The Making of a Film, Jessica Higgins
Originally co-published CCA Annex and MAP Magazine, 8 June 2023, commissioned by CCA
The technician’s office is a pupa. p-u-p-a. I like to say it. It’s punchy. It’s pupae when it’s plural and in Latin it means ‘doll’. Pupa is the name for the life stage of an insect in transformation, a phase described as ‘intermediate’ and ‘quiescent’. This name can describe not only the stage — as in the time of the event and its passing — but the state — as in the object the insect becomes when encased in the film, crust, or silken web it builds for itself.
If we pass through the felted doorway of the technicians office we might encounter a thick ornamentation of tools as they hang from walls, lay on tables and are strewn across floors. There are cables and leads, labels and tape, transformers and adapters, lenses and speakers, microphones and projectors. There are lights, their rigs and gels, which will later scaffold their tinted attention on the subject. There are stands, clasps and clamps which nestle behind the scenery as a climate or landscape. These instruments are mechanisms of connection — literally, as in the cables which go from microphone to recording device — and assembly — as in the (dis/re)assembling of the edit and the assembly of the senses and their relations when in the company of the broadcast.
After days of endless eating, shedding its skin and eating some more, the caterpillar builds its pupa. Held safely in this opaque crust, the caterpillar now proceeds to eat itself. Using its own digestive enzymes it turns into a soup. It dissolves into pure information, an oozing record of its lifelong consumption. Eventually, as we know, this ooze becomes a butterfly. I like to think about the technician’s office as a pupa because this is where we find the tools (objects, states) and the space (times, stages) which translate the data which we record or amplify when we make films and performances. That is, it’s the place where we transform the vibrating air and shimmering surfaces we capture when we try to represent our engagements with the everyday and its desires; when we fabricate acts and weave fictions, catching them in the amber attention of the stage light; when we set our forensic, surveilling gaze on the document, object or event in motion. The technician’s office dissolves this sensual consumption held in our recording and amplifying devices and remakes it solid and magnificently patterned.
Alex writes in his production diary for Sister Films that he thinks of the audio cable hanging on the technician’s wall as a black hole at the end of its existence, after it collapses, holding still all its collected data. I like this, because I like black holes and the mysteries of the event horizon. I also like that at the edges of the caterpillar’s pupa there might be threads, like the hanging coils of audio cables, which hold traces of its accumulated consumption. Which makes sense, because the caterpillar doesn’t entirely dissolve during its transformation but leaves behind parts of itself called ‘imaginal discs’ which will become the antennae, wings, genitals, eyes and legs of its new body.
Working through my notes and pocket references as I approach writing this essay, I noticed a few moments recently in which the artist I’m studying makes reference to a fleshiness of memory. The ways in which memory and its traces of action, relation and inheritance echo in the material of our bodies. How memory makes a habitat in fleshes of a kind. In Jane Arden’s script for her film ANTICLOCK she talks about memories in molecules; when the composer Julius Eastman writes a letter of devotion to Joan of Arc’s great courage, he says they forget that the mind has memory. In this having, I hear the whisper of Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind is a Muscle and learn something more about how the organ of the mind — our very own technician’s office, our nightly pupa — provides refuge to memorial data long after an event — those daily black holes and their mystifying structures — has collapsed.
On the website wormspit.com a silkworm cultivator painstakingly documents the life cycle from egg to worm to moth and back again. While in their youth, the worms won’t stray too far from the safe walls of their feeding tray, but when they begin to weave their cocoons, watch out, we’re told, you might all of a sudden find them nestled up in the corners of your drapes. It seems that silkworms desire a soft and folded structure within which to conduct their transformation. Another entry in Alex’s production diary shares a camera anomaly capturing three impressions of the artist in a sweeping motion. The extra-exposure of the film highlights the heavy drapery of theatre curtains in the background and we see the architecture of a scene in its making. A scene which would otherwise be obscured by the foregrounding energy of spot-lights that cast their tonal drama across actor, director and stagehands in the first of the Sister Films. In this anomaly of exposure, I see the drapery of the theatre and imagine the silkworm pupae hanging out up there, dissolving and making themselves into new images and sensations. I see the drapery of the theatre and all of a sudden the space of the making of a film is a mind, a muscle, a molecule.
