While I’m writing this article, the 12th edition of the Sonic Acts is coming to an end. As every event that is going to finish, it leaves in those who were present and those who weren’t the sensation of an enormous anxiety for the loss of a moment that would be better if everlasting. It is though an intuition, an instant, a one-time glow that will never come back.
During its four days, the Sonic Acts proposed infinity of different ideas, a thick flow of information, projections and exhibition, remarkable and interesting. I particularly appreciated the twelve conferences, unforgettable moments in a heterogeneous series of personalities from all over the world. They illustrated some of the most interesting and not so known aspects of the actual condition of the moving (or cinematic) image, real lessons of priceless value that we decided to tell through a series of interviews to the speakers. Let’s start with Ken Jacobs, as we’re not worried by any complex feat.
Ken Jacobs is an artist but the term is absolutely reductive not so famous in Italy (the first edition of the Turin Film Festival, last November, proposed inside the ” La Zona ” section three movies of his own in an almost empty movie theatre): intellectual and experimenter, visionary and avant-gardist, unique. Jacobs has been one of the most important artist of the last Sonic Acts edition and probably one of the most “exploited” by the organizers. He held a conference (“The Image , Finger Raised to Lips , Beckons. Disorderly thoughts on synaesthesia and other mysteries of the human sensorium”), he performed in a live-set (“Reverberant Silence: Nervous Magic Lantern Performance”) and he was the object of a focus with his recent works (“Nymph”, “Capatalism: Child Labor”, “Capitalism: Slavery”, “Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World” e “Hanky January”).
He is, without any doubts, one of the pioneers of the American cinematographic avant-garde that founded the grammar of the moving image since the 60’s, revolutionizing the form and the substance in contraposition to the traditional practices, one of the central figures of the second half of the 20 th century. Since his first works, from the middle 50’s (his first non-film, Orchard Street, is dated 1955), passing through the video experimentation of the 80’s, during last decade (and more) its artistic career faced digital technology and live performance, demonstrating the endless artistic and human research pursued by his production, that during the last fifty years kept on unstoppable, with a stylistic and poetic coherence, somehow disturbing.
We’ve been authorized publishing the integral text of Jacobs’ conference. It reflects the complexity of the character we’ve been describing, but it also an enlightening explanation of the disturbing stylistic and poetic coherence above mentioned. The focal point of this philosophical disquisition on the ontological statute of the image is about the concept of the autonomy of the image in reference of its synaesthesia potential, that is the possibility that the mute image has to evoke sounds inside the spectator mind. An absolutely central concept in his entire (non) cinema, avant-gardist and experimental, that poses him in direct relation with all the convinced promoters of the mute nature of the moving image, with all those theoreticians that exalted the inside potential of the moving images able to activate/recall other senses, leaving the spectator free to decide, without deviating its perception and comprehension in a unique or pavlovian manner. Jacobs talks about audio-aura, mutating the concept that Walter Benjamin applied to the evocative power of the image in the synaesthesia ambit of images that generate “sounds”. The text of this conference is thick and complex, rich of worthy point, but also related to the oral dimension of an illustration implemented through the auxiliary of films, tracks extracted by filmic texts of a personal collection. I postpone to the integral text of the conference for a deeper comprehension.
Let’s go to the interview, to the answers that Jacobs gave with generosity, without saving himself, as his language reflects his avant-gardist attitude, and the fact that he answered traveling from US to Amsterdam confirms that he is a person that is over all, and that this interview somehow fall from the sky .
Alessio Galbiati: Can you please introduce me the subject of the conference you’ll hold at Sonic Acts in Amsterdam, maybe starting from the title itself: ” The Image , Finger Raised to Lips , Beckons. Disorderly thoughts on synesthesia and other mysteries of the human sensorium”?
Ken Jacobs: Irresistible, at a sound-cinema conference, to show how complete an experience the image alone can offer, as much as sound alone. It’s no small responsibility an artist takes on to disrupt, transform, demolish or possibly enlarge that experience with a compounding of sense data. Like adding music to a painting. It’s a cultural calamity that most people only meet with no-longer-silent cinema. I probably went over the deep end but I was careful to include fairly obvious misinformation to keep my audience on their toes.
Alessio Galbiati: In the same context of Sonic Acts (where you’ll also show some of your latest “movies”), on February 23 rd you are introducing a live performance titled “Reverberant Silence : Nervous Magic Lantern”. This work is part of the live project you’re bringing around the world since 2000, called “The Nervous Magic Lantern”. Can you explain me what is and specifically what will be this “Reverberant Silence” that I guess will find in Sonic Acts its first preview?
