By Lauren Bliss
Ken Jacobs is too often referred to as poet of the cinema, an all-too-easy Romantic label to slap upon the incandescent beauty of his works and his radical political framework. Architect is the word I would suggest is more apt; for he is a sculptor of cinematic images, he creates films for the eye to inhabit.
Space/Time and Worries (2007) is kind of Jacobs on Jacobs, where he curates a screening of his works for an audience at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. The video has been uploaded to Vimeo and is thus filtered through the lens of the institutional push for the convenience and innovation of the lecture-at-home; however the images appear as though they had been properly screened in a cinema, somehow the laptop and Internet browser do not detract from the viewing experience. This may be because Jacobs’ instrument of choice is the image itself.
Jacobs originally aspired to be a painter. With his work it is as though that aspiration collapses such that the paint, paint-brush, canvas and brushstroke is concentrated into the projected image all at once. The effect of this intervention is perhaps best summed up by Jacobs himself in his description of the cinematic medium in relation to painting. For Jacobs the act of seeing a film is like looking at a painting, it condenses into a single image in the mind. Separated from “clock time”, cinema and painting “seize the mind, and they shape the mind and they become the mind”. It is in this sense that his cinema can be thought of as an architecture for the eye, he creates the space in between the mind and the image where the eye inhabits and lives.
Space/Time and Worries includes a lecture from Jacobs, with screenings of Flo Rounds a Corner, Pushcarts of Eternity Street, The Surging Sea of Humanity, and his formidable Capitalism: Child Labor. His work, as he warns us, is not for those afflicted with photosensitive epilepsy. Fortunately, I am not epileptic – however I did once have a bizarre reaction to a strobe light. A one minute exposure to the light in a darkened room was enough to set off a strange nervous response that lasted almost a week: my tongue, hands and feet would go repeatedly numb as though I was being continuously electrocuted by an alien device planted inside my head. A doctor informed me that the light had likely irritated my brain cells through the retina, and what I was experiencing was my nerve endings firing. While this response would wear off (it did), he said I should avoid such lights in the future (I haven’t). Jacobs’ work reminds me of the physicality of the eye itself, how images are material objects that attach themselves to our nervous system and cause some spark to open up within us.
Perhaps he is also some strange kind of optometrist. His films do not harness narrative, and he rejects the majority of cinema that he terms to be “about people and their problems with each other”. But his work does attend to the ills of our visually saturated society. He is like the Roman poet Lucretius – his images are the “honey” that must be smeared around a bitter cup of medicine to fool the sick viewer into drinking and, like reading Lucretius, viewing Jacobs’ films is an experience that does not disintegrate the world, but allows that it can be seen again as though for the first time.