Soda_Jerk's Theatre of Ghosts
Hollywood Burn (2006)
Stories & Ideas

Wed 28 Feb 2018

Soda Jerk's Theatre of Ghosts

Art Australia Film
ACMI X colourful wall

Jessie Scott

Video Artist

Where do the Terror Nullius artists fit in the Australian video art scene?

Ahead of Terror Nullius, video artist Jessie Scott examines Soda Jerk's position in the current context of Australian video art.

The history of video art is a choose your own adventure, and Australia’s own branching into video narrative roughly corresponds to other Western and developed nations who gained access to consumer video tech around the late 60s and early 70s. Over the following decades, Australian body and performance artists, feminists, educators, political activists, experimental filmmakers, community media makers, club kids and pop culture remixers all took up the potential of the portable video camera, instant feedback, and later, non-linear editing. These crucial, though sometimes divergent methods contribute to building what remains a decidedly mongrel, “mutant medium”[1].

The things that initially made video art a radical and democratic medium – its accessibility, low-barriers to entry and highly distributable nature – have persisted, even as the technology has morphed, traversing the bridge from analogue to digital and making video-as-format almost unrecognisable now from its inception.

However, it has repeatedly gone underground, gone out of fashion, gone overseas and even been proclaimed failed[2], irrelevant[3], or just plain bad[4]. It’s been called a “Video Void”[5] because as a national arts culture, we seem incapable of retaining our historical knowledge of, and connections to, the video practice(s) of the recent past, let alone it’s increasingly distant origins.

Part of the reason for the cultural listlessness surrounding video art may be that there is no one typical pathway to practicing video art - and never has been. There’s no one, monolithic practice residing under the banner of ‘video art’. Although it’s been codified and canonised in the contemporary art sphere as a kind of large-scale, high production, exploded cinema, contemporary art isn’t the only world that can lay claim to it. Video artists come through art schools, sure, but oftenvia painting and sculpture departments; they also come through media and film studies degrees, and a myriad of other disciplines including dance, architecture and design;they hone their early craft as VJs and event technicians;they crossover from commercial artforms (in a kind of inverse equation of selling out); and of course now, they proliferate on the internet, where the consumption to production to publication loop is more hermetically sealed than ever.

All of which makes the practice of Soda Jerk, broadly so exciting.

Soda Jerk aren’t art school kids. They didn’t come through the art academy, and thus their path has always been their own - as their bio puts it “they have exhibited in museums, festivals, cinemas and torrent sites.”[6] As 80s children, they were part of the first generation that had unfettered (and often uncensored) access to VHS tape and VCRs, shaping them as supremely videotic artists. Their process began in video shops: turning up to their local with a suitcase to be filled with tapes[7] that they would scour through for hints to this mirror-universe they could sense unfolding around them. Their work harnesses time shifting and its digital expansions to re-animate cinema. Not in some art-jargon sense -  in the Reanimator sense. They excise bodies and combine them with other voices, super-imposing them on other places, making a cine-video Golem that obeys their every command. In the academy, it’s maybe in the tradition of the Dadaists and Musique Concrete, but is as prefaced by mass-pop-cultural phenomena as by Hannah Hoch or Delia Derbyshire.

Coming up in the late 90s and early 2000s, they saw a bridge being built between hip hop and electronic music, between analog and digital technology, and they jumped on it. The rhythms of their montage were syncopated, infectious and full of ripe humour, recalling the baroque fantasy and feral energy of Dr Octagon at least as much as the relentless formalism of Chris Marker’s compiles, or VNS Matrix’s sturdy feminist cyber punk.

Not that they are ignorant to their filmic and artistic forebears. On the contrary, they’re extremely astute scholars of both. Their work fits in a long tradition of found-footage artists, and their combined “film school major… and law school drop-out”[8] brains frame their outlandish concoctions as a series of political actions and statements about freedom of information, copyright, net neutrality, gender and image politics.

Their first masterpiece of this method, Hollywood Burn (originally titled 'Pixel Pirates 2', and a collaboration with Sam Smith), began in 2002 and was released in 2006. It’s an epic screed against copyright, both manically unhinged and fiercely intellectual, running a gamut of references from Nip/Tuck to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In later works, this style is smoothed out: not only did the editing software get more sophisticated and facile, but the hyper-kinetic enthusiasm of their early work - of which you can see flashes in current practice of fellow culture re-mixers Caroline Garcia and Xanthe Dobbie – eased into a more purposeful tone. Works in the Dark Matter Cycle (2005–12), though infused with wit and irony, were more restrained and carried a huge dose of dark pathos.The Carousel performance lecture (2012), while surely employing lashings of camp, ended on a note of sincerity that was painfully bittersweet. Functioning as an Ecto-containment System for Derridan Hollywood spectres, The Was, their 2017 collaboration with The Avalanches, found this deft new hand circling back to the anarchic energy of their early work. The relationship between the institution and the dancefloor [may] not always be an easy one[9] but with The Was you would have to say that Soda Jerk nailed it.

