My first encounter with Philip Brophy was in the hallowed halls of art school, my mind crumpled by a heavy bombardment of cinematic and post-modernist theory. Whilst reading his appropriately titled essay "Dragging Wild Angels, Fat Hogs & Cycle Sluts Down to Hell" for the Kingpins exhibition "Rhapsody Happens", I thought to myself, "Fuck! Why haven't I heard of this guy before?" Since the late '70s Brophy has produced a staggering amount of work across the field of music, sound design, film, video and art. Brophy's oeuvre displays a stimulating pluralism, with music and also cinema lying at the very core of his practice. From genre hopping music and performance troupe → ↑ → to one of the goriest horror features made in Australia, Body Melt, to his latest video clip serial Evaporated Music, Brophy's work vibes a refreshing aura. I caught up with Philip in North Melbourne in his studio cum apartment over a pot of English Breakfast.
Dominic Kirkwood: You grew up in Reservoir, an outer suburb of Melbourne, in the '70s. What are your memories of growing up in that environment?
Philip Brophy: Most of the kids I knew were Italians and Greeks, and it was a big skinhead territory. Walking down the street, you just knew there was going to be trouble. I got kicked out of school when I was fourteen.
DK: How did you manage that?
PB: Y'know, just fucking around. Then I went to a tech college, and it was fantastic. I had been going to a Christian Brothers school, and I hated sport, I hated maths, I hated anything that was about the proper way to get on and be successful at school. I was always into drawing — I'd draw the shit out of all my schoolbooks. I seriously got into music when I was twelve, and all my money went to buying records. So I went to tech college. In the one fortnight, I found out about Duchamp, Warhol and John Cage, and it was like, "Fuck, this is incredible! This is amazing!" Within four weeks, I had realised that everything I had been taught in this sheltered, scum bag Christian Brothers college environment was an utter waste of time.
DK: Considering that popular music has had such a large influence upon your work, what styles and acts were making an impression on you in that early period?
PB: I was completely into glam all through the '70s, but I was also completely into krautrock. In the early '70s, the skinhead culture and the glam crossover was really prevalent and strong. Skinheads and Sharps weren't into glam in a heavy way. If anything, they more liked Slade and The Sweet. I was into Roxy Music and Bowie, that more effeminate, slippery bisexual side of things. I naturally gravitated towards glam because it was exciting, it had a lot of presence to it, it was engaging, and you just knew something was going on. The support for it wasn't prevalent at the time. If you dressed too efFeminate back then, you would get beaten up. It was a real oddity, particularly in Australia
DK: So you copped a few lickings?
PB: Everyone needs to get the shit beaten out of them at least once in their life to know what it's like.
DK: Now you're just as likely to get beaten up for your iPhone as the way you dress!
PB: If you've got an iPhone you should be beaten up anyway! [Laughs] By the time [Bowie's] Heroes comes out, that's just such a fantastic centre axis point where glam and krautrock come together. Those types of music and The Velvet Underground were on the periphery. They weren't roots-based, they weren't singer-songwriter based, and they weren't about keeping it real and reflecting society. They were literally about flights of fancy. They were formal, technical experiments in sound in the studio. They embraced an art aesthetic.
DK: Which leads me to → ↑ →. This was a collection of friends and acquaintances with whom you made music that varied as wildly as the venues you performed in. What was the impetus behind these happenings?
PB: When I had → ↑ →, the catch phrase across that whole period from the '70s into the '80s was "somewhere between art and pop." That ended up summing up the whole practice. We'd do a disco event in a gallery, we'd show a film in a pub, we'd do a theatre performance piece in a factory space. It was always something that clashed one context with the other, and I learnt that from Warhol basically. Warhol said, "It' s important to do the right thing at the wrong time or the wrong thing at the right time." With everything that → ↑ → did, I would just have an idea and then do it. Venitian Rendezvous, for example, was one of the projects, and the concept was live muzak. So this is '78, right when everything is pre-industrial and "fucked up noise, man." I thought, "Let's do fucking muzak." So we dressed in suits. It wasn't parody. It was literally twee, electronic muzak. We had one cover version in there, which was "Hey Jude." We thought, "What's the most disgusting song that represents at that point in time what muzak is?" And it was like, "Yeah, the fucking Beatles." I've never liked the Beatles. So we thought, "'Hey Jude,' that's what you really would hear at a dentist."
DK: Even now I think audiences would have trouble even trying to ponder what → ↑ → was about — it's was such a colourful and imaginative take on the traditional "art" or "concept" band. Were people having difficulties trying to grasp what you were about back then?
PB: The irony of it all is that a lot of people didn't pick up on it. They're thinking "Why are you playing such awful fucking music, man?" We had another project that was more instrumental rock. That was Nice Noise. And that was drums, bass, synthesizer, sax and guitar. All instrumental, a bit more minimalist, but very kraut-influenced. There were songs like "One Note Song," "Three Note Song," "Five Note Song," and I think there was an "Eight Note Song".
DK: Of that group, "One Note Song" was one of the only → ↑ → tracks I could find. It's on the Chapter Music compilations. It's such hard material to find! Who were you regularly playing gigs with?
PB: That was the thing with → ↑ → projects. We were with art people, but we were also with bands. For example, Asphixiation [sic], the disco project, we did that at the Biennale of Sydney in 1981. We were thc ideal support band, because we were primarily instrumental. We did gigs with the Primitive Calculators. We did a lot of work with Essendon Airport and also The Boys Next Door. We'd play with anyone, because it wasn't a huge scene.
DK: In that sense, was it a small clique within Melbourne?
PB: Not cliquey in a bad way. Anthropologically, now people arc trying to point out that there was thc Clifton Hill scene, there was the Little Band scene, etc. At the end of the day, my basic re-reading of that past history is that the bulk of it was intensely romantic. That in itself, as an ideological strategy, I find really retrograde and uninteresting. The human-centric idea of the artist on the pedestal with the great vision of the world. Where I come from, art was given no respect, and I think that was a really healthy conditioning thing for me. A lot of the punk stuff was romantic — either "I'm living on the edge, man" or "I have the most contorted, anguished, angsty, lyrical view of the world".
