A few weeks ago, I attended a screening of some recent Ken Jacobs shorts, with the filmmaker himself present to talk about his work. In his recent work, his focus has been on the concept of “depth,” and his medium: essentially “3D” digital shorts. He discovered the possibilities for this medium when he started projecting the same film using two projectors simultaneously, slightly out of sync. These shorts aren’t like what you might expect when you think of 3D. They don’t require special glasses but instead create depth through strobing and flickering effects. At the most basic level, the experience is very much like how these animations from Ignacio Torres appear to us. Jacobs’ shorts rapidly shift back and forth between two images that are almost identical but that are seen from a slightly different perspective. It never occurred to me before Jacobs shared his thoughts about depth, but this effect simply reproduces the way we see the world: through our elaborate system of perception, information from each eye (spaced slightly apart from one another) is combined to create our sense of depth, the world as three-dimensional.
I’ve also never been aware of depth in any active, conscious sense, but Jacobs, whose background studying painting with Hans Hoffman influenced his thinking on depth, spoke about it with an intoxicating enthusiasm. He related an experience he had looking at the work of Willem de Kooning with one eye closed, flattening the image. He also criticized the escapism of Hollywood and mainstream cinema, and in this way, his interest in depth became a metaphor for his championing of art that simply allows us to see new things and to see familiar things in a new way. Depth, among other things, makes an image appear not just more realistic—i.e. as an accomplice to realism as aesthetic ideology—but more, in a way, “full”; it’s hard to get away from the very word “deep.” Some of the shorts were abstract or near-abstract, allowing the viewer to explore worlds that exist beyond mere realism. One particularly enjoyable short took an image of ocean waves and turned it into a 3D sculpture of sorts—these images don’t move and develop over time but instead rapidly “flicker” between two perspectives, which stand for each of our eyes. At one point, the waves were flipped upside down, turning the image more purely formal. The effect is similar to an abstract painting come to life, jutting out from its frame and acquiring extreme depth. It’s more than a little tactile, as though one could reach out and grab the image, and because the motion of the waves is suspended, we are able to explore them in a more purely visual way.
Other shorts resembled portraits. Frequently, these depicted fellow experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas. The 3D effect enhanced realism in a way, but the effect goes beyond mere realism. As with the waves, we aren’t experiencing a more realistic depiction of a part of reality, an imitation of what we see every day with our own two eyes. The image just becomes more full and deep, sprouting beyond its frame, and because Jacobs maintains an almost painterly approach towards the image, he is really creating something new, related to but distinct from reality itself. This became clearer with the more overtly political works, including two shorts from the “Capitalism” series and a short entitled “Another Occupation.” The “Capitalism” shorts vivify old photographs, one of slaves in a field and the other of children in a factory. They don’t explore realistic or pictorial space but rather something like psycho-historical space, becoming political statements not just for what they depict but for the way they unavoidably assault the viewer with their depth. This depth becomes a reminder that, like our world, the worlds depicted were/are “real,” requiring a sort of ethical commitment, an attendance to their fullness: a flat image of a young child working in a factory is very different from the 3D image Jacobs creates, which reminds us of the tactility, the space, and the living presence of real bodies that suffer under the weight of capitalism’s development.
“Another Occupation” builds on, in part, another short entitled “A Loft.” The latter short, bereft of any political qualities, takes Jacobs’ abstract and painterly impulses to their extreme. It depicts what is presumably Ken and Flo Jacobs’ home, the loft space that acts as the setting for Azazel Jacobs’ Momma’s Man (2008), but we are not meant to merely explore this space because Jacobs distorts the image through a number of devices, creating at times an image that doesn’t resemble physical space at all but that still moves with the depth of real space. The distortions, made using computer software, drive Jacobs into the realm of pure abstraction, beyond the real and literal, but these imagined worlds feel real because of their depth (in addition to a link that is maintained between them and the real loft space and source material). “Another Occupation” uses these same distortions, continuing the move towards abstraction, but uses motion and recognizably real imagery—as in, “of this world”—to simultaneously explore political and social themes. The short uses footage from Southeast Asia depicting villages and the soldiers occupying them. The overall effect is to depict a sort of vivid psycho-historical, politicized space that, like the “Capitalism” shorts, locates individuals within a specific context, oppressed and controlled by forces more powerful than them. The way that the motion carries the footage forward and the strobing, flickering creates a “pause” in this forward momentum, simultaneously manufacturing the depth effect, constructs an image depicting how ideology and flows of power shape our lives.
