Everything Happens So Much: Soda Jerk and the Age of Appropriation

The Australian duo's latest work, "Hello Dankness," cements them as pirate aficionados in the grand tradition of copying.
Lauren Carroll Harris

Hello Dankness (Soda Jerk, 2022).

First the chaos of Trump’s little era, then the grief of the pandemic, and now cinema is becoming indistinguishable from the internet. The newest work from Australian duo Soda Jerk devises an ultra-endurance meme sequence for these times. Hello Dankness, which screened at this year’s Berlinale Panorama, explores the madness of US politics in the age of social media—or, rather, the reeling feeling of it, revisiting the major news stories bridging the Trump and Biden administrations through over 550 pirated audio and visual clippings.

Currently based in New York, Soda Jerk consists of siblings Dominique and Dan Angeloro; they are major artists in their home country, with serious institutional support and a burgeoning international reputation for experimental image-making from the frontlines of dystopia. The early incandescence of gallery works like After the Rainbow (2009)—a deeply affective reflection on stardom, loss of self and Judy Garland’s decline—has given way to longer montages which anarchically cross the threshold from art space to movie theater. In response to everything from their collaboration with fellow cut-n’-pasters The Avalanches (The Was, 2016) to their anti-copyright manifesto Hollywood Burn (2006), the arts press has only seemed capable of framing Soda Jerk through hyperbole (as if the pair’s beginnings in Sydney’s squatting and zine scene renders them admirably devious, daring little pirates who download audiovisual matter without permission, tear it to pieces, and construct new art from the detritus). In 2018, Soda Jerk vanquished a small-minded antipodean media uproar, after a commissioning body repudiated their supposedly “un-Australian” work Terror Nullius, which used pirated films and TV to critique the malfeasances of Australian nationhood. Since then, the pair has become notorious for a form of firebrand, amorphous leftist art made from ill-obtained parts, and for being spiky agents of chaos in perpetual media motion.

Originally a joint commission between the Adelaide Film Festival and Samstag Museum of Art (there’s that art-film crossroads again), Hello Dankness arrives in the wake of that maelstrom and is reflective of a strangely familiar viewing experience: that of the unbordered, pluralistic mash-up, drawing on multifarious clips from the past to provide a new story for us to follow.  Made with Soda Jerk’s ongoing UK-based collaborator Sam Smith, the 68-minute work shows recontextualized movie characters—glimpses of Bruce Dern as a Republican and Napoleon Dynamite as, well, himself—reacting to the increasingly hallucinatory vibe of life under despotic, Trumpian rule in an archetypical suburban America. Annette Bening’s real-estate agent in American Beauty—the perfect proto-Karen, in retrospect—is now a girlboss Hillary supporter. The voice of Alex Jones torments the pristine cul-de-sacs with alt-right conspiracies. Tropes from digital culture, like robotic text-to-speech narration, blur with the surreal intrusions of Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” taunts, while Hillary’s email scandal haunts The Burbs-era Tom Hanks, who’s now an affable Bernie guy. The mood descends into an apocalyptic, paranoid stoner nightmare (calling on Pineapple Express) and ends on an elegiac, touching note for those lost to Covid and maybe for America itself. Hello Dankness feels as though it is made from within the artists’ unprocessed experience as expat-outsiders living through the Trump presidency, and they describe it as an enunciation of the idea that the internet has restructured our sense of political reality. There’s a lot baked into this promising, paradoxical proposition: a hallucinatory stoner assemblage about the loss of coherence in modern politics, designed to make audiences feel as though they’re taking political action by simply watching art that aims to think at the level of systems.

Terror Nulllius (Soda Jerk, 2018).

