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.

Birth of Surveillance

Charles Pratt in Cockpit WW! 1917


The Birth of Surveillance

Up up we went until houses became mere replicas of those made from toy blocks by children. Evergreen trees looked ridiculously uniform in shape, resembling the miniature pines associated with the days of our youth and Santa Claus’s toy gifts. Picking out familiar houses and points resolved itself in a fascinating puzzle, which grew by bounds as we sailed along. The Geelong Football ground was presented by an oval the size of a bracelet, whilst the Eastern Cemetery looked exactly like a piece of “pepper and salt” tweed. (Geelong Advertiser, 1920)

This describes one of the first joy rides Charles Pratt flew from Geelong’s Belmont Common where he set up his aviation business, “Geelong Air Service Pratt Bros” after the First World War in 1920. The complete lyrical description from which this quote was taken invokes images of colour in me, a sensation not generally invoked by the high contrast black and white photographs that mark the period.  These ‘new frontier’ joyrides upped the ante on the Amusements of St. Kilda’s Luna Park introduced 8 years earlier, for example. Whereas Luna Park cost 6 pence to enter, a sky flight was significantly higher. In his often-mundane diary, which he fastidiously kept all his life Charles Pratt noted; “I took up five in the morning and five in the afternoon altogether collected £7.” (Pratt, Jan 1. 1920)

Charles Daniel Pratt (1892-1968) started working life as a New Zealand grocer in Helensville coming to Geelong after the First World War. He had enlisted in the army from 1914-18 and served in the Gallipoli campaign, where he was wounded, as well as the Egypt and Palestine campaigns, serving in the New Zealand Engineers, in the motor dispatch riders, receiving a Victory Medal, with his final service in the Royal Flying Corps based at Ismailia with the No. 113 Squadron RAF. He rose from private to Lieutenant during his service and was a proficient flyer when war ended. The Palestine campaign marked the beginning of photographic air reconnaissance to discern military movement and to clearly map difficult terrain. The new aerial photographic tool extended British military surveillance and mapping of the region. The First World War trained many pilots in air photography with improved technologies requiring both a pilot and photographer. Aerial photography had come of age in the Palestine campaign by augmenting inadequate maps of the Turkish Front. Such reconnaissance morphed into an essential post-war cartographic instrument, an efficient contemporary technique for marking and visually containing Empire. This technical advance predicted the later digital use of Google maps to contain the world at an even more pervasive and insidious level.

At war’s end these early planes that Pratt had learned to fly became war surplus. With the family inheritance of the father who had recently passed away Pratt bought two De Havilland GH6s, an Avro 504 and a Sopwith Pup, disassembled and crated for shipment from the Suez Canal to Wellington New Zealand. Geelong was chosen for residency by chance. Charles had bought the shipment of 4 crated planes and found difficulty in moving to Wellington from the docks in Melbourne due to an industrial dispute on the wharves. As a result he assembled one De Havilland plane there with help of engineers from the transport ship at No 10 Berth. Central Pier, Victoria Dock. Pratt taxied the assembled De Havilland, skimming over crates, precariously missing an overhead crane and the masts of nearby ships to park at a Port Melbourne airfield. He subsequently flew around Port Phillip Bay, discovering the Belmont Commons as a good place to offer joyrides around the area, leasing it in 1920 with residence established at 200 Latrobe Terrace, Geelong.

Pratt’s migration and settlement transformed a war machine on which he had heroically performed into a joyride experience for his passengers. His Aerial photography marked and historically documented the emerging suburban and industrial landscapes of Geelong and Port Phillip Bay. The speed of movement around Victoria and landscape vistas was unique, but a 100 years later such views became available on every digital device globally. The mechanics of surveillance has migrated out of the landscape and directly in the bodies of all those citizens sitting frozen and staring at a computer screen. Pratts’ engagement with technology straddles that gap.

Geelong Waterfront 1923


 Theatre of Surveillance

 Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible; of making it stand still. (Sontag :165: 1977)

Surveillance and photography have a long historical relationship. The evolution of the mechanics of the recorded image runs parallel with the rise of modern surveillance society. During photographic exposure, light reflected off the subject falls through the lens and induces changes in the photosensitive film, or more recently onto digitalised pixels. This physical and fundamental connection between the subject and the material of the captured image, the ‘indexicality’ is intrinsically linked to notions of truth. It is here the surveilled image indicates a direct, rather than arbitrary, connection between a sign and its referent. This unique relationship creates potential for the medium to produce artefacts that testify through their physical presence, rather than pictorial representation, to the exposure having taken place. 

When, considered only as images, despite their apparently immediate, natural and non-mediated relation to what they represent, photographs function as culturally coded signs that operate in a sphere of meanings that are entirely human. The problem with this mode of analysis is it privileges the theory or audience who builds the system of meaning, rather than the practitioners as creative producers of or active participants in knowledge creation.

The photographic ‘object’ is often designed and considered to fix the visible with results that are usually interpreted in terms of meaningful visual signs exclusively from the perspective of a disembodied spectator. David Abram notes this exclusion of ecological positioning is located in modern Western tendencies to abandon dynamic interactions between human and non-human in favour of technologies. The result is not only a distancing of self from other, but also a significant loss of an embodied perception. Abram notes:  

Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses – once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth – become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (Abram 1997: 267)  

Can the disembodiment and the mechanization of the mechanized and disembodies surveillance gaze be challenged by a revisioning or re-looking at surveillance images? Emphasising the physical and material value of the image highlights a move beyond the mere representational passive, static gaze and engagement with subject. That it, it is possible through photographic processes to produce an embodied entity that actively participates in the surrounding world and go beyond the constraints of the apparatus yielding predictable visual results. Photographs can be open to chance occurrences that manifest, for example in the digitalising of Pratt’s glass sides we are able to see the random pattern of markings, scratches and bleaching resulting from post-processing handling. Re-visiting Pratt’s images in combinations with new technologies incites new investigations with reconfiguring of past knowledge and stimulates new ways of knowing (and making) that includes a deeper understanding and engagement with phenomena of the moment of capture and considerations of looking.

ANZAC Mules WWI (Charles Pratt)



On his return to Egypt, one of these life changing opportunities came in the form of a request from the Royal Flying Corps for volunteers to learn to fly. Early in the war it was thought that it would be essential for fliers to come from the better educated classes, however it was found that better education has little to do with motor skills and that good horsemen and cycle riders had these. (Reilly, p.3 2016)

Pratt’s upward mobility into the air was not only a physical one but also signified a rise in class. He migrated through technology from a physical presence in the heat of battle into an emerging form of mobile surveillance that, at this initiating phase, required body centred knowledge and acumen. The prestige gap between what was considered the second-rate education system of the Mechanics Institutes and the Technical School for trades and crafts (Preston, 2005) compared to the Secondary School system and the elitism of the tertiary training available to the monied and privileged classes is breached by the necessities of war. Interestingly, on his settlement in Geelong Pratt re-connected locally with his photographic craft through the Photographic Club at what was then Gordon College.

It is productive to explore how a trace of such a class system re-asserts itself in emergent contemporary contested technological fields. A gap between technology and the body is extended, for example, in contemporary war machines. Satellite images of the Ukraine/Russian border documented the amassing of troops and at the other polar end of this gap all men between 18 and 60 are conscripted to physically defend Ukraine. Missiles launched from the safety of Russian Screens hundreds of miles away are more effective than Russia’s bogged down on the ground conscripted troops. Pilotless drones search a contemporary sky embedded with foreboding and fear.

On the ground before his aerial call Pratt’s photographs documented ships of ANZAC soldiers in transit to Gallipoli from Mudros Bay, Lemnos. He photographed the tents on Waterfall Gully on Bauchop’s Hill, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. This location was taken by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles on 6 August 1915 to clear the Turks out of the foothills. Pratt’s image notes it as near ANZAC Cove where the main landing occurred on April 25, 1915, the foundation event used to mark Australian and New Zealand nationalism and celebrated on that date on ANZAC Day. This Gallipoli Campaign cost the Allies 187,959 killed and wounded and the Turks 161,828. Gallipoli proved to be the Turks’ greatest war victory, for which a 40 year old Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty and in control of his colonial forces, carried a culpability and guilt into the Second World War. The wounded were tended in the erected hospitals on the Greek island, Lemnos from which Pratt had documented their departure. Of his photographs of Mules at No. 2 Post near Bauchop’s Hill; are these a trace to the mythic donkey Simpson used to cart wounded soldier’s to safety?

Pratt’s role, for which he remains invisible, in documenting such on the ground events, has become redundant. Contemporary I-phone images of bombings and mutilation spin war atrocities around the world, in constant surveillance machine churn to be processed by an audience framed through the headless crowd mentality Gustave le Bon identifies in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895).

Pratt’s invisible trajectory through surveillance and photography that skirts contemporary issues of truth, nationalism and history is traceable through his technical knowledge and achievements.

Charles Pratt was a quiet retiring almost shy type of person, as related by those who know him. One of those who stayed at the back of a group rather than hold court despite his achievements. (Reilly, p.1 2016)



 … [to] make sense of reality, to re-construct and present it in a way that seduces the observer into a re-examination into seeing the relevance of those things that had previously been hidden or unobserved? (Yates 2007: 164)

Crashed German Rumbler

Pratt’s aerial images have a temporal and durational framework, specifically the duration of the investigation of the site and place, and the coding of this into material and mechanical media. By revisiting these historic images, we may be able to refocus attention on the moment of time as well as the exploration of history through the lens of contemporary understandings. As we look out from afar, we see grid formats as dark and light spaces appear and disappear.  Having glimpses of open fields, the ocean, or the roadside, we experience a brief moment of grounding, only to turn around again when we contemplate the horizon from a distance.

Despite being captured from a distance, this view appears familiar and intimate, as if we know the Geelong townships and these roads. I wonder what difference a contemporary drone capture or Google images will make compared to this perspective.  In these works, I am intrigued by the chemical-based photographic technologies at play rather than the distancing, fixed gaze, or decisive moment that traditional considerations of documentary or monocular photo vision suggest. My thoughts turn to the incidental-happens that mark the emulsions of the prints add to the narrative.  Each image contains a physical, tactile mediation embedded in their surfaces that entices me to look again, resulting in a sense of extension to the story.  I do not direct my gaze by preconceived contexts of a city, landscape or event when re-looking and considering the tactile imprints in the final images. I am drawn in by the simulated relationship between the terrain and past memories of melancholy.  As a maker, I am interested in this way of looking, knowing, of being, that is revealed through the making; Pratt’s images promote this act of material and intra-activeness as an agency of encounter. My attitude and observations are informed by the photographic performance that Pratt’s images promote.

This re-look is not intended to (re)record or (re)document a particular moment, but rather to respond to pictures of landscape, happenings and process. It explores representations of landscapes and happenings and their surveillance, emphasizing and visualizing the physical, mental, and spatial aspects of emotional response.  This is where, for me, notions of surveillance and aesthetics extend.  It is no secret that surveillance recordings are now an integral part of our daily media experience.  Terrain and satellite images of war atrocities from the Ukraine are broadcast on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. These images inform our news streams and cancel culture. Images and trends are captured by amateurs to inform, entertain, and educate. In addition to immediate viewership and collaboration, viewers can instantly respond, discuss, and express themselves.  New media and notions of landscape images have changed in the way we interact with them, and one part of this shift has been the reliance on perceptions of surveillance. Pratt’s aerial and landscape images contribute to the exploration of this by way of contemporary revisioning and understandings.

