By Tristan Teshigahara
Do not attempt to disentangle the rapid-fire jumbled cuts that make up Abigail Child’s Mutiny (1983). It will give you a nose bleed and cause mental suicide. It may also inspire a flagrant assault on film spectatorship and self-reflexivity as we know it. Child who is also a poet, writer, and essayist, indelibly leaves her mark. In essence, she creates a form of counter-cinema known as found footage. Many have flirted with the aesthetics of found footage, but none have probed and tortured the form as imaginatively as Abigail Child. To effectively experience Child’s work, one must refrain from using their reference points. So the obvious question is: how are we supposed to experience her films? Are we supposed to regress to an elementary state of learning via visual stimulation? There is no definitive mode of watching, in fact, the act of seeing is always twofold. First, there is the source, the creator or arranger of images. Second, and especially now, there is the audience. The reconstructive collage films of Abigail Child do not inject themselves with political context, docufiction form, or profound cinematic meaning. However, they make us ponder the process of filmmaking itself.
Child’s Is This What You Were Born For? (1981-89, which includes self-explanatory titles: Perils, Mutiny, Mayhem) is an epic film series that still seems timely today. Indexing and transgressing a plethora of source materials, the expanded films are deep excavations of preconceptions, worldviews that impregnate us. Mayhem (1987), from the hyper-kinetic Is This What You Were Born For? is perhaps the most amusing exercise in the series. The 20-minute film is a mélange of gesticulations, glances and behaviors that are microscopically reexamined through the quixotic tropes of film noir. Traditionally, film noir is a genre that is typically overwrought with cynical demeanor and sexualized body language, but Child’s version is almost unrecognizable. Mayhem, is just that, the breaking point in which desirous interrogations get the better of us. A film negative of a ballroom waltz cuts to a low angle shot of a stripe-suit man waiting in suspense, which is further compounded by a polka dot dressed woman crossing the street. This is then interrupted by an intimately filmed view of a hand caressing in between a pair of legs. Although none of the clips expose a violently complicit pattern, the filmmaker discovers a link to one of cinema’s most beloved genres and soft-core pornography. Tied together with an improvised score by downtown legends Shelley Hirsch, Zeena Parkins, Charles Noyes and Christian Marclay, the film unearths clips from a Japanese lesbian erotica. The film functions as a tapestry of images, a repository of what signifies sexual tension and consummation in our world. With sounds that recall Carl Stalling, the playful film begs to be seen: the viewer is sabotaged from being a comfortable spectator, and instead is forced to critically think about how our world instills imagemaking.