Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ken Jacobs and Experimental Cinema (Toronto 2011)

So far 2011 has been a good year for experimental film in Toronto. To list some of the highlights: In collaboration between The Free Screen and the Images Festival the Lightbox hosted a book launch, with two screenings, of Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 with Kathy Geritz in attendance. Hot Docs programmed Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space. The CFMDC and the Cinémathèque Québecoise released the complete work of Joyce Wieland on DVD, a first, and there was also an accompanying screening at Jackman Hall. Andréa Picard’s Wavelengths program (see: Bart Testa’s coverage) curated Ben Rivers’ Slow Action at Gallery TPW. Early Monthly Segments1 - a monthly experimental film series programmed by Scott Berry, Chris Kennedy and Kate MacKay - had an Owen Land memorial screening. The Pleasure Dome had the projection and book launch of Splitting the Choir; The Moving Images of Donigan Cumming, co-presented by Scott Birdwise. And to sidestep from these Toronto screenings, I went to New York for a week in October. Where I got to see Harun Farocki’s Images of War (at a Distance), which included Serious Games I–IV (2009–10). As well the Anthology Film Archives was having an Adolfas Mekas memorial retrospective where I got to see The Brig (1964).

Now to top off these screenings there were the Ken Jacobs' projections and performance in Mississauga2 and Toronto on November 18th and 19th, which was part of the University of Toronto Arts Council 2011 "Speaker in the Arts" Series. Where Jacobs’ held a Nervous Magic Lantern performance and screened his 00's digital work, including his much anticipate Seeking the Monkey King, which recently played in Zuccotti Park in New York in conjunction with the Occupy Wall Street protests.

How to best describe one of Ken Jacobs' Nervous Magic Lantern performances? It was to take place in the evening time on a Friday. I was surprised to see this university classroom - out in Mississauga! - so full with students. Nearing the 8PM start time the last minute stragglers were being rounded up by Jacobs who was helping them find a seat. The seating was arranged so that the chairs were centered and that the front rows had fewer chairs, so that the quantity progressed outwards with more chairs adding on to the edges. As well each row was higher then the previous one. It was kind-of like a pyramid of people facing forward. With the Nervous Magic Lantern set up at the center, back of the hall where Ken's long-time wife and collaborator Flo Jacobs was sitting.

The Magic Lantern is a pretty primitive device whose origins are the 18th century lamp image-projectors. Wikipedia describes how they operate as such,
"The magic lantern has a concave mirror in front of a light source that gathers light and projects it through a slide with an image scanned onto it. The light rays cross an aperture (which is an opening at the front of the apparatus), and hit a lens. The lens throws an enlarged picture of the original image from the slide onto a screen."
The Nervous Magic Lantern has a rotating propeller that serves as a shutter over the lens, which gives the image a strobe-light effect. For Jacobs, the light source magnifies these various plastic slides that he changes sporadically over the hour-long performance. The light stops being projected between the slides and the room is in pitch-black3. I counted around twelve changes. These plastic slides, which the light passes through and are then projected onto the screen, are all different. They are hand-painted in a style that recalls the Abstract Expressionist - by that I mean colorful, formalist and non-representational - though one can always tease out specific images from them. As well these plastic slides are doubled and can be indented, bubbled, scratched and further manipulated. The pulsating image gives off a sense of three-dimensionality. While Jacobs can, and does, move the slides around to give the image a sense of motion - a form of motion that seems infinite as the objects always seem to be moving while never actually going anywhere. The image is being projected at the front of the classroom on a projection screen as well as the surrounding chalkboard and wall.