DK: Sounds kind of like what it's like today! The main reason why I'm asking about that particular period is that with the recent ATP tour with Nick Cave, and other projects before that, such as the Chapter Music series, there has been a renewed focus on that particular scene in Melbourne. It's always good to hear from someone who was actually there. Do you think the post-punk period from the late '70s to the early '80s has been romanticized beyond recognition?
PB: Everyone is going to have their own memory of it. I've done a number of interviews about that whole scene, and the thing that I always say about it is that I don't think it was a special time and I don't think it was a particularly amazing scene as such. It's just a period of stuff that I was doing, and I think that I've kept on doing the same stuff. My work is concept based, it's project based, it's fucking around with art, music, pop, rock and cinema. I'm not a singer-songwriter. In fact, I'm entirely anti-humanist. I'm intensely critical of all humanist enterprise. Some people think I'm nihilistic, I don't think I am. If you' re a non-humanist, it just means you' re not placing humans on a pedestal. For instance, the ship is going down, there's a family with two newborn kids and there's the sound of the fuzz guitar. I'll probably save the sound of the fuzz guitar. There's been a century worth of existential, post-existential, structuralist and post-structuralist investigations into the self and identity and your connection with society. People are still going back to this 18th century idea of things. Can't we mix and match a little bit here? Why do I have to care about the planet? Why do I have to think that a family is important? Where does it say that I have to? Quite naturally I don't think those things are important, and I never have.
DK: Have you suffered any major criticisms for your views?
PB: I'm saying this in a very light-hearted way here. But if I'm writing something, I'll back it with the intellectual and critical push to say, "This is my political point." I'm not doing it to be contrary. The whole soft, touchy feely, humanist, global... That's what insurance companies use to advertise and suck people in. That's what Telstra uses, that's what Nokia uses. It's like when we were talking about creativity — all these things have been utterly cheapened by moneymaking forces.
DK: Moving along to your career at present and the Evaporated Music series, this work is a two-part condensation of your interests in sound design, music and film, where you've stripped the original audio of big budget video clips and cheesy '90s kid' s shows and imagined an utterly alien and disturbing soundtrack. What was the initial spark for the videos?
PB: The first Evaporated Music was looking at very mainstream video clips and at how those clips were intent on constructing a quasi-cinematic world that made a grander plateau or terrain for the song to unfold itself. I remember having the idea in 1996. I'm sitting there, and I'm thinking, "I should get these clips and keep the clip by itself and then make the sound so it really reflects this world that they' re alluding to." For example, my film Body Melt is completely based on watching advertisements, and lifestyle shows specifically — anything that was about being healthy or the family coming together, etc. I would watch them and fantasize them being killed. I would watch Healthy Wealthy and Wise and imagine them rotting with disease.
DK: Whilst we're on the topic of Healthy, Wealthy and Wise — I remember watching that when I was younger, and the most disturbing thing about that show was the opening credits.
PB: I know! I always refer to that as "tampon ad graphics." The little squiggly, hand-held pencil graphics. All tampon ads had that because that was "feminine and sensitive." All I was doing was a semiological reading. I was looking at what was in front of me and reading it as signage. I didn't want anything hip, I didn't want anything cool. So it was Phil Collins, Elton John, Billy Joel, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan and Celine Dion. I settled on those artists and then approached the video clips as if they were films. It took so long to do. Like with all of my stuff I have a very simple idea, but then to pull it off is a very technical, material kind of thing. That's when I know the idea is good.
DK: Although it has the thread of a similar idea running through it, Evaporated Music 2: At the Mouth of Metal is a very different kind of' work to Evaporated Music 1. Rather than an imagined cinematic world upon the ghostly TV corpses of pop star, you made a whole stew of metal pop songs and literally inserted them into the mouths of acts as diverse as Full House and Kids Inc. Obviously you had to study the shape of the kids' mouths to fit your words into theirs, so to speak. It must have been guile a linguistic process.
PB: This is where I suflfer for my art. I have the original music of the song itself and work out the verses and choruses. Then I compose a new piece of music, and I' ve got a mirror and I'm playing — again and again and again. So what I'm doing is improvising, and I'm trying to make my mouth move and say words, preferably disgusting words, so that when I hear what the kids are singing and I look at my mouth in the mirror, it matches the kid's mouth movements [on screen].
DK: The songs in Evaporated Music 2 are an amazing brand of pop and metal.
PB: It's like a symphonic choral prog-pop mutation. I really got into metal in the nu-metal phase of things, kind of from the mid-'90s onwards.
DK: The one thing that attracted me to it in my early teens was the production, the double kick, the noise. Sepultura is a prime example of metal from that '90s era.
PB: "Roots" is such an amazing song. Metal, I would argue, from that '90s era on, and then into Scandinavian and Eastern European metal, is where rock started to become experimental. Not the doom/drone wannabes, but actual fucking bands who are playing full-on music. Metal is the exact opposite of hip-hop. Your parents think hip-hop is ok. City councils have youth outreach hip-hop programs! It's all well-meaning, but in a cultural context hip-hop has become the social conscience of music of youth, whereas metal has nothing positive to say. But you have to understand that in order to then know how to relate to it. And you do find positivism in there. It doesn't matter whether they're talking about serial killers eating babies. They're not literally saying that. Kids gravitate to metal because metal basically says, "I open my arms to the diseased and the dispossessed." That's a cool, positive thing at impressionable ages. When people grow up and are still into it, I think that's fantastic.
