Summer Reading Series #3: Martin Rumsby on Ken Jacobs' The Guests (2013)

Still from The Guests (2013) Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs, a grand-daddy of New York’s avant-garde cinema, has been experimenting with the three-dimensional moving image since the 1960s. Initially working in film, Jacobs now employs digital technologies to investigate cinematic time and space.

Like many experimentalists, Jacobs is interested in the medium-specific nature of cinema. This being, defining and exploring the uniquely cinematic aspects of the medium, aspects that distinguish it from other representational media. What, the question would go, are the inherent qualities of film and how may these qualities effect how we perceive and live in the world? How does this medium extend our vision and in what ways does it add to and modify our understanding of art and life?

This concern was inherited from European Modernism, particularly the influence of Paul Cezanne and the Cubists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. Their ideas crossed the Atlantic to New York via The Amory Show (1913) and later émigré artists such as Hans Hofmann who fled to America to escape persecution from the European Fascists. Hofmann was to become a seminal influence as a teacher transmitting key Modernist techniques to young American artists, including Jacobs himself.

Modernist artists investigated the nature of representational illusionism, human perception and the reconciliation of thought with vision sometimes in the pursuit of ‘pure’ painting, a visual music if you like.(1) A more ambivalent, at times nonchalant, attitude was signaled by the work of Marcel Duchamp and Jack Smith which, within a broader context of Abstract Expressionism, came to be seen as expressions of American notions of freedom and individuality.

Jacobs rehearses such concerns in his three-dimensional cinematic works by drawing the viewer into, what he calls the ‘rational and irrational depths’ of cinema; being revelations of the plastic play of volume and movement drawn out over two- dimensional pictorial patterning. He reworks two-dimensional cinematic imagery to create three-dimensional viewing experiences that play with the viewer’s perception of space, time, people and events.

“To make a space that moves and changes
… We see that in the painting we care
for … (see above) … and I’m making that
happen in film.” (2) 

For Jacobs, this offers the possibility of offering transformational cinematic experiences that can change people, bringing them more fully to life by means of individuated perceptual art experiences.

In The Guests, he reworks old black and white silent movie footage of guests arriving at a Parisian wedding in the late nineteenth century. Building on an idea suggested by his wife Flo, a brief filmic sequence was step printed frame by frame, concentrating and elongating the action into an extreme slow motion cinematic event lasting 74 minutes. Here, cinema is virtually presented as still photography, creating a tension between perceptual differences in the space between moving and non-moving images.

The practice of reworking historical footage raises questions about cinematic raw material as the subject of work. Here, film artists insert themselves into cinema’s originating moments to remake a cinema as it should have been. For them then, ours is a tradition that awaits invention. (3) By employing old footage Jacobs also demonstrates that cinema is a record of past events that are resurrected in acts of cinematic projection.

The wedding guests arrive at a place and ascend a set of stairs towards the camera, passing beyond it to the unseen venue beyond the photographic frame. Scenes of daily life in a Parisian square unfold behind them. But within the rectangle of the film frame there are a whole other set of actions. These include the tension between still and moving images, parts the image slipping between two and three dimensions and similar aural ambiguities. Here, two dimensions became three and monaural became surround sound. Unintentionally but interestingly, the action was augmented by the shadows of audience members passing through the projection beam as they walked in front of the screen, moving in real-time as three dimensional shadows foregrounding the step by step progression unfolding in the film.

At times Jacobs selects figures or objects within the two- dimensional image to render them in a ‘synthetic’ three-dimensionality. Such interventions create paradoxical spatial arrangements in depth, calling into question the very nature of our visual perception. A human head, for example, gradually emerges from behind one of the guests but its three dimensional rendering foregrounds it in relation to the two dimensional figure that is actually in front of it. So the head emerges as a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional plane. Alternately, a three-dimensional figure emerges from a two-dimensional shadow in the folds of a guest’s clothing. In a way Jacobs’ visual ambiguities work as analogy, as he peels back layers of space toward the core of a visual essence.

His technique invites the viewer to examine the moving image both within the frame and in relation to other images. The on-screen action unfolds in an extreme slow motion, without the narrative associations, montage or the synchronous sound that we usually associate with industrial modes of media production. We are presented, instead, with a scene from everyday life, reworked in terms of his aesthetic investigations.

