Scanlines: Media Art in Australia Since the 1960s
John Conomos interview, 2011.
Scanlines collects together information about Australian media artists, curators, organisations and events since the 1960s. The database is an ongoing and evolving resource dedicated to information pertinent to artists, works and events that have Australia-wide and international significance.
“In the Wee Hours of Creative Solitude: An Interview with John Conomos”
The following interview with Aleksandr Wansbrough was held at the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, July 2014. It primarily focuses on Conomos’ recent activities as an artist, academic and writer.
AW: I just wanted to ask you what works you’ve been working on both academically and in terms of your art factors and the connection between both.
JC: Well in the last three or four years I’ve been focusing on a number of books with Brad Buckley as an anthologist, a co-editor. One is on erasure and contemporary art which should be coming out at the end of October this year, published by the English publisher, Libri. I, with Brad, selected a number of scholars and curators around the world for the book, and to look at erasure not only as an aesthetic turn in contemporary art but at the same time on another register to do with cultural amnesia. So it’s like hand in glove. It’s kind of aesthetic erasure, a computer inflected erasure in terms of from a generational perspective how there’s a lack of the past and the present in terms of historical knowledge production. So that book is going to be released this year.
Meanwhile I’m packaging, I’m putting another two books together with Brad, one to do with the economics and the ethics of the art market for a publishing house in America and more recently we were approached on a commission basis from the executive editor who represents the art history department of Wiley Blackwell and she’s interested in us putting a proposal, a very detailed proposal for what she calls a “companion series” which are definitive reference books to deal with a subject and obviously she went through the CCA conference panels and saw that we did a panel called the “Delinquent Curator” and Brad and I have been very interested in curating and the politics of curating and the role of hyperreality of the international art world and so forth. So I’ve been doing that for the last two or three years, focusing on those things.
In terms of art, before I can talk about art, those books are also based on a principle that Brad and I have adopted where we go and test these ideas at the CAA, the College of Art Association and we’ve been doing these conferences for the best part since the ‘90s. Every two years we go back, we got another theme, and we use it as a springboard to test these ideas out and we invite scholars, curators, artists etc., a broad wide net and then from that we select a possible platform of authors, potential authors, for a book project and that model has been quite an effective model thus far. So we’ve been doing that.
In terms of my art, I’ve been working on four new exhibitions, I’ve been very busy in the last three years doing art shows. The big ACP show, The Spiral of Time which I created new works for the show, installation pieces, and a new video with that title, The Spiral of Time which is to do with, it’s like a telegraphic summary of some of the main thought lines, seismic thought lines that go through my psyche, through my cultural identity and from my background as an artist, researcher and academic, to do with the body, to do with language, to do the somatic, with contingency of knowledge, to do with the past and the present and the future, which is a long established theme of mine, the intertexuality between the camera based art forms, cinema, photography, video, new media, literature, philosophy and critical theory, in fact if I may say so historically I was one of the first persons to look at intermediality and intertexuality between the art forms in the academic system, university system, particularly through the French writers like Raymond Bellour, Jean-Paul Fargier. I’ve been commissioned recently from a French journal based in Tokyo. That’s a bilingual journal to do a big piece of Fargier’s more recent work.
I’ve been very influenced by the ‘in-between’ art school, the Godard School of essayistic documentary, modern cinema etc.
That’s been a very important research theme for me. Other than the question of, which I have contributed, the debates on multiculturalism, modern film theory and cultural theory in a very significant way, intertexuality, I’ve introduced video and new media to the universities. I don’t believe in the traditional ‘logocentric ‘ viewpoint, but you know instead I subscribe to the Derridean ‘Russian doll’ scenario but I was one, perhaps one of the first to do a full rigorous academic course on avant-garde cinema, new media and video art in the university. That was at the University of New South Wales and at UTS and now here at SCA.Also at the moment, currently I’m working on four new video pieces. One is a documentary about my mother called The Girl From the Sea.
