Popism & The Now

unpublished talk delivered for the Forum series, Hobart School of Art, Hobart, 1982
published in Impresario: Paul Taylor, The Melbourne Years, 1981-1984, Surpluss/Monash University Press, Melbourne, 2013


When I look back at the paper “Popism & The Now”—which I haven’t done since I delivered it some 30 years ago, as it was never published—it reads like a partially cryptic document containing strategic kernels which have sprouted into strange plants throughout my work since. Some people write diaries, auto-biographies or (worse) blogs about what they’re thinking and feeling at any given moment. I always hated first-person drivel. It’s like being subjected to The Wonder Years. Whenever I write, it’s mostly a response. It’s all about the thing; it’s not about me.

1982 was the same year I made (as a → ↑ → project) the short film I You We (made on Super 8, then remade on video in 1983). I got heaps of friends to drop by one night and read out a film title starting with “I”, “you” or “we” (the last as duos). The project—like much of what I was doing then—was having fun with linguistic theory and cinema or music. The idea that anything and everything constituted its own unique material language which then could somehow ‘speak’ to other things and generate multiple meanings or modes of signification was a thrill to me when I started encountering such ideas when I was about 17. It was the key to unlocking a collapse between all hierarchical discourses on culture, because I could encounter and engage with anything and it would have a whole bunch of things to say. Within a few years, I started to realise that the more ‘art’ something was—and the more valorised it was for being labelled and carried off as ‘art’—the less interesting stuff it had to say.

In the early 80s, I was bemused by being caught up in ‘art channels’ because I was amazed by how limited and limiting so many of its practitioners were. If anything, I got caught in those channels not because I made ‘art’ (I didn’t, and arguably still don’t) but because ‘popular culture’ (whatever that meant or means) was deemed to be either relevant, modish, sexy, critical, urgent, politicised, or anything that facilitated discussion on the nexus between art and culture back then. I enjoyed talking and writing: it was never nerve-wracking. To me, being intellectual was always a fun thing. It still is.

I got asked to do a number of panels and the like because I was immersed in the stuff. (Things haven't changed much since.) The “Popism & The Now” paper was for a ‘forum series’ run by the Tasmanian School of Art, where Paul Taylor had taught a few years earlier. To tell the truth: until last year, I had actually forgot that I was in the Popism exhibition. I thought I had just spoken on a panel, but it seems → ↑ → did the Asphixiation performance at the NGV. Anyways, when I wrote up the “Popism & The Now” paper (very quickly, and likely the night before I presented it) it was mostly a response to being channelled into art under an invented critical rubric by Paul. Some of it I agreed with, but the whole Barthesian shtick I thought I was already dealing with more directly via → ↑ →’s mutation between linguistic theory and movies and/or records. But Paul’s formulation was strategically designed to be comprehensible to art history types of the time (most of who actually read Flash Art). Many people seemed to like French intellectual theorists back then because the key players were gay, and they spoke about sexuality in direct relation to society. I was into glam and treated society like bad theatre, so I always felt like a phantom presence within that realm. In 1981, when → ↑ → toured Sydney, I had designed and printed up a T-shirt with a photo of Barthes from the social pages of Interview, where he’s at a night club with a wet-haired mop-top disco bus-boy. Barthes looks like a Stonewall-era sugar daddy next to this kid. I plastered a big cartoon bubble coming from the kid, saying “Roland Barthes? Who’s he?”

My favourite work of Barthes was S/Z: it has none of the socio-political advocacy of his anti-bourgeoisie proclamations, and it’s amazingly insular and hermetic. I loved S/Z because of its impenetrability and its arcane fabrification of an alternative linguistic universe from the most conservative of sources and protracted of means. Perverse and precise in equal measure, it’s the kind of thing I’ve since aspired to when I write on topics like Death Race 3: Inferno or tokusatsu special effects. It’s all about the thing; it’s not about me.

So “Popism & The Now” is a responsive dismantling of the fabrication of Popism, and speaks from a hands-on experience (via → ↑ →) of being engaged in making work activated and exacerbated by constructions of the ‘self’ (i.e. the artist associated with Popism) and ‘context’ (i.e. the cultural plane where the artist attempts to grapple with those self-constructions). Little did I know that ‘the now’ would really never go away. And for that, I’m very happy.

Philip Brophy - October 2nd 2013, where it’s now around 4pm.


So — we want to know about Popism. We want to talk about Popism. We want to find out about Popism. But let’s just freeze things for a moment or two —

— ‘Popism’ —

— our primary problem is that we have a word and we want to know what the word means. More fundamentally, we are faced with the enigma of how the meaning got the word ‘Popism’.

