“Immaculate breakage! Elegant mobile! Yes! Yes! That’s it exactly!”
This interview begins—as many things should—with self-confessed ignorance. I was unaware of the films of Peter Bo Rappmund, until MUBI, the cine-website, programmed three. His work obviously belongs to a canon I revere. The criterion for that canon, which extends beyond film, has no official “ism.” Its contributing members—according to me—include Joseph Beuys, La Monte Young, and Walter De Maria. Marina Abramovic, Chantal Akerman, and Maya Deren, also fit the bill. James Benning, an archon of the aesthetic, tutored Bo Rappmund at CalArts.
I intended to assign a piece that would focus on Peter (born 1979, Wyoming), but when I made contact, I learned that his new work, Communion Los Angeles, wasn’t quite ready. I then noticed that Abigail Child’s 1983 short film, Mutiny, was scheduled for MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibition. I believe Child (born 1948, Newark) belongs to a completely different canon. Maya Deren (born 1917, Kiev) is perhaps the fold in the Child/Bo Rappmund fabric. Mutiny’s humanistic delirium is a far cry from Peter’s landscape lucidity. Or is it? I asked Peter to interview Abby. I placed them in touch. Abby admitted her ignorance of Peter’s work. Peter, the youngest, was of course aware of Abby. As Abby accepted, she described the pairing, “quixotic.” Truth be told—that’s the highest compliment anyone can get.
— Chris Chang
Peter Bo Rappmund I feel like I first saw your work screened in Los Angeles in 2012—though I can’t recall for sure. Mutiny?
Abigail Child You did see work in April, 2012. I showed at the Disney Center and Cal Arts. But perhaps not Mutiny. I don’t remember the exact lineup. I remember a smart student (of course!) commenting that the work “showed” us how to “take in” or organize the onslaught of information from the web. I thought his perceptions were quite accurate. Early on, I didn’t want to be minimal or removed from the world. I wanted to exist in the spinning vortex of the contemporary—if I can say that. It was a conscious decision, coming out of the sense that to remove oneself from life’s confusion, ambivalence, and imbalance—was somehow less than how it was, or how it is. And, of course, the world moves ever faster—and how to negotiate it becomes more and more complex.
PBR Let’s focus on Mutiny: the film is a polyphonic tour de force. The way sound and image play off each other, and merge to create new forms, is mind-bending and revelatory.
AC Mutiny is the second film in the series Is This What You Were Born For? The series was intended to examine “sound,” that still undervalued, under-discussed, aspect of film.
PBR I’ve read that Mutiny contains outtakes from documentaries you had shot previously for television, coupled with newer material that includes local artists in their local environments: Sally Silvers, Shelley Hirsch, and Polly Bradford. I’m interested to learn more about how you worked between those sources.
AC Mutiny was always intended to have synchronous sound—that is, sound recorded at the same time as the image. The film cuts up vocal speech, conforming to mainstream sync-sound production, in which the focus is overwhelmingly on dialogue-driven faces. But instead of dialogue, Mutiny weaves and intercuts strings of vocabulary, pushing the vocal into the foreground, forging an aural poetry out of words and phrases. The film was originally planned as a montage of out-takes from a documentary I directed seven years previously, for the PBS television series, Women Alive! That film concerned teenage girls in Minneapolis before their senior year in high school. Ultimately, the high school material felt limiting. My need to get out of its sense of suburban alienation proved an imperative. I scavenged my early documentaries, including Game (1972)—about a prostitute and pimp in downtown Manhattan—and Savage Streets (1974)—a portrait of South Bronx Street gangs. Game was not commissioned. Savage Streets was made for an NBC show called New York Illustrated. It was ultimately excerpted on the Today show—but less than seven-minutes worth, so they wouldn’t have to pay me! That is a whole other story.
PBR What about the local artists?
AC To add to Mutiny’s mosaic I filmed downtown colleagues: Sally Silvers dancing in a Manhattan office; Polly Bradfield playing violin in Chinatown; Shelley Hirsch singing at the Sullivan Street Fair in Little Italy.
PBR I’m curious about your approach to sound and image, and how you compose between the two.
AC I was working with a single-system camera rented from Rafik, a local guy on Broadway who, at that time, rented equipment and space to everyone. It’s the same camera—I believe the CP-16—that Warhol used to make I, a Man (1967). There’s a glitch and sound when the camera stops and starts. I used that to abet the musical staccato of the edit. Combining the material, usually with their synchronous sound attached, I wanted to create a dissonant and percussive musique concrete. I didn’t have a score; the phrases, in conjunction with the pictures, became the score. It was a composition in which sound, word, and picture were created together. I thought of the combination as a staff of notes, and about how the sound changes the image—how it is ultimately chordal. What you are hearing are the words, and the noises, and music, machine-made, or otherwise—the glitches that accompany and punctuate the flux. The choices were “locked” together, which meant I selected the spoken words with their visual counterparts: a face, legs, someone yelling from the swimming pool, cheerleading practice, a South Bronx street fight—from the gathered reels. This is very similar to the process I use in some of my poetic composition.
