‘Cyborg Ned is my contribution to Republican art', so muses self-confessed mythomaniac John Conomos, artist, cineaste, essayist, and intertextualist. Kelly, outlaw and outsider, representative of the rebellious larrikin element in the Australian psyche, is a particularly pertinent figure for Conomos, who, together with Brad Buckley, co-edited the recently published Republic of Ideas (Artspace/Pluto Press). Cyborg Ned is Conomos's version of the Kelly myth, and Conomos casts him as Australia's first cyborg, at the intersection of art, technology and now Republican history.
The figure of Ned Kelly has long been a rallying point symbolic of Australian culture, achieving an international iconic status through the paintings of Sidney Nolan. In this densely layered work, Conomos the intertextualist weaves Nolan's Kelly with its Surrealist overtones through a history which folds back through the commentary of such noted scholars and commentators on Australian cultural identity as Les Marinos, Mark McKenna, Humphrey MacQueen and Barry Pearce. Kelly is at its core, and Conomos the historian/essayist also turns the camera over the text of the autobiography of Kelly, poor Irish settler - victim of English oppressors. Common horse-thief turned accidental hero or rebel-reformer of anarcho-politics? Regardless of which, Kelly's slotted and helmeted Nolan silhouette floats through the Australian landscape, the outlaw a mythic symbol of the Australian consciousness - a figure straddling the future as well as the past.
Conomos sees this Kelly as Australia's first cyborg, a helmeted armour-plated figure emerging incongruously out of the Australian bush. Uncanny, and surreal in the rupture with the landscape, this cyborg Ned epitomises the disjunction between art and technology, between the landscape and the age of the machine. It matters, for Conomos, that Kelly's ploughshare armour makes him part man, part machine. Using archival footage of early Australian cinema Conomos splices this cyborg figure alongside Nolan's, with the effect of retroactively recasting Nolan's Ned into a hallucinatory cyborg shadow.
This coming of the cyborg, albeit as a Surrealist disturbance of the image of the bush, sits inside Conomos's ongoing interest in the technologisation of daily life and reflects his interests in the technology of cinema and the evolution of the manmachine assemblage. And Conomos, the intertextualist, has frequently raided archival footage to make the points of Conomos, the essayist and speculative thinker. For example, Conomos's earlier Album Leaves (1999) intercuts a particularly eloquent and amusing scene from Buster Keaton's The General, the one in which Keaton is vertically shunted up and down on the connecting rod between the rapidly forward-turning wheels of a steam engine.
Keaton sits calmly, in an uncanny, comic coupling with the machine which should be crushing him beneath its wheels. Surrealism, with its strangeness and taste for the bizarre, had revelled in such couplings, as had Dada. In many respects, Conomos identifies with Neo-dadaism, and the transgressive elements of the absurd. Album Leaves, for example, featured Conomos as a performer, inhabiting Chris Marker's strange technological apparatus from La Jettee, the eyeballs hooked up to weird eyeball-cups, in turn connected to electrical wires, apparently in order to film what was going on behind the eyelids in one's thoughts.
Conomos has always had this ability to produce laughter in the midst of the most serious of concerns, where the uncanny can surface. The Surrealist in him will find the point of technological rupture, the unease in our relationship with machines, but at the same time he taps into the uncanny as an expression of the Australian Gothic. This links him to cinema history and films like Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris or Picnic at Hanging Rock, and, more recently, Tracey Moffat's Bedevil, (in which, incidentally, he played a minor part). When Conomos intercuts his Cyborg Ned video sequence with a lurid green face, reminiscent of the 'evil one' in a Hollywood B-grade matinee, he is inserting an element of
Australian Gothic, quite literally a segment from the animatronic Ned Kelly Museum at Glenrowan. The face belongs to the museum's owner/ narrator, and Conomos has incorporated the footage as living evidence of the Gothic strand in the Ned Kelly story. Part proto-Predator in those scenes where the landscape breaks up into blocks of digital shimmer, part Roger Corman Gothic, only Conomos, with his combination of serious enquiry and wit, could get away with such a ludicrous, yet apt, compositing of myth. Serious Republican Kelly sits convincingly alongside Surrealist and Gothic Kelly, as indicative of the complexity of our response to different facets of the myth.
Paik's loop of representation.
Then, within the wider frame of the installation, taking in Conomos's massive steel sculpture of Ned Kelly (commissioned from Garry Manson) contemplating his own story on the video screen, the references multiply again. And only Conomos could set up his Cyborg Ned in direct reference to Nam Jun Paik's TV Buddha (1976), without it corning off as parody, or a mere one-liner. Those familiar with Conomos's style of intertextuality know to expect insight into Paik as well. Conomos's sculpture of Kelly occupies exactly the same pose in which Paik's Buddha was set up to watch his own on-screen image (Paik's later version adds a 'live' video feed of the Buddha statue, to further stretch the point of an image watching its own image). And, as in Paik's original installation, any original referent is long foreclosed out of the scene. But what Conomos does with this audacious exchange of places - putting Ned the larrikin outlaw hero in Buddha's place - is not to suggest that Buddha and Ned Kelly share a common signified, but rather that all figures of iconic statues are underpinned by similar underlying stratagems of representation.