Michele Pierson writes about the genesis of the Nervous Magic Lantern performances in his Introduction: Ken Jacobs – A Half-Century of Cinema in the new Oxford University Press book Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (2011)4, which is edited by Michele Pierson, David E. James and Paul Arthur,
“From the mid-1960s, Jacobs became increasingly involved in the development of a variety of performance projects: shadow plays (THE BIG BLACKOUT OF ’65: Chapter One “Thirties Man” [1965]), multimedia light and sound shows (THE BIG BLACKOUT OF ’65: Chapter four “Evoking the Mystery” [1968]), and diverse types of projection-based performance (including, in the early 1970s, a marathon multiple projector film performance at the Bleecker Street Cinema. […] Sometime in the late 1960s he began using the term paracinema to describe these works. Some, like the shadows plays and, much later, Nervous Magic Lantern performances, create the conditions for a cinematic experience entirely without film, while others exploit the creative potential of projection to make film newly and strangely resonant. Jacobs’ conceptualization of paracinema as a kind of parallel cinema, running alongside the cinema everyone already knew, brilliantly foregrounded the extent to which the technological and material parameters of cinema could still be considered up for grabs […] Precursors for the Nervous Magic Lantern performance are not to be found, as they are for the Nervous System, in the analytical experiments of Eadweard J. Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, but in Thomas Wilfred’s colored light shows.”
Jacobs' Nervous Magic Lantern paracinema have a unique quality to them as you are watching something pass before you that is unlike anything that has shown before or will show again. Jacobs' describes them in the Rountable on Digital Experimental Filmmaking5 in October (N.137) as, “each time I do it, I improvise. I can’t repeat what I did a previous time,” which is removed from the definitive performances one can find on the DVD transfer Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise (with John Zorn and Ikue Mori) (2005). All the while there is also something about sharing the experience with others, being in the same room with Jacobs, the uniqueness of the score (Jacobs has different scores), physically being under the light that is projected onto the screen, and sharing in the improvisation on how Jacobs' spins the projected plastic sheet - that contributes to a palpable sense of anticipation and then awe.

At the performance there were a few introductions by three different professors, all brief and generous, and then Jacobs introduced the work. He discusses his studies with Hans Hofman who taught him how to better utilize the flatness of painting while being able to give it depth. His speech was evocative of Clement Greenberg’s essay Modernist Painting but transplanted Greenberg’s ideas towards image-projection instead of painting as Jacobs’ emphasis was on image self-criticism, focusing on what makes it medium-specific – it’s flatness – which removes it from the representational and literal while instead rendering it abstract.

One thing about Jacob's work that is interesting is how it mixes formalism with the personal and the social. An example of this is the use of sound in the Nervous Magic Lantern performance. The audio soundtrack is a recording of Jacobs going out and being on the New York City subway. What do you hear? There is the whizzing of the subway, footsteps, people chatting, singing, and music. It continues as such until near the end, where Ken leaves the subway, goes up stairs to his apartment and he chats with his wife Flo. She asks him if he brought up the mail? No, he didn’t. There was only one envelope – the punch line of the performance. The Subway station sounds, just like the neighborhood in Window or the references to New York in Blonde Cobra, give Jacobs’ work a particularly New York City, American quality. As well the conversation with Flo continues the interlacement of his wife and family within his work. The formal-aesthetic qualities come from the visuals created by the Nervous Magic Lantern (as described above). This hybrid of elements leads to interesting results.

1. The Early Montly Segments will be closing up for the year on Monday December 12th with a screening of Jack Chambers’ Hart of London, to coincide with an exhibition of Chambers’ artwork at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
2. The performance took place on the UTM campus, where in the Blackwood Gallery there was a looped projection of Daïchi Saïto's Never a Foot Too Far, Even, which was well worth checking out.
3. The use of non-images has been consistent for Jacobs’, which started in his early work when he would not splice out the flameouts (the black frames at the end of film reels), “I kept them in my films for a number of reasons. I wanted to say, “This is film; this is the character of film. What I’m showing you are unedited rolls from a camera; I left the flash frames in: that was part of the statement. And now you can make it happen digitally, and it doesn’t connote anything. It doesn’t signify. It’s just an effect.” Jacobs’ also writes,
“But the marks of these older technologies mean something. They ring a bell, they do something. I studied decay, OK? My Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son is really about decay, among a lot of other things. It wasn’t about nostalgia, it was about asking, What is this old stuff? What is it made of? What is its character as a series of light impressions?”
4. So what are the key Jacobs’ references? This new book Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (2011) - a word play on Jacobs’s Ontic Antics (2005) – is going to be important for all future Jacobs’ scholarship. Especially as Pierson’s introduction increases the knowledge surrounding Jacobs as his research includes a lot of unpublished material. As well there is the 1979 Lindley Hanlon interview with Ken Jacobs. And there is the catalogue Films The Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective, which is edited by David Schwartz and has contributions by Tom Gunning.
5. The Roundtable on Digital Experimental Filmmaking included Flo and Ken Jacobs, Luis Recoder, Lynne Sachs, Mark Street, Malcolm Turvey and Federico Windhausen (who does a good job at guiding the conversation). In it Sachs’ brings up an interesting point, “I think one of the interesting directions that the digital world is taking us toward is a fetishism of decay […] The desire for decay is a nostalgia for the aura of the original and its physical transformation.”

