An orange cat sitting on a couch, wearing a red hoodie with the words 'Make America Great Again' on it.
Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk
Stories & Ideas

Tue 16 Jan 2024

Hello Dankness: Soda Jerk and Xanthe Dobbie in conversation

Art Film Interview Pop culture
2023 Xanthe Dobbie

Xanthe Dobbie

Interdisciplinary artist & researcher

Artist Xanthe Dobbie spoke with award-winning remix collective Soda Jerk about their new feature film, jumping fences, and making time for kissing in the street.

Following their controversial sensation Terror Nullius (2018) which tackled so-called Australia’s entrenched colonial narratives, sibling collaborators Dominique and Dan of Soda Jerk present a darkly humorous take on a Trumpified America in Hello Dankness (2022). Sampling hundreds of clips from suburban-centric Hollywood cinema, Soda Jerk meticulously weave anti-capitalist counternarratives.

Artist Xanthe Dobbie spoke with Soda Jerk about the making of their meme-fuelled masterpiece, their elaborate creative process, and the perennial search for a work-life balance.

Xanthe Dobbie: You’ve just been on a whirlwind tour of the world with your new film Hello Dankness. I’ve now seen it twice – once when it premiered in Adelaide at AFF in 2022 and again in 2023 for MIFF where you won the Blackmagic Design Australian Innovation Award (yay congrats!). I’d describe Hello Dankness as a post-truth documentary – part musical, part techno-capitalist critique, part psychedelic meme trip. Without going into too much detail, could you describe the film for those playing at home?

Soda Jerk: That description hits. Guess we’d only add that it’s also very much a suburban drama in the spirit of the suburban-dread cycle of cinema from the late nineties. Narratively the film follows a group of neighbours as they navigate the increasingly munted cultural landscape of the years 2016 to 2021. Like Terror Nullius it’s also a political fable of sorts, so each character is cast as a kind of archetype. Annette Bening plays the Hillary supporter, Bruce Dern is the trad Republican, Tom Hanks the defeated Bernie bro and Wayne and Garth are the neighbourhood alt-right trolls. Part of what we’re interested in is tracking the disintegration of the neoliberal suburban scenario of previous decades, and the vibe-shift towards a sense of stoned hyperreality wrought by the internet.

A still from The Phantom of the Opera with Vladimir Putin superimposed above the organ, at which the Phantom is sitting.

Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk

Two people wearing face masks kissing

Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk

A young woman in a still from a 90s film holding a Bernie Sanders mug.

Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk

A young Asian boy wearing a blue shirt, a white baseball cap and headphones around his neck. He is looking up as a red laser grid is being projected on his eyes.

Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk

XD: As the title suggests, this film gets pretty dank and pretty dark. What was it like being trapped inside its mind for so many years?

SJ: Living in New York through that period around the pandemic was pretty rough. It was a time of immense grief and devastation, but also these acute counterpoints of optimism and fight and farce and strangeness. It already feels like a kind of amnesia has descended around that time. The moment we’re in right now feels so different and detached from all that, it has its own profound loss and violent political dynamics that are urgent and all consuming. There’s still a palpable sense of memetic dankness, but the feeling has become blunted and tragic with age. It’s as though the memetic vibe-shift has cycled through Marx’s historical maxim in reverse: it arrived first as farce, and then as tragedy.

XD: This film, like Terror Nullius before it, is very deliberately unhinged at points, but actually follows a lot of traditional film conventions. You have act structures, multiple narrative through-lines, relentless continuity editing. How do you strike this balance? How much of the skeleton do you have down before you add the flesh?

SJ: If we could afford a therapist, they might be able to unpack why we have such an irrepressible drive towards the classical conventions of narrative cinema. There’s probably something very God Complex about it, but we’ve always been heavy sentimental about the world-building potential of film. At the same time, we’re acutely compelled by the historical dimensions of the sample, and the encrypted traces they carry. So, within our work there’s always these two intersecting forces vying with each other: the linear propulsion of the narrative and the gravitational deep time of the archive. Keeping that balance in check is just something we have to intuit as we’re building the edit. We’ve got all these historical vectors grinding up against each other causing turbulence, and the cinematic continuity is like the floaties you strap on to keep the viewer from drowning.

XD: You’ve been traveling non-stop since the film debuted in 2022, how does it feel to be back in New York? Are your feet back on solid ground or are there more stops to go?

SJ: Over the past year in New York, real estate really punched us in the face. We lost our beloved video bunker where Dan was living, and Dominique was finally evicted from the warehouse she’d been squatting with friends for the last three years. So, we ended up packing all our stuff into storage and going all in on the festival tour. And then on our way to a film festival in Thessaloniki, we fell hard for Athens. There is just something stupefyingly magic about that city and scene right now, it’s resplendent in ruins and queers and anti-capitalist counter-narratives. And for us personally it feels like a place we could maybe begin to find our way through the heavy doomer-fog back towards the ecstasy of a kind of scrappy idealism. So anyway, long story short, after a decade in New York we’ve low-key relocated to Europe. We moved our stuff from Brooklyn to a storage unit in Neukölln, and will be based between Berlin, Athens and Belgrade while we get to work on visas and finishing our new film.

