Allanah Stewart is an artist from Aotearoa/New Zealand, currently living in Melbourne, Australia. As well as her work in various experimental music projects, she is the presenter of a monthly podcast radio programme called Enquiring Minds, hosted by Noods radio, which explores old and new, lesser known and well known sounds that loosely fit under the banner of experimental music.
Jen Callaway is a Melbourne musician, sound and performance artist, photographer, and community services worker raised in various parts of Tasmania. Current projects include bands Is There a Hotline?, Propolis, Snacks and Hi God People; and upcoming film Here at the End, by Campbell Walker, as actor/co-writer.
Isha Ram Das is a composer and sound artist primarily concerned with ecologies of environment and culture. He works with experimental sound techniques to produce performances, installations and recordings. He was the 2019 recipient of the Lionel Gell Award for Composition, and has scored feature-length films and nationally-touring theatre installations. He has performed at institutions such as the Sydney Opera House; Black Dot Gallery, Melbourne; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Metro Arts, Brisbane; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; and Boxcopy, Brisbane.
Dylan Robinson is a xwélméxw (Stó:lō) writer, artist, scholar and curator, He is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts, and associate professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is author of Hungry Listening, Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies, published by University of Minnesota Press.
Megan Cope is a Quandamooka woman (North Stradbroke Island) in South East Queensland. Her site-specific sculptural installations, video work and paintings investigate issues relating to identity, the environment and mapping practices. Cope’s work often resists prescribed notions of Aboriginality and becomes psychogeographies across various material outcomes that challenge the grand narrative of ‘Australia’ as well as our sense of time and ownership in a settler colonial state.
Australian musician Sean Baxter died on 15 March 2020. Part of Melbourne's improv scene, he is described by musician Anthony Pateras as possessing “a unique aesthetic vision and intellectual depth, mixing highbrow philosophical concepts with punk sensibilities in how he lived, spoke and played. He was pure energy.”
Drumkit and percussionist, Sean was an Australian improviser who forged an international reputation as a bold explorer of percussive possibilities both as a soloist and through his work with the acclaimed avant-garde trio, Pateras/Baxter/Brown. Focusing on the use of extended techniques applied to the conventional drum kit, he utilised an arsenal of metallic junk and other percussive detritus to expand the sonic palette of the percussion tradition. In addition to Pateras/Baxter/Brown, he was involved in many collaborations and was drummer for groups The Throwaways, Bucketrider, Lazy, SxSxSx and Terminal Hz.
Thomas Ragnar is an artist based in Singapore. His work is often underpinned by collaborations, affinities and research with experiential methodologies.
Alessandro Bosetti is an Italian composer, performer and sound artist, currently based in Marseille. His work delves into the musicality of spoken language, utilising misunderstandings, translations and interviews as compositional tools. His works for voice and electronics blur the line between electro-acoustic composition, aural writing and performance.
Lin Chi-Wei is a legend of Taiwanese sonic art, whose practice incorporates folklore culture, noise, ritual, and audience participation.
Mat Dryhurst is an artist who releases music and artworks solo and in conjunction with Holly Herndon and the record label PAN. Dryhurst developed the decentralised publishing framework Saga, which enables creators to claim ownership of each space in which their work appears online, and a number of audio plays that derive their narrative from the personal information of listeners. He lectures on issues of music, technology, and ideology at NYU, and advises the blockchain-based platform co-operative Resonate.is.
Sean Dockray is an artist, writer, and programmer living in Melbourne whose work explores the politics of technology, with a particular emphasis on artificial intelligences and the algorithmic web. He is also the founding director of the Los Angeles non-profit Telic Arts Exchange, and initiator of knowledge-sharing platforms, The Public School and Aaaaarg.
Author of Hearing the Cloud (Zero Books), Emile Frankel is a writer and composer researching the changing conditions of online listening. In his spare time he runs the Sci-Fi and critical fantasy publisher Formling.
Bridget Chappell is a raver and theory bro currently living on the unceded nations of the Latji Latji and Nyeri Nyeri people. They make music as Hextape and organise parties in drains, observatories, and other natural amphitheatres. They founded and run Sound School, work with young musicians behind bars, and make experimental sound technologies to challenge police sirens.
Holly Herndon experiments at the outer reaches of dance music and pop. Born in Tennessee, Herndon spent her formative years in Berlin’s techno scene and repatriated to San Francisco, where she completed her PhD at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Her albums include Platform (2015) and Proto (2019).
Candice Hopkins is a curator, writer and researcher interested in history, art and indigeneity, and their intersections. Originally from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Hopkins is a citizen of Carcross/Tagish First Nation. She was senior curator for the 2019 Toronto Biennial of Art, and worked on the curatorial teams for the Canadian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, and documenta 14.
Raven Chacon is a composer, performer and artist from Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation. His work ranges from chamber music to experimental noise, to large scale installations, produced solo and with the Indigenous art collective Postcommodity. At California Institute of the Arts, Chacon studied with James Tenney, Morton Subotnick, Michael Pisaro and Wadada Leo Smith developing a compositional language steeped in both the modernist avant-garde and Indigenous cosmologies and subjectivities. He has written for ensembles, musicians and non-musicians, and for social and educational situations, and toured the world as a noise artist.
Lisa Lerkenfeldt is a multi-disciplinary artist working in sound, gesture and performance. Central to her practice is languages of improvisation and intimacy with technology. Traces of a personal discipline and form of graphic notation are introduced in the online exhibition 14 Gestures. The associated recorded work Collagen (Shelter Press, 2020) disrupts the role of the common hair comb through gesture and sound.
Haroon Mirza is an artist who intertwines his practice with the role of composer. Mirza considers electricity his main medium and creates atmospheric environments through the linking together of light, sound, music, videos and elements of architecture. Regularly showing internationally in group and solo exhibitions, Mirza’s work has also been included in the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, China (2012) and the 54th Venice Biennale, Italy (2011), where he was awarded the Silver Lion.
Shanghai native 33EMYBW (Wu Shanmin) has been an active member in the Chinese music scene for over a decade. She has also performed at CTM and Sinotronics in Germany, China Drifting Festival in Switzerland, and SXSW. Her 2018 album Golem, released on SVBKVLT, was met with critical acclaim and voted one of the best electronic albums of 2018 by Bandcamp. In 2019 she released DONG2 EP under Merrie Records Beijing, and will premiere her sophomore album Arthropods (SVBKVLT) at Unsound 2019.
Alexander Garsden is a Melbourne-based composer, guitarist and electroacoustic musician, working across multiple exploratory musical disciplines. Recent work includes commissions from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Speak Percussion, Michael Kieran Harvey and Eugene Ughetti; alongside performances with artists including Tetuzi Akiyama (Japan), Oren Ambarchi, Radu Malfatti (Austria), Julia Reidy, David Stackenäs (Sweden), and with Erkki Veltheim and Rohan Drape. From 2014 to 2019 Garsden was Co-Director of the INLAND Concert Series. He has taught through RMIT University and the University of Melbourne.
Annika Kristensen is Senior Curator at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.
Arben Dzika is an artist whose practice involves working with various media including, but not limited to: sound, image, word, and performance. His work primarily seeks to reflect on, interrogate, and play with technologies, systems, and human senses. Within his practice, he works as a producer and DJ under the moniker, Dilae.
Audrey Schmidt is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. She is a regular contributor to Memo Review, co-editor the third issue of Dissect Journal, and has written for various publications including Art Monthly, Art + Australia and un Magazine. She co-founded Minority Report with Adam Hammad in 2018 and released one online issue that was available until the domain expired in 2019. Audrey sits on the FYTA (GR) Board of Advisors.
Autumn Royal is a poet, researcher, and educator based in Narrm/Melbourne. Autumn’s current research examines elegiac expression in contemporary poetry. Autumn is the interviews editor for Cordite Poetry Review, and author of the poetry collections She Woke & Rose (Cordite Books, 2016) and Liquidation (Incendium Radical Library, 2019).
Bianca Winataputri is a Melbourne-based independent curator and writer researching contemporary practice in Southeast Asia, and relationships between individuals and collectives in relation to history, globalisation, identity and community building. Currently working at Regional Arts Victoria, Bianca was previously Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGA. She holds a BA (University of Melbourne), and BA Honours from the ANU where she received the Janet Wilkie Prize for Art. In 2018 Bianca was selected for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art’s Curators’ Intensive.
Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific, founded in 2014 in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. Hioe is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, as well as an occasional translator.
Chi Tran is a writer, editor, and an artist who makes poems that may be text, video, object, sound, or drawing. Chi is primarily interested in working with language as a means of coming-to-terms. Their work has been published by Incendium Radical Library Press, Cordite Poetry Review, Australian Poetry and Liminal Magazine and exhibited at galleries including Firstdraft, Sydney; Punk Café, Melbourne; and ACCA, Melbourne. In 2019, as a recipient of The Ian Potter Cultural Trust Fund, Chi spent three months in New York developing their practice with renowned poets including Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Fred Moten, and Jackie Wang.
Chun Yin Rainbow Chan is a Hong Kong–Australian artist, living in Sydney. Working across music, performance and installation, Rainbow is interested in the copy and how the ways in which it can disrupt Western notions of ownership. Central to Rainbow's work is the circulation of knock-off objects, sounds and images in global media. Her work positions the counterfeit as a complex sign that shapes new myths, values and contemporary commodity production.
Dale Gorfinkel is a musician-artist whose stylefree improvisational approach informs his performances, instrument-building, and kinetic sound installations. Aiming to reflect an awareness of the dynamic nature of culture and the value of listening as a mode of knowing people and places, Dale is interested in bringing creative communities together and shifting perceived boundaries. Current projects include Prophets, Sounds Like Movement, and Music Yared as well as facilitating Art Day South, an inclusive arts studio with Arts Access Victoria.
Danni Zuvela is a curator and writer based in Melbourne and the Gold Coast. Her research is informed by interests in feminism, activism, ecology, language and performance. With Joel Stern, Danni has led Liquid Architecture as Artistic Director, and continues to develop curatorial projects for the organisation.