3 Flying boats in Corio Bay 1927


Abram, D 1997, The spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, New York: Vintage Books. 

Preston, Lesley “Second Rate? Reflections on South Tech and Secondary Technical Education 1960-90”, Doctoral thesis, Faculty of Education, The University of Melbourne 2005.

Reilly, Kevin M. 2016 Charles Pratt of Belmont Common: a life in the air, Dingley Village.

Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Yates, A 2007, ‘Looking and listening’, Pichler, B and Slanar, C (eds) 2007, James Benning. Österreichisches Filmmuseum.

Dirk de Bruyn (1,3)

Wendy Beatty (2,4)

Let’s talk about Expanded Cinema


Do we overlook what’s in front of us because there’s a hole in the centre?

A.A. Phillips’ seminal essay on the cultural cringe first appeared in Meanjin in 1950, describing an internalised inferiority complex … The cringe’s historical origins lie in the material reality of colonialism … Colonists denied and evicted the cultures of this continent’s custodians and supplanted it with their own. That process cemented a displacement of culture at Australia’s heart … When we talk about the cultural cringe, we’re really talking about the colonial cringe … Lauren Carroll Harris (2020)

Expanded cinema is a little-known practice that arose in the late 1960s. It has a limited but devoted international audience but is barely known in Australia. In a year-long dialogue with Melbourne scholar and artist Dirk de Bruyn (see note 1) about local practice, I learnt of his emphatic agreement with the legacy of displacement Lauren Carroll Harris points out. Expanded cinema has been and continues to be a vibrant component of Australian creative practice, taking place right under our noses, yet those of us in the business of cultural circulation have chosen to persistently overlook it. Understanding why was the motivation for Dirk, myself and some colleagues[i] to meet regularly last year. 

I must start by explaining expanded cinema. It combined movie technology with live events, literally expanding cinema beyond immersive stories on a single big screen. In Annabel Nicolson’s Reel Time (1973), the film literally wound its way through the room while it was punctured by Nicolson’s sewing machine, then projected, while another artist read aloud from the machine manual. In Malcolm Le Grice’s Castle 1 (1966), the image of re-edited newsreel footage was intermittently obliterated by flashes from a large light bulb hung adjacent to the screen. In Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), smoke in the room made a 3D cone from the projected film image of a line making a circle, the audience moving around inside the cone and its smoke. 

These examples come from British artists. In the UK, effort to remember this work by curators, scholars and institutions has been underway for some time, a similar situation across other parts of Europe and the US. 

What about in Australia? I can expand my definition using local works citing 2007 research from artist and scholar Danni Zuvela, evidence there has been some research into the situation here. Zuvela’s definition includes Poem 25 (David Perry and Albie Thoms, 1965) in which a performer faces the projector bulb, caught in the cone of the projection, reading (or shouting, Zuvela 2007, 9) out numbers as they appear as white words on the black 16mm film: ‘two, twenty, four’. Also part of her definition is Boiling Electric Jug Film (Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, 1970) in which an  electric kettle sat on stage coming to the boil with a film of the same image (Zuvela 2007, 9). To round out Zuvela’s picture, I add Jeffrey Shaw’s Corpocinema (1967) involving an inflatable dome for projection (Duguet, Klotz & Weibel 1997, 11); and Hugh McSpedden’s light shows shown on Melbourne beaches during hot nights in which he took his set of Hokushin 16mm projectors in his modified van and projected dots and colours over night time beach goers. 

Our 2021 expanded cinema dialogues resolved that Australian audiences should know about this stuff. Back in 2007, Zuvela was motivated by a flurry of international programming of both contemporary and historical expanded cinema to wonder, as we did, what about Australia? (Zuvela 2007, 14).  Our group spoke about evident continuities between historic Australian practice and contemporary exhibitions like Sally Golding’s at Metro Arts in 2020.

What follows are three angles we explored in our dialogue about why attention has been so limited in Australia. 

Is Australian expanded cinema not known because the works are not collected nor preserved and the records are poor? Our dialogues identified archiving as a problem. These works were and are made as part of raucous events or ‘nights’. Hived off in the archives as items to preserve, as some of them have been in programs like those at the Tate Tanks (Gronlund 2009), are they stranded from that contact with the program and communities that produced them?

Is Australian expanded cinema work known but ignored due to its limited aesthetic power? Disheartenment is a factor here. Dirk shared his experience in a recent project to digitise uncollected Melbourne experimental films (not the same as expanded cinema, but many makers made both). He noticed the makers were suspicious and incredulous there could now be an audience for work they literally garaged a long time ago. Thus they were reluctant to actually hand over their films.

Or is Australian expanded cinema vaguely known but not talked about, slightly embarrassing, a local version of better stuff that happened in Europe and America? Zuvela noted that in Australia it is saddled with ‘psychedelic connotations’ that make it ‘critically unattractive’ to scholars of Australian film (2007, 13-14). 

But in conversation with Dirk, we also identified evidence of the cringe Lauren Carroll Harris writes about. Several times over Dirk and I dwelled on the reality that expanded cinema happens/happened here. Could the denial about it be a pertinent example of this deeper denial? Over to Dirk to get into some productive discomfort to tease this out.


A Circular Path

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago. Pete Seeger (1958)

I sit in front of a blank page and I try to invoke the erased, denied and ignored memories of my own practice and community which straddles both performance and cinema experimentation. These traces are cradled in the volunteer developmental, curatorial and infrastructure projects undertaken from the 70s on till now, not my more recent academic work. There has been no interest emerging from there and that is one of the roadblocks. Until now, Louise?

Melbourne events, particularly, have fallen through the gaps. Further, as Jonathan Walley intimated on the AAANZ panel, it is in the elusive performative register where the expanded cinema sits that effuses the most precarious invisibilities. Yet this situation also produces a fertile site ready for re-colonisation and re-classification by a forward-looking next generation.

The precarity of Australian Expanded Cinema is doubled up by the marginal position of the Australian Experimentation generally (or whatever it is elusively named- Personal Cinema, Artist Film, Avant Garde, non-narrative etc), which I mark as outside the outside or at the margins of the margin. Such double negatives express a particularly Australian traumatic colonial legacy: ‘we of the never never’, ‘never say never’ or ‘Australia is not a bad place to be’. This way of thinking relates to Judith Herman’s view of trauma: ‘The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called “doublethink”, and which mental health professionals, searching for calm, precise language, call “dissociation.”’ (Herman, 1992 p.1)

The history of Expanded Cinema in Australia is a traumatic contested space, that requires a re-narrativization. Zuvela’s welcome work barely scratches the surface. It does not challenge what has fallen from the record, especially in Melbourne. For example: What about James Clayden, Chris Knowles’ musical performances, Lynsey Martin’s High School slide projections. Jo Hampton, David Cox, and Chris Mann’s performances. Chris and David both ‘escaped’ to America. There is also Peter Tammer’s 20 minute (1983-5) Triptych of My Belle, Hey Marcel…, Queen of the Night. I have written elsewhere that Cantrills Filmnotes has historically and visibly marked the practice of its publishers, while those often documented in its pages remain invisible. (de Bruyn, 2014)

Hugh McSpedden’s beach projections are also the tip of an Iceberg. He is recognised as “god-father” for Gertrude St Projection Festival. As Edison Light Company from (1968-80) he, with Michael Lee as assistant, provided projections at the legendary TF Much Ballroom gigs at Central Hall, Fitzroy for bands such as Daddy Cool, Tully, Spectrum, Lipp and the Double Decker Brothers, Tamad Shud. Is this the hippiedom that Zuvela identifies as critically un-attractive to scholars?

After creative presentations in Belgrade, Zagreb, Karlsruhe, Jena, The Hague, Lisbon and Vienna I no longer situate Australian Expanded Cinema practice in a derivative echo of a British or American avant-garde Canon that processes Australian presence as marginal, second-hand, derivative or lagging. Internationally, the story is more ambiguous and infected with ‘double-speak”. Mihovil Pansini, one of the founders of the Festival of Experimental Film (GEFF 1963 -1970) in Zagreb, his formalist washed-out K3 (cloudless sky) (1963) makes Peter Gidal’s later Clouds (1969) seem illusionist and derivative in comparison.

And finally, is it more productive to identify with those forces that have shaped indigenous culture and critically interrogate the impact of the settler’s colonial eye? When I read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, he finds evidential traces of a denied sophistication and depth of indigenous culture, registered in the diaries of the first settlers and explorers like Mitchell and Sturt. In the next step of their own settlement and loyalty to Empire this settler class buried and ignored this knowledge of village life, extended housing and land management that had evolved over thousands of years. Why do we keep doing that to ourselves?



What, however, might a contemporary Australian practice be that visits the avant-garde of the ‘old country’ head on, not temporally, as mimetic descendent, but spatially as coevally related? This would primarily be a spatial practice, its consciousness of its own relationship to an earlier avant-garde an explicit and integral contingent component of the work. Perhaps something like the performance practice of Louise Curham and Lucas Ihlein’s Teaching and Learning Cinema (TLC) project (Ball 2016).

Steven Ball is writing about Australian artists bringing their wares to London. This is all about me in so far as I am one half of TLC with my colleague artist and scholar Lucas Ihlein. But this also not about me at all, it’s about ways to tell the story of expanded cinema in our region.

What’s caught Ball’s attention is that TLC and the other two artists he writes about in this article, Sally Golding and Sue K, have up-ended a long standing cultural model in which there is a well worn path taking Australian art to northern hemisphere cities, perceived as centres. Recognition there means acceptance as good art back in Australia. Ball quotes Terry Smith (1974) on New York as the centre of the art world.  Ball is saying that TLC, Golding and Sue K up-end that: rather than a model where London is the centre and Australia is the periphery, less good because it’s far away, instead distance is a useful condition that enables different and productive relationships. 

Dirk has called for a new narrative that allows Australian expanded cinema to circulate. The spatial approach Ball uses might be part of the solution. 

Ball writes about relationships that are ‘coevally related’, finding coevalness in writing by cultural geographer Doreen Massey (Massey finds it in the writing of anthropologist Johannes Fabian (1983)). The colonial story of progress (the story of modernity as Massey puts it) involves a normative path where some societies (the colonisers) are ahead on the path and others are behind (the colonised). Instead, if they are coeval, they face each other with space as the key dynamic rather than a narrative of progress, establishing and maintaining it as a norm.  A spatial model undercuts judgement against a norm. In facing each other in a coeval relationship, ‘“ a stance of recognition and respect in situations of mutual implication … an imaginative space of engagement” ‘ can be adopted, Massey quoted in Ball, 2016. Massey calls it an attitude. 

Coevalness has merit to overcome the denial Dirk graphically explained. Going a bit further than Ball, TLC is instructive as an example of how coevalness might work for telling expanded cinema history in our region.