With the contemporary artists—Sally, Polly, Shelley—their rolls (camera rolls, and “roles,” in a way) were more abstract and non-verbal, so it gave me room for pauses, song, noise, and music.
PBR I understand that you had created a sort of script for Mutiny. Can you explain a little more about what that entailed, and how it fits with the rest of the process behind Is This What You Were Born For?
AC I edited the film on 16mm celluloid, using a work print and my film bin. (Remember them?) It had hanging, multiple short strips of sound, and “married” pix on pins, organized by parts of speech: prepositional phrases, exclamations, nouns, verbs, etc. I made lists, and have a sheet of them written in a cacophonous and semi-legible form. So no “script” as such—where did you get that idea by the way?
PBR I read about the script in Scott MacDonald’s A Critical Cinema 4 (1988). I also noticed that in your book, This Is Called Moving (2005), you have a transcription of language that is heard in Mutiny. The phrases are presented in a binary form, with two columns, and I was curious to understand more about how this format related to either the construction or interpretation of the film. Does this happen to correlate to the lists you mentioned?
AC I think you might have misunderstood the interview—or Scott got it wrong. There was no script beforehand; the transcription came after the movie was completed. It's not unlike the “scripts” for Godard films that are made after the movie is edited. Hitchcock used to say that after he had the script, he had the film. My work process is different: it involves finding/discovering the structure in the editing. If I knew how to achieve what I was imagining, I wouldn't need to do it at all. It’s the process that is the focus for the experience—enabling an expansion of cinematic boundaries—a trespass.
Regarding the two columns, that was a way to upset linearity, to excise the “list” format of the transcriptions, and to bring the words to their fundamental poetry/sound dimension—to foreground that rhythm. The doubling does not relate to the film directly, in terms of structure or interpretation, but to the page.
One of the things I was doing in that book was trying to combine different styles/genres of writing critical thought—not to privilege one form over another. So, it’s a poetic or diegetic or collective or descriptive or digressive format—a widening gyre.
PBR I think one of the things I was most impressed by in Mutiny—and this goes into what I see/hear/think about both subject and structure in your work—was the way it operates like an elegant mobile. Through the way you edited the film, the nature of your subject appears suspended, in a sense, and returned to again and again. I was given the time to actually learn how sound and image could illuminate the relationships. The shots, being separated, yet simultaneously stitched together, become a sort of immaculate breakage. Not knowing the exact context of all the subjects, I created my own stories, but these were closely tied to the structure, and ultimately the interplay between the sound-and-image ideas. For instance, I sensed cycles of repression: people busily doing cartwheels, and staccato utterances, coupled with fractal-like edits. To bring up simultaneity again, I felt equal amounts of boundless energy from the subjects, but also a sense of how this energy quickly collapses in on itself—an implosion. I’d love to hear more about how the structure of the spiral organizes the material in your explorations.
AC Immaculate breakage! Elegant mobile! Yes! Yes! That’s it exactly! The circling back does give you the time to see the people and illuminate the relationships. It’s also the way we learn, the way our minds work, and the way experience and memory operate. The information seems different every time because the context changes—time moves on. It’s the Steinian notion of a repetition that is always different. Here, at least for me, we enter the image and the logistics/mathematics spur of the Spiral—it’s used in a number of my works. It’s an elegant way to move through space. Plus it’s beautiful and comic and adventuresome and unpredictable.
When I was ten I had a sense of people as spirals moving in space. (No one is ever as sensitive, merging, and open as a pre-pubescent—and her burgeoning.) People appeared as spirals that interact, merge, and separate—spinning out and on. The spiral is logarithmic, so that elements come around, repeat, but at a different spot each time. This reflects film material and image: always moving and changing. No frame alike. I can combine elements on the editing table: A A B A B C A B C D—or play out variations until the film source—A or B or X—runs out. I had complicated notations of how to thread, weave, and warp, so that the shots held together—without plot. One is dependent on rhythm, certainly, but the spiral, or my loose interpretation of the same, allowed me to find an underlying structure that was invisible to the viewer, perhaps, but was felt somehow—holding ones’ attention. Eventually, the piece has merged, or your memory has, or the signposts are in place, the scale is larger, and it has a geography. It begins to cohere on its own, and become a kind of being—a “cactus”—alive and kicking.
