John Conomos

Leftquote What others criticize you for, cultivate: it is you. Rightquote
Jean Cocteau
Double Take: A Forum with Brad Buckley and John Conomos
Australian Centre for Photography, 2013

Double Take: A Forum with Brad Buckley and John Conomos in conjunction with Buckley and Conomos’ exhibitions The Slaughterhouse Project: Alignment and Boundaries (L’Origine du monde) and I wonder whether that’s Joanna Hiffernan with a Brazilian (revisited), and The Spiral of Time. Chaired by Nicholas Tsoutas, the speakers Dr Ann Finegan, Dr Alex Gawronski and Professor Ross Harley engage in a conversation with the artists about their diverse modes of production and their influences in the context of installation art. 4 May 2013, Australian Centre for Photography.


Nick Tsoutas

Today we are here to engage with the exhibition projects, the slaughter house projects, alignment and boundaries, and forgive me I don’t speak French but I’ll pronounce it as best I can, L’Origine du monde, and I wonder whether that’s Joanna Hiffernan with Brazilian Revisited and Insulation by Brad Buckley and The Spiral of Time by John Conomos.

Brad Buckley who is a Professor of Contemporary Art at Sydney College of the Arts is a committed installation artist whose work and interests operates at the intersection of theatre and performance in the context of instillation as he investigates, provokes, challenges and questions the critical issues of cultural control, democracy, freedom and social responsibility along with complex questions of sexuality, eroticism and desire as well as the politics of being an Australian in Australia today and what constitutes being an Australian. He has exhibited nationally and internationally including Canada, Japan, New York and Israel and across Australia at a number of contemporary art spaces. I think we first met Brad about 25 plus years ago when we exhibited your work at the Performance Space from memory, a long time ago.

He has collaboratively published with his fellow exhibitor and colleague John Conomos Re thinking the Contemporary Art school, the artist, the PhD and the academy published by the University of Halifax Press. He is also published again with John Conomos The Republic of Ideas published by Pluto Press and Art Space a publication which examined the social, political and cultural implications of an Australian republic in the context of the visual arts and new global economies.

They have been recently initiated and have been contributing to the cultural debate with writing and provocations on the delinquent curator, a subject that’s close to most curator’s hearts so we’re all waiting with abated anticipation of what’s going to emerge from that.

John Conomos is an Associate Professor at Sydney College of the Arts but is an artist with an interdisciplinary interest across photo media, video art and cinema. In the catalogue he has been described as an essayist who over a long period of time has contributed to the intellectual and critical debates that inform and have informed the development of video art practices, new media and contemporary art in our times provocatively and avant-gardeishly enriching our consciousness and our discourse on those media practices through the lens of cinema and film history. His practice as an auto biographer and often photo performance based as he innovatively interrogates questions of identity and memory and the contemporary philosophical questions of our time as he explores the fragility of life and the necessity of remembering things past in relation to how we produce meaning in the present.

Brad and John have produced two projects, two very different diverse projects, almost divergent projects and I guess the challenge of today’s discussion will be not only how we evaluate and contextualize the works individually and independently of each other but in the discussion to investigate intersections through each other no matter how fragile they are and how invisible they seem to appear.

Whilst they don’t necessarily collaborate as artists as Brad Buckley state in the catalogue, we collaborate as public intellectuals in the extended public sphere using publication, text and discourse to argue their views often forthrightly in strategies of engagement as a means of provoking artistic cultural and public debate on critical issues affecting and impacting not only on our social contributions but how contemporary art and contemporary art education function in that social and political construction particularly in relation to being an Australian and from the perspective of being an Australian and the complex questions of what is identity in Australia today and both I would suggest have been significant participants and contributors to the building of our culture as we know it today but possibly from very different perspectives and very different possibilities.

Brad Buckley sees his work as an instrument that interrogates how we are controlled, manipulated and how pressure is applied for us to conform, whether it be sexually, morally or politically as he sharpens focuses on what is acceptable behaviour in relationship between power and control. Deliberately provocative he utilises material and a subjectivity that foregrounds the erotic and what some people have argued as pornographic but central to his interest is this discourse and certainly in the exhibitions, in the exhibition that’s out there today he focuses on the whole question of desire, how it functions in art and society and how he suggests that affects all of us here today regardless of what some would argue as being fashionable and regardless of how we are constrained by it.