XD: Go off, Athens! There’s something wonderful in thinking about anti-capitalist counter-narratives and queers smashed up against the ancient unruly mythologies of the Greeks. When I think of you both, Castor and Pollux come the mind – the inseparable twin sons of Leda who became the Gemini constellation. Soda Jerk is one cohesive alien entity with two strange, beautiful heads – how do you make this work?

SJ: Love that Castor and Pollux were ripped warriors who liked to steal cattle, but inseparable twinning is cuter and more harmonious than we deserve. If we had to be a Greek mythic, maybe something like the Hydra with way more slippery heads? Although there’s only two of us in the studio, we’re forever wrestling with the spectre of all the creators that we’ve sampled. In that sense our collaboration includes hundreds more beyond us, it’s a truly multi-headed beast.

XD: What are some of your highlights from the tour? Any unexpected responses?

SJ: Because our work doesn’t play nice with the law, we always assumed our films would be incompatible with the infrastructures of mainstream cinema. So, some of the real plot twists of this year has been the way that Hello Dankness has manoeuvred through some unlikely industry contexts like premiering at the Berlinale and having a theatrical run at Film Forum in New York, or winning the Narrative Feature Award at festivals in Atlanta and Lausanne. Professionalisation really isn’t our jam, so it’s not so much about the achievements themselves, but the feeling of having pulled off some kind of heist. Like we’ve jumped the fence into a posh party and are trying to consume all the free food and drinks before we’re kicked out.

XD: Ha! I’ve heard you say “ethics are not the law” in relation to the line you walk working almost exclusively with copyright material. You’ve also mentioned your “Trojan Horse” (Greece again) method for sleuthing past institutional conservatism. This feeds into histories of hip hop, remix, anarchy etc. Could you expand on how you navigate these “posh party” areas personally and legally?

SJ: We talk a big game about jumping fences and crashing parties but to be honest those insider/outsider dichotomies of the past feel quite scrambled now. Many of the old ideological binaries have imploded, and even the bedrock distinctions between left and right are feeling amorphous and scattered. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that cultural institutions were wielding power and walking with swagger, but now they mostly just look like they’re going to poop their pants if someone gives them the stink eye on Instagram. So, while many crucial mutinies have emerged from these new contours of power, it has also accelerated the culture of risk adversity in ways that are concerning. Which is why at the moment we’re thinking more about scheming a way out of institutions rather than sneaking in.

A young boy wearing a Pepe the Frog Shirt in a supermarket.

Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk

Mike Meyers as Wayne standing in front of a giant YouTube logo

Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk

Two women at the counter of a service station

Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk

Two men at a doorstep of a house, number 666, with Maga spraypaint and a 'Hillary for prison' sign in the window.

Hello Dankness (2022) © Soda Jerk

XD: Having known you for a while now, you both seem to thrive on this form of high intensity festival hopping, which you then balance with equally intensive multi-year studio periods. I imagine you tinkering away in some kind of lair – can you speak to your process here?

SJ: For a long time, we’ve done this kind of cycling between periods of extended studio lockdown followed by a fiercely social year of touring. It’s a strategy that’s served us pretty well because we definitely have those two wolves inside us – the wolf that likes to party and travel and grow friendships and take drugs, and the one that likes to nerd deeply and quietly and lift weights and commune with a computer. But guess what we’ve been thinking more recently is how we might throw off this dichotomy and welcome our friends further into our studio life? With all the nefarious commodification and grossness going on in the social webs, the IRL feels urgent and sublime all over again. So, this is part of what we’re trying to switch up by becoming more mobile with our studio and flexible with our geography. We’re also hoping that A.I. will soon be smart enough to do all the rotoscoping for us, so we can all spend more time kissing in the streets.

XD: These wolves hit hard – I hope I can ride this sublime social studio wave with you some time! You’ve dropped a few hints about your new film, care to tease us with a few more details? I know you tend to be pretty monogamous with your projects, but is there anything else you’re working on to look forward to?

SJ: Coming out of Hello Dankness we initially turned our focus back to our heaps-gay double feature, but over the past few months a very different kind of film has begun to emerge as priority. It’s taken us away from queer aliens and dyke exorcisms, and towards a reading of cinema via the politics of monuments and the hermeneutics of suspicion. It’s still taking shape, but right now it feels like a sensibility suspended somewhere between German Expressionism, Alain Resnais, and the sinister surrealism of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. The scattershot research constellation we have begun to assemble includes Byzantine iconoclasm, psychic temporality, hyperstition, phenomenology, Baroque aesthetics and the paranoid reading of Eve Sedgwick. Beyond that, we’re still working at our other long-term project which is learning to tattoo. We’re psyched on skin as a physical medium of image transmission and encrypted communication. Guess it’s just another way of trying to anchor ourselves back in the 3D.

– Xanthe Dobbie is an interdisciplinary artist and researcher based in Naarm, Melbourne. Working across on- and offline modes of making, they draw on queer and cyberfeminist ideologies to develop shrines to a post-truth era. They have exhibited extensively locally and internationally with recent works including live-streamed theatre, interactive media, AR, VR, collage, performance, and installation.

Hello Dankness and Terror Nullius are screening at ACMI 18–29 Jan 2024

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