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By David Finkelstein | February 24, 2005

“Skip” is a strange and haunting video, made from found black and white footage. The footage seems to be from a scientific experiment which involved timing and measuring children while they skip, run, and climb. A girl skips around a circle drawn on the ground. A very tiny child, naked, heroically pushes around and climbs up platforms which seem three times his size. A boy with a very severe stutter tries to say his name.

This footage is subjected to a large number of formal variations. It is looped, run backward, shown in the negative, blown up, and reduced to outlines. The title “Skip” has multiple connotations: the mental skips of the stuttering boy, the skipping movements of the other children, the sounds of skipping vinyl records which are timed precisely to the looping edit points. In one startling sequence, the smallest child is walking up an enormous ramp, and the footage is looped in the precise rhythm of the stuttering boy’s voice, heard on the soundtrack. The music also includes hauntingly floating electronic sounds as well as versions of “Skip to my Lou” sung by Carl Accordino and others. The imagery is occasionally punctuated by the flashing numbers of the Academy Leader sequence (the numbers which are usually placed for the projectionist at the start of a film), adding to the theme of rhythmic repetition.

The strange feeling of this film comes from the atmosphere created by the scientific probing of the natural activities of childhood. There is no hint of cruelty or exploitation; the scientists are shown in some of the footage and they seem perfectly friendly and pleasant to the children. There is even a benign suggestion that the purpose of the study was to find ways to help children such as the stutterer. At the same time, there is an inherent ambiguity whenever a cold, detachedly scientific mindset is applied to the innocence of childhood. This ambiguity was captured for me in a sequence where Steuernagel shows, slowed down, a boy’s chest as he breathes, followed by x-ray footage of his lungs breathing. X-rays save lives in some situations, but they also are incredibly harmful.

Steuernagel has applied her fine musical sensibility and visual acuity to extract the most interesting parts of this found footage and create a collage with multiple echoes of meaning, both disturbing and hopeful.

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