Back in 2011 Gerald Keaney published a critical account of the group Aktion Surreal. Aktion Surreal (hereafter AS) was formed in late 1991 by myself and Gerald. Early the following year we launched the group on an unsuspecting world (ok, the ANU in Canberra) and were pleasantly surprised to find that many others were keen to join our experiment. I think around 25 or 30 people came along to the first meeting in January, 1992, in the ANU Uni bar (now, unfortunately, reduced to so much rubble and dust). Our initial inspiration was a sort of mash up of Punk DIY and 1920s Parisian Dada and Surrealism. On this basis we wanted to see whether we could attract other wretched souls to participate in what we then understood as “avant-garde” or “experimental” art. Considering that I expected about 5 people at most (including me and Gerry) at the first meeting, I was pretty stoked with the actual turn up. The group quickly took on a life of its own, AS transmogrifying from Action to Aktion for reasons that still remain obscure to me. Indeed, the vision that Gerry and I had for the group, complete with a dash of the para-Trotskyist politics we both then subscribed to, was rapidly reduced to one of the three main factions of the group: the Body Performers/Postmodernists; the Pagans; and the Trot-Surrealists.
My feelings about AS remain mixed. I am glad that I participated in it, but I am left with a sense that what we did fell short of what we could have done. And, as is often the case with such unwieldy projects, the competing visions and practices soon led to the disintegration of the commonality. Additionally, I find that the political vision I had at the time was much too naive and unreflective, both in terms of orthodox Marxism and the desire to replicate the dreams of Surrealist automatism. Indeed the ambiguous results of AS soon led me out of Trotskyism and “orthodox” Surrealism, toward a more extreme perspective, under the influence of my readings of Guy Debord and other Situationists.
I have written a few thoughts on Aktion Surreal here (in a leaflet put out during You Are Here in Canberra in 2014), here and here. What I really need to do is sit down like Gerry and hash out a longer, more considered account of AS and my experiences of Canberra in the 1990s. Despite what you may have heard about this little burg, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” For me, what was wonderful about the Canberra I found in the early 1990s, armed with my evanescent youth and a head full of thoughts, was the sense that almost anything was possible as long as you just tried. I have a sense that this is no longer possible, simply because the city and its then barely noticed underbelly has become completely invested with the logic of the commodity under the assaults of gentrification and trendy “hipsterisation”.
Alongside of Keaney’s pioneering account of AS, we need more such attempts. By no means is Keaney the “historian” of the group. For one, his account is (rightly) partisan, as his perspective is one of being an Aktion Surrealist. It is from this engaged perspective that his account draws both its strengths and weaknesses. However, where it is weak is where it necessarily must be, which is to say restricted to the limits that any one person must face when trying to record and understand an enterprise that was always, even if fitfully, a collective endeavour. And so, as you will discover, this “weakness” is in truth a strength, one of many that you’ll find in this account of the strange times and magnificent daze of Aktion Surreal…
[Note, the following article originally appeared in 2011 on a defunct blog. This version is taken from Gerald Keaney’s current web archive. A PDF of this article is available here.]
Aktion Surreal: a critical overview
by Gerald Keaney
2. The body performers and criticisms of them
3. Influences, other performances and publications.
4. Demise of the group
Explorers and castaways alike
Put their maps into the ground
and cried ‘We found
some new ideas to chase around.’
(Crime and the City solution)
Aktion Surreal (November 1991- some time in mid 1994) was a group of performers, theorists, writers and others based in Canberra. The point was never for the members to be specialised in creativity; rather the group rode on what we might call “second wave DIY.” The newfound availability of photocopier and desktop publishing made what it did possible by making it accessible to all comers. Here I am going to portray the Aktion Surrealists as a reaction to the conservatism of the late 1980s, especially what I will term “Triumphalism” and “The Backlash.” I will argue against understanding them along the lines of the post-modernism popular at the time, and of interest to some members of the group. Instead I will concentrate on the merits and otherwise of other animating ideas and approaches.
This page is a broad overview that will be fleshed out in more detail in my Aktion Surreal a critica History in bits project. As I do this, links will be added and eventually separate pages will replace less detailed sections here. So far I have only done this for the origins of Aktion Surreal.
For a detailed account of the origins of Aktion Surreal, including thoughts on how the conditions that produced Aktion Surreal have in some ways changed, go here.
Academics and the institutionalised left can also ignore smaller positive developments, despite lip-service to the contrary. A fact that deserves more attention is that in the earlier 1990s the Backlash was arguably in part curtailed by DIY practicioners. Many of the later 1980s attitudes Susan Faludi documents in her book The Backlash soon no longer had pride of place in movies and sitcoms. Grass roots/DIY cultural activists like Aktion Surreal may have nowhere near the huge audience of mainstream media, but they are both more personal and more innovative. So they are quite able to make points resonating with those uncomfortable with the official corporate line. In fact by having influence in and of themselves these DIY activities permitted developments that did have mass audience. Feminist grunge rock is an example, retaining a mass market for a good 10 years and so into the earlier 2000s. The subset of Aktion Surreal most relevant here were mainly women. I will term them “The Body Performers.”
