Time Corners

A Conversation with Abigail Child

Introduction by Veva Leye, Jan Op de Beeck

About filmmaking and writing, filmmaker, essayist and poet Abigail Child notes the following: “The very act of translating these ‘language systems,’ these two unparalleled signaling systems, is by definition approximate. The slippage creates its own exhilaration. The effort structures new potentials.” (‘Preface’ to her anthology This Is Called Moving. A Critical Poetics of Film, 2005) Inspired by Child’s work and that of other filmmakers and writers, Veva Leye and Jan Op de Beeck compiled a dossier for issue 39 of the literary magazine nY (Summer 2019), exploring the poetical relations between (experimental) film and poetry from the perspective of materiality, the fragmentary and montage. Indeed, certain traditions in film and poetry do not only hone in on these notions, but also accomplish important theoretical work on them, whether or not in a double or multi-practice, a collaboration. In the dossier, these film and poetry traditions and the work of contemporary filmmakers, artists and writers clarify, comment on, nuance or contradict each other. The following interview with Abigail Child by Charles Bernstein, ‘Time Corners’, was translated for nY and included alongside Child’s essay ‘Digital wreaking’ about recent digital work, a selection from the book LENS (1964) by the filmmaker and poet Frank Kuenstler, poetry by Bruce Andrews and Veva Leye, filmmaker Els van Riel’s essay ‘Buchstabe’ about her recent film work, Jan Op de Beeck’s exploratory essay ‘Materiality, fragment, montage’, an introduction by Martin Grennberger to filmmaker Peter Gidal and his film Assumption (1997), and artistic work by Jelena Vanoverbeek and Joris De Rycke.    

‘Time Corners’ originally appeared in the first issue of filmmaker Saul Levine’s magazine XDREAM (1986) and is included in Child’s anthology This Is Called Moving. A Critical Poetics of Film. At the time of the interview, Child had completed the first three films of her seven-part series Is This What You Were Born For? (three of which, Perils (1986), Mayhem (1987) and Mercy (1989), can be viewed on UbuWeb). In this important work, varying editing strategies set up a motley, subverting and often comical game of (the intertwining of) genre and gender. The conversation between Bernstein and Child shows and suggests the parallels between and the interconnectedness and mutual influence of the practices of Language Poetry and the New York experimental film scene of the 1980s. Specific ways of editing are made explicit and concrete through a discussion of these practices. One concern is showing montage as montage without falling into the trap of pleasant aesthetics (“Yet there might be another sort of editing (…) that seemed to be generally ragged, or to just show as being not edits, only, but stitches” (Bernstein)). In the interview, Child argues accordingly that “experimental” literature and these films require “active reading” as opposed to “passive viewing”.       

Veva Leye & Jan Op de Beeck  

(1) Prefaces (Abigail Child, 1981)

Abigail Child: Let’s talk about editing. In Ornamentals I was cutting things together based on color, painterly values, textures. But one of the things that I was interested in was difference – I was interested in how far I could go to have things not match up but have them still fit together. So it became a corner of a building, corners of linkages rather than that surface that Brakhage focuses on. So I started by matching not texture exactly but contrasting color and shape: a circle to a circle, in a totally different space. It became this vortex, which we have talked about before. That’s a concern of mine, the way space is experienced. As a teenager I had this sense that things could link in space on multidimensions, and I would think about that in terms of relationships, whether it was people relationships or abstract-idea relationships, that they could link in all three dimensions plus of course time and that’s become a focus in my work. That’s true of Ornamentals. It’s true of Prefaces. In these and later works I’m attempting to compose elements that are out of step, create a time corner, a bending, instead of an adjacency. I’m trying to break the adjacencies.

Charles Bernstein: I was just thinking it was not telling a story, perhaps, but conveying a different kind of progression and accumulation of materials, that has led you to really adopt, in a way, a bricolage, a number of different editing principles (and I do think it’s Prefaces that marks the break) without relying on a single one. Your films have developed an ability to use different kinds of editing techniques rather than reifying a particular principle of editing. In terms of contemporary filmmaking that is very interesting and very unusual – and it seems to relate to work being done with narrative in some recent writing.

