How's tricks?

Jane Goodall at Sydney Intermedia Network’s Matinaze

Barbara Campbell in Zero Hour

Barbara Campbell in Zero Hour

Barbara Campbell in Zero Hour

The morning after. After the election. After the Mardi Gras. The news is hang-over stuff. We’re all a bit stupefied, sitting there in the half dark in the Domain Theatre of the Art Gallery of NSW. A constituency, for sure, but of what? The Labor party, having reinvented itself as the Liberal party has lost out to the Liberal party masquerading as the Labor party reinvented as the Liberal party. It’s a day for getting caught in ambiguities: for mixed signals, mediated voices, spluttering, and a kind of deadpan processed gaiety.

On a platform in the auditorium Stevie Wishart lightly torments a violin to get out of it a set of choked bow strokes, spasms and squeals; Amanda Stewart, whose instrument is a mouth, creates accompanying emissions in the form of pops and prolonged limpet kisses. Result is a noise like a radio dial moving across a short wave band, occasionally finding a snatch of voice or music. Barbara Campbell comes in as the voice of Tokyo Rose, presenter of Zero Hour on Radio Tokyo as broadcast on August 14, 1944 to audiences of assembled GIs in military bases all over the Pacific. Campbell’s transcript of the complete original program comes up on screen, marking the time intermittently in minutes and seconds.

“Hello you fighting orphans of the Pacific! How’s tricks?”

The ambiguities are multi-layered and hard to read: ‘Tokyo Rose’ was a generic name given by the troops to all the female announcers on Radio Tokyo and this particular Rose was Iva Toguri, a nisei (Japanese-American) whose dual nationality led to her getting stranded in Tokyo without a valid passport. From here she found her way into a situation of deeper ambiguity: she was picked to be trained as a radio announcer by Major Charles Cousins, a POW with radio experience who was forced to help in the making of propaganda programs on behalf of the Chinese and who proposed to subvert the propaganda effect through an obviously sardonic tone in the announcer’s voice. Toguri had just the raw voice he wanted. She was coached to read his scripts word by word, with every pause and inflection chosen to disrupt the sense that this was a voice which meant what it said. The ambiguity was lost on the American court which tried her for treason in 1948 and found her guilty.

Were the GIs who heard the original programs more discerning than the American jury who convicted her? And how does a present day audience ‘read’ this voice, further mediated by Barbara Campbell? Announcements of soupy songs and general C’mon boys patter are interspersed with news extracts. Some are about Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek. Some are about John Howard and Kim Beazley. Amanda Stewart reads the latter verbatim, unedited, from a bulletin that went to air half an hour before the performance. Campbell says the idea is to evoke in present day audiences some of the discomfort of Tokyo Rose’s original listeners, hanging out for the latest bulletin on the state of the war. It’s accident not design, apparently, that the performances have coincided with an election weekend, and that the twenty four hours between the first and the second performance are right at the high end of the nerve spectrum. People tell me that the mood of the audience in the first performance was in stark contrast to that in the second.

I’m increasingly fascinated by what makes an artist choose something to focus on. Why this episode, this individual voice and its embroiled little history, from amidst the vast array of recorded chattering from the past half century? Campbell has a flair for re-presenting a figure and a history with an intensity of focus that burns into your brain. Selection is so much more direct a challenge than assemblage, which is what happens on the internet. The net is about options, not choices. Nothing is ever selected out; it’s the library of Babel in the making.

The websites featured in Matinaze are called galleries, museums, magazines, systems: they’re places of accumulation, and the net artist is always a curator, if not of other people’s work, then of his or her own. Urban Exile offers the most visually ambitious work in its Temple of the Third Millennium Exhibition, which reflects a tendency to the Gothic and mediaevalism in internet art. Why? Perhaps there’s something about the web page that evokes the illuminated manuscript, and realises the fantasy implicit in books of hours, that you could just fall into the scenes framed on the page and move through them. This is the exhibition technique used by Urban Exile, with each image allowing you to pass through to a selection of others. According to the curatorial statement, “the new age is non-linear, a matrix of infinite combinations and permutations”. System X offer simpler, more targeted projects. It’s a sampler for the work of a wide range of artists, some specialists in electronic media and some not. You can call up images of recent installations by Derek Kreckler, a VNS Matrix anthology, a whole directory of the work of Clan Analogue (and much more). Geekgirl is a rich mix and also offers some great directory services, though I’m a bit resistant to the cultishness they’re so desperately trying to stir up. Try Click for an alternative. The two individual artists featured—Lloyd Sharp and Dennis Wilcox—presented, respectively, fluids and machines. A touch of the obsessive in both, I thought.

The curators’ panel for the film and video program selected 22 pieces from 80 submissions. The selection keyword has changed, apparently, from ‘experimental’ to ‘innovative’, with the implication that film and video artists now can be expected to have absorbed a wide range of experiment by their predecessors and be ready to move into less reactive, more purposeful explorations. Attitude and punchline-oriented work are on the out, it seems, and the quality of commitment to the subject matter is what distinguishes the best work. White (Francesca da Rimini and Josephine Starrs) offers a stark and restrained portrayal of clinical confinement: there are allusions to surgery, to mental illness, with the first person experience recounted in Spanish and translated through two other voices. An anthology of whites—snow, nurses’ shoes, bandaged limbs, a white dress, sheets, toilet bowls and sinks—intercuts images of an angular body with a heavily textured scar down the line of the shoulder blade. Alyson Bell’s work, too, concentrates on a subject for whom images and words diversify and chain themselves without ever moving towards coherence. Here I Sit presents dispersed words travelling across the screen over collaged images whilst the voiceover tries to explain the schizophrenic experience. Bell’s Lexicon, made in collaboration with Chris Newling, is a more contained exercise, based on the simple concept of words chaining associatively across the screen cueing a string of interpretive images. The collage approach quickly leads to overload for the viewer in an anthology program like this (by half way through it was in danger of coming across as just one goddam collage after another) and there’s more impact in pieces that offer continuous footage of a well-chosen subject. Chain of Holes (Alice Kerrison) is a cameo documentary of a country rodeo with the riders of the bucking broncos also offering voiceover accounts of failing crops and bankruptcies. Very memorable. A fly buzzes as the credits roll.

Thanks to Sarah Waterson and Barbara Campbell for discussion and information.

Matinaze, Domain Theatre, Art Gallery of New South Wales, March 2, 3 and 9

RealTime issue #12 April-May 1996 pg. 24

© Jane Goodall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1996