John Conomos

Leftquote The primary function of education is to make one maladjusted to ordinary society. Rightquote
Northrop Fry
Etudes for the 21st Century (aka ‘The Hong Kong text’)
Etudes for the 21st Century, 2013

What follows is a text I wrote for the recent exhibition “Etudes for the 21st Century in which I collaborated with Robert Cahen and Kingsley Ng at the Osage Art Gallery and Osage Foundation, Hong Kong, 28 November–28 December 2013.

I am emailing you from a faraway city. From another time, another space, in the lingering hope that my voice will be heard.

That it will be greeted by another face, another heart, that maybe is beating in simpatico with the diurnal rhythms, light, spaces and sounds of our turning shared planet.

A planet that is increasingly morphing into a panopticon of shattered dreams, unbridled consumerism, global poverty and as yet uncharted weather patterns in human history.

It is in the context of the whirlwind of the last century’s aesthetic, cultural, political and technological revolutions, a century of manifestos and paradigm – shifting creativity of art, culture and knowledge, that our exhibition too may be seen as being a timely speculative manifesto of sorts.

For in its experimental and poetic ways, Etudes for the 21st century, proposes new possibilities of re-examining our existence, what Jean Cocteau once described as “the difficulty of being’’, and our very way of life in our new unfolding century.

The three of us, as artists and citizens, are collaborating for the first time in a kind of global conversation that is, simply put, a multifaceted cartography of image, sound, text, and space.

The question is how do we create art that is life – affirming, poetic, and sustainable, aesthetically, ontologically and ethically, for all of us.

Art that asks us: what does it mean to be contemporary, as Giorgio Agamben poses, and how do we engage in the difficult negotiation between the past and the future without being blinded by the lights of one’s time?

This exhibition in all of its trans-disciplinary concerns and contours will be forged as a manifesto that paradoxically suggests: is it possible to conceive the future without a manifesto?

You maybe wondering why “etude” and how does that concept relate to the overall conceptual and formal architecture of our exhibition? The word in French refers to ‘study’ but it is also often deployed to describe a short musical composition, characteristically for one instrument and created as an exercise or a practice to improve one’s technique. What the ancient Greeks called ‘techne’. Yet, at the same time, it is also performed for its artistic value.

This simply meant that the practice of art, regardless to which medium or form, can be said to be a lifelong endeavour to advance oneself with aesthetical, conceptual, intellectual, ethical, and spiritual means. In fact, very often all of the above.

The underlying inspiration of our exhibition has been primarily, amongst other factors, classical Chinese writing as early as represented by the seminal text Wen-Fu, by Lu Chi (261-303), defining strategies for practitioners on how to actualise many of the above concerns. The author moreover reminds us that, such endeavours should not only exist in the art practice itself, but should be also embraced in our daily life.

Thus, it is in this critical context, that the Chinese art critic and translator Fu Lei (1908-1966), constantly reminded his son, the acclaimed pianist Fou Ts’ong that, before you become a pianist, you should learn to become an artist; but before you become an artist, you should first set learning to be a human being as the top priority. The latter, above everything else.

The second part of the exhibition, Etudes for the Everyday, attempts to heighten our individual and communal mindfulness in everyday life.

As our exhibition is an adventure of what Rosalind Krauss, once termed ‘post-modern’ creativity, it is desired that all of us living in a given community may partake in this shared aesthetic and ethical undertaking as composers of the very rhythms of this city at large.

By listening to each other, face to face, undistracted by all that can distract one living in such a city, here and elsewhere, daily life can become a more existentially fulfilling one.

As the new century unfolds, in order to pass through the narrow straits of the present in our desire to resist the homogeneity of time and space so we may glimpse the liminal horizons of the future, this exhibition ideally values equally imaginative boldness, courage and tenacity as much as doubt, hesitation and reflection.

Though the future is unknowable, each step we take towards it the echoes of the past are always with us.

What matters, above all, is what kind of world do we want to live in? The present one?

Where polar bears are doomed stranded on floating floes of ice in vast empty seas that are rising and our own bodies possibly negated by a permanent two or three degree change in our body temperature.

A waterless war ravaged world where drones are replacing birds. And technology is amputating ourselves from ourselves.

All too familiarly predicted by J. G. Ballard, Marshall McLuhan and others. Including John Berger, who once described our world as a prison planet.

A world like a snake (helplessly) devouring itself.

And that once resembled a child’s spinning top that continuously sparked joy and pleasure and now is seemingly grinding to a sudden faltering halt.

We are, to put it charitably, on the cusp of human survival. The question remains, as always: who will inherit the earth? Will our children and their children roam a liveable planet learning how to live lives that enhance life itself rather than to destroy it?

These are not just rhetorical questions, dear spectator, but one of compelling empirical urgency.

Will we humans ever learn, to quote Jacques Derrida in the fading time of his own life: “Finally learn how to live? “

And yet here I write to you in a city that once when spotted through a ship’s porthole, whose blinking neon calligraphic skyline, of soaring glass cathedrals of commerce and modernity, by a young ambitious film director Fritz Lang inspired the classical utopian/dystopian world of Metropolis.