It’s definitely connected.

But before we get into that, I want to go back a little bit and ask you to speak about the way you edited your films, keeping to some kind of chronological order. Then I want to know more about what you meant by getting away from the adjacencies and the juxtapositions in Prefaces. So go back to your first film. What was the conception in editing it?

Well, that might be Some Exterior Presence. I had four elements sourced from a documentary on radical nuns that I had edited. It was the last commercial directorial job I did. The women were terrific, and the film was “adequate” within a formula of a half-hour TV documentary: do it in three weeks from start to airdate. Wanting to be more authentic to these women and their spirit, I took some of the work print, and I looked through it; and I was interested, as an editor, in the possibilities that the film could go forward, it could go backward, it could be flipped, and it could be upside down. I originally had seven sequences that I cut up – I was interested in how I could disjoint the movement in these possibilities of permutations. So it was mathematical in a way. I was reading physics at the time and was intrigued by Feynman diagrams, which had submicroscopic motion, the processes of exchange, annihilation, and birth. And it ended up with four sequences that I liked the way they moved, that I then intercut and one of the things I did was set up a score that I diverted from – I mean that I don’t pledge myself to one way of being. ;

What is the basic pattern here that you’re talking about, the structural pattern, the score … ?

The score was four elements – A, B, C, D – and all the possible permutations and the line-up of them was from original through four generations. There were three generations for each scene: I had the original, though that was in fact a work print, already second generation; and a print made from that, that would go through a printer; and then the printer material. So I had second, third, and fourth generation material, and I had these rhymes, these permutations I was choosing – I could transgress. Where I would look at it and get bored and think it could be changed to be more precise to my desire …

You immediately found what some people might consider the formal beauty of the order you were creating didn’t interest you, that bored you so you …

No, no, that interested me, but I felt like it could be … that it could have its exceptions as well.

– could be subverted –

– yes, subverted. There’s a desire, a predilection on my part, to break rules to accommodate the proliferation of new ideas, reflect or include thought in transition, and I want to give credence to improvisation of these ideas and the time –

Subversion is a theme that you’re interested in, especially as it emerges in the later films.

I agree with that. How could I say yes to this beginning decision and not include these other things? Then it became a structural idea, yes, I can subvert. I can digress and I’m going to purposely, as in Covert Action, construct something built on digressions.

Right, this gets us back … this is what I meant when I was suggesting crudely picaresque narrative structures. I think that’s what I mean by subversion, and what you’re saying about Covert Action, construct something built on digression. Subversion being that which is under the version, underneath the surface, and that underneath is always repressed, isn’t allowed to show through when principled or structural or visionary compositional method is used. It seems to me that the work, over time, has consistently tried to find ways for these things to seep up through and not only come to the surface but to break through it, interrupt. You begin to use intertitles and so on, all these archaic elements, surfacing in the later films. It is almost a rococo, which I think is a reaction against the pristinity of sticking to a singular, uniplanar surface. When you were doing this first film, you were already talking about being uncomfortable with the very principles of editing that seem to have been given to you. At the time of this first film, what other filmmakers excited you? Or were you unhappy with everything and thinking, I’m gonna do something different? Were you trying to emulate something?

Let’s see … I saw Brakhage at eighteen and appreciated it but was going somewhere else, and it wasn’t until years later in New York, when I saw some of Frampton’s works and he just opened up the possibilities of what could be. I wasn’t trying to emulate him. I was responding to my documentary experience, when you would be grabbing for film, you would reach and get it in reverse. It was a material response. It was constructivist –

What year is this film?