O.K. We pick up the references, extend the lines, position Popism within a list of possibilities: Pop Art, 2nd Degree, Style, New Wave, Fashion, Contemporary Art, Popular Culture, etc., etc. Such are the names from our most superficial references. But what type of word (or name) is Popism — is it a style? A form? A movement? An approach? An attitude? A polemic? For example, we could say that Popism is 2nd generation Pop Art, Pop Art of the eighties, etc., but the thrust of such a description would result in radically opposing definitions depending on how we handled and posited the name (i.e., as style, form, movement, approach, attitude or polemic). The description and the definition qualify each other, contextualise each other, as we knead them together in our attempt to extricate substance from the meaning of the word.


So we want to know about Popism — but we are confronted with that very word. The word, as Language, points us to what we talk about but then denies us what it is we’re talking about. Popism has splattered itself into the public arena of contemporaneity — in other words it is pleasurably fashionable and painfully hip. Subsequently, we join the queue of consumerism — we want to check it out, find out about it, digest it. But Popism doesn’t present itself on a plate for us. To find out what it “means” we have to go past the name, through the word, beyond language. We have to set foot into the wild and random terrain that Language (a name, a word) attempts to put into order. Into that fantastic aggravation that Popism invokes. This is not to say, however, that there is a space, a field, a place “beyond” Language. The most we can ever do is set foot into that terrain — without ever standing upright on two feet in it. It is the act or event of penetrating language and getting caught in between it that provides us with a sense (however intangible) of meaning and substance. We have to get ensnared in the word “Popism”, entangled in all its meanings, references, locations, and movements in order to get an overview of the world that the word is pathetically trying to govern. We must only use the word Popism as a means to an end. Our object of desire is not the word — we can pick that up anytime, leave it down anywhere. Our real object of desire, our most crucial zone of pleasure is everything but the word.

So we want to talk about Popism — but as we speak we must be precisely aware of the instance and presence of our speaking. We must acknowledge the fact of the ‘Now’ in which we are situated — temporally, historically, and culturally. If Popism had to be summed up in one word, that word for me would be NOW — although to do so I shall have to introduce here a precise list of determined and determinable meanings outside of the mundane connotations that the word ‘now’ carries. By ‘now’ I do not mean new, up-to-date, with it, different, unique, original, etc. Rather than a refusal of yesterday’s preoccupations, I’m talking about a feverish embrace with everything that has gone before or come before; everything that has occurred in any way in any part of the Past. Now means the very instant that the chaotic void of pre-/post-/extra-/non-language is set into Language and compounded into History. Popism is playing in the playground of Now; toying with how it is and is to be consumed by language, appropriated, as it were, into writing, criticism, theory, opinion, consensus, hearsay, gossip — into all manners of History.

Through being now, existing as a force atemporally within a juncture of the present and its voice, Popism extrapolates all preceding lines of definitional modes (style, polemic, attitude, approach, formal, opportunity, etc.) out of their varying and shifting contextual placings (historical, cultural, social, political, mythical, semiological, etc.) and tangles them all into a throbbing knot. To look at Popism and re-iterate (or regurgitate) that famous call-sign of imperceptions: ‘It’s all been done before!’ is a failure to distinguish between the meaning of a notion of a ‘now’. Popism is not simply an art movement that wears very loud, new clothes, condemning all its predecessors. Popism is involved with the very contradiction that, yes, it has all been done before, but that that very fact is what qualifies its newness, its difference to the before — its nowness.

The primary dichotomy is between an art that is historicist in its avant-garde existence, and an art that is historical in its avant-garde practice. The word ‘avant-garde’ is itself an historically fixed/linguistically consumed idea of now. ‘Avant-garde Art’ would then be art waiting to become history, blind to the fact that it already is history. Popism is an art awaiting history, forever on the peak of an historicist placing within Art History because it hones in on the eternal dilemma of how do we connect the present to the past? What this means is that Popism has happened before. And it will happen again. The now is forever, and within that infinite range, Popism, as a practice of declaring in and of itself its nature as language, has the scope to be endlessly transformed, depending on the arbitrary (i.e., multiple and non-hierarchical) pushes and flows of its energy. One must never forget that the Present tense lasts as long as you speak it forever. Popism exists as you speak it.

So we want to find out about Popism — O.K. It’s a critical practice in the most crystalline sense that we have been able to imagine critical practices for some time. The distinction between audience, artist and critic (and all their prolific sub-components) becomes a pedantic issue, a useless tactic. The critical practice that involves and is involved by Popism is an engagement of multiplicities — in particular (and in optional replacement of the audience/artist/critic model) the network of multiplicities of Context and Self — of where the who is placed, how one replicates the other. Let us briefly look at these two major layers within a ‘Popimistic’ practice one at a time.