PBR Tell me a bit more about Mutiny’s process.
AC The original idea was to cut up the outtakes of the high school girls. That gave the film its name and, perhaps, some of its style. The high school footage is full of telling gestures and interrupted speech. The girls talk about intense emotional experiences, but they are somewhat embarrassed to speak in front of the camera. Their gestures speak worlds—if not words. Plus all the burps and bleeps of the camera—those pauses combine and then contribute to the sense of constraint and repression. Additionally, there is the context of the high school scenes themselves—the geography of the Minneapolis suburbs. When I was filming there I was struck by how noisy everything was. The toilet paper roll in the bathroom sang a little song when you pulled it! It was a sort of revenge that I could make music out of all that noise—a “mutiny” of the genre of television documentary.
PBR How does Mutiny fit in with the rest of the Born Into series?
AC Mutiny has synchronous sound. Prefaces has wild sound, i.e., sound that is dissonant with the image. Covert Action utilizes voiceover and was the first in the series to negotiate narrativity. Mayhem uses soundtracks from Mexican soap opera, melodrama, and noir combos. Perils incorporates cartoon and improvisatory music—referencing Perils of Pauline and other aspects of early cinema. Mercy, like Prefaces, uses wild sound, with encyclopedic images—those two films bookend the series. BOTH is what could be called the “odd woman out”—it’s silent, and sandwiched between Mutiny and Perils.
PBR Early in our exchange you mentioned a student’s reaction to your work. He felt it was a way to “take in” an increasing “onslaught of information”—a phenomenon that we all must negotiate within our society. I wonder if you believe that there’s a limit on how much people, in general, are able to take in and/or organize? What about yourself? As the limit grows—what are the advantages or repercussions?
AC I think we are already over the limit. For years I have asked my students if the world was going “too fast.” It’s only gotten faster. I believe artists are responding—finally. Millennials, in general, recognize the terror and pleasure of social networks and tech demands. Ditto filmmakers who struggle with Final Cut Pro 7—and curse Apple. We know this habit-forming insanity is problematic. I was reading today about Sherry Turkle’s new book, where she quotes young people saying that they are uncomfortable talking in person—face-to-face—even with their partners! That it is easier to have relations with texts, through text. Will we all become writers?
PBR I was also curious if, and how much, the audience response to your Born For series has changed since you first started showing it. When and where was the first screening of Mutiny?
AC The first public screening for Mutiny was in 1983, at Millennium, in New York City. I remember two “very important” contemporaries walked out in the middle. A year later, when Covert Action showed at The Collective For Living Cinema, a famous “elder” filmmaker also walked out.
Throughout the ’80s, the people who supported my work—who understood the work—were mainly poets, such as Bruce Andrews or Charles Bernstein, and downtown musicians like John Zorn and Christian Marclay. They have stayed fans. Filmmakers, at that time, were critical or demeaning. Curators dismissed it. MacDowell novelists would complain that the films gave them headaches. Critics accused me of inconsistency. Women curators excluded Mayhem from conferences on women and sexuality: the work either had “too many shots,” or was “too hot” (seriously), or they critiqued it as “comical,” as if that were negative. Historians couldn’t write about it. Someone accused me of being a man—and that I wanted to be whipped! Folks were projecting their own desires onto the work. It took over a decade before I began to win fellowships or grants of any kind, or before anyone wrote about the work. However much one wants to think one is ahead of one’s time, it can be a challenge. And, yes, now the films are viewed as classics.
PBR Mutiny is being shown as part of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibit. Did you have anything you would like to add about being included in that? I guess you would call it… a quinquennial. I had a chance to get out to the exhibit when it first opened this past fall. It was nice to see so many great artists, who not only worked in New York, but made great work about the city.
AC When I walked into PS1 before the public opening I heard, right away, Pendulum (1976), the James Nares film. The sound was wonderful. It was in the atrium space, to the left of the lobby, that you look down into. The Nares was projected on the opposite wall—thirty or forty feet high. I thought, Great! This is where the shorts will be projected. Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked. All the films are in the basement theater, a space I had never been to, either alone, or with my students when we came for field trips. Sadly, once again, film was relegated out of sight. I spoke to Douglas Crimp about it, and he explained that some of the films were features, and needed seats where they could be viewed properly. I understood completely.
However, I think curators miss a real opportunity here: aesthetically and intellectually. They could have kept the features downstairs and shown shorts in the atrium on a rotating basis. It would have been great if every week there was another sound coming at you when you entered the museum. Someday, perhaps, museums will finally, fully, lift film from its position in our basements—to our eyes and the foreground of our minds—where it already is—shaping our fluid and convoluted tele-cultural imaginings.
