VAULT speaks to Soda_Jerk who have been awarded the 2020 Samstag Adelaide Film Festival Commission about their approach to making and unmaking film.
Have you ever rewatched a film from your childhood and thought, “This isn’t the movie I remember”? You get an ineffable yet unshakable sense that something isn’t right – that the thin layer of dust that coats your copy of Mrs. Doubtfire has somehow corroded it. Maybe, the film isn’t a whimsical take on a father trying to spend quality time with his kids after all, but a disturbing account of one man’s inability to respect court-mandated boundaries and insistence on maintaining some form of domestic control. Of course, the 1993 comedy-drama hasn’t changed; I have.
While most people will eventually leave their sense of disappointment behind, the artworks of two-person art collective Soda_Jerk seem to revel in the inadequacy of these memories. Sydney-born siblings Dan and Dominique Angeloro produce films which reframe and remake old narratives anew. In their hands, a medium that has always been defined by its rigidity, by its ‘final cut’, becomes fluid again as films are spliced, edited and re-edited, and are drastically transformed into a kaleidoscopic mix of untold stories. “We can get pretty crypto-mystical talking about sampling, and how it’s really a form of contemporary witchcraft. But guess the short-story version is that we make films entirely constructed of samples from existing movies, music or other media,” they say.
“Perhaps we’re more like renegade archivists than we are filmmakers, because what we’re really doing is strategically reorganising and archiving existing culture in new ways.” Indeed, to watch one of Soda_Jerk’s films is to be enveloped in a tide of familiar imagery that has suddenly been rendered foreign. The artworks turn on this carefully constructed cognitive dissonance, as each of their scenes both revive and shatter our past associations.
Yet this seemingly playful, almost whimsical appropriation of culture belies the inherent seriousness of Soda_Jerk’s projects. For the pair, film is not a passive pastime but a deeply political one. “For us there is no such thing as a fiction film; all films are essentially documentaries in that they are time-based artefacts that are deeply encrypted with traces of the precise cultural moment in which they were produced,” Soda_Jerk explain. Or, put more simply, film functions as a mirror of sorts, which reflects our cultural physiognomy back to us. But what if you don’t like your reflection? “Taking hold of any kind of footage is a concrete way of getting our hands on the stuff of history, of literal hacking into the cultural record of our time,” the pair say. “We’re fundamentally interested in the politics of images: how they circulate, whom they benefit, and how they can be undone.” When viewed against such explanations, the true weight of what is at stake in these artworks is revealed. In the age of “fake news”, Soda_Jerk paradoxically utilise works of fiction in order to highlight real issues.
The very first lines of Soda_Jerk’s latest work, TERROR NULLIUS (2018), serve as a war cry of sorts, signalling the beginning of a cultural crusade that will be waged, against the comfortable stories of yore, throughout the proceeding film. “Once upon a time in a land far, far away” – and, here, the narrator, actor David Gulpilil, breaks into laughter – “nah, not like that, I’m only joking, but I am going to tell you a story.” Splicing iconic Australian films together, TERROR NULLIUS disrupts many of our collective mythologies by offering up a commentary on queerphobia, asylum seekers, misogyny, mining, monarchy and Indigenous disenfranchisement – all provocative topics that tend to be omitted from our more sanitised self-constructions of national identity. Yet provocation is the point.
“We began to feel the impossible weight of the apocalyptic conservatism that has taken hold in Australia and abroad,” the pair recount. “TERROR NULLIUS was really our way of dealing with that, of upending our feelings of despair and channelling them into a form of unapologetic rage and radical solidarity.” Here, the well-worn protagonist – male, white, heroic and familiar – is replaced by a vigilante girl-gang that includes such cultural icons as Jessica Mauboy, Virginia Woolf, Kath of Kath & Kim, Sandy of Grease, and Kate Winslet belting out Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’.
And the implicit politics of the work only becomes more evident as the film progresses. John Howard’s voice, Tony Abbott’s face and Pauline Hanson’s entirety all make appearances, interwoven among the villains of Mad Max 2. The message is undoubtedly on the nose, but it is delivered with a playfulness that takes it beyond a tired diatribe. Yet in other scenes, the work also manages to go beyond the satire and achieve moments of true pathos. At the end of the film, Anthony LaPaglia slowly walks away from a crime scene, gets into a car and slides a cassette into the stereo. A voice comes on over the radio: “Britain waged war against this nation, massacres as systematic as those practised against the Jews in the 20th century … Few or none of these events were recorded by white Australians.
As children, we were given to understand that we were merely innocent bystanders to the slow and natural death of an ancient people.” As the dialogue continues, LaPaglia bursts into tears. It’s an incredibly sad scene, but it’s also an incredibly strange one. On one level, the viewer is acutely aware of the artificial nature of what we are seeing – and the fact that LaPaglia isn’t really mourning our nation’s history, but the passing of his fictional wife. But on another level there is something deeply, inexplicably moving about this pairing of images and sounds, which somehow manages to extend to us
a synthetic space for genuine introspection.
“I guess some people might feel that political critique should not sit side by side with puerility, or beauty with bad taste,
but we think, why not?” Soda_Jerk offer. Of course, they are right: some people do not appreciate the efforts of the artistic duo. In a widely publicised stoush, the Ian Potter Cultural Trust withdrew its support for TERROR NULLIUS, publicly citing it as a controversial piece of art and privately, allegedly, describing it as “un-Australian”. “We feel that what makes an artwork political is precisely its disruptive dimension, or a capacity to unsettle or intervene,” Soda_Jerk explain, reflecting on the Trust’s withdrawal. “In these heightened political times, it seems like every organisation is chasing after the countercultural glow of political art. They are more than happy to share in the critical respect they’re given for their ‘brave’ inclusions, but after the initial honeymoon wears off they inevitably start to worry about the potential risks involved with the broader reception of the work, particularly amongst their stakeholders.” But, in some ways, such reactions also speak to the success of the film – and its ability to inspire more than just polite applause. “We’ve always understood TERROR NULLIUS as a kind of provocation in the sense that it’s an invitation to conversation, not controversy,” they explain.
When Soda_Jerk tell me that their approach was in part inspired by music sampling, I’m immediately reminded of a talk by musician and producer Mark Ronson that has always stuck with me.
In describing sampling, he says, “You can’t just hijack nostalgia wholesale … you have to take an element of those things and then bring something fresh and new to it.” And that is what Soda_Jerk do so well. They take our most comfortable family favourites and use them to open up an uncomfortable conversation. And through these cinematic manipulations Soda_Jerk rewrite history: not as it was, but as it should have been.
Soda_Jerk are exhibiting as part of Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction at Kunsthal Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands until June 30; and Mud Muses: An exhibition on Art and Technology at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, curated by Lars Bang Larsen, from October 12, 2019 until January 12, 2020.
Soda_Jerk have been awarded the 2020 Samstag Adelaide Film Festival Commission and will premiere their new film Netspolits at the the Samstag Museum of Art in October 2020.
Commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne
Courtesy the artists
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