Ball writes about TLC’s work re-enacting British cinema. Why did two Australians put some growth rings around some British history rather than re-telling, and therefore strengthening, Australian work? Ball reports Lucas on this point: why should TLC have to carry the can for Australian culture? I’d add that TLC’s decisions were driven by aesthetics and curiosity, we were both intrigued by work that arose from the London Film Makers’ Co-op. We were also aware that to make sense of these works, experience of them was required, not documentation. 

However, part of the reason we could focus outside Australia was that we spent time learning about some Australian work and others were bringing it to local audiences. 

OtherFilm brought re-enactments and performances such as Poem 25, Cantrills expanded cinema, film performance by Australian artists such as Dirk. 

Our explorations into Australian work included sitting down with Jeffrey Shaw, David Perry and the Cantrills to explore an exhibition of British and Australian expanded cinema. We concluded an institution needed to do it, our effort was better spent generating experiences for our community.  TLC screenings included artists’ film as well as expanded works eg Joan Grounds came along when we showed her collaboration ‘We should call it a living room …’ (1975); we organised an evening with Mike Leggett showing his Image Con Text work (1978-2005) and some of his very early work with Ian Breakwell. 

From this TLC experience, some qualities of coevalness are detectable: 

space of engagement: we actually did this work and brought it before audiences

an attitude of recognition: we had a hunch it was important

and some glimpses of mutual implication: we knew/know it’s part of a bigger story. 

So where does that leave us? Coevalness offers a spatial way to think about relationships and therefore history. Ball used it effectively in his article and it has potential for history telling in our region. In our 2021 expanded cinema dialogues Dirk and I were part of that I referred to in my first post, we talked methods to tell the history. Cathy Fowler, in dialogue with Sally Golding, identified ethnographic methods as relevant, bringing more than one account, avoiding establishing a canon (and therefore a norm). 

Part of the answer to overcoming denial and oversight is quite practical: tell these stories non-hierarchically, with more than one voice as Cathy and Sally identified. Draw on coevalness via Ball via Massey (via Fabian 1983), so they are in relation to each other and work in other parts of the world (mutually implicated, in a space of engagement) but without judgement against a norm. 

This process of overcoming denial will feel forced and strange initially. Be motivated by the 20 year olds of the future who need to stumble across this work and be inspired by it in their own way and in their own time.


From Colonial to Coeval Vistas

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Canada as a whole is a victim, or an ‘oppressed minority’ or ‘exploited’. Let us suppose in short that Canada is a colony”. (Atwood, 1972)

The idea of Massey’s coeval that Louise introduces is a productive one that extends the detailed expression of Louise’s long running and durational TLC project with Lucas Ilhein. Her outline situates the Man with Mirror project as the tip of a Janus-faced iceberg. Where TLC’s (Wo)Man with Mirror faces and engages with an Expanded Cinema canonical work from the “old country”, as Ball calls his English home (As an Australian I nominate our indigenous past as the real “old country”), their community focus revives an array of precarious local work only remembered by a few. Unfortunately the centralised funding structures, funding Australian Art Practice impacted TLC’s ability to manage this important cultural work. Curham’s current interest in Australian Expanded cinema extends and vitalizes this thread. TLC’s engaged history places Curham at a turning point for the re-narrativization of this contested space.

The precarity of Australian Expanded Cinema history is uncannily reflected in Steven Ball’s incisive cultural work both in Australia and England. His work on innovative film in Australia which included co-ordination of the Melbourne Super 8 Group, the performance of Un-Australian with Nicole Skeltys and myself and other performances and screenings at Café Bohemio (all important experiences that expanded my own creative practice). Ball’s management and cultural developmental skills were never institutionally rewarded in Australia with long-term employment, whereas on his return to London his commitment was quickly identified at St. Martin’s Artist Film and Video Archive by David Curtis. It is also worth mentioning Mike Leggett’s migration to Australia in 1988 with his partner Deborah Ely. Knowledge of Mike as a seminal figure with his conceptual experimental works at the London Film-maker’s Co-op, recognised by TLC, is not generally known in Australia, whilst his knowledgeable ground-breaking work with New and Interactive Media in Australia makes the case for a historical connection between both old and new media practices that Malcolm Le Grice stressed in Experimental Film in the Digital Age (2001)

The responses to colony by Canadians, writer Atwood and theorist Harold Innis, provide a useful parallax to examine Australia’s marginal cultural position. In Survival Atwood names four victim positions for individuals and national groups. These partly echo Franz Fanon’s three stages in the development of Third World colonial art. This moves from the native intellectual adopting the coloniser’s culture, through the past being romanticized but one’s fate remaining inevitable, to where you identify your victim position but refuse its cage. For Atwood these are: denial of victimization, general victimization and righteous anger. Atwood adds a fourth empowering position to Fanon’s trinity, that of the creative non-victim, one also taken up by Feminist Cinema in the 1970s. Victor/victim games are obsolete. Otherwise, as my friend Tony Beilby texted me “…one becomes one’s abuse…”. This is the view that Pascoe moves into (as do filmmakers Ana Vaz and Cauleen Smith) and that a revitalized history of Australian Expanded Cinema needs to develop. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines also connects indigenous memory paths to Ley Lines and nomadic Arabic knowledge systems.

Harold Innis, Canadian communications theorist (the Bias of Communication (1951)) and mentor to Marshall McLuhan’s media thinking argued that Canada, to evolve culturally, needed to accentuate technologies of time (e.g Song, Film, performance) to counter the bias of technologies of space (e.g. Telegraph, Television, Internet) that the United States used to dominate Canadian culture. This is an argument for de-centralization and an embrace of the local.

I understand this as the point that Ilhein and Curham make with their (Wo)Man with Mirror. Their framing delivers the work’s visceral impact through a well ordered DIY script. There are examples of Man  with Mirror performances documented online on YouTube (Space Biased) but when you hear everyone in the audience react simultaneously, you do not feel or understand why. When you are physically present, the impact of Sherwin’s performance (Time Biased) viscerally reaches your body-centred perceptual apparatus at the same time as every other audience member. Does this view run counter to Massey’s stressing of the importance of space in enabling a coeval approach? A coeval approach disintegrates space. I suggest that a dialogic approach through its gaps produces a de-centralised space, is critical to both Innis and Massey and was one of the outcome insights of AAANZ panel discussions for me and present in Curham’s design for the panel dialogue. Canadian film-maker Mike Hoolboom’s multi-voiced book on the history of Toronto’s Funnel “Underground: The untold story of the Funnel Film Collective similarly points a way forward. Australian Expanded Cinema needs such considered multi-voiced TLC.


Atwood, Margaret, 1972 Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Toronto: House of Asansi Press.

 Ball, Steven. 2016. ‘Beyond the Cringe: Australia, Britain, and the Post-Colonial Film Avant-Garde’. Sense of Cinema, no. 78 (March).

Carroll Harris, Lauren. 2020. ‘The Arts Crisis and the Colonial Cringe’. Kill Your Darlings, 15 October 2020.

Duguet, Anne-Marie, Heinrich Klotz, and Peter Weibel, eds. 1997. Jeffrey Shaw: A User’s Manual, from Expanded Cinema to Virtual Reality = Jeffrey Shaw: Eine Gebrauchsanweisung, Vom Expanded Cinema Zur Virtuellen Realität. Ostfildern: Cantz.

Fabian, J. (1983) Time and the Other: how anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Golding, Sally. 2020. Assembly Now. Metro Arts, Brisbane, exhibition 30 Sep to 14 Oct 2020.

Gronlund, Melissa. 2009. ‘Define Intervention – Melissa Gronlund at a Tate Modern Conference on Expanded Cinema’. Artforum International, 6 May 2009.

Harris, Lauren Carroll (2020)  ‘The Arts Crisis and the Colonial Cringe’, 15 Oct 2020, Kill Your Darlings

Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York. Basic Books. 1992

Massey, Doreen. 2005. For Space, London: Sage Publications, 66-70.

Zuvela, Danni. 2007. ‘“Yes, but How Do We Place You?” Expanded Cinema in Australia’. Brisbane: Griffith University.


(Note 1) These meetings were preparation for the Art Association of Australia and NZ 2021 conference panel, Let’s talk about expanded cinema. Meeting participants included Dirk De Bruyn, Louise Curham, Cathy Fowler, Sally Golding, Jonathan Walley and Mark Williams.

Louise  Curham (1,3)

Dirk de Bruyn (2,4)

Louise Curham is an archivist, media artist and researcher lecturing in the School of Information and Communication Studies at Charles Sturt University,





One explanation for surveillance capitalism’s many triumphs floats above them all: it is unprecedented. The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories, thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented….A tragic illustration is the encounter between indigenous people and the first Spanish conquerors. (Zuboff, 2019 p. 12)

When the conquistadors beached in America the natives could not comprehend that the new arrivals would undertake a pandemic of slavery and murder in Christ’s name, an unprecedented face-off that flipped daily life for the welcomers. Today, led by the data mining mobilised by Google in Fordism’s footsteps and in the name of open democracy, for Zuboff, an unprecedented digital frontier opens up that globally colonises and infects all our bodies and behaviours.

At the 2018 Virtual Reality Software and Technology conference in Tokyo I witnessed a keynote by Prof. Masatoshi Ishikawa from the University of Tokyo. His high-speed image processing technology exceeded the human perceptual apparatus, referred to as meta-perception: “Processing speed faster than human and total latency lower than human”. He presented moving imagery of a maintenance van with this technology on the roof moving down a tunnel at a breakneck 100mph, filming at 1000fps, inspecting the tunnel for cracks. This patterned imagery looked like Thorstein Fleish’s Silver Screen (2000). Ishikawa also demonstrated a robot hand holding a baseball bat, that hit a pitched ball without fail. He explained that with this processing speed it was now possible to build a robot that would hit a home run every time.

I imagined in human terms it was like the ball was moving so slow that the hitter could dance around it, ruminate to uncover the best move, and swing; plenty of time. For the computer a second was like a human hour. Through such ever-expanding processing speed an unprecedented invisible superhuman vista had opened up for AI that can move Google’s surveillance mining into a pre-cognitive space. It is a space predicted in Superman movies (from 1978) and comics (from 1938). Such frozen or bullet time vistas was envisioned by Samantha’s twist of the nose in the Bewitched (1964-72) television series, performed by Marty McFly as he replaces a Coke with a Pepsi in a person’s frozen hand in Back to the Future (1985) and explored in features such as Dark City (1998) and Clockstoppers (2002). I am also reminded of Tim Mcmillan’s Time Slicing Experiments (1983) explained in this BBC short ( which led to the bullet time sequence in The Matrix (1999). In Time Slicing when the viewer moves through space, time appears frozen.