Ken Jacobs’ Life and Career
Stan Brakhage’s book Film At Wit’s End1 (1989) is one of the earliest published resources to describe Jacobs biographical information at length. Jacobs was born Jewish in 1933 in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York and his childhood was rough. When Jacobs was fifteen his public school got him an access card to the Museum of Modern Art where he could go see films like old classics and the French avant-garde. Jacobs has always had a leftist, anti-military attitude. But even so, he was forced into being drafted after high school where he served his time in the Coast Guard, which was a position that he was told is essentially defensive and “does nothing.” In 1956 his stint was over and Jacobs returned to New York. The living conditions in New York at the time for artists were miserable, Brakhage describes it as, ““Jungle” is not the term to describe it because there is no jungle so dirty as a lower east side apartment in the 1950s.” During this time Jacobs met Jerry Sims, who would be important to his artistic development, along with the journalist-photographer Weegee (The Naked City) and the artist Hans Hofmann, who was one of his teachers. Jacobs with Larry Gottheim would start a film department and teach at Harpur College, New York and St. John’s College in Queens. Since then Jacobs has kept teaching, making cinema, performing, and has had a family.

How best to talk about Jacobs work and career?
(1) There are the early, less polished works starting with Orchard Street (1955). This period includes Jacobs' collaborations with his friend of the time Jack Smith who acted in some of his films like Blonde Cobra (1959-63), which was made out of footage from Bob Fleischner’s Blonde Venus and The Cobra Woman. Brakhage refers to Blonde Cobra as "one of the masterpieces in the American cinema." There is something quintessentially beat about this period through its forming of a junk aesthetic. Pierson describes Jacobs and Smith’s collaboration as their “shared attraction to the marginal produced a collection of films more explicitly antagonistic to prevailing social values than anything the art world could accommodate.”

(2) Things would change once Jacobs' got his “lucky break” (as he puts it) and met his current wife Florence Karpf. The Jacobs had a falling-out with Smith after the arrest of Ken (theatre manager), Flo (ticket seller), and Jonas Mekas (programmer) over the premiere of Flaming Creatures (1963) at the New Bowery Theatre on St. Mark’s Place in March 1964. The work Jacobs created in the wake of this event, where he was in-and-out of court hearings, like Window (1964) and Nisan Ariana Window (1968) and Spaghetti Aza (1976) Jacobs describes as "chamber works"2 and "pockets of sanity." The films are calm places to forget about the American army that was at war with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from 1955 to 1975. And there is a stronger impression of his own filming, instead of using found-footage, and that primarily consisted of his New York City surroundings and an engagement with his new family, which included his wife Flo and his newly-born children Nisi and Azazel.

(3) Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son (1969) is the work that Jacobs is most readily known for along with Star Spangled to Death (1956-60/2001-04), which is “the greatest found-footage film” according to Jonas Mekas. In Tom, Tom Jacobs makes the viewer more conscious of film as a manipulative element that consists of celluloid through obvious filmic flips and turns. Brahkage describes it, “Ken’s Tom, Tom is probably an ultimate comedy. It takes a simple comedy that was cranked out in the dawn of the film industry and reaches all the way to the fullest possibilities of comedy that I have ever seen in one film.” While Pierson describes Tom, Tom as a structural film, to use P. Adams Sitney's term, “a new focus on and exploration of the structural features of the medium.” There are now at least two digital versions of it: A Tom, Tom Chaser (2002) and Return To The Scene of The Crime (2008). While Jacobs' Perfect Film (1985) continues his appropriation of old archive footage as he gathers material of news-reporters talking to witnesses and a police sergeant about the Malcolm X assassination in Harlem. Jacobs' comments on it,
“For the straight scoop we need the whole scoop, or no less than the clues entire and without rearrangement. O, for a Museum of Found Footage, or cable channel, library, a shit-museum of telling discards accessible to all talented viewers/auditors."
Which brings us to Jacobs' digital work…

1. The other filmmakers brought up in Film At Wit’s End along with Ken Jacobs include Jerome Hill, Marie Menken, Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Maya Deren, Christopher MacLaine and Bruce Conner.
2. “He [Jacobs] calls the films he began making with this camera in the year the Flaming Creatures trials took place – Window (1964), We Stole Away (1964), The Winter Footage (1964), Winter Sky (1964), and The Sky Socialist (1964-68) – chamber works. In his words: “Composers, I knew, would sometimes take their most personal thoughts and feelings and experimental ideas and work them out in chamber works rather than concert hall ideas.”” According to Michelle Pierson in Optic Antics.
Digital technologies
Jacobs has been using digital technology since 1999, starting with Flo Rounds A Corner (1999). On the subject, “digital technologies were revolutionary and that they fundamentally changed filmmaking,” with came about through the rise of cheaper digital cameras and editing software like Final Cut Pro. This do it yourself software culminates for Jacobs in his recent six-part 3D Occupy Wall Street series, which is available on YouTube under his username Nervous Ken1.

