Ross Gibson's head_phone_film_poems is a collection of thirteen films that creatively remix material from online archives including the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) film material in the National Archives of Australia, crime scene photographs from the Justice and Police Museum Sydney, and Gibson’s own social-media-stored collection of strange late-night phenomena filmed in his neighbourhood over the past decade. Drawing on these caches of ‘readymade’ footage, the head_phone_film_poems are shaped by three guiding principles: they must be produced entirely on the iPhone, they must feature some visualised language and they must suggest an enormous amount more than they show.
Serena Bentley: What drew you to the particular archives used in this series?
Ross Gibson: I have good, longstanding relationships with maybe a dozen archives, all of which have wonderful online resources. For this exhibition in Gallery 5, I go to four of my favourites:
1) the crime scene photographs, 1940–60, at the wonderful Justice & Police Museum in Sydney
2) the National Archives’ ASIO material that has been declassified and released into the public domain
3) the archives of the Airways Museum in Melbourne
4) my own Instagram archive of late-night scenes in my neighbourhood in inner-city Sydney.
I am always drawn to image-archives that have very little meta-data attached to them. Conventional historians would not bother with such collections because there are no provenance records, no reliable interpretive cues that put an end to speculation. For me, it’s all about the speculation. For me, the messy or messed-up archives demand imaginative responses: how to make sense of this image, how to find an evocative or ‘telling’ relationship of one image to another image? It’s a process of using montage in the archive. Montage — the engine of cinema.
The four archives that I’ve used in Gallery 5, they are all beautifully messed-up and devoid of authoritative catalogues or meta-data-texts. That’s the first thing I look for. The next thing I look for is some kind of spiritual ‘force’ or ‘spookiness’ in the material. In this exhibition, all the material bears the imprint of a real place and a real time in which real people, real animals and real objects were bearing up under the forces that make the endlessly unfolding mesh of existence. I like to find images that are ‘uncanny’ somehow, that cannot be completely explained away with common sense. So, I’m looking for ‘poetic’ material.
Straight away I need to offer a definition of this over-used notion of ‘the poetic’. I line up with the French poet Stephane Mallarme (1842–98). He had two guiding principles: (i) poetry emerges when you describe some worldly thing in such a way that it is recognisable but mostly mysterious, and (ii) poetry emerges when you manage to find some new and revealing relationship amongst the things that you are observing and describing. That’s what I look for when I go into an archive: (i) is there some material here that is mysterious and makes me re-think my commonsense understanding, and (ii) do I have a hunch that such material could be combined with other material in such a way that I could start to make or gesture toward some new ‘other-world’ that hovers around the ordinary world? Also, I’m always looking for material that can be illuminated somehow by the application of texts on it or around it.
But to sum up, in addition to the Mallarme schtick, I am always looking for material that could stand up well under the epigraph that Patrick White used at the start of his novel The Solid Mandala: "There is another world, but it is in this one."
SB: Describe your process for making the work. What comes first? Image? Text? Sound?
RG: There’s no predicting how it starts. Basically, I’m always on the lookout for some tiny detail that sparks some revelation or some aesthetic or emotional ‘itch’ that prompts me to investigate further. Habitually, I read and write haikus. It’s a private kinda meditative practice, a way of trying to be ‘present’ in the ordinary world. So, I’ve got this haiku-mind operating quite a bit these days. Sometimes I might come up with a phrase… some cluster of words that does what a good haiku is meant to do: strike a hammer in the mind, bringing your common sense up short so as to release a flood of associations rushing in from your memory and imagination. (That’s my paraphrase of Thomas Hoover, a really good literary historian who focusses on Japanese aesthetics.) So when I get this attentiveness operating well, I can collect the basic elements of a work that I am trying to assemble. Sometimes it’s a scene in real life that I capture with my phone; sometimes it’s an online image or a movie sequence that acts as the hammer-strike; sometimes it’s a piece of music, something by Cat Hope or Chris Abrahams, for example… favourite collaborators.
Here’s a specific example: consider the ASIO footage, the piece called ‘Capertee Retreat’. In the National Archives, there are hours and hours of material that’s been shot by anonymous ASIO camera-operators who are hidden in rooms above shops. These guys spent months and years of their lives spying down out the window, to record who is coming and going from some tawdry little office or some backroom that is functioning as a Communist Party bureau. What strikes me about this material is how lonely and emotionally desolate the camera feels. Every now and then you get some frame where the ASIO guy walks in front of the camera, say to check the lens or to move a curtain out of the way. It’s shocking when it happens – a real, breathing, fallible person is part of this desolate camera-eye! For me, the material is so poignant: this lonesome, infinitely suspicious operative is up there in the dark, spying down on these regular people walking, talking, laughing, eating, scheming, flirting. So I started with that FEELING in the film material; and straightaway I knew of a piece of music that could resonate to that feeling: a portfolio of gorgeous looping compositions that Greg White and Chris Abrahams made but did not use for another project that we all worked on, with Kate Richards, about fifteen years ago. Once the music was introduced, that dictated an editing rhythm for the imagery. And out of the imagery and out of the feelings generated by the music and by the desolate/poignant feeling coming off the camera... out of all that, the texts started to emerge.
But in other pieces, the process might start with the text, and then I would build image and sound on top of the text. For example: the two times I use a ‘remixed’ version of a long quote from Thessalonians in the Bible.
SB: How did the context of presenting this work within an online space affect your process?
RG: Well, these pieces are online creatures, really. The archives are online; a significant portion of the audience that I engage with these days is an online community of some kind. So my stuff comes from the online storage-world and goes out to the online browsing-world. The pieces are born in the online world. So they can grow as old as they want there too. (What is a typical online life-span? Who knows!!!?)
I’m really thrilled that the works are in Gallery 5, because it means that people can control their own experience of encountering the works; people can pick & choose the order of the pieces they want to watch, they can pause the works, scrub backwards and forwards through them, fragmenting them in ways that are like but also different from how I have already fragmented the original footage, layered the soundtracks, and strung together the haiku-like grabs of text.
And I really like that it is probable that people are looking and listening on their phones with their headphones on. I love that the sound-works by Chris Abrahams, Cat Hope, Ben Speth and Greg White are being heard big and bold on headphones. My ideal audience-member is someone who is online, on their phone and on a tram, wearing really good Bluteooth headphones, just mooching around in the exhibition – maybe missing their tram stop – if the pieces grab the imagination in the right way. So, the pieces are inherently online works.
Even so, I would be perfectly happy with showing them in a sit-down cinema too. But that would be an entirely different experience. In a sit-down cinema, the works become studies in subjective time, even studies in artfully fashioned tedium sometimes. In a sit-down cinema, the fragmentary, re-mixy nature of the pieces would be less.
So they are in a good place, in Gallery 5.
head_phone_film_poems is showing in Gallery 5 until 1 October 2021.
Ross Gibson is Centenary Professor of Creative & Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. He works collaboratively on books, films, artworks and strategic-planning exercises, and he supervises postgraduate students in similar pursuits.
During the early 2000s he was Creative Director for the establishment of ACMI (known then as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) at Federation Square in Melbourne. Prior to that, while working at the University of Technology in Sydney, he was a Senior Consultant Producer during the development and inaugural years of the Museum of Sydney. Over the past two decades he has also held Professorial posts at UTS and the University of Sydney.