Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Abigail Child & Henry Hills: Turn towards the Concrete

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Abigail Child & Henry Hills: Turn towards the Concrete

Article excerpt

From the perspective of contemporary, post-Giuliani Manhattan, the past lives of the city's filmic avant-garde seem to have unfolded in grungy, unmly, and ragged surroundings. When watching such varied and iconic New York films as The Flower Thief (Ron Rice, I960), Zorns Lemma (Hollis Frampton, 1970), or Lost> Lost> Lost (Jonas Mekas, 1976), a boisterous city peers back at the viewer, jutting through the works' artistic matrices and revealing itself as a harsh, rough hewn secondary author. Despite their diverse artistic and ideological emphases, all of the city's experimental filmmakers have forged some kind of relationship with his or her social, historical, and material surroundings: Every New York film says something different about the city and its history. Specific to the concerns here, avant-garde cinema, as an independent, largely self-funded, subcultural tradition has been particularly attuned to the economic and material contexts of its own practice.

At the cusp of the Reagan years, in the wakes of feminism and structuralism, and at the crossroads of Downtown's vibrant scenes of improvised music, experimental poetry, avant-garde dance, and independent cinema, a new filmic trajectory took form. Centered around film and performance venues such as the Collective for Living Cinema, Roulette, and the Millennium Film Workshop, the burgeoning intermedial energies of avant-garde cinema in the early 1980s devised fresh modes of interaction between artistic traditions, political imperatives, and social contexts that were specific to the moment at hand. In an era of urban decay, public violence, rampant homelessness, and public health catastrophes - living in New York then was even affordable! - a collection of young film artists enthusiastically reconfigured the ways in which experimental cinema could engage with its surroundings by pursuing inventive approaches that interrogated established modes of authorship, artistic constmction, and ideology. Abigail Child and Henry

Hills, two of the most inventive avant-garde filmmakers of the era, engaged with and interrogated the cultural horizon of the 1980s and the possibilities that experimental cinema offered for its exploration. With Is This What You Were Born Fori: Mutiny (Child, 1986) and Money (Hills, 1985), this pair of film artists devised unique but related articulations of film form, ideology, and intermedial experiment that openly displayed the concrete substrate of the city's sidewalks, buildings, and parking lots, as well as the concrete textures, sounds, and materials of the film medium.


In 1978, following a shared romantic history in the Bay Area, where they made films and together co-edited the newsletter Canyon Cinemanews, Child and Hills moved to New York. By this point, both were experienced filmmakers: Before moving to the West Coast, Child had previously worked for a number of years as a documentarian in New York, making ethnographic films for both commercial and public television. There, in the early-to- mid 1970s, she honed her crafts as a filmmaker and editor, and began to develop the philosophical interests in the politics of representation that would powerfully determine the direction of her later work. Shortly thereafter, in San Francisco, she began to develop her voice as an experimental filmmaker. In the same bohemian enclave, Hills studied cinema at the San Francisco Art Institute under the tutelage of James Broughton, George Kuchar, and perhaps most influentially, Hollis Frampton. Once in New York, the two filmmakers immersed themselves in the subcultures and social networks of the avant- garde, particularly, those associated with performance, improvised music, dance, and poetry.

By the time that she made Mutiny Child was an established poet. Hills too interacted with the literary world, including the New York L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, such as Charles Bernstein and Jack Collom. Both filmmakers learned from and contributed to the work of Downtown musicians and dancers as well, including John Zorn and Sally Silvers respectively, both of who would prove to be regular collaborators in their films. …

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