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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue

Bambitchell: Bugs and Beasts Before the Law

<p>Installation view: <em>Bambitchell: Bugs and Beasts Before the Law</em>, Mercer Union, Toronto, 2019. Courtesy Mercer Union, Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.</p>

Installation view: Bambitchell: Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Mercer Union, Toronto, 2019. Courtesy Mercer Union, Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

On View
Mercer Union
September 14 – November 2, 2019

“All beasts and birds, as well as creeping things, were devils in disguise.” So whispers the narrating voiceover in Bambitchell’s experimental film installation Bugs and Beasts Before the Law. Developed with support from the Henry Art Gallery and showing for the first time at Mercer Union in Toronto, Bugs and Beasts reflects Bambitchell’s (the shared moniker of multimedia artists Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Kyle Mitchell) interest in juridical histories. Structured as five chapters with titles like “Book I. No. V - The Hour of the Pig,” “Book III. No. XVII - Inanimates in Exile,” and “Book IV. No. XIX - People v. The Cock of Basel,” each section describes a court case involving non-human creatures or inanimate objects. Referencing animal trials from Medieval Europe, colonial Brazil, and 20th-century America, Bugs and Beasts reads almost as a history channel satire. As in previous Bambitchell works, the artists’ accounts of absurd historical incidents activate questions about present-day interactions between humans and the so-called natural world.

The film’s chapters each begin with a title card written in gothic font and decorated with bright red and purple geometrical knots—the tongue-in-cheek effect conjures the Book of Kells seen through an Instagram filter. Though each instalment offers a contained narrative, the aggregate of five case studies gives the impression of a mounting argument, though Bambitchell do not offer a generalizing thesis. Instead, Sukaina Kubba’s versatile narration and the accompanying bolded, yellow subtitles lead the viewer through a series of vignettes that feature constructed tableau environments and references to E.P. Evan’s 1906 book, Criminal Prosecution and the Capital Punishment of Animals, and other sources. The narrative tone ranges from eccentric fairytale to evangelical sermon to dispassionate podcast, with the textual content supported by artist and sound designer Richy Carey’s lively and self-aware score. With surround sound enveloping the amphitheater-style, right angle benches, the effect is akin to an especially dramatic Anglican service.

Curiously, despite Bugs and Beasts’s focus on the application of anthropocentric schemas, we see very few humans onscreen. More often, we see shots of human-built structures, including cathedrals, cobblestone roads, and high-rise buildings. The latter appear alongside industrial cranes in the final chapter, “‘Book V. No. XXIV - Electrocuting the Elephant,” which tells the story of Thomas Edison’s crew using electrical force to execute Topsy, a Tennessee circus elephant sentenced to death in 1903. This focus on machines as objects that are seemingly prone to enacting and rebelling against human direction brings to light some of the more exigent questions in the film. In particular, the consideration of deodand, a facet of English Common Law which avowed the punishment of inanimate objects responsible for harming humans until 1846, foreshadows the legal treatment of corporations as individuals during the 20th century, and the increasingly fervid personification of natural disasters accelerated by climate change. Congruent with the film’s historical examples, one wonders about the insufficiency of our systems of judgment and where human responsibility lies.

<p>Installation view: Bambitchell: Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Mercer Union, Toronto, 2019. Courtesy Mercer Union, Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.</p>

Installation view: Bambitchell: Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Mercer Union, Toronto, 2019. Courtesy Mercer Union, Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

The film’s many moods are guided by sonic shifts, which help to retain a sense of movement and focus. From naturalistic recordings of birds and wind to a requiem-like overture featuring key shifts, drum rolls, and choral singing, Carey’s contributions add depth and personality to the images. One climactic sequence from the chapter about deodand opens with an orb of red light hovering mystically in a wooded idyll. The music accelerates, transforming from a gentle, if somewhat ominous, folksong to a pulsating electronic soundtrack overlaid with the puritanical refrain: “Impure Impure Impure... The sword, the boat, the cart, the wheel, the iron, the statue, the shaft, the pig, the goat, the termite, the weevil the ant, the spider, the rooster, the elephant / The witch / The saracen / The sodomite.” As the music swells, the orb multiplies and whirls, appearing as a dual symbol for magic and modern surveillance. It’s hard not to associate the red circle’s path with a spotlight, and the frenzied singing with Western civilization’s obsession with tracking and pathologizing difference as dissidence.

Bugs and Beasts is about oppressive governmental and legal structures. It’s about human abuses of power, including colonialism, homophobia, sexism, and religious intolerance. It’s also a comedy, or at least frequently wryly comedic. Case in point, the risible outcome of a 1713 ecclesiastical trial in which Brazilian termites are found innocent, while their Gray Friar adversaries are admonished for not recognizing the termites’ “right derived from priority of possession” over building supplies. Likewise, the image of a pig being turned slowly on a spit after the narrator describes in flowery prose the execution of another “porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, [to] be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood nearest to the gallows” is deeply macabre. So too is the human proclivity for pomp and circumstance. (We’re told the sow’s executioner bought new gloves for the occasion.) In the end, Bugs and Beasts is less a commentary on retributive justice, and more an indictment of human frailty. Pity the man, woman, lawyer, or judge who expects an elephant, a weevil, a cart, or a shaft to adhere to their pernicious demands, but pity more a world in which these demands are perceived as fair or even sensical.


Esmé Hogeveen

is a writer and editor based in Toronto. She currently co-publishes MICE Magazine with the 4:3 Collective and studies auto-theory, new media, and feminist art histories.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

All Issues