Visual Art

Soda_Jerk’s satirical assemblage Hello Dankness is a fever dream of the Trumpian post-truth era.

By Ben Brooker.

Soda Jerk’s Hello Dankness

A frame from Soda_Jerk’s Hello Dankness.
A frame from Soda_Jerk’s Hello Dankness.
Credit: Courtesy of the artists

In the age of online video-sharing platforms such as YouTube, mashup has evolved from a form or technique to virtually a genre unto itself. The ubiquity of the moving image, once confined to cinema and television, has produced a sandpit for artists interested in creating new meanings – or subverting old ones – out of combining and reframing clips from disparate sources, while frequently bending, if not breaking, copyright laws in the process. 

Among the most notable of these working today are the Sydney-born, now New York-based siblings Dan and Dominique Angeloro. Known collectively as Soda Jerk, they – often in collaboration with video artist Sam Smith – make sample-based experimental films that irreverently challenge received narratives and cultural mythologies of all kinds.  

Several of these films – the Afro-futurist homage Astro Black (2007–2010), their collaboration with The Avalanches, The Was (2016), and their controversy-stoking breakout success TERROR NULLIUS (2018) – comprise Open Sauce, a retrospective of the duo’s body of work at South Australia’s Samstag Museum of Art. At the exhibition’s heart is a new work, Hello Dankness, an ambitious, near-feature-length attempt to condense the unprecedented tumult of the Trump era into a kind of post-truth fever dream.

After opening with a suitably bizarre curtain-raiser – the ultimately withdrawn Kendall Jenner-featuring advertisement that (mis)appropriated the radicalism of protest movements such as Black Lives Matter to sell Pepsi – Hello Dankness sets about conjuring the brutally tribal world of pre-election 2016 America, a time that somehow already feels strangely remote. Rotoscoped into scenes of American suburbia from films such as The ’Burbs (1989), Wayne’s World (1992) and American Beauty (1999) are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton lawn signs and MAGA graffiti. In this reality, The ’Burbs’ everyman protagonist Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is a Bernie Sanders supporter and his reclusive neighbours, the Klopeks, are Trumpists. While Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar watch on gormlessly, Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) from American Beauty – that once feted now witheringly reappraised chronicle of suburban ennui – cruises up and down the streets in her car dreaming of a Clinton presidency.

All hell breaks loose – and here Soda Jerk insert scenes from a number of jokey apocalypse films such as Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009) and This Is the End (2013) – when Trump sensationally defeats Clinton. A Michael Moore voiceover, lifted I think from Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), intones over the top: “We could have turned things around before it was too late.” 

In a subsequent flashback, we revisit the two “October surprises” that arguably defined the election, albeit in ways that few at the time could have predicted: the leaking by Wikileaks of emails hacked from Clinton’s private server and the publishing of a recording of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women. We’re shown Napoleon Dynamite reacting to it: “This is pretty much the worst video ever made.”

From here things get even weirder as Soda Jerk’s main concern comes to the fore: the dissolution of consensus reality under Trump and the promulgation of conspiracy theories by his supporters, from Pizzagate – amusingly invoked by scenes from two films that were staples of my 1990s childhood, Home Alone and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – to Covid-19 and election fraud. A related thread is the role of the internet in general, and Facebook in particular, in spreading these theories and otherwise distracting and deceiving the American population. 

In one of the film’s more seamless transpositions, footage of Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and as Columbus, the zombie-slaying college student from Zombieland, are spliced together to make a satisfyingly blunt point about social media’s baleful impact on the American body politic. Elsewhere, one of Hello Dankness’s six “acts” is given over entirely to “Garfielf” memes, parody videos featuring intentionally bad MS Paint renderings of Garfield with dialogue voiced by text-to-speech software.

The effect of all this is, at times, to induce a kind of whiplash. Adding to the film’s dizzying recombinatorial logic are musical numbers (“Memory”, “Springtime for Hitler”) and visual puns – Corona beer, interposed into scenes from Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021), stands in for the virus – which layer onto each other like bricks being assembled into a wall, dripping in the mortar of a singular cultural moment.

In a 2018 interview about The Was, Soda Jerk described their interest in what they called “the politics of images: how they circulate, who they benefit, and how they can be undone”. In the case of TERROR NULLIUS, the duo repurposed scenes from canonical Australian films to expose white Australian nationhood for what it is: as much of a construct as Mad Max or Dame Edna. Hello Dankness does something similar, albeit rather more literally, with the Angeloros’ adopted home country, collapsing the distinction between what we ordinarily take for reality and the myth-making of America’s cultural industries.

Jonathan Gray, whose book Watching with The Simpsons (2005) discusses how the cartoon sitcom “short-circuits” and provokes reinterpretations of the meanings of genres such as adverts and the news, argues that parody is a powerful form of “critical intertextuality”. I wonder, then, what Soda Jerk is parodying in the richly intertextual Hello Dankness, especially given British humorist Armando Iannucci’s memorable description of Trump as a “self-basting satirist”? 

There are times when the film, while consistently entertaining, feels toothless compared with TERROR NULLIUS, an almost tautological exercise in basting the already-basted. Take, for instance, the sequence in which a scene from The Phantom of the Opera (1962), with an image of Vladimir Putin’s face superimposed onto the wall of the titular character’s underground lair, cuts to a VHS cassette on a shelf labelled “Pee Pee Tape” – a reference to the much-disputed claim that Russian authorities covertly filmed Trump being urinated on by sex workers in a Moscow hotel room. The moment gets a laugh, of course, but it’s not exactly cutting stuff.

The film’s critique does ultimately emerge as a nuanced one. At first I thought the use of zombie film clips an unsubtle dig at the hordes who voted Republican in 2016. But by the end I felt convinced that what was being parodied was not Trump supporters but the liberal horror of them. It’s telling that one of the shots taken from This Is the End is of an icon of American liberalism, the Hollywood sign, on fire. There is no sense either that the filmmakers particularly welcomed the outcome of the 2020 election, which is explicitly framed as a win not for progressive politics but as a return of corporate liberalism. 

It’s hard to imagine such stuff provoking the same censorious reaction that the more obviously subversive TERROR NULLIUS did. Nevertheless, Hello Dankness is both a technically impressive feat of (re)assemblage and a bracingly absurd experience, a dog’s breakfast fit for its subject.

Open Sauce is showing at the Samstag Museum of Art until December 16.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "Basting the basted".

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