Soda Jerk explicitly positions their art as public property, making much of it available through Vimeo. Of course: despite what IP rights holders may claim, throughout both film and art history, it's traditional to copy. It’s called appropriation—taking other people’s materials without alteration, the dismantling of originality via deliberate borrowing and repositioning, in an ever-shifting, copycat symphony of transforming meaning. The creative tactic has been deployed by Picasso and Georges Braque, all the titan artists of the 20th century, and essentially everyone from the 1980s onwards since digital technology has enabled it. Nam June Paik ripped The Beatles. Barbara Kruger traffics in other people’s visual quotations. Tracey Moffat’s moving images reanimate the tropey cliches of cinema. In pop music, Beyoncé interpolates Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” and in art, Soda Jerk rotoscopes and composites images from cinema history, YouTube, and broadcast news. Within the remix genre, Hello Dankness emerges as a typically chaotic missive wrought from the ruins of Western malaise: the tattered rags of cinema, a mass, commercial artform that’s currently withering in Marvelization. Appropriation wasn't always seen as legitimate, but it didn't take long to depart from the 1980s' critical slurs of Xerox art; critic Adrian Martin referred to it as an “all-pervasive practice” as early as 1994, in his contribution to the scholarly essay collection What Is Appropriation? If anything, Soda Jerk are righteous inheritors of the filmic avant-garde, via valid, established artistic methods of bootlegging and scavenging. Ingenuity is in the rearrangement of what already exists.

All artists make work in a lineage. If Soda Jerk are the natural heir to the avant-garde appropriators, they also have peers in the mashup genre who are masterful audiovisual manipulators of political affect. Recently, Lewis Klahr, an expert cut-out montagist with a strong antenna for the public mood, turned his attention to the ambient anxiety of the Trump era. It’s no easy feat to apprehend the political feeling of the moment, but Klahr’s animated collage Circumstantial Pleasures (2019) did just that, tearing images from news and comics to make absurd, gritty sequences that pulsed with tetchiness. The uncanny psychic energy emanating from Klahr’s hand-cut aesthetic is undeniable, as the imperfections in his stop-motion work allow the work to vibrate with stress—it’s all mood over story. Ironically drawing on postwar aesthetics that recall the era of US ascendancy, Circumstantial Pleasures remains an under-appreciated cultural memento of American decline. 

Self-dubbed emotional journalist Adam Curtis is another lo-fi maker. Over four decades and 25 works, he has pulled news material from the BBC’s archive to construct highly evocative, YouTube-disseminated political fables, the most recent being TraumaZone (2022). Literary critics tend to hate this—Curtis’s rhetoric-steeped arguments are almost entirely unverifiable, despite their nonfiction tag—and film critics tend to love him, given his status as a skillful manipulator of sound and image, mood and story. His point is that the news, which is apparently factual, can be remastered towards new meanings.

So: Soda Jerk aren’t disorderly, underhanded elves, they’re working within an established orthodoxy of artists who pillage—almost always without asking—and render via increasingly seamless, anti-janky digital techniques, which are arguably now at risk of undermining their work’s handmade grit and charm. The question is: how successful are Soda Jerk’s appropriation efforts?

Hello Dankness (Soda Jerk, 2022).

It’s debatable whether Hello Dankness fully enlivens its aim of investigating the collapse of what the artists call “consensus reality” in their press notes (“RIP REALITY,” blares a tile on their Instagram grid). Though it may feel as though the political world is growing more inexplicable, none of this is new: there’s a long history of serious intellectual treatment of the subject of falsification. It’s hard to go past the canonical case of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, responding to an era in which national administrations of various kinds—Nazi Germany, the USSR, for example—flagrantly rewrote history. The story is relayed entirely through its protagonist Winston’s paranoia and fantasies—at first, he wonders if he’s the only one in the world to feel deeply and mysteriously dissatisfied—and, therefore, depicts how it feels to live in a time of studied unrealness. Orwell’s story was not a prophecy but a deathbed novel written in a rage that historiography was no longer an impartial, trustworthy process, and that language could be melted to accommodate any desired political outcome. These fears regarding the vanishing objectivity in history’s recording find their apex in the idea that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals five,” a falsehood to which Winston succumbs.