Eric Avery is a Ngiyampaa, Yuin, Bandjalang and Gumbangirr artist. As part of his practice Eric plays the violin, dances and composes music. Working with his family’s custodial songs he seeks to revive and continue on an age old legacy – continuing the tradition of singing in his tribe – utilising his talents to combine and create an experience of his peoples culture.
Fjorn Butler is an artist, researcher, and event organiser. As an artist, she works primarily in sound and performance under the name Papaphilia. As a researcher, she interrogates how biological discourses are used in neoliberal/colonial governance structures to shape the political. Fjorn's research informs her writing on sound-poetics and the challenges this framework poses to anglophone notions of property. She is also co-director of Future Tense and co-curator of Writing and Concepts.
Freya Schack-Arnott is an Australian/Danish cellist who enjoys a multi-faceted career as a soloist and ensemble performer of classical and contemporary repertoire, curator and improviser within experimental music, electronics, popular and cross-disciplinary art forms. Schack-Arnott regularly performs with Australia's leading new music ensembles, including ELISION Ensemble (as core member) and Ensemble Offspring. Her curatorial roles include co-curator/founder of the regular 'Opus Now' music series and previous curator of the NOW Now festival and Rosenberg Museum.
Gooooose (Han Han) is an electronic music producer, visual artist and software developer based in Shanghai, China. His current releases include They (D Force, 2017), Dong 1 (D Force, 2018), Pro Rata (ANTE-RASA, 2019). Gooooose's 2019 SVBKVLT–released RUSTED SILICON received positive reviews from media including boomkat, Resident Advisor, Dusted Magazine, and The Wire. Gooooose has performed live at CTM (Berlin, 2018), Nyege Nyege (Kampala, 2019), Soft Centre (Sydney, 2019), Unsound (Kraków, 2019) and Recombinant (San Francisco, 2019).
Harmony Holiday is a writer, dancer, archivist, director, and the author of four collections of poetry, Negro League Baseball, Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues, Hollywood Forever, and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.
James Rushford is an Australian composer-performer who holds a doctorate from the California Institute of the Arts, and was a 2018 fellow at Academy Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. His work is drawn from a familiarity with specific concrète, improvised, avant-garde and collagist languages. Currently, his work deals with the aesthetic concept of musical shadow. James has been commissioned as a composer by ensembles including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Glasgow), and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and regularly performs in Australia and internationally.
Jessica Aszodi is an Australian-born, London-based vocalist who has premiered many new pieces, performed work that has lain dormant for centuries, and sung roles ranging from standard operatic repertoire to artistic collaborations. She has been a soloist with ensembles including ICE; the Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide Symphony Orchestras; and San Diego and Chicago Symphony Orchestras’ chamber series. Aszodi can be heard on numerous recordings and has sung in festivals around the world. She holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the Queensland Conservatorium, an MFA from the University of California, and is co-director of the Resonant Bodies Festival (Australia), and artistic associate of BIFEM.
Kt Spit (Katie Collins) is an artist and musician based in Narrm (Melbourne). Lyrically and visually her work explores subcultural narratives and challenges dominant representations of loss, grief, and true love. In 2015 Kt independently released her debut album, Combluotion, and in 2019 will release a visual album entitled Kill the King.
The Convoy conjure illustrious soundscapes from the abyss of chaos, revealing hidden worlds of the imagination as the performance takes form and infuses with subjective experience. Using instruments of sound, light and smell, The Convoy enchant space with themes of tension, evolution, entropy and regeneration. Sensorial immersion transports audiences through highly dynamic environments that shift and blend into one single, breathing moment. As entity, rather than singular, Immy Chuah is a guest within The Convoy on unceded land.
I’m interested in what can be done with one’s identity and the space around it. Both my body and mind, touching everyday feelings between the rational, the playful and the political. Of course, this is often to do with my disability and my sexuality. My work has been focused on access, and the lack of it — to places, people’s minds and opportunities. I find plasticine is a great subverter of space and potentially of people’s minds. And the continued flexibility of it is something I am really enjoying — covering or filling up gaps and playing with crevices. But I’m finding that my work is drawing more and more to spoken word as a powerful format.
Sarah McCauley is a Melbourne-based music producer, editor and writer.
Neil Morris is a Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung man. He is well known in Narrm/Birraranga for his musical project DRMNGNOW, a project built on subject matter tackling the colonial nature of the Australian construct and how that affects contemporary society upon this land. The work is unapologetic, clear, and deeply poetic. It hints toward Morris's extensive experience as a spoken word artist in Narrm since 2015. Morris's work is triumphant in the face of severe adversity often imbued in a quite fortified melancholy, a powerful marker of the survival of First Nations peoples in the now.
Natasha Tontey is an artist and graphic designer based in Yogyakarta. She is interested in exploring the concept of fiction as a method of speculative thinking. Through her artistic practice she investigates the idea of how fear, horror, and terror could be manifested in order to control the public and how fictional accounts of the history and myth surrounding ‘manufactured fear’ might operate as a method of speculative fiction that determines expectations for the future.
Mat Spisbah is a New Media curator with a unique portfolio of programming that seeks to integrate non-traditional artistic methods and emerging technologies. Having lived in Hong Kong for 14 years, he is connected to the region’s art and culture, and has created professional networks with artists, curators, galleries, promoters and industry professionals across Australasia. Portfolio highlights include the debut Australian performances of north Asian artists including: Howie Lee, Rui Ho, Meuko Meuko, Pan Daijing, Alex Zhang Hungtai, Tzusing, and Gabber Modus Operandi.
Mandy Nicholson is a Wurundjeri-willam (Wurundjeri-baluk patriline) artist and Traditional Custodian of Melbourne and surrounds. Mandy also has connections to the Dja Dja wurrung and Ngurai illam wurrung language groups of the Central/Eastern Kulin Nation. Mandy gained a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Aboriginal Archaeology in 2011, worked for the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages for six years and is now a PhD candidate studying how Aboriginal people connect to Country, Off Country.
Lucreccia Quintanilla is an artist, writer, DJ and PhD candidate researcher at Monash University. Her writing and art have been published and exhibited both within Australia and internationally. Quintanilla’s practice is a collaborative one that manifests into outcomes within galleries and also as events and performances outside of that context. She regularly speaks at panels and symposiums on themes within her research, has received grants for her projects and residencies, and has taught at university level.
Amanda Stewart is a poet, author, and vocal artist. She has created a diverse range of publications, performances, film and radio productions in Australia, Europe, Japan, and the USA, working in literature, new music, broadcasting, theatre, dance, and new media environments. Amanda collaborated with Chris Mann for many years in the Australian ensemble, Machine For Making Sense (with Jim Denley, Rik Rue, and Stevie Wishart), as well as in other contexts. Her poem ‘ta’ was written in honour of Chris Mann’s extraordinary vision and work.
Holly Childs is an artist and writer. Her research involves filtering stories of computation through frames of ecology, earth, memory, poetry, and light. She is the author of two books: No Limit (Hologram, Melbourne) and Danklands (Arcadia Missa, London), and she collaborates with Gediminas Žygus on ‘Hydrangea’. She is currently writing her third book, What Causes Flowers Not to Bloom?.
Ivy Alvarez’s poetry collections include The Everyday English Dictionary, Disturbance, and Mortal. Her latest is Diaspora: Volume L (Paloma Press, 2019). A Fellow of MacDowell Colony (US), and Hawthornden (UK), her work is widely published and anthologised (twice in Best Australian Poems), with poems translated into Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, she lived in Wales for almost a decade, before arriving in New Zealand in 2014.
Nick Ashwood is a guitarist, composer, improviser and performer from Nipaluna/Tasmania now residing in Sydney. His focuses have been exploring deep listening, harmonic space and the possibilities of the steel-string acoustic guitar by means of preparations, just intonation, objects and bowing.
Berlin-based composer-performer Johnny Chang engages in extended explorations surrounding the relationships of sound/listening and the in-between areas of improvisation, composition and performance. Johnny is part of the Wandelweiser composers collective and currently collaborates with: Catherine Lamb (Viola Torros project), Mike Majkowski (illogical harmonies), Phill Niblock, Samuel Dunscombe, Derek Shirley and others.
Megan Alice Clune shifts between musician, composer and artist. Primarily, her work explores both the concept and aesthetics of ambient music through sound installation, collaboration and performance. Megan is the founding member of the Alaska Orchestra, and has presented work and undertaken residencies across Australia, Asia, Europe and North America, including the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival (MA), Next Wave Festival, Underbelly Arts Festival, Performa 15 (NYC) and VividLIVE at the Sydney Opera House.
Andrew Fedorovitch is compos mentis. Andrew Fedorovitch embodies professionalism in every aspect of his life, including music.
Shota is an artist working in Australia. He makes sound-based works for varying contexts. He has had the opportunity to collaborate with a multitude of artists from varying disciplines. Shota is currently an honours student who is associated with the Plant ecophysiology and Ecosystem processes lab at the University of Sydney.
Sonya Holowell is a Dharawal woman, vocalist, composer and writer working across new and experimental genres. The contexts for her work, and the forms they take, are diverse and deeply questioning. Her practice comprises interdisciplinary collaboration, improvisation, multi-form writing and conceptual composition. She is also a workshop facilitator; a curator of the Now Now Festival; lecturer in experimental vocal practice; and a co-founder/editor of online arts publication ADSR Zine.
Alexandra Spence is an artist and musician living on Gadigal country in Sydney, Australia. She makes installations, compositions and performances based on (everyday) sound and listening. Through her practice she attempts to reimagine the intricate relationships between the listener, the object, and the surrounding environment as a kind of communion or conversation. She has a current, near-spiritual, obsession with the animation of material and object through sound. Alex has performed and presented work on radio, in concerts, festivals, symposiums and galleries worldwide, and has two releases: Waking, She Heard The Fluttering, with Room40, and Immaterial, with Longform Editions.
MP Hopkins is an artist based in Sydney, Australia, that is concerned with how to record voices that are not really there, and ways to make voices that are there not sound like voices. He makes audio recordings, performances, and texts.