I finished it in 1977, started it in 1976. I had discovered I really liked the feel of film, I liked to put it together, I liked to see its structure. In that period documentary editors would say, “The best cut is the one you can’t see,” and right away that was not where I was. I always loved to feel every cut and to see every cut and to know it was there. And I also found I was interested in what was happening after the shot was over, where everybody else would cut out and say this is the end of the scene. I was always interested in the bleed part, in the part that was going to be excised. It was often then when people would suddenly think the camera was off and they could be themselves, and I was interested in those kinds of changes. So in the editing, was I doing something new? I was on new ground for myself, and I was trying to do something in response to particular experiences in my life and this piece of footage.

What film work had you done up until this point? You were saying you worked commercially.

I had done documentaries on my own.

How long had you been doing documentaries?

For about four years.

And did you imagine when you started on this documentary work in the early 1970s that this would be a vocation for you?

I knew it would be my life. Film would be.

But you thought documentaries were more kind of …

No, I just started in documentaries. I can’t say that I thought for sure that I was going to be a documentary filmmaker. I just knew film would be my avocation.

Well, what did film mean to you?

Multiplicity. I was editing my first film and I was in the editing room and I said to myself this is what I want to do for the rest of my life because film is rhythm, words, painting, ethnography – which is, I think, reappearing in the work in the way I’m looking at gesture. It was that I had found, let’s say, a prism that would allow me to be in a contained thing and make these works.

What kind of films really excited you at the point that you started first to work with film? Was it ethnographic, as well as Hollywood films?

Ethnographic as well as Hollywood as well as documentary. The works I hadn’t seen were the experimental. I was a product of suburban America, and I had only seen what suburban America had seen. It took years before I started to see these other works. It was a real opening for me, other possibilities. There came a point when I realized I was using another person or situation to talk about my own concerns (in terms of the documentary subject), and I just wanted to be clearer, more personal, more straightforward on to what I … and also not having to deal with the whole question of public genre. The public forum, the way it was “supposed” to be for a documentary to go on TV. It was just inadequate to my needs at that point. My personal experiences were pushing me towards a political realization – about the shapes of film, and what was excluded, and how it got made and distributed. A position whose implications were more radical than that of the leftist documentarians, which was the milieu I was involved with in New York.

Had you seen, at that point, films from before World War II, say, films from Europe?

Not too many, no. Blood of a Beast by Franju I remember liking especially.

And how about American independent films?

I had seen some of the American independent films – mostly the documentaries. Don’t Look Back, the Wiseman series. Then in 1975 I went to Hampshire to study the optical printer, and there were lots of films being shown there every hour, every day. Landow was there, Peter Hutton was there, Robert Breer was there. Frampton wasn’t, but his films were shown, also Brakhage’s. Who else? The next year I saw a bunch of Marie Mencken films and that was inspiring. And Andy Warhol …

And you made this film within the context of seeing these other films moving out of the context of – ;

Of documentary, yes. I was aware at the time of something wonderful about using documentary footage, that it was rich in a nonprivate experience. It was rich in the world outside the filmmaker’s diary. It had that potentiality of people on the street, of that kind of liveliness. When I finally saw Vertov, part of what I love about Vertov is this kind of encompassing world that gets in there. Your subject’s enlarged immediately.

So the next film that you did was what?

It was Peripeteia I. I was in the Oregon woods, and I had seven one hundred-foot rolls of film, and I was alone. There was no electricity. And I gave myself permission to shoot anything, opening to a lot of digression, in other words, not saying I’m going to do this one thing and do it, but in fact doing a number of things. As a result, I think it holds a certain kind of innocence and digression in the final film.

How did you edit that film?

I looked for the end of a sequence, where it would go to the next one. A continuum that stops in the middle and takes off to the end so it has two halves, but very simple. It was really a camera film more than an editing film. Peripeteia II too, even more. It has never been edited. I just have a work print, and that was going back to the same place, and giving it a structure, taking two elements, one stable, the other mobile as the focus … I was looking at ways to structure work. But it wasn’t until Ornamentals that I began to look for the difference between shots. For every time I could turn a corner. Also, Ornamentals was based on material that I felt had so much emotional expressive hold that I wanted to subvert that. I didn’t want you to make up stories about each of the images. I wanted to place it in a context, where each image was single and would leave, would go away, like thought in the process of thinking, or maybe the thing that happens where you go to bed at night and all the images that you didn’t have time to process during the day come back. They’re disconnected, but there’s this flow. I think images should go together with more than one connection, however, that they … have to have at least two connections to stand there, to stay in the work.

