Pitch Drop: Notes on a Book+Film in/Complete Gestation
setting herself upside-downright
amidst figuring force fields of spectral simulacra
she takes a breath and begins to hum . . .
In a hallway near the eastern reach of Terra Australis, there’s a cone full of bitumen pulling towards drop. Enclosed in a bell jar—held within a cube of glass—the world’s longest-running laboratory experiment prepares to release its tenth result, sometime within the next eight years. You can watch on live-feed as a diminutive Casio clock counts away the seconds, one by analog one. With a view into the vitrine and out, the camera registers in the rear two doors the color of soil—one as entry, the other for exit—upon which identical signs are affixed:
IN LECTURE THEATER
From this vantage point in the mid-northern latitudes of the Amerigo-Vespuccis, I’m pleased to see that over down under, the language hasn’t yet dropped signs of drama from science. Between the doors—the farthest of which has since been set ajar, rendering visible a poster that reads: MARXISM 2022—one can glimpse the slightly refracted, photographed visage of one Thomas Parnell, posthumous winner of the Ig Nobel Prize, who in 1927 sought to demonstrate to his physics students at the University of Queensland that certain substances which appear solid are in fact highly viscous fluids. Having poured a portion of heated pitch into a sealed funnel, leaving it to settle for three years, Parnell cut the funnel’s neck, allowing the bitumen to begin flow. With a viscosity 230 billion times that of water, large droplets slowly form and fall, over what was once a period of roughly eight years. After the introduction of air conditioning, following the 1988 touchdown of drop number seven, the span of gestation has since extended to some twelve years or more. Reaching now towards its centenary, the experiment continues unabated, its real-time monitoring available to anyone possessing a dependable connection to that amorphous, atmospheric cloud, hovering somewhere(s) between Earth and her myriad satellites.
It’s 5:35 a.m. at the site of experiment, and the uniformed woman who’s been flitting in and out of camera’s capture, with bubble-shaped pack affixed to her back, has now marked the conclusion of her cleaning-of-illicit-crumbs by removing the heretofore unseen orange cone, which had been deployed to prop the Marxist entry door ajar. Despite the now constant surveillance, and with a drop as recent as 2014, the slow-going experiment continues to evade definitive capture. Not a soul—camera included—has yet to glimpse the pitch at precise moment of drop.
in rendering pith to page,
it’s the ill, or perhaps oddly apt and interim
fit she’s after—just
to see what might surface or sink
into the abyss
My interwoven work in research, writing, performance, and cinema exhibits a similar velocity or viscosity, with drops three and four now hanging in tethered breach: one a book, the other a film—an aqueous ground and a bag of meat. Which comes first, only the egg can tell. My work unfurls and enfolds through strategies of elision, suggestion, insinuation, and figuration—tactics which emerged as corollary to confrontation with the unspeakable. Violence—its horrors, traumas, unpredictable afterlives, and recursive resurgences. The puzzle of how to fashion the mouth, as if to speak—or not—of that which remains unspeakable, is the never-ending knot to which my efforts are drawn. No relief, no resolution. Only trial, defeat, and repeat with ever so slight or drastic tweak. Rather than inhabit postures of remote regard, I tilt towards positions of implication and imbrication, striving towards (im)possibilities of singing with those mattering materials now at hand.
A prior textual+cinematic venture, Extinction Number Six, entailed the weaving of a labyrinth of linkages, and the adoption of ventriloquism—emanating from the gut of an unseen narrator. The film tracks the narrator’s quixotic search for (im)material traces of Java’s colonial, mystical, and paleontological past—a journey haunted in equal measure by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa, and the 1965–66 Indonesian (counter)coup and subsequent anti-communist massacres. Set off by a cataclysmic fever dream, the film is structured according to a hybrid literary-musical form, wherein all manner of seemingly disparate materials and events are brought into meaningful relation. Propelled by an essayistic impulse—that roving, ruminative energy of shape-shifting burrow—Extinction attempts to configure an alchemical approach to the writing of time, one capable of confronting, as Kidlat Tahimik might have it, the Perfumed Nightmare of the entire colonial enterprise.