John Conomos on the other hand, his autobiographical photo media and video art approaches are from an intertexualist perspective, phenomenological and existentially informed. It’s almost classical in the way that he’s developed his practice in his intellectual refraction of his life and of the world. The history of the 20th Century writers and philosophers affect and impact on his agency as an artist and constantly populate his language and even more amazingly in almost a photographic memory his recollection is quite extraordinary as he supports his arguments with quotes directly from eminent figures of the 20th Century including people like Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, Freud, Sartre, Barthes, Orson Wells and almost every philosopher, film maker and video artist that you can think of and he does this intuitively. He reflexes in ways that incorporate those histories, those languages, those critical positions in a way that not only adds dimension to what he has to say but extends and extrapolates on those theorists and philosophers.

As an essayist his knowledge is encyclopaedic and has influenced many young contemporary artists today and it never ceases to amaze me when I talk to a lot of artists in our community how they always come back to a talk by John or they say he said something to them that changed the way they think or he provoked them in a way that really questioned their practice.

His languages are often poetic and paradoxical and are transgressive, and quoting directly from John “I am an artist. I was a video artist in the early days when video art was transgressive. I lost a few cinema friends as I crossed the floor politically as they asked me ‘what is this thing, video? Is it a form of foreign hieroglyph’. But I was mesmerized by it. I had to decipher it. These liminal images on the horizon of the human imagination. Language is always behind the latest rupture of techno creativity”. I hope Ross might be able to comment on that provocation at some point during his talk.

Even video people think video art is a parse thing now although John very categorically states that, and I can vouch for this, that he thinks video art is alive. He doesn’t believe in used by dates. He believes in what Michael Sares suggests when he said “put Socrates, Heidegger, Blake and Celine in the same room, all on the same plane and give me a vantage point to become a deep sea diver into the subconscious society and critique its institutional logic. But you do that at a price and that price is always on the outside looking in”.

Whether outside or being in between, John’s work is instrumental in reading contemporary video art, the logic of its image making and the way that it consciously perpetrates the way we see things not only in terms of video as art within the gallery context but in its cinematic implications, in its televisualness, in the way that it informs our entire image making process as it is re thinking the post colonial philosophy of contemporary and multicultural Australia.
As collaborators they have produced two distinct bodies of work here today and its now, having set a little bit of the frame of some of the discussion that I hope will take place today, I’d like to introduce the speakers to you who will speak in the following order, Dr Alex Gawronski, Professor Ross Harley and Anne Finnegan who will talk about the work here today from different contexts and different perspectives.

Our next speaker is Professor Ross Harley. He’s an artist, writer and educator in the field of new media and popular culture. His work and interests crosses the boundaries of media arts practice, cinema, music, design and architecture and his video and sound works have been presented in Paris at the Pompidou Centre, MoMA in New York and Ars Electronica in Austria.

He is a long term collaborator with Maria Fernanda Cordoso working closely with her in the new very famous Cardoso Flea Circus.
His publications include Avopolis, a multimedia project book on airports and an edited number of anthologies including new media technologies firstly, artists in cyber culture secondly and before and after cinema thirdly amongst a very long piece of publications.

He was the director of the influential International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA, in 1992 and is currently the co-chair of the forthcoming ISEA 13 entitled “Resistance is Futile” that will explode across many venues in Sydney next month from June 7 to 16. He has recently been appointed as the new Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales. Please welcome Ross Harley

Ross Harley

Thanks very much Nick. Great to be here and welcome everyone on a Saturday afternoon coming out to hear people talk about such an amazing show that we have before us.
I’ve known John for a long time and I have to say this is the first time that I’ve actually been asked to talk a little bit about his work and in many ways I think of ourselves as fellow travellers. Although our work is quite different we have a similar background and I just wanted to touch on a few of those moments where John and I have worked and thought in a similar way in order to try and unravel, for those of you who aren’t so familiar with John’s work, the way in which John can be characterised as somebody who is a reader, a writer and an artist.