(2) Pacific Far East Lines (Abigail Child, 1979)

After Pacific Far East Line you did –

Pacific Far East Line: then Ornamentals in the same year, and it was almost as if they were two opposites. I was doing Pacific Far East Line shot out of my window; I was limited in shooting. I couldn’t be on the street, yet I was going out on the street shooting (for Ornamentals), going through old footage and there it was: two different structures. PFEL is very straightforward, elements coming in of similar subject material, whereas Ornamentals is all fragments, from all different places instead of one place. I thought about making that film (Ornamentals) for a year and a half. I wanted to do a film on the color spectrum. And I also had this sense of an expanding field. Whereas, in a way, Pacific Far East Line is more like a field painting. It’s almost equal throughout, there’s a slight build, but it is basically equal. Ornamentals builds differently. And I saw that as a real distinction.

Explain that more. What does development mean to you? Do you think that some of your films, like Pacific Far East Line, did not have development in that way? That they began and they ended at the same place?

Well, time goes through it, so it’s always different, but I think it collapses time. It creates a static but shaky, writhing really, architecture. Something like Smithson’s entropy: another level of mapping action and reaction. Looking at a box or dirt, or in this case a horizon, two horizons in fact, and making that the world. It makes you aware of time in the sense that the extent of the film could be, well, the sense that it could be three years or it could be ten minutes. I think of it as twelve-tone cutting because I was reading a lot about and listening to twelve-tone music. But then again, my tendency to disrupt my own rules led to certain kinds of dramatic openings, dramatic middles, and ends. I was aware of those shapes.

You have a continuous rhythmic movement in PFEL, almost a musical rhythmic unity of perception. Even though it takes place in time, it’s really spatial; it’s like entering into a building. I mean to say that it has development temporally, but it doesn’t have development in terms of plot, in terms of metaphor, metaphor meaning to move from one place to another.

You can’t say Ornamentals has development of any plot either, but it does have by the way it’s constructed; it becomes, I think, analogous to the brain’s way of moving, which does build. It constructs on top of something so that things jump off at different places in space. Additionally I was trying to destroy plot in Ornamentals. I feel like the human figure and certain kinds of loaded situations or intensities throw up narrative immediately. I’m interested in that, a sort of minimal narrative.

Obviously words like narrative and plot are loaded in one way and plot especially misleading. Narrative in its more neutral sense simply means the methods by which you move from one point to another, from one item to another.

Yes. Passage.

Recounting. But counting is part of it.

But it also means difference. At the two points of passage, I mean. It doesn’t mean an equilibrium to a passage to an equilibrium that’s the same. It’s an equilibrium that is disequilibrium I mean it does suggest that change, I think.

Well, some kind of progression, you mean, differential. Still, it seems to me in some of the earlier films you’re suggesting that progression isn’t really what they’re about at all but that they’re – it’s more an overall compositional realization.

That is true. The progression then is spread throughout to make a construction, an architecture, is how I think about it. But it does, I think, change the effect of how a film reads if my intent is to build something like an overall composition or a more process-oriented work. The film reads differently. The energies display themselves differently.

