Terror Nullius

(Soda_Jerk, Australia, 2018)


I have long been a devoted fan of the artistic duo from Australia named Soda_Jerk (comprised of sisters Dominique & Danielle Angeloro), now based in New York; I’ve written warmly and at length about their work from their inception in 2002 up until 2016. But it’s time to probe deeper into the type of complex collage of found fragments that has sometimes led to Soda_Jerk’s œuvre being praised (or damned) as a simple “celebration of zany postmodern pop culture” (I paraphrase!). As these artists move more consciously into political art with the briefly controversial Terror Nullius (and, forthcoming, Hello Dankness), their much-vaunted remix tactics get into thornier and more difficult areas.


Although Soda_Jerk has several times made multi-part series, Terror Nullius is undoubtedly their most ambitious “whole” piece to date. With financial backing from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust (the august body that, ultimately, baulked at a public association with the work on the occasion of its premiere season at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image), they’ve aimed for a near-feature length epic. The digital stitching-up of so many samples is very impressive, and often rousing.


Unlike the digressive, associative daisy-chain of The Was (2016 – still my favourite piece of theirs), Terror Nullius is self-consciously constructed as a narrative in three parts – a “political revenge fable”, no less. (It would make an intriguing double-bill, on this level, with Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau [2019] – political revenge fables are really making a comeback these days!)


Part 1: Conflicts and confrontations on the outback plains and in the bush. Settler vs. indigenous culture, conservative vs. progressive, woman vs. man. There’s a war between the back and white, a war between the odd and the even … The Mad Max cycle looms large here (as discussed in Martyn Conterio’s derivative 2020 book on MM for the Constellations series), as does former Prime Minister John Howard. Nature, in particular, is rising up against an oppressive civilisation. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo will, at last, have his day!


Part 2: Rather more of the same, but this time concentrating on examples such as Crocodile Dundee (1986) – Paul Hogan is going to be eaten – intermingled with more flagrantly dystopian cases such as Wake in Fright (1971) and the Wolf Creek (2005 & 2013) franchise.


Part 3: Nature wreaks its ultimate payback, especially in the form of a horde of sheep. Dear me, I think I’ve seen a whole PhD-cum-book on that topic. It’s a joyful apocalypse, burning up the Old World behind it, and the Soda_Jerkers save some of their best, rousing montage-moments – including the maudlin, excruciatingly drawn-out tears of Anthony LaPaglia in Lantana (2001) – for the conflagration.


A strong sense I had while watching Terror Nullius is that everything makes perfect sense – and, at the same time, very little, truly coherent sense. Well, that’s an exaggeration, on my part, for effect. And so is Terror Nullius! It’s an all-in operation of merry re-customisation, obeying more the logic of the moment rather than the logic of the whole. The lightning-speed “attributions” of good and evil, radical and fascist, Old and New Australia, come and go, and flick around in a way that could very easily be entirely reversible. Is Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) a moment of progressive pop culture, or the dead opposite? Does most Aussie TV comedy play it safe, or send up the system rotten? Terror Nullius lets you, as a viewer, have it both ways, depending on the mood and the moment, as well as your own disposition.


Then again, this is not a Film History book. (At least, I hope not.) Remix artists (including the latest breed of audiovisual essayists, of which I am one) can repurpose their found footage for any end they please, any story they choose to tell – can’t they? (Norie Neumark, for example, rehearses this ode to remix freedom, via Mark Amerika’s gung-ho concept of “playgiarism”, in her breathlessly personal account of viewing Terror Nullius.) (1)


And, after all, a certain outrageousness – a spicey humour and provocation in the connections/associations made and the Big Picture thus conjured – is a huge part of the Soda_Jerk Effect. A fan cannot want it any other way. Nonetheless, I walked away feeling a little troubled, not by the general drift, by the specific analytical tactics of Terror Nullius. Let me formulate those doubts here.


Amidst a press, online and academic reception that has mostly been wildly adulatory, I am aware, so far, of only two genuine critiques of Terror Nullius, one by artist-writer David Cox (formerly from Australia, now based in San Francisco), and the other by art historian Tara Heffernan. (2) Both raise important points.