A phantasmagorical city that never sleeps.

Whose archetypal template of artistic and mercantile modernism and futurism had irrevocably stamped the cauldron of human creativity and imagination.

And I speak to you, in this city that provided Lang with a terrifying cartography of heaven and hell, a city of pleasure gardens and strutting peacocks for the wealthy, the privileged, those born to rule, above ground, and below, the walking cadavers, the other kind of drones, who march to work in hypnotic beat to a gargantuan clock.

A city that also inspired, as Michael Taussig recently reminded us in his singular incantatory account of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 that began in Zuccotti Park and swept around the world, Diego Rivera to create a painting “Frozen Assets” with a similar dark vision of Manhattan skyscrapers as temples and below – always below – a cavernous morgue of laid out corpses and a lonely guard like a shepherd dog minding its flock of sheep.

Nothing has changed in this city – a city built on slaves and American natives’ graves – take you pick: Lang’s celluloid geometry of fatalism, destiny and revolt or Rivera’s painting whose archeological features vividly suggest a world of relentless exploitation and death of the masses while the elite rule – in our lives today, it’s the bankers – in their soaring serene glass cathedrals of greed and domination.

How was it when the Andulasian poet and playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, in his scorching testament of introspection and the cruelty of modern industrial life Poet in New York described Wall Street as being? Lorca’s following words are a prescient foreshadowing of the recent Occupy movement:

“The Stock Exchange shall become a pyramid of moss.
Jungle vines shall come n behind the rifles
and all so quickly, so very, very quickly.
Ay, Wall Street ! “

And let us not forget Bertold Brecht’s telling witticism about bankers: “What is a bank robber compared to the person who has established the bank itself? “

Sounds familiar, dear spectator? Perhaps the unifying wildfire chant of the Occupy movement’s 99% people against the 1% maybe still reverberating in your ears?

This utopic rupture in recent history – that took place in Wall Street – where signs, slogans, and make-shift tents of political disobedience meant the possibility of creating a new civil world of human aspiration and imagination. Of another world within this present one, as Paul Eluard wrote about, all those years ago.

The momentous self-reflexive, culture creating activities and events of 2011, in what is often described as “Global City”, signified new beginnings, nothing less than, perhaps, the rebirth of the political.

And what of the people who organically participated in these global semisgraphic shocks, of their faces and bodies standing zombie – like with their placards of dream and revolt, wanting a better common world for all? For Taussig, they powerfully signified “graven images outside time.”

As one gets older one values our common world of aesthetic, cultural, dialogic and existential possibilities.

Art, writing, are in the final essence, shadows on the wall of life. Friendship above all these two any tick of the clock. But they are vital shadows that critically illuminate our lives.

When Friedrich Nietzsche, one of our enduring light – keepers, once said: “Should life rule knowledge and science, or should knowledge rule over life? Which of these two forces is higher and more decisive? No one would doubt: life is higher, the ruling force, for any knowledge that destroyed the world 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.”

How many of us have taken heed of Nietzsche’s words? How many of us as artists, academics, curators, writers and spectators are not clambering over each other in the name of careerism, self-interest and narcissism.

All of us, some more than others, are complicit – in the Sartrean sense – with the engulfing global free-market ideology that is seeping into our universities, museums, cultural institutions and industries. This is not new news, as we all know. It is just that reflexive knowledge, and self- and institutional critiques are rapidly receding into oblivion.

What we are encountering, day by day, is a vertiginous global world of panoptic Fordism. Which is exceedingly fracturing Antoine de Saint – Exupery’s apt description of the world we have familiarly known as one being of winds, stars and tides. No time for such a world as we are too busy, too busy, in our public and private lives.

A few years ago, Jean-Luc 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?

One makes images and words because it is the only way one knows how best to interact with this world. One is compelled to do so. It is a vocation.

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

One is also obliged 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, 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.

Etudes for the 21 st Century advocates the view that art must be an invitation to contemplate the presence of beauty and the sublime in our lives as spectators, as artists, and as citizens. It is only in recent memory that beauty itself has been re-introduced into the discourse of contemporary art. Whether we speak of analogue or digital art both can be impoverished unless we are willing to acknowledge beauty as one of the definitive aesthetic, cognitive and ethical forces in today’s world.

To speak of beauty and the sublime as Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and others spoke of it as a co-mingling of awe and terror is to be willing to explore the enduring impact that they have in the literary, dramatic and plastic arts.

When our eyes encounter beauty are we compelled, as Ludwig Wittgenstein once argued, to want to draw it?

Beauty matters in so many uncharted telling ways. Not least, as Elaine Scarry has recently demonstrated, because it is first of all sacred, it is unprecedented, and without sounding too melodramatic about it, it can be lifesaving. Whether it is Homer, Plato, Dante, Augustine or Proust, all of them averred that beauty quickens the beat of our hearts, makes life more vivid and worthwhile living. In essence, beauty greets you when you encounter it and indeed underscores the immense gift that life is.