Ken Jacobs: Nervous Magic Lantern performances have until now been collaborations with terrific musicians, John Zorn and Ikue Mori, Eric La Casa, Rick Reed, Aki Onda, and there’ll be others. I enjoy seeing and hearing what comes of each combination. But I also like silence, generally work in silence at home, and this seemed the time to go public with it.
Alessio Galbiati: What are the main differences between “The Nervous System” and “The Nervous Magic Lantern”, these two projection systems developed during the years? Can we consider the second system an evolution of the first one?
Ken Jacobs: The Nervous System utilized film, two prints of the same film, pausing at every frame combination as seen through two stop-motion projectors very slightly out of sync. I often stopped on a pair of frames for minutes at a time, even many minutes, manipulating the machines to create a variety of effects. One saw 3-D, without spectacles, available to even the single-eyed viewer. Only sometimes was this 3-D like anything in life; it could be funny or/and scary but always something else . I got pretty good at it and after a while could make all kinds of things happen but always in relation to possibilities inherent in a particular pair of frames. The image was in constant motion, different movements simultaneously. A spinning exterior shutter in front of and between the machines, alternating and melding the two close images, created the action. I’ve been replicating the effect with the computer. Tzadik has a DVD out that’s an adaptation of NEW YORK GHETTO FISHMARKET 1903, music by Catherine Jaiunaux and Tom Cora.
The Nervous Magic Lantern evolved from The Nervous System but it’s much simpler technically and as I’ve said could’ve been done in magic lantern time, before there was film, and perhaps it was done but rejected as too crazy making. A lamp, lens, spinning shutter, and active projectionist toying with things , takes the viewer through immense illusionary spaces; depth, again without spectacles. Familiar/unfamiliar land and aerial-scapes in constant transformation, seen from every angle. It was a cinema I dreamt about, and -picking up on subconscious promptings- eventually saw before me. I don’t expect anyone to believe this, especially anyone knowing the technical complications of 3-D. CELESTIAL SUBWAY LINES / SALVAGING NOISE is a Nervous Magic Lantern collaboration with John Zorn, Ikue Mori assisting, also on a Tzadik DVD.
Alessio Galbiati: “This film is not for those suffering from epilepsy”. This commentary opens your “Razzle Dazzle -The Lost World” (2007), as it were there to warn the audience from the sensorial assault that he’ll find himself in for 92 minutes. This persistent sensorial tension is one of all your work features. Could you explain me the reason of such an aesthetic choice, so disturbing and recurrent?
Ken Jacobs: Mmm, “disturbing”, “assault”. Not my aim and not what’s important about the work to my thinking. One adapts to the vigorous image (as I see it) in any case. Wife Flo would crumble after a few minutes of beating light but now misses the excitement when watching a proper movie. It can trigger an attack in people afflicted with epilepsy and the same warning begins Tony Conrad’s “Flicker”. I lost a student one day; she left a class and never returned, when I forgot to give adequate warning.
Alessio Galbiati: In your latest works, I’m thinking about titles as “Razzle Dazzle – The Lost Worl” (2007) and “Capitalism: Slavery” (2006), we can find the same experiential-didactical approach to pre-existing image as in “Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son” (1969) but the difference lays in the use of digital technology. I’d like to know if either this change implies an aesthetic choice or it should be considered instrumental, due to an economic convenience or, moreover, imposed by industrial and market dynamics which make every day harder finding the “classic” celluloid film.
Ken Jacobs: I’ve been caught up in existing cinema images, in slowing down and looking at them frame by frame since before I shot anything, and so became a natural collagist of sorts. TOM TOM doesn’t attempt the things that happen with the double-image but I can understand you saying that because the presence of the projector shutter holding back and releasing light (in the form of an image) is perhaps the real star of that movie. I was as interested in light-energy as I was taken with that 1905 movie. The move from beloved film to digital video is economical and I appreciate the speed of the medium, similar to projecting live, but then one has a product that keeps! The world wasn’t so hungry for my performance work; the show rarely came to town and people had no time to acclimate to it; for most viewers it was just freaky. That frustrated me almost as much as the transience of the works, which were not improvisations but very shaped, rehearsed entities. I’m salvaging what I can but of course the computer wants its own say in this and the works go off in wondrous ways but, still, are close relatives of the originals, or so I maintain. The videos then go out on cheap DVDs and people can see them more than once and go beyond the freakiness. Hooray!
Alessio Galbiati: Before starting producing images, making cinema, or better making cinema explode, what was your approach to it? I mean, as a member of the audience, what have been the works that represented your first approach to the seventh art?