It’s kind of got an echo of Durras in it and I’ve done the principle shoot for that already and there’s going to be a lot of photography in it as well as moving image and it’s going to be essayistic, like a lyrical voiceover about my relationship to my mother filtered through a couple of influential texts. Peter Handke’s book, a little book called The Dream of Sorrows about his mother which is like a factual semi-observational meditation about his relationship to his mother that’s been haunting me for years, and also Roland Barthes’ book, Camera Lucida and his relationship to his mother. So that’s a very important thing I’ve been working on with Virginia Hilliard who has done the shooting for me.
On another level I’ve been working on two or three more videos. I’ve been working on a video called Paging Mr Hitchcock to do with his self-reflexive walk-on roles in his own euve, and to do the relationship in terms of cinephilia, classical cinephilia and Hitchcock and I do a performance video in a studio environment which is kind of a camera address and it’s sort of deep focus and it’s full on kind of rant, like a post-Acconci rant at the camera and it’s all improvised and filtering through the video will be Hitchcock’s cameo walk-ons. So that’s called Paging Mr Hitchcock. That’s halfway done.
The Spiral of Time, which I mentioned before and also another piece that I call Miro on the Beach which I’ve already shot with an Epic camera. All these videos have been shot with a red Epic movie camera. Miro on the Beach is a lyrical meditation of the exilic imagination and post-war migrancy condition in Australia. I perform it coming out of the sea on a beach with a movie crane and it’s going to be inspired specifically about the exilic imagination which runs, for me, very importantly through philosophy, visual arts and literature. I’m very fascinated with the outsider imagination, the exiled, displaced, marginal etc. some of us that are not odd angled to the world. That is my main kind of way I’ve relaxed in this crazy cock-eyed world. It’s always got a bit of an offbeat angle, never straight line, always on an oblique angle. That’s been a very important theme that’s been running through all my work as a researcher, writer and artist.
Miro on the Beach was inspired by a series of photographs performed by the Spanish surrealist Joan Miro where he goes to the beach and he draws in the sand with a long stick a few Spanish words, talismantic words and I did a rift of that when I saw that at the Miro Museum in Barcelona about five years ago where I looked at that angle from my relationship to the French new wave cinema movement, particularly the idea of camera-stylo, the authorial personal cinema as if an author’s wielding a light pen which was prophesised by Alexandre Astruc, the novelist, filmmaker in the late 1940s. He actually prophesised the video medium that one day, he said, we’ll have a light pen medium in our pockets and travel around the world and photograph the world. This is 1947/48.
So here I am performing with overhead shots of me writing camera-stylo on the foreshore of this beach and the waves come in and it becomes a kind of a Freudian magic pad erasure narrative number on the words.
So that’s not quite finished. The basic shoot has been done but that’s on the horizon that I’m going to finish. It’s going to be a major work called Mirror on the Beach.
They are the pieces that I’m working on.
AW: I wanted to just pick up very quickly on you said you were using a red Epic camera which I’ve seen your work Nocturnal Bench. With Nocturnal Bench, it’s an amazing black and white image and I was wondering if you’ve seen, because in the old days with video, as it were, of the ‘90s and even before the quality had a sort of disintegrating feel to it and now we have this wonderful beautiful sort of clarity, I’m assuming it was shot in maybe 4K or possibly ultra high definition or something like that.
JC: Yes, high definition.
AW: I was wondering if you could maybe talk about the change and how that might have affected the way you think about it.
JC: Well, as someone who has been working on videos since the 1970s, but late 1970s, the video medium has, as you said rightly, shifted from a kind of, I’m always interested in an aesthetic which speaks of the aesthetic of twilight, of dust, crepuscular meditative atmosphere. I’m a sucker for that kind of aesthetic where it is a meditating nocturnal twilight zone of thinking and of being and of the difficulty, to quote Cocteau, “the difficult of being” and I like to focus on the whole kind of, the ABC of that difficulty of being. That’s what I’m interested in as an artist and a researcher and the video medium has, as you rightly said, shifted from a kind of a shadowy fragmentary black and white noirish language improvised, garage grunge, into a post-camera cinema system where its high definition, clarity of image through the computer technology. So its high definition which is taken on the tropes of classical cinema.
There was a school of thought back in the 1980s with video, particularly Godard and his acolytes, video by any other name is called “cinema” and that’s something that’s had a big influence of my way of thinking about the video medium.