What is most fascinating about metal is that it was repelling me all the time. It's too fast, it's too noisy, and that's a challenge. The great thing is that music keeps coming up with challenges. There is always going to be some sub-cultural or musical trend that will be a great kind of challenge. That will never stop. I always think popular music is the most powerful force in the world, because it can be so intensely personal to someone. What I'm really interested in is how the most disposable, the most reprehensible types of music can actually have that sort of intensity. I'm not interested at all in anything that Bob Dylan ever farted out in his whole life, because he was always making a big deal about how fucking important he was, so there ain' t anything interesting happening there. I was reading about Hikikomori, which is the stay-at-home syndrome in Japan. One guy had locked himself in his bedroom for 3 & I/2 years. He was playing music, playing games, and one day he heard a single line of a Radiohead song, and that line allowed him to open the door and to go out of his house. Radiohead, of course, have got that kind of lyrics that borderline personalities cling on to for their life. I never belittle Radiohead or any band that has that connection with people.
DK: Lastly, your work has spanned so many different formats and scenes. Do you think your ideas have recently found shelter in the art world again?
PB: Art world, music world, film world. They'll take you in, they'll spit you out. It's bizarre that I'm back in the art world, because I haven't been in the art world for quite some time. All of my stuff is self-centred in the sense of what I want to see when I go to the movies or see a band or read a comic — I want that person to not make any concession to me whatsoever. When I do stuff, I've always naturally thought like Duchamp, Warhol and Cage. They just did what they did. Sometimes you're in sync with a scene, other times you're not. When you' re not, that's kind of a strengthening period. I've always got respect for someone that hangs in there.
Philip Brophy has been exhibiting experimental mixed-media works in art and non-art contexts for more than 20 years. He is an internationally esteemed sound designer, filmmaker and theorist with an aquiline profile as a cultural commentator. And if there were a best dressed list for Australian art — as valid an indicator of significance as any other — he would have topped it in 1980 and 2005. Along the way he has had to change only his underwear, an unequivocal testament to the seminal nature of his early work and its continuing relevance. A case of the 'more things stay the same the better they get'. Here Brophy has been lured from his North Melbourne headquarters by a bowl of glitter and the siren voices of the Kingpins. We are sitting in comfortable chairs around a table on which among other things - a stuffed cockatoo and several moustaches — are the VCRs of Brophy's major film projects. These include the award-winning Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat (1988) and the production Quentin Tarantino called "the best Australian film of the nineties" — Body Melt (1993). The video cases partially obscure the catalogue for what was the Art Gallery of New South Wales' most provocative contemporary commission in years — Brophy's Fluorescent (2004). I sit back fasten my seatbelt and let the chat show commence. It may not be the set of Jerry Springer but there are some shocking revelations - including the most unexpected disclosure of paternity in Australian art history.
Gary Carsley - editor
Kingpins: We had a special evening last night when we rented several of your old films. We noticed a lot of interesting, recurrent motifs particularly in reference to the Evaporated Music works that you showed last year in galleries and museums around Australia. We saw a bit of Elton John and a bit of Phil Collins, images that are still in the recent works.
Philip Brophy: Ah, yes.
KP: As we were watching the early films Body Melt and Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat we were seeing the beginnings of what you have been putting out recently. What surprised us was that the important concerns — the body (and its entry and exist points), music, popular culture — they are all already there. It was fascinating for us to see how you have been continually expanding out from these early works.
PB: Those works were mediations on the body and at that time there was a lot of stuff investigating the body and the body politic and things like that. But I have to say I was not interested so much in the politics of the body as such. Maybe we should start with what you mean by 'the body'. To me it is the universe and I don't think it is necessary to use any other frames of reference to describe it - there is just 'the body'. And anything else you want to do with it becomes a version of what you want to make of 'the body'.
KP: In art at the moment there's a lot of interest in rebuilding the body, but those works are often represented as either vanity or insecurity.
PB: I think the obsession with plastic surgery and anorexia along with the gym fitness scene and obesity are major signs of the body era that we are in and the way in which concerns around the body are encompassing. We now have a lot of tools for re-imaging it and also for determining what is erotic or appealing about it. And the attempts to taint these strategies — such as describing them as vain — are conservative reactions. If you can cut your hair really you can do absolutely anything you want with your body.
KP: What about the idea of the politicized body, where it is understood as a type of performer in the social arena?
PB: I am interested when other people do that work but that is not specifically what engages me. I like the sense that the body is the air; the space in your nostrils; neither a physical, spiritual, philosophical nor political thing but rather something total. Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat was an early pondering of that divided into four sections — salt is food, saliva is language, sweat is violence and sperm is sex.
KP: But Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat is an art movie that got commercial release and it can still be rented from the video store, which make it exceptional. That was a pretty good year for Australian film - in the light of this do you think we are finally starting to make films that appeal to a local audience?
PB: What we need is more exploitation. For too long the funding bodies have been pushing quality sophisticated drama. Most people don't want that. The point is that if you are going to develop the industry and get an Australian identity going then fund the crap as well, and out of that other things will grow.
KP: Yes, this is that total-culture-from-the-top-down attitude versus the bottom-up culture, where you fund the entity called 'national identity'. Even Wolf Creek is a propagation of the same old mythologies that can be traced as far back as Picnic at Hanging Rock, if not before that.
PB: At least Wolf Creek has exploitation and that is an important distinction. Looking at other national film histories, they all have famous respected art-based directors who are there in relation to a very healthy genre or entertainment industry. Japanese cinema is like this. Italian cinema is very much like this and American cinema too. And Australian cinema, well ... where are the movies about footballers fucked up on coke, where are the movies about lesbian vampires kidnapping taxi drivers up in Brisbane and drinking their blood?
KP: Hey, watch out — thats our next work there! What about Chopper?
PB: A totally great film and produced not by the film culture but by Mushroom Records, by the music industry. The official film culture here is so fucked up its like one bushy beard growing out of the arse of Jack Thompson and Philip Adams.
KP: Do you think there are any of the same issues in the visual arts? Particularly with regard to people being conscious in their art making of propagating a certain mythology or marketability of a specifically Australian identity? Do you think that goes on a lot with what gets funded and shown?
