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Following the outrage over their “unAustralian” video opus Terror Nullius, artists Dominique and Dan Angeloro reflect on their collective practice as Soda_Jerk. “We always had this idea that we wanted Terror Nullius to be a film somewhere between the arthouse and grindhouse. A piece of art that embraces bad taste or maybe a piece of bad taste that aspires to be art.”

By Kate Jinx.

Artists Soda_Jerk remixing Australian history

Soda_Jerk: Dan (left) and Dominique Angeloro
Credit: Supplied

Sitting against a makeshift wall in ACMI’s Gallery 2, eyes still adjusting from the autumn sun outside, it’s impossible to discern how many people are gathered in the space to see Terror Nullius: A Political Revenge Fable in Three Acts. There’s an amorphous shape on the temporary seating bank, spilling onto the floor and almost out the door. It’s not until Skippy bounds on screen, disrupting a bush doof, that the size of the audience becomes apparent – laughter fills the room, followed by wild whooping. At the end of the 55-minute session, a single voice cuts above the loud applause, “Go Soda_Jerk!” Although the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is in full swing, indeed just across the lobby, this clamorous audience is here for art.

The 2017 recipients of the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission – Australia’s most valuable grant of its kind, at $100,000 – Soda_Jerk are almost as elusive as their darkened audience. A collective of two, sisters Dominique and Dan Angeloro, they keep a low profile, often being mistaken online for “a couple of dudes”. Although they are prolific, with works shown extensively in Australia and abroad over the past two decades, they manage to keep an underground presence, disappearing at times and resurfacing months or years later with epic new video pieces. They’re the artistic equivalent of Brigadoon, appearing from the mist once a century but always worth the wait.

Full disclosure: I’ve known the Angeloro sisters for about 15 years. They are in life as they are in art, coming and going, often silently, but somehow always managing to be committed allies and a core part of a larger creative community. Before the opening night of Terror Nullius in late March, we hadn’t seen each other in 12 months, the last time at a dingy bar in New York, the city in which they’ve been living for a number of years. We caught up over dinner after the full-to-bursting premiere and over the following days, a rare occasion to be in the same place at the same time. Even in person, their answers are given collectively and any given conversation ends up stretching over multiple mediums, much like their work.

Days before, Soda_Jerk were thrust into the media spotlight with the news that the Ian Potter Cultural Trust was publicly stepping away from the work it had commissioned, saying it was “a very controversial work of art”. ACMI held firm in its support and continued to celebrate and screen the work as intended. The publicity that followed has been routinely in favour of the work, and has no doubt acted as a call to action – even if that action is to simply attend one of the seven free screenings each day.

It was the artists themselves who broke the news, via a heavily shared Facebook message, and when I asked for their take on the situation after some of the dust had settled, it was their original commission rather than the eventual lack of foundation support that had been more surprising. “It was pitched as a bloody, misbehaving, sample-based, arthouse-meets-grindhouse, political satire,” they tell me. And that’s what it is. Terror Nullius is the Australian film I have always wanted to see. It’s blisteringly angry and bitingly funny. It not only rewrites Australian history but rewires it, sampling characters, landscapes, speeches and infamous answering machine messages. It upends normative narratives and queers linear time lines. Lecherous men get their comeuppance, women across decades and genres band together in an almighty girl gang, the bloodshed of centuries of colonisation stains the screen and the harsher side of nature is omnipresent. You’ll never see Babe, The Babadook or Helen Mirren the same way again.

“We always had this idea that we wanted Terror Nullius to be a film somewhere between the arthouse and grindhouse,” they tell me. “A piece of art that embraces bad taste or maybe a piece of bad taste that aspires to be art. The desire to mesh these things together really just comes from Australian cinema itself. On one hand you have the incredible art pretensions of the Australian New Wave films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and on the other is the glorious schlocky excesses of the Ozploitation horror films of the 1980s like Turkey Shoot and Razorback. You know, when Australian cinema goes low, it goes all the way to the ground.”

The merging of high and perceived low cultures has always been of interest to Soda_Jerk. As teenagers in Sydney they spent time in the family basement attempting to remake ’80s cult film Heathers, before deciding “after psych degrees, law degrees, film schools, art schools, art writing, bookselling, drug taking, muckraking” that they would officially work together under their current moniker. When they emerged in 2006 with “anti-copyright epic” Hollywood Burn, made over four years with frequent collaborator and fellow artist Sam Smith, they had already garnered a name for themselves as “pixel pirates”, mining a vast history of screen culture to create entirely new story arcs and dialogues. “We wanted to work together to make this weird narrative film from pirated cinema as an ‘up yours’ to the corporate monopoly of images that results from copyright law.” Their attitude towards free culture remains the same more than 10 years later: you can download and stream much of their work on their website free. They even politely prompt viewers to contact them for high-res versions.