For me the technological moment signified by Masatoshi Ishikawa’s keynote was as significant as Muybridge’s animal locomotion studies in 1877 that revealed the pacing of a horse’s feet and informed the nature of cinematic illusion. Ishikawa’s research marks the moment when we have time-travelled past the limits of human perception through AI. Importantly the humans that predictively perform their superhuman skills in popular culture are a metaphor for a technology whose benevolence, for Zuboff, is of concern. Who controls this contested space? Hannah Arendt predicts a profound impact on the human condition ‘It is quite conceivable that the modern age—which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity—may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.’ (Arendt, 1998 p. 322)


New Aesthetics, New Anxieties

How do we think about media art aesthetics and the production of critical knowledge as the creative industries paradigm consolidates around us, amidst ongoing financial, environmental and political crises? Can we still claim a special place for media art given the increasing ubiquity of informational technologies in everyday life and the intensification of cultural distribution through social media platforms? (Michel Van Dartel, 2012 p.11)

Of course, your concerns about AI reflects the ambivalence toward complete surveillance. Well, yes, on one level, it has become that as a result, alas, of the mere total military entertainment complex which has emerged in the years since, I think, the end of World War II and the rise of what should we call the “Mad Men” period of the consolidation, really, of corporate and public relations interests working together to form what Guy Debord called the Society of the Spectacle. This is the global expansion of consciousness and image and ideological expansion globally to form a kind of seamless, uninterrupted globalized monoculture that we’ve all had to experience in our generations in Western Europe and Australia and the U S. 

How do algorithms fit into this? Well, the feedback loops that were required during World War II in order to calculate the best way to fire artillery were the impetus for the first computers.

Alan Turing also was able to adapt ideas from the Poles to use computers to automate the decrypting of codes sent using the Enigma cypher machines during the war. So these two sort of extreme developments of decryption/encryption and solving tabulation problems were the latest in a long line of earl computer development. Note that both computing solutions combined space and navigation. Range and distance of artillery, and the location and meaning and time of an encrypted message. Tabulation was thus linked early on managerialism, management, coordination as well as mapping and terrain. Babbage’s idea for the Difference Engine for example was to solve a problem with tabulating tables for mapping and charts for the Royal Navy.

So we see a trend. We see a trend of computers in the service of the management and organization of fleets. Fleets carry guns, fleets represent nation states, fleets do trade, trade, guns and this all adds up to a managed imperialism. So algorithms from day one have net by necessity by virtue of their context within the military system, have had that association.

However, on a purely independent route, from the point of view of mathematics and the public use of ideas and tools, algorithms have also enjoyed a non-ballistic, non-space aerospace context as well, although the rapid rise in algorithms emerged from the space race with telemetry for Rockets and so on, and communications and so on. The Apollo 11 mission being a very good example with the DSKY navigation computer ((for “display and keyboard”), and the Apollo code used for that, some of it written by Margaret Hamilton, which I did a mini opera about, about such characters but also the technologies used. In retrospect these technologies were the beginning of microelectronics and the small portable computer industry.


The Glitch = Grinch

Apparatuses were invented in order to function automatically, in other
words independently of future human involvement. (Flusser, 1983 p.73)

The glitch, the error codes 1202 and 1201 that came to screen in the Apollo 11 landing, mark an important historic moment in the emergent relationship between human and non-human computational control of technology, and was dependant on software engineered by Margaret Hamilton. Just seven and a half minutes away from landing on the moon the 1202 and 1201 codes unexpectedly hit Buzz Aldrin’s screen. There was a scramble at base to decipher their meaning. The code signposted a task overload: ‘I’m overloaded with more tasks than I should be doing at this time and I’m going to keep only the more important tasks’. ‘If the computer hadn’t recognized this problem and taken recovery action, I doubt if Apollo 11 would have been the successful moon landing it was.’ (Margaret Hamilton, 1971)

I am drawn to locating such a human/non-human transitions in Photography and Cinema? In Photography Bernd and Hilla Becher’s 1960s typologies documented the architecture of industrialisation through the programmed serial accumulation of water towers, gas tanks, and factory facades, predicting the repetitive algorithmic strategies of internet image searches and grazing.

Does a formal cinema’s structural language of logic and repetition predict AI? When Takashi Ito’s Spacy (1981) was shown at Oberhausen Peter Weibel told the audience that this film marked a new aesthetic of machine language. Masatoshi also showed a video of a robotic hand playing rock paper scissors which always won and a video of a camera locked into the centre of a moving ping pong ball. ( That document was predicted by Croatian Ivan Galeta’s Water Pulu 1869 1896 (1987). Through optical printing the ball in a water polo match is fixed at the frame’s center, forcing the action to rotate around its still core.

Laura Kraning’s more recent digital landscape film Meridian Plain (18 min, 2016) shifts and extends the scene of the human/non-human dialogue from the Apollo Moon landing to Martian terrain. Reminiscent of Michael Snow’s approach to his surveyed landscape in La Region Centrale (1971, 180 minutes) employing Pierre Abeloos’s robotic “Camera Activating Machine” (CAM), Kraning samples and animates an extensive archive of hundreds of thousands of images captured by the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) between 2004 and 2015 to unravel a perceptually challenging portrait of the planet’s terrain. Holly Willis’s description of Meridian Plain that ‘we might consider it not time-lapse so much as space-lapse, wherein spaces collapse and give way to each other’ (, resuscitates the pre-cognitive terrain envisioned and narrativized in the previously mentioned Bewitched (1964-72) and Clockstoppers (2004) as viscerally embodied perception.

Kalpana Subramanian connects Meridian Plain back to a cinema of attractions, especially early train films and phantom rides. (Subtramanian, 2021 p.71) Kraning’s non-human machine looking is predicted by Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye. Kraning transfers the kinetic material force from Vertov’s ‘man with the movie camera’ into the inner networked circuitry of the Rover’s mechanical eye. (Subtramanian, 2021 p.69)   This networked eye consists of two cameras set 12 inches apart, like a pair of human eyes, and three stereoscopic cameras on the front, back and top of the Rovers, with another camera on the robotic arm. This stereoscopy extends the stereoscopic flicker strategies Ken Jacobs developed in his stereoscopic image films Capitalism: Slavery (2006) and Capitalism: Child Labor (2006).

‘Kraning juxtaposes images from the stereoscopic cameras alternately (left and right), causing them to veer in extremes and twist in our perception, creating a bodily experience of distortion and instability. Some juxtapositions produce after-effects that appear like solarization or positive-negative inversions.’(Subtramanian, 2021 p.71)  



In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm (/ˈælɡərɪðəm/ ( listen)) is a finite sequence of well-defined instructions, typically used to solve a class of specific problems or to perform a computation. (Algorithm meaning: Google)

So algorithms. I taught an algorithm several years ago at City College of San Francisco Computer Science Department when I was teaching Video Games, and I worked with an instructor who wanted me to explore teaching the games engine Unity from the context of games and simulation, where the simulator would be a pathfinding algorithm called Dykstra’s Algorithm. We were building 3D CGI grids using unity, where a “traveler” entity would traverse the grid.

The grid was made up of sort of cylinders and cones, and the cones would be nodal points, and the cylinders would make up regions (between the cones) made up of triangles like a Geodesic Dome Lattice and the traveller would find the best way to get to where it was going across this lattice based on different elements you would put into the algorithm to facilitate the quickest route. And you could vary elements within the terrain as it were (such as elevation, scale), and the terrain, of course, being made up of nodes and nodal points. There were variables you could change. 

And this simple algorithm, pathfinding algorithm, it turns out it’s an excellent introduction to the idea of what algorithms actually are. They deal with regions they deal with recognizing if something is there or not, or if something is available or a condition is met. It’s basically basic computer science done where events have to unfold in a way where the machine itself has to take on board some of the computation, or if not all, of the computation, which leads to a sense of its own autonomy. And of course, algorithms and artificial intelligences can be autonomous, and the best uses for them are when they are able to be autonomous. Now this autonomy is in and of itself, of course ideologically neutral.

But this fear of loss of agency and the anxieties surrounding loss of agency have fed into a whole new aesthetics, like the New Aesthetic concept, which came out about 12 years ago, 11 years ago out of London’s design centre: Hoxton and Shoreditch.

James Bridle’s New Aesthetic Archive ( on the Tumbler looked at this kind of interesting hybrid between people and AI. The AI is indicative of a new kind of formulation which is neither, let’s say, of human agency or non-human agency, but a kind of hybrid which has its own identity in its own codes and references. It is a form of agency online which is not human but should not be seen in any way, shape or form as separate from the normal functioning of the Internet. 

So you have these parallel agents online which do as they do, and things happen as a result of what they do, and we have learned to live and work alongside them seamlessly and only now do we really really understand what this situation actually means.

And in the interest new ways of seeing, led by James Bridle, would have us bridge this gap consciously or overcome any automatic apartheid that might emerge as a result of anxiety about the AIs that are out there and now apparently outnumber human agency on the Internet. So just as with the emergence of steam and telegraphy and the main technologies at the turn of the previous century, from the 19th to the 20th, as Robert Hughes talks about in shock of the new, you know how this new shock of the of the new with AI cloud computing, sensor driven technologies. 

It’s not so much the technologies, it’s really the public use of reason – Slavoj ZIzek has talked a lot about this. (see and

As always, the tools are nothing inherently problematic in the tools. It’s in the systems to which they are deployed and the long term aims and objectives of those who operate the levers of power.

Let a thousand wikileaks bloom, as we might say.

Dykstra’s Algorythm Unity Demo on YouTube

Known Unknowns – Harpers


Arendt, Hannah (1998) The Human Condition Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Flusser, Vilém. (1983) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books.

Hamilton, Margaret. (1971) “Computer Got Loaded”, Datamation, March 1.

Subramanian, Kalpana. (2021) “Esoteric Archaeologies and Interplanetary Becoming in Laura Kraning’s Meridian Plain”, Papers on Language and Literature, suppl. Special Issue: Landscape, Travel, and the Gaze in Experimental Film and Video; Edwardsville Vol. 57, Iss. 1, (Winter 2021): 67-83,116.

Van Dartel, Michel (2012) Introduction in New Aesthetics, New Anxieties. V2 Publishing

Zuboff, Shoshana. (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Public Affairs, New York.

Dialogue Authors:

1and 3. Dirk de Bruyn

2 and 4. David Cox

David Cox is a filmmaker, artist, writer and teacher based in San Francisco. His films include Puppenhead, Otherzone, and Tatlin. His books include the nonfiction “Sign Wars: The Culture Jammers Strike Back”, published via LedaTape as well as the novella “Dr. Yes” and “The Mystery of the Mission” also published via Ledatape (Winter 2013).

Empathy with Whom?


Empathy with whom?

“We always come back to the same stumbling block: a revolutionary attitude is virtually non-existent in America, outside the Organisation, and all our activities to date don’t seem to have changed this fact. The masses of people … are still far too comfortable and complacent to entertain the idea of revolt. … Without some sort of empathy between us and the general public we can never find enough new recruits to make up for our losses”. (Pierce, 1978 p. 55.)

It is important to see the difference between today’s neo-fascist leaders and cadres, on the one hand, and their potential recruits, on the other hand. 

One way of thinking about this is in terms of political psychology. The distinction here is between the “social dominance orientation” and the “authoritarian personality”. One is a (sociopathic) leader type. The other is a follower. 

Although all persons who have fascist politics have authoritarian personalities, not all authoritarian personalities are fascists. Some are fundamentalists, some are ultra-conservatives, and many, perhaps most, are politically alienated and disengaged from a civic life that they can often neither conceptually understand nor sympathise with. The authoritarian personality is, if you like, a proto-fascist personality structure. But it takes quite a bit to get them over the line, as we will see in a moment.