I think visually and the video medium allowed me to do a self de-constructive dig, archaeological dig into my interior and to externalise it and that’s how I see art as, externalisation of one’s interior and for me the video medium has been perfect for that. Mind you when I first got into video there was a lot of opposition from my sort of diehard film buff friends, “what are you doing that for John. That’s a waste of time. It’s not cinema”. But I could always see this, I’m always interested by the liminal horizons of representation, a new language, its a hovering on the horizon, what at these kind of new hieroglyphics that are coming towards us and do we have the linguistic means to capture the whole mobility, the unfolding dialectics of this new hieroglyphics and the video medium allowed me in a clumsy way but in a more effective way back then and now to cast the net and to grab the contingency of light coming at you, new forms coming at you and I always found video a very important medium for capturing new ways, new grammars of creating image and sound and space for this new future horizons of possibilities, so image makers and artists and the global citizen.
Videos been very important to me, it’s been my light pen so to speak but whatever I do I’m still an author, an author, I’m still at the back of my mind a light writer, a writer with space, genre and at the same time it’s not just high brow, it’s middle brow and low brow because I am a student of the B movies, I am a student of pulp fiction, I am a student of pulp literature and hard boiled crime. So I’m very interested in exploring what I call the dustbins of past genres, rummaging amongst the dustbins to see what I can get out of them and recycle this material to new forms. That’s what I basically do.
AW: Of course you’ve written about that in your work Mutant Media which is a wonderful book where you examine the relationship in ways media intersects and change regarding film and video.
JC: That’s been very important to me. There’s a great story between Stan Brakhage and Nam June Paik where Brakhage, the ever film purist, was very phobic about this new medium called “video” and one day he saw Nam June Paik working on a video image on the computer and it was a tree and he said to Paik “can you make that tree move” and Paik had that kind of impish neo-dadaist humour, he said, “not yet Stan but it will move” and it did and it has now in a sense and before he died Stan Brakhage actually released a lot of his movies in the video package format as did Robert Frank, another cantankerous film purist who was very wary of video being an impure medium. But they all succumbed to it in the final context. That’s the language we all deal in now, video-graphic language because of computers.
I became a believer. I could see it happening back then. But I couldn’t give you a theoretical rigorous reason as to why but I could see this kind new evidence boiling on the horizon here and there and I have always used the metaphor of the buffalo scout. I see myself as a buffalo scout. I always put my ear to the ground so I can hear the fault lines, the thunder of which way is the herd going and I really am a great believer in doing this. To know about the arts you’ve got to talk to the artist, you’ve got to go to the horse’s mouth—to echo Ezra Pound’s dictum—and in my younger days when I was much more mobile I would travel Europe, Asia and America meeting and interviewing people since the ’70s and I was like a western union messenger boy, I could see these things happening, coming to the bottom end of the earth, to Australia, and for me I was like a Morse coder, so I was transmitting these kind of signals or possibilities.
Now I’ve got this theory in terms of our unique niche location here, because we’re at the bottom place of the earth, Australia, we can engage instinctively as a nation certain groups of artists, writers, etc. in a niche, in sort of a distinctive niche genealogical critique (Friedrich Nietzsche) because we see ideas coming through from Europe, from America to Australia and these ideas as they approach us, we engage instinctively, unavoidably in the agency of translation and that to me has been a very important knowledge point for me as a scholar and as an artist and in many ways this explains why Australia has been instrumental in the formation of say cultural studies, being instrumental in new media theory, but these are the narratives that haven’t been widely publicised, not even yet with say cultural studies, not even yet with new media. We have this cultural cringe anxiety to express confidence about these new narratives that we’ve been engaged in and a very influential book that’s confirmed my hunches about this was the Boyer lectures by David Malouf called Spirit of Play where he actually talks about these ideas too but I knew this instinctively well before this where he actually delivered the Boyer lectures from the 1970s onwards.
