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But the Fierce Blackman

Peter Kennedy
8 March 197127 March 1971

In March 1971 Peter Kennedy held a pair of installation shows concurrently under the overall label of Interference Variables, which he described as an exhibition in two phases. The first phase was But the fierce blackman, an intermedia installation and ongoing performance at Inhibodress (7 - 27 March, 1971) and the second phase was Luminal Sequences, a light installation at Gallery A (20 March - 7 April, 1971).

Both works explored the intervention of random events in the work. In Luminal Sequences this involved timers switching individual lights on and off at irregular intervals and the accumulation of a series of projected slides of spectators in the installation.1

In But the fierce blackman, which has become among Kennedy's most renowned works from the period, the interference elements were produced via (what Kennedy listed on the gallery room sheet for the show as)

“Determinate Variables (tape loop) + Indeterminate Variables (television) + Random human interference (audience participants) + Determinate Interferences (Peter Kennedy repeating a single phrase at 30 minute intervals)”2

But the fierce blackman was primarily a sound installation, with the gallery open from 5:30pm to 9:00pm weeknights and all day on Saturday and Sunday. Several pieces of what were simply contemporary entertainment technologies were installed along the centre line of the gallery. There was a TV set tuned to channel 3 (an empty channel in Sydney) that picked up noise interspersed with random taxi messages and provided much of the light for the installation, a tape recorder playing an amplified and heavily cut up (in the manner of Steve Reich's Come out to show them) tape loop of the phrase “but the fierce black man”, a microphone which allowed audience participation and by which Kennedy inserted a loud recitation, under varying degrees of duress, of the phrase into the mix every thirty minutes. The TV antenna, a pair of 'rabbit ears' was hit randomly by wires hung from the ceiling and blown against it by a large fan so that the behaviour of the TV reception changed constantly. All in all it was a “mass of noise”.

Donald Brook described the show in a review for the Sydney Morning Herald, commenting:

“It is, above all, an inordinately loud noise in a big dark room - at once disturbing and queer and compelling.
It is quite the best thing in Sydney, if one interprets “best,” at any rate for the time being, as meaning the one that you would be most justified in reproaching yourself for not having seen. Or rather, heard.
Not that vision is entirely neglected. There is the hard black and silver flicker of a television set tuned to channel 3, and dramatically interfered with by taxis outside and by fan blown wires impinging on the antenna inside. The stark epileptic raster of the urgently modulated signal illuminates a microphone and a tall fan.
In the background, a small loop of tape repeats hypnotically through the surges of interference sound: “But the fierce blackman, but the fierce blackman.” Every half-hour, on the dot, Peter Kennedy superimposes himself, viva voce, through the microphone and a formidable amplifier. “But the fierce blackman,” he says. “But the fierce Blackman,” until the words are not only senseless but incomprehensible.3

While the work is primarily a sound installation it might also be argued that it was also a video installation (which I was why I include it here). Its sound aspects clearly took the upper hand however it is perhaps the first use of video (if you can call a random, snowy raster video) in an environmental art installation in Australia and clearly comes under the rubric of TV decollage.

1See John Murphy, Gallery A (Sydney), catalogue.

2Peter Kennedy, But the fierce blackman, Inhibodress, gallery room sheet for the show.

3Donald Brook, “Hamada’s pots for the connoisseur”, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March, 1971, p.17.

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The room sheet for But the fierce blackman by Peter Kennedy
The room sheet for But the fierce blackman by Peter Kennedy 
Installation shot of But the fierce blackman by Peter Kennedy
Installation shot of But the fierce blackman by Peter Kennedy 
Kennedy in recitation during But the fierce blackman.
Kennedy in recitation during But the fierce blackman.