I’ve forgotten my school science and realise I need to look up what a molecule actually is. I look it up and re-learn that a molecule is a group of two or more atoms held together by attractive forces and wonder if those forces are where memory’s traces of action, relation and inheritance pulse, binding each atom into some kind of earthly substance. Molecules, I learn, don’t just float in space but gaggle together like gossips to form cells. They get thicker. More sheet-like. Round or wriggling. I think of the cells of film reels rolling into fully formed acts like the sentence with its grammar; outtakes left on the proverbial cutting room floor which fall to the totalising gravity of the event horizon; and composites which make adjunct connections and new muscular meanings that don’t speak but shimmer.
In Catherine’s voiceover to one of the Sister Films she says the shadow of dark cells are so extraordinary that as I swam into a black hole I saw the back of my own head. At the surface of the black hole objects appear suspended, stuck in its heavy gravity. Time stops for the body as it falls, which appears to the observer like a freeze-frame. It ceases to move or progress through time as good bodies should. It’s captured, hooked. The black hole lends us an analogy for the suspended notion of memory’s folds in this sense, but it can also describe the punch used to hang a strip of film as it dries, an outline which in its draping absence infers an opening.
During each of the five minor transformations the silkworm goes through before retreating to its cocoon — a state from which it cannot return — it spends nearly a whole day in a completely still position resembling prayer. The silkworm is a freeze-frame. But it’s not stopped, it’s working on something. Give it time. At the end of this meditation it sheds its skin and changes its face. The silkworm needs to upgrade for a better mouth so that it can eat more and more food in preparation for its final transformation. There is always a point where both faces are held simultaneously, a split image, the old face hanging from its chin. The silkworm leaves its film-like skin behind as it wriggles away from itself. The old skin is a wormhole, a tunnel. To be clear: a wormhole is a space-time portal connecting two points in the universe, whereas the black hole we’ve been talking about is a body of extreme gravity from which nothing escapes. If the silkworm is disturbed during its resting phase, either from being knocked over by a passing worm or nudged by a clumsy human, it will get stuck in this mode and eventually die. There is a precarity, then, to any of these transformations, subject to the stillness of a filmic gaze as we shed our skin on stage, as we change our faces, leaving the old ones behind.
Throughout the first act of Sister Films, Catherine is filmed in a theatrical setting. She wears her father’s suit, it’s pinstriped and oversized. A skin she needs to grow into or let cling, stuck, half-shed. She is still, her lips rarely move although we hear her voice off screen. When they do move it’s unmatched, it’s out of time. Aside: in a letter to John Cage, the performance artist Esther Ferrer wrote in 1991, anarchistic thought is something out of time, even without time, and I would even dare to say that it is something anchored in human nature. Underneath Catherine’s face, across her chest, at her shoulders and sometimes behind her head we’re shown a graceful choreography of mirrors. In their rhythmic rise, fall and suspension, they cast reflections of the staged scene and the landscape of the film’s production. The mirror’s dance shows us the performance and its logic, their reflections compose the technology of relations at play in the making of the film. Director, camera, stagehand, technical equipment, prop.
The mirrors take Catherine’s face, they construct it, they shed it, and shed it again. They are multiple versions of her. They speak many languages. They have skills and attributes the suspended image does not. The mirror’s tendency for movement and change reminds me of the performer’s capacity for swimming in the shallows of self and other, to mimic, to embody. I love the notion of method acting — although I have never done it, I’ve never really acted, I’m a bad actor — because it means that you are always more than you are. The mirrors take Alex’s face, just visible behind his camera and install it onto Catherine’s body. Their silent conversation on screen is a measure of the space between them. Like the wormhole, it’s a portal between two locations in the universe. Like when Mei-mei Berssenbrugge writes space is material, but seems to open up a beyond, which is thought to defy material in its failure to speak its content, this unspeakable space-time between two bodies is the defiant material of empathy. Empathy, I think, is like a mirror on the tongue and the empathy of the audience, according to Catherine Sullivan, is excited by the dramatic scenario. When we’re given lighting rigs, drapes, cables, we make something not quite real but real enough to feel with a truth of a kind. We pick up the out of time-liness of anarchic thought and drop the act and its action in the unreal time of the stage.
In the second act of Sister Films, Catherine narrates a flickering scene of clapper boards and colour charts, recalling: Alex says Allison Gibbs may have taught me that an analysis of film might make me psychic. The filmic or performative space drips with contingency. This is why I like it, it makes a lot of things up. It deals with duration. It tends to action, relation, inheritance. It is pure living and pure fiction at once. Its analysis and interpretation is a mystical trade, its production positively oracular. Although the practices of film and performance have their methods of measurement, their techniques and their sciences, I like to imagine that the developing bucket is a blind prophet; the microphone a medium; the monologue a hallucination out of time. Did you know that if you place two halves of a ping pong ball over your eyes and listen to the sound of a waterfall for several minutes you can induce hallucinations? I wonder what would happen if you got stuck like that, either because of a passing worm or a clumsy human. Maybe that would be it. You. Done? Anew!
