A pioneer of the American film avant-garde of the 1960s and '70s, Ken Jacobs is a central figure in post-war experimental cinema. From his first films of the late 1950s to his recent experiments with digital video, his investigations and innovations have influenced countless artists.
A New Yorker by birth, Jacobs graduated from City University to find himself in the midst of the downtown art scene of the 1960s, which included artists Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; and the experimental theater troupes of Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer. Although Jacobs had studied painting with Hans Hoffman, he quickly gravitated to film, finding kindred spirits in radical filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas and Hollis Frampton. An early friendship with Jack Smith yielded several collaborations, including the seminal underground films Blonde Cobra (which Jonas Mekas dubbed "the masterpiece of Baudelairean cinema") and Little Stabs at Happiness, as well as a Provincetown beach-based live show, The Human Wreckage Review.
Jacobs has long been a cinema activist. He was an integral part of Manhattan's burgeoning alternative film scene, which included venues such as the Film-Makers' Cooperative and The Bleecker Street Cinema (which notoriously premiered Blonde Cobra with Smith's Flaming Creatures) as well as his own loft, where the Kuchar brothers first screened their 8mm work. In 1966, he and his wife Flo founded Millennium Film Workshop, and he was a cofounder of one of the country's earliest departments of cinema, at Binghamton University.
Jacobs has always been interested primarily in the act of viewing, rather than in textual decoding or analysis. As he points out, "my work is experiential, not conceptual. I want to work with experiences all the time." In this respect, his breakthrough was Tom, Tom the Piper's Son (1969-71). A landmark work of appropriation, the film takes as its source material a ten-minute short from 1905. During the course of Jacobs' two-hour film, this fragment from the dawn of cinema is subjected to extensive and varied re-photography, including manipulations of speed, light, and motion, as well as the minute examination of abstractly enlarged areas of the frame. A masterpiece of cinematic deconstruction, Tom, Tom the Piper's Son is, in its total concentration on the formal and material properties of the medium, perhaps the quintessential work of 1970s structuralist filmmaking. It was also an indication of the direction in which Jacobs would proceed, wherein actors and narrative would fall away, replaced by a concentration on the rigorous pleasures of the cinematic unconscious. As he has suggested, "there's already so much film. Let's draw some of it out for a deeper look, toy with it, take it into a new light with inventive and expressive projection. Freud would suggest doing so as a way to look into our minds."
In later films such as Perfect Film (1986) and Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1990), Jacobs continued to explore his pioneering appropriation strategies. His interest in performance has never waned, however, as evidenced by Nervous System, a live show incorporating two film projectors, a propeller, and individual filters through which audience members view the double image. Writes Jacobs: "The throbbing flickering is necessary to create 'eternalisms': unfrozen slices of time, sustained movements going nowhere and unlike anything in life." Jacobs' recent video work, such as Flo Rounds A Corner (1999), have successfully transferred the "eternalisms" effect to the digital realm.
Jacobs' insistence on cinema as a "development of mind" can be seen, despite his protestations to the contrary, as a conceptual approach to art-making practice, one that has yielded groundbreaking work across media. In his activism, film, performance, and video, he has consistently expanded the practice of the avant-garde moving image. Whether undertaking archaeological journeys to the birth of cinema, or scrutinizing the interstices of new digital technologies, Jacobs' work investigates, provokes, and draws power from the mysteries of the nature of human vision.
Ken Jacobs was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. He has received numerous awards, including the Maya Deren Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts. In 1969, with the help of Larry Gottheim and Gottheim's students (one of whom was J. Hoberman, current senior film critic for the Village Voice), Jacobs began the Cinema Department at SUNY Binghamton and taught there until 2002. His films, videos and performances have received international venues such as the Berlin Film Festival, the London Film Festival, the Hong Kong Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the American Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. He was a featured filmmaker at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2004.
Jacobs lives in New York City.