Music

A Brief History Of Kirin J Callinan Being A Huge Dickhead

This goes way deeper than just the ARIAs.

This article contains explicit images.

What comes to mind when you hear Kirin J Callinan’s name? If you’ve read a lot of the media coverage of him over the past few years, some key phrases keep emerging – Provocateur. Controversial. He’s an “enfant terrible” of the indie rock scene. His official bio on the Splendour website describes him as a “guitarist, activist, nudist.”

A lot of Callinan’s proponents argue that his work is a critique of toxic masculinity, that he’s a provocative artist. At this point, his notoriety and reputation for pulling wild ‘stunts’ far outweighs his body of work – two albums that were tepidly received, at best. So can we honestly give Callinan a free pass for his antics under the guise of ‘artistry’?

Callinan has been making headlines this week for flashing reporters at the ARIAs, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a brief guide to some of the stuff he’s gotten up to in the past few years.


2012: Kirin releases the ‘WIIW’ video, a collaboration with director Kris Moyes

The ‘WIIW’ video is not particularly offensive. There are some questionable aspects — Callinan gallivanting around in a speedo with a child, a woman wearing a burqa emblazoned with the words ‘FULL VIEW FULL CREAM’ — but nothing strictly “problematic,” per se.

But it feels like the beginning of Callinan’s obsession with the grotesque, with exhibitionism and shocking audiences. It’s a stark, jarring video that won him a J Award for best video. It feels like an obvious precursor to what’s ostensibly his most notorious stunt — his performance at Sugar Mountain 2013.

[Warning: video contains strobing imagery]

2013: Kirin and Kris Moyes stage a stunt at Sugar Mountain

Callinan’s performance at Sugar Mountain 2013 is one of the most controversial sets the festival has ever hosted.

During a performance in the Forum Theatre’s upstairs space, Callinan and Moyes addressed the audience, telling them that the set they were planning to do was going to be an extension of their very well received ‘WIIW’ video the year before. The plan was to plant ‘Billy’, a man with photosensitive epilepsy (an “epileptic”, in Kirin’s words) in the audience, and then, midway through the set, induce an epileptic seizure through the use of strobe lighting. According to writer Edward Sharp-Paul, this explanation prompted “mass walk-outs.”

From there, Moyes offered to show the audience a video of their ‘rehearsal’ with Billy, in which Billy begins to convulse. In Sharp-Paul’s words:

“…the footage inspired a fresh wave of heckles and walk-outs, including one particularly fervent heckler, an older woman who denounced Callinan and Moyes as ‘immoral’ and ‘pornographic’.”

In a post-show interview, Callinan denied that Billy was an actor. “Billy’s not a professional actor, or a joker or a novelty act, and neither am I,” said Callinan. “There was much intended commentary within the show, but in no way was it intended to poke fun at epilepsy.”

Sugar Mountain later released a statement saying that Callinan and Moyes’ performance breached the festival’s duty of care policy. But here’s the thing: the performance was staged, and ‘Billy’ was an actor, as was Callinan’s heckler. “The truth of the matter is I had a number of actors playing the parts,” Callinan told Ariel Pink in an interview for DAZED later that year.

So it wasn’t a performance piece gone wrong; it was a performance piece gone very, very right, in which Callinan and Moyes used the ‘spectacle’ of people with photosensitive epilepsy to create controversy and headlines.

It’s the kind of performance that’s become Kirin’s M.O: Do something controversial that makes light of marginalised people in order to shock audiences, increase profile and generate news.

January 2017: Performance with Weyes Blood at Sugar Mountain 2017

After a performance with Weyes Blood at Sugar Mountain 2017 in January, Maia of Melbourne duo Habits (who were also playing at the festival) took to their personal Facebook page to discuss Callinan’s aesthetic, saying that his ‘subversion’ of gender norms de-legitimises the work of non-cisgender artists like themselves.

While their Facebook profile is currently inactive, they expanded on their thoughts on Callinan with me via email.

“When cis men do anything to subvert gender norms, audiences perceive it as a powerful boundary-pushing statement, whereas transfeminine artists who live our entire lives outside of these norms are often viewed as comical or as purely performative,” says Maia.

“Callinan’s supposed parody of toxic masculinity just dilutes the message queer and trans artists are trying to send in earnest and takes up space that could be given to our lived truths. We are in pain and we are dying at the hands of the patriarchy, so excuse me if the joke is lost on me.”

If Callinan’s supposed ‘commentary’ on masculinity is damaging in the same ways that actual toxic masculinity is, then it’s not fun, it’s not funny, and it’s not clever. It’s contributing to structures that exist to oppress, disenfranchise and de-legitimise.

June 2017: Kirin paints himself brown in the ‘Bravado’ art

In the gatefold of his latest album Bravado (the one where he’s seen pissing on himself on the cover) Callinan lies sprawled on a couch, naked, in head-to-toe brown paint. It’s a disgustingly juvenile stunt, even by Callinan’s standards. Australia has a long, despicable history with blackface, and this is just another notch on the tally.

The image was called out in June by Isabella Trimboli, co-founder of music journal Gusher, who posted the photo on Twitter. As she told Junkee in September, “Embracing sexist or racist language and imagery is not the same as interrogating or subverting it,” which is clearly what Callinan believes he is doing.

It’s a disgusting image, and one that has, unsurprisingly, never been addressed by Callinan. I don’t need to tell you why blackface is bad. Literally just google ‘blackface’.

November 2017: Kirin flashes his dick at the ARIAs

While walking the red carpet at this year’s ARIA Awards, Callinan turned to the many reporters and photographers and lifted his kilt, exposing his penis to those watching. According to news.com.au, “…it wasn’t just a cheeky flash. Callinan stood proudly for a solid moment to make sure it was seen and captured.”

It’s unsurprising. Callinan craves attention, and of course, the number one way to get attention at the ARIAs if you’re not a pop star is to flash everyone. Sure, you could suggest that it’s just an extension of Callinan’s “critique” of toxic masculinty, but as Jared Richards wrote for Junkee earlier this year, “Where does critiquing an alpha male’s need for constant attention sit if you’re continuously showing the world your own dick?”

Callinan flashing people on the red carpet isn’t a funny gag, it isn’t harmless fun. Indecent exposure carries a $1100 fine and 6-month jail period in New South Wales, and is classed as a form of sexual assault, according to 1800RESPECT, the National Sexual Assault Counselling Service.

For Callinan to constantly practice this kind of behaviour tells his legion of young male fans that it’s okay for them to do it, too. Even if this is a critique of toxic masculinity — which, well, I doubt it is — if he’s just flashing reporters and not saying anything about it, it’s just as bad as the people he’s supposedly making fun of.

This, of course, isn’t the first time Callinan has subjected the world to his nude figure. He’s constantly naked — in photos, on stages, in videos.

At a Splendour in the Grass after-party at the Tackle Shack earlier this year, he stripped down and swung from rafters in front of partygoers, and at the aforementioned 2013 Sugar Mountain set he showed the audience videos of him showering naked. It’s not a funny joke; it’s a violation.

We’re reaching the tail end of a year where abusers are being ousted from creative industries en masse. This cultural shift has come after years of industry ‘boys clubs’ silencing women and marginalised people, stopping them from coming forward.

Let’s not let supposedly ‘progressive’ men enforce that power dynamic in the name of ‘irony’.

Shaad D’Souza is a freelance writer from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter here.