AW: I was interested a little bit more about the specific works that you’ve been working on and I wanted to talk also about The Spiral of Time and the way that for example in the video component of the work that was also called of course Spiral of Time, how you incorporated a mixture of autobiography, art and literature with quotes for example coming up on screen, with the notion of catastrophe and what catastrophe means to you in the context of the way that your life intersects with both art and literature.
JC: Well, catastrophe has been a very important theme in my own personal individual life as a post-war immigrant kid. Catastrophe, other than the broad legacy of my ancient Greek origins in terms of the form of tragedy and the Greek chorus legacy, Greeks are very theatrical , fatalistic people that believe in the whole thing of the mercy of the Gods in that they can be very suspicious and believe in bad luck, fate, etc. But on a more specific level the catastrophic came in my life unexpectedly when my father passed away and I witnessed my mother receiving the call from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1957, I was 10 years old, and they told her over the phone that my father died and she just went into meltdown. She ran, she started crying, sobbing and I was, she was like a mute spectator and she went on the street, the Prince’s Highway breakdown crying nearly hysterical, “woe, what am I going to do, how am I going to survive, I’ve got three kids to feed, how am I going to look after the shop, why did you die” etc. and that had a huge impact on me, I was cut in two and that is for one reason, among other considerations, why I’m very attuned to the catastrophic and the surrealists and the theatre of the absurd, because the catastrophic metaphor runs through like an electric current through surrealist thought, surrealist’s language and the theatre of the absurd an one of my favourite artist is Andre Masson who used to work with Yves Tanguy and there’s a great series of calligraphic paintings, ink drawings of this kind of insect warriors carrying spears, of piercing cunning gestures and that to me was the metaphorical discharge for me of the catastrophic as a kid.
I’ve carried that. It’s been the mark of my psyche ever since and catastrophic also found another turn through the American film noir, becoming very in tune to classical film cineophilia and I took like duck to water to film noir, hearing this catastrophe, the fatalistic offbeat angle, the long shot, you know German expressionism and hard boiled crime all coalescing in that genre, and it was like the theatre of the catastrophe and I’ve carried that ever since.
On more personal level, my children always accused me of being a fatalist, “woe is me”, a negativist. But in another way I went through another portal of the catastrophic through the Frankfurt school in terms of engaging in negative critique.
So the catastrophic has got a philosophical , cinematic and autobiographical anchorage for me, always had, and that’s how I see it. I know one of my flaws as a human being is I can’t be happy, I don’t enjoy my life, and I need to be in a creative sphere of solitude where I can listen to music, watch a movie on my own or read a book. I can never share this unless I do it as a writer or as an artist. But this is a very deep kind of psychological connection with the catastrophic.
I’ve been on the couch, the Freudian couch, since the 1970s on and off in terms of melancholia, and melancholia is a huge theme that runs riot through the Kytherean imagination, my ancestral Greek island, hence Watteau’s Embarkation to Kythera, hence Debussy’s The Isle of Joy, hence Baudelaire’s poem Autumn Song, hence Angelopoulos’ Voyage to Kythera, and the melancholic part is also part of the clan that my father came from. Our ancestors were Venetian pirates, short stocky pirates of a melancholic background.
So, the catastrophic, the melancholic, are complicated and interwoven as an amalgam, it’s marked my life, not that I want to carry around masochistically with catastrophic but I’ve used it as like a mother load, if I can use that expression, to create thematically and new forms in my artwork and in my writing.
But you’re right, the catastrophic vision, the melancholic vision, is central to my life.
AW: What’s interesting about that too is the way that for example catastrophe has that sense of juncture where, for example, you have fatality, you have finitude, you have limits but you also have potentiality and all of your works seem to me as least, or for works that I have experienced, seem to have some sense of the enigmatic.
JC: Yes, the fragmentary, the enigmatic the aphorism, the quote, they have all been very important textual markers in my way of thinking, in the way I visualise things, in the way I write.
When I was doing an Honours degree in psychology in my undergraduate years in the 1960s at the UNSW, the professor there invited me in for a chat, Professor Hamer, and Professor Hamer was a psychologist and went through the Australian Army but he was into statistics and he’d draw the bell curve. He said, “John, you’re on this part of the percentile of the bell curve” and instinctively I said “no, I don’t agree with it”.