Before audiovisual inscription, Extinction had been covertly cooking, somewhere beneath the gaping maw through which its constituent matters had been iteratively fed. Lodged within nooks of intestinal fold, these sundry bits communed for ten odd years, mingling and melding through fermentation. In the end, which is to say the start, when through heat and effervescence the stomach reached full swell, the only way out was back up through the gullet. Having served as (un)witting host, it was only fitting that I, too, should act the surgeon-plumber—playing both puppet and puppeteer, pulling strings of tangled bile ’cross tender lip.
sometimes we’re born out of joint
and must wend our way back
forward along newly etched ancestral lines,
suturing bone back to bone
in search of our siblings
As glossed above, the animating impulse of Extinction’s composition is essayistic. Engaged in circuits of trial, above all else. Within such a process, any sense of an essay, or the essay, converts back, without remainder, to the infinitive verbal root in the French essayer—to try, to attempt, to aim, or test—which, when taken back further to the Latin exigere, conveys a sense of driving out, or of setting into out-motion. As I practice it, essay describes neither genre nor form—gesturing instead towards method, towards a hodos or way. Towards a manner of travelling across (dis)continuous itineraries of iterative (de)composition, wherein the audiovisual synapses traversed form the habitual haunts of a horizontal montage. A method of cinematic assembly concerned less with forging fusion between one image and the next, than with lateral linkage from ear to eye—thereby hitching said to (a)synchronous seen.
It was through this weaving of utterance and image that I first came to figure myself as something approaching author, a designation that now evokes shudder. For I am neither master, nor leader, possess no authority, and claim no progeny. But if I practice my etymological preach and reach yet further back, what do I find in the Latin auctor? One who causes to grow. As digger of holes and tiller of crops, this I can receive. The etymo-auctorial impulse I now abide aches not after origin (if only in its fallacy). Respecting the ruse of riddled egg, it directs its aim otherwise—towards sited spheres of iterative becoming, wherein its riffs, rhythms, and raisons d’être will too transfigure, en route to the dropping of drip.
in the antechamber
of the yet unattainable space of (dis)embodied utterance
—before or beyond the subject-as-self—
her syntax grows thumbs,
thrumming its way toward no-place
More than once I’ve heard it whispered: let the film write the book . . . let the bag configure the ground. In this interminable interim wherein subjects resist being under-thrown, I’ve considered giving it a running go. Composing a score for a film—in/(di)ges(ta)tion, all mottled and mired in a gut-cum-womb—whose orchestrating impulse would unfurl a bag of book bearing the name: Aqueous Ground—Jakarta, Amsterdam, and the Figurations Between. As a recovering hardcore secular rationalist, I’m more than keen to give up the ghost and yield the compositional imperative to the black plastic bag of sacrificial meat I’ve been lugging for so long. Surely this weighty matter knows what methods might be required. Yet there’s a scholar-imp within, still angling to ply her ripened craft under cloak of subterfuge—all the better to loosen the noose of those yet-durable rigidities of still-Enlightened thinking. Given their shared position within the belly’s beast, and their mutual performance of slow, surgical exit, who’s to say the book+film must be divvied up, chronologized, or otherwise hierarchized? Can’t it/they just tarry in tandem, fashioning each other’s forms?
The query from which the book+film emerged sought to tune the ’pulse anew, to ferret out more subtle forms of violence of the colonial, capitalist, authoritarian ilk. Those which have nonetheless paved our accelerating way towards twinned crises of anthropogenic climate change and environmental collapse. In redirecting the gaze from blood to soil and its aqueous interface, I sought to surface the ecological undertones of the verb to colonize: to plant, to till, to bring new land/water into productive, habitable use. Not so as to tame or render bucolic. But rather to present for plain view those longue durée processes of accretion and erosion that structure contemporary catastrophe, while positioning certain bodies to profit from others’ horrors.
by what measure might they meet?
