John Conomos

Leftquote The primary function of education is to make one maladjusted to ordinary society. Rightquote
Northrop Fry
Dada Buster
Dada Buster catalogue essay, 2013

dada-buster-cover

“If made-up lives are better than true biographies, then it’s the absolute truth that Keaton was a tipsy geameter, an amnesiac hypnotist, a palsied ballet master, a commander in chief with dyspepsia, a Columbus sailing for Prague.”

–Robert Benayoun

“Beautiful as a bathroom, vital as a Hispano… With Buster Keaton the expression is modest as that of a bottle for example; although around the round, clear circuit of his pupils dances his aseptic soul. But the bottle and the face of Buster have their viewpoints in infinity.”

–Luis Bunuel

As long as I can remember I have been entranced by Dada Buster, the stoic comedian whose haunting face ranks along with Lincoln’s, as Hugh Kenner once remarked, “as an early American archetype”.(1) As an artist and writer/theorist and as a cinephile going back to the mid-sixties, I (like many of my cinema-going generation) took to Keaton’s handsome Mount Rushmore face, his ubiquitous flat-brimmed hat, and his incandescent pyrotechnics of acrobatics in a world of machines and buildings collapsing around him. Keaton’s look, to echo Benayoun once more, was perpetually fixed in an absurd (almost) metaphysical gaze, a dignified, stoical gaze that illuminated the world as a Kafkaesque comedy. Keaton’s perennial “art of sinking” (Kenner) was predicated on a life that encapsulates for me many complex issues concerning the ongoing story of art and technology in this century. What follows is a brief reflective commentary on Keaton’s importance for my own practice as a media artist-writer performer, one which is concerned with the shifting audiovisual, cultural, and technological complexities of media theory and practice as we are about to exit the twentieth century. Keaton’s art is relevant for these times, an era when media art is in need of rigorous, well-informed theorisation, as much as back in the twenties when Keaton was creating his kinetic cinema of love, displacement and sorrow.

Like Jacques Tati’s modernist oeuvre, Keaton’s wondrous cinema is instructive for many elaborate reasons: not least because it points to the absurd humour, irony (something that, as William Gibson never tires to remind us, is missing in academic and popular discussions of the new media) and real-time performance as satire of the technologized concerns and textures of our world. Kenner’s definition of Keaton’s thematic subject is as “kinetic man, a being he approached with the almost metaphysical awe we reserve for a doppelganger”.(2) It was a subject that reverberated, amongst other things, a highly personal level of existential stoicism. Witness the eerie and moving account given by Stan Brakhage in his inimitable prose style (in parts reminiscent of Celine and Frampton) in Film Biographies, a book radiant with a Blakean textual energy, of accidentally seeing a silent Keaton (in 1957) sitting in front of him in Los Angeles’ The Coronet Theatre watching Steamboat Bill, Jr.—a lonely man, overlooked by the world—as Brakhage and his friend convulsed with laughter.

Keaton is a touchstone for me for he personifies the reflective necessity (given his consummate self-critical and performative stance towards a world of aeroplanes, telephones, radios, cinemas, steam-trains and skyscrapers) to question one’s own cultural and epistemological baggage. In my own film and video work (especially in my recent three-channel installation Night Sky and the forthcoming autobiographical/landscape/performance videotape Autumn Song) I explore questions of old and new media, of contextualising the historical avant-garde in terms of recent art and cultural theory. of colliding the cinema with electronic art, performance with collage theory, (post) modernist literature with installation art, and the impossibility of autobiography in a time of amnesia/post-coloniality.

Keaton’s paradoxical art of stasis and mobility, of being inside and outside of technology, offers new horizons of possibilities for my continuing exploration of the relatively uncharted hinterland between analogue and digital media. (As the late Gilles Deleuze noted, “the arts, science and philosophy are already bringing about unforseen creative encounters”).(3) Moreover, in the sequence, for example, in Night Sky where we see Buster on top of a turning train wheel approaching my speaking mouth (I am reading a passage from Michel Serres’ Oasis Semiotext(e) text travelling in the Davis Sound (the Northwest Passage) located between the Arctic and Pacific Oceans—more of this in a performance to illustrate my own interdisciplinary relationship to Keaton’s comic work and experimental video.(4) In light of this, I have improvised certain studio performances for Autumn Song which draws upon a number of different Keaton set-ups in his silent films and collaboration with Samuel Beckett in Film.