Well, let me bring up something that you said before that interested me. When you were editing documentary films you were told that the best edit was one you can’t see, something like that. But you were interested in having them seen as edits. Now to some degree, even within an unconventional style of filmmaking, if the structure of the editing is done in a highly delineated or highly “poeticized” way, you certainly see the edits taking place, but they seem so clearly to be compositional and rhythmic elements that they don’t disappear but become aestheticized. Yet there might be another sort of editing in which the edits were really disruptive and didn’t seem aesthetic, didn’t seem programmatic, didn’t contribute in an obvious way to plot development – that seemed to be generally ragged, or to just show as being not edits, only, but stitches. It seems to me that when we get on the other side of Pacific Far East Line in your work, your more recent work, you seem interested in these genuinely more disruptive kinds of things, and you’re actually creating a music with the disruption. I think of eighteenth-century literary narrative techniques, such as those in Tristram Shandy, or, you know, little narrative descriptions of what’s gonna happen next, which don’t necessarily follow up on anything, material that’s primarily about the way in which progress in the story is taking place. Gesture is obviously another thing, and your use of sound. I mean there’s all kinds of new things that enter in after Pacific Far East Line. With the focus on the gesture, the human body, or the human figure I should say, becomes more central to the films. And the sound track becomes an autonomous element that seems very important to the strategy of the editing, that the sound in your film could stand on its own. It doesn’t simply fill out the images. So often sound tracks are used to animate the film’s image. Think of Philip Glass’s music pouring over the National Geographic landscape of Koyaanisqatsi. It’s as if the visual images are porous, and the sound is like oxygen being seeped up by the porous film images. Whereas your sound and image are impermeable to each other just as certain segments of the film seem impermeable to the rest of the film. They’re not absorbed into the overall composition of the film. You seem interested in including intractable material. ;

In Prefaces I wanted to make chords. I didn’t want the sound to complete the image. I wanted it to be an additional note that would change the sound of the image. And yes. My interest in gesture is an interest in the human body and how it means. I suppose gestures are of interest because they are also intractable. They don’t speak, gestures don’t vocalize, so that one can read them variously.

The subject matter is intractable, so that the gestures elude being matched up.

But full of meaning, so that they’re full of this resonance that is indecipherable in its finality, but you could be accurate about it.

What got you interested in wanting to do sound and wanting to employ some of these more, for lack of better words, narrative and figurative elements?

If one of the things I was exploring was compositional strategies, another thing that seemed to me apparent was abstraction and image, image building, concrete images, object images, and human bodies. In Ornamentals the surfacing of images out of the abstraction was of interest to me. This becomes close to language – that films can denote, be both abstract and realist, with a high degree of complication and field for combination. It seemed logical for me to move in that direction. In my next film, Prefaces, the image has surfaced much more. Sound, in film, seems to me an open area that hasn’t been fully explored. I mean – here I can be with something that hasn’t been dealt with, looking at this larger grammar of what’s possible in film. So that was a challenge to me.

What kind of sound films interested you, once you thought you might make sound films, or immediately before that?

There were a few films that I had seen by then that were of great interest. Kubelka’s films, Our Trip to Africa particularly. And another film that was very impressive was Critical Mass by Frampton. Do you know those?

I haven’t seen Critical Mass.

A terrific film – he has two students arguing – “Where were you … well, where were you?” – and he films it with the sync track and makes all these cuts and loops so it becomes this magnificent design. But also very expressive with the human relationships foregrounded. To me it was one of the most beautiful, sound, perfect little films.

Whose work with film sound interests you?

Godard definitely. In some of his latest work he lets the voice slip, and a man’s voice replaces a woman’s voice; and he’s playing really, many, many subversions. Also Bresson, his Lancelot du Lac, for instance, where we hear the horses coming for two minutes before they appear.

One of my favorite films actually.

And currently there are a number of people who have done interesting work in sound – this list is provisional whom I’m thinking of right now – Henry [Hills] of course, Charles Wright, Betzey Bromberg. Leslie Thornton, Manuel DeLanda, Alan Berliner, to name some. And there’s … I just saw these Polish films, one of them is a continuous yell that was shot with the light changing and then reworked across the tone of the yell. Almost an Alvin Lucier composition with a single tone. I think there’s a number of people working today, who are working with sound, not just filling out the picture but working in the way that they’re trying to actually make something that plays against or adds or, what I keep calling chordal, changes the picture.

