Bugs & Beasts Before the Law (2019) is a multi-part project and experimental essay film by Bambitchell, the artistic collaboration of Sharlene Bamboat (b. 1984, Pakistan; lives and works in Canada) and Alexis Kyle Mitchell (b. 1983, Canada; lives and works in Scotland) inspired by the history and legacy of the animal trials that took place in medieval and early modern Europe and its colonies in the Americas.
The film centers on the phenomenon of nonhuman animals put on trial in secular and ecclesiastical courts, where they were prosecuted for various crimes ranging from trespassing to murder, as well as the related legal practice of deodand, punishing inanimate objects faulted for human fatality. Across five chapters, the film explores how power is performed through the body of the other, revealing the ways authorities and institutions mediate social relations and subjecthood through such processes as the formation of property and the criminalization of sexual difference. Events from the fourteenth to the early twentieth century are set within contemporary landscapes and within constructed tableaux, blurring past and present, fact and fiction, and accentuating the absurd administration of right and justice as a living history. The constructed aspects of the film and the installation—stage sets and amphitheater seating—emphasize the spectacle of the trials and their function as tools of social control while also suggesting the potential for their deconstruction and for reimagining new possibilities.
In an adjacent gallery, Bambitchell has created a complementary installation based on their reading of E.P. Evans’s book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906), the first chapter of which, titled “Bugs and Beasts Before the Law,” is the foundational English-language text on the medieval animal trials. Evans’s appendix to his book presents itself as a definitive authority but is an incomplete record. This ambiguity is a central point of departure for Bambitchell, whose installation interrogates the fictive unity of historical narrative and the perceived conclusiveness of the knowledge we inherit by opening the past to reinterpretation Collaged phototransfer drawings based on Evans’s appendix entries run through the spine of the gallery, while illustrations from Evans’s earlier book Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture, parade across the walls. Derived from ancient bestiaries and divinely ordained taxonomies that ascribe character traits to nonhuman animals, these images were intended by church authorities to perform a symbolic, moralizing role. Isolated and enlarged, these images demand our attention, animating how Western cultural and visual traditions, along with the animal trials are part of a shared inclination to dominate and to stabilize the social and natural worlds.
* Excerpted from the publication Bugs & Beasts Before the Law, Appendix A-L, produced on the occasion of Bambitchell’s exhibition at the Henry, and designed and printed by Gary Robbins at Container Corps.
Bugs & Beasts Before the Law film script features original writing by Bambitchell, with additional text by Hampton L. Carson, “The Trial of Animals and Insects: A Little Known Chapter of Mediaeval Jurisprudence,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 56, no. 5 (1917): 410–15; E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (London: William Heinemann, 1906); Nicholas Humphrey, The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Sarah Keenan, “Space and Subversive Property: Holding Up Relations of (Un) Belonging,” commissioned by Ex-Embassy, 2018; Greta LaFleur, The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Film script embellished with imagery derived from the Macclesfield Psalter, England, East Anglia, probably Norwich, c. 1330–40. Illuminated manuscript. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. Adapted from Illuminated: Manuscripts in the Making.