Michael Sicinski

University of California, Berkeley


Motion Study / Motion Painting: Ken Jacobs’s Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea [excerpt]


“To my mind any phenomenon is para-cinematic if it shares one element with cinema, e.g. modularity with respect to space or time”

– Hollis Frampton


“People think Mondrian is flat! Ha, ha, ha, ha!”

– Hans Hofmann


Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea (1994), the first of Jacobs’s Bay Area presentations I witnessed, is in many ways an explicit repudiation of the stabilizing urge characteristic of dominant cinematic modes.  This Nervous System performance reprocesses an eight-second strip of film by experimental filmmaker (and former Jacobs student) Phil Solomon.  This film, shot at Land’s End, depicts the waves of the Pacific Ocean (“your local ocean,” as Jacobs remarked before the performance).  As the performance masterfully demonstrates, eight seconds is a long time.  These eight seconds of film, if shot at 24 frames-per-second, would yield 396 individual images of water in motion.  Jacobs presented Solomon’s film frame by frame, over the course of eighty minutes, or ten minutes per second.  Bi-Temporal Vision is presented to the audience along with a Pulfrich filter, which introduces the optical illusion of 3-D while viewing the film.  The filter is on a wand, and is to be held over one eye at a time.  (Jacobs instructed the audience before the screening to decide for themselves whether or not to employ the filter during the performance.)

Following Williams, Cartwright, and Frampton, we understand the history of filmic motion study as an analytic attempt to achieve mastery over that which is imaged.  By breaking  time and the body down into their (always divisible, never complete) constituent parts,  motion studies – of men and women in the course of labor, or of medically “defective” bodies –  render their subjects optically knowable, and finally, according to Foucault, controllable.  However, Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea, perhaps more radically than any of the other Jacobs work I have seen, proposes an answer to this mode of optical mastery.  This analytic motion study, far from ensconcing its spectator within an all-knowing position, continually disarms the eye, over and over again, literally casting its viewers adrift.

Throughout the performance of Bi-Temporal Vision, Jacobs appears to maintain a one-frame disphasure between the two filmstrips of Solomon’s waves.  The propeller action during this piece therefore creates a flickering between two successive views of the ocean.  “Flickering,” however, implies a simple A-black-B-black-A oscillation, and the effects of the propeller in this performance are much subtler.  Within a second, the flicker described above does appear to occur, but contained within this instant are brief superimpositions of the two frames.  Whereas an A-B alternation would produce a stuttering staccato of harmonic motion (such as that seen in the films of Martin Arnold), the action throughout Bi-Temporal Vision is immeasurably more complex.  While the frame-by-frame gestures of the piece do produce oscillation, the superimpositions also provoke rippling, vibrating, and rotation.  In this performance Jacobs uses the Nervous System to impel a sliding, harmonic motion between the two successive frames.  Rather than frames A and B existing as concrete facts on the screen, they appear as points on a curve, two locations between which the spectator is shuttled.

As Jacobs noted both before and after the performance, these two locations are two distinct points in time, hence the title Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea.  Unlike conventional cinema, in which the movement between incremental time-spaces is scrupulously obscured, here the spectator is asked to witness the motion of fragmentary time as a primary dramatic event. Unlike the motion studies of Muybridge, furthermore, in which time is segmented into sequential units and sturdily displayed as such, the scenes of Bi-Temporal Vision are continually blended and unblended.  For a spectator experiencing the film performance, a split second entails undergoing an optical fort-da game, in which the relationship between frames affords psychic mastery, which is instantaneously wrested away.  The rocking and tugging of the superimposition muddies that investigative security ostensibly offered by the breakdown of motion into its constituents.[1]

But whereas Freud’s articulation of the fort-da described an oscillation between two discrete points in space, Jacobs’s Bi-Temporality enacts a vibration between two incommensurate kinds of temporality: time as analytically discrete, and time as phenomenologically continuous.  Furthermore, while the nephew in Freud’s story is able to stabilize loss by bringing his toy back into his field of vision – that is, by controlling absence and presence as two poles in an imaginary present – one cannot “master” time in Bi-Temporal Vision.  This is because Jacobs’s performance constantly supplies the viewer with more than two terms.  As described above, the activity between two frames of Solomon’s footage is a sliding, and far exceeds a digital switching between A and B, or even “apart” and “together.”  The dialectic, if the word applies in this astonishing case, is instead between a still separation (images as discrete frames) and a dynamic optical action (literal motion between frames, a visual smearing of the space between them). The former represents a basic truth of cinema, but the latter instantiates within cinema an experiential axiom about the movement of time.

