John Conomos

Leftquote Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it. Rightquote
Air and Water
unpublished, 2008

“What follows is my speech given at my launch of my book “Mutant Media”
(Artspace/Power Publications, 2008) at Gleebooks, Sydney, on April 1 2008.

The title of my speech will become self-evident towards its concluding
paragraphs. George Alexander launched the book for me in Sydney and in
Melbourne, Adrian Martin, will launch it at Monash University (Clayton
Campus) on 28th August, 2008.”

“How do we know who copied what?”
Louis Armstrong

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed.
No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. “
Samuel Beckett

“ Our word ’history’ comes from the Greek word
meaning ‘enquiry.’ It embodies the assumption
that men and women are curious about life on
earth ; that they wish to question the dead as well
as the living, and to ponder the present and the
future as widely as possible from knowledge of the
Shirley Hazzard

Thank you for coming this evening. Much appreciated. Thank you, George, for your kind words.

For the last few months I have been rehearsing in my mind what will I say on this occasion ?  Words as usual will fail me. They always do. Like the time when Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal to the ground, and Vidal stood up looked him in the eye and replied : “I see Norman, words have failed you once again.”

So the first thing I wish to do is to sincerely thank the people who made my solo book a publishing reality. The first two people I should acknowledge are the two Nicks in my professional life. Nick Tsoutas, who kick-started the book, by hassling me for close to four years to get something on a bookshelf. I am deeply indebted to him for this and supporting my writing and art since the 1980s.

Nick is, without any doubt, endowed with the best antennae in the contemporary art business in this country : I said it before and I say again :  it is uncanny, how he can sense things in our cultural zeitgeist like a bloodhound.

The second Nick is the late Nick Zurbrugg. I still miss him, his playful reflexive wit, generous encyclopedaeic erudition – grounded in Ezra Pound’s wisdom that is essential to speak to artists, poets and philosophers if you wish to write about them – and his unfailing nurturing belief in me as an author and artist. I miss his infectious zany humour and deep-seated curiosity about the world.

Brad Buckley and Helen Hyatt-Johnston need to be thanked next for their consistent concern – over a year to be exact – to see that I met the pressing publishing deadline. There were moments that I thought I was in an ancient Egyptian galleon with me chained below deck, next to Charlton Heston, and  them two above deck banging their drum with sadistic relish. Why guys ? Why ?

Indeed, I swear there were days as I would schlep my laptop computer on a trolley with an assortment of essays, documents, etc., strapped to it, going up and down the stairs in my ‘Foucauldian’ asylum-college building – shades of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’- morphing into a bloody Lamarckian orangantan !

I need also to thank Blair French, from Artspace  who graciously and professionally committed himself to the book, as did Victoria Dawson, from Power Publications, for supporting the book as well. Thank you. Both Blair and Rebeun Keehan, also from Artspace, need to be thanked for going over the manuscript with a fine editorial toothcomb.

In this context, I am also specifically appreciative of Sarah Shrubb’s consummate copy editing skills. Many thanks, Sarah.

And for the overall visual design look of the book I am indebted to Ricardo Felipe. You maybe wondering why I feature on the book’s cover with a trilby hat and a chess-board ? Well, aside from the image’s many modernist connotations, it is a comment on the fact that I am such a lousy game-player in the academy and the art and writing world.

A Keatonesque spear-carrier in the surreal grand opera of the academy.

More of this in a moment, boys and girls.

There is also one other person I should thank for his invaluable computer and publishing skills : I am speaking of Eddy Jokovich, who selflessly assisted me in shaping the manuscript into a passable one for publication. Thanks, Eddy.

I don’t wish to make this speaking occasion into a ‘theological’ litany of my many friends who have been a vital part of life on this planet. I don’t wish to bore you with many names. But you know who you are and I am always beholden to you for your constant companionship, laughter and shared experiences of this only one world we have. A world that as one gets older values it more as a shared world of aesthetic, cultural, dialogic and existential possibilities.

Two people need however to be singled out for encouraging and mentoring me to become an artist – writer many moons ago. I am referring to Laleene Jayamanne and Tina Kaufman. My heart-felt thanks to both of them.

For me art and writing are shadows on the wall of life. Friendship above these two any day of my life. Old-walrus himself, that dependable light-house keeper of our darkness, Friedrich Nietzsche was on the money – as usual – when he said : “ Should life rule over knowledge and science, or should knowledge rule over life ?  Which of these forces is higher and more decisive ? No one will doubt : life is higher, the ruling force , for any knowledge that destroyed life would simultaneously destroy itself. Knowledge presupposes life, hence it has the same interest in the preservation of life that every creature has in its own continued existence.”  (“On the Utility and Liability of History for Life.)

