Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

Ken Jacobs' Apparition Theatre of 1973

I first encountered Ken Jacobs as a photograph in 1970. It can be found on page 148 of Sheldon Renan's 'The Underground Film: an introduction to its development in America' and captures Jacobs in professorial mode, wearing a tie and cardigan. The caption describes him as a 'violently opinionated person, and one of the secret auteurs of the underground'. The picture is a striking photographic portrait, courtesy of one Peter Saladino, and the caption, which can only hint at the depth of Jacobs’ personality as an artist, has an equally arresting quality. He looks 'square' but a less square person would be hard to imagine.

Jacobs was born in 1933 so by the time 'The Underground Film' was published in 1967, he was entitled to look donnish. Forty years on from then, in Jacobs’ seventy-eighth year, has come 'Optic Antics' a book about Jacobs, his films and his overall career edited by Michelle Pearson, David E James and Paul Arthur.

Its publication has sparked in my mind a memory of his presence at the Festival of International Avant-garde film in London in 1973, a free-for-all of films experimental, avant-garde, whatever you like to call them, from America, Britain, and from Europe. My own film Fine Writing even got an airing. The radical, cooperative zeitgeist was against stars but there was no doubt in my mind that Jacobs was the star of that festival. He was a major presence, showing Blonde Cobra and a version of The Sky Socialist on 8 September, which may have been the occasion (it certainly happened but whether it was in 1973 I have no record) for a performance preceding the films in which, alone on the stage of the National Film Theatre, he played us records which meant something for him – except he did not play them because he had no record player, so instead he waved each LP in the air and expatiated on the music in his idiosyncratic way, a version of 'Desert Island Discs' (you know, your favourite music for when you are stranded on a desert island – it happens to us all eventually) with the physical records certainly, but without the music, accidents without the substance. You could listen fascinated, or you could listen disgusted – and the performance did prompt at least one spectator to storm angrily from the auditorium. I had the impression that this gave Jacobs a certain amount of pleasure.

At the end of the Festival, on 19 September, hors de concours as it were, he did a show of 'race films' at the London Filmmakers Cooperative: Asbestos, Ten Minutes to Live (1932, directed by Oscar Micheaux), Scrub me Mama with a Boogie Beat (1941, watch it on Youtube), Treasure Island ("featuring Eveready, a pornographic cartoon", my notes say, and which may be illuminated by the entry ‘Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure’ in Wikipedia) and The Blood of Jesus. It was at the Co-op that I had a close encounter with Ken because being by now an enthused Jacobs acolyte I was taking money on the door, but when I was zealous in pursuing someone sliding in without paying, I was rebuked by Jacobs for doing so, rather fiercely as I thought, I think on the grounds of my bourgeois tendencies. Incidentally, the film show ended up with Jacobs lighting magnesium flares in the pitch black of the LFMC cinema, artificial flashes of lightning that illuminated the bodies strewn around the floor of the cinema (since chairs would have been too great a concession to bourgeois comfort).

But in between these cinematic apparitions, on 14 September, Jacobs mounted a performance of his Apparition Theatre, of which I made an extensive record (not a review, I hasten to add) at the time, which I here publish for the first time:


Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, Friday 14 September 1973, 7.00 pm

The programme:

  • Two exhibits
  • a shadow-play
  • Sticks – multi-dimensional sound

Outside the auditorium stands a blackboard with two gnomic sayings in Latin:

  • servare contingentiam or respect the contingent [Duns Scotus]
  • entia non multiplicanda sunt sine necessitate or Don’t repeat(lit. multiply) things unnecessarily [attributed to William Ockham; known as Occam’s razor]

At the door, David Curtis and Roger Hammond hand out spectacles whose eyepieces are filters of differing strength.

A diagram of the layout of the ICA lecture theatre is shown on the right.

The lights go down, except for two spotlighting the exhibits in their alcoves. Jacobs, microphone in hand, begins to describe them breaking off in the middle to explain that the performance has started. He asks the audience to inspect the exhibits without touching them. He concentrates on exhibit B, which is a person sitting staring at the plaque that describes the Picasso drawing displayed in the alcove. Since the microphone will not reach far enough, Jacobs has to read out what the plaque says in short bursts: "This drawing was made on the wall of Professor Burnel’s [?] flat in Torrington Square on the occasion of Picasso’s visit to England in March 1950" (or something like that). Jacobs says that this is intriguing: was the wall left there – with a hole in it? Again, he invites inspection of the exhibits, offering the use of a light meter -- "The light meter measures very accurately; it's an expensive one." He explains about reflected light. Someone asks, somewhat aggressively, why they can't touch the exhibits, to which Jacobs replies that he is making the conventions for this performance. (Around this point, à propos of what I cannot remember, he says that some people from the legitimate theatre who were helping to set up the equipment in the morning were in great contempt of what he was doing.) He then goes on to exhibit A, who is writing something, although being towards the rear of the auditorium I cannot see clearly because she is partially out of my sight. By this time, a few members of the audience are getting up to gaze at the exhibits in close-up. Around this point, someone asks, again in a hostile manner, if there are going to be any movies. Jacobs, irritated, points out that this is an 'avant-garde' festival – "That means one takes one's chances." John Ducane is examining exhibit B eyeball to eyeball. Jacobs says that this is magnificent.

