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An Interview with Ken Jacobs

Julie Hampton

From Millennium Film Journal No. 32/33 (Fall 1998): Beavers / Markopoulos

The most unusual and decidely most challanging film at the 97 Berlinale was not so much a presentation but a film performance. Billed as The Nervous System Performances I and II, it had a vaguely avant-garde ring to it that attracted many to fill the large auditorium both nights; but, the challenging nature of the work, the extent that it demands of the viewer active involvement in order to process the work, sent many packing by the time the lights came on again.   For those that accepted the challenge and stayed and perhaps came back on successive nights, the rewards were many, personal and almost indescribable.

The Nervous System refers to a complicated pair of analytic projectors developed and operated solely by Jacobs that project near identical films, slightly out of phase, at a single screen.  With special filters and a propeller-like shutter, creating pulsating strobe effects and 3-D effects, and with capabilities of projecting time freezes, mirroring effects, or single frame forwarding and reversing, anything can happen and does happen according to the potential of the film being used.   A 90 minute performance piece uses a very short strip of film which is often old, in an historical sense, and always found.   The 24 frames per second ratio by which we perceive cinematic motion is discarded.  Time is seemingly slowed down, interrupted and magnified into a frame by frame content exploration. 

Strange and beautiful motion and shapes ensue.  Depending on the content of the film, pulsating images like clouds may figure and reconfigure, unrelated material may seem to rise up out of nowhere, solid images lose their physicality; buildings become jell like and people become the abstractly delineated figures of art set in strange predestined motion.   Discovered  in the spaces between frames are people seemingly caught in perpetual forwards and backwards motion; motion continually re-enacting itself.   It is a phantasmagoria perforating holes in the viewer's subconscious pulling our own subconscious images onto the screen to mix in strange and heady metamorphosis with (as in the case of Bi-temporal Vision:   The Sea) the churning images presented and also it is a periscope into the subconscious   bringing us out and bringing us into a deeper connection with ourselves.

Except for the whirring of the shutter, a large proportion of Jacobs's NSP films are viewed in silence with possibly recorded sounds or music taking us into the material and then leaving us to travel on our own until they return again taking us back to the crucial matter at hand.

Ken Jacobs is best understood following his lineage back from film, not to theater or literature, but instead to his studies of art in New York in the 1950's with the German painter Hans Hoffman and the powerful influence and personal identification with abstract expressionism. At times while viewing Bi-temporal Visions:   The Sea,  I felt that I was inside a living Jackson Pollock painting, at one with the very liberating  continual motion of energy particles and self expression.   In reference to the specious category of experimental film, Jacobs says that the difference between art and film is that in art all artists are expected to be experimenting so therefore there is no such category in art, as there is in film, as experimental.

In the hands of Ken Jacobs our concept of the cinematic image is transformed and as with the discovery of quantum physics, the foundation of our perceptions is put into question. Thankfully and with great liberation the physical world is proven once again not to exist as we ordinarily perceive it.

Something comes alive during a Ken Jacobs performance and it's not just the magic of cinema, it's you.



The following is an excerpt from an interview with Ken Jacobs made in Berlin after the Berlinale Film Festival in which two of his Nervous Systems pieces, "From Muybridge to Brooklyn Bridge" and "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (A Flicker of Life)" had been performed.

 Julie Hampton:   How do you see your films as being different from what we have come to expect from cinema?

Ken Jacobs:  Well, most films are about problems.   They don't pose problems. They're not immediate experience.   They're vicarious experience.   Well, that's not entirely true .   There are lots of films that are designed to offer you very strong immediate experiences and at the same time they occupy you with what's going to happen to somebody else we are identifying with.

JH: Yes. We're living through them.

KJ:  But there's a lot of work that exists other than mine where you're having the immediate experience.   You're confronting something.   You're going into the temple of doom.

JH:  In cinema?

KJ:  No, I mean in art.   When we talk about film we mostly consider the movies.   We mostly consider photoplay film theater with actors.   There are a lot of other things where you meet up with the problem of the work and you surmount it and hopefully you are rewarded with a new way of receiving pleasure.

I should go back to the beginning and tell you that initially I was torn between the formal development of art and film and needing to do something effective socially.   And I only released myself from this second obligation a few years ago.

JH:   Is this the beginning of your Nervous Systems work then?

KJ:  Yes I think it is.   I think that   Bi-temporal Vision:   The Sea is the clearly in the realm of the abstract.   That's not to say it is without meaning for me.   It absolutely is a film about crises.   It's absolutely about "to be or not to be" for me.   These words abstract are really not satisfying for me because they sound utterly cerebral which these works are not.