See this is it, and I ever fought against since, being marked. I believe in human potential, but in order be free, you’ve got to say no. It’s what Nam Jun Paik said, “you’ve got to know tradition to be a radical”. A lot of people want to be radical without first getting versed in the traditions of things, being schooled into things etc. So I’ve always fought instinctively, epistemologically, and ethically and aesthetically against normative behaviour, being put in the categorical position. I think acategorically because that allows me to breathe and the difficulty of being, to go back to Cocteau’s metaphor, the only way you can play around with it is to think acategorically because if you think categorically you are really doomed as a creative person. That’s the paradox. So I engage in the catastrophic acategorically.
AW: I was wondering too, because I remember because I was one of your students as an undergraduate, you often talked about the need for creative thought and I was wondering if you could talk about how creativity comes in along with the academic.
JC: Well, creativity for me comes through the back door. To put it in the idiom of the blues, I’m like a back door man. I never go through the front door of the house of creativity which is orthodoxy, normativity, etc. I always go through the side door or the back door. I do that instinctively in order to survive and in order to be a lone wolf.
Years ago when I was trying to do a feature film and I was talking to a movie lawyer, he’s still alive, a bloke called Raftos, a Greek solicitor, and he made a fair few films, he was a producer in the 1970s. He said to me one day “John, you’re a lone wolf” and that stuck with me. I am a lone wolf and being a lone wolf it allows me to see how other people behave but it allows me also to do a lot of reflection, thinking about who I am, what I am and to be always, to have Kafka’s doubt, that humility of being self-reflexive. Knowledge without self-reflexivity is dead in the water as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t have that capacity for Kafka’s doubt it’s delusional. So that’s been very important to me. So, creativity for me in any way shape or form has to go against the crowd, has to be the anonymous person in the crowd, a borderless flaneur, against the march of normality, going against the crowd and that’s what I’ve been doing all my life.
Now ironically what’s aided and abetted this behaviour is also my body because I’m not exactly Chesty Bond so my body’s played a big part in the way I think because I’m short limbed, obese , etc. and that’s allowed me in many ways to talk about mutilation, to talk about fragmentation, to talk about not being part of the crowd, being part of the gang. When we used to do physical education classes I was the last guy on the queue, I could never do a forward tumble or vault the horse. I was ill at ease with my body and that’s been a huge stimulant to be creative, to be a thinker, to believe in being a sedentary creature who’s very active in the mind, it’s all cerebral.
There was a great interview between Harold Pinter and his old Jewish friend from East London, because they both were Jewish people, a guy called Fox, a theatre person and Fox said to Pinter, “we Jews are creatures of our own mind. That’s where we live in our mind because of the stigma etc.” and in many ways I buy that argument because of my obesity, because of my body, my shyness, my introversion, my introspection, the fact that I was born in a lumpen-proletarian class structure and I could see kind of through the milk bar and the milk bar was like a hospital ward, people come in with their ailments and they were told to have a Bex powder, you now migraine headache or they’re poor impoverished people and I could see character types coming in and I’m meeting these kinds of people and it allowed me to be very quick witted. I had to survive by being quick witted, by engaging in puns, in metaphors and at school literally I was the court jester and I had teachers who really liked me because I was like a tin-drum character (Gunther Grass), I was very flexible, I could do slapstick and I can improvise a lot and I could break codes and I could walk into a room and on a number of levels, linguistic levels, I could see what the codes were so I could connect to them. Survival, not just mental survival , but also physical survival. So my childhood was forged , on an anvil of survival, instinctive survival. It allowed me to become very quick witted, to read codes very quickly, sub-cultural groups etc. and I became the town scribe because a lot of the Greek immigrants couldn’t deal with the language of bureaucracy, “Oh Johnny, can you look at this document and translate it for me and write a letter to them”.
So invariably I would be in my town scribe position on the corner of the milk bar and immigrant customers would come and they’d say to my father, to my mum, “could you get Johnny to read this for me and can he write a letter”. So I was very aware of translation, of the individual against bureaucracy, a real Kafkean landscape.