Is there some audiotape work – as opposed to instrumental music – that interests you?

There probably is a lot being done that I’m not familiar with. I was just in this show in Holland, for instance, that included a hundred women’s tapes of which I only knew a few. It included work by Hannah Weiner, and Diane Ward’s “Cuba” tape among others. And of course there’s music tapes, some of the early Stevie Wonder collages and rap collages definitely, yes. Musicians have been using tapes for a long time. That’s happening with John Zorn’s compositions, and, of course, that’s also in Cage, in Stockhausen. I think everybody, they get the tape recorder and the first thing they do is make a tape collage.

(3) Prefaces (Abigail Child, 1981)

Talking about sound seems a good segue into your work as a writer. Not only have you written and published a good deal of poetry, but you also read an enormous amount of poetry. Could you talk about the relationship, if any, between poetry and your film work?

Sometimes I think it doesn’t have anything to do with it, but it seems to be more to do with it now, perhaps, than it did …

Well, I’m going to venture a comment on this but because it’s, well, it’s almost easier for somebody else to comment on a relationship that you’re so inside of it’s hard to see. And it has to do with my own interest in writing and how I understand film in terms of that. I think writing is from the point of view of the physical production much less onerous than filmmaking and film editing. Using pen and paper, it’s very easy and quick to edit. So there’s an incredible amount of research and investigation you can do if you’re involved in a fairly complex revision-oriented writing style, research into the kinds of associations and relations between syllables and word, between sentences and stanzas or paragraphs, between intruded and internally generated material. You get really tuned up to the possibilities of putting things together. The fusion that takes place – working with – and at – writing, you begin to understand the power that editing has to disguise itself and how hard it is to make the editing apparent. Because it’s so easy for the editing to close up the gaps. Many poets at this time are involved in a number of quite different and interesting approaches to how to put divergent materials together, how to deal with digression, how to deal with narration. So it’s a parallel area that has much information, literally, for a filmmaker. I think writers, of course, can find a lot out from film. Many writers I know are almost obsessed with film.

Yes, film materializes what we know about cognition and memory. It materializes these things, which I think does change how we see. Perhaps editing is more onerous in film than in writing, but the result in film is more exaggerated, enlarged I might say, and certainly at the beginning of the century less elided, a very concrete non-segue from image to image, a cinematic positioning of impossibilities. For Joyce, Stein, Proust, film cuts must have been very exciting concretizations of the movement of thought. But what is also interesting to me is music and very specifically from the turn of the century on – Satie, for example, and Antheil’s Ballet mécanique or Ive’s music using marching tunes and folk hymns, and Varèse, Cage, Stravinsky, Kagel, Berio. I think of them, putting materials together, incorporating tape with music, and considering noise as music as well. And also, the sense of tape in the latter half of this century as producing a kind of library. If there’s a library of filmed images in all the movies made, there’s also this library of sound that tape allows you to access that begins to approach the library of reading, the library of books, the printed word. These things are coming in, and like reading, film and music create a kind of pool of information to incorporate and process. I was thinking one of the advantages if my films go to videotape is that you can replay it, reread it. Video as a kind of improvisational optical printer.

Yeah, but do they have different speeds that you can use on most videos? I mean do people ever use those?

They do actually, I think.

I find it very exciting, in seeing films on flatbeds, that you can stop the film and go back and see the thing again. But I’m just thinking even the idea of making the film is very dense, is related to a concept of reading as opposed to a passive viewing …

The reading is actually the engagement – to look at this, decipher it.

Right, and look at it in different ways, at different angles, a number of times at different speeds. So it seems to me that’s another area in which absorption in what’s going on now in writing would direct one even further away from some of the so-called given constraints of filmmaking. Which would seem to me increasingly a limitation of film as I become, oddly to say, less and less able to pull myself out to see the commercial products that are being issued in the last couple of years.