The analytic impulse thought by some to be inherent in motion study appears to demonstrate its own limitations.  In the kinds of motion study described by Cartwright and Williams, the segmentation of time into modular frames makes it possible to render the body satisfactorily knowable and, for Cartwright, susceptible to discipline. Moreover, reading backwards from film to photography, the motion study brings us closer to “truth,” as the isolation of single fragments of time undoes the illusion of cinematic motion, allowing the camera to supplement, rather than fool, the eye.  But this sort of ontology of motion, as the product of discrete and divisible time-spaces, is fundamentally challenged by Jacobs’s performance.  Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea constantly fluctuates between stillness and motion, but unlike other film experiences, it impresses upon its viewer that it is stillness, not motion, which is an illusion. This is because, even as a still photograph or a single film frame represents a frozen moment in time and space, the image itself will always be experienced in time.  On a phenomenological level, the viewer will continue to apprehend, correct, reshape, re-apprehend the still image over the time of his or her looking.  And of course, on a material level, the still image is in fact a set of molecular energies, orchestrated within a particular form, but struggling to disperse.

The film is book-ended by the sound of crashing waves, beach sounds, rather loudly discharged from visible speakers in front of the screen.  This recording, faded in and out manually by Jacobs from the Nervous System console, is not as straightforward as it might sound.  The recording is of “the ocean,” mixed and blended a bit too perfectly.  Seagulls are distinctly audible; the sound of the waves maintains a steady pace.  This intro / outro structure, with its ridiculously literal diegetic link to the upcoming images, soon alerts the attentive listener to its uncanny clarity.  This is a canned ocean sound, and as such, has a different relationship to the image than we might at first think.  Rather than moving its auditors from “land” to “sea,” this recording serves as a pivot between two experiences.  Its artificial quality moves us from “reality” into “representation.”  But its rather hackneyed, sound-effectsy pose also moves us from “representational transparency” to the “representational density” of the film itself.  Or, more simply, Jacobs ushers us out of “reality,” momentarily into “realism,” and finally into “abstraction.”  A further layer of humor here is that Jacobs is leading us away from “the beach” (that stereotypical leisure-spot of sunbathing, volleyball, and metal detectors), and into the uncharted expanse of “the sea.”

Once the performance is underway, it does not take long to see that Bi-Temporal Vision is radically different from the motion studies of Muybridge, let alone those of a Spratling.  This is obvious, first of all, because we are viewing the ocean instead of human bodies.  The introduction of liquid imagery into the Nervous System provokes untold optical sensations, all of which are made possible by the dissolution of the solid forms so dear to most motion studies of the past.  The viewer is engulfed by abstract patterns which glide between two semi-stable temporal positions, perpetually undone by the active spaces in between those two times.  Solomon’s footage – or as a result of Jacobs’s treatment of it, I am not sure which – verges on complete abstraction, due to ultra-high contrast reminiscent of Kodalith film.  The image is alive with only the blackest blacks, pitted against the empty white of the lighted screen.

Over the course of the performance, this high contrast provokes astonishing 3-D effects.  While this is in part due to the introduction of motion from the propeller and the use of the Pulfrich filter, these effects are largely created by the optical shifting of figure / ground relations.  Jacobs, who studied with abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, uses the film material of Bi-Temporal Vision as an occasion to activate the flat surface of the screen as picture plane, through the “push / pull” of solid forms and voids.  Whereas in his presentational mode, Jacobs recalls the history of pre-cinematic forms such as the magic lantern and the hand-cranked cinematograph, Bi-Temporal Vision harks back to an even earlier medium: painting.  According to Jacobs, these abstract painterly qualities are a perfectly apposite subject matter for the film medium.  In an interview about his relationship with Hofmann and his work, Jacobs asserts, “The pitting of voids against solids was very dramatic.  You didn’t need any more dramatic elements, you didn’t have to have actors coming in, historical figures, whatever, with roles to play.  Spatial qualities could interact with each other [in a manner] as tense as in any theatrical drama” (Jacobs 1998, 16).

*                    *                     *

Near the conclusion of Jacobs’s Berkeley residency, he delivered a lecture on the paintings of Hofmann, entitled “Push and Pull in Motion Pictures.”  While he discussed the dynamic formal relationships in Hofmann’s work, and also addressed his own specific attempts to bring this dynamism into the motion picture format, the title of the talk and its apparent bifurcation disguises a much more radical assertion.  Jacobs claims that Hofmann’s paintings are in fact “motion pictures.”  What they fundamentally depict is a set of carefully orchestrated, deliberately unstable figure / ground relationships, which enact motion in the course of their oscillation.  Moreover, like cinema, Hofmann’s paintings only move in time.  The images on canvas appear inert only if their beholder refuses to offer them sufficient time to become perceptually active.  The “drama” of push and pull, like any cinematic drama, can only unfold in time, a time which we are not accustomed to affording to painting or other “2-D” media.

