In Search of a Melbourne Aesthetic


The Shoring Project

It’s (Coee Song) No Man Speak and a good illustration of what I’d call colonial double-talk. Colonisers use a language that sounds like the real thing. But it’s often a strategy for silencing real communication. But listening to this and recognising this, it’s possible to use puns, double-talk and verbal tricks differently. (Paul Carter. No man’s Land Script-)

The shoring project is in search of a Melbourne Aesthetic that has fallen through the gaps of critical analysis and slipped out of local memory. Is this a ‘death of place’ I tried unsuccessfully to name in my own film of the same name? I have witnessed this slipping, encountered the denials and erasures. They were resisted but remain my bodies open wounds. Such wound-witnessing is available globally, yet they are not the same wounds. The double talk of the “The Shoring Project” refers to shoring up a dilapidated lost local practice but also the beach, the On The Beach that brought Ava Gardner to Melbourne and marks the first view and first line crossed by this land’s colonisers, the ones that pronounced there is nothing here.

The project is my and Jim Bridges attempt to pull 1980s Melbourne Super 8 film out of the dusty cupboards and sheds of misremembered artists and lost works. I read the MS8G as a contested space where ideas and attitudes were buttressed against each other to produce some dynamic sparks. A good place to start this looking? Many names are there in Cantrills Filmnotes but the films are no longer accessible. That requires reclaiming, shoring up, and it opens a vital question what is it that is disappearing from public view. Corinne used to tell me that they would put my name down in the funding box for marginalised groups, being a migrant. But I was not performing as a migrant? Or was I? Was I being told I was not important? Reading Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!, makes it clear, once again, how I have been acted upon and deferred in a procession of cultural projects, the high, no low point, of which was MIMA.

There was something in my marginal discounted New Australian identity that had attracted me to a community of artists in a marginal practice, a scene now dissolved. It was about the marginal, the precariat, a mixture of forms and identity that embraced ambiguity, punning and form, inserting itself somewhere in the intersections between diary, formalism, technicalities, and documentary, and sourced by a canon emanating out of the United Kingdom and the United States. Travelling leter internationally with local programs gleaned from the MIMA yearbooks, the accumulated feedback located something fresh and unique in these historic works. And I saw parallel national histories that told me that the US and UK works that had influenced me were not the first cabs off the rank. These realisations enabled me to read this Melbourne scene as a corrupted, silenced space echoed in Paul Carter’s reading of Australia as a “toxic mirror state” (Carter, 2021 p.203). It was not about me. I was out of that infantile state, although Melbourne was swimming in its fog. It was about all of us and where we were. Why had this local work become, remained, so culturally invisible? Callum from Memory Lab wanted to show them to the AFW cohort, a local collective.

I was on a tram to East Brunswick returning copies of Mr. Green and Mr. Fat to Maj Green which had been digitally transferred. As well as the original, she had two Super 8 prints of each. She had not looked at them for 20 years. They took a month to find. I remembered her and Ewan Cameron doing pantomime performances at screening openings for Fringe Network before they toured their performances around Europe. Doors just opened up, money was available to put projects into play in Berlin. Not here. All these details in putting Grants together here was too onerous and manipulative. They were about reactionary and improvisation.

Paul Carter, Translations, an Autoethnography: Migration, Colonial Australia and the Creative Encounter. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).


In Translation

What is a Melbourne Aesthetic?

The terms you use in framing your search suggests that such a thing has existed but has become lost, metaphorically fallen through the cracks. But the way I read this is that you are first proceeding with the possibility that such a thing can be identified, not so much that it can be recouped or reclaimed. By referring to a collection of practices centred on 1980s Melbourne Super 8 film culture, as chronicled through Super Eight: The Newsletter of the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group and Cantrills Filmnotes in particular, you speak to personal experiences that we share, and many that we don’t share. By engaging in this we are also curating our memories into a kind of collective autobiography, an auto-ethnography.

The idea of a Melbourne Aesthetic is fascinating, perhaps something identifiable but elusive that I think I was particularly aware of when I arrived there in the late 1980s as a post-colonial migrant from the former colonising culture. And of course, it speaks to broader questions about Australian cultural forms, attitudes, identities, the cultural cringe, the tyranny of distance, the centre/provincial relationship, the local in the global, the sort of things that precipitate a constant, and changing, critique of Australia’s cultural perception of itself. A national identity is always going to be a construction, behind which lurks ever mutable multiplicities. But you’re zoning in on a very local question which can elude totalising colonial nationalism and remain UnAustralian, if you like.