First, let’s unpack the terminology to make sure we’re talking about the same thing. There are lots of definitions of fascism as a movement category, a regime type and a political programme. I am not going to split hairs: for my purposes, someone has a fascist politics if they meet three criteria: (1) explicit hostility to democracy; (2) endorsement of extra-legal political violence; and (3), a positive orientation to the restoration or preservation of natural hierarchies and social inequalities. I am going to simply describe this as “the militarization of politics”. (There is a leftwing variant of the militarization of politics which is not fascist because (3) is inverted, but that is outside the scope of what I can deal with here.)

Now rightwing authoritarianism and the social dominance orientation. These are terms from the political-psychological research of Bob Altemeyer, currently also being done by Matthew MacWilliams. To be a rightwing authoritarian is to score highly on a political attitude test that tests for three covariant attitude types: (a) rigid conventionalism, a rigid adherence to customary cultural, political and religious norms, rules, values and standards, on the basis that their rightness springs from the fact that they are the way that “we” do things “here”; (b) positive valorization of unquestioning obedience to established or conventional authority; (c) endorsement of harsh punishments for designated out-groups, especially violators of customary conventions. In the literature, these are referred to as “rigid conventionalism,” “authoritarian submission” and “authoritarian aggression”. The test is called the “RWA test,” and I am going to describe high scorers as having an “authoritarian personality”. 

The social dominance orientation, also explored by Altemeyer, is different. It involves agreement with the idea that “might is right,” combined with an extremely strong desire to dominate others and a disregard for conventional standards. The researchers refer to these persons as “SDOs,” and note that the “double high” combination of high-scores on an SDO test and an RWA test results in a particularly anti-democratic and inegalitarian set of attitudes. Altemeyer and co-thinkers describe this personality type as sociopathic and discuss global politics simulations played under well-defined test conditions with hundreds of students representing different countries and groups, where the simulation is seeded with a handful of “double highs”. In all simulations, the double highs launched pre-emptive war against perceived threats, reduced the Third World to complete submission using starvation as a weapon, and employed chemical, biological and nuclear agents to exterminate enemies when global war erupted. I am going to call these double highs “potential fascists”. 

So, here’s the opportunity diagram for the actual fascists who emerges from the pool of potential fascists. Double high SDO/RWAs represent less than 1% of the population. This is sufficient for fascist terrorism, but not enough for seizing power (except under circumstances of a coup d’etat, e.g., General Pinochet). However, the authoritarian personality represents about 11% of the population in the industrialized world (according to Karen Stenner’s research), but a whopping 18% of American voters (according to Matthew Macwilliams’ research). Furthermore, another 23% of American voters are moderate scorers on an RWA test. (MacWilliams’ research exploded into political prominence recently when he showed that a high score on an RWA test was the most reliable predictor of a vote for Trump.) A potential constituency of 41% of the electorate is certainly sufficient for the seizure of power—provided that circumstances can be engineered that trigger political anxiety on a massive scale (e.g., ungovernability because of civil strife). 

But there’s a problem. The problem is “rigid conventionalism”. In the context of the USA, let’s designate these conventions via the shorthand of “Christianity and the Constitution”: C&C. Now, to my knowledge, until recently, the main fascist groups in the USA did not stand for C&C. They reject democracy, often explicitly rejecting the Constitution. They mostly despise Christianity as a slave religion. Mass extermination camps for the Jewish people are difficult to square with the customary norms of the culture surrounding C&C. And, finally, America’s wannabe candidates for Fuhrer do not stand in the place of established authority. In a nutshell, successful fascist takeover requires swapping out customary conventions against an entirely new set of standards. And this is why the literature of fascist deplores … its potential recruits amongst the authoritarian personality! [I will evidence this claim against the writing of William Luther Pierce in another post.]

Duplicity is the standard way for fascists to get around this problem.  [You begin, perhaps, to see the dangerous genius of Steve Bannon at this point, right?] The mushrooming of pro-C&C militias dedicated to extra-legal political violence in the USA today is an extremely dangerous phenomenon. It is the recruitment pool where fascist leader-types can bring authoritarian personalities into the orbit of a complete redefinition of conventions. Generally speaking, this happens through conspiracy thinking in the context of political anxiety.

Now, the other way of thinking about the empathy with whom question, which has to do with political passions. 


“Happy Australia Day, Mate!”

“The way the voice of the ‘ethnic other’ is made passive not only by those who want to eradicate it, but also by those who are happy to welcome it under some conditions they feel entitled to set is one of the main features of these ritualistic ‘immigration debates’ that White Australians enjoy having so much.” (Hage, 2000 p.17)

The year is 2013. I’m in my old hometown: Perth, Western Australia. I’m wandering the streets of Claremont, a salubrious suburb located between the waters of the Swan River and the Indian Ocean. 

On this particular day the sky is an improbable deep blue, and the sun shines fiercely— nothing unusual about the weather, then. Perth summers are brutal. I can feel the radiant heat from the concrete footpath burn through my rubber thongs. I’m with my mother and adult son—three brown skinned people from the ‘other side of the river.’ I rarely feel a sense of menace on the streets of Melbourne, so I’m mildly surprised at my discomfort amongst the throngs of young white people draped in Australian flag.

‘Happy Australia Day, mate’, she said.

She wore the flag like a superhero’s cape, and sported miniature Aussie emblems on her cheeks. A marketer’s vision of the quintessential beach babe: lightly tanned skin, sandy blonde hair, taut body, unlined face. She couldn’t have been more than 20 years old.  She looked at me intently, registered the fact that the hue of my skin didn’t change with the seasons and barked out her greeting for the second time:

‘Happy Australia Day, mate!’ 

She waited for a response. 

‘Happy Australia day,’ I said.

Yeah, right!’ 

She gave me one final stare before running on to join her friends, a mix of young men and women who also wore the national flag as a fashion accessory. I looked up at the sky, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun with the upturned palm of my right hand, as my face flushed with embarrassment and dribbles of sweat slid down my back.


I have no way of knowing whether the young woman in my anecdote had an authoritarian personality or was familiar with the writings of right-wing firebrands such as William Luther Pierce. I suspect her aggression came from a complex blend of sources. Was she enraged? Did she hate me? Once again, I can’t know for sure, but I suspect her antagonism was not fuelled by extreme emotions. The good people of Claremont have little reason to feel disaffected or alienated, but they do have a clear sense, it seems to me, of who does and who doesn’t belong to their community. 

Of course, my interlocuter may have been a ring-in from a less salubrious suburb and her nationalistic sentiments may, indeed, be the result of strongly held political convictions. Clearly, there is a lot I don’t know about this young woman. That said, my encounter with her is typical of the many instances in my life when the colour of my skin has marked me out as an interloper in my own country. No matter how many years I live and work in Australia, I will always be an immigrant in the eyes of many white Australians. And as unnerving and terrifying as my close encounters with fascists have been over the years, it’s the everyday interactions with apparently benign everyday people that really scare me. Even those white folks who vociferously proclaim their support of people like me sometimes reinforce racist assumptions about identity and belonging. This doesn’t mean we ignore the real political threat emanating from far-right demagogues. Rather, I think it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.


On hate and rage.

 “Since they are no longer capable of responding to an idealistic appeal, we began by appealing to things they can understand: fear and hunger. We will take the food off their tables and empty their refrigerators. We will rob the System of its principal hold over them. And, when they begin getting hungry, we will make them fear us more than they fear the System. We will treat them exactly the way they deserve to be treated”. (Pierce, 1978 p.101)

Rage is a justified emotion, by which I mean, rage happens when an individual feels egregiously frustrated or the victim of a manifest injustice. Rage is about righting a wrong. The evidence gathered by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris suggests that many supporters of authoritarian populist political movements in Europe and America are filled with rage, generally speaking, triggered by “hot button” “culture war” topics which indicate a liberalization of society that imperils their most cherished conventions. 

I want to suggest that the politically mobilized authoritarian personality is enraged. Enraged about “social justice warriors,” “political correctness,” “minorities dictating to the majority,” and all the rest of it.

By contrast, hate requires no justification. Hate happens when a person adamantly believes that an individual or group is intrinsically evil. Generally speaking, hate leads to violence, because intrinsic evil can only be suppressed, not reformed or dissuaded. 

Fascists hate. Since the decline of the KKK, virtually universally, they hate the Jews, which is intriguing in the US context, because you might expect that other forms of the politics of race would predominate. The politics of hate is the politics of violence—generally speaking, of “ethnic cleansing” and extermination camps, but also of show trials and assassination campaigns. 

From the perspective of the passions, then, the recruitment of authoritarian personalities to fascist politics looks like the conversion of rage into hate. Or, at least, the (mis-)direction of rage against targets of fascist hate. 

So, the kicker: I doubt that it is possible to empathise with hate. I think that radical empathy has to be reserved for the enraged only.


Empathy for Whom?

In this era of stark political divides, it is clear that racial divisions can get in the way of empathy. I define empathy as the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective, in order to understand their feelings and life experiences. “Radical empathy” takes this a step further, encouraging each of us not only to understand the feelings of others, but also to be motivated to create the change that will allow all of us to benefit from economic prosperity and develop the social relationships are beneficial to our emotional wellbeing. (Givens, 2021)

Geoff’s stanzas suggest that radical empathy has limits by questioning whether it’s possible (or desirable) to empathize with narcissistic sociopaths, for example. He also suggests that a psychological approach to understanding why people are seduced by populist demagogues has the potential to reveal the workings of political polarization. I want to briefly engage with both points and suggest possible paths for further discussion and debate.

The phrase, ‘Radical empathy’ seems to be gathering a lot of traction in public discourse, as a cursory Internet search will reveal. And while the term varies in meaning from commentator to commentator, most people agree that it implies attitudinal change is possible by first trying to understand the life experiences of others and then engaging in some form of social justice activism. The point is the change the world (and so on and so forth). The other notable feature of the term lies in the way it frequently reduces politics to interpersonal conflicts and interactions (and, sometimes, takes on the air of a self-help strategy — see Peter Laughter’s TED talk).  So, will a little peace, love and understanding coupled with activism held us close the ‘stark political divide’? 

As Geoff implies, it important to identify the limits of radical empathy as a form of political activism. How does empathy work? And who do we find it easier to empathise with: the kid with cancer who lives next door, or the hundreds of Palestinian victims of Zionist violence? Might there a problem with basing political activism on emotion and the identification with individual experience (empathy tends to be most powerful when directed at individuals).

That said, I’m a little weary of those discourses that explain social and political phenomena with reference to ‘types’. This move, while perhaps carrying some explanatory force, tends to demonize others by reducing complex lives to psychological traits. The danger in this mode of analysis is that we pay scant attention to the social, economic and political forces that shape individual psychology. Chicago School sociology was fond of using typological analysis to explain dangerous or non-normative others (see Stonequist, 1937. I don’t know enough about the psychological research Geoff cites to make a confident declaration about its value, but I am curious about the persistence of ‘typological’ thinking in psychology and adjacent disciplines. 