The slipperiness of this proposition should echo inside the world of Hello Dankness. Should we respect the truth of the equation “two plus two equals four” or respect the right to debate a dishonest solution? Though Orwell didn’t foresee the privatization of surveillance technology via platforms like Google and Facebook (which also function as news empires), in his earlier vision of a post-truth world rife with alternative facts, he showed that he was a dedicated empiricist who believed that material truth could be gleaned from what we can see and measure and touch. Long before the timeframe of Hello Dankness, Orwell offered the clear-sighted idea that maybe, just maybe, it’s right for us to feel weird and wounded at this and many other junctures in history.

The problem with diagnosing the world’s ills as a departure from consensus reality—or what Soda Jerk has previously called “these WTF times”—is that it escapes the possibility of reckoning with history. Today, Orwell’s worries about truth, reality, and the media’s warping powers still resonate, but they are largely discussed in hyperbolic, ahistorical terms. Did we first depart from consensus reality with the emergence of Trump’s pee tape, Pizzagate, and Russiagate, as Hello Dankness contends? What about when Bush unfurled his “mission accomplished” banner? Or when Donald Rumsfeld made his obfuscating “known unknowns” quip? When the USSR’s Department of Restricted Books banned Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love? When Senator Joseph McCarthy said that the US State Department was “infested with communists” in 1950? Or when Mao Zedong set the whole of China to trudge in lockstep to the same time zone? Which of these absurdities didn’t feel crazed, crackpot, demagogic, and a little fake?

Many declinist commentators more astute than me have detailed the ways that Trump, for example, played Berlusconi’s playbook to a tee, and strategically benefited the elites by systematically lowering taxes and slashing environmental regulations. Instead, Hello Dankness joins the liberal consensus in positing Trump as a departure from the norms of the flailing US gerontocracy as it stoops toward middle power status. The suburbs where Soda Jerk stage their loose narrative—deadened streets, gas stations, house parties—are ripe sites for satire where filmmakers have long explored ideas about conformity and the alienated outsiders who lurk within. But the work’s vision of Confederate-loving, slack-jawed yokels falling into zombie lockstep with Trump doesn’t quite gel with the fact that plenty of well-heeled executives and small business owners loved the big business president (Gordon Gekko and Don Draper are conspicuously missing in action from Hello Dankness). 

Hello Dankness (Soda Jerk, 2022).

Stylistically, we hardly need more proof that TikTok’s ugly-on-purpose aesthetics have permeated visual culture—Internet Ugly is ubiquitous in freehand mouse illustrations, pixelated photos, and stick-figure drawings. Hello Dankness lets loose more viral fragments onto the festival circuit: unpolished MS Paint drawings, Trump as Garfielf (the Garfield parody that scoops up nearly every internationally sloppy trope of internet ugliness), deliberately messy typefaces and poor spelling—all harnessed in service of a mood of absurdity (importing Harambe the gorilla can really date an artwork). It’s already commonplace to denounce social media as a source of polarization and autocracy, mental illness and misinformation. Who doesn’t think that the online world is run by new election-meddling beneficiaries that want little more than the right of billionaires to take weekend vacations on Mars? But as artist-filmmakers begin to incorporate the collectively rendered forms of content creators, the actual meaning of memes’ migration to cinema is harder to parse. Is it a meaningful reclamation of image creation from the forces of the alt-right and communal insanity? Or merely an unremarkable and inevitable reflection of the way that digital forms are pervading other disciplines, like cinema?