The lessons which Jacobs gleaned from Hofmann’s teaching and artistic practice are both practical and philosophical.  The history of the aesthetics of painting has struggled with the concept of time.  (A certain trajectory of modernist artwork has attempted to resolve this dilemma by vacating temporality altogether, as we will see in the so-called Greenbergians, discussed below.)  As Jacobs notes in his interview, the inauguration of the question of temporality in the “static” is self-consciously addressed as a problematic by Cézanne and the Cubists.  Stephen Kern, in The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 has usefully summarized the turn-of-the-century aesthetic debates in Cubism’s wake.

The Cubists attempted to go beyond the instant with multiple perspectives, at least

so a group of early commentators argued.  In 1910 Leon Wirth wrote that Picasso’s

Cubist forms show “the sensations and reflections which we experience with the

passage of time.” In the same year the Cubist painter Jean Metzinger suggested

that in Braque’s paintings “the total image radiates in time.” In 1911 Metzinger

explained how he thought the multiple perspective of the Cubists added the temporal

dimension. “They have allowed themselves to move round the object, in order to

give a concrete representation of it, made up of several successive aspects. Formerly

a picture took possession of space, now it reigns also in time” (Kern 1983, 22).


Kern, however, weighs in on this matter himself, arguing that these efforts to introduce time into the Cubist canvas were doomed to failure.  Paintings, for Kern, are ineluctably static.

These arguments are all overstated.  The multiple and successive perspective that

the Cubists did integrate into a single painting does not justify the conclusion that

they radiate in time.  No matter how many successive views of an object are com-

bined, the canvas is experienced in a single instant (aside from the time necessary

for the eye to scan the surface).  The Cubists toyed with the limitations of their genre,

perhaps even with some intended mockery. Their inventions presented time in art

in a new way, but that did not constitute the experience of time as it passes (Kern

1983, 22).[2]


One might possibly consider Kern’s interpretation of Cubist temporality in light of the art historical lineage traced by Clement Greenberg, in which Cézanne and post-Cézannean Cubist painting are part of an ongoing project of achieving ultimate flatness.  For example, in his 1951 essay on Cézanne, Greenberg positions the painter as a transitional figure.

[Cézanne] condemned Gauguin and Van Gogh for making “flat” pictures . . .

Bernard reports him as indifferent to the art of the primitives of the Renaissance;

they, too, apparently, were too flat.  Yet the path of which Cézanne said he was

the primitive, and by following which he hoped to rescue Western tradition’s

pledge to the three-dimensional from both Impressionist haze and Gauguinesque

decoration, led straight, within five or six years after his death, to a kind of

painting as flat as any the West had seen since the Middle Ages.  The Cubism

of Picasso, Braque, and Léger completed what Cézanne had begun (Greenberg

1961, 57).


In his earlier essay, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” from 1940, Greenberg offers a more provocative description of the spatial relationships of pre-Cubist painting.  “A vibrating tension is set up as the objects [depicted] struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of the real picture plane to re-assert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes” (Greenberg, in Frascina 1985, 43).  Again, Greenberg locates this “vibrating tension” at a transitional juncture, claiming that Cubism will annihilate this fragile illusionistic space (ibid 44).  The dramas of push / pull in the purely abstract paintings of Hofmann are not favored moments in Greenberg’s trajectory.  In a 1958 essay on Hofmann, in which Greenberg is generally complimentary, the critic observes a regrettable cul-de-sac on the road to absolute flatness.  Greenberg writes,

It is when Hofmann tries to reinforce contrasts of color and shape with taut contour

lines, and when he trues his shapes into a Cubistic but irrelevant regularity, that his

art tends to go off in eccentric directions. . . .To insist on line or edge can be excessive

or disruptive.  And sometimes the energy of Hofmann’s line can be more nervous,

more machined than pictorial, and it can force an illegitimately sculptural effect

(Greenberg 1961, 194).                                        


Returning to Kern’s argument regarding temporality, we recall that he states that “the canvas is experienced in a single instant,” and therefore cannot be said to partake of temporality proper.  This “magic instant,” if it can be said to exist for any painting at all, would probably best describe the visual apprehension of “color field” painting, such as that practiced by Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, and others.  This work most absolutely fulfills Greenberg’s dicta regarding super-flatness, and appears to have been constructed so as to be instantaneously apprehensible to the eye.  (If this is the case, then perhaps, for this tradition, “flatness” and “atemporality” go hand in hand as axioms of the painting medium.)  But, as we can see from Greenberg’s statement above, Hofmann’s painting often defies this drive to pacify the picture plane.  Harking back to the Cubist interplay between 2-D and 3-D, Hofmann’s paintings (at their least “Greenbergian”) can “go off in eccentric directions. . .,” “ can be excessive or disruptive” (ibid).  The description Greenberg offers of Hofmann’s “faults” are evocative of Jacobs’s light and shadow play in Bi-Temporal Vision.  Like Hofmann’s paintings, Jacobs’s ever-shifting film compositions “can be more nervous,” and “can force an illegitimately sculptural effect” (Greenberg 1961, 194).