How many of us have taken heed of Nietzsche’s words ?  Particularly inside and outside the academy : how many of us as artists, academicians and authors clamber over each one in our obscene haste to create a CV mythology that is frequently peddled to the highest bidder in Bertold Brecht’s marketplace of daily whoring. We speak of the art of seeing and the art of hearing, but how about the art of whoring ?

Forgive me if you think I am being sanctimonious here : I too am a whore : all of us, if I may say so, some more than others, are somehow complicit – in the Sartrean sense – with the engulfing global free-market ideology that is seeping in our universities, museums, cultural institutions, cultural industries, etc. This is not new news, as we all know. It is just that reflexive knowledge, and self- and institutitional critique are rapidly receding into oblivion.

The reasons for this are many and complex. Global education of varied and dubious critical scholarly standards is spawning the spectre of the educator as a kind of corporate conquistador flittering from one tertiary site to another as if they are on an elevator to celebrity stardom.

I do also deeply care about the persistent problem of cultural amnesia that is unfortunately becoming the norm in our professional and private lives.  When the so-called literary editor of one of our national broadsheets wanted me , last year, to prove to him the current relevancy of Orson Welles to his weekend readers I was speechless. “Prove to me, John, that he matters and I might publish your book review.”

I can give you many examples from the art, academic and writing world of this critical blight that – sadly – as Shirley Hazzard’s words cited at the beginning of my talk acutely delineate – is still with us today. All of us I believe – well most of us who do give a damn about it (contra to one of my colleagues who informed me that it was my problem as an educator and not the student’s)- are daily challenged to address this pernicious problem.

Read anyone on this issue – Sande Cohen, Andreas Huyssen, Julian Stallybrass, Regis Debray, George Steiner, Roy Ascott, Jonathan Rosenbaum, or who ever you care to choose, the consensual perception of this problem is, to put it mildly, dispiriting. My saying, boys and girls, “Today’s academic : Krusty the Clown” is rapidly becoming an emerging dominant reality..

Last month, in Dallas, I had the exquisite pleasure to hear Mary Ann Caws speak on the French surreal poet Robert Desnos. That was what she did – just spoke to us without engaging in an embalming exercise of theoretical peformance anxiety. Dotting her ‘i’s and crossing her ‘t’s.

It was like a sea-breeze in the mausoleum of the academy. Art history as cultural conversation – as if in a café, across your table- speaking to you as a friend would. How many of our art historians are, at the same time, discursive art critics ? You can count them on your two hands if you are lucky.

I exaggerate, of course, as I do, but you get the point.

Mary Ann Caws is a theorist – translator who is , mercifully, not a monologist  and who is generous – that word again, boys and girls – with quoting other theorists, writers and critics in her books and talks.

Today, alas, Jack Benny’s famous quip – “He would not give the parsley off his fish to you”- is so true in our art, academic and writing world. Like a bunch of dogs fighting over a bone in a Sam Peckinpah film.

Welcome to our global world of panoptioc Fordism. No time, boys and girls, to interact with, to fracture Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s apt description of the world, as one being of winds and stars and tides. No time, boys and girls, too busy, too busy.

The other day we were engaged in one of Sydney University’s massive “Little Britain” halls, where, boys and girls – you better believe  it – it was like a kresh for toddlers schooled in the hideous ‘edu-speak’ discourse of how one can get more creative, more innovative. In other words, tautological twaddle.  During the first morning session, one of my colleagues said to me that the acoustics in the place was bloody awful.  “We can’t hear one another, John..”  I replied wearily “it does not matter we are in the academy after all.”  Who is listening to whom these days?

I swear that there were moments as we were being hypnotised into a state of “Mickey Mouse” infantalisation , I thought that high up in the rafters of the hall, lurked Charles Laughton as the Hunchback of Notre Dam who was drooling in potential disappointment because he may have missed out on his professorial appointment as he was about to lurch downwards to us with his bell rope seeking a re-marking of his PhD thesis on the idea of the Medieval Origins of the University as a sanctuary for free independent thought !