Perhaps the real problem today is that we elide the personal with the political. Perhaps a politics based on categories of identity is doomed to polarize people no matter how hard they try to empathize with others. Perhaps we need to revisit Hannah Arendt’s theory of political action which is predicated on maintaining a distinction between the public and the private. (Arendt, 1958) Maybe Arendt, that pioneering theorist of totalitarianism has something to offer contemporary political debate, especially if we entertain the thought that the political and the private are not as porous as most people take for granted these days. Agamben’s concept of ‘whatever singularity’ and ‘The Coming Community’ might also offer something to this debate ( Agamben, 1993) Briefly, Agamben’s concept of ‘whatever being’ or ‘whatever singularity’ represents an attempt to develop a concept of community that is not predicated on conventional categories of belonging — of being German, being Jewish, being gay, for example. Agamben reconfigures the relationship between the one and the many, the particular and the universal, the individual and the group, in order to conceive of singularity ‘as it is.’ ‘Whatever Being’ is neither particular nor universal. So, in other words, each instance of singularity is valued on its own terms, whatever those terms might be. Perhaps the emotional attraction of Radical empathy needs to be tempered with a bit more thought.


Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Agamben, Giorgio (1993) The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Givens, Terri (2021) Terri Givens, Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides. Bristol: Policy Press.

Hage, Ghassan (2000) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, London and New York: Routledge.

Pierce, William Luther (1978) The Turner Diaries National Vanguard Books.

Stonequist,  Everett V. (1937) Marginal Man: A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Geoff Boucher (1,3)

Glenn D’Cruz (2,4)

Sonic Visibilities


Sonic Visibilities

Auditory space has no point of favored focus. It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, boxed in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment. (McLuhan and Carpenter, 1960 p.67)

I sit at a bench in a park that acts as a balcony overlooking Black Rock Jetty, its carpark and assembled sail boats moving in and out of pools of silvered light. Port Phillip Bay’s (Nairm) vast grey horizon line is anchored by three pastel grey transport ships, a drifting musical score of containers, mobile collages of global mobility and trade. The wind is shifting and there is fog and streaks of rain on the horizon. My time-lapse camera captures its detail in 90-minute packets, transcribed for a hundred times speeded-up replay, not even a minute. This program parcels my memories of this real-time visual music into pattern recognition and my body breathes a bit easier.

I watch the changing wave patterns on the water as the wind changes and think of Aura Satz’s visual patterning of sounds, her use of the Chladni plate in Onomatopoeic Alphabet (2010) translating sound and vibration into imaged patterning. The bay performs as an endless Chladni plate. What patterning and sounds reside under the water?

I have been locating Clarice Beckett’s tonal sketched paintings of this area, described as all about fog, from Beaumaris and Rickett’s Point Sanctuary to Picnic Point. That is the light here and is prescribed by the direction of her sustained looking, determined by the coastline in a southwest arc from her 1920’s home on Tramway Parade. Every day at 5 a.m. she wandered out to capture its tonal silences and hum until struck down by pneumonia during a stormy vigil, passing away at 48. Her grave is two blocks from my weathered and discarded home.

In her essay on Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915–1950 Exhibition in 2009 Tracey Lock-Weir referred to Max Meldrum’s softened form of Tonalism as “semi-abstract ‘colour music’ studies” in Roy de Maistre’s hands. On Beckett Lock-Weir identifies a further visual music: “Beckett transcended Meldrum’s painting system, transforming it into her own ethereal signature style, distinguished by a wonderful command of design and feeling for colour.” (Lock-Weir, 2009)

Today Beckett’s mobile drawing kit, which she incessantly carted with her like a dog on a leash, is replaced by mobile phones and tablets that gather instant snapshots of sails, sunsets and scan clouded vistas. Such imagery registers on the corner of the eye of those passing upper middle-class walkers, joggers and lycra-clad cyclists occupying this impeccable comatose suburbia’s fringe. As you walk towards the coastline the hum of cars cancels the din of the waves. There is a point where these sounds embrace, stroked by wind, and punctuated by birds that direct the eye. And then you are in, through the portal. Do we still have available here the immersive traces of a Boon-Wurring looking, before Chaos Time before their women were abducted by sealers?

Between Clarice Beckett’s time and now, to use McLuhan’s term, the media have flipped. ‘When all information moves at the speed of light it literally translates itself into the auditory mode’ (McLuhan, 1960 in Cavell 2002 p.138). In the 1960 everyone in my generation wanted to be in a band and play a guitar and this, at the very least, enabled moments of recognition of Jimmi Hendrix’s technical virtuosity. For some reason a recent Video of Prince reminded me of this intelligence.

Now, with the malleability of what Vilem Flusser describes as the “technical image”, the pervasiveness of digital media, the transistor radio has been replaced by the mobile phone. Our mobility allows us to be in many places at once. The rules of sonic behaviour re-assert themselves. How do you sample this media environment? We do it every day. We do it when we get up at 5 a.m. to catch a live-stream on the other side of the world.


Sonic Visibilities

The coastal area of Bayside was part of the walking barreeng followed by the Boonwurrung bagurrk from many thousands of years as they journeyed to their meeting place.

Lousia and the bagurrk journeyed along the coast to what is now known as Beaumaris and Black Rock, as was their custom. But on this occasion [in the 1830s], these bagurrk never returned from their journey. They were kidnapped by sealers and taken to the islands in Bass Strait where they worked for the sealers (Briggs 2014: 18)

There are two fixed points between which I will often walk. The first fixed point is beneath the Black Rock garden, where the stone sea wall begins. It is a pathway that hugs the shoreline of Nairm. Just before the fossil-rich beaches of Beaumaris is found the second point – the low-lying cliffs at the Southern end of Beaumaris beach. It is between these two points that my body oscillates, as it attempts to defragment from the exhaustive encounters of daily life whether that be the political game-machine that accompanies the human temperament, or simply trying to understand what all the fuss is about. The wall is nearly a century old. It was designed to protect beach road and provide employment for the young men left jobless by the Great Depression. It is constructed from the stones of the dismantled Old Melbourne Gaol, which include grave markers of condemned criminals including (maybe) the war hero, Ned Kelly. The stones are mnemonic departure points, that remind me I shouldn’t complain about my unbroken neck.

There is one small section of this walk called Quiet Corner. It is an aptly named location because sitting there I can easily drift into a suspended state of reality, imagining encounters with the wild. The constant roar of Beach Rd is somehow shielded; and the visual cues to left and right are lost around the tight bends of the sea wall walk. Ahead are fossilised platforms immersed in the glistening light and wave refraction patterns so peculiar to the ecology of Nairm. Given a rare and precious moment, when the jet skiers have stayed home and the marching leotard-bound exercisers have not yet emerged from their homes, a fragment of the wild is encountered. The caressing waves on the sea wall, the call of passing birds, and once, but only once, I watch a pod of dolphins swimming the stretches.

I’m not sure I require McLuhan’s positioning of auditory space as in flux (though I’m glad he brought it to our attention); only because the visual is also in flux, as are my senses and memories that try to apprehend it. There is not an hour that the light of Nairm is the same; and the fixed sounds of cars and joggers are always encountered, as they maintain their rhythms. But this is in the peaceful times. There is something terrifying about watching a Cold front roar across the bay like an impenetrable wall of dark-grey destruction; I can only be thankful they are clouds and not the shattering cliffs they mimic. These weather fronts can, and often have, torn the sea wall to shreds leaving engineers scratching their heads as how to protect their anthropocentric landscape (Bird 2009). The built environment is also in flux – watch the graves of the condemned swallowed by a storm.

At point 2, the cliffs of Beaumaris present another tantalising moment. If one shuffles carefully along the rugged rocks at the cliff base there are small platforms from which to dive and connect with a variety of fellow species. There is something healing about this space – it is the final space in which I undo my body’s ailments. When I swim here, I wonder what paradise we Europeans destroyed when we arrived. The story of the path they walked – the bagurrk (women) – what was life like then? I desperately want to know. By being here, am I trespassing again? Should I leave it alone? But I keep coming back, to these tiny wild pockets that stir my imagination, and compel my body to connect with something that may have been.


Sonic Visibilities

Both time (as measured visually and segmentally) and space (as uniform, pictorial, and enclosed) disappear in the electronic age of instant information. (McLuhan, 1964. p.138)

The light on Nairm is in looping flux, rhythmically stroked by the sun and moon. In speed-up this air performs as a Vortex. Layers of cloud move in different directions, speeds and hues. Light envelops us as a grey tonal fog, which Beckett was accused of overstating. In the fog the foghorn is the locating call. For George Kuchar the rising fog from San Francisco Bay became a metaphor for the denied depressions enveloping its Mogadon addicted tenement residents in his melodramatic A Reason to Live (1976).

The Vortex reminds me of the suicidal final image in Maya Deren’s seminal experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). This image of Deren herself, covered in seaweed, summarizes within it the re-iterations of a split persona processed through the film’s spiralling structure. Deren’s concept of the vertical editing process plumbs layers of meaning and perspective and pre-dates McLuhan’s ‘probes’. This final image incorporates ‘the richness of many moments’. (Deren, 1946 p.27)

Deren had studied the Imagist and Vorticist movement in pre-WWI London, featuring Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. ‘The image is not an idea, it is a radiant node or cluster, it is what I can and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which and through which ideas are constantly rushing’. (Ezra Pound 1970 p.92) ‘You think at once of a whirlpool. At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist.’ (Wyndham Lewis in Hunt, 1926) McLuhan related these descriptions to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story: A Descent into the Maelstrom. Are these compacted forms of meaning that Deren constructs in her film and described by Lewis and Pound’s approach productive responses to current speed-up of over-mediated environments?

Sound has meanings not directly related to the acoustic, but remain in dialogue. From a Vorticist point of view these meanings can be entwined in a nodal cluster of associations. Sound is also a geographic term derived from the Old English expression for water, sea and swimming or gap; sund. A Sound is a deep ocean or sea inlet, useful for protected anchorage and is usually formed by the flooding of a river valley. It can also be situated between two bodies of land, like a strait. Further, oceanographic depth sounding or plainly ‘sounding’ refers to the act of measuring depth with a segmented thread of lead-weighted rope. This was a critical tool during the European discovery and circumnavigation of Terra Australis.

Capel Sound, a deep-water anchorage situated in Port Phillip Bay on the Mornington Peninsula between Rosebud and Rye was named during the first survey of the bay in 1836. It rests on the horizon line south-east of Beckett’s Beaumaris. It has been speculated that this location is where the Yarra River and the Tamar River met well before Chaos Times when the Boon Wurrung could travel across the bay to the Ballerine Peninsula and across Bass Strait to Tasmania. In 2017 Rosebud West was renamed Capel Sound to increase local land values of the ever-encroaching suburban garrisons that have buckled the slither of foreshore and cliffs that Beckett occupied, paced and scribed during the 1920’s.

Depth sounding’s lead weighted rope has been technologically enhanced by post-industrial Sonar technologies, retrieving a direct link to the acoustic. Sonar sound emissions are used to communicate with or detect objects on or under water. Sailors and Fishermen use it to map the ocean floor and to detect schools of fish near a fishing vessel. This intrudes on the sensitive acoustic aquatic habitat of porpoises and whales, for example. Ultrasound, outside human hearing is defined as sound at frequencies higher than 20 kHz. Like bats, porpoises use ultrasound to locate prey and chart the seascape have an upper hearing limit of 160 kHz. The visual intrusion of suburbia is complimented by the sonic intrusion of sonar and ultrasound technologies.