PB: I think it does. But the thing about art is that they sort of almost legislate that specific things should be suitable subjects of art and that only certain sorts of topics are reflected in work that gets exhibited and funded. My answer is to do this sort of infection thing - you do a mainstream kind of thing and put all this toxic stuff in there.
KP: Set in the suburban housing development of Pebbles Court, Body Melt is like a technicolour Neighbours on acid. The familiar exchanges between the characters seem to naturalize the implosions and explosions of the body. Is that what you mean?
PB: I intended it to be infected Neighbours.
KP: Is that part of your strategy? Infecting pop culture by working within the modes of wider culture in order to be effective? It seems that it is and we would look at you as a figure within Australian culture moving effortlessly between lots of different mediums.
PB: Actually I think I am incredibly ineffectual.
KP: Surely having paid night-time screening at the Mandolin cinema and Quentin Tarantino say on record that Body Melt is one of the best Aussie films ever is having a really wide effect?
PB: From my perspective it doesn't feel that way.
KP: Is part of maintaining the varied profile that you have — writer, cultural commentator, sound designer, filmmaker and artist who does gallery-based projects — the development of multiple identities?
PB: When I work in specific media I work not as an artist from outside but inside that medium. For example, I am not an artist making music — I am a musician. I am not an artist making films - I am a filmmaker.
KP: If we could just go back to what you were saying earlier about the possibilities of the body exaggerating itself, how does that relate to something like Fluorescent, which we saw at the Art Gallery of New South Wales? This seemed to be about costume fabulation and a body liberated from conventional definition.
PB: In terms of the body stuff, it is there only in an inevitable way. I got my hair chemically straightened, shaved my eyebrows, and then used this medical bandage wrapping to pull my waist in. I was originally going to play with breasts so I got these falsies and thought, no, I don't need to go there, so I turned them upside down and used them as hip implants, which looks really good from front on. However Fluorescent's narrative is specifically about glam. I keep going back to glam.
KP: So do we.
PB: Glam is one of those aberrant historical moments where men weren't wearing drag as such.
KP: It was the heterosexualization of camp ... You still write a lot and the future probably belongs to artists who write, so we were really impressed that you contributed to the first issue of Art + Text. What was so special about that magazine?
PB: Art + Text early on — under Paul Taylor — was the kind of magazine that would publish anything without being prescriptive about it. They printed a few of my articles and were supportive of new positions and would allow me to make up words to get a concept across.
KP: Speaking of which, we really like your concept of Evaporated Music - it is such a vivid and evocative term. Could you tell us a little about it?
PB: Evaporated Music is a term I came up with to describe the ultimate act of removal in music. For the Evaporated Music project I came up with a simple idea: to remove pop's music and drain its corpus — much like a mortician removes the body's fluids in preparation for the cadaver's display as a lifelike freeze-figurine.
KP: You have worked a lot with models of production sourced in pop; for example → ↑ → was a really great early re-working of the art school band that even did a gig at the ICA in London. How cool is that?
PB: Of course its name was almost unpronounceable and its sign was the three arrows. So it was hard to say and impossible to write.
KP: So you were all over Prince — leagues ahead of him with the symbol idea.
PB: The first thing we did was late '76, so it was concurrent with punk; it had some punk stuff but it was really more like Warhol and Duchamp.
KP: It's interesting that you mentioned Duchamp because Evaporated Music seems to use the video clip as a ready-made.
PB: Well I have always wanted to have fun with conceptual art and been interested in shifting things out of their context for a very long time, which I remember as being Warholian. Between the early works and now, things have become more open here so it's a lot easier to do the infection thing; however that high-art/low-art binary stuff still hangs around like a bad smell — like butter that's melted in a new car.
KP: You have maintained a constant position from the word go, which is interesting. You are not worried about categories of classification, which ia a unique position to hold in Australia.
PB: Well there was a long period where I really was not connected to art other than by occasionally writing things for other artists. But you know back in '80s I did a video project called Ads, which was a 17-minute piece in five or six sections. Each is a two- or three-minute thing digested down from 72 hours of advertisements taped over a long period on U-matic three-quarter-inch tape. And then I just did jingle music, so really Evaporated Music is the same kind of thing.
KP: That would have been great in '82 and we are definitely the love children of Pebbles Court.
[The Kingpins are mythical creatures, half-man half-woman, each with two heads making four in total. They have day jobs as hard-working artists.]
Philip Brophy is a musician, academic, entertainer, artist, and film-maker: all are interchangeable depending on which project he is immersed in. For the sake of simplicity and convenience let's call him a 'pop culturist', who dwells at the fringe and probes the grubby underbelly of mass culture. The more we flinch at the exploitive manifestations the more he is drawn screaming and writhing into the limelight, and the happier he becomes. Some may see his interests as simply an indulgence into the cult world of trash aesthetic, but he would never concede to that view.
"My main interest is not trash culture, my word for it is everyday culture. What's going down that people are not acknowledging enough."
The early years of Melbourne's punk and new wave movements of the mid-seventies, were the launching pad for Philip's artistic interests. In 1977 his band → ↑ → (pronounced by clicking the tongue three times) set about smudging further the boundaries of art and music. Arty pretentions set them apart from much of the independent music scene of that time. Feeling more at home in art galleries, rather than in the more traditional inner-city pub circuit.
"Everything I've done has been pretentious in one way or another, and that doesn't particularly worry me. Mainly because my background is as much academic, (currently Philip is lecturing at the Media Arts department of the Phillip Institute on soundtrack production) as it is hands on contact with music, art or film ... bringing a more analytical academic approach and colliding it into the more transient, disposable, trash non-academic ways of making art, entertainment or pop, call it what you will."
