I was not Matthew’s oldest, or closest, or best friend. Indeed, it turns out I didn’t know many of the basic facts of his life, an oversight most painfully revealed sometimes only after someone dies. But I admired his work and maybe that is what qualifies me to write this.
I knew Matthew first through his video art. He responded to an open call for works for my short, and short-lived, community access show 123TV. Shifts was programmed into the second ever episode in 2006. The video is narrated by Matthew, likely in his mid-twenties at the time, recently graduated from a film program and working in a call center that monitored and reported on the customer service provided by other call centers. Watching it now, I can recognize in his voiceover a distinct turn-of-the-century irony, dripping with venom for the kind of neoliberal corporate ouroboros we were only just starting to see the tip of. It’s dry and smart, a little cool, like he could be. And yet, in my more embedded memory of it, what floats to the top is a paper-thin melancholy, its disciplined stillness, a piercing soundtrack (flashes of hearing aid feedback), monochromatic palette, and grids of flat glass and steel—sky scrapers reflecting nothing more than the sky. At the end, the credits bluntly state “Everything by Matthew O’Shannessy”.
Most likely shot on a domestic 3 chip camcorder, somehow Matthew could make poetry out of the same grain that would repeatedly defeat me. All my work from the time looked like Australia’s Funniest Home Videos. His looked like Takashi Ito. Inevitably, when faced with an artist whose work is so obviously superior to your own, you have but two choices: to make them your enemy or your friend and—without his consultation—I chose the latter.
Later, we met in person. 123TV had merged with another small collective and become Tape Projects, a rolling, ever-morphing audiovisual art group that was shambolic and sublime in equal measure. He turned up at our very first gig at the venue that we would become synonymous with: Bouverie Studios. On the northern fringe of Melbourne’s CBD, when rent was still cheap enough for artists to infill the cavities left by the last recession, it was a temporary haven for aggressively obnoxious laptop bands, sound art made from household appliances, live feeds of essential organs, video made with computers, and other homeless art practices.
It might’ve been a kind of home for Matthew then, too. His connections to other members of the collective were, and still are, somewhat opaque to me. He was always just around, sometimes on-stage, sometimes off. Even in this subculture, I know we both felt exterior. Many artists “find their home in the artworld” with “the outsiders” after an adolescence spent in an agonized tension with the mainstream, but what happens when you feel outside the outsiders?
We were both extremely awkward, but I always wanted his take on things and I pushed through the unlikeliness of our friendship to get to it. I believe we sensed something familiar in each other, something that found us speaking behind our hands, because it wasn’t cool yet to point it out openly: about the elitism and hypocrisy of the art world (even in our dishevelled and unassuming corner). Matthew was the only person I knew then who wanted to talk about the politics surrounding art making. We had both, I realize now, experienced traumas at formative times in our lives that left us unable to fully buy-in to the absurd vanities of art. And yet we both were still deeply committed to it, we both kept turning up, and that left us in a bind that our conversations, I believe, helped loosen.
Matthew was born the first of three boys in 1979, in a hospital in the reboundingly scrappy inner-Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. To the west, it is separated from the crass tourism of the city by Hyde Park, and to the North it borders the nightclub district of Kings Cross—a melting pot of drag queens, drug king pins, and suburban hens’ nights. Darlo and the Cross are wedged between the now uber-posh realms of Surry Hills and Potts Point: the confluence of which makes for an interesting urban texture that Sydney often lacks. But Matthew grew up nearby in the wake of the Green Bans of the 1970s, an era when left-wing builders unions waged war against developers to preserve the open spaces of the city, determined to prioritize projects with social benefit. Darlinghurst was saved both from being flattened by the Eastern Expressway and from morphing into a high-rise valley by militant tradies backed by organized community members. Gentrification was a live struggle, a set of political realities for people in the inner city then; not theory, nor foregone conclusion.
Matthew’s mother was an artist who made and sold her wares locally and did odd textile design jobs. By his account, she kept them clothed and fed, but they lived precariously: with her small income, his mum would buy food at a discount from a dumpster diver set-up near a local supermarket. His dad, at some point, made his living repairing beverage dispensers in licensed venues. As a kid, Matthew would skip school sometimes to tag along, patiently waiting and watching his father at work for hours in bars, pubs, and nightclubs.