In the wake of discursive floods angling to anthropocize the –cene, stratigraphy as strategy came readily to mind. Paired with a penchant for images that scintillate as they dissimulate, I was ripe for rousing by a haunting portrayal of a Dutch-designed bird of Indonesian extraction—bearing a distended wingspan of thirty-two kilometers. Under the pall of a dismal forecast, putting large swaths of Jakarta three to five meters under water by the year 2050, the Kingdom of the Netherlands sought to sell back to their former subjects a massive hydro-engineering feat: a bird-shaped seawall complete with gaggle of artificial island eggs. Band-aid or blindfold, these zoomorphic specimens arrived as dissimulating panacea, promising to at once save the Indonesian capital from catastrophic inundation, while converting all manner of threat into boundless opportunity, thereby transforming the notoriously gritty megacity into a shining exemplar of blue-green prosperity. Most striking of all was the breed of bird chosen for the task: the Garuda—an eagle-like bird of Hindu-Buddhist mythology that serves as Indonesia’s national emblem, the very symbol of liberation from three centuries of Dutch rule. Rising in Jakarta Bay, as phoenix from watery ash, it seemed this king of birds and mount of Vishnu would more than suffice to focus my query.
Eyes bulged and mouth agape, I began to plumb the unfathomable, ironic depths of Dutch designs on Jakarta, a city whose spiral of environmental degradation they’d set in motion back in 1619—massacring the extant population, canalizing the thirteen rivers, and christening the new settlement Batavia, in homage to their quasi-mythic, Roman-era ancestors. Known for their prowess in amphibious battle, they were said to forge deep rivers on horseback, clad in full armor. With the Garuda itching to make landfall, I attuned my ear/eye to its transfixed yet quivering wings, ever-on-the-alert for a flap that might provoke the proverbial typhoon. After a twitch too far, ramifications rippled. The seemingly singular spectacle of the Great Garuda Giant Seawall spilt the bounds of its tightly-sketched frame, as the bird and its island eggs were conscripted into all manner of long-simmering contestations. Sensorium upturned, I strained my stretch beyond ostensible objects of inquiry, to ’tune to the fields of force then forming in palpable, encompassing surround.
A complex dramaturgy was at work, wherein spectral remnants and accreted agglomerations of times past began to play themselves out in real time, within a tense political present—one that flickered ever more vigorously between on- and offline realms, which could no longer be glossed as a pat bifurcation between the virtual and the real. Within these flashing fields, the Garuda both bled-in and gave birth to a series of other simulacral spectacles: a televized mass eviction along the flooded coast; the evisceration of a sacred mountain range, domiciled by the descendents of an eco-spiritual colonial-era dissident; a polemical election crossed with a blasphemy trial, spurred by a doctored, viralized video; a zombie long-march by former employees of the state oil company (along with other dramatic, figural forms of grassroots ecoprotest, such as sculptural amalgams of woman-concrete-wood); a double-raid on a legal aid institute aiming to silence the singing ghosts of Indonesia’s anti-communist massacres of 1965; and a quadrilingual court case—ambiguous in its chronotopic form(s)—adjudicating Dutch violence in Indonesia via videofeed, some seventy years after the fact.
Yet it was something else and other that stopped me in my tracks: my receipt of a black plastic bag of sacrificial meat, gifted once-removed on the occasion of Idul Adha—the Muslim holiday of Abrahamic, filial sacrifice—by a reviled/revered former general, then angling for a come-back fueled by fear. The bag of meat arrived as flashpoint, as moment of reckoning and crisis of self—with a force too difficult to digest.