In a box marked UnAustralian I find the book of essays for the 1992 event Imagining the City. In the introduction Juliana Engberg references some Melbourne Super 8 films (by Sandy Munro, Nick Ostrovskis, Jennifer Pignataro, and Mark La Rosa) which I assume screened as part of the event. Engberg writes that they are a “…loving, awkward and biased view of Melbourne…” and that they “…begin the work of unpicking the grid. They shift our focus from the neat table-cloth of gentility and Modernism to issues which cannot be contained within the tourist brief of generic experience.” Does she describe an elusive aesthetic?

You cite Paul Carter a copy of whose book Amplifications I recently acquired. Amplifications is quite autobiographical, and how else do we experience these things except affectively, subjectively? Is an aesthetic a collective affective experience? It remains slippery, it resists codification. In the introduction Carter writes that when he first arrived in Australia, he

…had the feeling that there existed another place behind the one in which I stood and walked. The current physical arrangements seemed without foundations; normal appearances were defensively clear-cut as if repressing unease; there was a lurking puzzlement about the meaning of things, as if they existed in a mirror state, equal and opposite to the ideas they represented.

In your opening quote Paul Carter writes of a colonial language “…that sounds like the real thing…” but can be “…a strategy for silencing real communication.” His solution is found in reclaiming “…puns, double-talk and verbal tricks”, neat tricks to dismantle the phoney metaphysics of presence underpinning the assumed semantic authenticity of the ‘real thing’. The question of whether a colonial culture in which one might recognise imported structures, forms and aesthetics, can be authentically ‘real’ in the distorting hall of mirrors that Carter describes, is as much a moot point as whether imported cultural forms themselves can be thought of as originary or authentic.

I have just read Timothy Morton’s book The Stuff of Life. It is quite autobiographical situating Morton’s philosophical thought both in his personal experience and in dialogue with wider ecologies. In one passage he writes about receiving an audio file and after attempting to describe what he hears observes that:

Describing things and being things are actually on a spectrum. Describing things and causing things are also on a spectrum. OOO [Object Orientated Ontology] doesn’t think that words like “cause” are big and grown up and real and strong while words like “illustrate” are flimsy and feminine and ineffectual. OOO believes that the aesthetic dimension, where things are accessed, paraphrased, illustrated – ‘translated’ to use Graham Harman’s beautifully succinct word- is the causal dimension.

His description of what he hears in the sound file is a translation. As a field recording the sound file is already a translation of some or other where, and that to “…translate is always to make some kind of difference in short, to effect something, to have an effect … to cause something.” This was useful for me in thinking what ‘representation’ does, it translates. To think of a Melbourne Aesthetic is to present a Melbourne as imagined in the aesthetic dimension, to access and illustrate those objects that might be considered as characteristic of our version of Melbourne culture, offering an alternative translation to Carter’s distorting mirror colonial language.

The question of a Melbourne Aesthetic so far remains as slippery and elusive as the resonance of thousands of subjective experiences. It filters and is filtered through the light, the sound, the environment, the weather, the topography, local, national, and global history, and any other phenomena that stimulate individual and collective perceptions and the production of knowledge.

So, this project involves a construction avant la lettre, it necessitates creative activity to bring it into existence. It won’t be found in the cracks; it will only exist if it’s translated into the aesthetic dimension.

This is the task.

Webb, Penny. 1992. Imagining the City: Documents. Melbourne: Centre for Design at RMIT.

Carter, Paul. 2019. Amplifications: Poetic Migration, Auditory Memory. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Morton, Timothy. 2023. The Stuff of Life. London, UK ; New York, NY, USA: Bloomsbury Academic.



Since its inception in 1988, Experimenta has grown into a contemporary survey, not only of experimental cinema and video, but of just about all the forms and disciplines which have spewed forth from the unique capacities of cinema and its incumbent movements within a space-time continuum. (Riley, 1992 p.2)

Your Engberg reference could be skirting about a so far unlocated Melbourne Aesthetic, for sure, but she seems on a drive-through to somewhere else. Perhaps like we all are? The Shoring Project intends to spend more time at these locations, and I am scouring Experimenta 1992 for clues. In Vikki Riley’s summation of that event, quoted above, she embraces experimentation’s relationship to other moving image forms. This suggests a hybridity for the local with more fluidity between forms than other international avant-gardes. I think of Experimenta’s open screenings and the MS8G screenings, also open, as important tools for prospecting and shaping such a local aesthetic. Jeniffer Phipps’ description from Experimenta 1992 of ‘a vividness, an immediacy and familiarity which bring daily experience into collision with the separateness of art and the museum’ (Phipps 1992, p.95), straddles and marks that sustained Australian gap between Art and Cinema scenes, support and funding that MIMA was unsuccessfully briefed to bridge.