Today, anyone who is working with electronic media as a theorist and/or as an artist needs to negotiate the role of amnesia that is characterising our attempts to think, write and make digital art. Keaton’s life is an exemplary instance of our propensity to conveniently overlook “the old” for the sake of “the new”. Oust before he died in 1966, Keaton was given a special award at the Venice Film Festival where he is reported to have said. “Where were you twenty years ago when I needed you?”) Contemporary artists and theorists as diverse as Mario Periola. Andreas Huyssen, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Nicholas Zurbrugg, Jim Collins, and Avital Ronell, have highlighted the importance of addressing this problem in any rudimentary instance of art and technology criticism/writing and practice. This is not unique to new media studies (viz. the American literary critic Philip Rhav once termed America “Amnesia”): but given the un informed, breathless form of writing that still marks our current approaches to the new cultural forms, we need to remind ourselves that the critique of amnesia as a mass-mediated malady of capitalist culture is not new in itself—as Huyssen points out—for instance, witness Adorno’s, Benjamin’s and Heidegger’s inter-war writings on culture’s obsession with memory and the fetish nature of mass cultural forms.(5) Further, my own artistic and theoretical practice strives to underscore how today’s cybernetic virus of amnesia is threatening to consume memory.

If we were to value the intertextual potential that resides between old and new media on the same plane of multimedia creativity, we would also benefit from observing Serres’ characterization of the legacy of Cartesian rationalism as a totalising violent force in our approach to the question of two cultures and the fate of analogue media in a post-computer epoch. Thus, for Serres, there are complex passages that we can traverse from one domain to another, like the difficult (but rewarding) routes—as cited above—between isolated islands of order in a sea of chaos as in the Northwest Passage, from one medium to another, providing we problematise global paradigms and universal ahistorical modes of thinking and are prepared to shift our ways of knowing by negotiating complexity, disorder, uncertainty, and multiplicity in our lives.

Buster, our deadpan comedian, for me, is a necessary part of this creative adventure. His respect for fluidity in space and real-time has much to offer to anyone who is contemplating contributing to electronic art. We need to value Serres’s insight that all authors (irrespective of the medium) are our contemporaries.

John Conomos, 2013 (1999)

Notes:

  1. Hugh Kenner. The Counterfeiters. New York. Anchor Books. 1973: 31
  2. Ibid: 57.
  3. Gilles Deleuze. “On The Crystalline Regime.” Art and Text, No.34. 1989: 30
  4. Michel Serres. “The Northwest Passage”. Semiotext(e). vol. 4. No.3. 1984: 67. (See for example. “Night Sky”. Cantrills Filmnotes. Nos. 73174. May 1994: 9′11).
  5. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories, New York, Routledge. 1995:4.

Sources:

  • Robert Benayoun. The Look of Buster. London. Pavillion Books. 1984 (ed.& trans. by Randall Conrad).
  • Stan Brakhage. Film Biographies. Berkeley. Turtle Island. 1979. 2nd Ed.
  • Natalia Ginzburg. “Film” in, A Place to Live: Other Selected essays of Natalia Ginzburg. New York. Seven Stories Press. 2001. (Selected essays chosen and Iran. Lynne Sharon Schwartz).
  • Michel Serres with Bruno Latour. Conversations on Science, Culture and Time. Ann Arbor. The University of Michigan Press. 1995.

Selected Filmography:

  • Steamboat Bill, Jn. (1928) Chas. F. Reisner
  • Film (1964) dir. Alan Schneider

Selected Videography:

  • Night Sky (1992–93), John Conomos
  • Autumn Song (1997), John Conomos