Outback and beyond

Document Type


Publication details

Cooke, GA 2012, Outback and beyond', JMP Screenworks, vol. 3.

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Peer Reviewed



This project is underpinned by a cluster of related questions which stem from the basic premise of the project; that is, to produce a “live Australian Western” using footage cutup and remixed live from materials in the National Film and Sound Archive, set to a soundtrack of deconstructed Blues and electronics performed by sound-artist Mike Cooper. Mike also sings a libretto which meditates on the adventures and misadventures of engineer Charles Todd, who built the Trans-Australian telegraph from Darwin to Adelaide in the 1870s; this nation-building enterprise is invoked to instantiate one of the key themes of the Western – the installation of technologies of communication as a cornerstone of nation-hood – within the project.

The initial assumption this project is founded upon is that Australia has no concrete tradition of the cinematic Western - at least, not in the way it has been established in the US, where it has operated as a primary mechanism of national history, ideology and mythography. This is a debatable point of course - Australia has historical films about settlement and colonisation and feature films about bushrangers and the dangers of the outback, and contemporary films like Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005) are quite clearly posed as “revisionist” Westerns. Yet these films have never cohered into the national “project” evidenced by the American use of the Western genre.

With this initial assumption in mind, the project asks: If the Australian Western never formed as a concrete formation, might it perhaps exist in the archive in an abstract form? That is, given the presence of Western-like imagery in a number of early Australian films, could the “Australian Western” be said to exist in a latent form? Further, if this is the case, could it be brought OUT of the archive, and in a live performance situation? And what would it mean to do this?

These questions, then, revolve around the presence in the national archive of the images that constitute the national imaginary, but the questions also probe the potential for live audio-visual performance to interrogate that archive. The project asks whether it is possible, through the practice of the remix, through breaking the singularity and provenance of archival “artefacts” and bringing their newly created parts into new relations, to produce new modes of relating to and understanding national myths and images. This would be a kind of “archival hermeneutics” of performance, exploring the potential for live audio-visual performance to re-interpret not simply what is in the archive but the conditions of its existence and its social and cultural function in the present.

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