I recall wrapping myself in an Australian flag that contained memorable Aussie battler Pauline Hanson in our Un-Australian performance with Nicole Skeltys to an audience probably sourced from MS8G, MIMA and Fringe. Hanson’s One Nation party seems as shapeshifting-ly elusive to hunt down as the location of a Melbourne Aesthetic. Its not a palatable parallel history.  I certainly experience Melbourne, not as one of the most liveable cities in the world based on corporate questionnaires and framing of the CBD to be broadcast on the nightly news. My experience is stacked on top of migrant tags of “New Australian” and “Multiculturalism”. These “un-Australian” identities are filtered and corralled through Melbourne’s suburban margins. All kinds of corners are cut and hidden there, pains initiated to be escaped from and expressed in an inner-city art scene (re-enactments of our parent’s migration?). Are the sheds where lost works are now gathering dust locatable in marginal suburban dungeons?

To try and be creative about hunting down this snark, I am drawn to sonic forms, following Morton’s sound file. I begin to see a melting pot, a bed of soiled translations, also responding to Carter’s thinking on translation. Visually the electric trails in a cloud chamber come to mind, or a Chladni plate into which Arf Arf thump and scream. For me, Bill Mousoulis’s most experimental work is the fragmentary collage of loose ends in When I Grow Up (1996). What attracted me is his mother’s off camera home-penetrating moan while Bill stands frozen in the corridor. “What is she saying? Is it a rage, an opera, a lament, a tantric ownership of the space. Does she know it is being RE-corded, hijacked out of her mouth?” (de Bruyn 1996. p.6) In the recent screening at this year’s Melbourne Cinematheque this section was missing, gutting my view of the film. Impishly, I now ask, is a Melbourne aesthetic locatable in Bill Mousoulis’s mother’s moan?

Whatever aesthetic there is/was/will be is un-available to a next generation of local moving image innovators who continually source, like I did, a British and American canon, while standing right in the middle of the local. I give my last words in this exploratory dialogue to Pierre Bourdieu. In The Cunning of Imperialist Reason he states that ‘Cultural imperialism rests on the power to universalize particularisms linked to a singular historical tradition by causing them to be misrecognized as such’. (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1999, p.42) Does placing a Melbourne Aesthetic fit anywhere in relation to an international canon? Does it make any sense at all? Is this experimental concept a European particularism falsely understood as a universal phenomenon? Is this Shoring Project merely another colonial act?

Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loïc. 1999. “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason.” Theory, Culture & Society Vol 16, Issue 1, 1999

de Bruyn, Dirk. 1996 “Bill’s Home Page (or RE-inventing In No Sense)” Melbourne Super 8 Newsletter. Issue No.114 June 1996

Phipps, Jennifer. “Installation” in Experimenta 1992, MIMA. St Kilda.

Riley, Vikki. 1992 “Of Prisms and Tools: The possibility of an Avant-garde” in Experimenta 1992, MIMA. St Kilda.


memory, archive, history, community, futures

Does placing a Melbourne Aesthetic fit anywhere in relation to an international canon? Does it make any sense at all? Is this experimental concept a European particularism falsely understood as a universal phenomenon? Is this Shoring Project merely another colonial act?

Our recent conversation about the project has reinforced my sense of it being rooted in our personal memories of particular practices at a particular time. In attempting to canonise it (if indeed that’s what this is) the practice becomes subject to forms of both archiving and historicisation, from which follow questions about how the recognition of an area of practice that was outside the mainstream, through archiving and historicisation, can occur, in what context, and with what at stake? What is the archive and what is history in this regard? Is there a danger of reiterating the colonial ideologies of official archives and official histories?