JH:  As intangible.

KJ:  When we talk about abstract we talk about a kind of removal from the immediate but these works are all very, very experiential. They're very involved in the immediate for me.   They really rise out of crises.   As in ...Did you see The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ?

JH:  Yes. It was very beautiful.

KJ:  I was very unhappy with the number of lights that were left on in the auditorium. Energy is very central to my work, energy excited by pounding extremes:   black/white, light/no light. Using the flicker elicits energy.   In painting when you try to paint absolute polarities of light and dark in the world, the only way to get close to that with paint is by placing black next to white to make the white seem whiter and visa versa.   Compared to actual black and actual white in the world they're jokes.   They're somewhere in the middle of the gray scale.   So one exacerbates and creates an optical mental impression of much more light and vibrancy by smashing the polarities together.   So because of this and for other reasons I need a black room and a bright reflective screen which I didn't get at that auditorium.

JH:  It was a bit hard to see in some ways.  Is this what you mean?

KJ:  No. The work goes through sections of very low light levels and it builds at certain points a rich effulgence of light.   The moving along and lowering and lifting of light levels is very, very important in this piece.  The screen was very light absorbent so I lost a lot of light in that screen.   I had to use low light levels so where before it demands the audience to make an effort to see and reach across to really see what's going on, I'm afraid that it might have just submerged because of all the other light competition.

JH:  The fact that I was seeing figures that were dissolving into each other depends on the nature of the light?

KJ:  In this particular incidence the low light levels change the temperature of the projection bulbs.   And when they change the temperature they change the color.   So these very elusive strange shiftings of color take place in normally what would be called black and white film.   I'm making use of different color temperatures coming from the bulbs.  So it's very, very subtle.  Using the low light levels changes the character of the relief.   A whole array of changes take place by adjusting the light level.   There is no way of getting away from it if I want to do this piece.  

JH:  What does it mean that the brain is registering , while viewing your work, phantom chroma?   Is this chroma that we think we are seeing that is really temperature?

KJ:  I think it's partly that.  Instead of having local color you have color fields and they are not identical color fields coming from the two projectors which in turn set up reciprocating complementary colors in the brain which you wouldn't be able to see if it was local color with everything brightly lit and everything separated by it's own color. Oranges looking orange etc. So the overall color sets up complementary colors that the brain supplies.  Then they begin working with the colors that are there.

JH:  That's great. It's quite an amazing depth that you are involving the viewer in.  

JH: How long have you been working with these kinds of techniques?

KJ: Well, I always have. What's new for me is rejecting the obligation to answer to social problems.   I always was involved with making a formal work.

JH:  By formal you don't mean conceptual, do you?

KJ:  No my work is experiential, not conceptual.   I want to work with experiences all the time.   I don't even understand most conceptual work.   I don't get it.  In that way I do relate to the movies that want to offer you some kind of visual experience. Except you're the protagonist.   You're entering the temple of doom; a new kind of growth.   You have to find out what is in this thing for yourself and I'm offering it.  What   happened for me three years ago was a heart bypass operation.    I haven't done works of social comment or inquiry since.   Even though these works were about what was going on they were always enfolded in a formal development and offered experience, they were never posterized.   I never sacrificed the idea to make a musical work of some sort of cinematic development.  

JH:  So you were always working on that and now you're thinking about your life and trying to get the most out of it while you are here.

KJ:  That's   I'm not in argument with it.   I'm not Captain Ahab fighting the white whale.   I'm just confronting it.

JH:  In Muybridge to Brooklyn Bridge in the first part, Georgetown Loop ,   we watch a train for a while and then we watch it upside down which reminded me of being a child and how fascinating it was to be up side down in a chair and watch the furniture in my house hanging from the new ceiling.   What is your interest in such a simple childlike perspective?

KJ:  The change of perspective changes how we see it and the experience possible from it.  And then, of course, when there is the mere image, everything is very simple, everything is very obvious what's being done.   There's no movie magic except, of course, there is movie magic.

JH:  It's easy to do.   We don't even need a projector.

KJ:  The magician shows you his simple trick.  This is fundamental to film.  It's   transparent.   You can invert it left or right.  You can turn it upside down and show it.  So it takes advantage of that but I think the image is absolutely transformed.   And the double image goes back and forth in space but it also opens out.  Actually it relates to Ernie Gehr's film Serene Velocity...of expanding and contracting and going through many changes that way.   By the way I should mention Loco Motion the first Muybridge to Brooklyn Bridge piece that you saw relates to the work of Heinz Emigholz who lives here in Berlin.   And he did these absolutely outstanding landscape films.   I'm not doing the same thing he's doing but I certainly see a relationship to it.