Ken Jacobs: I was just like any weird kid with an interest in art that got a pass from his Brooklyn high school to the Museum Of Modern Art where he/she could discover American silent film and French avant-garde and the early Soviet masters. After WW2, there were the Italian neo-realist films so remarkable they were shown in neighborhood theaters. Some smart British films came over and before the McCarthy-led fascists intimidated studio heads, the noir-films along with others stirred interest in cinema as art. After a time I became a connoisseur of stinkers, like foot-fetishists and Limburger cheese lovers, and went far afield from recognized values. Now we’re getting personal, Alessio. I have a great interest in early cartoons, early Betty Boop and Popeye for instance, before the Catholic Church determined what Americans could be amused by (just when I was born, 1933) and a similar interest in the Nineteen Thirties poverty-budget films of black filmmakers Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams. Pre-code American films enthrall me generally. We go to sleep, Flo and I, marveling at James Cagney and Joan Blondell; the wit of Warren Wlliam. Fred Astaire! Wide awake, however, zippered into my artist persona, I thrill to great formal cinema, my own territory of the avant-garde; pushing on, pushing on, like there just might be a tomorrow.
Alessio Galbiati: Painting has been a source of inspiration of your art for sure, as on the books talking about you there’s always a reference to the two years you spent with Hans Hoffman, period of time that also coincides with the first element of your filmography (” Orchard Street” 1955). In which ways this experience influenced your artistic production?
Ken Jacobs: Hans Hofmann made one depth-conscious, while always affirming the flatness of the canvas. Vigorous spatial contradiction was the essence of art, so I understood him. Cézanne, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Picasso, Tintoretto. The Abstract Expressionists, those embarrassing neighborhood drunks, were knocking me for a loop. I had some spacy ideas for film (I was straddling the mediums then, and still do) but thought I should begin with something 1) I cared about, 2) within my budget and ability, 3) that might have some general interest and lift me out of poverty, that might sell . But ORCHARD STREET didn’t sell, my girl friend left me, and I’d had it with reasonable options. What the hell, government-by-corporations -in its fear of the appeal of a super-corporate state- was dooming us to nuclear war. I proceeded to film STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH, got right to it. That film does show, in my filming, the 2-D/3-D depth-consciousness Hofmann had alerted me to, and then it went on from there. What happened was a turn from the reading of depth to its accursed illusion, its seeming actuality. WRONG TURN INTO ADVENTURE is what I named a retrospective of my Nervous System work. After TOM TOM (a study of the cine-existentialism of human bodies at play in an old and threadbare 2-D film), the appeal of working with illusionary depths, contradictory depths, became irresistible. I’d discovered that 3-D illusion was far more malleable than the dopy 3-D movies had suggested. Hofmann named his book SEARCH FOR THE REAL. I think I was answering that the real is ever-elusive, that the search will have to do.
Alessio Galbiati: I’d like to title this inteview “Ken Jacobs: the demiurge of the image in movement”, where ‘demiurge’ must be considered a term to express the free worker as at the time of the ancient Greece that is the opposite of the slave; do you think it could be a suitable definition?
Ken Jacobs: I appreciate that. Thank you.
Alessio Galbiati: As to suitable definitions: ‘modernist’, ‘avant-gardist’, ‘experimentator’ there is a plenty of adjectives used to define you. If you would been asked to define your work, your Work, which term would you use?
Ken Jacobs: I suppose avant-gardist. Many filmmakers experiment in their way on mainline films so experimentist may apply too broadly. I think I’m driven to radical root-reformations, though, and that’s something else. A radical departure was expected of an artist from when I come from. They’d almost all been political radicals in the Pre-WW2 years, desiring revolutionary change of the economy, of the imbecile advertising culture so further ripened now, and their art was in part a model for such change. But the fascist resurgence following WW2 in USA left them beached, and then came the artmarket to make a total fiasco of their lives and some of the best, Franz Kline for one, then drank themselves to death. Many of us are disappointed; the big radical socialist experiments have been horrors. Global Capitalism (also known as Modern Doom) is the winning horror, and like the artists I admired I’m now also resigned, beaten; not drinking but concerning myself every minute that I can with work. Look, I only see America; perhaps things appear differently to Europeans. Weren’t we doomed anyway? riding some little tail-end of the big bang? Humanity is merely accelerating the process (though imagine what another million years of sane invention could bring). I can’t be serious since I don’t expect serious change; call me dilettante.
Alessio Galbiati: You are, among other occupations, a university professor too, a cinema professor. I’d ask you to satisfy my personal curiosity by telling me what you exactly teach during your lessons? What are the recurrent subjects of the courses held during at least forty years?
