Outback and Beyond: A Live Australian Western
Author: Grayson Cooke
Format: Documentation of live screening
Duration: 13 minutes
This project is underpinned by a cluster of related questions which stem from the basic premise of the project; that is, to produce a “live Australian Western” using footage cutup and remixed live from materials in the National Film and Sound Archive, set to a soundtrack of deconstructed Blues and electronics performed by sound-artist Mike Cooper. Mike also sings a libretto which meditates on the adventures and misadventures of engineer Charles Todd, who built the Trans-Australian telegraph from Darwin to Adelaide in the 1870s; this nation-building enterprise is invoked to instantiate one of the key themes of the Western – the installation of technologies of communication as a cornerstone of nation-hood – within the project.
The initial assumption this project is founded upon is that Australia has no concrete tradition of the cinematic Western – at least, not in the way it has been established in the US, where it has operated as a primary mechanism of national history, ideology and mythography. This is a debatable point of course – Australia has historical films about settlement and colonisation and feature films about bushrangers and the dangers of the outback, and contemporary films like Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005) are quite clearly posed as “revisionist” Westerns. Yet these films have never cohered into the national “project” evidenced by the American use of the Western genre.
With this initial assumption in mind, the project asks: If the Australian Western never formed as a concrete formation, might it perhaps exist in the archive in an abstract form? That is, given the presence of Western-like imagery in a number of early Australian films, could the “Australian Western” be said to exist in a latent form? Further, if this is the case, could it be brought OUT of the archive, and in a live performance situation? And what would it mean to do this?
These questions, then, revolve around the presence in the national archive of the images that constitute the national imaginary, but the questions also probe the potential for live audio-visual performance to interrogate that archive. The project asks whether it is possible, through the practice of the remix, through breaking the singularity and provenance of archival “artefacts” and bringing their newly created parts into new relations, to produce new modes of relating to and understanding national myths and images. This would be a kind of “archival hermeneutics” of performance, exploring the potential for live audio-visual performance to re-interpret not simply what is in the archive but the conditions of its existence and its social and cultural function in the present.
This project can be understood within a number of contexts. As a collaborative and improvised performance, the project sits alongside improvised forms such as jazz, much traditional music, the commedia dell’arte, and expands the field of improvisation to include the possibility of improvising with images as well as sound, and forging new relations between image and sound. Hence, as live audio-visual performance, the project invokes the long history of explorations of audio-visual relations, such as the color organs produced by Louis Castel, Alexander Rimington and Mary-Hallock Greenewalt, or Scriabin’s synaesthetic symphonies. In seeking new possible relations between image and sound, the project references concepts such as Michel Chion’s “synchresis”; a cinema-studies term used to refer to the “weld” between concurrent imagery and sound, and what Mitchell Whitelaw refers to as “cross-modal binding”; the forging of relations between concurrent audio and visual sense experience (see Chion; Whitelaw).
Most contemporary VJs and live a/v artists inhabit this field, and necessarily so given the audio-visual nature of their practice. Whether we speak of the laser, sound and fog performances of Australian artist Robin Fox, where noise music is used to trigger variations in the voltage supplied to a laser, or the more figurative imagery and electronic music of a/v groups like the Light Surgeons, the D-Fuse Collective or Addictive TV, the production of an engaging and multi-sensory experience for an audience is always at stake. “Outback and Beyond” sits clearly within this field, but seeks to contribute through the specific nature of the images and sounds that are brought together. In juxtaposing fragments of Australia’s cinematic history and the notion of the American Western, against Mike Cooper’s deconstructed and electronically-processed take on desert Blues, the project seeks to produce an audio-visual-conceptual montage that is not merely sensorially pleasurable but intellectually stimulating as well. That is, this montage operates not merely on the level of image and sound, or image after image, but as a montage of traditions and genres.
Most importantly, this project is a remix project, thus referencing traditions of collage and bricolage in much 20th century art, the sampling practices of hip-hop artists and electronic artists like Negativland and Girl Talk, and film installations such as Telephones (1995) and The Clock (2010) by Christian Marclay. And again, within the VJ and live a/v scene there is a widespread practice of using media samples as content for live mixes. British duo Addictive TV, and Australian artist Sampology, are exemplars in this area, with their practices of mixing pop-cultural audio-visual materials into new performances across the gallery, club and festival scenes. While there’s an unquestionable and ongoing value in seeking to produce new and original work, what constitutes the “new” will and must always be an open question, and so turning to the material that already exists in the social and cultural field to fund this process is, I think, one of the responsibilities of the media artist today.
