Enter the glitchy, experimental world of Alex T. Jacobs’ video art

Catch the premiere of his new short “Hdyk,” starring Bianca Martin, at Project Projection at Arts + Literature Laboratory on September 20.
An image distorted in splotches of neon yellow and pink light halos gradually turning to blue, purple, and green also displays a woman (Bianca Martin) sitting and staring at the camera. Her mirror image is projected larger to her right. The negative image of a crystal ball rests below her to the right of that.
Bianca Martin asks, “How do you know?” amid the film of the same name’s glitchy editing and psychedelic color distortions.

Catch the premiere of his new short “Hdyk,” starring Bianca Martin, at Project Projection at Arts + Literature Laboratory on September 20.

The profile view of a human skeleton model peeks through the display of a CRT television. Amongst a prismatic wave of distortion and destabilized analogue transmission, a black cat materializes. A disembodied arm moves the skeleton head towards the camera and gently pets the cat’s head. An omniscient narrator emerges from behind a table and calls out to the viewer, “Hello. Thanks for being here. Let’s talk. Our memories are unreliable.”

This playfully eerie Rod Serling-esque setup to Alex T. Jacobs’ new short film, Hdyk (How do you know), arrives in the lead up to spooky season. It sees its world premiere at Mills Folly Microcinema’s recurring showcase of local filmmaking, Project Projection, at Arts + Literature Laboratory on Wednesday, September 20, at 7 p.m. (Full disclosure: I serve on the Mills Folly Microcinema programming committee, but had no role in fielding or selecting this local work.)

The four-minute short hones Jacobs’ recognizably warped style, which has typically drawn on found footage elements or subtly time-lapsed static shots—glitchy pop art for the terminally online era. In Hdyk, Jacobs pushes beyond this familiar template in a wholly original live-action project, which takes subconscious inspiration from Supermassive Games’ interactive-drama horror game The Quarry (2022). His lone human actor, City Cast Madison host and radio producer Bianca Martin, stands in for that game’s fortune teller Eliza Vorez (motion-captured and voiced by the legendary Grace Zabriskie), but Hdyk also stars one non-human participant, Jacobs’ fetching feline, Frito.

Alex T. Jacobs cradles a five-foot Spirit Halloween Pose ‘N’ Stay skeleton he recently picked up, specially for “Hdyk.”

Humbly reflecting upon his winter submission of Snow Light to the previous Project Projection, Jacobs realized that some viewers, especially online, weren’t “locking into it”—as an eight-minute hypnotic, ambiently psychedelic shot of a streetlamp—and so he wanted to create something more immediately entertaining. “I very consciously was like, ‘Well, how do I make something a little more engaging?'” he asked himself, already in possession of the answer. “First of all, it should probably have a person in it,” Jacobs says, lightly laughing. He launches right into the process of visualizing the film and scripting Martin’s metaphysically comic monologue in Hdyk, which attempts to undermine our shared concept of objective reality through hypothetical scenarios. How do we know? What came first, the images or the words? Jacobs actually can assuredly answer that: the visuals, as he configured lighting setups to shoot with varying lenses on his trusty Canon EOS Rebel T4i DSLR.

“If you get into something like analogue glitching, that in itself is such an experimental process, that you kind of learn to treat things in a very experimental way. You see what you’re getting, and lean into what seems like is going well,” Jacobs notes on how he broadly tackles his art form, and how he adapts in tinkering with circuit-bending gear. Coupled with that, Jacobs embraces outmoded technology that amplifies a certain mystique that the digital era can’t replicate. In Hdyk, that’s simply seen in his framing and use of a staticky CRT television, which he bought for $20 from a hotel in the Wisconsin Dells that was updating to all HD flat-screens.

In finding the right person for the thematic monologue running through his head, Jacobs knew his neighborhood friend Bianca Martin would be perfect. “She’s a charismatic person,” he says outright. “That’s a personality who can [carry] a whole movie.” Martin ended up agreeing via text message even before Jacobs had fully written out the monologue. When she asked what her character was going to be saying on camera, Jacobs couldn’t produce a definitive copy right away. But Jacobs reassured her that “it’s nothing political,” he jests. “She was amazingly patient with me.” Martin even took charge in changing Jacobs’ words with a pen in real time during a take—one that he ended up retaining in the finished version of the short.