AW: I thought maybe you might want to talk about the Nocturnal Bench, just returning to that particular work because it was made fairly recently wasn’t it?
JC: Very much so, the end of last year and for many years I was very influenced by the British photographer who was born in Germany, Bill Brandt, who used to do black and white noirish photographs of the human body of miners, great photographs of Francis Bacon in the park under a gas lamp, great photos of Peter Sellers, around that time, reading the Times newspaper in the key of noir. And recently I read the new fact that he was born in Germany. He kept that secret in order to survive as a photographer because of the anti-Semitic ethos between the wars and he did a photograph once of the German, the Viennese philosopher/novelist Elias Canetti sitting on a bench at Hampstead Heath, just sitting down and I remember reading Salman Rushdie’s collection Imaginary Homelands, and I read it twice in a row, this was in Paris in the mid-90s where I was doing a Cite d’Arts residnecy. He talks about as a teenager he use to go and visit Elias Canetti and go to his kitchen and Canetti would give him advice how to write fiction when he was 15 or 16 and this park bench photo of Canetti had been burning in my mind’s eye for many years and I had to get it out of my system so that’s what I did. That’s the origin, if I could use that expression, of that performance, and it is a performance still, and letting the camera coming down. It’s got to be bit projected on a large scale to value the dynamics of the camera movement, etc.
So I’m trying to negotiate a show now at the Ian Potter Museum, Melbourne, so if they give me the green light in a couple of years, I’ll put it on a large scale and show my new works.
AW: It’s interesting just the title of the work Nocturnal Bench. The American Oxford Dictionary defines a nocturne because I immediately thought of the musical nature of the image, as a short musical composition of a romantic nature generally for piano and art a picture of a night scene and of course nocturnal also has the sound nocturne in it of course and its meanings of course done, occurring or active at night and I was wondering about the relationship to night and how it still pervades your work and future projects.
JC: Very good observation, professor. I’m an insomniac. I can survive with just two hour sleep if need be and most of the times unfortunately that’s the reality of my night life and I do a lot of thinking and writing and watching movies at night time and years ago I was influenced by a book by an English author who as a very good friend of Silvia Plath called Al Alvarez and he wrote a book about sleep and night and its role in the arts and it had a big impact on me.
At the end of the day, Alvarez gave up academia and became a world poker player in Las Vegas but he was a great, still alive, great essayist, and a legendary mountain climber. But he wrote a beautiful book about night.
I always lived my life through night. As a kid I used to watch all night movies on Channel 9. Somehow my mum allowed me to do that. I could find solace in the cinematic form and I would watch movies three in a row or four in a row, people like Bill Collins as the presenter. People mock him and dismiss him as camp etc. but in terms of world terms he was unprecedented. He was one of the first if not the only one who showed movies on a nightly basis, all night basis. He was at Channel 9, Channel 7, Channel 10 now he’s at Foxtel and he’s been marginalised. But he had a big influence on me as someone who opened Aladdin’s cave door for me.
Nights have been very important. I like it, it’s quite, there’s solitude and you do a lot of thinking, a lot of reflection.
I’m very cerebral. I wish I was much more, you know, below the belt guy but I’m not, I’m much more active in the mind. That’s my vice I guess. People chase women or chase horses or whatever, I am, like my uncle who suicided was known as “big head” the encyclopaedia. That was his nickname on that Greek island and I took after him. I do all this, these themes in Autumn Song which won an award in Berlin years ago.
Yeah, night’s been very important to me. Jazz music, film noir, Kafka, Colin Wilson’s Outsider, Margeurite Duras, Robert Bresson, etc. I’m reading Penelope Fitzgerald now, the English novelist who used to work at the BBC and I think that her novel Human Voices may have became an informative influence on you know the Terry Gilliam film Brazil, the authoritarian culture of the BBC.
