“Between the Past, the Present and the Future.”
An edited interview with John Conomos by Jacqueline Milner, August 2005, Sydney.
‘If you haven’t got a sense of the past, you’re dead in the water’.
JM: You often speak of the necessity to treat the past as part of the present: why is this so ?
JC: Anyone could see that the younger generation is turning conservative.
I really believe that the personal computer is a significant player in this:
People who access all their information entirely through computers become ahistorical; ‘spaghetti western’ nomads across the work world, they go from one assignment to another, they have no sense of contextualisation. This is a culture of continual amnesia, and it’s enhanced by the computer, that trashcan metaphor of today is shaping our art, culture and lives.
When I went to Japan in 1984, I did some research at Image Forum in Tokyo, an experimental cinema /video art collective. When I made some inquiries about Mishima, everyone looked the other way. And Godzilla movies get pulped! Godzilla films are part of the landfill in Tokyo Bay. And that’s a great metaphor for what they’re doing in general to culture in the age of globalisation: the pulping of cultural icons and classic texts.
Barrett Hodsdon is a very interesting independent filmmaker, researcher and theorist, and he couldn’t get his book published in Australia: it was finally published by the Bernt Porridge Group in 2001. Also, a fine film critic-scholar like Bill Rout is also finding it difficult to publish a book of his essays.
Both “Aura “and “Cyborg Ned” are video essay form, which I’m very keen on: a form in the wake of Wim Wenders, Jean- Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Steve Fagin, Alain Berliner, Agnes Varda, Orson Welles, Yvonne Rainer, etc.
JM: What appeals to you about the video essay form?
JC: The malleability of the speaking voice; the voice that has a hybrid character to it, that scans across a variety of ideas, genres and forms, and creates an image-sound-performance bricolage. I’m very keen on contemporary literature, French and American in particular. I respect the literary essay. Whether it’s Joan Didion, Ian Sinclair, Joyce Carol Oates, Carlos Fuentes, Chris Petit, Michel Montaigne, Theodor Adorno William H. Gass or Susan Sontag. The essay form offers a lot of creative freedom, it has an experimental drive to explore things, gives you room to manoeuvre your curiosity, a lot of running room. And I like the criss-crossing, zig-zagging textual energy and the legacies of that form. It allows me to connect my interest in film, video, new media, and literature.
This video essay form goes back to camera stylo, 1940s personal cinema,( i.e. the movie camera as a pen as articulated by the French film critic and novelist Alexandre Astruc in the late 1940s). It gives me a sense of inventiveness, a sense of risk-taking, art-making without a safety net. I like images and sounds and textures that are in transition, acategorical, with no fixed categories.
The Ned Kelly piece is my gesture towards Republicanism. My interest in cyborg culture: Kelly coming out of the bushes is a cyborgian rupture: the iconic, metallic image. I know there is a huge amount of work around Ned Kelly. But for me, what appeals is the idea of the outlaw/artist. The artist as shaman, transgressor. That amalgam of cyborg, artist/outsider, public icon, are key ideas that attracted me to the Kelly saga. Also, filming it in the high country (over 5-6 days) where Kelly rode, and asking curators and art historians their perspective. It was an interesting combination of diverse elements.
I perform in the landscape (eg reading Robert Drewe and Peter Carey) . I do readings, in the tradition of French video (eg reading James Joyce a la Jean-Paul Fargier), and improvised performance. The work can be shown in a range of formats: eg. video sculpture a la Nam Jun Paik; single channel, large-scale video projection.
Aura is a meditation on the digital sublime. Post-classical cinema, roller-coaster narrative cinema, sfx, digital sublime in terms of new media. I’m have been influenced by Scott Bukatman. (In his latest book, Matters of Gravity, he looks at comic book action heroes).
JM: What guided your selection of images for Aura?
JC: I worked with Chris Caines, filming the landscape, performing, and collaborating with composer Robert Lloyd. We used 2 pieces by Robert. It’s a performative video: me in the landscape. I love voice over; I like that intersection between video, film and literature. I describe, in a self-reflexive way, the making of the video in the voice-over. I filmed in part in the Royal National Park, near Bundeena, looking down the old workmen’s cottages from 1930s and 40s, looking at a hawk gyrating in the wind, creating a haiku poem out of it in situ.
