To see a Ken Jacobs film usually means venturing into the quasi-mystical realm of underground cinema. There, safe from the sunlight of commercial success, Jacobs is famous for inventing simple machines and digital tricks to squeeze depth out of flat pictures, with abstract, often disorienting results.
But through Nov. 26, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, his mind-boggling experiments in seeing join the Lower Manhattan cityscape. “Ken Jacobs: Up the Illusion” is a street-level exhibition of the artist’s work shown in the Broadway Windows Gallery, a storefront annex of New York University’s 80WSE Gallery at the corner of Broadway and East 10th Street. It brings nearly 70 of his over 200 films and videos (MoMA owns 226, and Jacobs keeps making more) to a tableau of small screens behind plate glass. The show also debuts a selection of squiggly drawings on paper, the medium where Jacobs got his start: The brushy black-and-gray rings, in a quaint midcentury mode, underscore the expressiveness veining his rigorous work.
Curated by the multihyphenate writer and artist Andrew Lampert, the program will change over twice, in July and September. (It also streams for the duration at 80WSE.org.) And the festivities continue: Light Industry in Brooklyn will screen a recent Jacobs film on July 25; and a restoration of “Orchard Street,” Jacobs’s first movie, will play in MoMA’s collection galleries in November.
A retrospective in vignettes, scattered across New York, suits a filmmaker who has kept the city at the heart of even his most esoteric work. Jacobs was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He and his wife and indispensable collaborator, Flo Jacobs, have lived in the same downtown loft for the last five decades. “Orchard Street” (1955) captures the market-day throngs of the Lower East Side in golden, grainy 16mm. The lens lingers on a windblown rack of patterned scarves, follows leaking garbage along a worker’s push broom and takes in the views from the tenements, long before chain stores and selfie seekers redefined the district. In the same window as “Orchard Street,” a pair of 21st-century works, “Pushcarts of Eternity St.” from 2006 and “The Pushcarts Leave Eternity St.” from 2011, digitally manipulate found footage of Lower East Side vegetable vendors in the early 1900s in a way that produces a mesmerizing, jittery 3-D illusion.
Jacobs is a peerless innovator of structuralist film, which explores time and vision, and the technologies with which we try to control them, by emphasizing the formal qualities of the medium. The windows include “Disorient Express,” from 1995, which puts vintage footage of a train through its paces — forward, backward, mirrored and flipped, like a flowing Rorschach test. Structuralists love the railroad: The development of the movie camera parallels that of the steam engine. Recall the apocryphal story of people fleeing from a Lumière Brothers film of an arriving train, supposedly scared they’d be run over.
Today, I can stream Jacobs’s “Disorient Express” hunched over my phone while I ride the subway to 10th and Broadway. I can take video of the flashing phantasmagoria displayed in the windows, glowing like screens themselves, and send it to a filmmaker friend — who will be too preoccupied with other moving images to watch it.
We’re stuck to our screens — these little theaters — because there’s something inherently absorptive about cinema: the pull of the illusion, as the rest of the world falls away from a throbbing, halting, hallucination-inducing animation of a skateboarder attempting an ollie, a Manhattan skyline at night, Flo standing near a now-vintage car. “Up the Illusion” is a good chance to remember that traversing the relentless picture-in-picture-in-picture of the contemporary cityscape doesn’t doom us to distraction. We can still pay attention.
Jacobs, winking just a little, might call that magic. Over the years, he has patented several ways to make a shallow three-dimensional picture that’s visible with the naked eye, often by strobing between two similar but incongruent frames like a kind of overlapping stereoscope. One especially enchanting system is the “Nervous Magic Lantern” apparatus, twisting and juking painted plastic slides and lenses and rotating shutters, which Jacobs (and Flo) perform for live audiences. (Reworked footage derived from these performances is incorporated in the second Broadway Windows program.) It doesn’t play films so much as beam out nonobjective cinema, like a psychedelic liquid light show. The shadows and glints thrown on the flat screen seem deep, as if your eye burrows into the surface, spelunking in caves of dust or drifting through nebulae.
The artist’s embrace of digital editing around the turn of the millennium led to his long-running series of “Eternalisms,” short videos that eke out the illusion of depth by flickering between regular and inverted frames. In the Broadway Windows, one “Eternalism” skims across a faceted landscape that seems constructed from crumpled tinfoil. Jacobs delights in peeling an image apart and putting it back together, imbued with what he calls its “little reservoir of time.”
Jacobs has dedicated his career to illusions — not delusions. In fact, the production or heightening of illusions on display in “Up the Illusion” is a radical kind of honesty. The illusion works, even when you know how it’s made. That’s a key insight of structuralist film. Not to wring the magic out of the image, not to break the illusion, but to think through it, deeply.
Ken Jacobs: Up the Illusion
Through Nov. 26. Broadway Windows Gallery, 55 East 10th Street, Manhattan; 212-998-5747, 80wse.org.