In recent years, I’ve watched myself enter states of quasi-ritualistic practice, when struck with matters of grave importance. Enter my washing and ablution, my pruning of bone fragments and grit, and my gathering of ingredients to conjure a curry, trying to transform the perceived bag of burden into some odd manner of tenderized resistance, or at the very least: protinatious nutrition. After hours of reduction, I couldn’t manage more than a bite—I swear it had the texture of gravel and the taste of decapitation. I stashed it in the freezer, awaiting greater courage. Couldn’t yet allow the flesh to mix with mine. Later, I made successive rounds of bone broth, coaxing the soup towards ever-more dense viscosity. Those I tasted and also froze.
following in the wake
—but not the shoes—
of a man named Walter,
she considers the durational weight
of the threshold between thought-image and mourning-play,
denkbild und trauerspiel
And so a film once named Meat Bag, has since softened its edge, as it seeks renewed ways to figure the material density of the symbolic at the interstice of the eye/ear. Now bearing the name 10 Lessons on Meat, the film thus transposed brings classic anthropological questions of ritual, sacrifice, gift-giving, and debt into a multispecies and longue durée ethico-aesthetic-political frame, wherein acts of substitution—lamb for boy, cow for man—no longer hold as assured forms of ablution. While the film does indeed begin with the big bang of receipt of gifted meat, I can’t yet prognosticate the end and so must remain mum. What is sure to fill the frame and spill the bounds is: the proliferation of jittering chronotopes, vertigenous descents into myse-èn-abyme, and the staging of a dramaturgical fray, wherein the spector is only ever also an actor. Within my freezer—and my closet—wait the constituitive materials to reconstiute the sacrifical lamb in mythico-poetic form, so as to attempt, once again, the studied performance of eviscerating surgery from the inside out.
Rachel Thompson is a musician, performer, filmmaker, and writer currently completing a PhD in anthropology at Harvard University. Through textual and cinematic practice, her previous work has examined cultural and political legacies of colonialism, dynamics of cultural exchange and assimilation, and artistic practice in the wake of political violence. Her current textual, performative, and cinematic projects explore the role of simulacral spectacle within political struggle, longue durée socio-natural entanglements between Indonesia and the Netherlands, and the materio-symbolic ways in which the past presses recursively on the present in the creation of weird spatio-temporalities. In a past life, Thompson worked at the Walker Art Center and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Rachel Thompson (dir.), Extinction Number Six. Weird Weather (planet Earth), 2011, 144 min.
The fifth paragraph borrows my essay “Labyrinth of Linkages—Cinema, Anthropology, and the Essayistic Impulse.” In a letter to philosopher and literary critic Nikolai Strakhov dated April 23, 1876, Leo Tolstoy uses the phrase “labyrinth of linkages” to refer to the stuff of art—with the task of the critic being to guide readers through such labyrinths, while pointing out the senselessness of looking for “ideas” within art. In a book largely devoted to Tolstoy’s work, Viktor Shklovsky takes up the phrase and reinvents it, using it variably to describe both literature and life, in their unity and complexity. See Rachel Thompson, “Labyrinth of Linkages—Cinema, Anthropology, and the Essayistic Impulse,” in Gretchen Bakke and Marina Peterson (eds), Between Matter and Method: Encounters in Anthropology and Art, New York, 2018, pp. 1–20, here p. 3; and Viktor Shklovsky, Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (1981), trans. Shushan Avagyan, Champaign, IL, 2007. See also the film by Kidlat Tahimik (dir.), Perfumed Nightmare. El Cerrito, CA, 1977, 93 min.
In his review of Chris Marker’s film Letter from Siberia (1958), André Bazin invokes the phrase “horizontal montage” to describe the utterly new form of montage he observes at work within the film, wherein “a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.” André Bazin, “Chris Marker,” France-Observateur (October 30, 1958), trans. Dave Kehr as “Bazin on Marker,” Film Comment, vol. 34, no. 4 (2003), pp. 44–45, here p. 44.
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