2. The Body Performers and criticisms of them.
I woke up under Renior
…It’s a roman orgy
…and Jesus wouldn’t like it
(Canberra band The Club of Rome. Their single “Germany/Jesus wouldn’t like it” was for many years on the ANU Bar Jukebox).
Awombda, (Amanda Cod) Sophie Bord, Nadie (surname to be inserted) Sarah Schnell, Emma Robertson and others were members of an explicitly pro-feminist cohort that soon gave Aktion Surreal its most infamous flavour. These people were introduced to Aktion Surreal via the higher profile Splinters Theatre Company, crucial to the Canberra underground of the time. Aktion Surreal came to represent a more theoretical alternative to Splinters Theatre Company, a kind of sister organisation. These “Body Performers” were interested in Post-modernist ideas, and concentrated on performance involving direct intervention on the human body. They were influenced by artists such as Karen Finley and Cindy Sherman. They also orchestrated group sex experiments. Related was Aktion Surreal founding member tiM McCann’s interest in post-modern activism and fellow Aktion Surreal founder Neil Freeman’s interest in the Vienna Aktionists. The latter had changed the spelling of the group name from “Action Surreal” on the first zine to “Aktion Surreal” (from here on it will be referred to as “AS”) from the second issue on.
At one point early on in AS, The Body Performers began a disturbing theatrical banquet at the ANU Art School with a chant of “Donna Martin graduates.” This was a reference to a Backlash TV show. More usually their performances were gore fests. Later I saw a nipple chopped off in a nightclub. There was plenty of blood, public injection of salt water/possibly other drugs, body piercings and other fun-time assaults on the sensibilities of the Canberra public of the time. By explicitly articulating The Backlash, The Body Performers shamed ideas that passed without comment in popular media. Beneath the lipstick smiles, pastels and florals of Backlash mass media was violence and virulent misogyny. Body performance rammed the point home. Much like, on a porno celebrating forcible masculinity, an oversized cock is rammed into a shaved pussy for the titillation of baby-kissing politicians and other church-goers. One further idea was that this hidden violence could even be used for pleasure, itself domineered by being expressed. For instance, Awombda would have others rub salt into her wounds after being whipped and cut.
How effective were The Body Performers as a DIY/grass roots reaction to the Backlash? There were a number of ways the body performance were criticised. 1) Artist Ex de Medici (check here), involved in AS, observed that The Body Performers ignored issues relating to blood diseases, notably hepatitis. (Hep C is now recognised as widesread amoung intravenous drug users). 2) Kate McNamara (more on her below, for now check here) held that public mutilation of the female body could only convey a misogynist message. It could not scorn, or reuse for pleasure, Backlash messages that it made explicit. Finally 3) after an initial love affair, I increasingly became suspicious of the post-modernism espoused by The Body Performers. While Marxism uses class-based productive relations to explain social features, post-modernism refers to a variety of irreducibly disparate power formations and has nothing outside texts. Post-modernism then seems to unjustifiably confine rebellious activity to to-ing and fro-ings amid cultural diversity. My criticism was this overlooks the foundational social features. It cannot then theoretically underwrite conscious action (or aktion) against the extra-textual economic dictates underwriting the Backlash and Triumphalism.
Merely by have such a frictive social presence The Body Performers to some extent addressed criticism 3). They did make people more conscious of the shameful misuse of electronic media by power, and of the stupidly restrictive nature of Backlash family values. This implied extra-discursive criticism. So while it is hard to deny a post-modernist influence inspired them to do what they did, I came to think their praxis was inconsistent with these theories. What criticisms 1) and 2) strongly suggest is that The Body Performers sometimes confused people with extraneous and contrary messages. They brutally did their bit against the Backlash, but it is hardly surprising body performance seems a little passé today. For instance the nipple piercing once performed as an act of rebellion by The Body Performers would now be carried out on a teenager by a local chemist. It does not have an obvious feminist or other message, and instead is capable of invoking a confusing array of medical, sexual and psychological issues.
3. Influences, other performances and publications.
The towers of ivory are crumbling
And the swallows have sharpened their beaks
…gone are the days of remorse
(Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)
Criticisms 3) of The Body Performers indicates post-structuralism was not uncritically accepted in AS as it was in the ANU Art School (that for a time fostered AS). Criticism 1) and 2) rightly suggests a variety of interests and approaches within AS itself. In the icy winters of 1992 and 1993 the group was at their most active pursuing this variety. Members discussed many ideas. True to its own criticism of the limits of academia, the group spread out into more alternative venues hiding under Canberra’s skeletal trees and clinical height-restricted office blocks. This included an art exhibition in Kingston (other side of Lake Burley Griffin to the ANU Bar) where some of The Body Performers sealed themselves up in a perspex box and took amphetamines for three days. Another event AS staged was a party in Commonwealth Park intended to summon the aliens. There were satanic and other rituals, alongside formal 3-a-side debates in their home base, the Uni Bar.
As concerns the Uni Bar, around this time Chris Hughes, singer of an AS-associated band Sex-Pol that incuded Hayes, had gagged himself and been masking-taped to the floor in front of the service area. This was after a joint Sex-Pol and tiM and Emma Robertson performance had been shut down. tiM and Emma had a made a film containing a scene of a fly being unzipped while light shone from inside the pair of pants. Sex-Pol then played their song “Love Urge” as it was screened. Authoritarian bar management had taken offence. They were to soon wish they had let it pass.