AC Peter! I’ve finally had a chance to look at some of your work. It is beautiful and hypnotic—particularly where the natural landscape appears artificial through the use of single-frame time-lapse—and the resultant, hesitating light.
PBR I love your observation of “hesitating light.” I use all sorts of different timescales. One frame per second, 2fps, 12fps, 24fps, etc. As I put the images together I try and achieve different effects. I may use a slower rate, for instance, to give the viewer more room to see a fast moving object. Or I may speed things up to show the special static quality of certain objects, and the violent movement that surrounds them. Sometimes I loop an image to make it more stable and allow for opportunities to look more closely at the details. There is also the rate of capture to negotiate along with the compilation rate; this of course happens earlier, when I am in the field, when I can shoot from 1fps to as slow as one frame per minute, or one frame per hour, or per day. I am able to intervene even further, and be more expressive, rather than be confined to the predetermined rates of an intervalometer—or by using a cable release.
AC I can’t help but think how our energies and speed… the scale of speed and what we are looking at are almost opposite. You take long shots of landscape and shorten them, compressing real time through a frame-by-frame process; I take real time, often of bodies, and cut it short, compressing through montage.
PBR I do feel like we may be moving in opposite directions—but perhaps our trajectories lie in the same sort of spiral-scape. In my work, I try to fill a space in time with a pattern that’s unique and representative of whatever image I’m capturing. But I’m stuck with that image until I achieve some sort of harmony between the rhythm of the inherent subject matter, and the rhythm that comes from trying to animate life and energy—or the lack of it—from single frames. A shot of a tree against a building, for example, will need, at the very least, enough time to show that the living thing is animate while the building is unmoving. A rhythm has to be established to delineate between the two. I wait until that rhythm becomes apparent as I am building the shot, and then I can switch to another image, with another rhythm, and try to negotiate between the two. The form is definitely musical, as one shot will become a sort of bar or measure, and this in turn relies heavily on continuity, repetition, and eventually a move into a phrase from a collection of shots. The hardest thing with this sort of filmmaking is choosing that first frame, or note, and then the last one—but maybe that could be said of all filmmaking.
AC What determines the length of your shots? The order I assume is the order of the geographic space through which you travel? Or are there other strategies in making your pilgrimage? From where to where—and what—decides those locations?
PBR With Psychohydrography (2010), the film follows the water as it comes down from the mountains, into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. After it reaches the city, we see how it is discharged in the Los Angeles River through a concrete channel, before it finally escapes into the ocean. In Tectonics (2012), I followed the U.S.-Mexico border for 2000 miles, from one end to the other, traversing back and forth across it as I moved along that liminal zone. Topophilia (2015) traces the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from its origins in Prudhoe Bay down to Valdez. The larger structures of the films are very similar in that they all follow a linear system from A to B. The story makes itself, but I always try to show that there is a system that exists just beyond those points and, in fact, with enough perspective, you can see a bend in the linearity. The films are maybe more circle than line. This can certainly be said of the water cycle, but I think I make an argument for the recurrent abuses of government and power in Tectonics, and the life-and-death loop of energy in Topophilia. All of these lines are at once formidable, but tenuous—there is something there that draws me in. These contours represent the very essence of existence itself.
AC Your films make me miss the West Coast! They reference Pat O’Neill and James Benning’s work. Three/3 (2008) was funny and terrifying. It reminded me of the moment in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Vera Paravel’s Leviathan, when their GoPro-on-a-stick is lowered down into the water—with the starfish escaping the net in some sprawl of freedom. Or David Gatten’s What The Water Said. The night shots in Psychohydrography are lush and beautiful noir.
PBR At the end of Psychohydrography I used shots in which I could see a particular kind of wave pattern in the ocean. When I put them all together I was able to recreate a breaking wave—but it had a new uncanniness about it. I also reversed it, so the waves pushed back, and faded into the ocean. Simply put, I do all this construction in a humble attempt to reveal the unknown.
AC Topophilia has sensuous night shots and long vistas across the water, with scattered buildings, pumps, and factories hugging the landscape. The scale, so very long-distance, lends an otherworldly, off-planet atmosphere. The few industrial buildings clinging to the side of the hills are like the cliff houses at Mesa Verde. Once the film enters the cities the sound turns marvelously and rambunctiously musical. That’s our connection!
PBR I couldn’t agree more!
Abigail Child is a New York City-based filmmaker and teacher.
Peter Bo Rappmund is a Dallas-based filmmaker and teacher.