'A Pretty Pure Form of Bullshit: Sam Twyford-Moore Interviews Tom Grant'

 

Tom Grant’s work in sound has been described as “subversive”, “devastating” and “neurotic”. “Abrasive” and “abusive” are also words occasionally used. While certainly accurate, they do not come anywhere near close to describing his diverse career or begin to suggest his singularity as an artist.

Grant is best known for his work using recorded voices. In addition to his work in sound, he has taught cultural studies and criticism extensively at a number of universities. For the past five years he has based himself primarily out of the small New South Wales cities of Newcastle and Wollongong. Grant’s current work in progress is a series of imagined interviews with one of his former university students, Nick Adler, who disappeared last year.

Tom and I conducted this interview via email and, eventually, in a single face-to-face meeting. Tom sent me the details of a coffee shop in Austinmer, located on a scenic look-out between the ocean and a mountainous backdrop. The winter sun was beating down hard and when I entered Tom was sitting in the back, staring out to sea. He didn’t look much like a poet, an intellectual, an artist. He was wearing a muted blue shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, as though he had been hard at work in a studio somewhere.

—STM

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to sound art?

TOM GRANT

I never wanted to be a sound artist. In high school, I had a friend who killed himself who wanted to be a heavy metal musician, and I picked up his dream and ran with it. Why not? He had ambitions where I had none. I had skill, where he was dead. But I was never really making heavy metal music, even though I liked it well enough as a genre. When someone told me that I was making might be sound art… well, that became the thing.

INTERVIEWER

That seems like a strange entry point for a career or a passion.

TOM GRANT

I would never describe something as a passion. I think that deletes a number of complexities about the way we work. You’ve got to hate what you do sometimes, really truly fucking hate it, and I don’t think you ever really hate a passion – you might hate with a passion. And please don’t get me started on the idea of a career… there’s no heroic code in calling something a career.

INTERVIEWER

It feels like a pretty rare opportunity to talk to you, despite much of your sound work being based on talk or other people’s voices and interviews, you yourself don’t give many.

TOM GRANT

I do plenty of interviews, even though I’m pretty hesitant when it comes to the form. I mean a lot of my work is yes definitely based on interviews, people talking, but that’s ultimately only ever going to be a half form. I read someone describe them as maggoty, interviews, which seems about right. The directness of talk misses the scenes in between and the subtleties of those scenes and I’ve got to build that up in the sound work myself. Talking is a pretty pure form of bullshit, don’t you think? As for interviews like this one, I do get in trouble whenever something like this runs. People come to interviews with artists with expectations. They’ve already dreamed up half of what you’ve said before you’ve even said it or before they even sit down to read the transcript. It’s hard to speak for yourself. I worked very, very briefly in a start-up gallery in Newie, and had to do interviews there in the lead up to the opening, and it’s easier to hide behind something like that – an organisation. Of course, reading back on those interviews they are a total waste of time, I’m not saying anything at all. It’s all publicity, not a single significant thought. And you have to figure out a way to deal with that. It’s a terrible movie, and I’m loathe to bring it up, but there’s a scene at the end of Beaches, where Bette Midler is watching herself on TV, giving an interview on a daytime kind of program, and she’s begging, pleading with herself not to give the answers she’s giving, even though it’s already been recorded and she knows exactly what she is going to say. I really like that scene and the idea that it represents, pleading with your past statements. It is saying something very true about the embarrassment of your former self.

INTERVIEWER

It doesn’t seem like you to agree to talk about this particular time though.

TOM GRANT

Not so much. It was a difficult time for everybody involved, so, yes, I choose to sit out on commenting on it too much. Reflection is incredibly important in this industry, of course, but you can get quite stuck in an incredibly complicated space of overthinking things. Easier done than said. So interviews about artistic practise aren’t so much fun always.

INTERVIEWER

You’re not originally from Wollongong – you grew up outside of Sydney. I’m wondering what spoke to you about Wollongong?

TOM GRANT

Nothing particularly. If it speaks, it speaks in a very dull voice and you might not pick up its meaning. I’m not so good at listening all the time either.

INTERVIEWER

How did you end up in Wollongong?

TOM GRANT

What happened was that I got a sessional job and I had some family in Wollongong, so I could stay with them overnight if I took the job. This whole time that you’re alluding to… it didn’t start in Wollongong exactly. I was teaching a class in Newcastle, and the students weren’t very good, they just weren’t getting a lot of the concepts. At the same time I was teaching a class in Wollongong, pretty much on the exact same subject, and with the same readings, and these students were excellent. So, I went out drinking with some of the students in the Newcastle class, which was a mistake, always a mistake, and after a few drinks I started to tell them about the Wollongong class, which was a bigger mistake, and started rambling about how the Wollongong students just understood things a little bit more, and how that difference surprised me. They were only marginally better to be honest, but there was this one kid there, he really took offense. Or at least I think it was offense.

INTERVIEWER

He was upset?

TOM GRANT

Sure, he probably thought he was the top student in the whole place, the whole city, but wasn’t really thinking that I was taking this other class, in another city.

INTERVIEWER

Is this Nick Adler?