If we acknowledge that the tension between flatness and volume characteristic of pre-Cubist and Cubist painting is not “transitional” but foundational for the art of “push and pull,” then the question of temporality as summarized by Kern has to be rethought.  When Kern allows a nominal temporality for painting – “(aside from the time necessary for the eye to scan the surface)” – this is already a sizeable concession.  How much time does it take for “the eye” to “scan” the canvases of Cézanne, Picasso, or Hofmann?  More importantly, what kinds of optical changes occur in the course of this time of looking?  The “push and pull” effects found in the work of painters discussed by Kern and Greenberg can constitute a counter-tradition of “motion pictures,” in which the time of looking is a fundamental determinant of their reception.  Jacobs describes this process as one of the key lessons he gleaned from Hofmann.

Parts are moving forward and back, interchanging.  I could, after awhile, cease

looking for things and just look at what was being indicated by paintstrokes next

to or on top of other paintstrokes, form against form.  I could begin to see that this

was being suggested as forward but now, next to this area, it suggests that it’s back.

I’m putting it very simplistically, but suddenly this is connected to this in front

of this, in front of this, in front of this, and suddenly this thing way back is actually

in front of this, so all of this moves back, okay?  So you have this vitalized appre-

hension of what’s been given to you on a flat surface (Jacobs 1998, 10)


Kern appears to understand Cubism only as the synthetic organization of individual moments, into a single picture plane.  From this perspective, multiple “presents” are painted into a single composite “multi-present,” which then becomes another still moment out of time, even if slightly more philosophically complex.  But this understanding of the painting in and across time takes little account of the spectator, and how he or she activates this surface and its spatial ambiguities.  In discussing the philosophical concern with “the present moment” in modernity, Leo Charney provides a much more sophisticated reading of the fluctuations of Cubism.  Like Kern, Charney grasps the synthetic impulse in some Cubist painting.  Multiple yet discrete moments in time pervade the image, intersecting, conveying numerous perspectival “snapshots” of one single space. 

The canvas provides a blank slate on which to articulate a fixed moment.  But

the innovation of Cubist aesthetics was to put that moment forward as explicitly

constructed and artificial.  The moment did not aspire to the imaginary stasis of

a photograph or a Rodin sculpture.  Rather, the Cubist work openly exploited the

destabilization of a self-present moment and the fragmentation of perception by

finding an aesthetic form that would re-present those conditions.  This form would

articulate a privileged moment that could acknowledge the impossibility of a privi-

leged moment (Charney 1998, 36-37).


However, Charney recognizes that the concept of the canvas as an ensemble of static moments is itself in tension with a mode of composition which orchestrates spatial uncertainty for the viewer in time.  This “impossible moment” continues to unfold.

Bringing together expansive time, expansive space, and fragmented perception

 into one crystallized image, the Cubist work could thereby open itself up to the

vagaries of future spectatorship.  “A picture,” said Picasso in 1935, “lives a life

like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day

to day.  This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is

looking at it.”  The Cubist artwork would be both fixed and fluctuating; it relied

on the tradition of the privileged moment while appropriating that concept for a

new awareness that that moment could stay still neither through time nor as time,

neither in the moment of perception nor in the moment of reception (Charney 1998,



Since perception occurs across time, a painting must exist across time.  And, if we consider paintings such as those of Cézanne or Hofmann, which deploy spatial ambivalence, then I think a viewer finds him- or herself inside a very particular kind of temporality.  If a form on a canvas seems to protrude relative to one set of spatial cues, yet appears to recede with respect to a different set of cues, then the viewer is experiencing two times within the space of the painting.

This push and pull, like Wittgenstein’s optical paradox of the “rabbit / duck” picture, results in two discrete time-spaces which cannot be observed simultaneously[3].  But this is precisely the bifurcation of vision which Jacobs overcomes in Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea.  As stated above, we are not shuttled back and forth between frames A and B, but rather plunged into these times as continua of one another. We are given a spectrum of visual information, which encompasses both separation and simultaneity.  Jacobs takes the lesson of spatial dynamism from experimental painting, but utilizes the Nervous System to introduce dynamic multiple times.  The vibration between frames works both with and against the already present foreground / background interplay within each individual frame. 

