Critics’ Picks

  • Bambitchell, Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, 2019, 16 mm, digital animation, 4K, color, sound, 32 minutes 31 seconds.

    Bambitchell, Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, 2019, 16 mm, digital animation, 4K, color, sound, 32 minutes 31 seconds.

    Bambitchell

    Mercer Union
    1286 Bloor Street West
    September 14–November 2, 2019

    In Bambitchell’s “Bugs and Beasts Before the Law,” a single-channel video installation focuses on four historical accounts of animal trials in America, Europe, and colonized countries. The footage culls outdoor shots of forests, parks, construction sites, and judicial-looking spaces, and is punctuated by graphic elements and ornate title cards.

    The first account begins in fourteenth-century Falaise, France. As the camera pans across a room outfitted with a backdrop of what might be a public square and an actual noose, the narrator describes the hanging of a pig who had mauled a child to death. It was decreed that the pig would be subjected to the mangling of its face and legs prior to its execution. In an exceptionally literary tone, the narrator explains, “This is a medieval application of lex talionis, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’” The trials are relayed like stories, but largely in a poetic legalese.

    Another tale uses a shot of a cathedral to introduce the concept of ecclesiastical tribunals held to prosecute vermin. The narrator outlines a 1713 case in which termites were sued by grey friars in Piedade do Maranhão, Brazil, because they “threatened to undermine the physical structure of the monastery.” The lawyer appointed to defend the bugs argued that they were “God’s creatures, entitled to sustenance.”

    Each of these accounts of persecution—in addition to those of a cock who laid an egg, and an elephant who strangled her trainer and was subsequently executed in Edison’s display of currents—marks a relationship between punishment and spectacle, and reveals the period’s moral compass. However ridiculous, these incidents also serve as prisms through which to view the history of our current petty justice system. The law continues to be enforced in relation to those considered less than human while ideological pageantry sloshes around the powers that be.