Admittedly, the words above hardly describe the effect of seeing these creations. A number of their characteristics fascinated me, and I’m equally fascinated by these works, linked to above, by Ignacio Torres. Torres’ images are reminiscent of the .GIFs that have become more and more popular on the internet over the years. In fact, there is a Tumblr blog that creates some very fascinating .GIFs that loop a moment from a film continuously. Unlike most .GIFs, which play out their duration and then suddenly return to the first frame with a suddenness that would be jarring if we hadn’t gotten used to them by now, the loops created on this Tumblr blog are perfect loops: their end is identical to their beginning, so that they can repeat, in a loop, endlessly and infinitely. Because a good part of the frame remains static—only part of any image loops—these .GIFs somewhat resemble paintings or photographs that have come to life, as imagined in movies or cartoons. There’s a trompe l’oeil effect here, but in a very real way, our eyes are always “playing tricks on us”: we are able to perceive depth because the two images from our pair of eyes are combined together to create a three-dimensional effect. But whereas these .GIFs are spectacular in their expertise, without a single blemish to trouble the waters, the effect is somewhat of a novelty. I think there’s something very different going on with the images by Ignacio Torres and the digital shorts of Ken Jacobs.
The key here, I think, is of course depth, but it is what depth does, and not just that it is visible/perceptible, that matters. (For this reason, many 3D movies, for all their visual novelty and immersion effects, feel very unexciting.) The .GIFs from movies are flat, obviously, and they play out a looped moment in time. Time is somehow transcended, but the effect is eerie. Consider this: these .GIFs could conceivably still be playing out their loops long after we die, an endless repetition of a moment lasting a few seconds. They exist out-of-time from our perspective, but they are without a doubt traveling in the medium of time itself, a durational illusion. They are like little music boxes but with images instead of melodies. The works of Torres and Jacobs feel less like time-based creations, which is especially odd with regards to Jacobs’ work because they belong to that category of the arts that we call “movies.” But as far as movies go, they don’t much move, though they do oscillate, swell, flicker, and strobe. What’s interesting is that they, like motion pictures, are constructed out of photographic images set in motion. But instead of twenty-four of these per second, there are two that flicker back and forth, in between which is merely the black of the screen. The effect is less durational—and it is certainly not related to movement, as movies are—but rather sculptural. It appears that Torres is doing roughly the same thing, only with more than two photographic images (but much fewer than twenty-four) and without the flickering effect, creating something less aggressive and more calmly static.
The first noticeable “advantage” of Ken Jacobs’ mode of working is the way, in the more “portrait”-oriented works, he brings his subjects to life in a manner that is more intense and oddly present than movies tend to do. As Stanley Cavell writes in The World Viewed, movies show us events from some moment in the past that are present for us but to which we are not present. Jacobs’ sculptural portraits differ from this ontological reality to the degree that this presentness is modified, relative to how it operates in a motion picture. The subjects’ presentness is intensified—we feel we can walk up to the screen and touch them—and the static repetitiveness of the images, as with Torres’ images, subverts our perceived absence from them. The fact that we see the same “static” image (no longer truly static because it is flickering and strobing) held in time and given depth, as a sculpture is perceived, almost requires that we emerge from that ideal realm of the motion picture, the shadowed seats from which we watch those people who cannot see us, and recognize something of our own responsibility to what we’re watching. I think Ken Jacobs recognizes this in the way he used his experiments in the realm of 3D to engage political themes. The “Capitalism” shorts, for one, cannot help but make us feel somehow responsible for their subjects—not in the sense of blame assigned but in the sense that we have just received knowledge, which depth definitely though strangely is, that requires us to examine our behavior towards these subjects and perhaps modify it.
Torres’ images stake out territory somewhere slightly different, sharing qualities with Jacobs’ work and with .GIFs one might find on the internet. Thematically, they are not illusory and durational like the .GIFs, nor are they quite so realistic, abstract, or political as the various shorts of Ken Jacobs. They are more interpersonal, yet simultaneously cosmic. I get the same sense with them as I do from the .GIFs that a moment in time in eerily suspended and apportioned for us. But in that they reach towards depth, they share the same sculptural quality that Jacobs’ work exhibits. In all cases, the figures are in motion, boldly escaping the “portrait”-like quality Jacobs’ work sometimes attempts. What’s remarkable about them is their vulnerability. They “pose” in stances that we could never look at and admire in “real time” because, being in motion, they are by definition on a path out of the very stance they now momentarily occupy. And their depth, an illusion that is admittedly not as complete as Jacobs has accomplished, makes them seem “presented” to us, open to us so that we may circle around and even caress them. As a result, and as with the works of Ken Jacobs, we must recognize our own responsibility: unlike real sculptures, made out of inanimate materials, these figures are truly vulnerable, capable of being physically and emotionally hurt once they get unstuck from these stalled moments in which they find themselves. We feel we might walk up to them and grope them or fling them out of their trajectory so that when they are reanimated and exit this static, sculptural phase, they might fall awkwardly and get hurt. In other words, we must recognize our subtle power over them. The “celestial” and “cosmic” matter that floats around them makes it even harder for us to want to defile them in this way, to sully their perfect, almost angelic pose. What is finally most interesting, then, is that Torres’ work, like that of Jacobs but unlike the .GIFs that are absentmindedly sent throughout the internet on a daily basis, reminds us that there is a dimension to the visual, a dimension of depth, that exceeds the world of pure perception and enters the realm of the ethical.
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