This means that the oscillation between solids and voids works on multiple levels in Bi-Temporal Vision.  On the painterly level, the individual high-contrast film frames frequently possess a spatial ambiguity similar to that of Hofmann’s compositions.  On the level of the flicker between individual frames, the composition on-screen alternates between two different moments of the ocean waves, hovering on the verge of natural motion.  On the level of bi-temporality, the image pulsates against being viewed as two separate successive images.  This is because the alternation between separation and superimposition of the two film frames makes numerous “third frames” of varying intensities, in which Jacobs reconfigures the frame-by-frame time of the recording of the image into “bi-times” which can exist only for the spectator. Jacobs will allow a pair of frames to remain on screen for twenty or more seconds.  In the course of this time, all of these levels of oscillation interpenetrate, working with and against each other, creating for the spectator one of the most thrillingly undecidable visual fields imaginable.

Thus far my discussion of Bi-Temporal Vision has attempted to explain what I think the performance does. When considered in the context of the history of photographic motion study, I think that Jacobs’s film performance poses a fundamental challenge to the desire to harness time for analytical control.  And yet, for me to meticulously describe my series of reactions as though they were already enmeshed in a philosophical debate external to the film is not only to lose the subjective experience of those reactions.  It is also to inscribe the film within a discourse of “anti-mastery,” which would in itself fail to account for what is uniquely astonishing, dislocating, and disturbing about Bi-Temporal Vision.  Whatever tentative conclusions can be drawn from the performance, they are arrived at only through the experience of getting lost in the piece.  What is this like?

Keep in mind that, in addition to the overdetermined three-dimensional spatial ambiguity described above, there are at least two other elements in Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea which further immerse the spectator in a dynamic abstract field.  One of these is the Pulfrich filter, which appears to increase the eye’s perception of distance between dark and light fields.[4]  The filter polarizes the differential between these forms, and depending on the two frames superimposed at any given point in the performance, black forms hang in front of the screen, or white expanses pool inside of receding black containers.  At times, the alternation between two sequential frames can even produce effects which mimic those of commercial 3-D films.  (At one point, a cresting wave was jumping off the screen towards the audience, only to retract as the earlier frame attained dominance.  Rather like a Webernian condensation of an old Irwin Allen disaster film, the spectator is invited to gawk at the impending threat of a tsunami of projected light, only for the wave to subside, leading to the next set of uncertain circumstances.)

The most important additional element of Bi-Temporal Vision, however, is the graphic character of Solomon’s film.  Jacobs’s title tells us that “the sea” is as responsible for the optical phenomena on display as the process of “bi-temporal vision.”  (In fact, the colon could be thought to conjoin two equal elements which are put into motion by the Nervous System.) The introduction of liquid imagery, as mentioned above, places the spectator further beyond the limits of legibility of the film frames.  In performing Bi-Temporal Vision, Jacobs will hold two frames in dialogue just long enough for the spectator to begin to have a grasp on them. That grasp may be representational (seeing the crest of a wave, vacillating between two states of gravity); it might be essentially abstract (beginning to make decisions about lights and darks as solid forms, which take on an object-like character); or perhaps, as Jacobs says, we begin “Rorschaching” with the abstract imagery, seeing objects in the water which we know cannot be there (Arthur 1997, 92).  In any of these cases, we begin to carve out an apprehension of where we are in space, of what things are, and how we can orient ourselves by reference to them.  It is at this moment that we are no longer in space, and begin occupying a place, a relationship not unlike that which more traditional forms of cinema ask of us.  And consistently, at the moment when we begin to grasp where we are, Jacobs advances the frame, changing the scene into a new set of disarming energies.  All that was solid melts into liquid, and all that was liquid melts into light.

*                    *                    *

In this viewing process, the relations of the Nervous System to both motion study and to painting mutually confound one another.  While our visual experience bears a relationship to motion study in that it is provoked by a slowed-down action among and between two individual frames, the objects on the screen, through Jacobs’s scrupulous design, elude our mastery.  The mechanical means for analytic viewing in both cases may have a common provenance in the scientific deployment of the apparatus.  One could, I suppose, liken Jacobs as performer to a figure such as Spratling, who maintains control over the vertical and horizontal, organizing representation in accordance with his wishes.  But I think this misses a few points which are crucial to appreciating Jacobs’s intervention.  First of all, Jacobs’s performance, unlike the medical motion study, is rigorously organized to disorient its audience’s perception.  Whereas figures like Spratling and Chase exact mastery over the apparatus in order to extend that mastery to other members of the medical community, Jacobs creates in his viewers “disturbing, even scary, physical sensations of disequilibrium and loss of control” (Arthur 1998, 62).  In estimating the true meaning of Jacobs’s motion study, we should consider the impact on the spectator, rather than placing the emphasis on the performer.  However, if we do consider Jacobs’s role as performer, then we must understand it contextually.  The Nervous System apparatus is out in the open, very visibly manipulated by Ken and Flo Jacobs throughout the duration of the performance.  They occupy the same space as their audience, and make their labor fully evident.  “I want them to hear that there’s a guy working behind them,” Jacobs says (MacDonald 1998, 385).  Unlike most other dominant forms of media production, including the varieties of medical imaging Cartwright discusses, the physical act of manipulating the film material is bared, right along with the apparatus itself, as a visible set of procedures.  The frame may be the basic unit of meaning-making, but Jacobs resolutely refuses to make meaning from on high.  Whatever “power” he wields in the handling of his materials, he is right there, fully answerable and quite willing to argue.