Joel Stern is a curator, researcher, and artist living and working on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne, Australia. He has been Artistic Director of Liquid Architecture since 2013. In 2018, with critical legal scholar James Parker, Stern curated Eavesdropping, an expansive project addressing the ‘politics of listening’ through work by artists, researchers, writers, detainees and activists from Australia and around the world.
Georgia Hutchison is a cultural development practitioner and arts executive in Naarm/Melbourne, and Executive Director/CEO of Liquid Architecture. Her practice as an artist, educator, organiser and strategist crosses contemporary art, music, design and social justice.
Rob Thorne (Ngāti Tumutumu) is a new and original voice in the evolving journey of Taonga Puoro. His debut album Whāia te Māramatanga (Rattle Records) is a deeply felt and highly concentrated conversation between the past and the present—a musical passage of identity and connection. Using modern loop technology and traditional Māori flutes and horns made from stone, bone, shell and wood, Thorne creates a transcendent aural experience that touches the soul with timeless beauty. Every performance of Whāia te Māramatanga is a stunning and very personal exploration of the spiritual and healing qualities of an ancient practice.
Michiko Ogawa is a performer-composer specialising in the clarinet, born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. She performs not only classical repertoire but also contemporary and experimental music, including free improvisation and film soundtrack work. In 2019 she was awarded a doctorate (DMA) from the University of California San Diego, with a dissertation focusing on the film music of Teiji Ito. She is in the beginning stages of writing a biography of Ito’s life.
Curious about the tender intersections between art, life and friendships, Emma Nixon is an emerging curator and writer. In 2018 she completed a Bachelor of Art History and Curating at Monash University and co-founded Cathedral Cabinet ARI in the Nicholas Building. In Melbourne she has curated and written about exhibitions that investigate subjects such as abstraction, the domestic, care and collage within contemporary art.
Fayen d’Evie is an artist and writer, based in Muckleford, Australia. Her projects are often conversational and collaborative, and resist spectatorship by inviting audiences into sensorial readings of artworks. Fayen advocates the radical potential for blindness, arguing that blindness offers critical positions and methods attuned to sensory translations, ephemerality, the tangible and the intangible, concealment, uncertainty, the precarious, and the invisible. With artist Katie West, Fayen co-founded the Museum Incognita, which revisits neglected or obscured histories through scores that activate embodied readings. Fayen is also the founder of 3-ply, which investigates artist-led publishing as an experimental site for the creation, dispersal, translation, and archiving of texts.
Debris Facility Pty Ltd is a para-corporate entity who engages im/material contexts with the view to highlight and disrupt administrative forms and their embedded power relations. Deploying print, design, installation, and wearables as the most visible parts of operations, they also work in experimental pedagogy and perforated performance of labour. They are a white-settler parasite with theft and dispossession as the implicated ground from which they work. They currently hold contracts with Liquid Architecture, Victorian College of the Arts, Monash University and Debris Facility Pty Ltd.
Timmah Ball is a writer and urban researcher of Ballardong Noongar descent. She has written for The Griffith Review, Right Now, Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Art Guide Australia, Assemble Papers, The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, the Victorian Writer magazine and won the Westerly Patricia Hackett Prize for writing.
Jessie Scott is a practising video artist, writer, programmer and producer who works across the spectrum of screen culture in Melbourne. She is a founding member of audiovisual art collective Tape Projects, and co-directed and founded the inaugural Channels Video Art Festival in 2013.
Christopher L G Hill is an artist, poet, anarchist, collaborator, facilitator, lover, friend, DJ, performer, sound pervader, publisher of Endless Lonely Planet, co-label boss; Bunyip trax, traveller, homebody, dancer, considerate participator, dishwasher, writer, bencher, eater, exhibitor: Sydney, Physics Room, Westspace, TCB, BUS, Punk Cafe,100 Grand street, Lismore Regional Gallery, Good Press, Gambia Castle, Conical, GCAS, NGV, VCA, Mission Comics, Slopes, Art Beat, Papakura Gallery, Neon Parc, UQ Gallery, Tate Modern, Connors Connors, Glasgow International, Sandy Brown, OFLUXO, New Scenarios, Margaret Lawrence, Flake, Utopian Slumps, World Food Books, Sutton, Rearview, Joint Hassles, a basement, a tree, Innen publications, SAM, Chateau 2F, etc, and tweeter, twitcher, sleeper, Biennale director (‘Melbourne Artist initiated’ 2008, 2011, 2013, 2016, 2018-20), DJ, retired gallerist Y3K, conversationalist who represents them self and others, born Melbourne/Narrm 1980c.e, lives World.
Iliass Saoud was born in Halba, Lebanon in 1960 as the sixth of eight children of Wakim and Nadima Saoud. Escaping the Lebanese Civil War in 1977, Iliass migrated to Canada pursued a BA in Mathematics from Dalhouse University in 1982. In 1987 he married Janice Joseph (Fakhry) before settling in Australia to raise his family in 1997, owning a variety of small businesses including the Gaffney Street post office across from the Lincoln Mill’s Centre in Coburg from 2005-2011. Currently, Iliass works part time at a local newsagency and is an avid Bridge player and a dedicated grandfather of one.
Dimitri Troaditis works in the Greek-Australian media. As a poet he has been extensively published in Greece and in Australia in numerous literary journals, websites, blogs and anthologies. He has published six poetry collections and two social history books so far. He has organised poetry readings in Melbourne for years and translates others’ poetry. He runs poetry website To Koskino and was a resident of Coburg for 19 years.
Luisa Lana was born in Australia in 1953. Her mother Nannina had arrived in Australia in 1950 with a 3 month old son, and worked for many years on the sewing room floors and her father Angelo worked on the docks where he helped unionise the Italian workforce. Luisa and her brother were latchkey kids, as they looked after themselves in the morning and ran the ‘Continental’ deli in the evenings. Luisa attained a teaching degree, then a postgrad in Social Sciences, and twice studied Italian at The University for Foreigners in Perugia, Italy. Luisa married Luigino Lana, a Venetian migrant who operated a mechanic business in Brunswick for over 30 years. She devoted her life to being an educator and a mother, teaching Italian to English speakers and English to generations of migrants from around the world. Currently Luisa is translating her father's memoirs from Italian to English, and enjoying being a Nonna.
Anabelle Lacroix is a French-Australian curator, writer and radio contributor. Working independently in Paris, she is based at Fondation Fiminco for a year-long residency focused on the politics of sleeplessness (2020). She has a broad practice, and a current interest in experimental practice, working with performance, sound, discourse and publishing. She is a PhD candidate at UNSW Art & Design.
Geoff Robinson is a Melbourne-based artist working on Wurundjeri country. Robinson creates event-based artworks that utilise the temporal qualities of sound and performance and the spatial conditions of physical sites to unravel the durational layers of place. Robinson has presented projects with Titanik, Turku; Bus Projects, Melbourne; Liquid Architecture, Melbourne; and MoKS, Mooste, Estonia. He was awarded the Melbourne Prize for Urban Sculpture 2014 and completed the PhD project Durational Situation at MADA, Monash University, Melbourne, 2018.
Mattin is a cross disciplinary artist working with noise, improvisation and dissonance. His work Social Dissonance was presented at documenta 14 in 2017 in Kassel and Athens.
Elena Biserna is a scholar and independent curator based in Marseille (France), working at the intersection of social, political and public spheres.
Tobi Maier is the director of Lisbon’s Municipal Galleries, and recently presented Mattin’s Expanding Concert (2019–2023) a four year long concert distributed in time and space through different media: 5 public interventions in 5 different galleries in Lisbon, and 5 texts published within the city.
Clare Milledge is an artist and academic, she lives and works between the lands of the Arakwal people in Bundjalung country (Broken Head, Northern NSW) and the lands of the Bidjigal and Gadigal people (Paddington, Sydney). She is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Art & Design and is represented by STATION gallery.
Alexander Powers is a choreographer, performer and DJ from Naarm. In 2019 they premiered their first full length choreographic work Time Loop at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, receiving the Temperance Hall Award at the Fringe Awards. Under the moniker Female Wizard, they are known internationally for their forward-thinking DJ sets. They’ve performed at Golden Plains, Dark Mofo, Boiler Room, Hybrid Festival and Soft Centre and held a four year residency at Le Fag.
Zoe Scoglio’s (often collaborative) practice explores the space of art as a site of study and sociality to engage the radical imagination towards alternative ways of being, knowing and relating. Current research takes critical and collective somatic approaches towards response-ability in these times of ecological collapse, within settler colonial conditions. Past projects have taken place within varied contexts, on top of mountains and under full moons, as large collective choreographies and intimate encounters.
Tricky Walsh is a non-binary artist working in New Norfolk, Tasmania, who works both collaboratively and in a solo capacity. Their projects focus on both spatial and communication concerns in an increasingly speculative manner and while they use a diversity of media (architecture, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, sound, film, comics, radio) it is foremost the concept at hand that determines which form of material experimentation occurs within these broader themes.
Kengné Téguia is a Black Deaf HIV+ cyborg artist, who works from sound deafinitely. #TheBLACKRevolutionwillbeDEAFinitelyLoud
Angela Goh is a dancer and choreographer. Her work poses possibilities for disruption and transformation inside the aesthetics and conditions of technocapitalism, planetarity, and the post-anthropocene. She lives and works in Sydney, and has toured her work across Australia, Europe, the UK, the USA and Asia. She received the 2020 Keir Choreographic Award and the inaugural Sydney Dance Company Beyond the Studio Fellowship 2020-21.
Jannah Quill’s deconstructive exploration of electronic instruments and technologies manifests in electronic music production and experimental audio-visual performance and installation. Jannah modifies existing technologies (such as solar panels) into innovative light-to-audio systems, used with software/hardware experimentation and modular synthesis to carve a distinct voice in electronic music and art.
