The public spaces of cities all over the world are once again up for discussion. There has been a recent swell of activity among geographers and urban planners – alongside the usual suspects who are architects, artists and cultural commentators – about rights to the city. The right of every one of its inhabitants (well- heeled or homeless, long-settled or newly refugeed) to feel that they belong to the city, that the city is theirs. That they have a right to be there, and a right to enjoy being there.
One of the most recent formulations to emerge from this renewed discussion is the notion of the city as a sensuous semiosphere. What this means is very simple: that public space is not only the place where, ideally we can ‘make our meanings’ and leave our mark (thus the ‘semiotic sphere’ part); but also the place where we are able to make a noise, spread a smell, project an image (hence it is a ‘sensuous sphere’, a space where the human senses give and receive signals). Sociologists are using the concept as a way to dissect the thorny issues of bordering and overlapping public spaces cohabited by different cultural and ethnic groups (as all such spaces today inevitably are): for example, which sounds of religious worship (bells, chants, prayers) are to be deemed acceptable to all – and at what precise volume?
Philip Brophy is not a legislator of public space; he is not looking to establish a code of good and safe conduct for all. But, like many artists, he gets in there and intervenes whenever, wherever and however he can – working the cracks between the commissions of public art and the outlaw, ephemeral acts of graffiti. 10 Transforming Youths offers up a certain kind of animated billboard – an advertisement that advertises or sells nothing but itself. What do we see and hear in it? An audiovisual parade of young faces, arranged in a smooth, neat, uniform line. An indistinct hum as the aural bed of these images. Then, interfering with the parade and emerging out of it, an event that is not only cyclical and logical, but also always a bit surprising, even off-putting: these same faces one by one, emerge closer to us as if in some ghostly apparition. (We learn how to track these patterns and changes if we pay close attention). The parts of the face move: mouths open, eyes close, and a rapid process of ageing occurs and then reverses itself.
And each of these ‘characters’ produces a pure swell of sound, ethereal, choir-like. It could have been a horror show – of the kind that has often marked Brophy’s art – but, in fact, it becomes a kind of serene meditation. All this youth-on-display gets gently wasted, over and over. For this eternal kid (now aged 50) who is Philip Brophy, youth is a both a mass media sign that needs to be taken apart (often, as its corporate-commodified form changes with startling rapidity across all the platforms of modern urban culture) and a lived experience: an experience that is fluid, reversible, open to imaginary enhancements and investments. In the sensuous semiosphere that is the inner city of Melbourne, Brophy offers the multi-screen experience of 10 Transforming Youths as a strange, beguiling site that one might pass while walking, jogging or riding on a Flinders St train, bus or tram. He expects not so much that biologically young people will identify with it, but that anyone, of any age, might join in the artist’s reflection on the process of ageing, and experience that process as a poetic form of movement and change. As so often in his work, Brophy begins with the stereotype – the perfectly airbrushed, selected and exchanged ‘composite’ youths, faces drawn out of various insidious databanks – and takes it to a richer, more phantasmatic space of open, sensual possibilities.
Actually, now that I come to think of it, Brophy’s artistic output over many media, and over three decades, also could be said to constitute a ‘sensuous semiosphere’. We must not forget – he certainly never has – his grounding in semiotic analysis of the ‘decoding advertisements’ variety; indeed, some of his earliest Super 8 films are devoted to the analytic dissection (in images, sounds and montage) of billboards and TV commercials. This has been a constant thread in his work, taking many inventive forms of analysis-in-action. Across time, another major preoccupation emerged: the human body, its drives and energies, and in particular its uncanny ability to adapt, change, mutate, transform. This, too, has found multiple expressions across the media at his disposal: his films Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat (1987) and Body Melt (1993), for instance, as well as digital installation works such as The Body Malleable and Vox.
Body, face, voice: the relations between these corporeal elements has forever been shifting in Brophy’s art, as well as in his critical, analytical and theoretical writings. 10 Transforming Youths is a new variation: is it a character that produces a sound, or a sound that produces a character? Which one resonates or vibrates within the other, exactly? Which is the vessel, which is the output? All this is especially tricky to pin down since the choral sounds in the work also seem to trigger (or at least accompany) the start-stop process of ageing. But not always. Some of these songbirds seem quite calm, placid, angelic. Sometimes eyes are closed, at other times they are open. There is less a sense of public performance – youth on parade, Australia’s Got Talent – than withdrawal, introspection, sanctuary. Perhaps exactly the kind of feeling that Brophy hopes to inspire in each passing viewer.
Popular culture has its Jekyll and Hyde fixations, and the post-punk artistic scene with which Brophy has long been associated has revelled in the ironic picturing of decay: dead celebrities (Cronenberg’s Crash), extreme cosmetic surgeries (Michael Jackson), Marlene Dietrich or Mae West-like divas propped up artificially in the twilight years of their Sunset Boulevard-style performance careers. The agonised message is always the same: youth is a fleeting illusion, old age is a crushing reality. But 10 Transforming Youths carries a sweeter tone; it tempts you to go with your own flow.