Likewise, Jacobs uses abstract imagery in Bi-Temporal Vision to disrupt the strategies of mastery which Williams and Braun find enacted in Muybridge’s motion studies.  According to Williams, we find an excess of signification in Muybridge’s analyses of female motion, in the form of extra props and a more obvious narrativity.  This in turn prompts Williams to speculate that Muybridge is piling on fetishistic extras in order to disavow female lack.  Braun takes Williams’s narratological analysis even further, identifying the logic of suture in Muybridge’s reprinting of  single images, in the attempt to obscure gaps in his sequential motions.  In both arguments, we find Muybridge anxiously maintaining a position of safety, with respect both to his models and his audiences. 

Bi-Temporal Vision, by comparison, is a radical divestiture of such safety.  The film experience Jacobs offers his audience eschews the types of reassuring fictions which Muybridge’s narratives bestow.  Seen in its harshest possible light, Bi-Temporal Vision wears its lack on its sleeve, and positions its spectator accordingly.  You cannot identify with human psychology.  You cannot discover the wonders of the female form.  You will not be assisted in ignoring temporal gaps, discrepancies between images, or the physical labor of animating still frames in your mind.  Rather, you will be set adrift, with virtually no reference points, on a vast sea of light.  You will have no concrete narrative events with which to locate yourself temporally in the piece (unless to choose to count the clicks of the frame-advance and do the math).  You will embark on a perceptual journey marked by protracted time, and oscillating, vertiginous space.  Occasionally, you will find a toehold.  But it will be momentary, and you will then feel it slip away.  Any sense of visual control over the spectacle is undercut by painterly effects, shifts in figure / ground relationships, and the resolute intangibility of the liquid expanse.

But to call this experience “painterly” is also inadequate, since the purely abstract interplay of forms is continually disrupted by the representational quality of Solomon’s film.  Bi-Temporal Vision is characterized by a tension between the “linear” and the “painterly,” to borrow Heinrich Wölfflin’s terms.  The “linear,” which Wölfflin associates with the art of the Renaissance, is described as a solid space which a viewer can safely apprehend.

Linear style is the style of distinctness plastically felt.  The evenly firm and clear

boundaries of solid objects give the spectator a feeling of security, as if he could

move along them with his fingers, and all the modeling shadows follow the form

so completely that the sense of touch is actually challenged.  Representation and

thing are, so to speak, identical (Wölfflin 1950, 21).


That the principles of Renaissance perspective guided the development of the optics of photography, and that these principles were inherited by cinema, is not coincidental here.[5]  Mainstream cinema, as well as the forms of motion study discussed by Williams and Cartwright, are designed to offer the spectator maximum clarity, greatest solidity and, of course, “a feeling of security.”  Against this perceptual mode, Wölfflin offers the category of the “painterly,” in which the image exists purely for the eye.  This is because it dissipates firm tactile relationships to objects in the visual field, offering only optical hints.

The painterly style, on the other hand, has more or less emancipated itself from

things as they are.  For it, there is no longer a continuous outline and the plastic

surfaces are dissolved.  Drawing and modeling no longer coincide in the geo-

metric sense with the underlying plastic form, but give only the visual semblance

of the thing (Wölfflin 1950, 21).


If we attempt to map these two terms onto cinema wholesale, we see that we run into serious difficulties.  For while the linear mode does appear to correspond to what Noël Burch has called the Institutional Mode of Representation (1986, 484), there is also a tactile quality which is missing in Wölfflin’s description of painterly representation.  This tactile quality could, perhaps, gesture toward the recognition of the embodiment of the spectator, whereas the painterly addresses him or her more abstractly as a disembodied eye.  In this regard, the opposition between motion study and the painterly could be thought of as an opposition between one and another mode of power on the part of the spectating subject.

