Australian Brooklyn-based sample-art collective Soda_Jerk, made up of sisters Dan and Dominique Angeloro, have followed up their giddy 2016 collaboration with The Avalanches, The Was, with a wily attack on officially-sanctioned Australian history and culture titled Terror Nullius. The film premiered at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) last week, and remixes fragments from Australian TV and cinema archives into a “political revenge fable in three acts” that envisions the timely demises of Howard, Abbott, Crowe, Gibson, Hogan, Rinehart and Hanson, among others.
The film’s politics and imagery resulted in its patrons, the Ian Potter Foundation, pulling promotional and marketing support for the project at the last minute on the grounds that it was “un-Australian”. This occurred shortly after the following interview, which was conducted by The Lifted Brow art editors Bailey Sharp and Ben Juers, took place.
TLB: Your last film The Was (2016) struck me as feeling definitely situated in America, from the New York subway system to suburban California. Terror Nullius is clearly Australian, but also questions what being Australian actually means. How different is it working with Australian pop culture as opposed to that of America?
Soda_Jerk: For us there is no such thing as a fiction film. All films are documentaries in the sense that they are historical documents, thoroughly inscribed with concrete traces of their production, circulation and reception. So we treat working with any national archive as an opportunity to dig deep into these aspects of cultural specificity. Sometimes our intentions will be to draw out these kinds of cultural or historical particulars and other times to destabilise and trouble them.
One of the origins of Terror Nullius was an interest in the cinematic genre of Australian Gothic and the way that these films function as a stealth repository for unspoken cultural anxieties. We were thinking about the way that the landscape so often has a malevolent and foreboding presence within Australian films and how this might relate to our nation's horrific history of settlement and its ongoing aftermath.
TLB: Can you describe the process of Indigenous consultation involved in Terror Nullius?
SJ: The process that evolved wasn’t the linear path of formalised consultation that we initially anticipated, but rather a more open, informal and rhizomic dialogue between many friends, colleagues and heroes. The last thing we wanted was to put anyone in a situation where they would be expected to act as some kind of stamp of approval or permission for the decisions made in the work. And in that sense we found that, by keeping discussions off-record, individuals felt they could contribute without claiming an authoritative voice beyond their own. This was not only true of Indigenous consultation but also the way we approached the many and varied political vectors and minority communities engaged in the work. So while there are just five people we acknowledge as official project advisors, really, the way that we developed our conceptual and ethical approach to the film is indebted to the generosity of a much larger community of peers.
Specifically, one of the significant issues we negotiated was whether to image Indigenous Australians within the work or sample films by Indigenous Australian directors. Initially we had considered developing ways of inscribing the obscuring of Indigenous Australian history (the terror of terra nullius) into the project without relying on directly sampling this material, but the feedback we received overwhelmingly rejected this kind of approach. Instead what was affirmed was the necessity for inclusive representations, and the treatment of Indigenous Australian film as part of the official archive of Australian cinema, like any other.
TLB: The way you free fictional characters from their original context seems to give them a new sense of agency. Does it feel liberating for you to liberate characters? Were there any particular characters, scenes or images in Terror Nullius that felt especially satisfying to cut and paste in this way?
SJ: Guess there are forms of sampling-as-liberation in the project, in the sense of the hunted becoming the hunters – the roos attack their human attackers, the croc devours Mick Dundee. But perhaps what interests us more is the way that a sample can never truly escape its original context. This comes back to what we were saying about how we think of samples as encrypted historical documents that are embedded with clues about the histories, personal experiences and politics of where they are and where they have been. What interests us is trying to decrypt these cultural or historical vectors and reprogram them in a way that opens new possibilities or draws attention to latent or hidden dynamics. What does it mean, for example, for the character of Furiosa to seek vengeance on the fictional character of Mad Max for the misogynistic violence of Mel Gibson’s real life rant tape? The way the real and fictional interface is deeply complicated and difficult to unravel.
TLB: In another interview, you say that you’re committed to free culture. Have you had to fight for free culture in a legal setting?
SJ: Although we think of all our works as probes designed to test the parameters of the law, we’ve never received a cease and desist for any of the samples used in our work. This might have to do with the legal protections that already exist within copyright law, such as the Fair Dealing exemptions for works of parody and satire in Australia or the more robust protections of Fair Use within US copyright law. But we also suspect the real protection is simply that there’s not much financial gain, or reputation capital, to be had from suing a scrappy artist collective.
TLB: What I like about Terror Nullius is that it makes a point of “wearing its rage on its sleeve”, and that it weaponises frustration and despair rather than succumbing. What utility do you see in this kind of revenge fantasy?
SJ: Weaponising frustration and despair is a perfect way to put it. When you feel powerless to enact change, sometimes it’s a powerful thing to see it. We do have a lot of faith in the tactical power of alternative narratives or what Sun Ra calls ‘counter-mythologies’. The revenge fantasy is a particularly potent form of this, and one we felt was called for in response to what are some pretty dark and despairing political times. Like so many Australians we feel genuinely pissed and deeply ashamed about just how distant any form of social justice is from the contemporary national political agenda.
Alongside this dimension of the revenge fable, it was also important for us to image positive forms of radical solidarity and collectivity such as political resistance, the bush doof, the gay beat, the girl gang.
TLB: Are you into memes and their knack for interrogating pop culture?
SJ: We’re into memes, absolutely. Not sure about the term “pop culture” though. Ever since the internet, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to demarcate a realm of consumable culture that is distinct from everything else – from the news or social media or politics or whatever. Actually this combustion of cultural boundaries is maybe what memes demonstrate best as they multiply and mutate across different domains; grafting an innocuous frog cartoon to an alt-right political movement and so on. William S. Burroughs wrote of the “reality studio”, Guy Debord called it the “society of the spectacle”, and Hito Steyerl has named this the era of “circulationism”. But whatever you call it, it does seem that we are shit deep in the collapse of image culture into the very fabric of reality.
TLB: Do you have a favorite meme?
SJ: We’ve always had a deep fondness for the Nicholas Cage image “MY HAIR IS A BIRD, YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID”. There’s just something bizarrely compelling and off-kilter about the way this image manages to be completely nonsensical and entirely articulate at the same time. That’s the logic of the internet all over.
Terror Nullius is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne from the 20th of March to the 1st of July.