Alex tells us that many of the flowers which featured in Women’s Studies and the second part of Sister Films could induce hallucinations if you eat them. It turns out that hallucinations may not be the result of the misregistration of information as it passes through the senses to the mind, but that while influenced or otherwise afflicted, we might simply be in the process of loosening our attachment to sensory translation. Rather, in this state we might begin to place more importance on the interpretation of the information we are subject to. It is this newly heightened capacity for interpreting sensation which leads to a misaligned experience of our ordinarily measured reality. Film and performance can insist on the ordinarily measured reality as an imperative. It can make those measurements more real with the metered tone of the document or record, or it can make them more sensually readable with the dramatic tools and their unreal time. But it can also insist on incompatibility, collage, opacity. It can swim in the total gravity of the tool’s unreal time. It can dance with the action, relation and inheritance of languages and their images in contingent sequences. Robert Ashley says that after a performance he finds it hard to concentrate and everyone thinks he’s drunk, but, he says, it doesn’t matter, because I have just broken all the rules of grammar for an hour and a half.
While I’ve been watching Alex and Catherine’s films, I keep scrawling the phrase eating and being eaten. I etch it into the margins of the page and set it off to float under quotes or descriptions. I think, to eat is to be the filmmaker’s eye and the poet’s ear, snacking on references and stories, tones and moods. Metabolising them. To be eaten is to be the actor or body on film, eaten by the camera. Replaying, reliving, dissolving, being made anew. Eating and being eaten is an enigmatic phrase but describes nothing more ordinary than what we call the food chain. The system of relations between organisms predicated on the act of eating. But, in the Sister Films project, I also hear eating and being eaten as a subtitle to the material inheritances echoing through a pair of linking films and an accompanying log of outtakes and reference matter nestling in their edges. Like pupae in the drapes; like audio cables in the technician’s office; like the chunks of the caterpillar left in the soup which will become new limbs, new organs.
By material inheritance I mean the rich and sensuous expressions of art, film and music. That which is essential in its not-not utility and gives us new languages and forms for living. These Sister Films are homilies to a legacy of queer and feminist film; avant-garde theatre and performance; the practices of the artist’s peers and the tonal histories of cinematography. These echoes gaggle like clusters of molecules bound together with forces of attraction. We feast on them as we scroll and swipe, meanwhile Catherine’s monologue weaves anecdotes with a poesy of the question, like each phrase is an ambiguous truth to be prized open. She tells us: I’m interested in autobiography and writing as if writing is a body, it’s a personal sovereignty against the dangers of misappropriating some parts of another’s experience. Perhaps Catherine in this moment is the caterpillar eating herself, her own history. She performs herself in a lyric autobiography which becomes a costume, a crust or shell. A film. I read that some pupae are leant the protection of ants who shield them from danger, since the delicate transformation can take days, weeks, even years.
Over the course of the first film, the hands which hold the mirrors up to Catherine’s figure slowly become bodies of their own, those of the technical assistants. In full view, we see them dressed in the ubiquitous black ensemble of a stagehand. They perform their duties with care and attention. They move the mirrors up and down. They frame the subject. They look beyond the camera lens for their cue. Just once, Wendy gives herself away, a smile slips from her otherwise composed presence — that posture of “acting yourself”. The smile overflows the frame, collapses space, cracks the pupa and is able to speak its content.
 Michael Cook, ‘Bombyx Mori – the silkworms’ blog!’, wormspit.com: a site about silkworms, silkmoths and silk, (2004), http://www.wormspit.com/bombyxsilkworms.htm
 Esther Ferrer, Esther Ferrer’s Letter to John Cage, (1991), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/esther-ferrer-esther-ferrer-s-letter-to-john-cage-1991
 Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Forms of Politeness, (2006), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53710/forms-of-politeness
 Catherine Sullivan, ‘Interview: The Chittendens’, art21, (2005), https://art21.org/read/catherine-sullivan-the-chittendens/
 Maria Cohut, ‘What really happens in the brain during a hallucination?, Medical News Today, (March 2019), https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324805#Not-the-smoking-gunbut-a-piece-of-it
 Robert Ashley, ‘The Composer Robert Ashley’, Blank Forms 04: Intelligent Life, (Blank Forms: New York, 2019), p. 41