SELF: a category that encompasses all the manifestations of the who and the whom — all the voices that speak to us from within, without and on top of the art objects. Who is it that speaks in a painting or whatever? The artist? The painter? The technician? The craftsperson? If we look at the historical tradition of the artist under these conditions, we find that his/her body is of a unified form — s/he speaks to us in a singular voice of artistic intention, painterly skill and conceptual rigour. Popism points to the chorus of voices that sing in such an historical tradition. The Popism chorus sings out of tune, with fluctuating tempo, different voices screeching louder than others at odd times. The idea, craft, execution and intention are in a cacophonic state. Popism disrupts the harmonic choir, upsetting the unified, singular, unproblematic appearance of the ‘artist’s voice’.

But we hear more voices — they are the voices of all the paintings, images, objects, gestures, symbols, references, ideas and surfaces that have come before the painting. The effect is like a malfunctioning cassette recorder that continually records top layers without ever properly and totally erasing what was previously recorded underneath. The music becomes noise — clarification becomes interference — voice becomes voices. Popism speaks in a chorus, because Popism exists ironically without a speaker. The voice speaks itself: it is spoken. The Popism artist plunders, pillages, rapes and buggers art history and popular culture, not even caring to distinguish between the two — or, for that matter, anything. The supreme act of Popism is not creation, but appropriation. ‘Who did that painting?’ Ask that question meaningfully, and you have to be prepared to undertake an endless quest, trapped in an underground catacomb of authorship, voices calling to you from a thousand different tunnels, exits, entrances — all saying the same thing: ‘I’. And none of them are lying.

We find our ‘selfs’ caught up in the multiplicity of ‘selfs’, all mirroring each other and ourselves in the stalemate of language that only represents the self. As such, Popism refutes the artist — there is no artist; only art. The whole damn history of art. As a critical practice, Popism manufactures an object for itself or simply destroys an existing object. We need not be tied down to Popism works to perform Popism. We can look anywhere.

It is here that we encounter the multiplicities of CONTEXT: We find anything and everything everywhere. We find the one thing in all places simply through the act of looking. Inasmuch as Popism exists as we speak it, its meanings present themselves as we look for them. The quest is, in fact, quite stupid, but infinitely pleasurable. We can reverse the semantic direction of that old adage ‘stupid as a painter’ and revel in it, because Popism plays in the very surface of stupidity; swimming in the futility of language; O.D.ing on meaning. The notion of NOW is tied up with where you are when you say it.

In realising the multiplicity of contexts, we acknowledge the factionalisation of all modes of practice within a political and cultural history. The range of Popism is a squirming mosaic of splinters — strong enough to walk on but impossible to record a map of the walk on. ‘Art’ is but one of the many squirming trails of splinters, one of the many departments of Culture. To speak only of Art is to adhere to the restricted freedom within a political bureaucracy, to be continually forced to send memos to the other departments (Society, Life, Politics, Theory, etc.) in order to arrange some aimless meeting, behind closed doors, in comfortable chairs.

The play that Popism initiates with Context invokes all types of places — institutions, venues, journals, magazines, advertisements, forums — you name it. Popism is involved with an act of insertion — inserting everything into one place, a place that thrives and survives on its fragmentation, its isolation. We draw up the list of itemisation and play the list against each other, and the items against one another. Medium, Subject, Matter, Presentation, Mediarisation, Audience, Image, Role. A painter makes a film to be shown in a pub that is reviewed in Cleo. Fuck this stale notion of “wrong” place, “wrong” manoeuvre, “wrong” work, “wrong” context. Being ‘now’ is being wrong. The point of assimilation and communication, that instant that Language and History smother something, is the moment of a certain rightness, a certain validation supported by the preceding events, by History.

Just as the Self is all selfs — you, me, them — the Context is all contexts — here, there, everywhere. Just as every sentence you speak is an anagram of grammatical possibilities effecting a desired meaning, every instance of your critical practice is an anagram of contextual references, effecting a desired critique. A kaleidoscope of History and Culture. The act of insertion, of cross-contextualisation is a process of mutation, creating monsters that run lose in any particular faction, be it political, cultural or historical. Popism could be making one thing, one work, one object, but distributing it everywhere, investing a germ into the transparent walls that support any system, institution or convention. The walls remain transparent and free-standing, but the decayed cavities are visible. The traces are visible, although their permanence — like the walls’ — is not guaranteed.

Popism is a surface of multiplicity as opposed to a dimension of singularity. It is much more fun, I think, to slip and slide than it is to sink.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Maria Kozic.