Conomos's unique intertextual style is used not only to tell stories but also to interrogate the manner of the telling of the tale, and the medium or mediums through which he is telling it. In short, Conomos explores and critiques systems of representation over and above the content plane, and he employs Paik's self-referential system - of an image contemplating its own image - to draw out the paradox that in substituting images one is always representing absence and the lack of the guarantee of original presence. There is no authentic original, only the circulation of images and myths.
This insight, passing through Paik, gives Conomos the license to extend the play of representations of Kelly, all with equal claims to validity, and it justifies Conomos's investigation of representation's hilarious failures. He knows that representation will always measure up short of the true 'truth' of presence for which there can be no substitutes. This is why his playful actings out of the Kelly myth - Conomos in all his high seriousness, marching down a railway track with pistol outstretched and a defiant gaze - is as authentically Kelly as any other interpretation. In this case it is not about physical resemblance but about striking the pose and the truth of performance which is as authentic as any of the other Ned Kelly enactments or depictions.
Given this gap between 'telling the truth' and absence which can never be closed, representation is always potentially comic, no matter how many experts are brought in. Conomos can, therefore, get away with splicing his docu/mokumentary (both true and false at the same time) with such diverse elements as the lurid green face of the Glenrowan animatron, his own performance, or archival cinema. The enterprise of representation will always be shaky, provisional, unstable, prone to evoking laughter. Thus, the crazy kind of
levelling in Conomos's Kelly is 'true' to any project of iconic construction. The serious steel sculpture of heroic Ned is as valid as the cheesy inflection of the evil green face, or the jerky early films depicting Ned in ploughshare armour which cannot help looking slapstick. All are equally constructed, and all contribute equally to the myth.
If Conomos's unique intertextual style makes him hard to pin down, to categorise, it is because he has chosen to work between genres and tones; further, to eliminate the border which typically excludes critical commentary and reflection from inclusion in the work of art. Conomos the essayist and documenter are as much as part of the work of art as Conomos the jokester, image-maker and performer. He does not offer us just a version of Ned Kelly, but a multiplicity of Kellys across a range of registers, and asks what Ned Kelly means as a constructed subject, a constructed identity. What is he to us? What matters? Mysterious cyborg Kelly? Amusing B-grade Kelly? Rebel-outlaw Kelly, indicative of the artist as transgressor? All compete for our affection, and potentially seduce. We identify with what pleases us emotionally and intellectually, in a complex process which appeals to heart and head.
This complex issue of identity has been a key theme in Conomos's work. As a Greek-Australian, earlier major works like Autumn Song and Album Leaves asked what it was to grow up Greek in Australia, to exist between two cultures, more or less between genres, between ways of being. Both works combined essay, documentary, autobiography, history and performance in a visual and sonic poem, played out in the tension between cinema and video. So it is not surprising that given Conomos' political and polemical bent, that when he was awarded a prestigious two year New Media Fellowship from the Australia Council he should choose to make a work about the complex issue of national identity in response to the current Republican debate.
Conomos has a long practice which has evolved over more than twenty years. The publisher of countless articles on cinema and the arts, editor and co-founder of Scan+, Australia's first journal devoted to new media arts, he is a serious theorist and contributor to cultural debates. As a lecturer he readily acknowledges his debt to such mentors as Jill Scott, Brian Lange, and the late Nicholas Zurbrugg, and under their encouragement was one of the first to introduce video-art into the art college curriculum in 1985, and among the first to teach new media classes in 1987. It is this learning which comes through in his role as essayist-filmmaker-new media artist and provides the authority for working between genres. In Australia, he helped substantially to establish and define the genre.
Cinema and Video.
The tension between cinema and video which is a constant in Conomos's work reflects this knowledge. As cineaste and cinephile, not only does he pay homage to such surrealist masters as Bunuel, but he has frequently intercut footage from or references to Rivette, Tati, Marker, Truffaut, Keaton and Godard. Cinema is a visual language; its scenes a kind of writing or poetry of the image. Scenes can be intercut and recontextualised in a manner analogous to poetic techniques of composition: allusion, displacement and appropriation. Conomos moves fluidly between the two mediums; when he performs it is often on a cinematic scale and with a cinematic sensibility, like the scene in Autumn Song in which he dances in a twentieth century ruin overlooking the Mediterranean (an indirect reference to Godard's Contempt). He understands cinema's power of seduction, and is a remarkable performer with an intense presence, both serious and comic. But, as remarkably, he understands the power of the smaller video screen. In part, it is a preferred medium because of its connection to the emergence of video art, which was never to be confounded with cinema, even though it borrowed many of cinema's techniques. Early video art was freed from cinema's usual narrative constraints; like the early experimental cinema, it was a medium through which to explore moving-image as a new kind of painting. It was more about ideas.