Interviews are inherently nosy, and I slip in a question that I would never ask as a friend. Have they ever considered working solo? “We’ve never made work separately and don’t think it would ever happen; the things we each bring to it just seem to work better together,” they say. In line with their collective artist’s voice, they appear to many as twins. They are slight in size, and both possess a laser-focus when it comes to conversing about culture, politics, anything. Their references are hard and fast and they are adept at creating through-lines between disparate voices, which make perfect sense in their presence but would be hard to connect without their guiding. When prodded further about not working apart, they offer an analogy. “You know, it’s like everyone loves Public Enemy but who really remembers Flavor Flav’s solo album?”

The sisters have lived a peripatetic life for as long as I’ve known them. The high cost of living in Sydney eventually spurred them to make a more permanent break to Berlin in 2010, a city where they didn’t have to work a “shitshow of jobs” and that afforded them “time and space to work as full-time artists for the first time, although pretty hungry ones”. Having that freedom saved their practice, they say, “by enabling us to truly have one”. Eventually, in 2012, it led them to New York, where they’ve been based since. They acknowledge that Sydney may now be financially easier because of the culture of paid opportunities for artists, but in New York their work is “part of a much bigger community and set of opportunities and conversations that sustain us in other ways”.

That sense of community is rife in their work. Terror Nullius incorporates existing pieces by Australian artists Archie Moore, The Kingpins and Leigh Bowery, among others, and their collaboration list is filled with influential peers and friends, most of whom make their own idiosyncratic work. “We never really get why anyone would become an artist if they want to live a life of normativity and capital, since there’s so little financial gain. We feel like the pull is precisely so you can fly your own flag and walk your own planks.” Although their work has appeared in major international film festivals and museums, they confess they have already achieved their “career ultimate” – an invitation to Stockholm to screen Hollywood Burn at the 10th anniversary of the Pirate Bay party. “After the screening, a band of drunk Swedish pirates played sea shanties and everyone danced.”

To someone not familiar with the sheer hell of editing software, Soda_Jerk’s output could look easy or, at the very least, not particularly time consuming. When they released their blissed-out 2016 sample-based, experimental music film The Was, in collaboration with that other well-known mercurial collective The Avalanches, the likes of Reddit and torrent sites lit up with threads about how it must have taken “ages … like, weeks” to complete. In reality, Soda_Jerk worked with Sam Smith on and off for five years to make the 13-minute video. Meanwhile, the concept of Terror Nullius bubbled away for 10 years as the project gathered steam. “Our work is technically hard and stupidly labour intensive and yet lots of people think it might have been made in a single weekend for mash-up shits and giggles,” they say before pointing out that “everyone thinks everyone else’s job is easier than it is – just look at the way new mums or carers are treated, or how teachers or nurses are paid. Or how we’ll tell Mum’s new boyfriend that we’re artists and he’ll say, ‘Oh, wow, art, that must be so lovely and relaxing.’ ”

Relaxing isn’t quite the word I’d use to describe the Angeloros, though they instantly reject my opinion of them being workaholics, telling me that’s like calling them “neoliberal scum”. “We’ve often talked about how one of the more radical things you could do in these times of oppressive economic rationalism would be to pursue a life of total sloth and hedonism. But yes, they admit, “we are pretty far from that pursuit ourselves within our practice”. They tell me that they’re happy to work hard for themselves as long as it means they don’t have to work for anyone else. Back when the technology available to them was not as advanced, they’d face long rendering hours, which they’d use to pick up new skills such as learning the dance from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande à part or how to solve a Rubik’s cube. “It’s enough to make you miss render time.”

I give them a few days after the ACMI premiere to collect their thoughts about the situation with the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, and ask them if they’re concerned with the conservatism of the broader arts industry. They respond that their concern is not necessarily for a conservative industry “but the impact of the kinds of partnerships that are being encouraged and endorsed across the board between art and capital”. They cite the Australia Council encouraging artists to partner with organisations and the Copyright Agency funding commissions and art prizes. “We feel that these kind of handshakes are polite until the art is no longer willing to be, and that’s our concern.”

On the topic of whether their work is controversial, they accept that there are aspects of the work that some people may find uncomfortable but point out that there are many different points on the moral compass. “What that might be for different people will depend entirely on who they are, not what the work is.” The work has been called unAustralian, a meaningless phrase trotted out only when something sits in opposition to one’s own views. Is there nothing more Australian than Terror Nullius though? After all, it takes history and content without permission, without apology. We’re already living in Terror Nullius, and what Soda_Jerk have done is to hold a mirror – or rather, a rotoscope – to Australia’s past and invite viewers to consider their own reimagining of our culture and where next to take it, and whose voices have been missing this whole time.

Following its ACMI premiere, Terror Nullius is set to screen at Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival, as well as sessions at both the Brisbane and Perth film festivals and Other Cinema in San Francisco. Who do Soda_Jerk hope will see it? “Anyone, everyone. Australians, unAustralians, queers, kids, migrants, misfits, people of colour, punks, pirates, protesters, shift workers, shit stirrers, the overeducated, the underprivileged, seniors and survivors. But also: the right, the racists, the radio jocks, the rich. This is a story for them, too.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "Club Soda". Subscribe here.

Kate Jinx
is a writer and the program director of Sydney’s Golden Age Cinema.