The spectre of Hannah Arendt’s face has been haunting me ever since I first saw her in a British television interview in the early sixties. It was in my godfather’s house at Einfield. My godfather, Archie, was a magician with the Greek language of his rembetiko childhood in Piraeus in the 1920s. He was, bless his soul, a Joycean dazzler with Greek and English words : colliding them together as biting absurd, funny and obscene hybrid creations. (Paul Carter are you listening?) Words, for him, were like a soothing balm to him to counter the boredom of working in a milk-bar, seven days a week.

Pierre Bonnard painted against the monotony of life, Archie was a mesmerising word collagist for the same reasons.

He had many wonderful sayings which I can still recall from the 1950s and ’60s. One of which was “I am talking and only my arse is listening.’,

How prescient were Archie’s words for our modern times !

If you ask me “what is art and writing to you ?” All I can feebly say it is the only way I know best how to interact with this world. I am compelled to do so. If I had my choice, believe me, I would rather go fishing – which I should do more of these days – but I write and create images because I have to.

It is that simple and that complex. As John Cage use to say, enigmatically, “nothing more, nothing less.”

But I assiduously believe that one is obliged to to treat the past, the present and the future as one continuing dialogue of possibilities. Being alive to our one shared world. Treating the past as part of the present. In other words, boys and girls, believing in (to use Octavio Paz’s words) “an antiquity without dates.”

In the late 1970s Susan Sontag was once asked what is the role of an artist or a writer in modern society ? Sontag, who certainly lived up to her following words, replied that it was to pierce the narcotic veil that society produces on a daily basis and to show the possibilities of another world. I’ll buy her words as to why I create and teach.

(Sontag, according to her friend Richard Howard, the pre-eminent critic-translator of French literature, would actually lose weight as a consequence of her writing spells. Fourteen or fifteen drafts of an essay and then she would collapse into a heap on her floor totally exhausted.)

Since my bicultural childhood at Tempe in the 1950s I was always aware of being a hybrid alien who, in order to survive the ideological contradictions and fictions of my life, Stanley Cavell’s fitting expression of “being a stranger to oneself’ comes to the fore in this context. I would always read between languages, between cultures, between art forms.  I have been doing this all my life : rummaging amongst the dustbins of various art forms, genres and cultural contexts.

I cling to fragments, essays, aphorisms, quotes, and digressions like a marooned sailor does to floating wreckage.

The artist –writer as self-interrogator.

Art and writing, have always been for me, shadowed by the otherness of becoming, culture, history, gender, and power.

Indeed, both activities share a perennially nagging, half-glimpsed, striving towards an undecided elsewhere.

As I get older, as expected, I don’t give a damn. A rat’s arse maybe more appropriate. I speak my mind more freely.

Writing and making art for me is, on one level, creating works against forgetting. You may say what folly is this, but friends, it is something that I am compelled to do so. Kafka, once described his nocturnal feverish writing, as an act of “interior emigration.”   This is something dear to my life : crossing across many different kinds of cultural, linguistic  and psychic borders in my life’s journey.

Now I wish to finish my “Mister Natural” soapbox performance and thank my immediate family for all they have put up with me through the years.

I wanted to play Tony Bennett, the last of the existential crooners, singing Duke Ellington’s “Day Dream” but she forbade me from doing so. Too corny, she said. “Okay, maybe you are right, Carol”.  However, what remains for me to say about Carol is her truth-seeking eye and inconclusive heart have always anchored me, over the many years, in the flux of my life.

“Yes, Carol, I will put my books back in my study.”

To Joel, who I taught to play chess at the age of fours years old, and would methodically beat me every time since, a veritable spatial dancer of the chessboard, if there ever was one. Recently returning from his ‘grand-tour’ of Europe last year, he said to me how he saw a few of Luis Bunuel’s films in Spain, and how he thought that he understood me a little better because as he put it, “Dad, to you movies and books are like the air you breathe and the water you drink.”

To Mahla, who also returned from her “grand-tour ‘ of Europe this year, I must thank her also for putting up with me all these years. Apparently, as I found out through an email sent to me from one of her friends seeking advice about art colleges in this country, she did an impromptu performance outside the Tate Modern by rolling down a hill. According to her it was her critique of contemporary art. Mahla, I replied, the first law of creative life as an artist is you need to get inside that elusive white cube space of recognition.

Recently, Godard went to New York by plane from Europe and on his way back he chose to return by boat, Asked why he took the boat Godard replied “To see an open sky.”

How many of us today see an open sky ?
Thank you for coming.

John Conomos, April 1 2008.