Abigail Child’s compulsive visual collages are visual and aural legerdemain
Since the 1970s, experimental filmmaker and poet Abigail Child has been engaged in a kind of cultural archaeology. Unearthing found footage from such disparate sources as industrial films, vacation and home movies, porn loops, and snippets from forgotten B-movies, she recycles and updates approaches to cinema that have a freshness and sense of wonder that recall the movies’ silent days. While this approach suggests the reactionary, the result is in fact quite the opposite. Child’s work, which plays periodically at such venues as the Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Cinematheque, is the subtlest form of agitprop, powerfully exploring very modern issues of gender and class through early (and present-day, for that matter) cinema’s primary artistic strategy: montage, both visual and audio. Also like silent film, Child’s work shows an unself-conscious delight in the visual.
The all black-and-white Perils (one wants to supply “of Pauline”) is a typical effort, engaging the viewer with a dizzying parody of silent film that shows her characters in a variety of portentous poses and fragmented melodramas. Child’s juxtapositions in this work made between 1985 and 1987 are more whimsical than disturbing, with rapid-cut mock fights and mysterious rituals interrupted briefly by simple titles (“1,” “2,” “Earlier”) of the kind found in silent film. Her use of sound is wildly inclusive and constantly challenging, incorporating everything from fugitive piano figures to drama-queen screams in overdub and adding a pleasurably disorienting layer of meaning.
Perils and Mayhem are part of an ongoing series of shorts – “detachable” in the words of their creator – called “Is This What You Were Born For?” Another entry in that series is Mercy (1987), clocking in at a mere 10 minutes but packed with powerful, often arresting images. Child’s whimsy is in full tilt here, interweaving shots from home movies, industrial film, and various kinds of found footage into a witty collage. The film authoritatively inverts the Kodak Moments syndrome in its brief running time. A faded color scene of a soldier running to the arms of his family, probably shot in the 1950s, carries the voiceover “How does it feel to see your son become a man?” Child answers that question with images that bring up many more questions: two sweaty pro wrestlers going at it; a bronco busting a steer; high school boys wrestling; masses of faceless men at some undisclosed event; and more charmingly, little boys in a dance class. The spiraling of images has an almost vertiginous effect, but some of them linger long enough to unsettle, as in the shot of a naked man from what looks like old medical footage becoming increasingly agitated as a siren wails ever-louder in the background.
Below the New: A Russian Chronicle (1999) continues in this realm as the filmmaker visualizes a country and a culture decimated by history. Unseen narrators describe the present state of Russia with its “disappeared middle class” and hopeless poverty and increasingly fractured dreams of a future. “You are living in an imaginary space,” says one of the narrators, and Child conjures this space from her rabbit’s hat of found footage and interviews, rendered less frenetically than in some of her earlier works but with equal intensity. Historical footage of Russian soldiers dancing in celebration to some victory and smiling schoolchildren at play coexist with brutal war imagery; scenes of citizens in rundown apartments; and, most eerily, an astronaut floating in the entropy of space far from culture or, it seems, meaning. “We have a collective amnesia now,” says the narrator, but in this film, as in all her films, Abigail Child helps us remember.