Conomos's loyalty to the small-screen format is art-historical; it is what connects him to Paik and the long list of video-pioneers whom he helped bring out to Australia during his years of involvement with the Australian Video Festival of Electronic Media Arts (1980s to early 1990s): Woody and Steina Vasulka, Dara Birnbaum, Martha Rosier, Robert Cahen, Jean-Paul Fargier and media theorist and critic, Gene Youngblood.
Certainly, the larger screen of video projectors has, in recent times, come to dominate the major public galleries (and to some extent the private galleries of collectors) with cinema-scaled works of emotion, for example, those of Pipilotti Rist or Douglas Aitken. Conomos, like these artists, knows how to work the screen, to extract the affective cut from a larger narrative: scenes from Fahrenheit 451 and 400 Blows punctuated Album Leaves. Without a doubt, the larger screen has a more direct, immersive effect on the perceptual systems of the viewer's body. But this can be short-lived, especially when the content plane is reduced to the intensity of a sole emotion. Conomos, has, to date, preferred the intimacy of the small screen and its didactic, conversational overtones to offset the affective cut with discourse.
In part, this predilection for video comes from the influence of television, its first cousin, and medium par excellence of genre switching, channel-surfing. It is an accommodating medium which is always between genres, always in the cut. Stan Douglas's series of fake TV ads has obvious affinities with Conomos's notion of working in between genres and spaces. This is not to suggest that Conomos will not change; that in future he will not present works on the large screen. Indeed, Album Leaves was shown on two large digital screens, above which a large neon sign conducted a silent battle: video or cinema. This undecidable border, with frequent crossovers, runs through Conomos's work. Achingly compelling cinematic sequences, which can be his own, or appropriated from other artists, sit inside complex dialogue scenes, for example, sourced from interviews while driving in cars, as in Album Leaves. Video signals another relationship with the screen; or at least it did, in providing a different historical frame. Now with film and video approaching each other, in the sense that more films are being shot on the newer digital cameras, the distinction, when drawn, is even more pointedly historical, an index in its own right, the small screen pointing the way back to different artistic and technological trajectories.
Cyborg Ned deliberately claims this technological past, indeed setting itself up as a contest between mediums: heroic metal statue (part homely Dog on the Tucker Box; part Rodinesque majesty) or humble, but fluid, quicksilver TV. It raises questions of historical endurance and record-keeping; even the terms in which a nation positions or presents itself. How forward-thinking? How technologised?
The championing of electron flow and dot matrixes over immutable solids. This can be a first or second order issue of national identity, especially when one reflects on the ideals of modernism. Cyborg Ned extends beyond the Bunuellish image of the part-man machine emerging from the bush to the cyborgisation of the nation, in general, in the electronic age.
Overall, Conomos is a compulsive essayist, drawn to commentary and reflection. Large concepts ripe for condensation suit the style and the wit of his poetico-philosophical inflection. Master of the cut and the well-chosen phrase, he always packs so much in. Words can take over as agent provocateurs. What might start out as autobiography, as in Album Leaves' quest for the father in the son, or Autumn Song's search for cultural identity on an island from the past, quickly accelerates into the larger issues of philosophy and politics.
Aura, the second of Conomos's Fellowship works, is a critical reflection on nature, the Australian landscape and metaphysical idealism. Taking in the mutable flats of the Australian Capital Territory's Lake George, bordered by low wooded ridges, he challenges the aesthetic constructions of the sublime and the beautiful through which landscapes are typically mapped. The prosaic scenery, intercut with footage of massed cloudplumes of NASA rocket launches, unfolds within his meditation on the anti-sublime. Again, the work exists between genres and spaces, between discourse and image, erudite learning and visual statement. And it is played out within the broader scheme of the politics of culture.
Conomos 's current large screen work-in-progress, Rat-A-Tat-Tat, a spin-off Fellowship work, is a homage to Godard's Breathless. Conomos takes the sequence in which a car thief, played by Jean Paul Belmondo, fires at the police who are pursuing him down a country road. In Conomos's translation it becomes a study in light-texturemotion as the contrapuntal shots of the Rat-A-Tat score are heard as if fired through the treetops.
Aura will premier at Artspace, Sydney, later in 2004.
John Conomos is a Sydney based media artist, critic and theorist and a lecturer in electronic and temporal arts at The University of Sydney. Anne Finnegan is a free lance writer based in Sydney.