Tom Smith is a Melbourne-based artist, musician and researcher whose work combines video assemblages, experimental performance, speculative fiction, electronic music, websites and critical writing. Tom’s work is concerned with the politics and poetics of computational systems, the contradictions of creative economies, generic digital aesthetics and music as a mode of critical inquiry. Tom is also one half of music production duo Utility, and runs an independent record label called Sumactrac with Jarred Beeler (DJ Plead) and Jon Watts.
Pris Roos grew up in Rhenen, the Netherlands. Her family migrated from Bogor, Indonesia, to start their own toko in the Netherlands. Toko is the Indonesian word for shop, and they sell non-Western food (products). Roos grew up in the toko, a space of being together, and full of colours, smells, food, stories and images of immigrants. The toko is a source of inspiration for her artistic practices. Stories that are normally not heard find their way in her works. Roos makes portraits of immigrants that she meets in the toko, on the streets or in her surroundings of the South of Rotterdam. She visits them at home or invites them to her atelier. The stories are translated into painted portraits, videos, installations and spoken word performances.
Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer and arts worker from Mt Druitt. She is the general manager of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Sydney University. Winnie’s work has been published in the HuffPost Australia, The Saturday Paper, Griffith Review, Meanjin Quarterly, SBS Voices and Cordite. She is the editor of several anthologies including Sweatshop Women, The Big Black Thing and Bent Not Broken. Winnie is currently completing her debut novel as the recipient of a 2019 CAL Ignite Grant.
Jon Watts is a Melbourne/Naarm based musician, designer, 3D artist and animator. His music has been released through cult labels SUMAC and Butter Sessions, and he is currently Senior Multimedia Installer at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Pan-Pan Kolektiva was established in March 2020, as a research group on listening. Pan-Pan is a standard emergency call based on the acronym Pan which stands for Pay Attention Now.
Nathan Gray is an artist whose recent works use voice as their medium, taking form as lecture-performances, radio-plays and documentaries, DJ sets, narrative and rumour.
makik markie yammamoroto
Leighton Craig is an artist living in Meanjin/Brisbane. He has been in a number of bands (The Lost Domain, G55, The Deadnotes et al) and is currently a member of the duo Primitive Motion with Sandra Selig.
Anne Zeitz is associate professor at University Rennes 2. Her research focuses on aural attention, the inaudible, the unheard, and the polyphony in contemporary art. She directed the research project 'Sound Unheard' and she co-organised the eponymous exhibition at the Goethe-Institut Paris, Paris and exhibition 'Échos magnétiques” at the MBA Rennes, Rennes in 2019.
Melissa Johnson is Associate Professor of Art History & Visual Culture at Illinois State University (Normal, IL). Her scholarly research focuses on the histories of craft and its intersections with modern and contemporary art. She is currently working on a project that explores artists making work in response to the writings of Virginia Woolf. She’s deeply interested in situating her academic writing and her textile-based work as parallel practices, and is working on two writing and textile projects, “Woolf Words” and “Haptic Investigations,” and a project on mending and repair.
Diego Ramirez makes art, writes about culture, and labours in the arts. In 2018, he showed his video work in a solo screening by ACCA x ACMI and he performed in Lifenessless at West Space x Gertrude Contemporary in 2019. His work has been shown locally and internationally at MARS Gallery, ACMI, Westspace, Torrance Art Museum, Hong-Gah Museum, Careof Milan, Buxton Cotntemporary, WRO Media Art Biennale, Human Resources LA, Art Central HK, Sydney Contemporary, and Deslave. His words feature in Art and Australia, NECSUS, un Projects, Runway Journal, Art Collector, and Australian Book Review. He is represented by MARS Gallery, Editor-at-large at Running Dog and Gallery Manager at SEVENTH.
Noemie Cecilia Huttner-Koros is a queer Jewish performance-maker, writer, dramaturg, poet, teaching artist and community organiser living and working on Whadjuk Noongar country in Boorloo (Perth). Her practice is driven by a deep belief in the social, political and communal role of art and performance and in engaging with sites and histories where queer culture, composting and ecological crisis occur.
Josten Myburgh is a musician based on Whadjuk Noongar boodja country who plays with techniques from the worlds of electro-acoustic music, radio art, free improvisation, field recording and experimental composition. He co-directs exploratory music label Tone List and the Audible Edge festival. He has performed in South Africa, the United States, and throughout South East Asia, Europe and Australia. He is a Schenberg Fellow and a student of Antoine Beuger and Michael Pisaro.
Aisyah Aaqil Sumito is an artist and writer living near Derbarl Yerrigan on Whadjuk Noongar Bibbulmun lands. Their work reflects mostly on personal intersections of disability, queerness and diasporic ancestry in so-called 'australia'. They have recently made text-based contributions to Runway Journal and HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.
Michael Terren is a musician and educator from Boorloo/Perth. Grounded in experimental studio-based practice, his work explores the social construction of the technologies of music’s creation and distribution. He is a sessional academic teaching music at two Boorloo universities, and in 2019 finished a PhD thesis entitled 'The grain of the digital audio workstation'.
Joee Mejias is a musician and video artist from Manila. She is co-producer of WSK, the first and only international festival of digital arts and new media in the Philippines and co-founder of HERESY, a new platform for women in sound and multimedia. She performs as Joee & I: her avant-pop electronica solo project.
Myriad Sun are an experimental audio/visual/rap trio from Walyalup (Fremantle), Australia, composed of electronic producer Ben Aguero, Mc POW! Negro, and Limit Bashr. Additional performers: Mali Jose, Billy Jack Narkle and Polly-Pearl Greenhalgh.
Jasmine Guffond is an artist and composer working at the interface of social, political, and technical infrastructures. Focused on electronic composition across music and art contexts her practice spans live performance, recording, installation and custom made browser add-ons. Through the sonification of data she addresses the potential of sound to engage with contemporary political questions and engages listening as a situated-knowledge practice.
Sounding Together comprise of the following performers: Rhys Butler (alto saxophone); Simon Charles (soprano saxophone, shakuhachi); Eduardo Cossio (electronics, writing); Luke Cuerel (alto saxophone); Jim Denley (flute, writing); Julia Drouhin (voice, electronics, objects, images); Jameson Feakes (mandolin); Be Gosper (voice, objects); Noemie Huttner-Koros (voice, writing); Lenny Jacobs (percussion); Annette Krebs (amplified string instrument); Annika Moses (voice, images); Josten Myburgh (clarinet, alto saxophone, editing); Dan O’Connor (mastering); Stuart Orchard (guitar, objects, editing); Daisy Sanders (voice, movement).
Yan Jun, a musician based in Beijing uses a wide range of materials such as field recording, body, noise and concept. Yan Jun: “I wish I was a piece of field recording.”
Katie West is a multi-disciplinary artist who lives on Noongar Ballardong boodja and belongs to the Yindjibarndi people of the Pilbara tablelands in Western Australia. The process and notion of naturally dyeing fabric underpin her practice – the rhythm of walking, gathering, bundling, boiling up water and infusing materials with plant matter. The objects, installations and happenings that Katie creates invite attention to the ways we weave our stories, places, histories, and futures.
Simon Charles is a composer and performer based in Noongar Ballardong Country (Western Australia). His practice reflects an interest in the instability of compositional structures; as friction between musical notation and perception and interactions with place. He has performed at Serralvés Festival (Porto), The Wulf (Los Angeles) Studio Rotor (Berlin), Vigeland Mausoleum (Oslo), Avantwhatever Festival (Melbourne), DATA (Marseille), ANAM Quarttethaus and the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Tiarney Miekus is a writer, editor and musician based in Naarm/Melbourne. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow (Online), Overland, Memo Review, un Magazine, Art Guide Australia, Swampland and RealTime. She is currently editor and podcast producer at Art Guide Australia.
Liang Luscombe is a Naarm/Melbourne-based visual artist whose practice encompasses painting, sculpture and moving image that engage in a process of generative questioning of how media and film affect audiences.
Thembi Soddell is a sound artist best known for their powerful acousmatic performances and installations in darkness. In 2019 they were awarded a PhD from RMIT University for their practice-based research titled, A Dense Mass of Indecipherable Fear: The Experiential (Non)Narration of Trauma and Madness through Acousmatic Sound. This research developed a novel approach to understanding lived experiences of anxiety, depression and trauma using a medium (abstract sound) with the unique ability to reflect the intangible nature of the inner world.
Jason De Santolo (Garrwa and Barunggam) is a researcher & creative producer based in the School of Design, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. He has worked with his own communities as an activist and advocate using film and performance, protest and education to bring attention to injustices and design solutions using Indigenous knowledge.
Kynan Tan is an artist interested in the relations and conditions of computational systems, with a focus on data, algorithm, networks, materiality, control, and affect. These areas are explored using computer-generated artworks that take the form of simulations, video, sound, 3d prints, text, code, and generative algorithms.
Snack Syndicate, two rats (Andrew Brooks and Astrid Lorange) living on unceded Wangal land; texts, objects, events, meals, and publics.
Spence Messih is an artist living and working on Gadigal land. Their practice speaks broadly to sites of pressure, power structures, materiality, and language, and more specifically about these things in relation to their own trans experience.
Tom Melick is the co-editor of Slug and part of the Rosa Press Collective and Stolon Press.
Trisha Low is a writer living in the East Bay. She is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013) and Socialist Realism (Emily Books/Coffee House Press, 2019).
Not far from where St Kilda beach forms a firm line against the land, inside the Palais Theatre, which is suspended in the throes of young energy and blatant desire, housing the new strutting contempt of rock’n’roll, John Nixon is watching the Rolling Stones. It’s 1965 and he’s fifteen years old, sitting in the second last row with a friend. It’s the spark of a first concert. He can just see. When The Beatles and the Rolling Stones cast their ballots, he was on the Rolling Stones side. It’s a memory weighted with gravity; he’s animated, gesturing, conveying the spectacle of what the Rolling Stones meant to a teenage boy who’d never seen anything like it before. And yet—he’s almost more interested in recalling the support acts, bands filled with young and local jazz, rhythm and blues players, criss-crossing between genres, lightly experimenting within the early spectres of rock ’n roll. That freedom to slide between styles, of not being caught following one musical line, to simply do, innately meant something to Nixon. It would be one small, anecdotal piece of the expansive perspective that would later animate his own approach to music-making, albeit with his sense of amateurism; of embracing multiple kinds of music, and ways of making music, in order to throw away the conventions of music-making altogether. This young Nixon would eventually be known as one of Australia’s greatest avant-garde painters — and he would simultaneously, with little fanfare, create hundreds upon hundreds of recordings.