It is also a calling to ponder the fragility of our material world and to seek, in a democratic civil society, that aesthetic fairness as well as ethical fairness are shared and central to human perception. Finally, it behoves us, in our universities, museums and schools that the beautiful artefacts of the people in the past are, as Scarry rightly notes, carried forward over to people in the future.

As artists and writers, one needs to be appreciative of the unwavering necessity to be aware of how many different kinds of cultural, linguistic and psychic borders, one crosses in their lifetime. It was Kafka who once described his nocturnal feverish writings as an act ‘of interior emigration.

The most direct route to the past and the present, knowledge and ethics, critique and poetry, is the one that roams freely across the ‘compartmentalisation’ of everyday life, that gets you from one point to another, that allows you to geographically and intellectually trespass, is the indirect one. Where everything is, to echo William Blake, connected to everything else.

A sense of place has also been always dear to one. Landscape as lifescape, soundscape, tastescape, and memoryscape. Landscape as dis-location. Landscape is, as one sees and hears and interacts with it,
something that lies, to evoke Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘beyond the cultivated zone.’ Beyond the law of genre.

The dramatic global changes in capital, power, media and technology have wrought –- new aesthetic, cultural, epistemological and ethical shifts in how we define landscape, community, home and place.

We need also to remind ourselves that the critique of cultural amnesia as a mass-mediated malady of late-capitalist culture is not new in itself – for example, witness Theodore Adorno’s, Walter Benjamin’s and Martin Heidegger’s inter-war writings on culture’s obsession with memory and the fetish quality of mass cultural forms. This is an important issue that often blights our cultural and epistemological endeavours to discuss art, culture, history and technology shifting in our ever – changing techno-culture.

Critically, then, cultural amnesia is paradoxically conveyed by our computer – inflected media in our age of consumption, information-networks and global capital.

To speak of one’s own art and writing practice is always a difficult thing to do in the light of D. H. Lawrence’s wise cautionary observation “Never trust the artist, trust the tale”.

For one is critically concerned with questions of seeing and hearing which maybe hovering beyond our present horizons of creative, cultural and existential possibilities. Neither here nor there, so to speak, but yonder. But as we do, as Siri Hustvedt once reminded her readers, one ‘can never find themselves yonder.’

There is the rub: art and writing, for us, share a perennially nagging, half-glimpsed, striving towards an undecided elsewhere ( Maurice Blanchot/Hugh Kenner/Ezra Pound). One never arrives.

Art that questions itself and articulates an overall attempt to be self-reflexive, open-ended, always motivated to remind ourselves that art is power and it needs to be always ‘untimely’, to put in Friedrich Nietzsche’s term.

Creating as a polemic with our time-haunted world.

By existential necessity one is – what you would call in the classical European sense of the term – a ‘ragpicker.’ Or if you will, an ‘aesthetic vagabond’ (Jean-Louis Schefer) interested in the multiplying ‘creative encounters’( Deleuze ) that have been and are taking place between art, cinema, video and the new media technologies.

Concerned with the conversations that exist between these different art forms, contexts, and genres. Locating the ancients next to the moderns in the same room and seeing what may ensue?

Through cunning, language, mimicry and play one learns to value beauty, difference, exilic marginality, self-reflexivity and experimentation in order to survive, to make sense of one’s ongoing life.

You cling to experience, feelings, intuition, smells, and passion, as well as colour, form, genres, texture, space, fragments, essays, aphorisms, quotes and digressions like a marooned sailor does to floating wreckage.

One’s past, identity, and self is intimately predicated on place, gender, history, memory, and time. This means absurdity, irony, scepticism, solitude and vulnerability.

Rilke’s central belief that the artist or writer is the bearer of cultural memory will increase in importance as this century unfolds. Making memory matter.

Art-making (irrespective of the medium) as a fugitive, elliptical enterprise that questions one’s own aesthetic, cultural and epistemological values.

The artist and writer as self-interrogator, as trickster, crossing the thresholds of multiple forms. Always attempting to dig deep, mingling things, perennially engaged in boundary creation and boundary crossing.

Forever curious, sceptical and suspicious of things especially of the continuous prison-houses we create and incarcerate ourselves in the name of art, cinema, culture, knowledge, and society.

Having an unswerving willingness to leave the beaten path.
Art as a form of ‘travelling without a passport ‘(Steve Fagin), or as the French would say, being ‘paperless’ – homeless, ‘without (identity) papers.”

Engaged in critical speculative enterprises, located at the edge, always in the midst of things, suspicious of homogeneity, fetishisation and linearity.

To make visible the invisible, to say the unsayable, you need to be bold in your convictions, recalling Cocteau’s wise counsel “Art is worthless in my opinion unless it be the projection of some ethic. All else is decoration.”

This means that the artist and writer of this century, like in the last
one, will need to cultivate a fluid capacity to approach complex subjects with lightness, speed and simplicity.

Above all, “Etudes for the 21st Century” has been forged on today’s anvil of techno-creativity, resonating Cezanne’s telling wisdom: “Things are disappearing. If you want to see anything, you have to hurry.”

John Conomos, 7 October 2013, New York