Philip Brophy has never consciously departmentalized his work. While → ↑ → were perplexing the majority and entertaining the critics, Melbourne's archetypical new wave venue The Crystal Ballroom was in full flight and the city's independent venues were blooming, Philip was in the right place at the right time and began designing graphics for many of those establishments.
"It was looser at that time, you could do graphics stuff for anyone and they would say 'do what you want'. Now the only thing people want is computer-typeset bullshit, kinda marble background-pseudo-corporate-image, sort of 'designery' looking stuff — hip'n'slick."
Never could Philip be accused of bowing to the designer chic syndrome. His 1988 movie Salt, Saliva, Sperm And Sweat reinforced his own creative individuality, as it scrambles the imagery of the mainstream film-makers.
"The film has all those images that are in exploitation cinema — like gross-out images of food, degrees of suggestion of sex, violence, and swearing. We just took all those elements that are familiar to people that have watched a lot of mainstream movies, but totally unfamiliar to people that have been going to The Kino, The Longford and The Brighton Bay all their lives."
"They have not seen a film with a basic body explosion or seen a film so gross that it would make you want to throw up. We put those things together in 'Salt, Saliva, Sperm And Sweat. It was almost an overdose. The point was to ram it down the throats of all those people who have not experienced that type of movie. I'm quite often asked to write about horror, gore or censorship in films. I find the people I have to seriously discuss this with have not seen any of the movies I'm talking about — the toughest thing they've seen would be 'The Exorcist' or A Clockwork Orange'. While there is a mass of people out there who have seen all the movies I'm talking about — they know what's going down! They' re seeing things that are totally beyond the comprehension of this small cultural, academic and political crowd. But these are the people who say 'this is what high-culture is.' 'This is what good education value is.' These types of things don't get much serious discussion past the very naive."
Salt, Saliva, Sperm And Sweat is due for screening on England's Channel 4 this July, if it survives at the hands of Britain's phobia prone television censorship. Much of Philip's work exists in that twilight world of what is acceptable and what is not. His Trash And Junk Culture exhibition exploited that conflict in a very direct and confrontational manner.
"We took the two words quite deliberately, people see them as campy, hysterical, old, forgotten, and not to be taken to serious items of past culture; but in fact the stuff we used in the main was totally contemporary. It was not your corny John Waters' type of trash aesthetic. We used 'victim toys' and 'gross out toys', most of which have now been banned in Australia — they' re incredibly violent. What's interesting is that a lot of people have not seen them because they are banned. That is the absurd fact about this kind of stuff, that it is getting banned. All these ex-Carlton hippies who now have kids and will not allow them to have these toys. They go around and lobby local government to have the toys banned, without looking at them for what they are or whether they are truly affecting kids in an unhealthy manner. The same with the gore movies we were showing, along with the display of porn mags and body building mags. We kind of inter-cut them as one big display, you couldn't tell which was which."
It was only a matter of time before Philip's irreverent interpretation of mass culture spilled back to music. He has just released the mini-album "A Fistful Of Rock" (Cut Slash Kill) and the EP "The Abdominal Wall Of Noise" (by Instrumentless). Both capture the spirit of rock'n'roll, without the need to revert to the classic rock combo. Instead he distills the energy and spark, that fired us all up at one time or another - memories of brief moments when a snatch of music or guitar riff carries you away.
Back in 1983 when Grandmixer DST put those guitar things in Herbie Hancock's 'Rocket', he was doing exactly that. Then Run DMC were doing it, and all those hard hip-hop sounds had AC/DC and Led Zeppelin guitar riffs.
"That is what interests me about hip-hop, it does really carry on the energy of rock music unlike so many guitar bands."
"A Fistful Of Rock" evokes memories of the early dance rock mixes of artists like T-Rex and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, as it attacks with the punch that only a 1990's bass laden mix can provide. The Instrumentless EP endeavours to take digital technology to its creative limits, yet the spirit of rock prevails.
"I took the sampler called The Amiga, they have these stored sounds that have already been sampled into them. One of those sounds is called 'Power Chord', it sounds like it's been taken from a 1974 hard rock album — a fuzzy guitar on one side of the keyboard and on the other side it does these kind of Cold Chisel sounding frilly bit. I was just mucking about with it, when I thought I' ll make a song totally out of just those sounds, using no other guitars. I put those two sounds through other fuzzies and wahs and all these ancient effects boxes — one song turned into four, basically it grew out of a whim to see how far I could go with limitation of the idea."
The limitations of ideas does not seem to encroach upon the creative mind of Philip Brophy. At present he is putting flesh to the bones of a storyline to a future horror movie - a Neighbours type court and horrendous things happen to those that live there. Once again the cultural terrorist takes a well-aimed stab at the very heart of mass culture.
It would be fair to say that of the filmmakers and films profiled in this book, Philip Brophy represents one extreme point of the pendulum's swing, both in his work to date and current relation to the film scene, and in terms of the specific idiosyncrasies of his production methods. Indeed, during the course of the interview upon which much of this chapter is based, Brophy reflected not so much a negligence as a considered and overtly-expressed lack of interest in talking about the in-and-outs of specific production matters. It is true to say, with some reservations, that for Brophy the importance of a work is in the distillation of the ideas which have informed it, rather than with the production and technology which have given shape to the ideas. To put it somewhat too succinctly — why the works were made rather than how.
To bring his concerns and those of this book closer, the current article will consider not only Brophy's film work, but the ways in which that film work cuts across and intersects with a vast range of so-called 'cultural' production — video, music, performance art, theory, criticism and so on. In addition, information on purely production aspects has been provided by Brophy's producer, Rod Bishop, in a brief case study of their most recent 16mm work, Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat. Bishop also contributes his thoughts on the role of the producer, approaches to funding, and working with crews, which arise out of his twenty years of involvement with Australian cinema.
