Soda_Jerk’s work has always been political. As artists whose practice is primarily based around sampling copyrighted video material, the politics of images — their circulation, the power structures behind them and how they can be manipulated — are wound into the fabric of the work itself. Since forming in Sydney in 2002, sisters Dominique and Dan Angeloro have collaborated as Soda_Jerk on a wide range of projects; including their first feature – the sprawling anti-copyright epic Hollywood Burn (2006), a poignant portrait of Judy Garland in After the Rainbow (2009) and their euphoric collaboration with The Avalanches, The Was (2016).
TERROR NULLIUS is their most ambitious work yet, an intricate 54-minute cinematic collage that repurposes a vast selection of Australian films to explore and confront various national narratives, symbols and myths. Diving deep into our celluloid archive, their remix moves between moments of lyricism, anger and growling social critique. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo stumbles upon a bush doof, Crocodile Dundee is shot, and a bicentennial celebration is invaded by pack of violent sheep.
In its development stage, the work was awarded the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, which is jointly funded by the Ian Potter Cultural Trust and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. In March 2018, the Ian Potter Cultural Trust released a controversial and much publicised statement withdrawing their association and promotional support from the film ahead of its premiere at ACMI. Soda_Jerk responded to this decision in an impassioned Facebook post. Following its installation at ACMI, TERROR NULLIUS has screened at festivals and galleries around Australia and internationally. After seeing it at the Sydney Film Festival, I reached out to Soda_Jerk via email to discuss the film and their practice.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the original concept for TERROR NULLIUS came from your 2006 short video work Picnic at Wolf Creek, and that you’ve wanted to make a larger-scale Australian political revenge fable since then. How has the project evolved over the past 12 years?
Picnic at Wolf Creek went some way to speculating what might have happened to the disappeared schoolgirls at Hanging Rock, and ends with a busload of queers making road-kill of Mel Gibson. So it had the kernel of using Australian cinema to weave a kind of revenge fable. But we felt that the critique would be sharpened if we could fold the narrative more directly into the terror of Australia’s political and colonial history. While we were researching TERROR NULLIUS we also found ourselves falling even further under the spell of the Australian eco-horror film Long Weekend. In this 1978 Ozploitation, a white couple go camping and display a complete disregard for the natural environment. In turn, they’re savaged by birds, insects, trees, a possum and an undead dugong. The idea that nature itself could be enlisted as an agent of vengeance and historical reckoning is something we absolutely owe to that film.
I ran into you when you were doing research at the AFTRS Library in December 2016, right after you received the Ian Potter Commission. You said at the time that you were heading back to New York a few days later. What was your process like from there?
From there we went back to Brooklyn and descended into our video bunker to work doggedly on developing the edit. Our initial process is wildly non-linear in the sense that we’re always digging for samples, transcoding material, researching, storyboarding, editing and sound designing all at the same time. But keeping this chaos in check are also these organisational tactics we’ve developed over the years involving absurdly elaborate Excel spreadsheets and project mind-maps. That ordered chaos continues until we’re finally ready to lock the edit, and transition to the punishing labour of rotoscoping. Almost everything has to be done frame-by-frame, so even a few seconds of footage can take a week. So that was about four months of just the two of us pushing a mouse around 17 hours a day. Then for the final month of post-production we relocated to the UK for a studio residency at Obsidian Coast, where we completed the final compositing and sound design with our best mate and artistic collaborator Sam Smith. The day we wrapped the post-production we managed to get stranded overnight in a freak blizzard and Dom lost part of her toe to frostbite, so it was a pretty auspicious occasion. She was still limping when we landed back in Sydney to complete the final sound mix and master with Sonar Sound on the Fox Studios lot.
In the Q&A following the screening, you said you structured the film around different historical events, and that you were also reflecting on the optimism of the Whitlam era, and how distant the current Australian political climate feels to that moment. The film begins with Whitlam’s speech following his dismissal. How key was this event to you?
We were born in the years just following the Whitlam dismissal in ‘75, and it definitely cast a shadow over the time in which we grew up. The way that our mum would invoke Whitlam had this almost mythological edge to it, as though he stood in for all the social justice that should have happened but never did. You got this feeling that Australia had narrowly missed an entirely different destiny, and instead we’d all somehow found ourselves stranded in this other horrific political landscape. So leading with Whitlam’s dismissal in TERROR NULLIUS was our way of tapping into this moment as a kind of political allegory for the point where the shit hit the fan and never really stopped raining down.