So when we listen to the great bio that Nic has given us earlier about all of John’s great work I think it’s worth reflecting on the way in which the things that John has done in the field of writing, in the field of thinking and in art making all intersect I think in a very interesting way. And often, when you go to John’s website there are lots of highfaluting references to great figures of the 21st Century, the 20th Century, the 19th Century and when I was looking at John’s latest work, the big installation out the back there called “Spiral of Time”, it reminded me that John also has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the culture of the 20th Century in particular and in particular the history of cinema, all kinds of cinema, and the work that The Spiral of Time most reminds me of is in fact of a Roger Corman film called “The Man With the X-Ray Eyes” which was a classic cult but also pulp film from 1963. Roger Corman is the director and producer of schlock films, I suppose of B grade films, and I think John is somebody who is able to move across a range of different kinds of culture. So although he is very comfortable with philosophers like Deleuze or Guatarri or Baudrillard and other proper nouns he’s also ensconced in the culture of everyday life and of popular culture.

So I think John, the reader, the writer, the artist, is indeed the man with the x ray eyes. I think his vision of how we engage with culture and life is very incisive.
I also want to think about John in three different ways, so as John the reader, John the writer, John the artist.

So John the reader, many of you may not know that in fact John is a trained librarian and he, along with Carol, have worked in the library for many, many years, whether that’s as a job or whether it’s as pleasure and as something that has sustained his life for many years.

John is an incredible bibliophile. He’s a reader, he’s somebody who has an extensive knowledge of text but his understanding of text is not just the text of the book it’s not just the text that we will find in the library in the archive. John is not just a bibliophile in that classic sense he’s also a cinephile and a scholar.

John started his scholarly life in fact thinking a lot about another at the time despised filmic form, the film noir and John wrote an incredible thesis of film noir that’s never seen the light of day. I think we should ask John if he might, they failed him. There’s a long story there.

John understands film culture in a way that is unlike many others. He’s a lover of culture and he’s both a participant and an actor in the way in which we engage in that active process of reading. So John and his work shows us that reading is not just a passive act of taking a text which has come to us and consuming it. John and his work shows us that reading is something that’s very active and that it’s something that can be political and it’s something that is productive. In fact John’s participation in culture as a result of being involved in the films societies and the film scene of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s is that’s kind of where I first met John in the 1980s working on the independent film magazine that came out, the Sydney Film Makers Co Op called Film News and John was absolutely passionate about cinema of all kinds not just the trashy films of Roger Corman, not just the films of the immediate post war and the film noir but also of the avant-garde, the independent cinema and the works of Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Jean Renoir and all of those references that we see today in John’s works.

But in those times John started to write reviews for Film News and we would go and see films together, we’d hang out just around the corner at the Chauvel Cinema, we’d meet each other at the Cinematheque, we’d look at the films of Chris Marker and then I would read John’s musings in Film News. That was a scene that John was a larger than life figure and although we don’t see any references to this in the work that is in the present show, John in fact started to appear a bit like the figure of Antonin Artaud in Carl Dreyer’s “Joan of Arc”.
I remember one day going to a screening and seeing John Conomos appear as a figure larger than life in some of the early works of Lalene Jayammane and Tracey Moffatt. There’s an amazing scene, I think it’s in Bedevil where John performs himself but in this instance he performs himself as kind of a real estate figure, this menacing but also incredibly engaging character who just appears in this moment of the film which is quite amazing.

So at that time I didn’t really think of John as an artist nor had I thought of John as somebody who was working in that way but in fact this was the beginning, for me, the way in which John’s oeuvre started to emerge. It emerged out of a deep understanding of filmic and textual philosophical culture that he was immersed in. But he was also clearly immersed in a scene. John’s a convivial person who loves to talk, who loves to perform, who loves to engage in the world and I think that’s what we see in John’s works, although they may seem on the surface to be these intertextual pieces of work which refer endlessly to other works, in fact I think one of the things that we see is that there’s a deep engagement with the world around us precisely through this act of reading and then writing.