It should be said in advance that it is not easy, nor in some cases desirable, to fix a centre to Philip Brophy's methods of production. This is true for a number of reasons. Firstly, for much of the time that Brophy has been involved in producing work, his name (or let us say in more artistically-accepted terms, his authorial signature), along with many others (Maria Kozic, Jayne Stevenson, Ralph Traviato, etc) was intentionally (and polemically) subsumed by the group collective known as tsk-tsk-tsk. Secondly, because, as a group member and individually, Brophy has worked in so many different media (not to mention multi-media projects), the sheer output of his work makes it almost impossible to get a singular grasp of production methods. Nor is the problem solvable by cutting the films away and discussing them in isolation from the other work, for Brophy consciously structures the work — say any given film — in such a way that it retains a fluid, interconnected, multi-channelled relation between all other works, both in ideas and production methods. Film as film, a single entity in its own right, is something that Brophy adamantly rejects. No cultural object has any autonomy, either in ideas or production methods. Rather, each has a set of multiple histories and multiple cultural locations, a point which should become clearer below, with particular reference to the film No Dance. Therefore, much of what follows may initially seem to be drifting away from the specific focus and general scope of this book. But in effect it is only a change of angle, a rather oblique angle at that, not unlike Brophy's work — retaining the focus while shifting the perspective.
It is impossible within the brief space available to give a detailed overview of Philip Brophy's career and work. By necessity then, what follows will be selective.
When looking at the past, even the recent past, history often tends to organize things into a schema of dates and events of significance. It also tends to highlight certain connections between things, connections of which one was often unaware at the time. Brophy thinks that in retrospect many people are of the opinion that tsk-tsk-tsk had a master plan which guided and directed the work. In contrast, he says, much of the work came about in a more instinctive and ad hoc way.
According to Brophy, the group proper formed sometime between the end of 1976 and 1977. At the time, and for several years to follow, it had a rather fluid membership (anywhere between one and several dozen people in varying capacities and on various projects worked under the group's name). The group grew out of a social scene; as Brophy puts it, 'a bunch of art students who expressed similar interests in things'. He does not see the formation of the group as anything unique — in fact, he points to a common phenomenon of the 1970s, wherein a whole host of art school students dropped out of colleges and formed punk bands. Brophy believes the group fits that model, given that many of the members were indeed college or university students and one of their earliest identities was as a punk band (albeit in quotation marks, as befits their analytical approach to much of their work). The work itself cut across a whole range of different media, film being one amongst many, without there being any hierarchy of preference. On one level they worked with so many media purely and simply because the energy was there to do so. On another, given that their interest was in 'cultural practice' rather than a practice which was media-specific, the more media they could use the better.
Brophy was considered the director or co-ordinator of the group. More often than not, he instigated the projects. As to the question of the nature and degree of collaboration within the group, Brophy draws an analogy with the Warhol scene of the sixties:
"It was like the Warhol scene, where you had a lot of people with manic creative energies producing things in all sorts of different ways. There's no way of over-laying a production map on top of that. Well, that applies to all the work we produced from 1977 to 1982. Each project had a different slant on it. With some, I would come up with the principal idea for the work, while other projects had more of a collaborative tinge about them. But there's no way now that you can parcel out shares."
It should be noted that most of the key members of the group, with the exception of Brophy, were working simultaneously on individual projects some of which were films.
Before going on to discuss the film work of the group, and specifically Brophy's post- tsk-tsk-tsk films, it seems appropriate to offer a brief sketch of Brophy's academic background as a means of offering a partial context for his ideas on film and culture. What follows is not meant as some kind of biographical insight which explains an individual, but rather two early experiences which instilled in Brophy a set of attitudes about culture and its objects.
In the mid-seventies, Brophy attended an art college because, as he puts it, "I could sketch well". As part of the art history component of his Graphic Design course he discovered Dada, and that introduced him to the whole polemics of commercial graphic design versus so-called 'serious' art. After a year of exposure to conceptual art, minimal art, and the whole range of post-object art, he was totally hooked on the subject of art. He says:
"It's very important that my first exposure to art was Dada and not the great classic masters, like Rembrandt or Renoir for example, because I was introduced to the breakdown, the attack on art, and that has been very influential. It was a reverse education about art."
At college he also encountered film studies for the first time, and this story has somewhat of a humorous edge. Brophy entered a classroom "totally, unconditionally, unequivocally convinced that there was no possible merit or complexity to a Randolph Scott western", and challenged his teacher to prove him wrong. He was proved wrong — it happened to be one of the Budd Boetticher directed westerns — and to this day he believes that the lesson learned is that any cultural object will prove you wrong. However trivial it may seem, it should never be taken on its surface value.
Many of his formative interests at college determined his choice of subjects at university, one of which was film studies. Unlike Rod Bishop, Brophy was at La Trobe University at a time when a Cinema Studies course had been established. Its thrust was history and theory, not practice. It was also the high time of the film theory that was evolving out of Screen magazine in Britain — the concerns were with structuralism, semiotics, psychoanalysis and so forth. Brophy says of the experience:
"I was able to relate to that stuff like other people read Mills and Boon. I found it totally energetic. It was saying such anti-cinematic things but at the same time it was demonstrating fundamental things about how films work. Which is exactly what Dada did with art — totally anti-art but defining art at the same time. It's only now that I am finding out about the flows and currents of film theory which lead up to that period. So once again it's a reverse education."
The Early Super 8 Films Many of the early Super 8 films were made concurrently with Brophy's Cinema Studies course. Other group members also had small film components as part of their courses, and it's fair to say that there was some degree of flow-on of ideas from their academic studies. Brophy, in fact, refers to the films as 'essay films'. But this is not to say that the films represented applied 'theory'. He states categorically that he finds it difficult to conceive of the difference between theory and practice, and prefers not to differentiate between the two. He comments on this point:
"If you're applying theory, forget it — you don't know anything about the theory in the first place. Theory is not an entity, a thing you carry around and apply."