We then come onto the shadow play. Jacobs begins by explaining that he has not got the right equipment, and asks how much a transformer costs. Someone from the front row answers 'thirty pounds'. Jacobs then mutters something that ends '. . . thirty quids’. He wants to turn the lights off in the alcoves. At first, exhibit B is so intent on his plaque that he brushes him aside; Jacobs persists, so the exhibit finally moves aside, and Jacobs stands on a chair and turns off the light. The temporary screen on stage is then lit up, and a chair and stepladder stood behind it. Wearing our spectacles, we see the chair seeming to move through the stepladder in illusory depth. Jacobs goes behind the screen and moves his hand close to and away from the source of light. A strong illusion of distance is created such as in photos of recumbent bodies with huge feet and small heads. Jacobs’ silhouette shapes up in heroic pose. Next, two assistants, one of whom is Klaus Wyborny, get a stove working behind the screen and heat up a bowl with popcorn. As it warms up the popcorn leaps from the bowl in melodramatic fashion, at least when seen from the point-of-view of the audience.

Thirdly, the stage is prepared for a movie. The temporary screen is removed, and the permanent one lowered. Jacobs invites the audience to watch the lowering, and as it does so, slowly, he remarks, “Maybe this is how Britain lost her empire." I cannot remember whether this occasioned any laughter, but it should have. A little after this someone asks him to speak English "or any other comprehensible language". As the performance continues and Jacobs for some reason is trying to attract the attention of the projectionist, who is of course on high in the projection box, he comments that maybe the projectionist doesn't understand English, or maybe someone should speak to him who does. He announces a movie called ADJACENT PERSPECTIVES; SEMI-CLASSICAL, but to ensure that we have the title exactly right, he then says "adjacent perspectives semi hyphen colon semi hyphen classical”, which, as far as I could gather, was to be part of a larger work for which an appropriate title would be THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION. He describes it as filmed in upstate New York, the locale of Larry Gottheim’s HORIZONS, but without that element that Gottheim was concerned with, namely beauty. He hopes he does not misrepresent Gottheim by saying that. He then explains that the film, watched through only one lens of the spectacle, gives an illusion of dimensions, and promises to hand out another filter if it does not work for people. The movie begins. We see a snowbound housescape: houses recede behind each other. The camera is in a car tracking slowly down the street, then turns right, then right again. The movie lasts about ten minutes. To accompany it, Jacobs plays a tape of Prokofiev's 'Scythian Suite'.

When it ends, he asks the audience whether they got depth to which some answer yes, some no. Jacobs says that for his part he got strong depth. He then gets Jonas Mekas, who is sitting with Peter Kubelka in the front row, to stand up and then points his flashlight on Mekas’ right eye to reveal that he has a filter taped over it. Jacobs consents to hand round more filters, to reinforce the retardation of light. In doing so, he remarks that the filter slows down the light, at which someone leaps up and says, "Look, man, it doesn't slow down the light, it retards the eye’s reaction to it." He then shows another film, Nancy Graves’s AVES, and in introducing it asks whether the word is pronounced as a single syllable, presumably to rhyme with ‘graves’, or a double syllable. When that is resolved for him, he announces "AVḖS BY NANCY GRAVES BY KEN JACOBS". This film had been shown in the Festival nine days earlier under the title AVES, MAGNIFICENT FRIGATE BIRD, GREAT FLAMINGO. I remember colour footage of frigate birds hanging in the air shot from below, presumably from a ship at sea, with the birds one above another, and that the double filter greatly enhanced what Jacobs called "the multi-layered motile space".

The final piece in this performance is called 'Sticks', a piece of “multi-dimensional sound”. All the lights are turned off. Five people position themselves all around the auditorium, each with a pair of drumsticks. They tap these at intervals, then change position. This lasts about five minutes, after which the lights come up and the performance is over. Some people clap, and Jacobs says thank you. We hand in the spectacles and filters and depart.

Notes on the people referred to: Klaus Wyborny was a member of the Hamburg FMC: there is a full entry for him in Wikipedia. Roger Hammond, David Crosswaite and John Ducane were all associated with the London Film-makers’ Cooperative as structuralist film-makers. Information on them can be found in ‘A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain’ (2007) by David Curtis. David was also the author of ‘Experimental Cinema’ in 1971, and became film officer at the Arts Council from 1977 until 2000, when he left to found the British Artists Film and Video study Collection at Central St Martin’s, University of the Arts London. David was the Maecenas of experimental film and video in Britain for forty years.

© Tim Cawkwell

October 2011