Sonic Visibilities

Emu made a hell of a mess, running around showing off his speed and claiming his superiority, demanding to be boss and shouting over everyone. You can see the dark shape of Emu in the Milky Way. Kangaroo (his head the Southern Cross) is holding him down, Echidna is grasping him from behind, and the great Serpent is coiled around his legs. Containing excesses of malignant narcissists is a team effort (Tyson Yunkaprota 2019: 31).

Looking out onto the smooth spaces of Nairm, I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) vorticism: were they influenced by the Vorticist movement? I don’t know. According to them, vorticism refers to the movement of a cyclone or spiral or anything that radiates inwards and outwards. In effect, vortical movement is simultaneously located everywhere. There is no discernible spot that can be isolated and bounded. Similar to a body of water where no droplet can be isolated, because each droplet inhabits every place in the ocean simultaneously – it is in endless movement.

Understood as such, bodies are capable of stretching out infinitely at infinite speeds. They can’t be isolated. Endless stretches enveloped by endless stretches. This is flat, timeless space, without a suburban back fence.

Noises are vortical. They don’t care about fences. The acoustic spray of leaf blowers and jet skis fills all of McLuhan’s acoustic space. It is hopelessly invasive. It’s strange to stare at a fence and imagine the holder of the leaf blower. When I stare out over Nairm, I can see the jet ski perpetrator. He is usually a young man with rippling muscles with super-loud music mingling with the roar of his engine. This roar, sonically and visually, completely occupies – no colonises – space, and the experiences of everyone within it. A short 190 years ago there were no such intrusions on these peaceful shores – and no fences to contain them. Apparently, that’s what civilization does: builds fences and makes noises.

How can I respectfully broach the question of the experiences of Lousia Briggs, whose body was stolen from the very shores of which I write? Aunty Caroline Briggs (2014: 31-3) tells the story of the young woman (bagurrk), kidnapped and transported to the Bass Strait. What horrors must have this bewildering moment brought her? Am I allowed to ask? Or wonder? The story continues, that Louisa Briggs married a Tasmanian direct descendent and returned to Victoria, where eventually she became an important and respected leader of the Aboriginal settlement, Coranderrk. The resilience captured by this story is astounding.

And now, here her story is relayed by a European-Australian man with no idea about the land on which he tramples, as he oscillates between Black Rock and Beaumaris. Like the ultrasounds and ultralights in which I am immersed, but which exceed my perception, so to the world views and knowing of Louisa Briggs and her people exceed my perception, which has, after all, been narrowly defined by my colonial education. How to break past these stone walls, built by pedagogical engineers? Where is the storm that will tear apart my own sea wall?

Perhaps the answer could come to me if I drop beneath the depths of Nairm. Submerged by smooth space such that every moment could simultaneously come flooding into my consciousness. From the collective unconscious of memory and story, its boundless, unforgiving and unstructured depths force a gruelling process of individuation – I might come to understand something. I would also drown. But perhaps that is the point. You know, the point that is everywhere at the same time.

Have we traded such capacities for understanding, in exchange for the certainty of determinism?

I’m thinking about all those films my interlocutor tells us about. I hadn’t heard of them and now I am watching them. They are so rich and strange. Monstrous reifications of human peculiarities that do the important job of knocking us off our podiums. I think indigenous cultures had many monsters that reminded the people of their place in the world. I read about them in Dreaming books.

Tyson Yunkaporta (2019) thinks the problem these days is that there are too many emus. Emus he tells us represent narcissism. There are narcissists running around everywhere, and they are completely out of control. Aboriginal law did the job of keeping the narcissists under control, which may explain First People’s longevity and happiness. Not that there is anything wrong with narcissists (or emus) it’s just a problem when they are out of control. Narcissists can be great fun – I’ve known plenty. But unfortunately, these days they become presidents and CEOs.

And anyway, I like emus. One chased me around my car in circles at Tower Hill once, trying to get my sandwich. We were like a circling vortex till I jumped into the still of my car for protection. Everyone was laughing. That is, the Chinese tourists and my children. See; narcissists can be fun.

Coda: Sonic thinking is reshaping our civilization’s understanding of the world. How can we hold onto and control that which is fluid and in flux? A world of visual objects, without meaning, is ripe for exploitation and destruction. We have done this for so long – turning a devitalised world into our image, desperate to convince ourselves that our narcissism is in fact an exercise in truth. Sonic thinking has even liquified the ocular – we see light like the painters, apprehending it as flux and flow. Right now, in this period of disassembly and destruction everything is in flux. Until everything again re-coagulates, perhaps into something sincere – something like real law. Maybe we will all end up in the base of Nairm, or perhaps those waters (wareenny) will recede again, and we will be given another go…


Bird, E. (2010) Storm Damage on Black Rock Sea Wall, The Victorian Naturalist, 127(5), p.196-200.

Briggs, C. (2014) The Journey Cycles of the Boonwurrung, 2nd Edition, The Boonwurring Foundation Ltd: Victorian Corporation for Languages.

 Carpenter, E. & Mcluhan, M. (1960) Explorations in Communication, an Anthology. Boston, Beacon Press.

Cavell, R. (2002) McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. University of Toronto Press.

Deleuze, G and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus, Translated by Brian Massumi, Continuum: New York.

Deren, M (1946) An Anagram of  Ideas on Art, Form and Film, Alice book Shop Press, New York.

Flusser, V. (2011) Into the Universe of Technical Images. University of Minnesota Press.

Hunt, V. (1926) I have this to Say: The Story of My Flurried Years, Boni and Liveright, New York.

Lock-Weir, T. (2009) Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915–1950, Art Gallery of South Australia.

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Pound, E. (1970) Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New Directions Pub Corp. New York.

Yunkaporta, T. (2019) Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Text Publishing: Melbourne.

Dirk de Bruyn (1,3)

Jordan Lacey (2,4)   Jordan Lacey is a creative practitioner, transdisciplinary researcher, musician and curator who specialises in soundscape design and the creation of public sound art installations.He was recently awarded an Australian Research Council (DECRA) grant titled Translating Ambiance. This project combines biophilic design and ambiance theory to discover new techniques for the creation of sound art installations. He is based in the School of Design at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and is an associate editor for the Journal of Sonic Studies, which is based in the Netherlands.

Radical Empathy


Radical Empathy

One night it was raining. and we were coming down maybe Seventh Street and this drunken woman comes out of this Polish tavern a few steps down. She comes up and she’s reeling and yelling about the Jews on the street. And Jack just took her arm, and- he had a broken umbrella or something like that- he began asking her on the street why she was raving. You know, just moving with her, holding her arm, and circling around, and she began taking part in it, like dancing with him, still raving about the Jews- who you know, should have all been burned and everything- and it was perfect.

(Ken Jacobs, 2011 p. 52)

Jack Smith’s gesture and its dance across fascism is so seamless, so matter-of-fact. In Ken Jacob’s film Star Spangled to Death (2004), watching Jack Smith dance across his and Jacob’s New York neighbourhood with an entourage of locals in mesmerized tow further displayed this gift of slicing through boundaries. I found a trace of this ability in one of Glenn D’Cruz’s students Rachael who I witnessed performing mime and moving across Federation Square with similar assurance for his teaching unit, Out of the Box: Theatre in Alternative Contexts. It was also evident in Lucas Haynes’ physical performance in Local Melbourne filmmaker, Paddy Hay’s short film Cuckoo Roller (2019), encountered at Oberhausen. There the final silent frozen face-off with an indigenous outlier in the urban bush did not break the boundaries between them but offered a moment of outsider recognition. Was this the same aboriginal ghost lurking in the bush in Tom Cowan’s under-rated The Office Picnic (1972)? Do these non-verbal boundary transgressions perform a radical empathy?

In the spoken word I recently encountered an ABC interview with Ginger Gorman about her book Troll Hunting (2019), late at night somewhere between lock-down sleep and wakefulness. Gorman had been systematically trolled. As a journalist she had penned a positive story about new parents who were later convicted as paedophiles in New Zealand. She became a cyber hate target with co-ordinated twitter attacks on her and her family.

Eventually Gorman turned this onslaught in on itself. Who were these people?  Over five years of research she turned and faced her perpetrators, found them, and engaged in dialogue. A handful became friends. These were not losers living in basements. These women hating articulate and marginalised angry white supremacist young men wanted to talk, wanted to be heard. Gorman learnt about the organised troll armies rioting in Charlottesville. Psychopathology, sadism and narcissism were the traits, of these socially and economically disadvantaged Trump supporters. Their childhoods had been framed by drugs, violence and neglect and the internet provided a rabbit hole of escape in their developing years.

Is Gorman’s a classic case of contemporary radical empathy or just a forgotten strategy of listening to a dangerous enemy. Alex Lee Moyer’s documentary TFW No GF (2019) maps a similar subculture of alienated young men. TFW NO GF is shorthand for “that feeling [I get] when [I have] no girlfriend” a phrase developed in online discussions to describe one’s fragile emotional state. Though not as toxic as a ‘troll army’ these young men have moved through alt.right and 4chan websites to search for a place in the world.

I always have found Errol Morris’s slippery dialogic documentaries enticing. These documentaries explore unstable and ambiguous truths and demonstrate an interest- nee empathy- for mapping difficult or challenging situations and disparaged characters like Robert S. McNamara in The Fog of War (2003), Fred A. Leuchter in Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999), or the peeling away of the vacillating layers of CIA secrecy-truth in Wormwood (2017). His recent  documentary/dialogue with Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump’s 2016 triumph, in American Dharma (2019) extends this trajectory into an immediate present. It is illuminating to have Bannon’s world-view laid out before you beyond the flack of populist media incendiaries. I share Bannon’s disgust about the Vietnam War and its traumatic impact on the working class. I share his dismissal of the technocrats, the power elites in Washington, that drove the war in the service of globalisation. Like Morris I part company with Bannon’s solution to this situation and I am indebted to Morris for sharing his listening across what has become a great American divide.


Soul Sickness

I am the daughter of immigrants. I am a Muslim. I am a feminist. I am a lefty liberal. And what I want to ask you is: am I your enemy?

Deeyah Khan (2017)

Participating in an open discussion about future research directions in performance studies (PS) at the University of Calgary in 2019, I suggested that we, as a community of PS scholars and artists, might benefit from investigating the performative dimensions of political polarisation, a timely topic given the current state of the world. More specifically, I proposed that we engage with angry men: right-wing groups such as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibate men) white supremacists and Jihadists. This was not an especially original idea. It was inspired by my fascination with two documentaries made by Deeyah Khan: White Right: Meeting the Enemy (2017) and Jihad: A Story of the Others (2015). Khan, a Muslim woman, bravely meets her adversaries and engages them in conversation. In Meeting the Enemy, Khan confronts Jared Taylor, a prominent neo-Nazi, with the following speech: ‘I am the daughter of immigrants. I am a Muslim. I am a feminist. I am a lefty liberal. And what I want to ask you is: am I your enemy?’. Taylor struggles to conceal his obvious contempt for Khan, but some of his ideological allies develop various degrees of empathy towards the journalist. While none of Khan’s interviewees wholly renounce their views, they do demonstrate a capacity for change. Both of Khan’s films identify similarities between neo-Nazis and Jihadists: both groups feel they have little to lose by engaging in extremist politics. They feel marginalised and rejected by mainstream society. They display a sense of hopelessness, a hopelessness born of rejection. While there are always exceptions to the rule, most angry men, feel invisible, or at least that’s the impression conveyed by Khan’s films.