 JH:   The motif of the train  that you are using is something that you think of that rides along on a very fixed position, an unarguable position, and then you apply all these contortions to it. Why are  you   deconstructing our idea of trains there?

KJ:  Or reconstructing and making a new cinematic experience.   The rails go through all kinds of changes.

JH:  So why are you using the train motif?

KJ:  It's more emotional.   There are some things that are easy to see.   That trains and movie cameras are both related   machinery.  They are cousins.

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JH:  They were both products of the industrial revolution.

KJ:  Trains came out a little earlier but they are basically coming out of the same mentality...the tracks and picture tracks and sound tracks in films and there is this kind of spacing.

JH:  The ties that go across the tracks.

KJ:  But also we ride them.

JH:: That's true we ride in the film as well.

KJ:  And they have destinations.   They transport us where they're supposed to. And many offer us picture windows that offer a changing picture as you sit still like in the movie theater.   The last show here is a compilation of supposed first shots made by "The Lumière" people where the camera itself is in motion.   So definitely one is having similar to a train experience.   Looking out as the train is moving along.   So first a kindred technology.   I was drawn to it because of that not because of a lot of theory although one could develop a lot out of it.   Trains really interest me.   I was a little kid when trains were the hottest things around and once in a while a plane went overhead.   But mostly locomotives. Wow: the 20th century.   I might do more.  New York is full of them...subways.   It's really  amazing stuff.   Doing this work gives me a chance to explore it and get into it. Not just watching it whiz by at 24 frames per second.   I'm playing with my toy trains.

JH:  Parts of Muybridge reminded me of the LSD experience, especially during Loco Motion ,the tunnel sequence itself.   That was really an ego death/rebirth experience for me, something really central to the LSD experience. 

KJ:  I think so myself. Absolutely.

JH:  It was truly an experience in that way.  I think more of an experience then the ones before for me.

KJ:  Well, that's what is important not to say but somehow to invoke that in the viewer so that it hits upon these factors deep in our psyche.

JH:  There was a shift in perspective.  Before we were watching trains but then we got on the train that was going through the tunnel.   At that point we are the train.

KJ:  In the other two, Georgetown Loop and Disorient Express, we are looking at a train.  A train is following a train.  It's very interesting that they wouldn't simply give us the ride that a normal train gives us;   the landscape that a train makes possible.   But they show a train going through this landscape so it's very self reflexive from the very beginning.   From the very beginning the part going through the tunnel in Loco Motion is the way it was put into the Library of Congress.   I found it with the tunnel sequence printed in negative.  

JH:  I just want to express that while we are going through the tunnel there is a real feeling of reincarnation itself.  You really worked that quite beautifully.   There is that feeling of wanting to stay back and so the frame moves back with that feeling and we're dealing with all these shapes.  

KJ:  The white shapes are actually shadows lifted from the wall.

JH:  And they outline a big black being.

KJ:  The creature. King Kong

JH:  For a while I thought,  "Oh, it's just a transsexual or some kind of asexual being."

KJ:  Wow.   Wonderful surprises.

JH:  And then finally we see the light at the end of the tunnel.

KJ:  The birth canal opening up.

JH:  And there is a feeling of wanting to stay back and there is a feeling of inevitability that we will go through it again.   It was really perfect for me...William S. Burroughs   evokes the same kind of experience with his rearrangement of word groups, the cut up method, so that you have spaces of emptiness between seemingly unrelated word groups....

KJ:  Well, you are involved, you have to bridge (or not maybe not bridge). You have to move around the mountain a different way.   You have to climb around this way or that way.   You have to shift as he shifts the terrain.   You are confronted with the shifting terrain and you have to adapt.  You can't just move along.

JH:  Right. It's not going to be given.   After Disorient Express there is the story of The Three Little Pigs in Times Square. That's the important part because those are the buildings that they blow up, right?

KJ:  Well, everyone has their own interpretation; but my own thing was more simple.

JH:  So what's your interpretation of the story?

KJ:  I don't have one.

JH:  So is it just comic relief or allegory or what?

KJ:  No, it's beautiful.   It brings me home to Times Square, to New York, to the present and the fact that we do are living in these trains.   And here's a woman telling the story of "The Three Little Pigs" on the train to these responsive children and talking about "It's cold outside and we have to get off, this is our stop." The train goes on after this visit.    It's very, very rich for me.   Also the tape begins with "So long Flo"   because I've just stepped onto the train and said good-bye to Flo.  

JH: I was thinking it was this great representation for how you can try to forcibly change things but you can't really.   You can blow and blow and blow but these huge skyscrapers remain but perhaps with the power of the mind you can change things utterly.  

