Philip Brophy is a bit of an avant-pop star in contemporary Australian art. He embodies the traces of a post-Punk scene in Melbourne that included figures such as Nick Cave; was an early contributor to 'new wave' journals like Art & Text; produced a string of underground records; and then made cheap horror films. Now mostly known as a composer and performer, he also writes smart, wildly opinionated essays on sound design and film scores.
Brophy's recent surround-sound performance featured the first of two parts that make up Evaporated Music (2000), a work which comprises six sonically refashioned video clips of Pop icons. Carefully selected - with all the loathing of a discriminating fan - the first three songs are by Elton John, Phil Collins, and Billy Joel (a future plan is to feature female artists such as Mariah Carey). Projected large on the wall, the original visual component of these videos is unchanged, but their audio is completely overhauled.
The songs' melodies are removed, and the singers' voices are replaced by Brophy's own Darth Vader-like drool, thus encoding his own presence (and absence) into the work. Each has its own intimate mood, and to this extent, emanates the perverse auto-erotism of a ventriloquist - an investigation of what happens when the larynx is contorted, constricted and controlled.
Brophy has painstakingly re-synchronised the incidental sounds of the video clips. Footsteps, newspapers and ice blocks are now recast as swirling, cracking and crushingly metallic techno elements, disorienting our psycho-acoustic understanding of the video space. Visceral, intense, and claustrophobic, the overall effect is pretty hilarious. That Brophy loves the stuff that annoys him is obvious, and part of the pleasure of his work is the clear delight he takes in re-appropriating the degraded sentimentality of the commercial Pop promo. His press release enticingly describes his subjects 'drained of all excess and tawdry humanist bile, their bald and bloated bodies hollow, their music evaporated into surround-sound air'.
Beyond spleen venting, Evaporated Music explores the premise that no sound exists without its spatial, material supports. The piece revels in the active mis-recognition of sonic referents, as when an acoustic imbalance is struck by certain elements appearing far louder or softer than expected. However, Brophy's approach is not so much directed at sound's obvious artifice, or an 1980s-style deconstruction, as the possibilities of digital sampling and Techno's ungainly deconstruction of live presence.
Colonising the prison of synchronous sound so native to video, Brophy plays noise against images, exposing them to the elaborate mime scenarios which they really are. Divorced from their subordination to the soundtrack, the images return to a more polysemous state - no longer middle-aged fantasies used to advertise a song, but a sequence of rapidly cut, uncanny spectres. Above all, these are three weird and fleshy musical portraits of Elton, Phil and Billy. Removed from comfortable domestic consumption, Joel's generational nostalgia appears all the more ridiculous, and a father-daughter caress becomes disconcerting. As with so much of Brophy's work, families and their bodies become sites of repressed urges and potential trauma.
Like the more directly political strand of video art known as 'scratch video', which took popular TV forms as the basis for image piracy and semantic inversion, Brophy maps popular culture by reinscribing it. But these are very specific transactions, and each seems finally a protest against the boredom of stereotypes. Sensation is what is at stake. Thus, enjoying his captive audience after the recent eardrum-crushing performance, before the audience had regained its composure, Brophy subjected us to his ventral clamour a second time.
(...) Philip Brophy’s Evaporated Music 1 (2000) stands as one of the most idiosyncratic and brilliant works of video art produced in Australia. Music clips by Elton John, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, among others, are stripped of their music, before sound effects and atmospheres are added to the on-screen action – instead of artists warbling their hits, the soundtrack is filled with spooky creaking doors, gusts of wind, rope stretching and distant doors closing. The effect is striking, funny but also incredibly disturbing.
Many of Brophy’s video, drawing and print works highlight the absurdity of mainstream culture by mashing it up with sub-cultural signifiers. In Evaporated Music 2, for example – an ongoing series of video sequels to his earlier masterwork – Brophy has taken scenes from a variety of teen soap operas featuring fake bands, and replacing their offensive pseudo pop with the guttural growls, sawing guitars and rumbling drums of death metal, all eerily lip-synced and seamless in their new context. (...)
"Whoever claimed that cinema is the art of photography? Take photography away and cinema becomes radio... Why shouldn't cinema, in turn, become a species of radio?"
With this phrase early on in his sprawling, pretentious and utterly brilliant 1951 film Venom and Eternity, Isidore Isou, self-appointed messiah of the under-historicised but disproportionately influential Parisian avant-garde known as letterism, laid claim to making the most radical breakthrough in the history of cinema. It was one that he believed would spell the destruction of that medium, 'the first apocalyptic sign of rupture in this fat organism we call film'. Isou's extraordinary innovation was to attest to the primacy of cinematic sound by detaching it from its causal relationship to the moving image, creating the total asynchronicity he would term 'cinema discrepant'.