But again, this sort of opposition is undermined by Bi-Temporal Vision.  Its denial of the mastery of the “linear” form of the traditional motion study has been discussed above.  And yet, Jacobs’s performance also offers his spectators something which exceeds pure “painterly” space.  The ongoing rearrangement of the physical constituents of the screen certainly works to undercut the security that comes with holding onto objects in space.  But this coming-untethered would be meaningless were it not the result of hundreds of physical presences, each lost, one after the other.  Bi-Temporal Vision makes us see “things” – linear things such as receding landscapes, choruses of human faces, and of course, formations of ocean waves.  We also see physical images which resemble painterly formations.  A perfectly flat, black-and-white Jackson Pollock painting suddenly rotates on an off-center axis, becoming the Milky Way in receding perspective.  A rural meadow, in turn,  flattens into a Franz Kline composition.  The point being, Bi-Temporal Vision moves us between two times, which are frequently “linear” and “painterly” times, instigating a set of relationships which are neither strictly visual nor tactile.

More radically, however, Jacobs’s use of the 3-D illusionism of both the Nervous System and the Pulfrich filter succeeds in continually disrupting the linear / painterly distinction.  This is in part because Bi-Temporal Vision uses superimposition to carry us uneasily between times in which the two forms are distinct, creating spaces in which they are not.  Furthermore, this superimposition and flickering of the Nervous System, especially along with the optical effects of the Pulfrich filter, give even the most obscure, illegible spaces a kind of tangibility.  These abstract optical effects produce “bodies” which the Nervous System then puts into motion.  In this regard, motion study and painting are two sides of the same coin in Bi-Temporal Vision.  Jacobs allows us to touch well-defined voids, and to observe the frame-by-frame analysis as a painting is put through its paces.

*                    *                   *   

As a part of his performance entitled “From Muybridge to Brooklyn Bridge,” Ken Jacobs animated a set of slides by Etienne-Jules Marey.  In a sense, this is a perverse thing to do.  Unlike Muybridge, who was more than willing to reconstitute his motion studies for popular amusement, Marey saw no reason to reanimate his chronophotographs.  As he wrote in 1899, “What such pictures show, after all, our eye could have seen directly” (quoted in Burch 1986, 483).  On the following day of his Berkeley residency, as part of his discussion of the “motion pictures” of Hans Hofmann, Jacobs showed several still slides of Marey’s work, noting, “Look at that! Who needs Futurism?  There’s Futurism right there.”

What Marey was able to depict was a state of being in motion, a dynamism which, he believed, eluded the naked eye.  In this respect, he has much in common with Ken Jacobs.  While Cartwright claims that Marey is directly responsible for forms of motion study which pathologize the body, Jacobs seems to argue that what Marey actually offers is a mode of knowing both analytical and astonished, scientifically distanced and fully immersed.  Marey, one of the “fathers” of motion study, also gives his viewers a set of abstract pictorial values which could be called painterly.  The body in Marey is solid, traceable.  But it is also always already elsewhere.  The chronophotograph marks a trace in time and space, but in so doing it also registers the impossibility of segmenting the singular body.  Unlike the serial narratives of Muybridge, “the body” in Marey is ineluctably plural.

Likewise, Jacobs’s Nervous System breaks traditional film motion down into its basic units, offers those units for observation, but also demonstrates how those units are always in excess of our simpleminded attempts to “grasp” or “apprehend” them.  In Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea, motion study confronts nature – both the restless tidal nature of the Pacific Ocean, and the easily outstripped perceptual nature of our eyes.  Jacobs, several times per second, holds out the possibility of mastering the visual field, retracts that security, and, in the process, casts us into the beautiful uncertainty of unilateral visual disarmament.  We are far from the social control of Spratling and Chase.  We are, in fact, watching the failure of our eyes to control, and experiencing how thrilling that can be.

The Nervous System paradoxically stops “life” in its tracks in order to reinvigorate those traces of life inscribed within the film frame.  The result of this process is that the scenes, objects, and people depicted on the filmstrips in the Nervous System are no longer apprehensible as solid, discrete “things.”  They retain their integrity, yet are plunged into a constant state of becoming.  Like the seeming contradiction of the work of Marey – that “hard” science yields a higher degree of abstraction in its visual results – Jacobs’s work occupies the position of control afforded him by stop-motion technology, taking it through to its dialectical conclusion: a space of perpetual vacillation, between certainty and bombardment, which simultaneously reassures and disarms the gaze.

*                     *                    *

I think the reason you’d never found the issues of your work stated quite in the man-

ner which I put them has less to do with my own intelligence or insight (what there is

of it), for I’ve spoken to others who feel exactly the same way about it, but more to do

with the nature of academic writing and how the critical framework so often kills the

object – in this case your films.  (I don’t mean to say, however, that others haven’t writ-

ten well about your work, in particular, Tom Gunning.)  For example, I want to say that

your films are beautiful and inspiring and that the other night’s screening was an extra-

ordinarily intense experience for me.  Though all this is true, I think we both know that

a critic can’t say this without numerous pages of description and support of this “thesis.” 

And what a thesis!