The materials chosen for remixing, though, are key indicators of the artistic intention behind such practices. The remix marks the exercising of a kind of democratic creative right – as evidenced in the incredible and protracted battles that have played out over sampling in the music field, and the popularity of fan vidding and the “supercut” mashup genre (Baio; McCormack). The remix is political – to remix is a political act, a way of acting in public. But it is also an act of memory, of active memory, of parsing public memory and returning it to the present. “Outback and Beyond” seeks to activate selected contents of the National Film and Sound Archive in this manner, it seeks to interrogate of the archive and its social function, to make what exists and was produced in the past, matter in the present.
The methods underlying the project stem from the contexts it sits within. For myself as a visualist, I have prepared my materials in the manner of both archival research and film production. I began by identifying a set of relevant films from which I wished to draw my images; films from the 1920s to the 1950s, a mixture of feature films (Franklyn Barrett’s Girl of the Bush (1921) and Breaking of the Drought (1920)) and docu-dramas (Back of Beyond (John Heyer, 1954) and The Inlanders (John Kingsford Smith, 1949)). I identified sections of these films which I wished to utilize, purchased licenses for these sections from the National Film and Sound Archive, and formatted them for use in my VJ software. Within my software, I then arranged these sections into themed “clusters” to ensure a loose narrative or conceptual coherency for the project when performed.
As a collaborative, improvised performance, however, the methods underlying the project stem from musical and dramatic composition and performance. As much as the project is improvised, and will be different each time it is performed, both Mike Cooper and myself will always structure each performance with the temporal dynamic of musical and dramatic performance in mind. That is, increases and decreases of tension, of pace, and of audio-visual density, will give the performance an affective arc comparable to the dramatic arc, or the notions of theme, variation and repetition that underpin musical composition.
What I find most interesting about the project – and hope others will find it equally interesting! – is the intentional incongruity that underpins it. The very notion of an “Australian Western” is problematic – the lack of a concrete Australian film tradition to reference means that the project references a kind of missing signifier. This missing signifier is nevertheless coloured by the plethora of associations that encircle the notion of the Western, and its use within American ideology, for example in justifying what Richard Slotkin calls the myth of “regeneration through violence” (see Slotkin). Hence the project names an object that does, and does not, exist, functioning as a kind of “dialectical image” in Benjamin’s sense, a historical anomaly or tension formed out of the juxtaposition of archived images of a “past” with their revision in the present.
The project is not designed to resolve this tension; it is designed to pose questions which can resonate with an audience. As such, what I’d like others to take away is the idea of formulating creative practice research projects that are underpinned by research practices, but which only reach research outcomes in performance. This is a kind of “live research,” setting up research conditions in a live performance (see Cooke). Because this project is an archival remix project I’d also like others to take away possibilities for artistic orientations and uses for the archive; using archival research not to uncover what is or isn’t “present” in the archive, but to actualize what is latent or virtual within the archive.
The project was funded partially by myself, and partially by an internal SCU Recruitment Grant from Southern Cross University. It has been performed seven times so far:
Byron Bay Film Festival, Byron Bay NSW, March 2011
Griffith University Conservatorium of Music, Brisbane QLD, April 2011
Australia Spain Business Association Congress, Barcelona, Spain, November 2011
Media Futures Research Institute, Bath Spa University, December 2011
Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, Kings College London, December 2011
Pacific Solutions conference, University of Barcelona, December 2011
Studio One29, Southern Cross University, Lismore NSW, April 2012
While not “in competition,” performances at each of these venues has required the project to be vetted and selected by a committee or board. I have also presented papers on the project at the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia national conference in Byron Bay in December 2010, at a seminar series for the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, and at the “Pacific Solutions” conference hosted by the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Barcelona in December 2011. The project and its documentation is promoted on my website: http://www.graysoncooke.com/outback.
Baio, Andy. “The Video Remix ‘Supercut’ Comes of Age.” Wired.com, November (2011). http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/11/supercut/.
Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Ed. and Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Cooke, Grayson. “Outback and Beyond: Live Media as Live Research.” A scholarly affair: proceedings of the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia 2010 national conference. Eds. Baden Offord & Rob Garbutt. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross University, Centre for Peace and Social Justice and the School of Arts and Social Science, 2011: 55-61. http://works.bepress.com/baden_offord/83/
McCormack, Tom. “Compilation Nation: The history and the rise of the supercut.” Moving Image Source, April (2011). http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/compilation-nation-20110425.
Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: the mythology of the American frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1973.
Whitelaw, Mitchell. “Synaesthesia and Cross-Modality in Contemporary Audioviduals.” Senses and Society, 3:3 (2008): 259-276.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows.
Review 1: accept work subject to minor revisions of statement.
Outback and Beyond: A Live Australian Western appears from the documentation to work effectively as an improvised performance work. There is a good interaction between the visual element and the music, which builds to a high level of intensity as the performance develops. The drawing on and re-working of some stunning and powerful material from the Australian National Film and Sound Archive seems entirely valid as a project, which works in both its own terms but also alerts audiences to the richness of an earlier Australian film culture. The material presented also indicates both VJ and musician in control of their respective processes and with a high degree of sophistication in performance, although the performance space where the work was documented might have been more propitious. While the VJ / music improvisation is not original in itself the nature of the material used and the performance have a good level of impact as a means of reconfiguring the archive.
There are a number of interesting arguments being proposed in this statement yet the main research questions could have been formulated better. As the author admits the question ‘is there such a thing as an Australian Western?’ is slightly rhetorical. In spite of this he devotes some space to develop it. The reasons why there are no Australian westerns are perhaps too easily answered: the popularity and mass circulation of the American western myth, both before and at the time of the development of cinema, alongside the international dominance of Hollywood production, and the operation of genre within that production model. However, there are clear cases among more contemporary Australian historically set films where American genre conventions imposed themselves, especially in relation to the idea of ‘regeneration through violence’. For example, The Proposition (2005, Dir. John Hillcoat) would fit this description though the author suggests these genre conventions are not explicit in the archival material he is exploring. Even so, the author openly acknowledges the ‘incongruity’ of the comparison between US and Australian film cultures. While I recognise that this question is the starting point and offers a useful angle to frame the project, the overall thrust of the ‘Western’ argument as presented here seems in danger of overwhelming the material, which contains its own specificity and power in relation to Australian culture. This said, the author does raise other questions that are, in my opinion, more incisive. There are, for example, the issues of what constitutes a national imagery, of how the work allows for an ‘interrogation of the archive and its social function’, and the how the remix can be seen as ‘active memory’. These seem stronger research questions and it would be good to see them developed and brought to the fore.
In relation to ‘Context’, it might have been useful to hone in on some specific contemporary works or cultural milieu, alongside reference to a general history of sound-image improvisatory practices and sample-based culture. Some further information on the research context for this form of practice would also be useful.
The interaction between images and music is described primarily in terms of the performance dynamic and how the ‘deconstructed blues’ style of the music establishes an American reference point to underline the Western theme. Alongside this it would also be useful if the author offered a clarification of the theory or theories that may underpin his discussion of the interaction of image and sound. Michel Chion’s notion of ‘synchresis’ comes to mind, but other approaches might prove equally if not more appropriate to the practice.
In summary, I think this work explores some worthwhile territory, but the research questions that I have highlighted above as having more traction should be given greater prominence and developed further in the statement.
Review 2: invite resubmission with re-edit of statement
The initial premise of this work that there is no tradition of the Australian Western is itself debateable. The Mad Max trilogy has strong Western elements as do the earlier film and TV series that show the outback and bushranging. It is certainly not the same style as the US Westerns but some of the same concerns arise in Australian films. This is a remix work drawing in a big way from John Heyer’s documentary, Back of Beyond, most of the essence of which concerns the isolation of the outback. That essence feels lost in this work. A stronger throughline both aesthetically and in terms of the theoretical argument might improve the work.
The statement argues that the live performance of music to film that is documented here asks the questions of why there never was an Australian Western genre. The performance it self is enjoyable at times but the question is not really embedded in the work in any way such as to promote such questioning. The remixed images do re-present the desert parts of Australia in a different context, but whether this abstract film provides ‘new modes of relating to and understanding national myths and images’ is less clear.
The statement is very broad and argues for a wide range of influences as providing context. These include music concrete, bricolage, hip hop, synaesthetic symphonies, film installation, color organs, Len Lye and other early filmmakers and it is clear that the work as stated comes from a mash-up culture. The statement would be improved by detailing the connection with just one or two of these aesthetic movements and showing how the aims of the work relate to that particular movement.