In 2018, after many years of wading knees-deep in American pop-detritus, they turned their attention to Australia. Despite the Australian film industry long punching above its weight in many ways, self-reflection has never been a strong point. Engaging in a dialogue about the history of the form in this country is rare. With the notable exception of generations of Indigenous filmmakers and artists like Tracey Moffatt, Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen, (whose engagement with this critique has been born of constantly being placed on the outside of the central narratives to begin with) looking back has not been our industry strength. Expending the large part of our energy achieving a certain technical standard, there seems little left for examining the entrails of this considerable cinematic corpus. This is where video art, and Soda Jerk’s manipulation of it, have made such a huge contribution.

One of video’s most powerful rebukes - and enhancements - to cinema has been the introduction of time-shifting. Press pause, stop, rewind, fast forward, play and record. These video powers, in the hands of consumers and artists, manifested and made visible a truth about cinema previously difficult to see: that everything in it refers not only to the real world, but expressly to itself. Movies call back to other movies and shots recall other shots, both building on the past and regurgitating it constantly. And it was video that finally forced cinema to admit “its constitutive intertextuality”[10]. Furthermore, the cinematic world is an inherently spectral one, a “Theatre of Ghosts”[11]:

“On the screen, whether silent or not, one is dealing with apparitions that, as in Plato’s cave, the spectator believes, apparitions that are sometimes idolized. Because the spectral dimension is that of neither the living nor the dead, of neither hallucination nor perception”[12].

These aspects of Australian cinema have always begged for more scrutiny. Soda Jerk’s Terror Nullius addressed this lack head-on – reading the polite brutality of contemporary Australian culture through its machistic cinematic obsessions, allowing us to see both in open daylight.

Terror Nullius’s twin comedic skewering of Australian political and cinematic history points to a broader cultural unease with self-reflection, more so than any inherent offense or profanity contained within the film. And the controversy surrounding the work was a covert gift to all subsequent readings of it. Because the strength of Terror Nullius is not simply its clever, funny feat of rotoscoping; this is but a Trojan horse. What Terror Nullius does most powerfully well is smuggle the other into its reanimation of familiar national identity myths that they have traditionally been excluded from. Cinema has always been an extremely effective vehicle of merchandising such myths; but in stitching the futuristic S & M of Mad Max with the actual sadism of the Howard era, or in their gentle teasing of frontiersman homoerotics out of the Man From Snowy River, Soda Jerk restore the less centred, but no less present counter-narratives that have been hiding in plain sight.

Australian films may have been mostly made by apparently straight white men for a very long time, but they certainly weren’t the only people watching them. And Terror Nullius, like Tracey Moffat’s extensive body of video collage works before it, needed only to rearrange the montage to reveal these other audiences making other meanings out of it all along. The gremlins accumulated to our colonial-derived national identity are given free reign in Soda Jerk’s parallel cinematic Australia, glorious and unhinged, a blood-letting and a restoration.

Jessie Scott is a practising video artist, writer, programmer and producer who works across the spectrum of screen culture in Melbourne. She is a founding member of audiovisual art collective Tape Projects, and in 2013 she co-directed and founded Channels Video Art Festival.


[1]John Conomos unpacks the “complex ‘criss-crossing’ connections between cinema, video art and new media” in his book Mutant Media (from the introduction), Power Publications and Artspace, Sydney, 2008

[2] Yes - Media Arts in Australia Still Sucks, Philip Brophy, panel contribution, VITAL SIGNS, Australian Centre for Moving Image, Melbourne, 2005

[3] Respondent Comments, Philip Brophy, Contemporary Art and The Mediasphere, Symposium, RMIT, Melbourne 2015

[4] Curating Video Art 101, Philip Brophy, published in Photofile No.74, Sydney, 2005

[5] Video Void: Australian Video Art, edited by Matthew Perkins, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2014

[6] From the artists’ website:

[7] From interview with Meg Crawford, Red Bull, February 2018:

[8] From interview with Meg Crawford, Red Bull, February 2018:

[9] From interview with UK artist and electronic producer Mark Fell:

[10] Flowers from the Barrel of a Gun, Adrian Martin, Artlink, December 2016:

[11] Soda Jerk, paraphrasing Jacques Derrida, from interview with Meg Crawford, Red Bull, February 2018:

[12]Cinema and Its Ghosts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida, Discourse, 37.1–2, Winter/Spring 2015, pp. 22–39.

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