So John, the writer. I began to follow John’s works in Film News but also another little story, John’s probably forgotten this, but in the late 1980s I was asked to put together an independent, a book for independent film makers, it was called “Hands On” and it was one of these books that never saw the light of day and John and I worked together in putting together an annotative bibliography and so John read every book on independent film and then video production that was emerging at that time and wrote this, it was like a 20 page annotative bibliography where he’d read every book and then summarised it and put it into context for us and that’s what a lot of John’s work and writing does. He has a searing vision and he is an analytic reader who is able to synthesise these things for us.

So Hands On was a publication that never saw the light of day. What did see the light of day soon after was a publication called “Scan + ” and John was the editor of this and Scan + only had a few issues and it was associated with the then incredibly exciting emergence of the Australian video festival which again started live here in Paddington at the ChauvelCinema and then continued its life over at Glebe where John would go to the offices and run this publication.

Scan Plus is where John started to write about the amazing possibilities of the video and art, of video and cinema, of video and philosophy and although that’s not very well known a lot of that sort of work found its way into perhaps a far more easy to obtain publications of John’s, the incredibly important “Mutant Media” where some of the essays which were published there or some of the ideas which were forming in that period find their expression in a book which in fact it was Nick Sudos who commissioned that book and it’s thanks to Art Space that in fact John was able to collect his thoughts and put that work into the public domain.

For John, reading and writing, making art, it’s a bodily thing, it’s something which I think we can see as not just an act of performance but it’s an act of inserting yourself into the world and I’ll never forget John telling me about how painful it was to write that book. He had a residency at Art Space and he had to climb these stairs with these big heavy laptops back in those days, you know we didn’t have just a light iPad or whatever, heavy laptop and he had to literally struggle to write that book and it’s an amazing achievement.
That leads me to the third aspect of John’s persona which is John the artist and I think it’s the synthesis of John the reader, John the writer is indeed found in John the artist.

In the 1940s one of the influential writers who inspired many of the French new wave film makers in the late ‘50s, early 60s, was a person called Alexandra Astruc and he wrote this very influential article called “Le Camera Stylo” or the camera pen. This idea that you could write with a camera and this idea has inspired many people and none more so than John. I think John shows us how you can indeed write in this way that I’ve been talking about as somebody who knows how to read and understand the culture around us and our culture is nothing more than the sum total of what people have thought, what they have made and the artworks that they lead for us in galleries, in museums, in libraries and these are the places that John adores, these are the places that John frequents and that’s where John’s work comes from and I’m not saying that John’s work is in an ivory tower, I’m not saying that John’s work is somewhere other than everyday life, I’m saying that these are the places that inspire those of us who want to connect with the world in a deep and meaningful way, these are the places that allow us to battle against the endless amnesia that seems to confront us in contemporary life. We have no history, we have an erasure of memory, we struggle to remember what happened the week before last in politics or in art or in culture and John I think, John’s become more cantankerous in recent years, he’s become grumpy and a little bit angry at this loss of memory, at this loss of engagement in the great archives which our cultural institutions provide for us.

In saying that, I think this is how John manages to unify art and life, the everyday with the cultural, with the political and I think he’s done this in so many different ways and we can see the expression of that in the exhibition here.

We often think of John’s work as being biographical and that emotion of biography I think is incredibly complex. John, like many of us is a bit like the character in the Nicholas Ray film again from the ‘50s, “Johnny Guitar” the character who says “I’m a stranger here myself”. John is a stranger in these lands, you know these conceptual lands, but he wanders through them trying to make sense of them for himself and for us. What does it mean to be an Australian? We hate that question. What does it mean to live here in Australia at this time in this planet or in this world of culture which John connects to, that’s a question which we like to struggle with, that’s a question which has no real answer and to prolong that question for as long as we can I think that is the role of the artist and I think that this is something that John has absolutely struggled to achieve.

In that sense John unites a lot of art forms and philosophy and performance into the kinds of works that we see here. It’s not like this idea of the total artwork I suppose, it’s not that old modernist idea, but it’s something that I think that we can understand going back to this Spiral of Time work that I started reflecting upon. It’s a way of looking with the most searing vision, it’s a way of x raying culture or x raying our everyday life and to look across this landscape of time not just with our eyes wide open but with our eyes absolutely fixed upon those things which are most important to all of us in our everyday life.

So for that John I thank you.