The opposition between theory and practice is for Brophy as meaningless as the often-postulated oppositions between narrative and non-narrative, or mainstream and independent film. At the time the films were seen as 'applied theory' because the 'essay film' was relatively misunderstood in this country, and was only to become a more fully developed 'genre' in later years.
As camera-person and instigator of the ideas, Brophy would generally be considered the director of those films, as we understand the term in its traditional sense. As for the choice of gauge, as with many young filmmakers, Super 8 was used because it was both technologically accessible and within economic reach. Aside from that, Brophy puts no intrinsic value on Super 8. The films were funded, like any other group project, from a collective pool of funds. Money which had come in from one area would be put into another. For example, sales from the group's records might help fund the next video, or money from setting up a gallery show would fund the next film, and so on. It was a fluid budgetary policy of interconnecting economic lines. The group's last, and in many ways most significant, Super 8 film was No Dance (1982). Made on a budget of approximately $150, and about the role of dancing in sub-cultures after punk, it was most representative of the group's cultural analysis approach to film.
By 1983, the group's collective identity no longer existed. According to Brophy:
"As the group developed and continued, along the way and for various reasons, different social and personal connections, threads, relations got broken down, severed, whatever, finally leaving myself because I was the one energizing it together."
According to Brophy, he only began to think seriously about exhibition spaces for the film work after 1982. Before then the attitude was fairly ad hoc — anytime/anyplace. He believes that attitude has been a valuable and informative experience, and says, speaking of all the work in whatever media:
"If I had stopped and thought whether it should go into a certain place I wouldn't have half the cross-cultural views I have today. No work I've ever been involved in directing or producing just fits into one particular cultural site. I'm incapable of directing something into one exhibition space. It always has something else in it, some other history or discourse or slant on it, which is quite alien to the particular cultural territory in which it's being performed or exhibited. Take for example Asphixiation, which was based on the flippant idea — why not put disco in an art gallery? Now there is nothing extraordinary in that idea. But when we did it in the gallery, it didn't fit, and when we took it into the dance clubs it didn't fit either, but it was informed by both those places, like a mutant work."
Most of the films found their way into a number of exhibition spaces, including cinemas, galleries, colleges, clubs, discos and pubs. Between 1977 and 1980 much of the work had its initial public exposure at the Clifton Hill Community Centre, but not much of a public at that - fifty people at the best of times. Nonetheless, the space remained important to the extent that it was permanent, free to use and free to attend, and it meant that work could be put on show rather than pile up at home. Aside from that, Brophy denies that the Clifton Hill scene provided any particular dynamic which helped shape the group over that period.
The move from Super 8 to 16mm production was made by Brophy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was one of purely practical necessity — Super 8 film was inferior. Brophy got tired of bad projectors chewing up or damaging the films easily, and without recourse to negatives and multiple prints it was labour-intensive. Secondly, and more importantly, Brophy wanted to engage with a broader and different audience than that which could be reached on Super 8. In the period of the late seventies to early eighties, the Super 8 gauge was more readily patronized by the alternative art scene than film culture proper (there is proof of this in the fact that much early Super 8 was more readily found in art gallery contexts than theatres). And finally, for Brophy Super 8 was never a long-term option. To reach wider audiences, and especially to be noticed by the wider realms of film culture and the industry, different exhibition spaces needed to be reached than those limited to Super 8. Within that context, 16mm production seemed the logical option.
From late 1982 until 1985, Brophy devoted much of his time to reshooting a number of the original Super 8 films on 16mm. Though Brophy has no practical film training, the move from one gauge to another did not cause any great technological difficulties. As in the past, when he has needed to understand an unfamiliar apparatus or piece of technology, he says he merely grasps it and works out how it operates. According to Brophy, one needs to be very arrogant about technology. His attitude is very much a do-it-yourself approach to filmmaking. Aside from bringing in an experienced cameraman like Ray Argall to shoot some of the films, Brophy's methods of production were not that much different from his approach to Super 8, using a small crew and doing the editing and sound mix himself.
Three of the films Brophy blew up from Super 8 to 16mm, or reshot on 16mm — The Opening Ceremony Of The 1980 Moscow Olympics, Romantic Story and The Celluloid Self — were made with the assistance of an Australian Film Commission grant. The fourth film, No Dance, has a somewhat different and informative production history.
According to Brophy, the Super 8 version, because of its gauge, had not reached one of its intended audiences. The film's polemics about 'the role of dancing in sub-cultures after punk' were directed against the counter-culture politics of the sixties and seventies. The only way Brophy believed he could reach that generation, formed on the politics of counter-culture movements, was through the more established exhibition channels, and those channels were open only to the bigger gauges. Much of the upper reaches of Australian film culture (institutions and funding bodies), according to Brophy, is guided by the philosophy of the counter-culture, and it represents at its core everything that Brophy most disagrees with - particularly in the realm of politics and culture. [For a more extended discussion of these views, refer to Brophy's article, "The Poetics of Politics in Australian (Film) Culture"' in Arena No. 80, 1987. Also of interest is Bishop's' concurrent article.]
we must have funded it'. With No Dance, then, Brophy set himself a number of 'crazy paradoxical aims'. Firstly, to address the last vestiges of the counter-culture audience through a film which was in opposition to their ideology. Secondly, and most paradoxically, to make a film that proved that something could be done without the assistance of the funding bodies, but which, once having been done, would receive no attention precisely because it was made outside those channels. For Brophy there is too much of a prevailing mentality that says films can only be made through funding bodies. He says:
"It's as if you' ve got to get up each morning and constantly remind yourself that the AFC, to take one example, is not responsible for film culture in Australia. There are other ways that film can possibly exist here."
He proved his point, but through a set of negative options — he has a self-financed film which has been sitting on his shelf for the past two years, without any interest from distributors, with very few one-off screenings to its credit and little critical response. Strangely enough for a film the AFC had nothing to do with, Brophy has had letters from them asking about their copy of the film, as if to confirm the mentality, "if a film exists, we must have funded it."