Four decades after this Rolling Stones implosion, on a Sunday afternoon in early 2008, Nixon would perform under The Donkey’s Tail, one of his most cherished, and last, musical projects. ‘And it was at this Palais Theatre where I saw the Rolling Stones,’ he remarked, all soft smiles. ‘I thought, “This is amazing. I’m playing the Palais Theatre.”’ It was, he said, a kind of magic. The small pride in this reflection was akin to the pride when a person, who usually seems matter of fact in their ambitions, has achieved something beyond regular life. Nixon repeatedly told me that although he made music, he was never a musician. He reflected and self-mythologised in the way that every artist unavoidably ends up conjecturing, but when I mentioned this Rolling Stones story to his artist friends, only one person knew the anecdote. ‘Oh, I haven’t heard that one,’ came the replies. What other ones? I wondered. And for a brief few seconds the people I spoke to became thoughtful, weighing the worth of this small story.
Nixon had warned me two minutes into our first Zoom meeting that my role as an interviewer was akin to being a good therapist; I didn’t disagree. In mid-2020, I spoke with Nixon twice across Zoom about his music. He sat in his home, in a room of books haphazardly placed, looking into the computer screen when he was talking; looking away when he was thinking. Like much experimental music across Australia, his output has had astonishingly little written about it. At a certain point many arts writers have taken on ‘Nixon the painter’, like a rite of passage, but rarely any other kind of Nixon. Despite his small fame as an artist, the lack of interest in the music, he said, saddened him.
At this point Nixon had received a Leukaemia diagnosis. He found out in October 2019, and had undergone immediate treatment. He was resolutely positive, and then he was unwell again. Plans to visit his home archive were put on hold. ‘You’ve actually got more material to think of,’ Nixon told me in one of our sessions, going through his vast output of recordings, some of which reside online, others stored away, unheard for decades. There were the approximately 400 one-off cassettes of Anti-Music in the late 1970s where Nixon, either solo or with artist friends, created experimental, layered tape recordings. Next were the musical collaborations of the 1990s and 2000s, and later the CDs, performances, installations and digital releases of The Donkey’s Tail; beginning in 2007, it was an ever-changing music ensemble with Nixon at the helm, ranging from absurdist opera to atonal instrumentation. Laid end to end, it would be hundreds of hours of material—and one mustn’t forget the posters, printed manifestos and music-related artworks. Nixon started to speak of himself in the third person: ‘You’ve got just a lot more to ascertain, in a way, what it is he’s doing. It’s a bigger sort of…’ Here Nixon trailed off. ‘A bigger sort of what?’ I should have asked.
A few months later our mutual friend, the artist and musician David Chesworth, text messaged me. ‘John Nixon 1949-2020. XXDavid’.
When Nixon died, the tributes cascaded. Every news and arts publication attempted to give vigour to Nixon’s life and art, but it was also the self-expression, the often-overlooked intimacy of social media that lent his death poignancy: countless artists, musicians, and curators gave exceedingly affectionate voice to Nixon. The man in Melbourne art who always showed up; the generous friend who’d purchase something in an op-shop because you came to mind; the attentive artist walking around with his tote bag full of plywood scraps that you might find useful; the attuned thinker saving that newspaper clipping just in case. Unlike many other canonised artists of his age and success, his attitude was never commercially or egotistically inclined: he was dedicated to his local arts community.
After Melbourne’s long lockdown lifted, toward the end of 2020, I visited Anna Schwartz Gallery where Nixon’s final exhibition Groups + Pairs 2016 – 2020 had been extended in memoriam. The collection of misshapen interviews and research that I was carting around in lieu of a profile on Nixon’s music felt visually mirrored in the paintings; lines of imagination and fact, all with a logic to ascertain. In a stylised salon hang, there sat the rows of minimalist paintings that saw Nixon adored and decried, all produced in the frugal materials he’d been using for a lifetime. Moving along in warm lines of colour and form, each change in composition passed along like a series of semicolons, an opening to a tuneful whisper.
I am not the first person to notice the musicality of his paintings, and at times Nixon himself created paintings to be read like a musical score with live performances to match. But when I mentioned this quality of the paintings to Chesworth I used the word ‘repetitions’ and was quickly rebuked. ‘You say iterative,’ said Chesworth. ‘That’s the word of a repetition, but it can have variation and change. You’re reiterating. You’re re-saying. And he’s [Nixon] re-saying, but the act of re-saying somehow accumulates. You have a different way of encountering the work through its accumulation.’ Across thousands of pieces of art, Nixon spent a life in iterations.
Despite an evident and enduring influence from Russian Constructivism and the monochrome, and a relentless rejection of realism over a fifty-year period, Nixon’s work almost ends up being a kind of disconnection from the linear continuity of the past. In using other styles, whether in painting or music, it was never pastiche or a winking quotation. Nixon came before Australian postmodernism, and many critics try to meet him at the level of repetition and irony — but that will get you nowhere. Instead, in some strange drift between modernism and postmodernism, the influence of history lay within the present, ready to be mined for its iconography and power.
The profundity of this lies beyond the painting and music. Nixon repeatedly positioned himself within the ‘expanded’ idea of being an artist. Although he never quite let the image drop of being a hard-line minimalist; he was also a writer, publisher, curator, gallery director, educator, photographer, and printmaker. Listening to and viewing what I have of the music and performances he was involved in, it would be untruthful to say it’s all individually brilliant, but there are moments of brilliance, and there is a brilliance in the unwavering output, and the brilliant way it was conceptualised. In this Nixon seemed to outdo everyone, and he was reflective of this small world he built: a few weeks before he died, Nixon joked to his collaborator and friend, the artist and musician Marco Fusinato, ‘Marco, I made too much.’ The abundance becomes its own artistic statement, and yet the simplicity is deceiving; I kept recalling something Nixon said about masterpieces.
In late 2020, Monash Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) organised a Zoom Artforum that served as a tribute to Nixon, with collective tears expressed across the software’s small windows. One speaker, Nixon’s studio assistant Jacqueline Stojanovic, mentioned how she once asked him what his favourite work was. ‘His answer disappointed me,’ she said, explaining how Nixon replied, ‘I don’t have a favourite, they’re all good.’ Stojanovic persisted: ‘Then will you ever have a masterpiece?’ Nixon replied, ‘No,’ but noted that ‘on the other hand, they are all masterpieces.’ How much of this is accompanied by a small smile? How do we measure seriousness? A bigger sort of what?
Nixon’s parents — his father a civil servant, and mother a homemaker — were not that interested in music. ‘We had no art,’ he told me. ‘We didn’t have a record player. The radio was the unit in my family house. And so therefore you would listen to pop music.’ It was, he explained, how you learnt about pop music. In 1960s Melbourne, popular music for adolescents largely meant traditional jazz, with small shows at jazz clubs and the Melbourne Town Hall. ‘As a young person you’d go to these jazz dances, and then there would be mod dances, or rhythm and blues dances, where we would go out and meet girls and listen to young bands.’
As for most of us, music began in Nixon’s youth as something social as much as aesthetic. Yet in his early twenties, while studying fine art at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, Nixon was deeply invested in the solitude of painting; he didn’t know anyone who made music. ‘If there had been other people who prompted me to say, “C”mon, we can make a band together or something,” I’m sure I would have been up for it,’ he said. At the same time, this young Nixon ‘fell in love’ with the 1960s folk boom of Bob Dylan and Greenwich Village singer-songwriters. ‘That became what I was really interested in: the solo performer where you do both things,’ he explained. ‘It also may be reflected on the fact that I was an artist and you had to do everything yourself, and you weren’t in a group. You didn’t have this socialised group where people had different opinions. You had your opinion, and you realised it, and I liked that about the singer-songwriter: they had an idea and they realised it.’ Nixon was unabashed about this: while Anti-Music and The Donkey’s Tail could be likened to rotating musical ‘coming togethers’ with different people, instruments and sounds guiding each release or performance, the structure of Nixon as the conceptual leader pervaded the projects.
For Nixon, music wasn’t a stagnant grid of genres that couldn’t be touched; these were malleable entities, ripe for picking. In his gentle cadence, he could become enthused by the rhythms of a film soundtrack; discuss the merits of Sonic Youth’s later music (which he rather charmingly called ‘folk’); entertain conversations on disco; and would arrestingly reinvent the emotion that opera corralled within him. His attentions, he said, were always with music. ‘Still principally, my interest in terms of sound, if sound was a bigger umbrella, my channel is still music … I always hated sound sculpture. I didn’t like sound art. I thought, “No no, these are not interesting.”’ He sounded almost annoyed to even be saying the words ‘sound art’ aloud. Those lineages of musique concrète and John Cage, while being musical histories that he seemed to indulge, were never something he was interested in (even though Nixon himself wrote, in the early 1980s, of a Cagean influence).1 ‘What’s interesting,’ he explained, ‘is how you can adapt music into some other forms.’
As an artist who had a strategy underpinning almost everything he created — ‘All the things I try to do, I try to work within rule,’ he said — the conceptual cues that begin with Anti-Music and later filter throughout his life-long relationship to sound are easily recognised: the Situationists, Dadaism, Bauhaus, Constructivism, and the work of Italian futurist, Luigi Russolo. The crossing of art forms and boundaries were integral to what these art movements were about, but what’s curious is how Nixon used music, adopting strategies from his influences. For Nixon, music was a form that contained categories, and each had their own tradition. There are limits and histories, he seemed to say, and choices to be made in what you align yourself with, but there is also musical freedom and originality in these choices, limits and histories.