The Childers street squat on the perimeter of the ANU was also an important venue. Now levelled for carparks and overpriced student accommodation, it was under siege from the police who would dump mental health patients on the doorstep of the place. This is a standard procedure. Police often try to disrupt rebellious groups and meetings by inserting/planting mentally unwell individuals, or agents feigning mental illness. At least the squatters had the support of AS, who were mad in a more enjoyable and productive way. Poetry was read as people swung on a trapeze, and AS performed in the old hall that was part of the squat. The AS-associated band The Lovesick Fools played there.
Tilley’s Café, founded on feminist activism, was also an important venue for discussion; a mere pushbike ride from ANU. In nearby Civic, The Mud Club was set up by Splinters and included performance and DJ-ed underground music (poster here). AS performed at Gorman House. Later they performed at Asylum nighclub in the city run by Criag [surname to be inserted]. In 1993 AS made an alliance with The Canberra Jazz initiative via Murray Jackson. This was related to the famous Club Toilet events. Wits such as James Judge, academic philosophers such as Adrian Heathcote, and disaffected mainstream journalists were all part of the AS circle at various times, even if not active in full agreement with the rebellious tone of AS.
Throughout this time Hayes’ original vision continued to have some sway even though Hayes distanced himself from AS. It led to sustained interest in both automatic writing and Marxist politics. Phil Crotty, a writer and theorist in AS and also associated with Splinters, termed the move back to automatic techniques “formal surrealism.” The term fits dryly with Bretons’ message in the Manifestos of Surrealism, widely read in if not always put into practise in AS. “Formal Surrealism” is supposed to dovetail into Marxist revolutionary politics when, activated by automata, liberation of the pre-conscious is sufficient to overthrow a restrictive and unfree capitalist order (iii). Women’s surrealist art, such as that of Varo and Kahlo, was widely appreciated in the group. Maria Petriella, beside a surreal/abstract expressionist graphic artist, was an avid feminist non-Leninist reader of Marx and a vital influence on some of us.
In addition the early 1990s witnessed other intellectual/literary currents that influenced AS. This included a renewed interest in thermodynamics (chaos theory), “cyberpunk” and “steampunk” literature (Gibson, Sterling etc) and recognition of the formal and substantial value of more experimental sci fi (Lessing, Burroughs, H.P.Lovecraft etc). I recall pretending to masturbate over car accidents as the character from J.G.Ballard’s “Crash.” It was with Chris Hughes behind the thick hedges that shrouded an AS planning meeting at Gina Dow’s Ainslie residence.
The punk movement with its emphasis on DIY was also a powerful influence on AS. Beside the zine format found in punk we can think of the popularity among AS-ists of Throbbing Gristle etc, Lydia Lunch, Godflesh/Pitchshifter, Nick Cave and associates such as Crime and the City Solution, all performers coming out of punk scenes. Naturally many lesser known such acts were influential, alongside more commercially viable New Wave performers such as Kate Bush. Some have claimed punk is post-modern, but even Greil Marcus (iv) has trouble fitting demands for freedoms not available to consumers (that is within the market considered as a kind of text) in with this diagnosis. In AS such demands ran hot under the clear air of chilly Canberra autumns and winters.
Beside The Body Performers, other performances were staged by the group. Kate McNamara’s anti-Backlash feminism diluted any post-modernist influence with mythic concerns. She was central in organising performance. Possibly the most active writer for Splinters, she became involved with AS in the aftermath of the death of her eldest son, Eamon. Though striken with grief, she was intrigued by the O week stall of late February 1992. For her capitalism had fallen away from the mythic beauty we find in some tribal traditions. Problematically for her involvement in AS, the default myths of today are as pre-conscious as we expect from myth, and examples wind up being nationalism, race, work, religion and platonistic ideas of great art. If we valorise these by valorising myth, we tend by default to reflect unthinking acceptance of powerful institutions. The episcopal origins of the backlash are an example, and hence we find Yeats etc, Jung and Mann all winding up in the Auschwitz of far right politics.
This itself is not an argument against these men’s ideas, though such arguments can easily be made. (Paul Griffith, for instance, has recently strongly argued that innateness and universality come apart. This would be fatal for Jung’s theory of mythical archetypes even if his ethnographic evidence is in order). What is important here is that in AS McNamara avoided a similar move by promoting a range of anti-institutional interests such as indigenous Australian Dreaming and women’s self expression. Charismatic, she chimed with the tone of AS by using myth and ritual to ceaselessly advocate DIY praxis, art in daily life, women’s struggle and creativity, and personal freedom as ways of addressing the contemporary fall. I would suggest this implies a criterion for selecting the right (use of) myths from outside myth itself. Given the content here, traditional moral values would not do the job. As in the parallel instance of the Body Performer’s post-modernism (criticism 3 above) McNamara seems driven, at least implicitly, to recognising and critiquing the foundational economic features of an unfree society.
