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unwilling prophet of the present

philip brophy on the gestation of northern void


“IN THE FUTURE, SALLOW YOUTH WAIT LISTLESSLY FOR TRAMS THAT NEVER COME. THEIR SKIN GLOWS GREY DESPITE DARKENED SKIES AND BILLOWING RAINLESS CLOUDS...SCARRED, RAVAGED, TRAUMATIZED—YET STRANGELY INNOCENT—THESE YOUTHS APPEAR TO HAVE STEPPED STRAIGHT OUT OF A BOMBED HOSPITAL WARD. IN THE POST-FUTURE, THEY LINGER STILL—SHIMMERING GHOSTS OF THE AUSTRALIA THAT NEVER CAME” [NORTHERN VOID PRESS RELEASE].
Thembi Soddell, Northern Void Thembi Soddell, Northern Void
photo Pancho Calladetti
The genesis of Northern Void has been a haphazard series of events. Ph2 (Philip Samartzis and myself) were developing a piece for the Podewil Centre in Berlin some years back. Following changes in administration there, the funding for the project was then to be secured through a different body—one that was seeking projects which addressed site-specific and culturally dependent issues concerning the city of Berlin.
Nigel Brown, Northern Void Nigel Brown, Northern Void
photo Pancho Calladetti
Initially I was quite deflated by this change. I have no connection to the idea that artists should be responsible to anything—their setting, their audience, their past, their new zones of activity. The idea that artists can somehow magically enter a new cultural domain and—purely through the suggestive power of curatorial legislation—be deemed not merely responsible but also capable of addressing anything is simplistic. I view the prime value of artists being their disconnection from society, through which energy lines and points of impact can eventuate, but not solely through an artist claiming he or she is ‘addressing/exploring/investigating’ some topical issue of the world. Like, that’s so Ben Elton meets the Venice Biennale.

But then I thought, okay, if Berlin wants me to ‘address the city’, then I’ll do just that. So I devised a story set across both World Wars, involving gas, prosthetics, skin, celluloid, dolls, corpses, music, bombs and movie theatres. I was going to film all the locations there, then get actors in a green-screen studio back in Melbourne to act out the narrative, then I’d composite it all together.
Gus Franklin, Northern Void Gus Franklin, Northern Void
photo Pancho Calladetti
The Podewil project fell through, but actually I was liberated by this in two ways. Firstly, I felt enabled to devise any narrative/visual situation to which Ph2 could then work a live score. Secondly, I realized that I could address topical issues—but purely on my own terms, even if it be to my own detriment. My work generally deals with the ideological but always via submerged and what I contend are more opaquely politicised strategies buffed to gleam with Pop-ist surfaces.

So, shortly after, Phil Samartzis secured for Ph2 a showing of a new audiovisual work in Moscow. The idea of travelling and somehow ‘representing Australia’ again was repellent—yet now exciting. I thought, okay, I’ll show what Australia is like from my view. Not only that, I’ll predict what it will become.

Specifically, the idea of utilising science fiction for this purpose excited me. Science fiction is now exciting because it is the most bankrupt mythological narrative vehicle imaginable. When everyone from Hollywood to my mum can devise a dystopian scenario that champions rebels, critiques corporations, celebrates the hero’s journey and believes in humanity, then the form isn’t even worth subverting. My view of the future is a simple one: you’re soaking in it. In an era that commodifies the very notion of evolution as a sales strategy for iPods, then you know that humankind has reached a dead end that can only progress through complete decimation. But hey, that’s just my opinion. I’m sure breeders have great things in mind for the future of their children.

In this sense, Northern Void wonders what the future might be like in ways devoid of both grand narrative and social critique mythologies (both of which are equally suspect in their murky muddling of humanism and universalism). So I picked not some towering metropolis, but simply a three kilometre strip of shops and factories in Plenty Road, Preston—an outer northern Melbourne suburb.
Madeline Hodge, Northern Void Madeline Hodge, Northern Void
photo Pancho Calladetti
I hadn’t visited this area for many years (it’s near where I grew up) and I was shocked by how desolate it had become. Not an ‘aesthetic’ kind of Ed Ruscha desolate, just a real ‘present-tense’ banality that is old but locked in a frozen time period. Plenty Road is a mix of cheap 1970s brickwork and shrubbery with cheap 80s facades with cheap 90s computer-lettered signage. Failed small businesses delivering basic services in a saturated domain where nothing grows. Most importantly, this isn’t just Preston: this is a perfect snapshot of Australia. I’m very curious to see what the Russian response will be.

The video is a series of portraits of young people who have been made up to look ill—not spooky, just fucked-up and off-medication. I don’t drive, so I’m on public transport all the time, and really this is how I see most people. Things have developed this way as health services (especially mental health services) have been withering away over the last few decades. Plus the Plenty Road strip is a tram route, and public transport is another key service that has been utterly bankrupted in Melbourne. Like most of Australia, more work is now put into logo design and signage than an actual service.

A lateral inspiration for Northern Void comes from being in San Francisco in the early 80s and (long story for another time) spending a few nights in casualty at SF General Hospital. I was also struck by how many people were on crutches in the street—the more I realised this the more I saw. I remember thinking at the time that ultimately America is a vision of a future Australia. Some decades down the track now, I still relate to that perspective—not that Australia is somehow colonised by the US, but that Australia’s own de-evolving mechanisms have generated the state we’re now in.

Suffice to say that through the Northern Void project I’m optioning another way to consider things as they are, and working through another projection of this thing called Australia. Ultimately, it’s neither dystopian (because I think all utopias are deluded so there’s no point in opposing them) nor apocalyptic (because such a Judeo-Christian embrace of ‘finality’ is not part of my world view). Put simply, Northern Void is a suite of pastoral portraits which evidence the future as a slow drain. No eventfulness; no catharsis; no resolution. Just lots of young people getting sick too quickly, waiting for public transport that will never come. If change is required to forestall this, it will not come from obvious strategic measures. These symptoms need to be read devoid of the possibility of cure in order to perceive their status with clarity. Such is the audiovisual aim of Northern Void.

Northern Void will be performed live by Ph2 in multi-channel surround.

The video is divided into 3 sections: The Present (2013), The Future (2085) and The Post-Future (3079).


Spatial Drift presents Northern Void, director Philip Brophy, score performed by Ph2 (Philip Brophy, Philip Samartzis); Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Feb 17, 18, www.acmi.net.au, www.philipbrophy.com

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 28

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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