even a surgeon could benefit, in a nuanced way, from understanding in a more complex and hopefully more interesting way how their patients understand the world. So much about how we see the world is though how we communicate visually, through visual language, and also the way we are communicated to through purely visual means, so images. In that way I think that Film & Media really makes sense, not just the creative and history part of it, but also as a study of a universal language of moving images.