Matthew’s father was also a (somewhat) functioning drug addict. Brought on through a short stint as a psychiatric nurse and the access to opiates, this affliction obviously dominated his father’s presence. Rather than subject his family and himself to daily humiliation and failure, or maybe just from sheer gluttony, he would periodically clear-out for weeks at a time, returning to his family in a state of disrepair. He had mood swings and could be violent. He would pull reckless, thrilling stunts: pile his three boys into the back of van with no seats and do doughies in empty parking lots; gun it on the freeway. His care trod a similar tight rope, by turns attentive and present, or absent and verbally abusive.
Matthew felt loved by him regardless of these obvious compromises and a deep ambivalence about his father hung over his life. It was his father’s sensibilities that led him through the difficult trench of his prepubescent years, out the other side to something closely resembling himself. His dad didn’t so much usher him into the world of art and literature (that may have been his mother), but he did leave it lying around the house for Matthew to stumble upon: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Kraftwerk’s Man and Machine were two items Matthew’s adult memory easily retrieved, and his father’s own poetry.
These consolations were crucial when the family moved from Sydney to Launceston in Tasmania to escape his father’s drug scene. With these seeds planted, Matthew made friends with other music-heads and started developing his own taste right at the crucial threshold of teenhood. This was a relatively happy time in his life, but it was later punctured by the announcement of his parents’ separation. Mirroring his parents’ split, he divorced himself from the entire family and looked for an escape. University seemed like the answer and he made his way back to Sydney to take courses in English Literature and Philosophy. To this end, it doesn’t surprise me that Matthew never actually went to art school. The naiveté of the average soft-handed first year would’ve been abysmal to a person who had grown up in this way.
The genius I glimpsed in his early video works was thus just that: a glimpse. I programmed his work when I had the chance, I invited him to my “art club”—a private forum for sharing and critiquing work in progress, I willed him to make new things. He would start projects—audio works, videos, essays; his enthusiasm would peak and then wane and intuitively I would never ask about it again.
We never spoke about it, so I don’t know why he didn’t choose to pursue his talent. Back then I attributed it to perfectionism: that he was afraid of making bad art. Of course, we are all afraid of that. His taste though, was immaculate, and he had an unsparing eye for affectation and pretence. Maybe you just can’t be an aficionado and live with the ever-present threat of mediocrity that attends all art-making? Or maybe he just genuinely had no interest in “a career”. The artists and artforms that lit him up were offbeat, obscure, ambiguous—almost the more precious to him for it. Modernism romanticized the obscure genius, and in the late 20th century, we commodified it. Matthew may have been a little Kurt-damaged, but his appreciation of these practices sprung from neither quarter, but rather out of a genuine appreciation for (and maybe an identification with) their outsiderness and precarity. For Matthew, the peripheral and marginal context of some work spoke to him and to the miracle of its existence at all, at such a distance from a more ordered and predictable art universe.
Many years before I met Matthew, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image had a large-scale retrospective of Len Lye: an antipodean, who worked in the less than gloried field of experimental film. It was a sort of restoration of Lye, who had been mostly ignored by Australia and New Zealand in his lifetime. Years later, Matthew and I discovered that we had both made a beeline for the work that least announced itself in this exhibit full of bright, playful, kinetic works: Free Radicals, a short scratch film that consisted of not much more than some shaky white lines on a black screen, repeated and varied across time. We had both sat in that same dark room watching it over and over again, re-experiencing this line flux in and out, from chaos to intention, from nothing, to art, and back again.
In 2008 I programmed a screening to accompany Chris Doyle’s large scale video commission, Ecstatic City, at the National Gallery of Victoria. I invited Matthew to contribute and he gave me Out of This Life. Made in 2004, it opens with blackness and the voice of an older Canadian woman talking about her uncle dying of cancer. It’s an audio letter: a long-distance phone call delayed, an ancient predecessor of Zoom, part of an exchange with a distant relative. An excruciating tension is held through the video between darkness and flashes of video footage, marred by grain and noise. In the final section the woman recites a poem found in a church catalogue that ponders what one leaves when they pass. This was not a scripted work; it was a reel-to-reel that Matthew found in an abandoned suitcase and obstinately worked into a video art piece for a documentary filmmaking class. She reads:
At a distance of nearly 20 years, as I sit in the viewer’s seat, I see Matthew—from nothing, to art, and back again.
Jessie Scott is an independent video artist, writer, and programmer working in Narrm (Melbourne) on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. She is a founding member of audiovisual art collective Tape Projects, and co-directed and founded the inaugural Channels Video Art Festival in 2013. She is currently completing a PhD in art at RMIT University and raising two children.