“I fell in love with early film … that something 
could be recorded moving in life was a wonder
… story didn’t come into it … I love the actual
representation of … things moving in the
world without (human) problems.” (4)

The viewer finds themselves immersed in conundrums. Could conventional photographic and cinematic arrangements be arbitrary? Are there other means of organizing and thinking about reality? Are other modes of thought and existence possible? What are expectations based on and where do they come from? What is cinema and what is art? What could an artistic cinema be?

For some the drama in Ken Jacobs film may be that there is no drama. But they would be mistaken, for to blink while viewing this work is be to create a perfect little drama. Of thinking you had missed something, sensing a change that you could not quite put your finger on, and then struggling to relocate yourself within Jacob’s perceptual adventure. It becomes about finding your own place as a viewer. You exhort yourself to greater diligence and concentration as a spectator, only to blink again and thereby set off a whole new train of regrets and personal recriminations. You may have missed a virtual imperceptibility, one important enough to revisit the work again in subsequent screenings to retrieve that missing part. To experience the work in this way is to experience high drama, as the momentary inattention of the attentive viewer. There is also a human familiarity in the faces of the guests ascending the stairs, recognition in some of those faces from so long ago, like visiting a city in a distant country and seeing people who resemble people back home. These resemblances eagerly look back at the camera, engaging a viewer across a century of distance, in this most real of science fictions and time travel.

The film ends on the brief originating sequence of the wedding guests arriving, played out in real time, as a consideration of his sources, or a restatement of theme.

Finally, as a way of extending the context a little, I would like to make brief mention of some other film artists working with stereoscopic and three dimensional images, each working in their own individual way, through their own processes, towards their own conclusions.

Intermedia artist William Keddell has been producing stereographic photographs from his base in Miami since the early 1990s. His recent work includes The Cyclopean Eye series of three-dimensional ‘free viewing’ experiences. Keddell has also been shooting three- dimensional aerial landscapes of western deserts from a powered flying parachute. Keddell’s website can be found at www.williamkeddell.com

In early 1987 I saw a programme of films by Alan Sondheim at Frontera Media Arts in El Paso, Texas. This programme included Experiments (1986), featuring a segment of ‘synthetic’ three dimensional moving images created in-camera. Sondheim managed to achieve the illusion of depth by alternating his film camera position back and forth between left and right as he shot his subject single frame. The result was highly unstable pixilated (5) illusions of three-dimensionality which could be ‘read’ without the use of specialized viewing apparatus.

In the 1990s Henry Jessionka experimented with out of phase polarizing filters to create three-dimensional moving image effects.

Working in British Columbia, between living in Mexico, Los Angeles and American Samoa the legendary film artist Al Razutis has also produced holographic (6) and three-dimensional art. These include, Holographics for Theater and Cinema (2013-2014) and his three-dimensional stereoscopic videos, Nagual (1998), France (1996), Statues (1997-98), Meditations (1996) and Dan Fogal: Corporeal Art (1996-97). Razutis’ multi-media artworks and writing can be accessed at Visual Alchemy (1996-2014) online at: www.alchemists.com

3-DIY, a book by Ray Zone published by Focal Press covers three-dimensional movie making from CG to HD, desktop post-production, artist interviews and more.

- Martin Rumsby

Ken Jacobs, The Guests (B & W, Sound, 74 minutes, 2013) was presented by Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University of Wellington as part of the public programme for the exhibition Cinema and Painting, which was exhibited from 11 February- 11 May, 2014. 

(1) The German experimental filmmaker Oskar Fischinger came to grief in America when hired to ally his concept of visual music and abstract film to that of Walt Disney’s popular animations
(2) Ken Jacobs Interviewed by Mark Amery, Circuit Cast Episode 9. Accessed at http://www.circuit.org.nz/blog/circuit-cast-episode-9-sydney-biennale-co..., March 29, 2014
(3) See Martin Rumsby. Finding Film in, Illusions #27, Winter 1998 pp28-30
(4) Ken Jacobs op.cit www.circuit.org.nz
(5) Here I mean pixilation in the experimental film sense of shooting single frame, not as it is now used in reference to digital pixels
(6) A technical note from Al Razutis, “Stereo 3-D is not holographic 3-D … Stereo 3-D is a simulation of 3-D by virtue of two horizontally displaced ‘views’ of a scene which are ‘fused’ into a 3-D representation in our brains.” Al Razutis, Facebook post. March 29, 2014. Accessed March 30, 2014.