Return to the Scene of the Crime

Date: 19 September 2008 | Season: Ken Jacobs | Tags: ,

Friday 19 September 2008, at 7pm
London Tate Modern

In a contemporary riff on one of his landmark works, Ken Jacobs uses new technology to both interrogate and arouse a theatrical tableau, shot in 1905, based on Hogarth’s Southwark Fair. The antique film print is probed, exploded and reconstituted in the digital domain with radical ingenuity and infectious wit. This extraordinary new work teaches us how to see.

Ken Jacobs, Return to the Scene of the Crime, USA, 2008, video, colour, sound 92 min

“The heartwarming story of a boy who didn’t know it’s wrong to steal. Running off with the pig seemed like a good idea at the time.”

More than theft of a pig is taking place at Southwark Fair. Why does God, right there amongst the crowd, allow this cheery riffraff such liberties? I haven’t been so shocked since 1969, when I first examined this primitive 1905 movie with my camera (Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, added in 2007 to the Library of Congress National Film Registry). A better print of the original film, and the power of the computer, allows for deeper and more detailed inspection. Forensic cinema at its most obsessive, the dead rise … and prove quite entertaining.

Curated by Mark Webber for and Tate Modern. An online exhibition at from 1 October to 30 November 2008 includes a selection of 20 complete or excerpted works by Ken Jacobs, dating from 1956 to the present.

Ken Jacobs: Tank TV

Date: 1 October 2008 | Season: Ken Jacobs | Tags: ,

1 October—30 November 2008

Ken Jacobs (b.1933) has been active as a filmmaker, performer and teacher for the past five decades. Rigorous and dedicated, his work is characterised by a keen eye for formal composition and a fierce political consciousness. The online exhibition at presents a portfolio of 20 works covering 50 years of Ken Jacobs’ artistic production from 1957 to the present day.

The Whirled (1956-63), Star Spangled To Death (1957-59/2004), Little Stabs At Happiness (1958-63, Blonde Cobra (1959-63), The Sky Socialist (1964-65), Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son (1969-71), The Doctor’s Dream (1978), Perfect Film (1985), Flo Rounds A Corner (1999), New York Street Trolleys 1900 (1999), Circling Zero: We See Absence (2002), Krypton Is Doomed (2005), Let There Be Whistleblowers (2005), Ontic Antics Starring Laurel And Hardy; Bye, Molly! (2005), The Surging Sea Of Humanity (2006), Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903 (2006), Two Wrenching Departures (2006), Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World (2006), Return To The Scene Of The Crime (2008).

As a central figure of the generation that defined independent filmmaking during the post-War era, Jacobs contributed to the liberation of cinema from technical and ideological conventions. Beginning in the 1950s, he developed an ‘urban guerrilla cinema’ out of poverty and desperation, shooting improvised routines on city streets. The early works Star Spangled to Death, Little Stabs at Happiness and Blonde Cobra feature a nascent Jack Smith, years before the renegade artist produced his own films.

Having lived in New York all his life, the changing character of the city has been a strong presence throughout Jacobs’ work, from his manipulation of vintage street scenes in New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903, through to the diaristic video Circling Zero: We See Absence, which observes the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, a few blocks away from Jacobs’ home. The Sky Socialist was shot in a deserted neighbourhood (long since decommissioned) below the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1960s, and Perfect Film uses raw television news reports on the assassination of Malcolm X.

Found or archival footage is a source for much of Jacobs’ work. In Star Spangled to Death, entire appropriated films contribute to an accumulative denunciation of American politics, religion, war and racism, whereas an analytical approach to reclaiming cinema’s past was originated in Tom, Tom the Pipers’ Son by re-filming selected details of a theatrical production dating from 1905. This same footage has lately been digitally excavated in Return to the Scene of the Crime.

The technique of unlocking aspects of film material that would otherwise pass unnoticed is the essence of the live Nervous System pieces that Jacobs has performed with two adapted projectors since the mid-1970s. Repetition and pulsing flicker teases frozen images into impossible depth and perpetual motion (demonstrated in New York Street Trolleys 1900), a process further developed by the Eternalism system of editing used in many recent videos. The previously ephemeral live performances Ontic Antics Starring Laurel And Hardy; By Molly! and Two Wrenching Departures are amongst the works that take on new life in their digital form.

A contemporary of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner and Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs is one of the true innovators of the moving image, who continues his radical practice in the present. Though his images frequently depict bygone eras, the works are resolutely contemporary, displaying a vitality and ingenuity that is rarely matched.

For the duration of the online show, offered a unique opportunity for discussion with Ken Jacobs in an extended Q+A session. Questions sent by email were answered by the artist and a regularly updated transcript of the dialogue was posted online at

Curated by Mark Webber.

Star Spangled to Death

Date: 2 November 2008 | Season: Ken Jacobs | Tags: ,

Sunday 2 November 2008, 2pm-10pm
London Chisenhale Gallery

A free screening of Star Spangled to Death, Ken Jacobs’ episodic indictment of American politics, religion, war, racism and stupidity, timed to coincide with the US election and the end of the Bush regime. Starring Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Mickey Mouse, Al Jolson and a cast of thousands.

Ken Jacobs, Star Spangled to Death,1957-59/2004, USA, 400 min
Jacobs’ extraordinary epic combines whole found films, documentaries, newsreels, musicals and cartoons with improvised performances by the legendary Jack Smith and Jerry Sims. Together they picture a dangerously sold-out America where racial and religious prejudice, the monopolisation of wealth and an addiction to war are opposed by Beat generation irreverence.

Star Spangled to Death will be shown with several intermissions. Refreshments available, or bring a packed lunch and a cushion!

Presented by Whitechapel at the Chisenhale, in collaboration with Mark Webber, and Firefly. An online exhibition at from 1 October to 30 November 2008 includes a selection of 20 complete or excerpted works by Ken Jacobs, dating from 1956 to the present.