– Peter Herwitz, “Letter to Ken Jacobs”







Works cited


Paul Arthur.  “Creating Spectacle From Dross: The Chimeric Cinema of Ken Jacobs.”  Film Comment, March / April 1997.


Jean-Louis Baudry.  “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.”  Philip Rosen, ed.  Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.


Marta Braun.  Pictruing Time: The Work of Etienne-Louis Marey (1830-1904).  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.


Noël Burch. “Primitivism and the Avant-Gardes: A Dialectical Approach.” Philip Rosen, ed.  Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 


Lisa Cartwright.  Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.


Leo Charney.  Empy Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.


Mary Ann Doane.  “Temporality, Storage, Legibility: Freud, Marey, and the Cinema.”  Janet Bergstrom, ed.  Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.


Hollis Frampton.  Circles of Confusion: Film – Photography – Video Texts 1968-1980.  Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983.


Francis Frascina, ed.  Pollock and After: The Critical Debate.  New York: Harper and Row, 1985.


Sigmund Freud.  Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  James Strachey, trans.  New York: Norton and Co., 1961.


Sigmund Freud.  Sexuality and the Psychology of Love.  Philip Rieff, ed.  New York: Collier Books, 1963.


Ernst Gombrich.  Art and Illusion: A Study of the Psychology of Pictorial Representation.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.


Clement Greenberg.  Art and Culture: Critical Essays.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.


Tom Gunning.  “‘Films That Tell Time:’ The Paradoxes of the Cinema of Ken Jacobs.”  David Schwartz, ed.  Films That Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective.  New York: American Museum of the Moving Image, 1989.


Peter Herwitz.  “Letter to Ken Jacobs.”  Peter Herwitz, ed. “Sentience” – Cinematograph volume 5.  San Francisco: San Francisco Cinematheque, 1993.


Ken Jacobs.  Interview with Tina Dickey, with Flo Jacobs, participant.  June 6, 1998. Unpublished.


Stephen Kern.  The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.


Scott MacDonald.  Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


Scott MacDonald.  A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.


Charles Musser.  The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.


Pacific Film Archive.  Program Notes for “The Nervous System Performances of Ken Jacobs.”  September / October 1999.


Peggy Phelan.  Unmarked: The Politics of Performance.  New York: Routledge, 1993.


Wolfgang Schivelbusch.  The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century.  New York: Urizen Books, 1977.


Kaja Silverman.  The Subject of Semiotics.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.


Linda Williams.  “Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions.”  Philip Rosen, ed.  Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.


Heinrich Wölfflin. Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art.  M. D. Hottinger, trans.  New York: Dover Publications, 1950.


[1] Freud’s observation of the fort-da game, played by his nephew, is described in described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud 1961, 12-17).  The purpose of this game is to master absence by creating an absence (in the case of the nephew’s game, a spool on a string) which one can bring back into presence.  That is, we master loss by undergoing it under controlled circumstances.  My gloss here, however, scarcely does justice to what are certainly five of the most important pages in the entire Freudian corpus.

[2] Kern goes on to note a kind of tempora-phobia in the scenes depicted by painters of the period, noting that “there are few clocks in the art of this period” (ibid)!

[3] Wittgenstein presents this visual paradox in Philosophical Investigations (1953, 194).  It is cited in the first few pages of Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (1960) in relation to his theory of how the mind processes visual ambiguity.

[4] Prior to performing Bi-Temporal Vision, Jacobs presented a film called Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1896/1991).  It is a re-presentation of a film by the Lumiére brothers, consisting of a lateral tracking shot taken from a moving train.  The film itself exhibits very clearly what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls “panoramic perception,” in which “the traveler saw the objects, landscapes, etc. through the apparatus which moved him through the world.  That machine and the motion it created became integrated into his visual perception: thus he could only see things in motion. . . . This vision no longer experienced evanescence: evanescent reality had become the new reality” (Schivelbusch 1979, 64).  This experience of panoramic vision is dramatically intensified by the polaroid filter.  A gulf of space opens between objects as they pass by horizontally.  Rather than foreground objects sweeping by only as blurs, they stand out in contrast to the white spaces of buildings and streets.  There are at least four visible horizontal zones in Opening the Nineteenth Century, each moving independently of the others, infusing the shallow reading of panoramic space with a forceful depth.  Jacobs instructs viewers to move the filter at his cue, switching from one eye to the other.  The panoramic qualities inherent in the Lumiére film, together with the Pulfrich filter and Jacobs’s orchestration of the performance, demonstrate the potential depth to be experienced from “primitive” cinema.  (As Jacobs said at the end of the film, “There it is, folks, 3-D, 1896.”)

[5] This is one of the chief insights of apparatus theory in film studies.  This position is best articulated in Jean-Louis Baudry’s essay, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.”