With varying degrees of success, McNamara’s performances were undertaken by the group. A memorable one involved Awombda staring into a mirror/ pool. This was at AS’s opening of The National Gallery of Australia’s arguably most successful exhibition ever, Surrealism: Revolution by Night in 1993 (v). One AS publication was financed when AS was paid for their antics at this opening, which included a fine speech by Hayes against the de-politicisation of surrealism. Another would-be performance harmed McNamara’s reputation when The Body Performers, supposed to be in her myth-driven play Morgana, boycotted the opening at Gorman House. This may have been due to the fact McNamara, while sympathetic to a post-modern analysis of the media, did not overall share the philosophies of The Body Performers. I have also noted she had been critical of them (criticism 2) above).
Throughout its life Aktion Surreal engaged in many performances. Some were of a distinctly art terrorist nature including detonating an effigy, an attack that upset a polling booth leaving it drenched in performer’s blood, burning “surreal” advertisement and an artistic act of public indecency staged at The Terrace Bar, a kind of second base camp for Aktion Surreal. The latter three actions had the Australian Federal Police looking for the AS members repsonsible. AS has been understandably described as anarchist. It was also an art-terrorist organisation.
AS performed with Splinters. This included in the 1993 Flowers of Gold (Market place and concluding performance) staged in the Kingston Bus Shed. The Body Performers had a presence in Splinter’s intense Thirst is a place, also performed in an industrial space. Chris Barnett, a writer working in France and interested in the work of post-Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (also of interest to Freeman and myself) had come to Canberra to work with Splinters. While there he also published with AS and attended their meetings. He read powerfully at an incongruous poetry event AS dominated in an up-market city restaurant, “Dorrettes.” Here too, I experimented with voice distortion, reading poetry through Hal Judge’s kick-arse digital delay. Splinter’s poet Brian “Desire” Hinksman found in AS a natural home. Other important performers were punk-beatnik and zine machine Michael Dargaville, Jaspar Perry’s utterly carefree guitar playing, bands The Lovesick Fools, The Piltdown Frauds (a few songs here), Cunt and Sex-Pol. The perfomances involved, like much AS output, often had an absurdist edge. This owed soemthing to formal surrealism, that, whatever its own loss into the pre-conscious, regained a certain freshness in the dire aftermath of Triumphalism.
The group cohered around the eponymous publication, and it was here this edge and the variety in AS really made itself felt. Within the publication, McNamara fostered an interest in paganism, also found in the work of Geir Folkstein (who did a horoscope for the group), Jacqui Caddy and others. Among other contributors on other subjects, in one issue Tony Blattman wrote an excellent article on how to eat healthily for less, while a range of graphic artists contributed to the publication. These included Kathleen McCann, Clint Hurrel, Damien Molony, Maria Petriella and Lindy Graham.There was a humorous comment on Aktion Surrealist’s combination of automata with later twentieth century imagery by Hal Judge, a more mainstream writer. Judge did not necessarily share the dissatisfactions that drove Aktion Surreal. He appeared to believe that artistic participation in the free market could give us a roughly satisfactory agonistic liberalism (more on Judge below). There were cartoons and work from a group of art school renegade comics: Karl Hopper, Dave (surname to be added) and Lushan Tan. Sasha Gibbons wrote parodically on geomantic Canberra and the numerology of the local bus services. Patrick Troy stirred up controversy in the group contributed with a blunt satire of the psychoanalytic aspects of some feminism.
A strength of AS was that they laughed, not just at their Triumphalist/Backlash predicament, but at themselves. AS theorist Phil Crotty in fact held that all high Modernism, including more formal surrealism, was one gigantic fart joke. Formal surrealism does indeed often seem to centre around flatulence and similar mildly taboo themes. Specifically, Crotty had in mind the interests the likes of Dali’s coprophilia and “counter-surrealist” Bataille’s love of entrails. Within AS, the ideas of the original counter-surrealists were championed by Neil Freeman. Crotty’s point is that such powerful influences on Modernism are driven by a child-like glee over bodily functions, and so Modernism itself should be laughed at rather than put on a pedestal.
Graham Ussher’s contributions to the main publication, both hilarious and dark, were closer to Hayes’ ideas in that he experimented with formal surrealism. Ussher was a natural at using dream accounts to critique late 20th century life. His eerily moving work compared the draining experience of such rackets as tourism, Australiana and American Culture with the marvellous attainable in REM sleep. He dressed colourfully and inaugurated experiments in binding and covering zines. His breakthrough effort was “The Memoirs of a Meaty Clock.” Material from this zine was performed under the guidance of McNamara in a hijacked poetry reading on the south side in 1992. Ben Keaney transcribed what poetic utterances he could glean from the mad, and developed something of the same oneric feel as Ussher. When in AS Ben Keaney explored themes around recollection, the (urban) bush as well as militarism. He used a paranoid critical method assisted by psychoactive substances. Beside Ussher, others in AS made perzines/poetry/surreal zines, often publishing under “Aktion Surreal publications.” This included tiM McCann (see f.n. (iii)), Anthony Hayes, Sophie Bord and a surreal hagiography by myself (check here).
4.Demise of the group
Systems in a forest
The plans they design work well
Then they escape into sleep
(The Piltdown Frauds)
In 1994 Canberra experienced a piercingly crisp winter, the fourth or so comparatively bitter one in a row. It was also clear that the AS group was cooling off. It was not the diversity that eventually destroyed AS; it never seemed too fractured in its prime. Certainly, there was dissatisfaction with the main publication. In 1993 this caused myself to start a separate more DIY publication, Front Jugged. It was named after one of Hayes’ poems and evinced more similarity to a fanzine and issue 1 of ‘Action Surreal’ than the flashier later publications. The gripe though, was editorial control, not the diversity. That diversity was all too easily re-established by DIY means. What had a more destructive effect on the group was the use of heroin. This complemented the lucrative but time and energy consuming move into the sex industry by The Body Performers.
From 1994 on Hayes developed a critique of this move. He insisted it was a form of workerism; that is that it unjustifiably romanticised paid employ. Early 1990s academics interested in feminism often argued that sex work was liberatory on the grounds that housewives were unpaid prostitutes and domestics anyway. The Backlash rendered women’s domestic activity invisible once more, and the argument had at least startlingly challenged the oversight. However Hayes countered that this argument unfortunately ignored both the overall powerlessness of work (“alienation”) and the specific industrial issues which regularly confront sex workers.
Once we keep this in mind we have a strong motive to question the conservative dichotomy the argument presents: family values or sex industry. We might suspect both Backlash types and sex industrialists accept the exclusive disjunction because it benefits them both, rather than because the exclusive disjunct is mandated. Activism arguably in fact implies niether disjunct. Hayes’ repost certainly captured the effects of sex work on AS. This was a move from grass roots rebellion into the “serious” business of making money. The result was a creeping apathy that could equally have been achieved with a public service job (also a fate of several of those involved in AS).
Frustrated with the structrualist/relativist tone of post-modernist writers like Althusser and Delueze, it seemed to me Hayes’ original, more focussed, vision had been lost. So I too moved for a time into formal surrealism and socialism. I was not alone. Like others I was impressed with ISO success on campus in 1994 including two heroic building occupations. Capitalism was being directly and forcibly contested here! It was real rebellion at a time when AS had lost some verve. In one of these occupations, I rocked out with a monophonic synth on the Vice Chancellor’s desk, wearing a tentacle beret, a mask that read “goat” and a bright blue safari suit. I was playing with my band, The Piltdown Frauds.
Many other AS-ists played a prominent role in the same student movement, including tiM McCann and Emma Robertson working as meeting facilitators. AS-ists Erica Kerrush, Sasha Gibbons, Pete Wood, Chris Hughes and Body Performer and ex-navy sailor Dominic Bromilow were committed activists and gave the movement both character and backbone. Despite the hieght of the student movement coinciding with the demise of AS, the relationship between the two turns out to be a close one; AS had begun in and around irreverent dissatisfaction with academia, and helped foster this. I have made some remarks about this close relationship elsewhere.
Others felt the need to move beyond AS for other reasons. Kate McNamara, for instance, may have realised that AS would never be a vehicle for great art or mythic moral values. Her belief in gifted individuals as conduits for mythical values could easily lead to suspicion of the often shonkey activists that composed AS. Recall that AS was kickstarted by a Gutenburg-like opening up of DIY publication to anyone.
By 1994 Hal Judge had already begun to move into a more mainstream direction, insisting art should be accessible (he also carried on some AS approaches as we shall find in the next section). Hal Judge may have realised AS would never give him the exposure he desired. Judge went onto enlist the help of others including Splinters honcho David Branson (here) and eventually Sydney performance poet Tug Dumley. From 1995 he organised poetry readings and publishing ventures designed to create popular accessible Canberra poetry. In the years following AS he paved the way for Slam Poetry, which has actual rules designed to make it more accessible. Slam only really made an impact in Australia from about 1999 when it was taken up in Melbourne and Sydney, though the form, originating in the US, is slightly older. In Canberra there is still Slam poetry: the Bad Slam No Biscuit Readings (here).
AS-ists did not follow Hal Judge into more mainstream expression, and later in general were to become suspicious of slams. While Judge’s suggestion that challenging ideas should be more broadly circulated is attractive, there was good reason to be careful. For a start Judge sometimes deprecated the nuts and bolts of a rebellious creative process. This includes experimentation which may “fail” to communicate stimulate or entertain. I have argued there should be spaces for this “failure” outside of commercial constraints or those incurred in the drive to be popular (vi). As Kate McNamara once remarked, Judge (and I might add those he fostered) tended to play it safe. On the other hand most AS-ists were experimental and not afraid to fall flat.
In any case the other perennial and more serious difference between Judge and AS-ists is over a trade off. Challenging ideas frighten people. They are rightly worried that if associated with such ideas they will be penalised in some way (economically, socially or violently) for deviating from work and consumption. We have found reasons why those in AS already usually believed that there were economic determinants preventing freedom in contemporary western society (vii). Theodore Adorno has similarly explained entertainment as work dominating life. Workplaces require conformity and a facile lack of extraneous thought. Equally entertainment is the easiest thing to do when you knock off, and it lacks challenge.
Judge held that DIY events minimise on the trade off, and that challenging ideas can be commercialised. I agree. Like the International Socialists, Adorno reduces everything to economics. Adorno forgets that entertaining activities organised around well-argued social criticism should not be understood in terms of economic determinants. But Judge went the other way and forgot economic determinants altogether, hence neglecting economic criticism. The result was an (unwitting) encouragement of the mechanism identified by Adorno, and “alternative” expression conveying the impression that western society is free. As I have said, this was a false impression by AS lights.
Only five or so years after the demise of AS a Canberra “alternative” poetry/music venue, the Gypsy Bar (viii), could even host a conservative scene attracting ASIO operatives and a Backlash witch hunt. Judge was a prominent patron and organiser at the Gypsy. Obviously the point is not that Judge is personally responsible for this rapid cultural degeneration. But it could have been avoided by an approach superior to his own drive for accessibility. The superior approach would aim for a larger public by recognising and actively combating economic imperatives to free expression. This would be accessible in a different and at least at first more restricted way. The superior approach would make a wider audience conscious of the limitations on current social life. It would be better thought of as “catalysing” than “accessible.”
So it is unsurprising that as AS ran out of steam most AS-ists did not believe Judge’s later endeavours offered a viable replacement activity. In general they did not seek out other more commercial or accessible means of expression, as some of the original surrealists or many of the punks had. But nor did they embark on the superior approach, at least in Canberra. Hayes’ experimental poetry reading “Situation Normal X” is an attempt to do so in the Canberra of today.
You cannot step into the same river twice
The fresh waters are ever rushing upon you
(Heraclitus of Ephesos)
In fact post-AS initiatives were lacking altogether. Here I must refer to recent writing by Gavin Findlay about the loss of earlier 1990s underground cultural initiative in Canberra (check here and here). As concerns a large, active, theory-focused rebellious art group, there were no immediate replacements for AS. Several involved in AS became active with the International Socialists and other Leninist groups; but after some mid 90s successes, these group also lost influence. In 1996 ex-members of AS did perform in the market place for Splinters production of Faust with, among others, Acme, Belly dancers, the band Sidewinder and Geir Folkstein’s martial arts group of the time. However this was as philosophers and other roving performers, not as AS. Splinters, too, wound down after some striking mid-to later 1990s performances such as Utopia/Dystopia in 1996 (my recollection here).
Other projects also attracted ex-AS-ists later in the 1990s, though none with the coherency or momentum of AS. Beside more mainstream ventures already mentioned, Hal Judge toured Canberra and Sydney with his cyberpunk play Silicon Spies in 1996. He read poetry through electronic distortion after the play. So this was a return to ideas that animated AS. And it did involve ex-ASists Jasper Perry, Body Performer Jude (surname to be inserted) and myself. At one point I suggested a brain zip across the stage (a stray AI in the cyberpunk play). Jasper made a brain mould out of greyish jelly and placed it on top of a remote controlled toy car. It duly zipped across the stage. Judge has since tried to take Silicon Spies to Hollywood (ix).
In Canberra ex-AS members also became involved in the City Project (two eponymous publications, both available in the National Library of Australia) and McNamara’s Aberrant Genotype Press (also known as Abreaction, hereafter “AGP”). AGP were co-publishers of the City Project, and funded the freezing cold but enjoyable launch of the second (though to my mind inferior) volume in 2003 at ANU. Recalling comments about McNamara and myth above, AGP began promisingly as McNamara tirelessly and charismatically championed grassroots-creative initiatives, but lost its other ex-AS-ists in the mid 2000s. This was mainly because McNamara did eventually bog in right politics, implicitly relying on the valorisation of myth to extol family, work, and religion. AGP duly attracted conservative defence personnel and police types before expiring.
By contrast some of those involved in AS stood on the 1998 MUA picket lines. In Sydney you might find ex-AS people in Sub Rosa or Urban Theatre Projects in 1999/early 2000s. In 1999 Ussher published a dreamy story with Sydney literary magazine Abbadon (it’s here) (x). From the mid 1990s, and for a decade or so, Hayes and I churned out zines under the title Ern Malley Press (some are here). tiM MCann still runs a spoken word radio show on 2XX that often carries on the evil work of AS. Of course others from AS kept performing as individuals. For instance Michael Dargaville, Hayes, Hinksman, Ben Keaney, Paul O’Brien, Clare O’Brien and others did so both alone and as a band called Avatron. Avatron continues experimenting to this day. Again, though, such projects are all smaller and more individual than the activities of the AS days.
tiM McCann, Emma Robertson, Hayes myself and others attempted to restage AS in 1997. On a dreary afternoon in the Uni Bar we dishearteningly found the old differences, once the lifeblood of the group, had hardened into insuperable antagonisms. Hayes and myself were motivated by the idea of a surrealist group that was closer to Hayes’ original conception. The initiative resulted in one zine in 1997, ‘The Surrealist Revolt,’ but after that folded. This happened when, immediately following the failed meeting, Hayes penned a leaflet against the sex workerism (see his critique of this above). tiM and Emma had wanted the restaged AS to gravitate to sex industry issues. We distributed Hayes’ leaflet where AS was supposed to be relaunched, at a ‘Dreams of a lime green cat suit’ poetry gig at Heaven nightclub in late 1997. The well-argued pamphlet scuttled the AS relaunch.
One reason Hayes and I were disappointed with tiM and Emma’s approach to a restaged AS is because we thought a new AS could avoid the mistakes of the old. We had in mind a group acting more solidly in tandem with student activism (see remarks and hyperlink above relating to an AS/student activism marriage). In context ‘Dreams of a Lime Green Cat Suit’ (DLGCS) zine and performance gig did in fact form something of a feline tail-end to AS. It was certainly a large active group; at the time (1997) The Uni Bar was still a lively venue for discussion and there was a brief re-flowering of student activism. This was mainly around the attempt of ANU management to shut down the Classics and subsequent student activist occupations of ANU admin. In one I was willingly thrown through a window in an attempt to enter a building by International Socialist honcho Luke Deer. I was promptly and briefly arrested.
So unsurprisingly some ex-AS-ists could be found on the peripheries of DLGCS, and DLGCS produced experimental material, often with uncanny similarity to AS initiatives. Xtian put out several formally surreal publications and later some sites, Heather Catchpole for a time championed rebellious poetics. Lady Cadaver staged some ‘pro-surrealist’ splatter performances in Canberra c. 1999, including at the Gypsy Bar. But instead of using creativity to help expand upon this, DLGCS dabbled with the problematic ideas of accessibility encountered in relation to Hal Judge’s later endeavours (xi). It soon devolved into individual projects.
The sad fact is that around the end of the 1990s the Australian student movement was defeated, at least for now. By 2005 the age old dream of the ANU Liberal Club had even come true and the Uni Bar, too, was devoid of any counterculture. The voluble and eccentric indigenous contingent had been removed by racist entry policies some time ago, and the punk scene was long gone. The jukebox got worse then took itself off in shame. In fact almost no pubs have jukeboxes anymore; no one can afford to drink and play ’em. Publicans tend to be gun ho about shoving CNN-style corporate agitprop down drinker’s throats, and the ANU Uni Bar is no different. I am told The Bar is currently under authoritarian management of the type AS, Sex-Pol and the student movement had successfully opposed. The specific conditions that had enabled AS are gone along with the group itself.
What more to say about the AS experience? I have understood AS as a reaction to late 1980s Backlash and Triumphalism. AS did not follow Leninism to reduce all rebellion to economic/workplace struggle, but on the other hand was not so niave as to discount economic deterimants, and became suspicious of the potentially conservative results of such discounting. AS also should not simply be identified with the post-modernism that was taking more “left” of centre Australian art by storm at the time. The group should be understood as responding to extra-textual social features as recognised by Marxism, and sometimes even dovetailing into communism and formal surrealism. Contribution to the student movement presented in some ways a natural direction and base for the group, even though by the time of the 1994 peak of the student movement on ANU campus, AS was on the wane.
Later with the (hopefully temporary) demise of the student movement such a direction/base was in any case closed off. In 1997 with the failed restaging of AS it was time to recognise that was then, this is now. Likewise a decade later the 13 year reunion mooted by some in 2007 seemed to me a product of nostalgia rather than of a sense of renewed initiative around everyday creativity. All that is left for me to add about AS itself is that people had worked through and experienced a number of different ideas in a fun often sex-affirmative environment, but now we need new directions and learn from mistakes. One direction could be the ‘catalysing’ I opposed to ‘accessiblity’ above. One mistake to aviod seems to be an excessive relaince on automata/absurdism to liberate. Even at the time, AS’s discussions and irreverence to Modernism promised some alternative to this reliance.
As concerns the future it is disturbing that in the crackdown following the staged attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, AS-like groups seemed to become rarer and less active. Hayes and myself found this in attempting to launch an Australia-wide Destructivist art group in 2004. It emphasised destruction in and of art. In Brisbane this involved burning art in Brunswick street, cheered on by sex workers and even uniformed police (though we were shut down by plainclothes on one occasion). This group may also have been a tad too negative. And, in fact in 2011, things are looking up again. Much as, after the Backlash and Triumphalist ballyhoo of the late 1980s, many were ready for a change.
Rather than writing too much more about the history of AS as an inspirational group, the time has come to get out there. As Findlay has intimated, we need more DIY groups prepared to contest the non-freedom of early twenty first century capitalism. We need groups interested in vibrant creativity and strong clear argument that we need the superior approach mentioned at the end of the last section, this time to give us a superior society.
To the AS-ists no longer with us. Over its 2 and ½ year life 200-250 people would have been active to some extent in the group, and many of them lived on the edge. Mention goes to David Morris (Graphics and layout) and editor of by far the swishest Front Jugged, mild mannered Pete Dunn who rightfully found little to be enticing about his 1980s experience, DIY distro artist Daniel McFadden (here) and of course Maria Petriella, a font of many great ideas and a woman who tirelessly fostered critical thought. These and all the others no longer with us will be remembered for lives truly lived under today’s repressive apocalyptic conditions: as rebellion.
I did the Aktion Surreal letterhead that was never used, until now. 1st and 3rd Canberra building photo by Maria Petriella. 2nd Canberra building photo taken by Maria Petriella and I when we did an inner city drift together, randomly entering offices. All photos taken around 1993. Click on to magnify. I apologise for my poor preservation of Maria’s work.
Later photos from a performance at the art school organised in the last days of AGP press, 2005. The main part of this was written by McNamara, it was called the “Parliament of Fowls.” The first such photo is Brian “Desire” Hinksman reading poetry, the second Ben Keaney and Paul O’Brien. All are performing after McNamara’s play. Sorry, I forgot who took these photos (Fiona Edge?). Please inform me if they are your work.
Anthony Hayes edited this and made suggestions. Thanks to all of those who have archived AS material whether or not I looked at their archives: Neil Freeman, Anthony Hayes and Kate McNamara.
Please inform me of any proof errors and misspelt names: firstname.lastname@example.org. I am also open to including other incidents and names if requested. My criticisms of the ideas involved in AS will be revised in blog below given decent argument/evidence, but not otherwise.
(i) Faludi, S. 1991. “Backlash.” London: Chatto and Windus.
(ii) Sample in “Slugging for Jesus” by British midlands band Cabaret Voltaire
(iii) Breton, A. 1998. Manifestos of Surrealism, trans H.Lane and R.Seaver. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.I have written in more detail about instances of formal AS surrealism in my M.A: Keaney, G. 1998. “Surrealism as Revolutionary Art” hard copy available in the ANU library system as well as in the National Gallery of Australia’s library. Phil Crotty himself was more post-modernist, and was skeptical of attempts to change extra-textual foundational social features.
So we find Surrealism is committed to the idea that captialism cannot be free, and is not free today. Whatever the other problems of surrealism (how can the pre-conscious alone give us liberation?) the idea that western capitalism was unfree was understandably the general feeling amoung Aktion Surreal. More than anything explains this general feeling the reuse of the surrealist moniker by the the group. To pick two astounding examples of open repression in the supposedly free west, men who dress differently or are openly gay are subject to summary violence under western capitalism. Within AS tiM McCann for instance took up the oppression of queer men in his perzine. By “queer” he meant both those who are gay-identifying as well as those who dress differently. (So I do not pick these examples to downplay the violence suffered by women who do not conform to family values, or even those that do. Rather I am investigating a position within AS).
Interestingly, and to investigate the neglect of this example of western repression, in co-operating with fundamentalists to ensure “stability” when seizing Iraqi oil production, the US army has helped increase the murder rate of effeminate men. As in the Bible Belt so in the middle east. As, indeed, in downtown Brisbane, Canberra, and even Sydney. Almost no-one remarks that there is a dress code in western life, enforced by the official and unofficial corridor monitors of corporate Maoism. It has been sung about by The Dead Kennedys in “Halloween” and by the Theatre of Hate in “Clan.” It is alluded to by The Saints. Outrageous queen Boy George was a good boxer and physically defeated unofficial corridor monitors on a number of occasions. AS in part felt it was redressing the neglect of these goings on, as had the punk movement.
(iv) Marcus, G. 1989. “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century.” Cambridge: Havard University Press.
(v) See Dawn Ades, Murray Bail, Timothy Baum, Christopher Chapman, John Clark, Helen Ennis, Ted Gott, Mary Jane Jacob, Adrian Martin and Kenneth Wach. 1993. Revolution by Night. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia.
(vi) Keaney, M and Keaney, G. 2007. “The DNA of DIY.”In Photofile 81:60-63.
(vii) Recall that on my reading this was what informed the initial opposition to both the Backlash and Triumphalism. See section 1 above, esp f.n.iii.
(viii) I do not mean to characterise the Gypsy Bar solely by reference to this negative outcome. For a more positive side to this venue check the memorial to it here. As will be suggested by mention of Lady Cadaver’s performances in the coming section, many great performances and nights were had in the place. Hal Judge released an anthology of contributors who frequented this venue, Sound and Fury: The Gypsy Anthology (KGB, Turner ACT, 2000, check it here). In a way relevant to the above comments I have described Hal Judge’s editorial error in respect of my submission to this anthology. (Find the description of the error under the heading “Wanted” here, in the second paragraph. My submission as it should have been produced is here).
(ix) I have recently learnt that Judge’s film has been shot. I am currently attempting to track it down.
(x) While in Sub Rosa I criticised this same magazine, Abbadon. The first 5 paragraphs of the review published in The Last Head 2, the zine of Sub Rosa, concern Abbadon’s first issue (review archived here). The 5th paragraph of the review concerns Abbadon’s mistreatment of me. I should mention that Ned Matijasevic, a writer I criticise there, redeemed himself by going on to do some fine work with Urban Theatre Projects, a group alluded to in section 5.
(xi) A drive to ‘accessibility’ certainly became more prevalent in John Howard’s grim honeymoon period following 1996. It can be read as part of an attempt to resurrect Triumphalism since it valorises the market, and in Canberra it seemed artists were buying it. We can glimpse the same trend in the fact this was only a year after Judge began his drive to greater accessibility. As in the case of Judge’s drive, ex-AS-ists (and certain others) in DLGCS were cagey about ‘accessibility
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