In the end credits you list the samples by date, grouped by the Prime Minister they were made under. In the film the clips and audio recordings of political figures are presented in a non-linear fashion – moving through the Howard era and into the Queen’s address during the 1988 bicentenary. To me, this gave a sense of past and present political narratives collapsing in on each other, reflecting they way they are reused and manipulated by those in established positions of power. What prompted this approach?
Unfortunately the trajectory of politics and policy in this country does seem endlessly caught in recursive loops and perpetual backtrackings. I mean there’s really a nightmarish sense of déjà vu in seeing Pauline Hanson back in parliament, decades after her shocking debut. Or the way that Keating made huge leaps with the Native Title Act, only to have John Howard try and undo it. So that sense of thwarted progression was something we were thinking about when we were structuring TERROR NULLIUS. We definitely see it as a road movie, but one that moves across a very layered and asynchronous time-space. What you might call queer time.
You’ve spoken about how big an influence the Sydney electronic music community and its culture of sampling was on your practice early on, even saying that in some ways you are more a product of the music scene than the art scene. Can you speak a bit about that?
When we say we didn’t come from the art scene, I guess we mean that the kinds of art scenes that we were into were those that were awesomely entangled with other fields of practice like experimental hip-hop, electronic music and queer performance. At that time in the early 2000s there was so much crossover, and also this really pervasive culture of squatting and illegal warehouse parties. So it wasn’t just that people were working with audio sampling, but also that there was this widespread ethos around shared culture that was running parallel to how people were thinking about so many things. The idea of seizing privatised resources and politically appropriating them was shaping how artists were engaging with sound, technology, and even real estate. And because we were so into film, we became hung up on how these kinds of open-source politics could be applied to video and the moving image.
I liked the use of music throughout TERROR NULLIUS: you include songs from a wide range of artists from Curtis Mayfield to Men at Work and Kylie Minogue. Some of it seems to be a part of the existing footage and some of it seems added in. How did you develop the soundtrack?
Music is kind of a sacred thing for us. Because you listen to songs repetitively it gets inscribed particularly hard into your programming, it carries such deep mnemonic feels. Take the Rage title track for example, how many times have we all heard that? It’s an immediate collective glue that ties the audience together for the moment it unfolds. Which is why we always give a lot of thought to the kinds of collectivities and solidarities that a particular sample may trigger. This was something that came up a lot in our audio debriefs with Philip Brophy, who is one of our greatest sonic heroes ever. He was often keen for us to swap out some of the more mainstream content for more obscure sources. Like he was especially appalled at our use of the Itch-E & Scratch-E track ‘Sweetness and Light’ for the doof sequence, he just felt it was too tacky and that we were taking the piss. But you know, we weren’t at all, we actually lived those bush doofs, and for us that track is so much a part of that time. So in the end that’s what we wanted to privilege, that sense of genuine collective memory.
I would imagine that the sound mix is a monumental task. Do you find that particular sounds trigger ideas for you?
For sure, something that immediately comes to mind is the sound that accompanies the Lantana shot that ends TERROR NULLIUS. It’s this densely layered sonic bed of tense atmos and insect noise, that intensifies as the shot descends from the floral exterior of the lantana bush into the thorny tangled mess inside. That combination of sound and image, and the way it’s framed in the film Lantana, is truly a thing of beauty, complexity and unease. It felt like all the politics of the project were somehow contained in the combination of that sound and that shot. And it was something we used as a kind of touchstone for thinking about the conceptual and structural contours of the project as a whole.
You’ve described the film as working “entirely within and against the official archive”. Obviously many films and characters are repurposed to flip their original meanings, but I was wondering if you can speak at all about films you include that do explore similar ideas and concerns to TERROR NULLIUS? A film like Lucky Miles (Michael James Rowland, 2007) comes to mind, which deals with Iraqi and Cambodian refugees arriving in Western Australia in 1990 and is used a number of times, almost as a kind of visual motif.