I’m very receptive to that intersection between image making and literature. In the voice-over, I talk about the haiku, the landscape, Agnes Martin: diverse ideas that gyrate and spiral like the bird over the landscape. And that to me is a metaphor for myself as an image – maker. I look at things from an Aristotelian logic of contextualisation of the form, and I’m trying to hack into a personal response about it.
JM: So it’s important that it be your voice in the voice-over ?
JC: I have a great ambivalence about my voice. Some people say I’ve got a great speaking voice. But then sometimes I regret it and employ other people to read the text. I think it can work both ways. But I really love voice-over ( Jean Cocteau, Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles).
Chris Marker has been a very important influence: he’s been like a beacon to me. ( Catherine Lupton’s new book, Chris Marker, is excellent and quite timely ). Marker’s editing style developing in the early period when he worked for Andre Bazin, and he had to intercut a diverse range of material, derived from a range of guises :including reporter, photojournalist, filmmaker, editor. He coalesced all these diverse interests into his editing style: a supple, meandering voice that captures the essence of the diverse texts. And it’s a personal speaking voice that links with the archival world: where the historical meets the personal, and the public meets the private.
JM: These are very much the concerns you have in your work…
JC: Yes indeed. And when I first encountered Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962) , then Le Joli mai (1962) , cinema verite/direct cinema and later Far from Vietnam, (1967), a collective ensemble film featuring Godard, Varda, etc. Then Sunless (1982)
Susan Sontag was also a very important influence, I have a great fondness for her work. In the 60s, she was an amazing essayist. She was my introduction to Cocteau, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Elias Canetti, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, camp aesthetics: Sontag was a switchboard operator, she connected a lot of people.
Books have been a huge influence on me. I’m a real book nut. I’ve been a librarian in the past. (cf. Georges Bataille was a librarian.) Can you imagine Bataille, who Michel Leiris, once describe him as “Bataille, the impossible” handing over books to his clients of bourgeoise polite society !
Surrealism has been a big influence, Bunuel, Bataille, Leiris, Masson, Franju, Godard, Varda, Marker. Resnais, etc.
JM: In terms of contemporary video and video installation, how would you contextualise your work?
JC: Media art and new media is like a runaway train, because of technological change, because of the inbuilt drive for technological obsolescence. Trying to write about the history of video art is very difficult, because of the numbers and diversity of people coming through the archway; it’s a crazy quilt, a massive undertaking. Where I position myself would be in terms of large-scale installation; video essayistic, post French new wave. I like maverick artists, those who work outside looking in. But it’s increasingly problematic: because the art world more and more is entertainment.
But after a while, you’ve seen one, seen them all, and it’s a thankless thing after a while. And you see revisionism all the time. Watching the culture of installation art is like watching a culture of revisionism, of erasure, of ahistoricity. But you have to be a participant, or a very dedicated observer. I think it’s a real problem in this country especially, where we don’t have a proper archive or legacy of video art/new media. You’re dancing with shadows.
The American film critic Pauline Kael, was asked why she didn’t write about the artworld, and she said, ‘I found it always too punishing’. I’ve never thought of a more fitting description of the artworld. It’s also a very perverse, and pleasurable world, and a very doable world if you become part of it, and want to play the game.
I like shows that jump at you, and shake you about a bit. Not too many of those around, alas.
When I met Gary Hill, the American artist, in the mid-1990s at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney he said to me : ‘I’m not a video artist, I’m a sculptor’. From that exchange I learnt a salutary lesson: if you call yourself a video artist. You put yourself in a box, if you call yourself a sculptor, the world’s your oyster.
If you’re a videomaker, you have a specialist interest in these things. Artists who use video as part of their palette, I don’t think they are video or media artists. But video has become very pervasive element…[what photography used to be]. In photomedia: all the wet labs are empty. I think that’s a cause for lament. I still love Bill Brandt, Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Meatyard, amongst others, who have an eye for something other than the dominant culture. But now we’re creating this culture of clones, software clones, who create the same digital sludge. Going back to Chris Marker, he never became a techno- fetishist, because he was aware of this. He wanted to be in the best sense of the word, in Roland Barthes’ terms, an amateur, a Sunday artist. And that’s the artist I revere. The artist who asks, ‘why am I drawing?’ Can this medium I am using be intrinsic to my voice?