Cox questions the extent of radicality in the mixing and montage techniques employed by Soda_Jerk. His comparison point is the audiovisual collages of his comrade Craig Baldwin in USA. I get much more varied enjoyment and stimulation from any Soda_Jerk piece than from all of Baldwin’s work, but the comparative reference serves to reveal something important in this context. When Baldwin raids all manner of 1950s material (educational films, SF fiction, etc.) for Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992), he’s working from a relatively coherent and homogenous set of stuff: yes, all the samples all do blend into the manifestation and expression of widespread, symbolic paranoia about every kind of sinister Other. It’s not just my distance in time and space from 1950s USA that allows me to say that; it’s actually true. We could, likewise, say the same of the material plundered in many of Ken Jacobs’ greatest appropriative works, such as Star Spangled to Death (2004).


But does Terror Nullius lay out or draw upon a similarly homogenous set? Walkabout (1971) plus Skippy plus Mad Max plus Lucky Miles (2007) plus Kath and Kim plus Muriel’s Wedding (1994) plus Wolf Creek plus the nightly TV news plus 100 other things does not make for such a set – and it’s not only my closeness in time and space to this culture that allows me to say that. They’re just aren’t all the same thing, or cut from the same cloth.


Heffernan wonders, along this line, whether the political-cultural complexity of certain examples mulched-in (such as Michael Powell’s Age of Consent [1969]) are being opportunistically obscured and unduly “rewritten”. To put this another way (my way): many things in Terror Nullius are rendered more mainstream, more ideologically suspect (or vacuous) than they actually are, or originally were. So it is not the encyclopedic opus to turn to if you want any sense of the fine differences, distinctions and subcultures in Australian cinema (and cinephilia) – that encyclopedia, alas, does not exist, and probably never will.


I do think (alongside Heffernan) that there is a tendency in Terror Nullius to re-cast almost everything used as somehow iconic of old-fashioned, mainstream-middlebrow Aussie conservatism – or at least redolent of an “innocence” that can be cagily recoded (eg., Mad Max movies provide the generic template for a now newly “progressive” revenge fiction).


In particular, I find that the evident project of Terror Nullius is muddied by the use of works (particularly from TV) that are already parodies of Australian stereotypes – rather than their ideological embodiment! Or, if these parodies are also ideological (they could hardly avoid being so), it’s not exactly on the same level as the Cronulla race riots or a David Williamson play.


We could, in fact, generate many such examples of this mainstreaming process from Terror Nullius; here’s mine. The use of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, as Cox also notes, is striking in this regard: one would not really be able form a clear idea, solely from the way bits and pieces of it are reprocessed in Terror Nullius, of how pitiless a vision Roeg’s film holds toward a cracked-open, psychotic, literally self-immolating white civilisation. Is it a romance about sweet, naïve little kids wandering in the outback? It is not.


This recasting-remixing process, in a perhaps unintended by-product, also means that there’s a lot which must be pretty actively excluded from Terror Nullius, since it would be, from the get-go, just too obviously oppositional to the mainstream, and hence counter-productive to the argument proposed by the merry montage. That includes everything from Ross Gibson’s Camera Natura (1985 – itself largely a work of appropriation) or the strange post-Mad Max film Resistance (1992, directed by Paul Elliott & Hugh Keays-Byrne), to the 1994 horror-comedy Body Melt (whose maker, Philip Brophy – himself a remix artist of sorts! – is among the project’s credited consultants). Odd little bits of independent filmmaking in Australia – such as Helen Grace’s influential short Serious Undertakings (1983) – whizz by without their cultural specificity noted, or at all evident, to cognoscenti or anybody else! On this level, Terror Nullius strikes an odd (and doubtless unintended) resonance with an even more culturally flattened-out project: the slick doco-compilation Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008).