Yes, I’m very surprised how some writers will go, and go again and again, to Hollywood movies, even as they disparage, and sometimes vehemently, narrative in writing or poetry. I love movies. I like seeing Hollywood or independent or foreign features, but if that were my only diet in films, it wouldn’t be enough. This tolerance, avidness, for the commercial entertainment seems to me only a measure of how large Hollywood’s monopoly has become, in people’s consciences and imaginations, and how large in culture it is and how it’s your kind of hot dog and you can’t do without your hot dog and you don’t even see the forces behind your desire and that “blindness” gives these monopolies the freedom to shape and change and distort everybody’s minds. I want my work to challenge these assumptions, upset the torque of culture, at least enlarge the field.

In emphasizing the value to having a great degree of differentiation, a maximum amount of differential from one element to another from the sound to the image, from the different images, your films seem to be more thoughtfully related as a totality, more thoughtfully conceived and realized, than films that have a more overt strategy that connects them. The connections have to be worked out by the reader. They seem to be composed one by one, and that creates a much richer, denser field of possible meanings for the reader to find. That is, the recent films are not simply compilations of autonomous things, but rather these things have been fused into a whole through your overall workings with them.

That’s true also of the entire series Is This What You Were Born For? The structure of the work is that each of the parts has these very different relations of sound to image and quality of image changing, black and white or color, figuration or abstraction, or increasing narrative sense. They are a macroscope of difference. Now that three films of the series are done, they’re beginning to speak among themselves, and certain concerns become evident. The project isn’t a single line, or even an expanding line, but a series of corners in relation to mind, to how one processes material, how they get investigated, how they get cut apart, how something else comes up. I was thinking my work doesn’t develop in a straight line, but if you were on top of a building looking down, you could trace out a direct path of turns, so that each work leads into the next, but you can’t see it over your shoulder; you have to see it stepwise. And that the procedure of difference in the individual films relates to the total project.

Do you want to briefly describe Justine (this project was retitled Perils and completed in 1986), or will that be done elsewhere?

It won’t be done elsewhere, but … I’d rather not right now because I’m in the middle of shooting it. And, one of the things we were talking about on the way over, which is relevant to being “in the middle” of making a film, is not that one doesn’t know what one’s doing in a work. You do know what you’re doing and you have a sense of what it is to become, but you don’t know the particulars; and I would say that if I knew exactly what the work would look like when it was done, I wouldn’t need to do it. I’m really struck sometimes at the end of a work, when I’ve been through the process, how close it is to what I imagined it at the beginning. But to get there is a unique, one-on-one experience. That it isn’t just descending into a mass and coming up. They’re very particular and very specific decisions.

Well, you might say you find out what you know rather than already knowing what you know.

Or that what you know is greater than what you can think about. That making the work is a kind of optimism towards the world, that the world can be refracted to include its complexities, a realization held there to be seen for the duration of the work. That the work, let’s say, frames the attempt, lets the thought be visualized but isn’t a “frame-up.” Doesn’t package the idea but concentrates it, constitutes it. That the work isn’t apriori itself but becomes something in excess of the original idea. That it has a roominess or room for its excess – and for its silences as well. I think that’s the pleasure for the filmmaker and audience. That the work exists in its own right, is something beyond yourself, something alive to the resonance of rousing liveliness in the viewer. This great sense making your brain talk, and moving your brain in places it hasn’t been before.

The interview was recorded in New York City, in spring 1985, and first published in XDREAM 1, no. 1 (1986).

In conjunction with the dossier in nY #39, a cycle of experimental films is programmed at CINEMATEK in September 2019. On the opening night (5 September 2019), Veva Leye reads her piece from nY #39 (“repro.oog”), followed by the screening of Els van Riel’s Gradual Speed (2013) and Abigail Child’s Mayhem ¬- Is This What You Were Born For? Part 6 (1987). 

With thanks to Abigail Child and Charles Bernstein.


Images (1) and (3) from Prefaces (Abigail Child, 1981)

Images (2) from Pacific Far East Lines (Abigail Child, 1979)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.