These thoughts run adjacent to work I am currently doing in relation to the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection at Central Saint Martins, so I’ll draw on some of the ideas and references that I’ve been working with around that, particularly in relation to what has become institutionally known as ‘decolonisation’, to try to develop a position from which to unpack these questions.  From a colonial (or post-colonial) standpoint personal practices existing within the legacy of a structure where archives are part of a process of cultural determinism, national and local, in Australia, federal and state, don’t to my mind so much replicate an imported model, but rather establish one that has become structurally ideologically embedded and imposed upon citizens and residents of both native and migrant heritage alike since that first invading fleet. In other words as a local manifestation of an ideology it represents a continuum.

In In Memory of Memory Maria Stepanova recounts sorting through a deceased aunt’s belongings, a process which triggers a deeply affecting essayistic trawl threading personal history and memory through familial loss in the aftermath of genocidal devastation. She draws on swathe of modern literature to construct an expansive collage of reflective examinations of the conditions of life through times of trauma and its aftermath. She reminds us that the state, the institutional, and the personal weave through lives of humans as individuals and communities. She characterises archive objects as single units residing in isolation, in vast number, locked away in darkness, only occasionally if ever exposed to the dim light of the study room. We might abstract the archive itself as a singular congealed object consisting as millions of lives without apparent significance, but when it comes to history only one or two enlarged details, one or two lives, small parts relative to the whole are called upon as examples to stand in for the whole.

This certainly holds true of the relationship between the hundreds of thousands of pieces of material residing in the collection that I manage, and the histories constructed from a handful of individuals, tendencies, and practices, drawn out into the light claiming to broadly represent an entire area of cultural practice and the individuals who engaged in it.

What is it about the structure of archives and collections, and their relationship to the construction of histories, that produces such a process?

In Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism Ariella Azoulay characterises Imperial archives as having been perceived as protected closed spaces, where both inclusion and access is granted by appointed gatekeepers. Further, the archive, by casting its acquisitions as historical objects, actively contains the unruly temporalities of artefacts that she claims resists the division into past, present, and future. Moving image works, due to their inherently temporal form, unspooling both literally and metaphorically in time, by their nature also blur such temporal specificity.

To open thinking about what an archive might be Azoulay contends that it is not about some siloed past but should be thought of as a commons and suggests a different kind of narrative to a historical one that considers objects as representing arrested temporalities. By extension alternative approaches need to recognise that the archive has never been unchanging and immutable, it has always been a site of contestation with a long history of attempts at deconstruction. As such the archive has never been a secure and safe place for the storage of documents, it has never had integrity and coherence. Azoulay warns that an alternative history cannot adopt a structure of historical temporal progress that erases previous struggles, rather it needs to adopt a structure of ongoing and continuous struggle between competing incompatible principles.

In relation to Melbourne-based work, this reminds me of the Cantrills’ self-appointed role as advisors to the film archive in its acquisition of experimental film, their lobbying of the Australian Film Commission, and the role of Cantrills Filmnotes as a platform for constructing an alternative history for experimental practice.

In Azoulay’s terms what does being co-opted by the colonial archive imply? Does it risk tacit endorsement of colonial methods and ideologies? She suggests that the alternative histories already exist, but its authors need to unlearn the imperial version of doing history to tell it.

Claire Holdsworth claims, in relation to constructed histories of artists’ practice in film and video in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, that “…the selves within history and the selves depicting history overlap: they are what I have termed, perpetrator historians.” Her ‘perpetrator historian’ participates in a complex ecology in which oral history or primary-source accounts become fused with the objective summary of factual, historical overview. Their perspective is that of witness and participant, whose texts sometimes obscure their roles as protagonists in the stories they tell. These protagonists have also become curators and archivists. A counter to the implied problematic of the protagonist historian (curator, archivist…) is that a subjective standpoint can be a dissident voice in the co-opted marginal practices. However, to revisit Azoulay’s assertion above, how many alternative histories, while attempting to set the record straight about marginal practices, succeed mainly in reproducing the imperial structure at a local level, as subjective voice segues into official narrative.

In relation to what we might regard as avant-garde practice, it could be argued that despite so often positioning itself as marginal or oppositional, the avant-garde is already structurally elitist. During the late 1960s – ‘70s, at the pomp of its avant-garde experimentalism the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, while often dealing with the problems of representation in formal aesthetic terms, remained a closed shop, it never considered representation in broader social terms, its practices ring-fenced from most other artistic contemporary practices, whether socially radical or establishment. The avant-garde by its very nature is in danger of perpetuating a Western enlightenment narrative of progress, producing an elitist structure with a small membership of cutting-edge ‘visionaries’, boldly advancing where the masses might one day follow while patronisingly telling them what to think.