KJ:  Good.   I don't object to your interpretation.   See that's the interesting thing that a lot of art is open purposely to interpretation in the 20th century.   It's there as factors for the mind to play with and   not a set message as sort.

You explained that you were very attracted in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to use the 1905 filmstrip of the Mardis Gras parade because the people in the parade were so happy and ecstatic and dancing.

KJ:  Yeah, and letting themselves go.

JH:  And you said that we don't do much of that anymore.   Since we live in a much more permissive society; why do you suppose that is?

KJ: We are a much more embarrassed society.   We are much more dictated to by the image, by our own sense of image, like teenagers are embarrassed because all of a sudden they have big bodies. 

JH:  Yes, but all through the centuries I suppose that's true.

KJ:  Yes, for teenagers, but for all of us as well because of the mechanically reproducible image and all it's raves and because we're bullied by the sense of the image of ourselves in advertisements.   They want to sell us something.   There is a constant effort to make us unhappy with our image because if you are happy with your image you don't buy anything.   It induces a discomfort and a lack of freedom of comfort with our bodies because we're so concerned with how we are presenting ourselves visually.   Dance is not about something to look at.  Dance is about releasing something in you and I felt these people are dancing because of an eternal excess of   energy.

JH:  You have also said that you use old found material because of your interest in the past.   Can you comment on that?

KJ:   In touching the past.  It's shocking to me how fast things come and go.  Can you imagine someone living in constant shock?   Each moment is dissolving into another permutation of itself.  

JH:  Would you say that we have lost our links to the past, stranded as we are here at the end of this century with our hands talking only to ourselves?

KJ:  Yes, I think we have.  [Ken gets up to take photographs of clouds passing by outside the window.]  To touch the past is just imperative for me.   To be in Berlin is a constant effort to sift through the present moment and sense the past.

JH:   Definitely...You are constantly working on that here.

KJ:   And the same thing with film.  I'm very aware that these are not just shots these are things, life, that happened in front of the camera.  I'm very interested in getting to that moment.

JH:  So you don't feel like that moment is ever really past.

KJ:   I feel it's enough for me, for ourselves in our moment to see what the truth of our transience and vulnerability is.  That it's one transience looking at another transience and being able to see a kind of a reflection of itself and to feel for that state of transience.   For one transient moment to feel for another transient moment.

JH:   In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell you have a section that looks like the rolling seas.

KJ:   You mean people on the seas.

JH:  Yes, that look like strange, shrouded sailors.   And there is something like a ship in the center.

KJ:  It's a quality of floating in space.  It really is a sense of an unmoored floating entity.

JH:   With rotation... like a spinning top?

KJ:   And the music is very traditionally heavenly.

JH:  It seemed representative to me of our lostness too, the ship especially.

KJ:  I'm not choosing to represent lostness, again I'm culling something from time.   I love what's there.   I love what I see.  For me this is a celebratory work.  Life is our marriage of heaven and hell, (A Flicker of Life).   That's the subtitle of this.   And there are also parts that refer directly on a totally subconscious level to my heart by-pass operation.  

JH:What part is that?

KJ:   The work as a whole especially when it splits apart at the end; the double image.   I didn't realize it before.   People said it to me.

JH:  The blood.   The red sequence at the end.   That was very strong.   That was particularly a very beautiful image..... What is it like for you as a professor of film?   Are you able to relate to the students of today?

KJ:   Yes I can.   I'm all for them.   But I do recognize that a lot of them have been totally won over to the culture of entertainment.  They are ahistorical. They know celebrities' names.

JH:   Something happened in the seventies when the humanities were not supported anymore in favor of the sciences and media.

KJ:   Well, it can't compete with the allurement and the seduction of entertainment.   It's not media unto itself.   It's how it is utilized and what it conveys to them and what it draws them into.  I'm afraid that not many people are that intellectually disposed anymore and they can just be grabbed up by emotional factors or by the need for excitement.   They're living in very regulated societies for the most part and the media offers them more visceral, exciting, vivid experiences then their natural life usually does.

JH:   It's too boring.   Society just doesn't offer any space for an intellectual life.

KJ:  Conversation doesn't happen so much anymore.    People go through mostly a ritual of signals.   I remember conversing more and needing to.   I'm offering work out of the past because I think my sensibilities are out of the past.  It's work that is uncomfortable, that doesn't tell you where to get on or off.   I'm offering challenges when challenges of this nature are not really welcome anymore.

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this article was printed in: Millennium Film Journal No. 32/33 (Fall 1998): Beavers / Markopoulos