Although his musical naivety would become a self-assured style, I asked Nixon if there was regret in not learning to play an instrument. ‘When I went to art school, I was a bit silly. I should have also learnt to play guitar,’ he replied. ‘Music and art were my two favourite things, the trouble is the art became too important to me, so the only time I had left was to enjoy the music and enjoy going to discotheques and things like that. It became an evening activity, and in the daytime, I’d be at art school. I also never learnt to drive. These are two legacies which I’ve lived with all of my life … In a way, I’ve made the most of the unsophisticated musician-driver: I take the train and I learnt to play guitar in the wrong.’
John Nixon, Pneumatic Drill, Issue 48 (February 1983). ↩
‘And I’ll never forget the scene,’ said Tony Clark, the artist, Anti-Music collaborator and friend of Nixon, describing the moment when Nixon opened his front door in Melbourne’s south to Clark in the 1970s, and the pair laid eyes on each other for the first time. ‘It was a classic mid-1970s scene of people cooking tomato soup with Mao posters on the wall, and that sort of thing around.’ At this time Nixon lived with his then-partner, the artist Jenny Watson. Although they’d eventually move somewhere more palatable, Clark was relaying the complete pragmatism with which a young Nixon approached art-making: ‘The frugality of the way they went about their work echoed in their lives.’
When the 1970s came and the phrase ‘do-it-yourself’ became a mantra, Nixon was already there — it was a necessary frugality he inherited from his parent’s generation. ‘You would just do things yourself because you didn’t have enough money to pay someone to do it,’ he explained. Always assigning significance to what others may overlook, in art school he scrounged leftover materials from other students to make paintings, using such limitations as a creative principle in itself; in music he would embrace quick and cheap recording methods, indulging the talents of his artist and non-musician friends. Style often comes out of circumstance, and if a defining characteristic of the late 1970s was a mixture of do-it-yourself ethics coupled with irreverence for the Institution, then the culture happened to align with Nixon’s already preconceived mentality.
Punk was the other big thing, and Nixon came face-to-face with it when he visited London in 1977. ‘It’s the birth of independent music,’ he said. ‘It’s the birth of not having to have a big record label. It’s the birth of being able to do things yourself, have the confidence in what you’re doing and how it’s released.’ He witnessed first-hand the likes of Chelsea, Talking Heads and Slaughter and the Dogs. ‘I would go to see everything. I was curious about what everyone did, what everyone sounded like, what everyone looked like. At the Roundhouse you could also sit upstairs, and I really enjoyed that as an observer. I didn’t have to be in the mosh pit, I didn’t have to be down in front. That was a big moment in time when I also thought, “Well, I can make my own music.” This is a moment of liberation where you don’t have to know how to play the guitar or play the instrument properly, you can play it in an unorthodox way. You can do something with sound.’ At this point rock music, already long full of brilliance and mediocrity, had truly vindicated the individualist creed that anyone can do anything.
What prompted the London excursion was Nixon’s unhappiness with his career in Australia. The sentiment felt common: ‘Nobody’s really interested,’ he told himself. ‘I thought, “Fuck this, I’m going to go.”’ As much as the two-year jaunt meant punk and being exposed to European art, it also heralded the formation of Art Projects — Nixon’s self-run gallery space that would be Anti-Music’s exhibiting site, making sense of the material being produced.
In London, Nixon met a man named Barry Barker. He self-ran a gallery near the British Museum, upstairs in an old accountant or dentist’s room. ‘Of course, people didn’t want these rooms,’ said Nixon, ‘and so he [Barker] had one room with one desk, and that was it!’ It was an example to live by. ‘I learnt: “You can do this, John. You can go back to Australia, you can start a gallery with your other friends and colleagues that you know are also a bit displaced at the moment.”’ At the age of 30 he took a couple of rooms on the third floor of Lonsdale St in Melbourne CBD and used his salary from teaching art at the Victorian College of the Arts to pay the rent of $20 per week, showing his own work alongside artist friends who would later become crucial figures in Australian art, including Jenny Watson, Peter Tyndall, Tony Clark, Imants Tillers, Robert Owen and Mike Parr.
When Art Projects was established in 1979, Nixon’s life’s purpose became the seriousness of art. The moment is telling; only six years prior, conscription to the Vietnam War would have hung like a sentence over Nixon’s head; the cultural revolutions of the 1960s were still lightly pulsating, but a sense of deflation lingered, giving way to the heightened politics of the 1970s. The Australia Council for the Arts was only established in 1973, six years prior to the opening of Art Projects, and a new generation of artists, conceptually-minded, playful and rigorous, were done with painting landscapes and composing tuneful music — they were now awaiting their moment. A small moment would arrive three years later with curator Paul Taylor’s infamous POPISM exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), conceptualising and giving voice to artists like Nixon, Mike Parr and Howard Arkley.
Meanwhile in Melbourne’s inner-south, where Nixon lived, The Birthday Party were testing their esoteric sound, and the Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda was becoming the central venue for Melbourne post-punk; in the north came experimental bands like Use No Hooks, and then there was the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, an experimental site for new music making including the likes of Warren Burt, David Chesworth, Maria Kozic and Philip Brophy. Performance art, post-object art, conceptual art and postmodernism were all becoming known terms, with these movements attempting to circumvent the growing ‘industry’ of art, and popular culture was driven by capitalism more than ever before.
Anti-Music moved among these things without quite touching any of them: it was its own cerebrally-loaded, aesthetic project where nothing else quite like it existed. ‘I think John was very much aware of what was happening in the different music scenes,’ said Peter Tyndall, the artist and Nixon’s friend who was director at Art Projects in the early 1980s, and a collaborator in Anti-Music. ‘I think he wanted to be part of music and so he brought his…’ He paused. ‘His more severe…’ He stopped again. ‘Well, his more particular parameters to it.’
Inside a small, padded postage bag, a cassette is making its way up and down the east coast of Australia. On this cassette could be all manner of strangeness; the crackles of unidentifiable self-made instruments; piano-driven compositions; screaming; giggling plods of single notes; looping phrases; instruments put to the task of dissonance; every shade of atonality; excursions into more traditional melody, but without the skill, or perhaps the desire, to really pull it off; and adventures across disco, punk, electronic, and film music. You might hear Tyndall’s tape of Muzak spilling from retail stores into the streets, or when Clark recorded his eleven-year-old sister singing lines of poetry to the tune of music only she could hear on a Walkman, or perhaps one of Clark’s peculiar libretti’s, sung and layered all by himself. These were Anti-Music tapes.
At the age of thirty, Nixon wanted to make music. He wasn’t going to wait for anyone. And plus, he had a name. Intuiting more like a proclamation, Anti-Music is a linguistic slope that eventually has you asking what music itself is. If anything, it tells you something about what you’re going to hear.
When, in 1979, Nixon turned to his circle of non-musician, artist friends — people like Watson, Tyndall and Clark, among others — to create around 100 mini-groups that would produce 400 one-of-a-kind cassettes, he didn’t realise he’d soon be director of the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. For two of Anti-Music’s five years — it lasted until 1983 — Nixon and his artist friends made the most of the postal service, sending cassettes back and forth, forming temporary musical groups and cultivating clear distinctions between each cassette. Otherwise, when Nixon was in Melbourne, from bedrooms and studios they created local, frugal, adhoc recordings. Rather than being a polemic against music, these rudimentary, fluctuating recordings could accumulatively call attention to the very means of music making: ideas, people, instruments, sounds, genre, mood. It’s about knowing how to lose a sense of musicality in order to find another kind of music.
As always, Nixon would conceptualise the recordings in his no fuss method. Yet through his natural inclination to build genuine rapports and friendships, people often adored working with him. Tyndall likened it to ‘being a subcontractor for a sub-band.’ Clark thought of Nixon like an organiser or manager; there was a fun comradeship, he said, alongside a sense of trying to undermine one another. Inevitably, some collaborators were rubbed the wrong way — they didn’t like Nixon’s direction, desiring the utopian ideal of each collaborator having equal control and judgement. If they didn’t leave, Nixon wouldn’t have them onboard.
Never writing down names on the cassette credits, but only collaborator initials in order to eschew the celebrity factor of recording (although this became a marker of exclusivity, since everyone ‘in the know’ could easily decipher what ‘JN’ might mean), what truly made Anti-Music possible was the cassette recorder. Mass-marketed, cheap and easy to use, it found its way into Australian experimental music-making during the 1970s. ‘I could do the music myself,’ realised Nixon. ‘Everything was recorded on a stand-up cassette player.’ He had three recorders, and for tracking layered cassettes he’d record individual sounds on separate recorders, pointing them towards a master recorder: lo-fi, simple, flexible, no rehearsals.
With a process like this, Anti-Music was always envisioned as a recording project, never performative. With only one master copy, each cassette is a rarity that would be exhibited at Art Projects or a similar gallery, or sometimes played on experimental radio. Anti-Music even featured in a music and sound section in the 1982 Biennale of Sydney. Very rarely, they’d be played live. The only publicly released Anti-Music recordings happened when William Furlong, a British sound art aficionado, visited Melbourne and worked with Nixon to produce this Anti-music sampler for Audio Arts magazine, which is now part of the Tate Collection.
Otherwise, the cassettes would sit in the gallery as an art object, devoid of the commercial implications of the record store. ‘I would make concerts,’ said Nixon, ‘where, in art galleries, there would be just two speakers on the wall, seated, and I would play them like a disc jockey from the back of the room and you’d have a one-hour concert and that would be it.’ At other times, the cassettes were exhibited via speakers positioned in a minimal format.
This aesthetic would extend to the cassette artwork — which has no imagery at all — but rather featured ANTI-MUSIC written in commanding, capitalised letters set against monochrome backdrops. The same aesthetic would later emerge in The Donkey’s Tail posters and artworks. Such simple, yet formal qualities clearly drew on Nixon’s paintings, borrowing their matter-of-fact, yet strangely spiritual quality of pure communication.