How can we avoid reproducing elitist structures that construct histories from selective material examples from the dispersed archive?

The Melbourne Super 8 Film Group (MS8FG) was one of my first experiences of local alternative filmmaking activity when I arrived in Melbourne in the late 1980s. I still remember attending an open screening consisting of films in a variety of genres: formalist experimentation, agit-prop documentary, personal impressionism, suburban narrative, home movies (I think probably by Nick Ostrovskis, David Cox, Jenny Pignataro, Bill Mousoulis, and Ian Poppins respectively), among others. What astounded me, being just off the ‘plane from London where such diversity of generic forms would not have been tolerated in the avant-garde elite of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, was the convivial co-existence of work of such diversity, in one room, apparently without friction.

Azoulay’s characterisation of archive-as-commons, i.e. as accessible to all, maps on to practice as accessible to all, anti-elitist, manifested in community. MS8FG was a community of practice, it wasn’t progressive or avant-garde, it was open, inclusive; it wasn’t aesthetically or generically deterministic, its only condition was the use of a specific film gauge. For a while there was indeed a cohort of formally experimental makers in its number, and and at other times a core of narrative film makers, however it remained crucially and consciously open to, and representative of all forms of practice; it embraced the rough and tumble of multiple subjectivities and their generic predispositions of choice, rather than pursue an ideological aesthetic agenda. It was community, it was a decolonised practice. No doubt its dedication to Super 8, a domestic non-professional format, played a role in its egalitarianism, but the lowly gauge was embraced as an efficacious medium for any level of production, the distinction between amateur and professional was irrelevant.

Where does this take us in the question of what a Melbourne Aesthetic might be? To my mind aesthetics is an emergent property of cultural production, like a shape or a smell, it has a source, or multiple sources, it takes a form. But you turn it around and it changes or disperses, shape-shifting and elusive, but always emergent. The commons resists colonialism even while it may have little choice but to reside in the colony there is no necessity for it to reproduce a colonial structure.

A Melbourne Aesthetic may exceed the shape and smell that emerges from the MS8FG, but the group, as central to my own personal experience and memory of it, is exemplary. A Melbourne Aesthetic emerges from a demographically diverse community with its messy, sometime dysfunctional, relationships, its hardships, its struggles, its moments of celebration and pleasure, comradery, conviviality, and solidarity, cemented but not determined by a medium based practice.

In the 1990s the group was a bulwark against an increasingly pernicious colonial deterministic commodification, a top-down elitist authoritarian cultural agenda as the construction of government sanctioned national identity, known as Creative Nation. MIMA was destined to fulfil its role as a qango delivering its interpretation of Creative Nation as a programme, it was thus part of the colonial imperative and naturally it was well remunerated for its efforts.

If a Melbourne Aesthetic can be represented by something like the unruly sense of what emerged from the MS8FG in the 1980s–90s, as a wildly diverse set of practices and social demographics, a multiplicity rather than a single easily identifiable or commodifiable entity, then perhaps the question becomes what is it for, what is its function and use? Can we move beyond the question of an aesthetic as a sensibility to framing it as methodology? Would the real legacy not be a selection, however comprehensive, of material, artefacts, newsletters, whatever? Or historical accounts which are necessarily, inevitably, fatally unrepresentative of anything more than subjective accounts from which that sensibility might be distilled? Of course, subjective accounts are always crucial, but to frame them as historically representative and anything more than a construction is to slip back into a colonial model that obscures its complicity in a cloak of objectivity.

In writing these words I’ve been inching closer to this idea of aesthetics as methodology, one that incorporates a variety of methods, manifested in process and practice. As a legacy it persists as an emergent property, but one that potentially can be extensive, not one that projects the past into the future, but one that could be a model of how to do things in an increasingly fascist world.

Stepanova, Maria. 2021. In Memory of Memory: A Romance. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Azoulay, Ariella. Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. London ; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2019.

Holdsworth, Claire. 2016. History has Tongues. University of the Arts London PhD thesis.


Dirk de Bruyn (1,3)

Steven Ball (2,4)

Steven Ball lived and worked in Melbourne in the 1990s, he had a close association with Melbourne Super 8 Film Group, and made dozens of super 8 films. He now lives and works in London, his work is concerned with post-colonial landscape environments across a range of media contexts including song, moving image, performance and installation. He is a Research Fellow at University of the Arts London.