Malcolm Turvey’s recent article Ken Jacobs: Digital Revelationist from October (N.137) situates Jacobs in the realm of digital experimental cinema. Turvey sees Jacobs work as part of the distinct tradition of revelationism,
“and Jacobs is one of this tradtition’s most important and brilliant contemporary practitioners, extending it into the digital era […] What distinguishes revelationism is its embrace of both the cinema’s capacity to reproduce reality, as beloved by realist such as André Bazin and its ability to transform reality, as celebrated by modernist like Rudolf Arnheim.”
Turvey also looks at the ‘indexical’ quality of digital photography and cinema by arguing against Mary Ann Doane’s essay The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity as digital videos remnants are, “mechanically generated non-contact physical traces.”

1. The nervousness of Jacobs’ account name in relation to the protests that he is filming might be a nervousness of social anxieties. Instead of the optical nervousness of his entitled performances that is derivative from,
““Cézanne’s nervousness” Picasso spoke of wasn’t nervousness at all but his efforts to put down the elusive contours of objects studied very closely as seen with two eyes […] What Cézanne’s apple means to me is that painting is being used less to tell us the facts about the apples than about what it is to see with two adjacent eyes reporting similar but conflicting and forever unfixable (on a flat plane: the canvas, the movie screen, the monitor surface) aspects of three-dimensional reality.”
From the Nicole Brenez contribution in Optic Antics.
Jacobs' 00’s digital work
On Saturday night, November 19th at University College (Room 140) St. George Campus there were the screenings of some of Jacobs' 00’s digital work: Capitalism: Slavery (2006), The Surging Sea of Humanity (2006), Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), Another Occupation (2011), and Seeking the Monkey King (2011). It was a throbbing lights series - not for persons afflicted with epilepsy - that uses Jacobs’ patented eternalism, “a method for creating an appearance of sustained three-dimensional motion-direction of unlimited duration, using a finite number of pictures.”

With Michael Moore-like titles Capitalism: Slavery and Capitalism: Child Labor, Jacobs uses the tools and techniques from his other work to offer a social critique in a series that is ostensibly more political then it has been in the past. There is a focus on infrascenic movement, to use Nicole Brenez’s term, where Jacobs “finds irrational, inconceivable movements that nonetheless form the objective material of human circulation.” It is insightful to bring up Brenez as she describes one thing useful in better understanding Jacobs, which is that he is “the creator of a theory [visual study] that is as important for its technical initiatives as for its textual and filmic manifestations.” Visual study being, “the study of an image using the very means of the image itself.” This study of an image through use of the image itself is what Jacobs accomplishes in these Capitalism films and in The Surging Sea of Humanity, which uses an old 19th century picture by B.W. Kilburn of a crowd of bowl-hat wearing industrialist flâneurs and then superimposes the picture on itself with some Tom, Tom manipulations. While in Another Occupation Jacobs’ takes archive footage of a Huckleberry Fin upstream journey into a military occupation and slave plantation. The video is interlaced with anti-military comments and has some Disorient Express (1996) footage alteration.

To finish it off there is Seeking the Monkey King, which consists of twelve pictures of crumpled gold and black aluminum foil with a digital strobe light effect. There is a slow momentum of the enlarging of the scale of the images. And with J.G.Thirlwell’s music the piece is especially haunting. Where through text Jacobs offers scathing political criticism of American president Barack Obama’s failings mixed with references to his own cinematic evolution from his teenager days seeing the French avant-garde at the MoMA (À nous la liberté) to the heyday of the underground film (Deren, Brakhage). As David Phelps writes about Seeking the Monkey King over at Mubi,
"As younger, American avant-garde masters—Dorsky, Klahr—pursue the veil of illusion, a sublime presence blind to history, Jacobs makes movies that work to break through the patina of beauty, only to reveal the ultimate illusions of movie-making, the third dimension of a figurative space and movement out of single, still images."
The works of Jacobs are spellbinding adventures of perception that continue to provide fresh experiences while still being able to comment about the state of American politics.

David Davidson

No comments: