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Projections #7: an afternoon with Ross Gibson Film screening and conversation on 25 June 2022

‘It’s a town you know well. An ocean town. A port town.’

For decades now, Ross Gibson has moved between scholarly and artistic worlds to investigate the flows and desire-lines of Sydney, Gadigal Country on the edge of the Great Ocean. 

The afternoon of screenings and conversation featured a selection of the artist’s recent remix films exploring the mise-en-scène of the city. Sydney’s past has a force that continues to shape its present. In Gibson’s work, a distinctive set of vitalities - wafting salt-eucalypt and harbour dazzle - contend with the ‘clamped fist’ of institutional powers which have run the town since colonisation.

Drawn from a range of ‘readymade’ archives including the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) film material in the National Archives of Australia, crime scene photographs from the Justice and Police Museum, and Gibson’s own collection of strange late-night phenomena filmed in his neighbourhood of Alexandria, these works excavate the subterranean mysteries, outbursts, and desires of the city from mid-century to today. 

Gibson engages in imaginative forensics. His films invite audiences to observe shy details lurking in the archives, objects and landscapes around us. He was joined in conversation by novelist and critic Mireille Juchau.

About Ross Gibson

Ross Gibson is Centenary Professor of Creative & Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. He works collaboratively on books, films, artworks and strategic-planning exercises, and he supervises postgraduate students in similar pursuits. 

During the early 2000s he was Creative Director for the establishment of ACMI (known then as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) at Federation Square in Melbourne. Prior to that, while working at the University of Technology in Sydney, he was a Senior Consultant Producer during the development and inaugural years of the Museum of Sydney. Over the past two decades he has also held Professorial posts at UTS and the University of Sydney.  

About Mireille Juchau

Mireille Juchau is a novelist and Walkley Award winning critic. Her third novel, The World Without Us, was published internationally and won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Her essays and reviews have most recently appeared in The New YorkerLA Review of Books, Bomb Magazine, HEAT Magazine and The Monthly. Mireille has a PhD in literature and is an Honorary Affiliate at the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney.

Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. My name’s Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd and I’m the Gallery’s curator of film. Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge that we’re meeting on unceded Gadigal land. Situated on Yurong, looking out from the shores of Warrane toward Birrur Birah, this has been a place for the sharing of art and culture for over 65,000 years and so I’d like to pay my respects to Gadigal Elders past and present, as well as to all First Nations people with us today. 

Thank you all for coming out to this special session of Projections, our monthly showcase of contemporary artists’ moving image, which today is spotlighting the work of Ross Gibson, followed by an in-conversation with the wonderful Mireille Juchau. 

Now I’ll introduce Ross and Mireille more fulsomely before their chat, but for now I’d like to say a few words to preface this program of seven short films, which we’re about to watch. For decades now, Ross Gibson has moved between scholarly and artistic worlds to investigate the flows and desire lines of Sydney, Gadigal Country on the edge of the Great Ocean. 

When I think of his recent body of work, collectively titled the head_phone_film_poems series, there’s one particularly arresting image which stays with me. And it’s the image of a flickering fluorescent light, of streetlights sparking, of unexpected flares, unidentified strobing, the shudder of malfunctioning infrastructure, glimpsed through car windows, glimpsed on nightly walks through Alexandria, and captured with quick reflexes on an iPhone. 

When I watched the streetlights tremor, it feels to me it feels to me as if they’re syncing up to the Sydney-specific energies that animate the Gibson cinematic universe. 

Across his work, Ross describes a fundamental Sydney quality informed by Gadigal ontologies and the natural vitalities of the Eora Nation, a sense of kind of shimmer and wonder which you no doubt experienced on your walk to the Gallery today. As Ross has written, ‘Landlocked, Sydney is not, nor is it governed by grids. Rather, the place is drawn and maintained by its fluid rhythms and shimmering vistas.’ 

In the films we’ll watch today, glimmers of beauty, from startling poetry to exacting montage and lush soundscapes, help you begin to feel some of that wonderous shimmer that lulls off the harbour. ‘Endlessly gorgeous, endlessly corrupt’ – this is how Ross once described Sydney to me. Of course, as well as conveying the energetic erotics of the city, the flicker of lights after dark also suggests a more paranoid, a more seamy vision of this place. 

These films, as you’ll see, have a distinctively noir aesthetic. As we know, film noir is a post-war genre where social conventions and suburban niceties are stripped away to reveal the hardscrabble realities of the big corrupt city underneath. And indeed, Ross’s films conjure a Sydney in chiaroscuro, a place of quick grab and greed. Lurking beneath the surface dazzle are malodorous forces; forces, which Ross has described as the ‘fist of exploitation’. The police, property developers, government, the extractive industries, gambling and booze cartels – these are the ‘fist forces’ which have run the city since colonisation and, importantly, whose archives Ross reappropriates in this latest body of work. 

So today we’ll watch seven short films remixed from three sources: mid-century crime scene photographs taken by the scientific investigation branch of the Sydney police force from the 1940s to the 60s; declassified ASIO surveillance footage – ASIO being, of course, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the kind of network of spies that were set up in 1949 by Ben Chifley; and, finally, Ross’s own archive of iPhone footage taken during late-night perambulations. It’s important to note that these films were all edited on an iPhone and originally intended to be shown on such devices, but I hope you’ll agree that they translate incredibly well to a big screen and an audio environment where the soundscapes of Ross’s longstanding collaborators, people like Cat Hope, Chris Abrahams and many more, can be fully appreciated. And there are full credits for each of the films in the handout that you hopefully received on your way in. 

So, a final word of housekeeping: the screening will run for around 40 minutes. Ross and Mireille will come together for a discussion. We’ll have a little bit of time for some audience Q and A and, afterwards, you’re all invited to join us up at the Gallery’s function space for a cuppa and to continue the conversation. So, thank you again for being here. Thank you to Ross Gibson, Mireille Juchau, and please enjoy today’s screening. Thank you. 

(audience applauds)  


Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd: Please join me in another round of applause for Ross Gibson. 

(audience applauds) 

Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd: It’s my pleasure now to invite Ross and Mireille to the stage, and while they make their way up, I’ll give their full, very impressive bios. So, Ross Gibson: Ross is Centenary Professor of Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. He works collaboratively on books, films, artworks and strategic-planning exercises, and supervises post-grad students in similar pursuits. 

During the early 2000s, Ross was the creative director for the establishment of ACMI in Melbourne, and prior to that, while working at UTS, he was a senior consultant producer during the development and inaugural years of the Museum of Sydney. Over the past two decades, Ross has also held professorial posts at UTS and the University of Sydney. 

Mireille Juchau is a novelist and Walkley Award–winning critic. Her third novel, The world without us, was published internationally and won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Her essays and reviews have most recently appeared in The New Yorker, The LA Review of Books, Bomb and Heat magazines and The Monthly. Mireille has a PhD in literature and is an honorary affiliate at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. 

So, as I mentioned, we’ll have some time for any audience questions at the end, and we’ll come around with a roving mic. But for now, over to you, Ross and Mireille. 

(audience applauds) 

Mireille Juchau: Thanks so much, Ruby, for that beautiful introduction and welcome to everyone. It’s my absolute delight to be talking with Ross today about these extraordinary films. So, I’m just going to give a brief introduction to how I know Ross, which dates back to my undergraduate years. Like, I think, quite a few people here today, he taught me. He was one of my most esteemed and brilliant teachers who showed the limitations of some conventional histories and opened up the possibilities for dynamic and ethically astute work, in which past and present dialogue across multiple forms. You work evocatively in so many different media, Ross – text, film history, memory, poetry, photography, sound, image, installation – always with an understanding of the productive and necessary relationships between materials and content. You’ve shown us that histories can be even more accurate in creatively risky and exuberant forms.  

My friend and yours, Maria Tumarkin, calls you a ‘practitioner of the dark arts, of experimental forms within and outside institutions’. I love that! Much of your work repurposes materials and images housed in institutions, those shadowy archives so often closed off to the citizens they claim to be protecting or educating. So by remixing the sometimes sombre, sometimes comical, always evocative sources, you cast light on their wonder and prompt us to think about how they form and deform local culture, ideas of belonging, unexamined mythologies. 

So with that in mind, I would like to speak more directly to the films we’ve just seen and I want to take as a starting point something you wrote in a beautiful essay on the poet Emma Lew, which is published on the Sydney Review of Books site. There you describe the editing techniques of [Sergei] Eisenstein in early Soviet cinema, specifically cinematic montage, which ‘brings such clarity’, you say ‘when apposite or accurately attractive clips are struck together – flint knocked against flint – on the editing bench. In the most revelatory cinematic sequences, things that seem not to be congenial get joined in such a way that latent truths are suddenly perceptible. In other words,’ – you use the beautiful phrase – ‘via the montage of attractions, the world can be lit up when seemingly non-sequential elements are shown to be righteously sequenced.’ I’ve glossed that a little, but I wondered if you could talk about this remarkable collection of head_phone_film_poems by way of this quote. 


Ross Gibson: Thank you. It’s an apposite quote because it brings our attention to the sense of imminent wonder that I usually approach archives with, and the sense of hope that some kind of currently occluded or not evident sense – or even some sort of flare of urgent, meaningful energy – can be brought into your moments of perception. And often that can be brought in by seeing a revelation in an ordinary thing or usually seeing a revelation in a re-contextualised set of ordinary things, such that some of the special organising forces that give the world shape such that they can be seen there for a moment.  

You can do that with jokes. Jokes work because just for a moment some truth has been said where it couldn’t or shouldn’t be said, and you can do it with editing as well. And this is Eisenstein’s phrase, ‘the cinema of attractions’, the editing of attracted elements. You’re trying to find things that, once they’ve come together and sparked and shown you something, you realise that they were attracted to each other by the larger shape of the world, even though when you just saw them each individually, they were just things. And so this quest for revelation is, in its own very humble way, and its own late-night way on the phone, is what these things are about. And the revelation can be in your ordinary work-a-day or walk-a-day life, but very often for me they are in archives and archives are often used when people are seeking to clinch an argument. You know, you’ve put a hypothesis together and you go to the historical records to find the thing that proves your hypothesis. And that’s a good way to work with archives, of course, it’s important, to do with good history telling and so on. But for me, I’m much more interested in waiting for the archives to sort of send their surprises forward, and usually that requires you to get a kind of very large, systematic understanding of what the archive, what each particular archive, is and then kind of allowing some sort of refusal to come to a conclusion, to sit well with you for a while until, until the not obvious things start to turn up.  

Mireille Juchau: And so, I’m hoping we get time to talk about your creative practice later in this conversation, but what does that look like in terms of time spent in that space? Or how you navigate the file? Say, if we’re talking about the crime scene films where you used photographs from the police, what level of immersion does that require? And how do you actually physically go about entering those spaces and using those works? 

Ross Gibson: For me, and this is just me, it’s decades of just mulling with that material. That’s been one of the great privileges of working with that particular archive, I’ve been kind of ‘allowed into it’ for more than 25 years. A quick thing about that particular archive, it’s full of tens of thousands of images. You would expect that it would be very well documented as well, because it’s an artefact of the police force, but in fact, through a series of accidents over the decades, the metadata that the documents, the files, that you would expect to be with those photographs and you would expect those files to kind of tell you what’s going on, they’ve all gone missing and they’ll never turn up again.  

And so that’s the sort of archive that, from one point of view, you go, ‘A pity, it’s useless.’ From another point of view, you go, ‘Well these are so profuse with things to think and feel about that there’s a kind of imaginative obligation to work with them.’ And so that’s the mulling over years and years, and what I’ve done out of encountering that particular archive is select about a thousand images from the tens of thousands that I’ve seen there, and I’ve selected them kind of intuitively. There’s a feeling that they are part of a world, and it’s a world that is Sydney but it’s a world that is also somehow shaped by my manias and enthusiasms and worries, and that world kind of gathers and you mull over it as a world. And then you say, ‘Well, what does this world want to tell me?’ And, you know, the privilege of these little projects on my phone is I don’t have to please anyone. I want to please myself eventually, but you can just mull and mull and mull until some things start to turn up. Things that turn up can be patterns that are aesthetic. You keep seeing particular kind of lines of diagonals running in images and you stack them together or flares of light or pools of darkness. Patterns start to turn up and you put them together. And in aesthetic ways, the whole, the larger piece coheres, or it doesn’t. And if it coheres aesthetically that’s good in itself. If it coheres semantically as well as aesthetically, that’s bonus, that’s bingo. It turns up now and then. But for me it’s mulling again and again and again and just trying something, putting it away, trying something, refusing it, accepting something that worked and seeing what turns out, seeing what the ... Seeing what the records, the detritus that the world has left behind and imprinted itself on, what is that stuff wanting to tell us? 

Mireille Juchau: Is there still an itch to get to the truth when you don’t have the factual ... the facts that accompany the photographs. Is there any itch there, or can you abandon that quite easily? 

Ross Gibson: Imagine what? Sorry. 

Mireille Juchau : Well, you mentioned that the data that accompanied the crime scene photographs in particular has gone missing. So there is no possibility of reassembling these.  

Ross Gibson: That’s right. It is endless, and ... It’s endless but those pictures are deep with history and deep with a sort of spiritual weight as well, because most of them are pictures where lives have turned around very, very emphatically, very quickly. And so, for me, there’s a kind of bearing witness aspect to just mulling with the pictures and seeing how you can resonate imaginatively, you’re telling fictions of some kind, but they're fictions that have a relationship to these real records. And you’re also trying to be in good faith with the places and the faces that are in those records and so that you want to bear witness, or I want to be a witness, in a way that is respectful and revelatory of where these places came from, how they got shaped the way they I did.  

Mireille Juchau: That segues quite nicely into a question I had about the way that one thing common to all of your works here is a sense of haunting and of ghosts. The line or the fragment ‘a ghost walks among them’ appears in one of the films in your documents of late-night Alexandria. You describe this process, this documentation, being of ‘infrastructural haunting’. When I think of ghosts, I think it’s another way to say the past is brought sharply into the present. The past isn’t over yet, it isn’t done with, and the films that you make from the Sydney police of crime scenes show us both criminals and victims. So I’m thinking about the term ‘haunting’ in terms of the way someone like Avery Gordon describes it. She says ‘haunting spectres or ghosts can notify us that what’s been suppressed or concealed is very much alive and present, messing or interfering with forms of containment and repression’. So it’s a sense that something we’re being asked to still address, this history. And I feel that in all of the films that you’ve produced here, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that recurring theme of being haunted. 

Ross Gibson: Thank you. Yes, with the crime scene stuff, I tracked down quite a few of the detectives who did the work in the late 1940s and 50s, and they were all in their late 70s and 80s by the time I found them, and I always found myself driving 3.5 hours north or south of Sydney to some kind of little, you know, Swanhaven kind of place where these guys were living in nice fibro homes that they’d moved to. And I would always ask them, ‘How come you’re here? Why aren’t you in town?’ And every single one of them, in their own way, said, ‘I can’t move across that town anymore.’ And for them, it’s every corner they’ve done really hard work on, and they’ve stepped through blood and petrol and shit, and it’s so powerful for them. And so they move away to have some peace in their retirement.  

And I just thought, well, that’s a really high-octane version of attentiveness to Country, in a way. I mean, I don’t want to just import that word Country sort of glibly or easily, but I thought, those conversations with those detectives helped me think about this ... this sense of how thoroughly stitched with events and meanings every piece of the city is. And that’s just for a culture that’s been here for 200 years. For other cultures that have been taking care of the place for millennia, those cultures have been sort of enchanting the place, you know, the chants of meaningful activity or the chants of meaningful utterances organised the place and instil meaning in it and that enchantment instructs people how to behave. And so this culture that’s been here for just over a little more than 200 years has only a glimmering sense of how powerful all of that land is, how powerful the city is, the millennia that have built the ... that’s the kind of Indigenous infrastructure, in a way, you know, they built this harbour Country over thousands of years and then chanted it in its own ways and then this other culture came and disenchanted it. But we all have a sense of how profuse with events and meanings and characters this place is, even though in so many of those crime scenes they look ... the scenes, look so deserted, so erased, but just I like always to be in service of that sense that there’s just a profuse human history here that we would do well to attend to. 

And those are the ghosts. Sorry to finish, to come back to your question, you know, that sort of sense of oh, if we can just draw forward that energy of everyone who’s been here, it would feel like a haunting but it would also feel like an honouring, potentially; that there’s just been so much humanity doing its thing here. 

Mireille Juchau: Yeah, and those police officers, I mean, is that, do you kind of recognise their experience as PTSD? It wouldn’t have been a term that they would have used, but that as a result of … I mean, I was struck when I was looking at the photographs, because every time I view the films, I see something new – and I think that’s part of your purpose, is that the eye continually searches for clues and tries to find a kind of story in the image – so every time I see them, I see something new and I’m, in my mind I see, you know, the four bloody handprints above a chair, and it makes me wonder how much of those images are still with the police that took them. I mean, obviously, they weren’t all taking the photographs, but the photographs are so striking they're like, I mean they’re presumably taken by the same, some of them taken by the same photographer, not all by the same photographer.  

Ross Gibson: They were ... each detective in the scientific investigation branch was a detective and a photographer. And so, all of these fellows that I went and talked to, they were the photographers, and they also took the cases forward through prosecution and so on. And so they worked with their images intensively from the time they turned up in the scene, took the photos, developed them, maintained their integrity, you had to maintain the integrity of the file so that the court case would be compelling, wouldn’t have any holes in it. And so they lived with these images for a long, long time. And these images are portals to actual places as well. So they have an enormously, sort of, sensitised presence as people moving across the town. And the sort of damage that they had to endure through their careers, that’s some sort of PTSD, for sure. But they never ... there was never in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, even, there wasn’t anything like that acknowledged.  

But it’s not all dark. I mean, there’s also a kind of, like a sense of deep understanding of how the city works, deep understanding. You talk with these guys and then you see it in the photos too, sometimes, deep understanding of the wonder of morning light coming into a suburb or catching, catching the sound of ...  

One detective told me about a time when he turned up at a scene where there was a body, it was out past the city limits, there were no electricity lights to help him see what he was seeing, he had no torch. And then he realised that he had in his side car on the bike, motorbike, he realised he had some gunpowder. And so he... This is a roundabout story, I’m sorry, just to remind myself that is a story about wonder, the reason I’m telling it. So he worked out that one way he could illuminate the scene, to get his one photo would be if he’s strung a kind of little circle of gunpowder around the body, lit it, and took the photograph at the same time that he lit the circle of gunpowder. It turns out the photograph is a good one, but the point of his story is that at two o’clock in the morning on a freezing cold night out past the edges of the town, he did that. He lit it. It went off with a whooshing boom, all of this light, but all of this sound and then all of the birds that were in the trees started screaming and flying away. And so, he remembers this kind of aural energy, the sound energy of the scene, and he tells the story 50 years later.  

And the reason I’m telling the story is that there’s ... what these photographs give you access to is ways to kind of sense passing flushes of energy, passing moments of intensity that may be explicitly in the scene but often are just implicitly around the scene. And this comes with the mulling when you, when you’re with these pictures for decades and you’re with the town for decades as well and you start to sense, ‘Oh, that’s why that crime image from 1952, that’s why it looks that way. It was taken at that time of day in that part of the town.’ And so there’s just these qualities that the archive captures. Most people don’t go to the archive for those qualities. They go for different batches of information. 

Mireille Duchau: So, the theme or the term ‘wonder’ is a good connection to my next question, which is about the ASIO material. Because in our earlier discussion about that footage of known or suspected members of the Australian Communist Party, you mentioned that using these materials is partly an impulse to bring what’s ostensibly owned by the institutions that house them into the public domain. At the same time, you’re changing the valence or charge around this violating footage of ordinary citizens. In your hands, their repeated movements become poignant and almost fond choreography. I was looking at the men walking down the street and, as you mentioned to me, men don’t walk like that anymore. You know, the hands in the pockets, the tie flung over the shoulder, the sort of the gait. There’s this kind of beautiful choreography that speaks of a particular time as well, but these are also documents about human rights abuses. So, can you talk a little bit about approaching those files and kind of bringing out the wonder in those images while simultaneously knowing that they were kind of violating documents?  

Ross Gibson: Yes, those ASIO ... that footage has a kind of callous or suspicious animating impetus, like they’re set up to look at these people who are suspects and whether or not the amount of criminality they’ve got in them, in each of those figures, you know, that’s all for debate, but when I look at the pictures, I just see that all of those, as you say, the choreography, the way people are looking, the way they relate to each other in mysterious ways because we don’t really know what they’re saying to each other, and so on. I just always see a poignancy in it, and I just always like the experiment of trying to find ways of editing together the rhythms – the way these people meet and leave and meet and leave and meet and leave, go in the door, come out the door, go in the door, come out the door –just finding ways to make that strange so that you can feel a poignancy about them. And also, for me, when I knew that they were on the, you know, that I was making them for the phones, like you’re carrying these people in a quiet, almost sort of tender way. 

I just thought, ‘Well, that’s an experiment worth doing.’ How could you make the animus that’s in these not callous but tender somehow? And what happens when you do that? What do you learn about people generally? What do you learn about the terrain that people move through? In that regard, they’re truly experimental films. What happens if we turn the animus around? Do we do we find other qualities in the imagery? What happens when we throw text, which requires one cognitive mode against that audio-visual configuration, which requires another cognitive mode? What happens then? What happens if you make it kind of frustratingly but also, hopefully, kind of invigoratingly evident that you’re not going to catch it all? If you’re looking at the words, you’ve missed the images; if you’re looking at the images you've missed the words. And, knowing that they’re on the phone, you’ve got control, anyway, you can go back and forth, back and forth. And that was what was so interesting about seeing them being in old-style cinema where we can’t reach into the remote control, is to feel that tension of ‘there is too much information here’. That was a good thing about seeing them big here. 

Mireille Juchau: Does that also replicate the feeling you have when you’re in the archives? I know that they can be very overwhelming places. I remember once being in an archive with pretty disturbing documents and the woman who was chaperoning me had brought a sandwich and she insisted that I eat and drink and we had to go out in the sun, that there had to be this sort of practise of using the archive because it was so confronting. So is that also the feeling when you’re in there, that sort of overwhelm and inability to take it all in? 

Ross Gibson: Definitely, because you’re in this profusion of highly charged remainders. And most people who do archival work, even the people who are kind of, in a quite utilitarian manner, usually seeking some nailed-down fact, you know, even those people who are not ruminating a whole lot, who are not trying to stay resonant to the ‘woohoo’ stuff in there, even those utilitarian people learn that you’ve got to kind of go out every 90 minutes and break yourself away from the spell. And so that’s just good practice, you know, and one learns that over months and years. But I think it is to do with this overwhelming configuration of semantic and emotional force that is usually in the archive. And what you do with it, then, is ... it’s always only going to be one utterance from an infinite number of utterances that you could make in relation to the material. But the trick, for me, the work is to make as many of those utterances as possible, to make them somehow chime, somehow knock you off kilter a little bit and think anew about some of your received knowledge. 

It’s probably evident from the text that I’m a sort of lifelong student of haiku and those texts are not haiku, but they are informed by this sort of intensity. And one of my favourite definitions of a good haiku is by Thomas Hoover, an American critic, who said that you know you’re in the presence of a good haiku when ‘a hammer is struck in your mind, bringing your senses up short and releasing a flood of associations’. So this idea of ‘ching’ and then ‘whoosh’, a slightly broader understanding of what you thought was your received knowledge, those are the kind of utterances that I’m always trying to emit from the archive. 

Mireille Duchau: And do you see it as, is there any sense that it’s kind of a form of memorial-making, working with these historical materials? 

Ross Gibson: It’s definitely memory work for the health of the culture, for the health of one’s self in the culture to kind of get a sense of the richness that backgrounds all of your quotidian activity, to get a sense of the wonderfulness of that wonder, wonder, wonder energised world. And any functional system – like any political system, social system, ecological system – any functional system that doesn’t have a good memory collapses after four or five generations because it’s just not learning. It’s not putting together a basis of received knowledge from which to step and make new knowledge. And so the memory work is just important. It’s our job. I’m always struck by how the memory work is to remember the configuration of feelings that are amongst people and the configuration of feelings that are in the environment, to take care of that sort of memory-keeping as much as the memory-keeping of the readily transferable information that we need to take care of as well. 

Mireille Juchau: So before we ... I’m not sure how we’re going for time? Yep. I would like to talk a little bit more about your creative practice and your method. I know the audience will have more questions about the film, and I know that I’ve taken a very literary track through this material, but I was curious, and I did ask you who your kind of guiding figures are when you’re working with these kinds of source materials, and you mentioned the well-managed mystery of [Stéphane] Mallarmé’s letters was a real source of inspiration for you or a guiding force. Obviously, Eisenstein’s editing principles – put my glasses on will help – I’m also thinking in the way that you collage images and text, and their sort of suggestive mutability, of the way you described Emily Dickinson’s work in that same review of poet Emma Lew and you talked about the omitted centre in her work, and I’ll just read your little description: ‘A major device in Emily Dickinson’s writing was what might be called the “omitted centre”. The riddle, the circumstance too well known to be repeated to the initiate. The deliberate skirting of the obvious […] was how she increased the privacy of her communication, forcing her reader to hear between the lines.’ I feel like that speaks to the films as well, as to a review of a poet. Could you talk a little about … I know you’ve worked with Dickinson’s work as well as haiku, who else informs this practice? 

Ross Gibson: I mean, it’s, after we had a little preparatory chat on the phone the other day and you asked a question a bit like that, and I thought, ‘Wow, they’re all poets!’ Like everyone who has given me some kind of little gem that I carry [are] poets. So Emily, who, Emily Dickinson’s work is wondrous in the way that it divulges a certain amount and then refuses to divulge the rest. And so she sets up this kind of vacuum in which you, the reader, just ‘whoosh’, flood in with your own kind of wish to know or wish to say, or your feelings in response to what she refuses to divulge. So, she’s one. And then, Stéphane Mallarmé, the French poet who has this great advice to writers, which is that mostly what you’re doing when you’re composing poetically is sanding away at the thing that you’re trying to say until you’ve got to the point where mostly what’s left that you give the reader is mystery but not confusion. So a kind of constructed mystery that lights the reader up.  

Mireille Juchau: So how do you know – the big question for all of us creators – is how do you know when you reach that point?  

Ross Gibson: That’s kind of why friends are in the world, but it’s also why editors are in the world. But it’s also just up to your own responsibility. I mean, painters have the same problem, you know. At what point do I stop? Because you can mess it up by going too far. So that’s part of one’s task, I think, as a writer, to try to transpose yourself into the reader’s position and feel if the mystery’s there and if it’s resonating at all.  

Two other poets, very quickly, RS [Ronald Stuart] Thomas, the Welsh poet who says that the work you do has to arrive at the intellect by way of the heart, which I think is a very, very strong idea. And Patrick White at the start of this novel, The Solid Mandala quotes Paul Éluard – no one’s been able to find this quote exactly – that quotes Éluard as saying, ‘There is another world, but it is in this one.’ I think that’s a little maxim that I’ve carried for a long time as well.  

Mireille Juchau: That turns up in Anwen Crawford’s work and she’s here today as well, and it’s hard to find who actually said that when you start to look [for] that quote, it seems to belong to a lot of people they want. They want to own it. 

Ross Gibson: That’s right. And it’s one of those ... Well, he certainly should have said it because it’s a very good thing to say. 

Mireille Juchau: And so does that mean that when you’re working on sort of film or other media, that you go back and forth between poets and what you’re doing? Or is it just that they’re kind of ticking away in the background? 

Ross Gibson: They’re ticking away because that’s poetry and the writing about poetry, for reasons that I should fathom better, are just what I read now for the last ten years. And so they are more informative, I guess, I’m harvesting stuff from that type of reading. But I think it’s not surprising, you know, it’s to do with this attempt to find a kind of intensified morsel that you can either find or construct, that is what poets are meant to be doing. And how do you take that poetic sensibility to audiovisual and textual material?  

Mireille Juchau: Just before we go to questions, I’d like you to just talk a little about the Alexandria work, that infrastructural haunting – I still want to know what that means to you, as the maker – and again the ghosts appear, the beautiful image of the train passing through, I’m not sure which suburb, and the shadow of a passenger on the window, and [in] my second viewing of that today I saw you in the window. So, tell us about Alexandria. 

Ross Gibson: It’s the place I’ve lived in for 30 years and I traverse it constantly, I traverse it at night a lot walking the dogs. And it’s just, there are just patterns of like, it’s a very ugly place in daytime, and it’s a very beautiful place at night, and that’s strange. So that always made me interested, and I started to kind of see if I could catch that beauty. And it’s also spooky at night – and less so now, it’s not a problem to walk late at night in Alexandria now – but it’s got a grim kind of set of histories even from the last 50 years, as well as it’s got millennial histories. And so once again, this sort of sense of there’s a force in this place, and it’s the ordinary place that a lot of us live in, and it’s very suburban and mundane at the same time as it’s kind of wondrous. And I just noticed, I don’t know if it’s only Alexandria where the kind of electrical infrastructure is on the fritz, but it’s just not working a lot at night and I just think, well ok, that’s damnation of council, perhaps, but I don’t know, but it’s also just interesting.  

Mireille Juchau: And it’s a gift for you. 

Ross Gibson: It’s just you’re moving amongst this pulsing environment. And also, well, actually, that’s right, everyone lives in a wondrous place, like the ordinary, mundane, banal places we live in, backgrounded by millennia of human history and gazillions of years of matter doing its thing. And so, it’s just nice to kind of remind oneself of that wonder. 

Mireille Juchau: Thank you. I think that’s a good place to turn to the audience. If anyone would like to ask Ross a question, there is a roving mic. Please speak in because it’s being recorded. We’d love to hear from you. 

Kathryn: Hello, Ross!  

Ross Gibson: Complete disclosure: this is Kathryn, my wife. 

Kathryn: (laughs) You were talking about the hammer and the [inaudible] that set off. I’m thinking of a particularly powerful... [inaudible], which is the woman, that stabbed woman in the photographs and your relation to the stabbed woman in the photographs and your relationship with her began ‘97 when you first saw those images and has continued. And I just wonder that might be a way to talk about the kind of thickening and accrual of meaning and association over time, and also whether you went through rhythms of, ‘I want to know more about her. I don’t want to know more about her,’ how that’s changed. Because, unlike many of the other images that ever appeared to you in that collection, there’s obviously, she’s negotiating that photographer as well, she’s reaching out through that image. There’s some kind of erotics in the way that she’s encountering it, there’s some, it’s kind of reaching beyond the pain. They’re remarkable images because she’s obviously been stabbed, but her face is not showing any of that. And she’s been, this idea of, there’s a world within world, she is that world within worlds and because you can’t imagine where she’s come from, what animates her, whether she is known to those men on the other side of the camera – all of those things. I’d just like to talk more about your idea, your relationship with archives through that ultimate mysterious woman.  

Ross Gibson: Well, gee, that’s exactly the centre of it, in a way, because there’s been … there was 12 years, at least, of wondering what to do with the fact of her being in the archive and getting to a point where – it was quite early in the 40s when those pictures were taken – and getting to a point where, she wouldn’t be in an audience, you know, and that’s a real issue. Like, what are you doing without asking? What are you doing with these faces and places? And one of the things one should do a lot of the time is just leave them be in peace.  

But that particular … there’s three sets of images through the archive of the various photographers’ encounters with this woman, and I do know a little bit about the case, but more in, keeping more in the fictive domain, I’m wanting to just work with the potency of those images. And they’re so potent because it’s very powerful the fact that I’ve used them at all. And then, if I’m using them, how am I controlling the use of them? How am I trying to make sure that there’s no dishonour accorded to her? As those images associated with her give us a view into a set of experiences that she lived through, not only her own personal experiences but a set of experiences that humanity lived through in the late 40s. 

And so, there’s hours of talking to do around that set of images. But you’re right to home in on them because they’re the most potent example of that profusion of energy that comes through in the residue of an archive. And sometimes the best thing to do is to put them back in the dark case. But other times, you think about, well, can some good come of this? How might I do some good with this residue? That’s a very slippery set of definitions too, what is good? But as blurry as all of that is in my response, that’s how I still think and feel about those images – they’re so powerful; they sort of deserve to be not there, but they also deserve to be honoured in a particular way.  

Person: Thank you very much for the films and the illuminating discussion. I wanted to ask you ... I became fascinated with the dark history of Sydney, the underground history of Sydney, I think, particularly when I was in my early teens, when I read [David] Hickie’s masterpiece, The prince and the premier. And it’s still an amazing work of oral history and so on, and it amazes me that it was written by someone who wasn’t a professional historian or anything like that. I was wondering if that book and works like that were important to you in your interest in the crime in Sydney from the 40s through the 60s, and the incredible intersection of corruption between like [Bob] Askin, for example, the coppers, like you talked about the coppers before, I was wondering if you ever encountered any of the monstrous coppers like Fred Krahe, who were like crocodiles, just killers, who we’re actually running the other killers, you know. When you were talking about, I find your work so interesting, and I’ve loved the City of Shadows [exhibition] and lots of stuff in the way that you’ve created a poetic realm and imagination, a space for imagination, as you say, with the gaps. But I became particularly fascinated with one case that I first read about in Hickie’s work, Johnny Warren, I don’t know if you remember, not the soccer player, but the gangster and that gang war that went on for a brief period and his killing, the mass murder that occurred in Kogarah, where he was knocked off, his partner was knocked off, her new boyfriend was knocked off, the mother was knocked off, and over the years in one incident, and I thought, even by the standards of the day, that was a pretty remarkable occurrence. And then I read, for example, Catch and kill your own, Neddy Smith’s book, and there was a theory about how the cops had set that up. And then, a couple of years ago, there was a deathbed confession by Ray Brogie, and he admitted to actually having done it. And I’m just interested in, like just it’s a selfish thing, but did you ever see any photographs involving that case? But were there other cases like that where you did become fascinated in trying to fill the gaps, this lost art of [inaudible]. 

Ross Gibson: Thank you. I decided quite early that the work I do with these would be not to not to solve any of the cases, but to use those thousand pictures as a sort of world that maybe was telling, in some way. But to touch on a lot of what you were talking about, you know, the kind of monstrosity of a lot of the figures in the 230 years of post-invasion history, at least, that what that world has taught me, it’s taught me to understand something about Sydney as a patterned history that has been going for 200, 230 years or so.  

And I’ve come to understand that – and this is this sort of idea of ‘the fist’ that I talk about –that there’s four fingers of activity that post-invasion society has always done in Sydney. There’s been land-grabbing or property development. There’s been the extraction of wealth from the raw materials of the place: coal, gas, et cetera. So, there’s been land-grabbing; extraction; the government of desires around booze; and the government of desires around gambling. Those four things from day one, 1788, the people in charge have been exploiting those four things, and they kind of make the fist.  

The thing that always fascinates me about Sydney corruption is, if the government thinks it’s in charge, they insist that the police are the fifth thing that really closes it around. If the police think they are in charge and there are many decades when they do, they insist that the government is the fist, is the thumb that kind of coheres to their wishes and causes the fist of corruption. Through the decades it shuttles back and forth: the government thinks it’s in charge, the police think they’re in charge. And that – with the land-grabbing, the extraction, the booze and the gambling – that makes the city, that’s the corrupt, ongoing history of the city. And it’s interesting, as we sort of maybe move out of extraction economies, how that will alter how the corruption and the power maintenance of the city works. We haven’t got to that finger, and the fist hasn’t been removed yet, but I’m always interested to see what new operational forces come in to govern the city. 

Mireille Juchau: Another one? 

Person 2: Hello. I really enjoyed the sequence that was like Brady bunch with planes flying off, and I just wondered if you could speak to that.  

Ross Gibson: I’m sorry, my hearing is pretty terrible.  

Mireille Jucha: I can repeat it. This person really enjoyed the sequence that was like the Brady bunch with planes flying. So the nine-channel, the last film? Is that right?  

Ross Gibson: Thank you. Yeah, that’s, to confess up, that’s not Sydney. That’s probably the outskirts of the Essendon in the 1970s. And it’s some aviation control authority testing of turbulence caused by jet aeroplanes landing and taking off. But when I saw, it just struck me as the most gorgeous kind of investigation of abstract expressionism on a huge scale. Like using a plane to do a Jackson Pollock painting! That’s really impressive. And what happens when you when you Brady bunch them, when you put them all together. And it’s a little like that sense that I was talking about where I’m trying constantly to show that there’s more, profusely, more here than you can catch in any one moment with all of those things happening. If you look at one frame, you’re missing the others. But there’s a lovely kind of patterning going on in there, I hope. And it’s a chance to work with that magnificent Chris Abrahams’ piano piece that’s just this rolling repetition where each repetition is somehow different and the same as the one you’ve just heard, and there’s a kind of wonder in that as well. So putting those two together, that was the experiment. 

Mireille Juchau: You have another one, might be the last, I think.  

Person 3: Hi, Ross. So we’ve heard a lot about the images and the text, and there’s that one other sensory, powerful associative energy that’s in the works and that’s the sound. Do you want to speak a little to that? 

Ross Gibson: Could you repeat ...? 

Mireille Juchau: Yes, there was a question about the sound in the images, whether you could talk a little about the sound since we hadn’t covered that today.  

Ross Gibson: Thank you. That’s a good, really good question. Again, I’ve had the privilege to work and to be friends with people like Chris Abrahams and Cat Hope, who have always been very generous offering their work as it exists already, like treating their work as an archive, as well as, I have no doubt, that they’d kind of produce something, if asked, something new, as well. But treating the work of Chris and of Cat as an archive, I’ve just always been interested to, in most cases, to have the imagery kind of coming together and then experimentally see what happens by reaching into the archive of their collected works and just running their pieces, their sound pieces against the image [to] see what happens and see if you can get to a point where something generative, something good happens.  

But I must say, so the Brady bunch aeroplanes, that came from knowing that I wanted to work with that piano piece of Chris’s and had years of trying to find something that kind of held its own in relation to that magnificent bit of piano by Chris. And it wasn’t until I found those aeronautical, that footage, that I came up with something to match and to do the experiment generatively, where the imagery held up in relation to the strength of the music. So it’s an experiment, constantly treating … usually music, existing music, as part of an archive as well.  

Mireille Juchau: Thank you. And thank you so much, Ross, for being with us today. It’s been such a privilege and a pleasure for me to speak with you. Would you, I think we’d all like to thank you for speaking with us.  

(audience applauds) 

Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd: Please join me again in thanking Ross and Mireille for coming together this afternoon and being such a wonderful, generous interlocutors.  

So that wraps up our screening. As I mentioned, you’re all welcome to come up to the function space and join us for a light afternoon tea. It’s just up on the ground floor. When you come up the escalators, do a 180-degree loop and it’s just behind you. Thank you again for coming, Ross and Mireille. It’s been a pleasure. Hope to see you later. Thank you. 

(audience applauds) 

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    Projections #7: an afternoon with Ross Gibson