Nixon — who at this time with his dark clothing and intense expressions, hair pushed to the side, a few stray rings at the front — had a punk-like, modernist demeanour. However, he was weary of the over-expressiveness of both mainstream and underground music. ‘I don’t have to be like, “Oh, I’m a punk guy. I spit on people. I hate everyone else except me,”’ he said in a bored tone that I rather loved. ‘It’s not like that. That was really a pose within certain aspects of the punk movement.’ At this time in Australia, only a few people in the punk scene were from art school, and ‘whilst I’m willing to call it music,’ said Nixon of Anti-Music, ‘it’s coming out of art. I have a different angle on it.’
While Nixon’s methods can find companionable company with the bottom-up movement in rock music — of people in small communities trying on instruments and making music by simply making do — this was not music as it’s normally known. It’d be the rare person who’d play an Anti-Music cassette for the typical joys of music. As Clark explained, ‘There was never any question of taking it out of the so-called high art context. One paid lip service to that, I suppose, but there was no effort made to get the stuff out there, or take it out of the gallery.’ As conceptually driven as it was amusingly amateur, Anti-Music flourished like a series of hypotheses in creating music.
While some argue it was less about music and more about the defiant proposition the label represented (which is why there were so few arguments about the actual music itself), others felt it was dedicated to what most of Nixon’s art is dedicated to: the idea of creating. Or it could simply have been an excuse to create the cassette imagery as a visual series. And then there are those who saw Anti-Music as textual, because they got the accompanying printed manifesto, Pneumatic Drill. The content was not solely where the concentration needed to be, and if the conventional constructions of music were now falling apart along with so many other constructions, then anything, finally, was permitted.
The role of the artist in the late 1970s was not just to create art, but to conceptualise it, theorise it. Nixon said as much in a 1980 interview with artist Ted Riggs, calling for an art practice ‘beyond the easel’, believing there was a necessity for an artist to own up to one’s work.1
A year later, Nixon took his own advice. The thoughts behind Anti-Music were published in Pneumatic Drill, an assertive, single-sided, one-page newsletter with sixty issues from 1981 to 1983. It called Anti-Music ‘a living factory of the human spirit,’ and established that ‘Anti-Music seemed an appropriate umbrella term to deliberately separate itself. It denotes a certain kind of musical practice outside “normal music” / “experimental music”.’2 With the Anti-Music logo, again written in urgent, no frills capital letters, Nixon made commanding announcements, explaining in a manifesto-like manner how and why the music was made. ‘That meant I didn’t have to have a well-written philosophy of what I wanted to do,’ he explained to me. ‘Whenever I thought of something else to add to the concept, I could just release another issue of Pneumatic Drill … It’s quite a good way to write, rather than writing the journey before you’ve actually taken the journey.’
Nixon made art almost every day. He didn’t do weekends. His days ‘off’ were his days teaching at Monash University. He said the reason he had credibility with different generations of artists was that although he’d show in rarefied spaces like Anna Schwartz Gallery, he also showed in alternative worlds across different forms, taking each thing as seriously as the next. ‘The work ethic goes through to every activity I do. If I do something, if I move into something else, I always have said, I have to do it for five years minimum. If you’re going to do something for five years, you make a contribution. If you do it for six months or a year, pfft! It’s not even a football season.’ Time is often viewed as tragic, measured by the clock—but not by Nixon. He had too much to do.
‘There was no one really like him, as far as I know, working in Melbourne at the time,’ said Clark when I asked what a young Nixon was like.‘What do you mean “like him”?’ I probed. ‘Well, there was no-one so ideological,’ answered Clark.
Ideological. Disciplined. Serious. Pragmatic. Unequivocal. Hardline. Punky. These are the words rustled up to describe the Nixon of the 1970s and 1980s, a borrower of minimalism for whom, at the level of caricature, appeared to be a formalist devoid of emotion. As such, Nixon had his critics. ‘He got sent up a lot for being, as a lot of people saw it, too ideological and too purist and too correct a line,’ said Clark. ‘He was basically, you know, you don’t fuck with him,’ said Chesworth.
Of course, the label Anti-Music invited its own critics. There was one time, as Tyndall recalls, a music writer turned up at Art Projects ‘quite riled up’ and ready to challenge Nixon on both the label and the sound — unfortunately, Nixon was in Brisbane. ‘Some people really wanted to have it out with John,’ said Tyndall, expanding on how there was something people didn’t understand, or would become defensive and therefore hostile about, in Nixon’s work. If punk was meant to be a music of cultural opposition, then Anti-Music took that title literally.
Another hostile moment came when Nixon performed at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre. By performance, he played an Anti-Music cassette on stage and stood silently next to it, rejecting the expressivity of performance as per routine at the centre. Although it was a recording of brittle noises, containing a collage of popular music from a range of cultural sources, it caused great upset. Nixon, as Chesworth remembers it, was ‘basically accosted’ by the composer and poet Chris Mann. He went up to Nixon ‘and loudly questioned what the hell he was doing, which was surprising, since at Clifton Hill, all kinds of musical offerings were accepted.’ Because Nixon’s music didn’t operate on a purely musical level, it was seen by some as existing outside musical paradigms, even experimental ones. For some people, it caused offence.
During this time, Nixon became focused on releasing art from the clutches of conservative Australian painting, and music from well-worn song conventions. His ideal was the European artist single-mindedly dedicated to their work and to the pure, white cube, avant-garde gallery. Excellence existed almost like a moral. Anything less than serious might be a kind of nihilism. ‘You’ve got to really commit,’ he told me. ‘Whatever you are going to do, if you can commit to that and say, “Yes, I’m serious about this. I’m not mucking around.” And I don’t do mucking around stuff.’ While Nixon would always keep his discipline and pragmatism, something within him mellowed as he aged; he was still as rigorous as ever, but with a softer edge. The Nixon I spoke to was talkative and amusing; prone to small acts of theatre to make a funny point; someone who told me they believed in instances of fate. As Clark said, ‘that sort of serendipitous and silly side has only come out in recent times.’
If Nixon ever felt self-doubt or self-consciousness, he never let on. Such confidence is contagious when, for many, being an artist is a role married to the suffering of self-doubt. ‘He had this capacity to inspire people by the seriousness of his purpose,’ said Clark. ‘The reason why I admired him was that he brought it off. It wasn’t a pose. It was an authentic feeling that he had about what he was doing and the things that he liked.’ Nixon was generous with his seriousness, and he lent encouragement as freely as water — but this attention and kindness also had a point beyond generousness in-and-of-itself.
In methods both intuitive and conceived, Nixon was building a personality and set of ideas that centred on his consistent approach to art making, and he was further building a collective pulse for those ideas. As critic Francis Plagne remarked, in one of the few essays that goes beyond Nixon’s painting and thinks of his practice holistically, ‘for Nixon, the specific aesthetic or political values of a particular artwork are less important than the fact that art is made by communities of people who in some sense devote themselves to making art.’1
A few days after speaking to Tyndall, he sent me an email. He’d been thinking about our attempts to understand what ‘serious’ means when applied to Nixon. If the music was so serious, why could it also be so amusing at times, so absurd? ‘Other words for serious?’ wrote Tyndall, ‘dedicated, engaged, committed, ambitious, aware… laughing.’
Tyndall included this image, underlining the text at the bottom which reads ‘If you’re really serious you should be laughing:
Francis Plagne, ‘Salon des Independents: John Nixon as Curator and Publisher in the 1980s’, Discipline, No. 1, Winter 2011, 22. ↩
I asked Nixon if he felt he’d been pigeonholed as a certain kind of hard-line artist. ‘No, not really.’ I waited, not quite believing it. ‘I mean, sometimes somebody might say, “Oh, that John Nixon, he just paints crosses.” [But] this is really just the naivety of the person saying it.’
In 1996, Nixon began a series of orange paintings. Now married to his long-term wife, curator Sue Cramer, his daughter Emma was about to be born and he wanted a painting strategy that was less demanding but still concrete. He ended up with a run of orange monochromes, allowing only one other secondary colour. ‘Like, I’m not stupid,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to paint myself into a corner.’ At the same time, as a secretive gesture, he began a series of silver paintings that he didn’t initially tell people about. Using a spray can to paint the silver monochromes, he later used a brush, adding textures so the demarcations on the surface could be seen, while a sense of flatness was still maintained. ‘And then that’s really where The Donkey’s Tail comes from: The Donkey’s Tail comes out of the silver paintings. So, the process of making is coming from how many, if you say, “Well, how many visual textures have you got in this? How many aural textures can you have?”’
During this time, something else must have changed for Nixon. In the preceding two decades he never acknowledged a desire to perform, intent on pushing music as an art object. Yet during the mid-1990s, perhaps in his collaborations with artist and musician Marco Fusinato and their band Solver, Nixon began to perform live and release music in more typical ways, eventually leading to The Donkey’s Tail.
The Donkey’s Tail is, as its Soundcloud webpage says, ‘an experimental, abstract, free noise, improv, garage ensemble using electric guitars, drums, percussion teamed with banjo, triangle and trombone. the group was formed in early 2007 by abstract artist john nixon as a recording project.’ Releasing around 105 CDs, it eventually went beyond recording to encompass live performances at alternative art spaces, curated musical evenings, installations, and even The Donkey’s Tail Klang Theatre, an iteration that emerged in 2018 under the banner of Nixon’s Melbourne Art Theatre. Including two performances, The first in The Tale in 2018 and The Man Who Didn’t in 2019, this iteration of The Donkey’s Tail illuminated the more performative, theatrically-inclined aspects of Nixon’s output. In vivid yet controlled performances at an old theatre room at RMIT university, Nixon invited various Melbourne artists to perform selected roles. All of the costumes and sets were designed by Nixon, created in his typically ad hoc manner to suit the style of music.
Yet the seeds of this still lay within the era of those silver paintings: during the late 1990s and early 2000s Nixon began to create a variety of improvised homemade instruments for use by The Donkey’s Tail, and he further started to play conventional instruments in his own entirely unconventional way. During these decades he bought all manner of second-hand instruments and sound-making devices, scouring op-shops and flea-markets in every country he visited, purely for use by The Donkey’s Tail.