By the early 1980s cinema discrepant was everywhere. Isou's millenarian claims were manically evangelised, but at the same time systematically mocked and thoroughly domesticated in the form of the music video — the ultimate divergence of sound and image in the name of mass marketing. To claim some kind of progenitorial relationship, a discernable chain of influence, would of course be to give pop vacuity and avantgarde narcissism far more credit than either deserves. But pop's pores have always remained shamelessly, deliriously, open to every impurity that might seep into them. The French title of Isou's precocious masterwork, Traite de have et d'eternite, suggests something more animal, more primordial, more insidious than just venom: saliva, slobber, slime, the very rot that is exposed in the audiovisual tearing up of the floorboards that is Philip Brophy's Evaporated Music 1.
Brophy's strategy is clearly the inverse of Isou's but achieves the same end, emphasising the audio element of a mode of moving image production through a reinstatement of the synchronicity of sound and vision. The series hinges on the removal of the original soundtracks of six pop videos, their 'evaporation', Brophy has said, 'much like a mortician removes the body's fluids in preparation for the cadaver's display as a lifelike freeze-figurine'. Brophy's freeze-figurines, 'bloated' baby-boomers and 'bulimic' pseudo-sirens, are then made up with cinematic atmospheres and sound design, and, most importantly, foley — sound effects synched to onscreen images, such as footsteps, a boiling jug or a motorcycle crash. This renders what was once simply overcooked sentimentality into something genuinely disconcerting. Rather than a separation of the image from its sonic referent, it is their re-coupling that serves to underline the corpulence of the medium in this instance.
But while Celine Dion rasping away like a jilted she-demon from Evil Dead, and the audio soup mimicking the over-the-top cutting of Gloria Estefan's 'Oye!' are undeniably funny, the temptation to read Evaporated Music as pure audiovisual joke is undercut by a recurrent theme of shattered domesticity. Rifts within the nuclear family unit is the central conceit of the three contributions from baby-boomer men in this series (Elton John, Phil Collins and Billy Joel). Sonically reframed, their schmaltzy attempts to heal relationships between fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters, come across either as problematically patriarchal or just plain creepy. And for all the banshee android action in Brophy's reworking of Mariah Carey' s 'Always be my baby', one can't help thinking of Tim Hunter's sinister rumination on the thin veneer of suburban security in his 1986 film River's Edge.
Within the hollow air of the gallery, the comfortable designer sofa and surroundsound system presented for the work's viewing are curiously generic, as if designed by some alien life form to lure unsuspecting human guests into a false sense of comfort. Evaporated Music seems to be underlining more than just the centrality of sound to the interpretation of the visual, its effect on the very meaning of a given image. It suggests the importance of certain modes of sensory experience to a sense of well-being in contemporary lifestyles, and how easily such an apparently solid emotional foundation might be disrupted as the rot starts to seep it. The fat organism in question here isn't just the pop music or its attendant videos; the medium is no longer solely to blame. What has grown fat here is the modern life to which it serves as a soundtrack, a soundtrack that might so easily be stripped away.
(...) Dislocation provides a counterpoint to the silence of traditional photography. It illustrates the complexity of seeing, of observing the world and how connected this is to our other senses, particularly our abilty to hear. Philip Brophy is an artist, filmmaker, writer, curator and musician whose practice has long forcgrounded the importance of sound, or rather questioned the preeminence of vision within the fine arts and other media cultures. Evaporated Music 1 appropriates and reanimates six music videos made in the late eighties and early nineties, recently consigned to the pop-music vaults. With their original score removed, clips produced for Elton John, Phil Collins, Billy Joel, Celine Dion, Marish Carey and Gloria Estefan are re-scored by Brophy with "monstrously alien," Foley engineered studio sound and rasping vocals, sychronised to the movement of people and objects within the clip. This produces a complex kind of audio-visual dislocation where on one hand, the visual, as Sean Lowry writes, becomes "a platform on which one can really take notice of the soundtrack,"' and on the other, the sound causes a rupture of expectation that is so complete, it creates an opportunity to review thc film clips in an unencumbered way — in a way that is almost severed from any memory of the original song.
All but one visual narrative in Evaporated Music 1 is contrived around a singer's reminiscence of the past, of particular eras passing, or memories of fictive loved-ones, first loves and dead lovers. In Gloria Estefan's clip, however, sweat -covered dancers gyrate around flames until the film itself is shown to melt and burn in the heat, accompanied by an aural drowning of hissing metallic voices. Brophy does more than evaporate the music in these clips, he obliterates what he describes in his publication 100 Modern Soundtrucks (2005) as "the personal relationship one forms at the juncture of listening," of connection to sentiment and memory, the "emotional aura" of the songs.
It was around twenty years ago, at the humble Organ Factory venue in Melbourne, that Philip Brophy first exercised his hatred of Billy Joel in a work of art. Long before digital sampling made such a thing simple, Brophy took Joel's three minute pop hit "Still Rock'n'Roll To Me" and stretched it to an excruciating twenty minutes – looping it, slowing it down, chiselling away at every musical cliché and ideological message in it. Since that night, the song has never been the same for me.
The insufferable Joel is still high on Brophy's hit list, judging by a segment of the video project Evaporated Music. This time the target song is "We Didn't Start the Fire". Brophy takes the video clip for this track exactly as is, but strips away the music – replacing it with an assortment of ghostly sound effects, matched to the action and edited with razor-sharp precision. The result is truly uncanny, and infectiously hilarious: the now utterly discombobulated video is a surreal parade of strange posturings and disquieting juxtapositions worthy of David Lynch. And Joel has never looked so ridiculous as when he reaches the big rock-hero moment of overturning the table – his voice at this juncture treated to sound like a robotic Darth Vader.
This is the pattern for all six pieces in Evaporated Music. Its other Top 40 victims are Elton John, Celine Dion, Phil Collins, Gloria Estefan and Mariah Carey. One gasps at the audacity of Brophy's flagrant copyright infringement – something he also started doing back in the '80s, in striking videos and installations such as Ads and Club Video. By keeping the image and replacing the soundtrack whole, Brophy re-invents what the trigger-happy artists and philosophers of the Situationist movement pioneered in the 1950s and '60s: what they called détournement, "diverting" a cultural object from its original purpose by changing one element in it. The Situationists loved to change the dialogue balloons in comic strips and re-dub martial arts movies in order to make a pointed political critique. Brophy prefers to move beyond such didacticism and plunges us instead into a sensorial, sonic world of groans, flutters, explosions, rattles and hums. Everything ends up looking deathly, sinister, inhuman: Elton John croaks like a horror-movie apparition, a perverse figure indeed as young things flit around him; Phil Collins emotes unconvincingly in a vacuum, no longer able to imbue the rush of glossy images with any standard meaning or ersatz emotion. The music has evaporated, and all we are left with are the tawdry remains of pop myths. But deconstruction has never been so energetic, or so much fun.
"Evaporated Music" (at Neon Parc, Melbourne) presented all three installments of Melbournebased artist Philip Brophy's eponymous suite of videos, marking the first time these works have been shown together. The three chapters displayed in sequence in an immersive environment with a monitor opposing a couch, a rug, and five speakers — each address a different way in which music is represented on video. While the visuals of the appropriated clips are left completely intact, Brophy — since the late 1970s a committed deconstructionist of cultural texts — gives the accompanying audio a complete makeover. His process is meticulous, resulting in perfect synchronization between sound and the action onscreen. Of course, the new soundtrack estranges the familiar visual content of the videos — the basis of the work's humor. A dedicated analytic project underpins the trilogy, one that is continuous with Brophy's parallel career as an art, music, and film critic.
Evaporated Music 1 (2000-2004) targets pop videos from the late '80s and '90s, when the genre approached the production levels and heightened artifice of Hollywood cinema. It begins with Elton John' s song "Sacrifice" and its highly stylized, intensely dramatic narrative pivoting around a fractious relationship between a heterosexual couple and their small child. With the song's repetitive, ascending-to-nowhere melody removed, and its chorus of "cold, cold heart" and "sacrifice" now rasped out in a bodiless electronic voice, John appears to be summoning the dark lord rather than crooning relationship advice to the unhappy couple. Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," Phil Collins's "Father to Son," and Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" are then subjected to similar treatment.
Evaporated Music 2: At the Mouth of Metal (2006-2008) syncs visuals of cheesy bands performing on late-'80s and early-'90s family-friendly television shows to Brophy's own imitation of extreme metal music. His rescoring of a clip from Saved by the Bell, for instance, causes teenage heartthrob Zack to croak lyrics like "Woman — some tarmac whore!" to the enthusiastic high fives and hair flicks of bandmate Kelly. Both these sets of videos lampoon the moral panic that beset middle-class parents of the '80s in response to metal bands' use of backmasking to layer their songs with satanic messages that can only be heard when played in reverse. It is as if Brophy enacts a type of critical (or paranoid) listening that lets him hear through the music in its original form — as if his versions of the video clips merely amplify what is already latent in the sound.
Comprising footage of professional and amateur string quartets playing in venues ranging from large concert halls to wedding marquees, Evaporated Music 3: Classical Corpus Delicti (2015) sits at a conceptual tangent to the first two entries in the trilogy, taking aim at the conservatory and the concert hall instead of popular culture and its music. In these clips, Brophy simply silences the musicians' instruments. As if in a highly theatrical cover version of John Cage's 4'33" (1952), all that remains audible are the sounds of their breathing, the rustle of their suits, the jangle of the beads on their dresses, the taps of their shoes, and the echo of the room in which they play — all of which Brophy has reconstructed in an exaggerated manner. But rather than aiming to open listeners' ears and minds to a more holistic array of sounds, as Cage sought to do, Brophy uses silence as a weapon to denude classical music of its transcendent, celestial aspirations and to ground these performers in a base, human realm.
In 2005, Brophy wrote that despite purporting to be open to all sounds, Cage and his successors have been "alarmingly dismissive of the noise of postwar American mass culture." The "Evaporated Music" trilogy may be read as the artist's riposte to this Cagean milieu, with the audiovisual complexity of '80s and '90s video clips cited as evidence.