You’re totally right. Honestly there are already so many incredible Australian films doing the work of interrogating and muckraking national mythologies that we never felt that our role was to radically overturn or upend Australian cinema. Like you say, Lucky Miles is a work that already deals so exquisitely with the plight and politics of refugees. Or the way that Wake in Fright and Priscilla both have these sharp and powerful internal critiques of the vulgarity of toxic masculinity. So instead of flipping the script on these films, we were always much more interested in the idea of setting these texts in motion together. That a new cinematic terrain could be produced where the conversations and critiques already embedded in these films could be brought into dialogue.
Films made by Indigenous Australian filmmakers are featured throughout the film. I understand you sought Indigenous consultation in making TERROR NULLIUS. How did this shape the final work?
At the heart of TERROR NULLIUS is a kind of reckoning around historical erasure, so the idea of denial and absence was always something we felt needed to be inscribed within the project in certain ways. But a big part of our discussion was also the question of what it means to be an ally, and how to image forms of radical solidarity. And this was really what lead us to push beyond the rage-fuelled eco-horror dimension of the project towards these intersecting moments of collective resistance and shared sociality. Things like the girl gang, the bush doof, the hippy van and the mining protest. All these scenes not only include Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in collusion together, but we also tried to extend this inclusiveness to other historically under-represented communities as well.
Like much of your previous work, the film is filled with humour, and yet there is also anger and despair, as well as moments of real sadness. I found the sequence towards the end where Anthony LaPaglia breaks down listening to the tape describing the horrors of Australian Colonialism very moving, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting. Was it always your original intention to have these shifts in tone?
Working within different emotional registers is something that’s always been part of our practice, and with TERROR NULLIUS we definitely intended to tap into a whole range of affects and feels. The off-kilter way that the tone of the film lurches suddenly from one extreme to another was something that emerged pretty early in the edit.
You grew up in Sydney but moved overseas in 2010, ﬁrst to Berlin and then to New York, where you’ve been based since. TERROR NULLIUS is such an Australia-centric project, how did working on it overseas inform the work?
Perhaps it’s to do with the extent that we get back, or that our mates get to NY, but we still feel very embedded within the Australian communities we’ve always been part of. So making a project about Australia in deep Bed-Stuy didn’t actually feel all that weird. Sometimes you hear people say that being overseas enables a special perspective that comes from distance, but with the internet it feels like that whole dichotomy of being here and not there has already collapsed.
In the aftermath of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust announcement, you said that one of the most troubling issues for you is the way that institutions “want the kind of cultural capital that comes from a political work, but then are not able to deal with the actual reality of what a political work might be”. Do you have any thoughts on how you’ll approach this as artists going forward?
We feel as an artist you’ve just got to make the work you want to make. It’s that simple and that hard. And if this experience has reinforced anything for us, it’s that you have to be willing to push back and stay with the trouble.
As free culture activists you are well versed in copyright law, and I understand it hasn’t been much of an issue for you in the past, in that you haven’t ever received a cease and desist letter for any of the work you’ve made. But I was wondering about personal reactions from filmmakers, have you heard anything from any of the Australian ﬁlmmakers whose work you’ve sampled in TERROR NULLIUS?
TERROR NULLIUS has been a real trip in that regard. Since releasing it we’ve had people reach out who are the directors, actors, producers and editors of the material that we’ve sampled, and even a couple of extras who’ve seen themselves in the mix. You know, one day you’re rotoscoping Red Dog in your weird video bunker and the next you’re instant messaging with director Kriv Stenders. It’s truly an odd feeling. We’ve always thought of the makers that we sample as our wider sphere of collaborators, so being able to have these conversations now feels like such an insane privilege.
You’ve described your practice as an “unending process of watching”. What are your normal viewing habits like?
Obviously there’s a whole cinephilia circuit in New York, so abnormal viewing habits are happily normative. And we’re part of a collective that runs a microcinema in Brooklyn, so we get to see a lot of excellent programing there. But we’re also big fans of laptop cinema. We really don’t discriminate about how we see things, but while we’re developing a new work we tend to exclusively watch material associated with the parameters of that project. So for the 18 months we worked intensively on TERROR NULLIUS we exclusively watched Australian content. And we’ve recently begun work on an operatic cyberpunk thriller so we’re digging deep into ‘90s hacker films, political thrillers, anime and the blockbuster musicals of the ‘80s.
Soda_Jerk are presenting a screening of TERROR NULLIUS as part of the Digital Directions symposium at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra on 21 August 2018.