‘I can’t write music,’ said Nixon, explaining the recording process to someone who’s working on a Donkey’s Tail recording. ‘I think this is the melody. I’ll sing it to you. You sing it back to me. I’ll correct you if I think you’re doing something wrong or clipping words, or, you know, if it’s too fast, slow it down a little bit.’ Through instruction, notes and metaphor, Nixon would direct his Donkey’s Tail collaborators, who he’d continually be scouting, eventually working with scores of well-known Melbourne artists and musicians.
Largely recording from Nixon’s studio, he might hand you an instrument you’ve never played before, or something you’re already accomplished in, but alighted anew. When artist and musician David Palliser, Nixon’s main collaborator in The Donkey’s Tail, offered his services, it was at first as a saxophone player. Instead, with great amusement, Nixon made him play the saxophone with big thick leather gardening gloves, causing him to lose his finger control.
Artist Isabella Darcy was another recruit. Initially corralled for her trumpet playing, when Darcy and Nixon first sat down to play trumpet together, they were too much within the same rhythm. Nixon wasn’t happy, so he passed her an electric guitar, which she never played before. He instructed her to strum it with a cat toy; that didn’t work. He grabbed a pine cone. Voila! ‘It sounded fantastic,’ he said, beaming. With that method, Darcy became one of his lead guitarists, learning the rhythms of Nixon’s instructions. As Palliser said of the process, ‘That language, you just draw from it. If John said, “A loud saxophone”, you just go for it. If he said, “Soft, saxophone”, you go for that. Or “play guitar”, you just go crazy.’ Palliser stops to laugh. ‘It’s always great to get a license to go crazy.’ Almost everyone I spoke to, from Anti-Music to Donkey’s Tail, reiterated the sheer amusement and play Nixon gave them.
As the recordings grew, Nixon began to collect musicians; he had clarinet players, saxophonists, drummers, guitarists and singers. He often tried to use what he called ‘a second ability’ of musicians, something outside their primary instrument. ‘Like if you imagine Jimmy Hendrix playing the trombone,’ he said, ‘well, it just goes wild. And I thought this was amazing, and kind of implied to me that this is not rhythm anymore. This is going crazy. So why don’t I get a trombone and see what I can do.’ Sometimes aiming for the spirit of ‘going crazy,’ for recording albums there’d be no rehearsals: just a few recorders laid out, and Nixon’s instructions. There were no repeats, second takes, or experiments. A guitar might arrive un-tuned in someone’s hands, and that’s how it would be played.
The Donkey’s Tail was centred on Nixon realising his musical ideas. It might seem like there’s ego to this, but in a strange way it’s almost the opposite; he didn’t want the typically best version of someone’s musical self, but something hidden, awaiting to be brought out. ‘I think the music is very much trying to kick out personalities almost, but the personalities, paradoxically still all emerge,’ said Palliser. When discussing Nixon’s pragmatic approach, Palliser later added, ‘John’s straightforwardness is his real strength. I know “take it or leave it” is a pejorative term, but I don’t mean it in that way. “Take it or leave it” has a powerful energy. It’s a powerful sense of “the thing” being just “the thing” as if there’s no history of art or music, it’s just coming to being just like that. And yet, there is a sense of being connected to art history.’
It might start to get noisy. There’s no rehearsal. The players have arrived to sit on their milk crates, like the raft of medusa, holding whatever instrument or non-instrument Nixon has given them, looking at the notes he’s written out for this evening’s performance. Now he’s waving a flag. What this means, explained Nixon, is ‘we’re going to start off with something really noisy, like we’re in the airplane, we’ve got to get this band off the ground. We’ve got to make everyone pay attention.’ How do they do this? Perhaps everyone has a whistle they’re instructed to blow into. There’s no timing. Who needs timing? Nixon might touch some people on the shoulder; stop blowing the whistle, it means. This is number one, explained Nixon. Number two generally builds on this, and number three might have a solo from all the people playing, one at a time. Nixon wants the audience’s eyes to move from sound to sound; he understands that music is as visual as it is audible. Four is the quiet one, perhaps with all the triangles. Don’t bash it like you’re doing the lunch call at school camp, just gently, gently. And the violins, just delicately pull on one string, make a beautiful sound. The drummer, meanwhile, knows they’re never to play any rock beats. ‘I want you to think of it like you’ve got a rubbish bin full of tin cans and bits of wood and bricks and everything,’ said Nixon. Now, over there, someone else is filling up their trumpet with water. Nixon didn’t tell them to do that, but he’s laughing anyway. And here comes the finale, building the cacophony, up and up. ‘Then, when I get the flag, you know, okay, we’re coming down to land,’ explained Nixon. ‘Now we’re going to finish. It’s that theatre of the performance. Like when you see a good rock band, you know they’re on and you know that’s the finish.’ Nixon mimed a swishing action. ‘Cut like a knife. That’s it. Good night.’ The Donkey’s Tail performance, around thirty minutes long, is over.
Mostly performing in experimental music spaces and galleries, a Donkey’s Tail show would happen only five or six times a year, and were planned and executed by Nixon with a rotating ensemble of people and instruments. ‘There is a bit of theatre in me,’ said Nixon, ‘a bit of art direction.’ It was the same as the exhibitions: ‘You’re guiding the audience through a passage of time.’ He wanted people’s eyes to be transfixed by the scene in front of them. He wanted to entertain, he said, talking not only about The Donkey’s Tail, but the anti-theatre performances he established in 2018 at RMIT University, ever-straightforwardly titled, Melbourne Art Theatre at RMIT. He wouldn’t bother, he said, if it wasn’t important.
Nixon loved the opera. He would attend concerts with a notepad and pen, taking down ideas while he watched. He told me that, against the prevailing wisdom of conceptual art, he looked through his eyes first and his brain second. ‘All my work has always been influenced primarily and predominantly by what I see,’ he explained. ‘I can get influenced by so many things in a day because I see two trucks, one green one and one blue, go past my eyes. And in my songwriting, the same. A lot of it is to do with observation.’ It might appear like he dreamed things up, but there was always a certain visual logic to how he gathered information.
While he’d initially been working with amateur singers for The Donkey’s Tail, he one day wanted something beyond instrumental noise. What’s the opposite of this? ‘It’s the song,’ he told himself, coming to the realisation that he wanted beauty in his music. And for this he would bring in singers. Beautiful singers. Opera singers.
Recording in Chesworth’s home studio, a Donkey’s Tail album filled with operatic-inspired songs might take around two hours of recording with the singer, coupled with light instrumentation. Anyone who’s ever recorded, even in non-professional ways, knows how amusingly condensed this is, especially considering no-one but Nixon knew what the album would be until they arrived. Reading lyrics from his notes, his poem-like odes, he’d hum his songs to an opera singer, who’d mimic in return, taking specific direction. ‘What note would you like me to sing?’ they’d ask. ‘I don’t know,’ said Nixon. ‘Try me.’
Later, when listening to The Donkey’s Tail song ‘I’m Your Flower,’ which has an opera singer beautifully relay, ‘I’m your flower, I’m flower. Just a moment, just a moment,’ I was at first amused, and then suddenly became genuinely emotional. I thought about how Nixon became the dream he sought: the great avant-garde artist, wanting to commit and dedicate oneself to the real seriousness of creating art, which doesn’t mean no small smiles, and to be able to hold, share, and live by that seriousness.
What to do with this overflowing harvest? ‘You know,’ said Nixon in his exceedingly contemplative way, ‘one of my daughter’s friends once said to me, “John, why do you do so much work?” And I said, “Because I want to see what it looks like.” That’s where I get the satisfaction. I want to see what it looks like. I want to hear what it sounds like. I don’t want it to be hidden in just a sketch or just a poem. I want it to be born, in a way. Sort of born.’
Through all of this sort of birthing, which resides on that plane between the intuitive and systematic, and through claiming the freedom of being a non-musician making music—as Nixon told me, if he really was a musician, he probably wouldn’t have the gall to release over 100 Donkey’s Tail CDs—Nixon gave that freedom to others, even if it was just on temporary loan through a cassette or a performance. As people who worked with Nixon said, you can’t overestimate such a gift. It’s often observed that rock and popular music is centred on people spending money to watch other people believe in themselves, and that something within us needs this—it’s another realm altogether to have one of those self-believing people cast that belief right back onto you.
After Melbourne returned to some semblance of normal, in late 2020, I visited the galleries West Space and Bus Projects in their new homes at the recently established Melbourne arts precinct, Collingwood Yards. Abandoned were the gallery spaces that Nixon had housed some of his most recent curated musical evenings and Donkey’s Tail performances in, and I felt melancholic for these new gallery rooms that would never get to witness a Nixon performance. Later, passing a jazz show in Collingwood, I thought of the bespoke Sunday jazz performances that Nixon would have attended; small stages filled with a maturing generation of musicians, the generation that could have supported the Rolling Stones over fifty years ago. The Rolling Stones created music to rule the world, while these players, and the rest of us, were just swimming within it.
For all their value and good, art and music worlds are also symptoms, propagators and reflections of the culture at large, susceptible to insularity and solipsism just like everything else. For over half a century, Nixon pushed through such solipsism, genuinely nurturing community and friendships that were as much a part of his practice as the work itself. Nixon told me that he simply wanted to ‘create something special and something which doesn’t exist, and fill a void with another kind of experience.’ He would find a way through, just by talking to people. He was his own green light. ‘None of this we’re waiting, we’re waiting, we’re waiting,’ he said. Nixon carried this mindset across thousands of artworks, interrogating the foundations of whatever forms he worked within, involving hundreds of people, across a lifetime, each iteration informing the next. It all amounted to the larger mission, both practical and spiritual, to just keep working. ‘John’s music,’ said Clark, ‘was always dedicated to the idea of creating.’
Tiarney Miekus is a writer, editor and musician based in Naarm/Melbourne. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow (Online), Overland, Memo Review, un Magazine, Art Guide Australia, Swampland and RealTime. She is currently editor and podcast producer at Art Guide Australia.
The writer and editors would like to thank Sue Cramer, Emma Nixon, Yanni Florence, Anna Schwartz Gallery and Sarah Cottier Gallery.