And night has been been very, very important for me. It’s been my university actually and in the 1960s I used to spend a lot of time with my friends who are of Greek persuasion, we used to call ourselves “phantoms” after the comic character and we used to go to the Piccolo at Kings Cross which was a coffee shop open until about 5am in the morning, a little tiny shop and it featured in that TV series with the barrister comic character, Rake, who used to live above Piccolo. I used to literally live in the Piccolo playing chess, talking about movies. Every day it would be a new world of movies. Every time you’d see a movie it would be a new director’s oeuvre opening up for you, Renoir, Marker, Godard, Bergman, Hawks, Ford, etc. etc. It was a treasure trove, you just couldn’t keep up with it, just all this kind of cinematic goodies coming at you, food for thought. We used to talk movies until 5.00am in the morning in the Piccolo and elsewhere in Kings Cross. So I am a creature of the night in so many ways, still into jazz. I used to go to the El Rocco, a famous jazz club, three or four in the morning.
AW: And a night is wonderful because it sort of allows for transition of time in a way where you get those sort of amazing sort of experiences at dusk for example and early in the morning.
JC: Yes, you do. That’s early morning, night, twilight, between black and white, between inner categories, between stools ( so to speak). That’s night for me or morning or twilight and the Eric Rohmer film, the blue light film etc. They are zones of transition and you travel. It’s a metaphor. For the Greeks metaphor meant transport, like a vehicle and movement of ideas, freight. So you know the nights are a perfect kind of metaphor for me of ideas coming to form, shaping up, as you say, different temporal regimes colliding with each other, the past, the present, here and now, then and past etc. All this conjuncture, and you’re a creature of juxtaposed ideals, forms and genres. That’s where you find the absurdity of life, where you see an umbrella on the sewing machine to quote the surrealist, or whatever, you see life in surreal juxtapositions, in the juxtaposed because it is absurd, the contradiction, and life is full of contradictions. But people see it as a crossword puzzle, straight people see life as a Times crossword puzzle where you can work it all out, well you can’t. It’s not Q&A. Questions lead to questions not to answers. You know people who sit down they think of solving or mastering discourse. Are you kidding! We are language, it’s a mobility of the first order. You can’t freeze language. The chess metaphor, the crossword, Nabokov and the exilic and modernist imagination of Stefan Zweig and the early German modernists etc. and French avant-garde cinema chess games. I mean all the permutations of language and of life’s possibilities.
AW: Just quickly to return, because I think there’s again a potential link between your art practice and your academic research, you’ve written about ecologies and I want to know how you use the term and what you mean when you talk of ecologies.
JC: Ecologies for me signifies, a film scholar who has had a big impact on my thinking is a Yale professor, Dudley Andrew. Originally he was from Iowa and then he moved to Yale and he wrote some wonderful books, The Major Film Theories, Opening Bazin, What Cinema Is, etc, and so forth and he had a big influence on me because I believe in the Aristotelian method, and Nietzsche’s genealogical method of reading, doing a reading where you locate an idea or a genre in the largest scheme of things to know where it’s going, where it’s travelling, what’s been its formative origins, formations and so forth. So for me ecology refers to all the surrounding aesthetic, cultural, historical scapes surrounding a particular idea or a theme. You’ve got to contextualise it in order to make some sense of it. If you look at an idea independently of its background and therefore it’s formations etc. it becomes much more of an object of trickery, you become more wrong, make more errors about it but if you’re able to locate it in the broader sweep of things in its own universe how it’s related to other genres etc. you get a fuller picture of the mosaic which to me is knowledge. That’s what I mean by ecology, the broader overview of where this thing is located in and how can you extrapolate certain things, x, y, z about that thing and the mental and cultural universe it inhabits.
So ecology to me is a very important, though it has huge implications now with post- anthro-procentric thought, and ecological thinking going back to Heidegger and the Scandinavian philosophers in the early 20th Century. But in terms of film criticism and theory, one of the first persons to do it as a film critic/scholar for me was, well Andre Bazin most certainly. I mean he’s the classic Aristotelian film scholar. He always insisted on contextualising a genre in its historical linage and he had a huge influence on me, Andre Bazin, huge influence. I read most of his essays, those two volumes. Also, I would include Jean Mitry in this critical context too. That’s what I mean by ecological.
AW: Well thank you.
JC: That’s alright. I think we’ve covered a fair bit.
AW: Yes, I think so. Well thank you John.
JC: Well thank you Alex for that.
“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?