A Landmark of Experimental Cinema:
Ken Jacobs' XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX (1993)
Ken Jacobs: Celestial Subway Lines (2003)
You think you know what art is. You think you know what it can do, what is possible, and what isn't. Then one day, you find out you're wrong. In 1993, I attended a performance that expanded my idea of what is possible in art.
Experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs (born 1934) created an extraordinary "live cinema" performance entitled XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX at Anthology Film Archives in New York City in January 1993. Jacobs devised a special projection system. Two identical 16 mm projectors were pointed at the same screen. The projectors were modified to freeze each frame of the film as a still image, effectively becoming slide projectors instead of motion picture projectors. The next frame became visible only when Jacobs manually made the projector advance.
Two copies of the same film were placed in the projectors. In front of both projectors, Jacobs placed something that resembled an ordinary household fan, but with the shape of the fan blades modified to act as a kind of shutter for the two projector beams. As the shutter spun, one or the other projector beam was blocked, and the audience saw an image quickly flickering back and forth between the two frozen frames. Animation was created from two stills.
By manually advancing frame by frame through the two copies of the film, bringing them in and out of sync, Jacobs increased or decreased the depth of the flickering effect. If both projectors were on the same frame, there was no flickering. If a few frames apart, slight flickering; if many frames apart, extreme flickering.
For this performance, Jacobs' source material was two copies of a 6-minute French hardcore pornographic film from 1921. Manually progressing frame by frame extended the duration of the film out to over two hours.
Stereo photrographs create their 3-D effect by taking two views of the same scene, slightly offset in space. When combined, their difference causes the illusion of depth. XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX presented views slightly offset in time, rather than space. When combined (or, flickered between). their difference -- the motion that occurred between the frames -- caused the illusion of depth, but in strange ways; 3-dimensionality appeared only in parts of the frame where motion occurred. Great motion caused greater depth.
The effect was quite bizarre, and more than a little disorienting. As the two images were brought further out of sync, solid flesh would slowly become materialized into a field of pure energy. It was not always clear what one was looking at. Motion ran in all directions unpredictably. It was an overwhelming and riveting experience. XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX offered a hallucinatory view into an alternate universe: nostalgic yet completely unfamiliar, ecstatic yet threatening, simultaneously erotic and apocalyptic.
The performance ended to thunderous applause. From the back of the theater, Jacobs cleared his throat and announced to the audience, "I would like to apologize for the technical problems. I hope you have been able to enjoy this very flawed performance of XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX." It was not clear to anyone in the audience what he meant.
Jacobs has stated that XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX, like some of his other work, is not documentable. The frame rate of a film or video camera would be out of sync with the varying flicker produced by his projection contraption. The image quality of a DVD could never capture the rich patina of the antique celluloid in dialogue with itself.
So XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX exists for me as a 15-year-old memory of a particular transcendent personal experience. There are certain artists whose work I regard as so perfectly realized that no chain of excited adjectives could ever begin to approach their accomplishment. It would be very difficult for me to explain how I feel about John Coltrane or Bruce Nauman or Fyodor Dostoevsky. It would be as difficult, and as pointless, to talk about God in polite company. In my memory, XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX dwells in that same realm: unspeakably superlative.
In 1993, I was a young artist simultaneously attracted and repelled by conceptual art. My background was in music, which led me to believe that the expressive impulse was central to making art. Yet in the world of visual art, I encountered extraordinary works created completely without expression. Could there be a similar way of working that might be right for me?
There were some problems. Conceptualism, in disavowing expression, often caused aesthetic pleasure to depart the scene. Simple, threadbare materials like plywood or were used to exaggerate the focus on the conceptual. The materials seemed not only anti-aesthetic, but ascetic: withdrawing away from the world, towards pure philosophy.
Also, interventions performed upon the materials were simple, direct, and blunt. There seemed to be little room for a process that could not be summarized in one sentence, or one that relied on any special virtuosic skill. Again, this seemed to be a way of exaggerating the single-minded focus on concept.
XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX suggested to me that none of this was necessary: the conceptual could happily stand without that particular set of biases. It was possible for work to be conceptually strong yet aesthetically appealing, to be derived from rich complex materials, and to be the result of some masterful technique. If concepts can be attached to a sheet of plywood, why shouldn't they be able to be able to adhere to a French porno film from 1921? If turning something upside down is an acceptable intervention, why shouldn't building custom film projectors (or writing custom software programs) also be OK?
XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX made it clear to me: even without expressive intent, the artist can reveal truly extraordinary things. By careful interventions, information or artifacts are induced to reveal new things about themselves and the world. The artist does not "create", she allows fixed structures to become fluid, thereby making visible what was previously residing inside the structure invisibly.
Jacobs' XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX pointed me towards a dirty secret known to the best conceptualists: when working without expressive intent, removing oneself from the work, it is still possible that amazing things can be discovered about oneself. In fact, the chances of this occurring are easily the same as with a transparently expressive approach, or possibly, even better.
(Kurt Ralske, November 2008)