Perhaps the most memorable scene in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is when American protagonist Indiana Jones and his entourage undertake a final dash against evil Nazi affiliates to uncover the site of the Holy Grail, which promises eternal life (or a permanent cessation of ageing) to those who drink from it. The villains narrowly beat Jones into a chamber that houses the Holy Grail among many other counterfeit grails, and are able to choose first to find the authentic cup amongst these. A life-lustful Nazi affiliate Donovan drinks from a grail chosen incorrectly for him by his peer Elsa, and in a moment that appears intensely grotesque, he lets out a harsh wail as his body ages rapidly, becoming almost instantly a rotten corpse, and next a heap of dust and bones. Here aging is shown exclusively as the removal of life. The decomposition of Donovan’s body is macabre and his scream marks the desperation of a soul having its vessel taken away and being left with a complete endpoint, a conclusion of existence. This film shows clearly the binary of Hollywood doubling: good versus bad, desire and lust for life versus the inevitability of death. In this scene, as in countless other moments in popular entertainment, the good are rewarded with life and the bad are punished with death. But here life is marked literally by the preservation of the body, and death by its decomposition, or ageing. Once his scream (of life) ceases to be heard, there is no hope in the unknown of Donovan’s evaporation. With their immediate ties to the ultimate good/bad binary of life and death, we note the semantic leverage that the youthful body and voice hold, and as this text will address, can evoke in advertising and billboard culture.
Philip Brophy’s 10 Transforming Youths toys with the fact that in the most obvious sense, the screens at Signal’s site have explicit connotations towards billboard advertising. Their highly public, elevated position on a busy walkway and commuter hub, one that holds high visibility to a broad daily demographic, is unquestionably similar to those billboards – and now increasingly screens – that have throughout our lives been inevitable in our (un)consciousness of public space. The semantic power of youth noted earlier is rife across public advertising in the vicinity of Signal in the City of Melbourne: now simply adopted in fashion and beauty ads but spanning everything from breath mints to public transport branding. These advertisements operate with what Brophy calls “the media mirror”; we as viewers come face-to-face with a representation of a human, and must negotiate our relationship to it. We stare into a psychological mirror where we don’t see ourselves, but where we project ourselves, only to have to stop and consider the differences between the projection and the projector. If it is a classic depiction of youth that we are confronted with, it is more than likely not going to align with our realities, and hence we can be convinced that we are able to change elements of ourselves and move closer to this ‘Holy Grail’ by using skin products, chewing a breath mint or riding the train. Needless to say there are subversions of this in advertising; for example the ads for the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival that depicted emo youths discussing a film. This was not what I have called a ‘classic’ depiction of youth in any sense; in this case, albeit in somewhat of a light-hearted jab, a play on demographic-targeting in advertising was humorously presented, working hand-in-hand with the festival’s slogan of Everyone’s a critic. In many ways this base marketing strategy is so widely discussed in popular discourse that perhaps in most cases even those being drawn into the appeal of a ‘media mirror’ are aware of its formal devices. Even so, if this is the case it is furthermore testament to the strategy’s effectiveness. It is these formal devices that I believe are the essential focus of Brophy’s critique in 10 Transforming Youths.
Philip Brophy employs technology to subvert the ‘media mirror’. His scrupulous attention to the artifice of his animation bears an essential relation to its relevance with regard to the subject matter of its critique. As opposed to the standard 25 frames persecond used in animation, Brophy’s makes use of 100, allowing for a complete smoothness in his characters’ movements and elimination of any effects that would reveal the film’s devices as an illusion; however at the same time, these animated characters have a caricatured flatness and their animated movements are intentionally unnatural. Hence any realism in Brophy’s animation is betrayed by the plasticity of the animated characters, and rather than creating what could be pigeon-holed as the ‘hyperreality’ of a ‘simulation’ (as an airbrushed model in an advertisement may be), Brophy’s 10 Transforming Youths is instead a representation of a construct, not of reality. It is a formal play on popular media languages.
More on the note of language: the voices of the characters seem to have none at all. They make a multi-tonal drone with their vocal chords (or those of their real-life actors’), and as Brophy states, “the idea here was to literally say nothing: the youths all make sounds with their mouths, but nothing is decipherable or comprehensible”. This is the physically immersive component to a billboard that sells nothing. Consider the characters’ indecipherable hums in relation to the wail of Donovan in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade: the sound is broken down to merely a sign of life.
There is a familiarity to the popular formal devices that we see in 10 Transforming Youths, but their language (and hence their message) is completely skewed. These are common semantics with the syntax confused, or pop devices imploding in on themselves. Philip Brophy’s 10 Transforming Youths is a plasticised regurgitation of familiar signs, one that makes use of technological scrupulousness to toy with and subvert our identification with body, voice, and youth as life in contemporary media.