Ken Jacobs: I retired late 2002 after more than 30 years of teaching. I taught seeing and hearing and thinking and the relating of cinema (and art generally) to history. I didn’t promote good taste (didn’t stick with the classics) but the ability to taste anything. I figure if a person’s own Best Ten list doesn’t include at least two movies hardly anyone else knows of, a failure of individuation has occurred. One movie. It was great seeing personalities emerge. (Picasso said, “Genius is a little talent and a lot of personality”.) A class mantra was Get lost, and get lost again. I wasn’t so allowing as to tolerate college humor, proud-to-be-dumb movies about getting high, flesh-eating zombie trash. Students saw things from day one that put their ideas of cinema in question: Kubelka’s ARNULF RAINER and Conrad’s FLICKER (less its titles and sound) often began a semester. Brakhage’s WINDOW WATER BABY MOVING soon followed. Abstract thaumatropes and flipbooks were repeatedly assigned; there was much scratching and painting directly on film. There was never enough analysis of painting slides for me. And then of course analytical projection of film, a single film sometimes for weeks. The analytical (or stop-motion) projector was a special piece of equipment but now with video the cheapest DVD player is a superior, more versatile analytical tool. The extras on DVD movies are extraordinary lessons in filmmaking. TOM, TOM, THE PIPER’S SON exemplifies my teaching. A film is shown usually without any introduction. Instead of promiscuously going on to the next, we work at it. Finally it’s shown again straight; there’s now a wild rush of newly familiar subtleties. Students learn what it is to know a film.
I wasn’t the ideal teacher but I was the ultimate Ken Jacobs. I could’ve been a lot less moody. I’m affected by what I learn of what my fellow beings do and I couldn’t help but bring those responses into the classroom. Young people would feel the vibes and tense up. Eventually they understood what would be upsetting me but it often made for a volatile atmosphere. Too often I dragged the world into the classroom, seriously, bullying people with my moods. One super-misjudgment was hiring Nick Ray. A hero to many people still, even to some of our intelligent students directly fucked up by him, but what loathing I have even for his dead self. It was a new chance-taking department, one of the only departments in the country entirely devoted to cinema, and he left us near demolished with his cocaine and alcohol habits. Larry Gottheim and I could see the mess he was from the start but hoped that in a supportive environment the artist who made THEY LIVE BY NIGHT would surface. I had the dumb idea that he would balance the little department, teaching from his narrative/Hollywood experience but he was self-aggrandizing BS throughout, with tantalizing glimpses of a former self. To Nick the avant-garde artists were “masturbators”; said to students, not to our faces. He prided himself for making movies that got to people and apparently inseminating them. When I phoned Brakhage at some moment of crisis, Stan said, “Hollywood does things to these people. I’ve met with a lot of them and twelve years is the most they last. They’re no good for anything after that.”
I retired 2002, Distinguished Professor Of Cinema, Emeritus. I keep in touch with many former students but my mind shifted, immediately and entirely, to my own art making. At the end, I couldn’t take the new a-historical mind-sets. It wasn’t difficult understanding how it had happened but so what? More hopelessness I didn’t need. Example: I show Ettore Scola’s WE ALL LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH. Later, a student refers to it but can’t recall the title: “You know, the movie that begins in World War One or Two, whatever.”
Alessio Galbiati: What’s your position on the practise of vjing? Do you feel like a father of this artistic expression base on sampling and live mixing, a kind of ante-litteram precursor?
Ken Jacobs: Father of VJing? I didn’t do it. Playing with cinema as an instrument became common in the Sixties but what I saw was mostly formless improvisation. I was tight with the “expanded cinema” I did, rehearsing-ever-rehearsing; authoritarian with my performers, precise.
Alessio Galbiati: Do you see any heiresses of your style, is there any young artist that seems to be bringing over your artistic discourse?
Ken Jacobs: We’ll soon be landing in Amsterdam. This has been fun. Your last question: I don’t know and don’t want to know. It spooks me that someone could be following closely. Brakhage was generous to his many followers, the people that couldn’t help but feel that what Stan was doing was cinema. Entirely sincere, they wished to attach themselves to it as if to a cause, which it was, a great bravely defiant cause: the honest report. He always saw and emphasized where they differed from him but I feel crowded. Listen, everyone follows! There might’ve been a genius that looked at a scratch on a rock or bone and thought, Wow! this has possibilities. Maybe that fellow was no follower but that was a long time ago. Originality for latecomers is riding herd on one’s influences until some rough balance and direction emerges.