All this poses, in turn, a general question to a great deal of appropriation art since (at least) the rampantly postmodern 1980s (a tradition, especially in Australia, from which Soda_Jerk draws no small amount of inspiration, and even some tutelage), all the way to today’s audiovisual essays via the type of 1990s remix culture celebrated by Darren Tofts and many others. (3) Caitlin Lynch (see addendum below) phrases this well when she sympathetically states in relation to Terror Nullius: “Archival remix filmmaking’s reliance on audiences’ prior knowledge of samples can limit its potential. For audiences unfamiliar with the texts Terror Nullius samples and contexts it references, many of the film’s arguments are inaccessible”. One can rephrase that more colloquially and hence more strongly (as audience members of this work are sometimes heard to do in reality): remix preaches to the converted, and even flatters its target audience of cognoscenti, while duly excluding and alienating all those without the specific cultural capital to “get” the references (and thereby the joke, or the critique).


At the same time, Terror Nullius depends on a fuzzy, vague kind of familiarity – an easy (even facile) assumption that all this stuff quoted really is of the same mind-set, the same ideology, the same general/mainstream culture.  When it’s blended into a blancmange like that, it’s easier to laugh at, easier to distance oneself from. It’s the same kind of cozy superiority that a great deal of production in the art world (such as plenty of performance art) trades on when it deigns to treat “pop culture” icons, formulae and stereotypes.


Now, to be fair, I am certain that Soda_Jerk would object that their aim is not to show Australian culture as homogenous, but indeed riven with struggle and contradiction, torn right down the middle – that’s the war they exactly seek to evoke with their revenge fable. However, as I’ve already suggested, the assignations of right, left, and everything else remain rather devil-may-care.


Lynch also relates Terror Nullius to a particular methodological context: the writing of history. Following on from the famous provocations of Hayden White in this field, she frames Terror Nullius productively as a network of overlapping, complex and contextual relationships and events. That is so: Soda_Jerk’s art always takes place within a range of cultural associations and histories, and this whirlpool never respects any strict, linear chronology. In a sense, this audiovisual and pop-saturated art goes further than much White-style “experimental history” in written form: Terror Nullius goes in, all guns blazing, with the assumption that (for instance) when we see the first three Mad Max movies today, we cannot help but process them through everything we know about the despicable, off-screen Mel Gibson.


Soda_Jerk tends to defend its own practice as being situated amidst the general, endless, back-and-forth confusion of “texts” (of every kind) in mass culture – things are always being recoded, re-associated with similar or opposite things. True enough; but it’s possible that, in general, remix artists could be more rigorous in their reflection on these matters. Or then again, maybe it’s quite enough already just to manage to make the art well. Let’s leave it to subsequent commentators to score the ideological points.


Addendum: My engagement with Terror Nullius was especially triggered by encountering Caitlin Lynch’s audiovisual essay Terror Nullius Unmixed (2020) in [in]Transition journal (Vol. 7 No. 3) online, for which I was asked to respond publicly as academic peer reviewer. She selects a prime fragment from Terror Nullius and deftly identifies, in an engaging audiovisual dispositif, its range of citations. This is especially useful given that, as often in Soda_Jerk’s art, it is not whole, instantly recognisable clips or even entire, full-framed images that are filched and collaged: rather, it is a composite arrangement involving a human figure from here, a vehicle from there, an inscription on a sign from somewhere else … So, it was a salutary shock to discover the source of certain TV fragments, or a body from Granaz Moussavi’s independent film My Tehran For Sale (2009). My review here is expanded from the thoughts initially offered (and published in revised form in [in]Transition) in response to Lynch’s contribution, and the issues it raised for me. So, I thank Caitlin for her generative work.




1. Norie Neumark, “Where Am I? The Terror of Terra Nullius”, in F. Collins, J. Landman & S. Bye (eds), A Companion to Australian Cinema (Wiley Blackwell, 2019), pp. 525-536. back


2. David Cox, “Skippy and the Kuleshov Effect: Soda_Jerk’s Terror Nullius – Fast Paced Jams Jerks, but What’s to be Done?”, Pure Shit: Australia Cinema, 16 September 2018; Tara Heffernan, Terror Nullius by Soda_Jerk”, Third Text Online, 3 December 2019. back


3. Darren Tofts, “Clone This DVD!”, LOLA, no. 4 (September 2013). back

© Adrian Martin 27 & 28 December 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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