Surface Noise


On May 1, I posted the following facebook update:

insane carnivalesque nightmare/dream this morning, in which several of you appeared as “characters” — wondering how much its rhythms (which involved much running down huge flights of stairs, sliding down bannisters, etc.) were influenced by my having seen Abby Child’s amazing film, Surface Noise, projected at the Poetry Project last night…

Steve Benson responded: Why don’t you write on your blog about this amazing film? I want to know more about it!

I mentioned to Steve that he probably knew it, since he was, in a sense, in it, but he has since asked for a more detailed description of it. Let me try. It’s a little hard to try to recapture in words a moving thing of such fast cuts and fleeting & fragmented narratives. I was quite present to the film, to the extent that it invaded my dreams, without the mediation of my notebook. My notebook was in my hand, but I didn’t want to leave off looking at the film even for a moment, because I thought it was REALLY COOL.

Abby had said in her introductory remarks to this film that at the time she was making it, she had very little money, and her aim was to see what kind of art she could make from “trash.” By “trash” she meant here archival found footage that wasn’t in great demand, often damaged, scratched, corroding, and what she describes elsewhere of “outtakes of outtakes.” This is a not uncommon fetish in some circles (I think of Schwitters, first and foremost), and it strikes me that there’s something wonderfully compassionate (in that it elevates detritus to the level of art, thereby kind of equalizing everything) about it as well as masterful (in that the orchestration of the material becomes all the more key to its gestalt). Without laying any claim to my own masterfulness, it is a strategy I frequently enjoy employing myself, in all media, whether I’m flarfing, repainting furniture found in the basement, or making my own collage videos out of 99 cent DVDs. There’s a desire for wizardry here, I think, to transform what is forgotten or cast off into something new and strange, because otherwise, oh, life is so tiresome, and so much is not attended to…

Images I remember from the film.. marching (in China? patriotic displays?), water falling and flowing (forcefully) , science labs (beakers) . There was a feeling of intense forward movement throughout the ten minutes of the film… truly I was almost woozy with it… hence the dream. I wish I remembered more details of what I saw.

Much of the sound & music was terrifically comedic, almost like remixed cartoon soundtracks, lots of slide whistle sounds and canned sound effects. I loved this, especially against some of the more somber or grandiose imagery (was there a bomb test? I seem to remember a bomb test), and afterwards asked Abby to talk about the role of slapstick and humor in her work, whether it wasn’t there in part to counter the Grandiosity of Art and Ideas… I suppose I was trying to claim Abby as a forerunner of Flarf. I think I could make an argument for that.

The sound was provided by musician friends, as well as some voiceovers by Steve Benson and Carla Harryman. The voiceovers were not continuous narratives, just fragments, but there was one question that was unmistakeably Steve-like (I don’t remember it verbatim) asking, I think, whether someone was concerned with “the pastoral.” I don’t remember Carla’s parts.

All this not remembering on my part makes me feel that really, come on, film purists, video versions of everything should be online. Everyone knows that something is lost in this format, but more is lost when works can’t be accessed and discussed. Seeing something online doesn’t make me feel as if I don’t need to see the film in a film-space: it just gives me a flavor for it, or reference points if I need to go back and remember or review something.

Interestingly, Abby describes the film as a sonata, but I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant by that, since the term is rather broad, and (I repeat) I would need to see the film at least one more time to experience it structurally, and not just sensorially.

Here is a statement of Abby’s about her films (from the Harvard Film Archive web site):

I use strategies – of asymptotic convergence, vertical montage, a-harmonic weave, digital archive, language mis-translation, sonata look-a-likes, sound and noise juxtapositions – jolly and foreboding. In a world cluttered with information and things, it is important to go below and behind, to unmake sense, to re-contextualize the given and refresh, to upset powers that restrain us. The desire – a maneuverability – fragmented, prismatic, fleeting.
We all get to watch

3 thoughts on “Surface Noise

  1. Hi Nada,

    Weird sync (dream correspondence?)–just picked up Charles Rosen's “Sontata Forms” from the library this very day to see what the hell that is exactly and how it might be a repainted into a tabletop for displaying poems on.

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