As far as Brophy is concerned, institutionalized film culture works through its own self-perpetuating machinations, operating within the limits of its boundaries, unable to deal with or understand film projects coming from the 'outside'.
Unlike The Opening Ceremony Of The 1980 Moscow Olympics, Romantic Story and The Celluloid Self, when Brophy came to make No Dance on 16mm, he opted for the first time in his production history to work with a producer. He approached Rod Bishop, a colleague at Philip Institute of Technology, where he had been teaching since 1982. Bishop was an obvious choice given their existing friendship; and having taught together they had a fairly good understanding of one another's ideas and common points of interest regarding the cinema. From a purely pragmatic point of view, Brophy realised that as his films grew in production scale he would need someone to take care of the 'nuts and bolts production stuff' — preparing budgets and production schedules, handling contracts for cast and crew, liaising with labs, and so on — areas which were not his forte. More specifically, about his approach to Bishop for No Dance, Brophy says:
"I asked Rod because I wanted an outside view of that kind of essay film. I wanted someone to tell me whether they could understand what I wanted to say in each sequence of the film. The fine tuning and tightening up of the 16mm version as compared to the Super 8 was a result of my exchange with Rod."
Bishop's filmmaking background meant that he had the kind of production skills and expertise which Brophy lacked. He had begun making films at La Trobe University in 1970, when the existing Australian film scene was centred around the Cantrills and Albie Thorns. As well as his own films, he had worked in a variety of roles on other projects including Yakkity Yak. At that time he was also involved in the establishment of the magazine Cinema Papers. Later he worked as assistant director of the Perth Film Festival. Returning to Melbourne, he began teaching film at Phillip Institute of Technology, a position he still holds.
Also important in Brophy's choice was that Bishop, being somewhat older, had experienced and understood Brophy's 'counter-culture stumbling block' more than he ever could. Bishop had also been a script assessor for the AFC and had an inside understanding of the funding body mentality which would obviously prove useful.
Speaking of their working methods, and with relevance more to their recent production Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat, Bishop says:
"Philip will bring me a treatment idea and then I' ll help shape the rewriting of the treatment. We go over the treatment line by line, action by action and I'll offer my ideas. Usually it's pretty simple, the ideas immediately work or they don' t. We come to an immediate consensus while we are working on it. I'll also offer ideas about the mechanics of scriptwriting, like where the plot points go, where hooks go, highs and lows, the general graphing and so forth. I also help write the application prospectus for raising the money."
Bishop also does the majority of the selecting and hiring of cast and technical crew, and the distribution and marketing negotiations. He believes it's important to be thinking of these areas at the earliest stage possible. At answer print, the film was shown to sales agent Kim Lewis, who agreed to take it to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was shown in the marketplace. The film has already been screened as part of the Greater Union Awards and the Melbourne Film Festival. Bishop thinks festival exposure can be very important, and is actively pushing for the film to be entered in all the major international festivals over the next twelve months. He is also looking into the area of television sales in the USA and Europe. Although interest in the film has been expressed by an independent cinema in Sydney, and other organizations are considering it (he mentions Channel Four in Britain), he says:
"We are not chasing anyone at the moment, we just want to wait and see if and how distributors and exhibitors are reacting to the film through its festival exposure."
The film was made on a cash budget of $37,500, through an AFC grant. It came in considerably under budget, mainly due to Brophy producing the soundtrack himself, and the underage was converted into funds for marketing.
As for the future, Brophy and Bishop will continue their director/producer relationship, but have no fixed long-term aims. It's more of a project-by-project situation. Bishop expresses no desire to stay within the so-called 'independent' production area. His preference is to work on bigger films and bigger budgets, going through the conventional distribution/exhibition circuits. He says:
"I see the short films as stepping stones to feature filmmaking. Shorts offer a particular format as vehicles to show what can be done. It's a natural process to move to features — certainly if you want to reach a wider audience as we do."
From Brophy's comments one gathers things are not so clear-cut. He says:
"I am more interested in essay films than in conventional narrative feature films. There has got to come a time when the feature film goes, and I for one am waiting for the party invitation to the big celebration. Features have got to go."
Brophy may wish to work with bigger budgets and make longer films, but he has no intention of adopting the established forms of fictional narrative cinema. He looks more towards the model of cinema provided by, say, Jean-Marie Straub and Jean-Luc Godard than any other feature filmmaking model. Such an appeal to an inventive modernist cinema cannot so easily be reconciled with the desire for a wider audience, certainly not within the confines of Australian film culture, as Brophy is well aware.
It would be an error in judgement to claim any special status for Brophy as an 'independent filmmaker', given that the term sits uncomfortably on his shoulders. More often that not, he avoids using the label when referring to his work. For Brophy, a better analogy to the independent filmmaker might be a small-time auto salesman in Detroit who sells up his stock to invest in some cheap exploitation flick with a shrewd eye for a quick box office killing, but with a more-than-even chance of ending up bankrupt. While apocryphal, the example does indicate Brophy's position on 'independent cinema' in a nutshell, and that nutshell is as far removed from any other approach to independent film surveyed in this book as the distance between Melbourne and Detroit.
At best, one can say of Brophy's film career to date that it reflects a mix of pragmatism and ad hoc instinctual adventurism. In retrospect, one could construct from his progress an ideal model representing a move from Super 8 to 16mm, from shorts to near feature-length films, from self-funded to state-funded production, from smallish cult appreciation to broader audiences, from a marginal film culture to a provisional mainstream, and so it goes. While such a neat schema may have a historical appeal, Brophy denies that there has ever been an over-riding master plan to his filmmaking career. He sees his film practice in some cases as an adjunct to that of cultural analysis, which is certainly born out by the subjects of his films. In as far as 'culture' is constantly in flux, ever-evolving, whatever changes in approach he makes — whether in the gauge., mode of address, exhibition space, etc — have been more in response to cultural change than any long-term career-oriented ambitions.