In the Trump era, memes like Pepe the Frog—name dropped in Hello Dankness—became central to the political discourse; as objects of collective authorship, memes’ meaning can be revised over time, resulting in a pulpy vagueness. Likewise, in Hello Dankness, the sequences flow like an unfiltered Instagram dump or series of reaction posts. It’s fun to see Putin goofily remade as the Phantom of the Opera and the Wayne’s World guys being obviously visually manipulated as alt-right doofuses. It makes for an ambiguously satirical take on contemporary life bereft of counter-cultural optimism, rather than something truly transportive that transcends mobile media, like the joyous radicalism of Annika Berg’s punk feminist film Team Hurricane (2016). That film’s neon green subtitles and rhapsodic rose gifs feel genuinely metatextual—a magnifying glass into its pissed off, loudmouthed teen girls’ lives. Desktop and screenlife films do it naturally, as with Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile (2018), which marries digital forms to digital subject matter (European women defecting to ISIS over social media). And every now and then, mainstream cinema nods at the trend—Lydia Tár’s slide into hashtag fodder via viral Twitter video; The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) cutting directly to the original YouTube that spawned a billion screaming gibbon memes. 

You can’t kill meme culture or demarcate it, but you can twist memes into interrogative devices. The films of Eugene Kotlyarenko—who’s living the grand millennial dream of making stuff with Red Scare podcast host Dasha Nekrasova (a living pro-Bernie meme who is also clipped in Hello Dankness), and mentioning Žižek in Interview magazine—go some way to disproving philosopher Justin EH Smith’s temptingly gloomy but perhaps conservative idea that the internet “is destroying everything.” Wobble Palace (2018) tampers inventively with digital formats by meaningfully integrating them into the flow of the story (via a split screen, the film’s #betamale lead becomes a living fuckboi meme on Tumblr the week before Trump’s election). As in Kotlyarenko’s Spree (2020), these techniques don’t just give an ironic, lowbrow flavor to the aesthetic. What more fitting way to show the generational misery of accidental narcissists than a frenzied iPhone-style zoom-in? That kind of purposeful and insightful, witty and poignant appropriation is rare: I’m skeptical at this stage whether a cinema that looks more and more like 4chan is an innovation or a derivation. 

Wobble Palace (Eugene Kotlyarenko, 2018).

More than anything else, Hello Dankness continues the Soda Jerk method of gamifying the filmgoing experience—guess the movie, spot the reference—and confirming the duo as canny zeitgeist capturers of a certain doom mood. Rather than articulating a tight satire or argument, Hello Dankness instead taps the unconscious of the masses with an open-ended, breathless everything-happens-so-much! energy, remaining true to a world of political contradictions. Its pilfering and plundering may find a final, curious precedent with Todd Haynes’s early experimental film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987): a Barbie-enacted interpretation of the pop singer’s death by anorexia as hostile music executives looked on, defiantly soundtracked by unlicensed Carpenters songs. Superstar was withdrawn from exhibition in 1990 and can only be excavated on unsanctioned streamers and torrent trackers. “My orientation was that of guerilla filmmaking, where music rights were historically ignored, never assuming a film would have a commercial life of any sort,” Haynes said in 2019. He was speaking to the way that the politics of sample culture overlap naturally with radical practice, form and critique.

Today, “hell-site” forms are the new source of appropriation, but their inclusion in cinematic grammar isn’t automatically radical. Though memes appear to support the idea of a participatory culture, they are also the lingua franca of all the platforms that are working hard to capture and control data, and their style is regularly co-opted by brands and political interests. It’s hard to haul a Reddit vibe without capitulating to its exhausting logic, but Hello Dankness seeks to summarize the Trump years in this format. In one purposeful and pointed sequence, however, youths from teen movies—and George Michael from Arrested Development doing his famous Sad Walk, a meme that feels present for the right reasons in its wedding of form with theme—mourn a future in which Bernie Sanders could have reinvigorated politics, while oldies opt for the safety of Biden. 

This type of message-board-inflected cultural production speaks to the fact that politics, collectively generated images, and stressed group thoughts are hazily blurring together on every screen available, cinema included. Messy and social, memes are ultimately mass inside jokes—which, for better or worse, describes precisely the feeling of watching Hello Dankness and the way it catches the noxious ambience of the present.

The Arrested Development (2003-19) "Sad Walk."

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