After applying soft bursts of static in the sound edit, New York-based electronic artist Borpis undertook the remainder of the music from Jacobs’ template. The artist’s unorthodox approach sounds partly diegetic and partly like it’s emanating from beyond the veil. In post-production, it cemented to Jacobs that everything was working in concert creatively. The sonic landscape of Hdyk almost serves as counterpoint to Jacobs’ prior collaboration with Borpis (on the looping warmth of the aforementioned Snow Light), speaking to their shared wavelength and Jacobs’ view of their ongoing collaboration as a “good fit.”

A frame from Jacobs’ AMC commercial/pre-show parody, with super-heavy VHS tracking effect, as Nicole Kidman enters an empty theater.

While Jacobs has been active in the defunct Twitch collective Racer Trash and its current successor, video art entity Warm Light, this past April he reached a newfound audience in Madison. His slowed, reverbed, and heavily VHS-tracked parody of Nicole Kidman’s now-infamous pre-show spot for AMC Theatres (omnipresent at the theater chain for well over a year) played in front of a number of evening screenings at the 2023 Wisconsin Film Festival, as the festival marked its final year of programming at the now-decommissioned AMC Madison 6 at Hilldale Mall. Coincidentally, Jacobs had already debuted a version of it entitled “Heartbreak Feels Good” as part of a video installation at a DIY pop-up gallery show, Recent Chaos, in early September 2022, at an old Burnie’s Rock Shop storeroom at 811 1/2 E. Johnson St.

When Wisconsin Film Festival Artistic Director Mike King approached him early this year with the proposal of skewering the AMC ad, Jacobs surprised him by saying, “You’ll never believe this, but I can send you [that] right now!” He actually made two versions of the parody—the first geared towards a horror audience—but the one that greeted Wisconsin Film Festival audiences nixed an insert clip of The Ring (2002). Jacobs replaced it with one of Eugene Bedford (Fisher Stevens) from Hackers (1995) skateboarding into the server room, “because it’s a pretty important shot in cinema history if you ask me,” Jacobs claims, only semi-mockingly, given the scope and style of his own art. That version is available to watch on Warm Light’s YouTube channel.

Jacobs has unquestionably kept up his prolific streak. Less than a week prior to this article’s publication, he returned from a Midnight Dankness programming showcase at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), curated by Peter Kuplowsky, where he contributed a 90-minute program of “remix video art” ahead of Hundreds Of Beavers (a Wisconsin Film Festival selection this year) at The Royal Cinema on Wednesday night, September 6.

Jacobs’ lead-in to the main event included a couple literally loopy parodies of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) and Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972), both subtracting and adding “vibes” to their titles, respectively. But perhaps the crown jewel in the remix block was a succinct, one-minute parody of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2022 Bulgari jewelry and Rome tourism ad, starring Anne Hathaway and Zendaya, which apparently preempted so many screenings at TIFF last year. Echoing his prior work with the AMC commercial, Jacobs trimmed down Sorrentino’s “film” significantly, recut the music cues, and appropriately juxtaposed scenes of both horror and wonder from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) to great, hilarious effect. “Unexpected Wonders” is another deserved jab at the self-devouring capitalist culture of celebrity. Jacobs also recently uploaded that to Warm Light’s YouTube.

A blown-out frame in neon greens and pinks from Jacobs’ parody of Paolo Sorrentino’s Bulgari ad, “Unexpected Wonders,” featuring Zendaya’s serpentine bracelet.

If that weren’t enough, just over a month ago, Jacobs quietly finished editing a debut horror feature, In A Violent Nature, by Toronto-based writer and director Chris Nash (who’s also been a long-time special effects artist). While Jacobs is understandably tight-lipped about the details, given it’s yet to premiere anywhere, the film is what Jacobs calls an “ASMR slasher movie.” Pleased with the end result, he says, “It’s a very different take on the slasher genre, but it also comes from a very affectionate place.”

The film’s description about a first-person POV as listed on the Film And Television Industry Alliance makes In A Violent Nature seem like the successor to Franck Khalfoun’s remake of Maniac (2012); but Jacobs says that, in his time editing it, he was “more formally inspired by stuff like Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005) and Pablo Lorrain’s Jackie (2016) than the traditional slasher movies I love.” Before it hits streaming next year, distributor Shudder will aim for a festival run. So, in 2024, we can all hope for the full Alex T. Jacobs experience at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

During the pandemic, Jacobs moved back to Madison from movie mecca Los Angeles to be closer to family, and he’s proud of the varied creative work he’s seen here as regular events and screenings resumed. He’s become fervently curious about all the lurking local talent that can sometimes seem hidden. “There are people who I was glad to see have another movie in [Project Projection this month]. I was like, ‘Aw, great.’ It’s interesting to me that Madison seems to have an experimental film scene. I like that.”

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