Main Gallery, Metro Arts



In this installment of Flashbacks, Chris Howlett continues to examine the way in which meaning is derived from a multiplicity of places, spaces and texts. By making apparent how these complex discursive practices complicate what is meaningful and meaningless, he wants to make us aware of how these often-arbitrary judgments shape the particular ideological spaces we find ourselves in. With this body of work, Howlett wants to reveal how the complicated aggregations and displacements of language, power and narrative operate across our social, cultural, political and economic lives to shape our own subjectivities.

above: Flashbacks, 2009. Image detail. Human Vs. Human 2009, 1-channel, SD, PAL, Stereo. Edition of 5 + 2AP, Duration: 20:15mins.Metro Arts. Photography Brock Yates. 

In this exhibition the viewer is again presented with different formal devices for reading screen-based media, and for representing (and misrepresenting) reality. These spaces of representation become psychological zones for exploring the public and personal realities of the stories we encounter in the work. By presenting us with the contesting voices of highly politicized issues like the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath, the life and death of Michael Jackson, debates around art and censorship, and the confessional discourse of celebrity talk shows, Howlett asks us to consider the complications of comprehending what it is that is real in the enunciative field, and what drives the ideological compulsion to render truths from all points on the moral compass.

The game Bushstalkers is a Howlett mod of the highly popular 1st person shooter game Unreal Tournament 3. With its one essential function disabled, you can’t shoot its weapons; players are simply left to wander, to negotiate the recesses of the remodeled game through following the lights that illuminate the forest setting.

When one does step into the light, so to speak, another type of dysfunctional process is revealed; that of the perverse misrepresentations that make up the fog of real war.

The fantasy of virtual death in UT3 is remapped by Howlett in Bushstalkers to include the real voices of Iraqi veterans with tales of revenge, false confession and the right-wing media spin that make up the competing narratives of the pro and anti-war movements in America.

With the Sims based mods, ‘a simulation whose logic is based on transparent omnivision’2. Howlett reprograms the narratives of these tightly controlled spaces to introduce us to the Jackson family, all of whom are Michael clones, in Michael Jackson 4 ways: Parts 1,2,3 & 4. In Homesteads we are witness to the internment and eventual disintegration of the Sims family units while Dr Phil and Oprah roll out their familiar shtick of confession, humiliation and redemption. And in Homestead I and II the Rudd family, patriarch and Prime Minister Kevin, wife Therese and the three children are all trapped in their very own ‘vector to pure transparency’ that is part green house, labyrinth and isolation chamber. It is in the fishbowl of these virtual environments that the often absurdist and tragic scenarios of both celebrity and politics gets played out through Howlett’s modifications.

That Michael Jackson came to a rather wretched end is of no real surprise at all. Evolving from cherubic talent to anime pop princess, here was ‘the musical genius’ as a living deity, and eventual martyr for the disenfranchised African American.

He was an apologist for childhood purity, true love and understanding to some, and unrepentant pedophile for others. The excruciating and ongoing declarations of innocence made while continuing to confound all the familial conventions of puritanical America, eventually saw him banished from his own fantasy kingdom. But this is what the stuff of grief, comedy and death threats are made of, with zealots from both sides of the debate making their claims for truth in the hyper-real spaces, the fantasy kingdom of the Sims. Michael you will not be forgotten.

above: Flashbacks, 2009. Image detail. Homestead: Part I-II 2009, 1-channel, High Definition Video, PAL, Stereo. Ed. of 5 +2 AP, Duration 16:21 mins., Metro Arts, Brisbane, Australia. 

If ever there was an ideal avatar for being a Sim it would have to be the Ruddbot aka Kevin Rudd. The irony is almost too much. But unfortunately the reality is more troubling than that, because Rudd is essentially a devout, conservative populist, who strategically manipulates the language of faith to control the way in which economic and cultural scenarios become morally obfuscated. He says he wants to make ‘transparent’ the real needs of the people, but renders them opaque through the heady mixture of narcissism and ideological doublespeak common to political life. In Homestead I and II, Rudd and his family live and die in this glass prison for all to see, their carefully crafted and controlled images at the mercy of one of their constituents, who frankly is none too happy with his game.

The work in Flashbacks expands the dialogue on the relationship between aesthetics and the political. And in this exhibition Chris Howlett compels us to consider the possibility that art and politics are irrevocably intertwined, and that this is an absolute necessity for any successfully functioning culture to thrive.

Mark Webb


  1. p35. Bittanti, M. All too urban: to live or Die in SimCity. In Atkins and Krzywinska Ed. Videogame, Player, Text Manchester, Manchester University Press. 2007.
  2. ibid.

Special thanks to Mark Webb for writing the essay, Brock Yates for documenting the exhibition, MAAP for their generous loan of their audio-visual equipment and the support from two Brisbane artist run spaces Boxcopy and Accidentally Annie Street Space (AASS).

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