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Mutant Media


Essays on Cinema, Video Art and New Media

Published by Artspace & Power Publications, 2008 

Mutant Media gathers together a selection of John Conomos’ essays across the years, tracking the trajectory of his cinephilia since the 1960s, his ongoing interests in film criticism and theory, as well as his deep involvement in video art and new media since the 1980s. 

A major contribution to the realm of moving image and new media theory, Mutant Media is also a kind of autobiography of an artist, writer and educator whose life centres around cinema’s grand, unpredictable adventure spanning three centuries.

Read an extract from the book.

George Alexander’s introduction to Mutant Media book launch, Gleebooks, Sydney.

It’s a great pleasure to launch this book and a great pleasure to read it. The voice is buoyant and fascinating. But it also brings out your readerly limitations. Mine reveal themselves early … as JC shuttles effortlessly between cinema, literature, new media and the visual arts. 

The artworld can usually only handle one identity per person, and JC has lots: teacher, art historian, media artist, prolific critic and writer, editor and curator. Not just a pretty interface, John! 

Readers of Mutant Media will get the benefit of his life-long fusion of several imaginative activities in one — a combination of a very receptive mind at work, with a hint of the more compelling dramas of art. 

MM is a generous batch of essays — about 14 of them — that skip across everything to do with the business of cinema — art/genre/experimental — and that provides a useful cat-scan of the audiovisual continuum that runs from video to new interactive media art in the brave new 21st century. 

It’s so hard to make a place for yourself in the confusion of it all. But this book helps. It is an area with too many named new things. Too much that needs explanation to understand what it is, much less what it’s for and what’s remarkable about it. You start to look for reasons to trust your guides.

And JC, a gentleman scholar, uses his brain and feelers to become a very trustworthy guide. His great advantage is his ability to build bridges, rather than walls. 

Who else could do this job? Some one who doesn’t polarise and divide. He avoids the natural instinct to see either a revolution or a conspiracy in every new thing that comes down the pike. 

With his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema/video/photography/art history (and I mean the whole menu, from soup to nuts), he provides a stable context through the bewildering advances in technological innovations and mutations and convergences (now you can watch Lawrence of Arabia on a 2"x3" iPhone screen).

Man, JC will hypertext hypertext. Leads to intertextual games that make your head spin: at one point he quotes Timothy Murray quoting Raymond Bellour quoting Deleuze speaking of Resnais’ cinematic transformations of Proust and Bergson.

He understands cinema’s own allegiance to prior arts — theatre, photography, painting — while shepherding us through all the monthly tremors of fashion, and the winds of opinion. He’s the switchboard operator across these diverse media platforms and the atomising of trans-generic styles and micro-practices. 

Erudite, but never as a display, learning moves on waves of thought and feeling.

And he’s less and less forgiving of anything sensed as doctrinaire or narrow-minded.

JC's been a benevolent presence in the art scene (who as many of you also know, keeps in touch by phone with his trademark “Just touching base”).

I’ve known John from late 1960s waiting in queues to see Godard and Truffaut at now defunct arthouse cinemas around Sydney — The Gala, Savoy, Lido, and Rose Bay Wintergarden. Both from a blue-collar past, and the great Australian multiculture, we became fellow pilgrims. My first Godard was that film about film Le Mepris. The earliest lessons from those days were that Movies come to life when we are looking, thinking, testing; they demand definition, not just awed witness.

(Godard said that crap films like Titanic demand only 10% of your personality. Good films get smaller audiences, but get more of the viewer.)

Godard, with his TV screen glasses and rasping doom-laden voice, hovers over this book. He is the cultural polymath who practically invented French screen modernism, using a vast repertoire of cinematic, literary, artistic and historical references to forge his hyperserious and hyperplayful cinema. 

But cinema in those days (touching image of him watching Greek cinema in Newtown with his mum) was a trapdoor to wonder as well, the birthplace of cinephilia — that slightly mystical experience of attending to the Big Screen (at about the height of an altar), along with its communal atmospherics.

And, I think, that ability to reconcile the two: distancing mechanisms on the one hand, and blissed absorption on the other — head and heart, basically.

Along the way we survived the cultural fever blisters of the 1980s where we sat at some tough poker tables of theory, academic cinema studies, where pleasure was politicised and every desire psychoanalysed. It was around that time — when he was living in Darghan Street (around the corner here in Glebe) — I was asked, along with Adrian Martin, to take part in one of his early Jacques Rivette-ish films.

His later video installations and digital sculptures reminded me of wishing wells that he could dream or scream in. They — Museum of Fire, Night SkyAutumn SongAlbum Leaves — were self-interrogating fictions — or autobiofiction — where dissolving past selves were tucked beneath outlandish masks poached from John’s dreamstore of celluloid flashbacks. This capacity to transfigure the past — not just the literal autobiographical past, as Godard said, images of the past — into the contours of his own emotional context allowed him to explore the labyrinth of time, and pulled his imagination deeper into his vision of this post-colonial subjectivity forged by exile, longing and restlessness that reveal film’s special affinity for passing time, for change and evanescence, for memory or forgetting.

So places like Tempe where he grew up, or Cythera in Greece, were not just geographies but signifiers, a fantasy, an accoutrement to identity, a ghostly palimpsest in slo-mo.

This creative side has allowed him to explore from the inside the paradoxical nature of the image — which you believe in and are distrustful of at the same time. 

In Mutant Media the writing is paced, not written at a gallop, or overcooked. The pace is the kinetic relationship between head and heart, not too theoretical, not too personal. A mix of inwardness and outer focus, a useful manual and a plaintive blues.

Arguments have plot twists like whodunits. But the takeaway from the book is the idea of New Media as a form of writing.

With Godard and Chris Marker as the two pillars in his argument: you can see how he’s making a context for the essay film. And the idea of the camera as pen (Astruc’s camera-stylo).

Godard’s move from narrative to the essayistic, with its autumnal even melancholy tone. Chris Marker uses film clips, stills, music, text, fragments of sound — a new kind of reflective, non-narrative cinema: private, solitary, exploratory, full of epiphanies (like the breathing face in La jetée).

Mutant Media is an intellectual bustin’ up the joint. So thank God or Godot or Godard for JC, this builder of bridges.  

This is Red Bull for the grey matter.

(You’ll like this book and it will like you back!) 

I am honoured to be asked to launch JC’s book. Light the blue paper. Or splice on the black leader. 

– George Alexander, 2008