So, what became of my proposal? I wasn’t exactly shouted down, but I felt a significant number of the people in the room were less than impressed. Was I illegitimately paranoid? Perhaps. Anyway, after a long, awkward pause, a young man cleared his throat and responded: ‘you do know, they are trying to kill us, don’t you? Why should we give them the time of day?’

I don’t recall what I said in reply. I must have become somewhat combative because the moderator shut me up pretty quickly. I don’t know how others felt, but I sensed palpable discomfort and disquiet amongst the assembly. For me, this was not the first time one of the conference events generated such a response. We were, despite being superficially bound by common academic interests, a divided community. Perhaps we more divided by generation, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and political affiliation than I’d supposed at the start of the event. At various times, members of the audience admonished and chastised presenters for their sexism, ableism, racism and so on. There is of course nothing wrong with pointing out ignorance and prejudice, but I wonder whether combative debate actually changes the way people think, or moves them to question their beliefs. There is a sense in which contemporary politics is primarily about identity and the friend/enemy distinction that Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt identified as being at the heart of the concept of the political (1932). My interlocuter certainly identified neo-Nazis as an existential threat to his existence because of his open homosexuality. I’ve been on the receiving end of racial abuse enough times to know that he certainly has a point, but, where does this leave us if we are unable to empathise with our adversaries?

Today, most people appear to be angry about something. We’ve all heard about the way social media apparently amplifies feelings of offense and outrage, its algorithms depositing us into echo chambers that ensures that our newsfeeds don’t bring us into contact with anything that might make us uncomfortable our challenge us to think differently. Francis Fukuyama, whose name will forever be associated with the ‘end of history’ thesis, reminds us in his book, Identity (2018) that the term ‘Thymos’ helps us unpack the current political malaise. Plato used the word in The Republic to describe that part of the soul that craves recognition and acknowledgement. Perhaps the figures in Khan’s documentaries are best understood if we see them as suffering from a form of ‘soul sickness’? I’m weary of ascribing any essential feature to human Being, but I do know what it’s like, as a visibly different brown man, to go unrecognised and unheard. It’s frustrating. It makes you mad. It makes you hate. Whither radical empathy?

Both of Khan’s films are streaming on Netflix.


The hegemony of finance and the banks has produced the indebted. Control over information and communication networks has created the mediatized. The security regime and the generalized state of exception have constructed a figure prey to fear and yearning for protection—the securitized. And the corruption of democracy has forged a strange, depoliticized figure, the represented. These subjective figures constitute the social terrain on which—and against which—movements of resistance and rebellion must act.

                                            (Hardt and Negri,  2012 p.14)

Although less pointed, I had felt and observed a similar reaction a decade earlier after a presentation by Michael Hardt at one of the first conferences I had ever attended, the 2005 Out of Time Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In his keynote speech Hardt spoke of a politicized notion of “love” which led to its own resistances as being too hippy, too soft for a brutal political climate and delusional.

To renovate democracy Hardt identified a gap between spontaneity and dictatorship that he sought to bridge with “love”. Hardt’s political shaping of love reclaims notions previously colonised and lost. This love is socially expansive beyond the boundaries of the nuclear family, it is both personal and political, it is a love of difference, it extends a love of the poor beyond charity and understands love as an ontologically productive power rather than an event that captures you. Inside this Hardt finds a place for Bataille’s confronting openness to difference, Walt Whitman’s love of the stranger, Zizek’s call for a new people, Eve Sedgwick’s intimacy, Bell Hooks’ notion of a communal love that sustains political action and Lacan’s resistance to any destruction of difference.

Is such an assembled belief system capable of performing a radical empathy with contemporary alt.righters, racists, Nazis and jihadists or is it just another belief system in denial of any religious roots? Perhaps Hardt’s shaping of evil as a case of ‘love gone wrong’ offers a possibility.

In contemporary short film I identify Mike Hoolboom and Cauleen Smith’s short films as performative examples of Hardt’s tentative theorising. Hoolboom’s Colour My World (2017), re-shapes the writings of Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis and Bell Hooks into a ‘lost love’ song. In Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band (2011) Cauleen Smith flash-mobs a Sun Ra march in a local shopping centre and in H-E-L-L-O (2014) she folds the alien riff in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in on itself, inviting local New Orleans musicians to perform it on its streets in an ironic and defiant act of community. Such works do not reach a mainstream audience. The reputation of its creators may, but not the film’s reflexive content.

There are also Ken Jacob’s digital shorts Capitalism: Slavery (2007) and Capitalism: Child Labor (2006) where he re-animates stereoscopic images of slaves picking cotton and children working in a cotton mill. These interventions effectively and radically re-read the original documents against their grain. These interventions perform like Jack Smith’s dance in a New York street, but migrated to act inside a different technology.

On his invitation in 1983 I traversed the gutters of New York as a cultural tourist following Ken Jacobs, a derive of the neighbourhood that was his community of shopkeepers and locals. He had made the point that the gutter offered the clearest and most accessible view, avoiding the crowds’ bustle. He was my guide, turning to make some comment, I followed him. There was a special kind of body-oriented relationship at play here which I later recognised in Circling Zero: Part One, We See Absence (2002), an experimental documentary about the twin towers collapse. There was no ranting and raving here, just a sense of loss as Ken and Flo Jacobs circled their neighbourhood, at times looking up where the towers used to be, now absent but etched as a bruised memory on their bodies. Can such a contemplation on loss contain within it an attitude that retains a sense of political action and empowerment?

More recently I taught an animation project online to a group of locked down students. I made a decision to talk to each one individually by phone as well as online as some were often absent from class. One student was lagging way behind because his computer could not cope with the applications available. Finally, I offered him an alternative strategy to create an animated diary of his difficult lock-down, away from his family, stuck at home with slow computer access. This proved a telling document that expressed his situation productively in which he could take creative ownership of his disempowering situation.




Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

John Lennon

Yeah, Nah.

Glenn D’Cruz

The primary factors of production and exchange—money, technology, people and goods—move with increasing ease across national boundaries; hence the nation-state has less and less power to regulate these flows and impose its authority over the economy. Even the most dominant nation-states should no longer be thought of as supreme and sovereign authorities, either outside or even within their own borders.

(Hardt and Negri,  2000 p.xi)

Yeah, right.

Glenn D’Cruz


It’s 9.21 am, Friday 30 October in Melbourne. My mobile phone pings. I’m still in bed and mildly annoyed with myself for not turning off my message notifications. I’m tired, grumpy and lethargic. I’ve had a restless night. I’ve been mulling over the pros and cons of taking on a managerial role at work. I need more sleep, yet I can’t resist the impulse to pick up my phone and read Facebook messenger.

It’s my old friend, Helen. She lives in London, so she sent the message at 10.31pm, Thursday 29 October:

Another gruesome day in France. Not a word has anyone said on my social media.

Imagine if it had been the other way around.

I take a deep breath, roll over and close my eyes tightly. The right-hand side of my jaw aches. I’ve been grinding my teeth again. Who am I kidding? I’m not going back to sleep. I scan the BBC news app on my phone. The lead story is about a terrorist attack in Nice, France. An Islamic terrorist has just stabbed 3 people to death, days after a French school teacher was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a class on free speech.

Imagine if it had been the other way around.

I don’t feel like responding to my friend’s invitation to ‘imagine’, so I get out of bed and begin my day.

It’s 12.30pm and I’m fully awake. I’m reading the news on my computer. I have to scroll down to the ‘World’ section of The Age to find a report about the terrorist attack in Nice. Do I really want to get into a conversation about this incident with someone who lives on the other side of the world? Do I really want to tap out argumentative messages to someone who holds very different political views to my own? What is my friend thinking about when she writes about the paucity of commentary about this latest terrorist incident in her Facebook news feed? I deliberate for a few moments and decide that I do want to engage with Helen. After all, if you can’t engage with your friends about controversial topics then who can you speak to? The right index finger limbers up and starts hitting the glass screen of my phone.

Do we have to imagine?

I also post a link to a story about the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, thereby illustrating Muslims are the victims of terrorist attacks, too. She responds:

Yes, and that went for days and days. 24 hours. Shortly after that the Sri Lankan church killings happened. Disappeared within days….

V worried we will have big marches like the Rushdie Affair … Well, it’s tricky because now various governments like Turkey, Malaysia, Saudi are getting into it.

I come back with a pat leftist response that, in retrospect makes me cringe:

I totally abhor all forms of terrorism, but we shouldn’t forget the historical injustices related to French colonialism.

At best this is a formulaic response to a depraved and inexcusable act, but I’m too caught up in the exchange with Helen to really think about what I’m saying (and implicitly defending). She writes:

This young man they have got came over from Tunisia. A place that has a lot of v serious terror before. The museum. The beaches. And what about the Former Malaysian PM who Tweeted that ‘Muslims have the right to kill millions of French people’ 

I reply: And What about the victims?

And so, it goes. Tit for tat. Back and forth we go. We cover a wide range of topics: COVID-19, Brexit, BLM, Sexism, Racism, Trump and so on. We agree to disagree about where we stand in relation some of these issues, but we both, at various points in the exchange go off topic and talk about our everyday lives: we exchange information about the books we’re reading, the projects we are working on (we are old friends, after all). We don’t exchange insults or get angry (as far as I can tell from the words that appear on my phone’s smudgy screen). We exchange links to stories that support our respective views before the difference in our respective time zones bring proceedings to a conclusion and we say our goodbyes.

I’m writing this account of my messenger conversation with Helen a few hours after the fact and I start to reflect on the questions raised by our exchange: Do all terrorist activities receive equal media coverage, or does the media pay less attention to Islamic terrorism? What do we mean by media coverage today, anyway? Perhaps left-leaning, social media echo chambers are more likely to pay scant regard to incidents like the one in Nice? Should the price of free speech be death? To what extent do governments and media institutions censor reports about violence perpetrated by Muslims in order to reduce the risk of social disorder and chaos? I have stock answers to some of these questions, but they’re not, I ashamed to say, really based on facts. I just tap out my responses instinctively before searching for links that support my views. To be frank, I haven’t been paying enough attention to these matters. My mind is too occupied by all those everyday worries and anxieties that make me grind my teeth during the night. Helen and I agree, that the world is fucked up. I can no longer put my faith in the words of long-dead rock stars or academic utopians like Hardt and Negri, either. And what about the victims? Where is my empathy for them? All I know at the moment is that my jaw really hurts. I’m scared. I’m ashamed. I’m horrified.


Fukuyama, Francis (2018) Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio (2000) Empire Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio (2012) Declaration New York: Argo-Navis

Jacobs, Ken (2011) Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs. Michele Pierson, David E. James, Paul Arthur (eds.), Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Khan, Deeyah (2017), White Right: Meeting the Enemy, Moving Image. Fuuse Films

Dirk de Bruyn (1,3)

Glenn D’Cruz (2,4)