TOM GRANT

Yeah, this is Nick. The next day, I had to drive to Wollongong in the morning to take the second class, and I was running behind. I actually got pulled over by a cop on a motorcycle about halfway down, and he issued me with a ticket for speeding, and the fine was pretty much the fee I was going to be paid for taking the class. So I wasn’t in the best mood when I walked into that classroom. I didn’t want to be there. And then I look up to find Adler was in the back of the room, and he was saying that he had transferred, and that he would be moving to Wollongong University… and it was just a fucking nightmare from then on.

INTERVIEWER

That seems like an extreme move.

TOM GRANT

It didn’t seem so extreme at the time – troubling maybe, but not yet quite extreme. It was just annoying really. I spent the next few weeks trying to get Adler off my back and out of my class. But he took it up with the administration and in the end I didn’t have a whole lot of a say in the matter.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think he showed up to your class that day?

TOM GRANT

I don’t know why he did it. Maybe he wanted my approval. Maybe he thought there was some connection between the two of us. Maybe he liked what I was teaching and wanted more. It would have been funnier, certainly, if he had started attending both classes.

INTERVIEWER

You ended up working quite closely with him. How did that come about?

TOM GRANT

He revealed himself over time to be something of a talent. After a while we got over the stalker vibes coming off the guy. I was working towards presenting some of my work outside of the confines of the overly urban art galleries, with a view to presenting some work in a really public space like a shopping centre. I was obsessed with shopping centres at the time and particularly the kind of desolate ones you find in Newie and Wollongong. I’d had these overwhelming moments inside these mega-malls, getting quite close to having feelings on the level of a nervous breakdown really, but everyone else was walking around like it was normality. So I wanted to show them how I was feeling about these scenes. It was my intention to drown the place in noise for a few days. There were regional city funds available for a project of this kind — something that engaged public spaces — and Adler seemed to have some insider kind of knowledge as to how to get at them. He might have been a deeply unstable person, but he could write a very legible and concise grant application. Good for him. Wollongong seemed like the perfect place in a lot of ways. There was Wollongong’s golden child violinist Richard Tognetti who called the city a “dark and troubled place” in a newspaper interview, and said that the city had never been beautified because arguably there was nothing to beautify. It was ugly on ugly. Well, the town turned on him. That resentment was exciting – it moved things. People were wrong, but at least they were active in their beliefs. They wrote letters and emails. We wanted to build on this, give them an opportunity to take this to the streets. So we’d turn their town into trash to get them out of the house, off the couch, in order clean it up or else just complain, but in a very vocal way. They’d uncover something in doing so. We took this idea to the council. We were not one hundred percent clear on what we wanted to do, but we knew we wanted to use Crown Street Mall. There was a guy who was working on the distribution of the funds, and Nick set up a meeting with him. This guy was sitting in his office like a creep — all creeps sit in offices —and he had no time for us. He looked down on the project and basically said that it would not engage with the public enough to warrant the grant. “You have to engage with the public” he kept saying. What bullshit! He didn’t know the public. We knew how to engage with the public – the same way as that cliché about getting to a guy’s heart, you go through the middle: the shopping centres.

Grant later emails, “I could and probably should have answered this question with something more truthful about Adler here like ‘He became of use.’” —STM

INTERVIEWER

How do you go about that?

TOM GRANT

I was trying to suggest this to the students – if the number one bestselling books in Australia are often true crime or cookbooks, maybe you should turn to those forms to find a way into the lives and houses of middle Australians. True crime books aren’t really an art form, but I guess I was trying to tell them that they had a certain Trojan capacity. There are people I know who need their dose of culture buried in their meals, like worm medication for dogs. God that sounds awful, but what I was trying to do with my sound work related to this – you start with something soft, maybe even with a melody, and then you build it so that it delivers difficult content. You need to engage first before you can defy. Talk is bullshit, but it’s accessible. Our hope was that people would stop to listen to what was being said, and be engaged by these kind of ugly nuggets of narrative. The funding didn’t come through though, of course, so ultimately we never did get to bury the worm medication.

INTERVIEWER

Was there any temptation to take that project to Sydney instead? 

TOM GRANT

[Laughs] Sydney is deliberately defined by its absence.

INTERVIEWER

How so?

TOM GRANT

I drive around it, that’s part of it. [Laughs] This is the truth: I was kind of priced out of Sydney with the work that I was doing. There is an incredibly supportive underground scene in Sydney, because the cost of living is so high artists band together and support each other. I’d probably asked one too many favours though – maxed-out my free meal card. So Sydney became a void.

INTERVIEWER

This was during a time when the council was quite corrupt? Was there a bigger picture about Wollongong forming in your mind that was influencing your work?

TOM GRANT

That’s idiotic. There’s a danger in that view that you’ll end up being the photographer who gets caught in the helicopter taking the aerial landscape shots over and over again. Those pictures sell for a lot of money, and help pay for the helicopter ride, but what are you saying from up there? They end up on the most boring of walls. Do you know what I mean? Those guys aren’t on the ground and they’re not entirely present. Too many zoom out style shots and you’re just gone, you’ll never finish anything. I will say this however: the corrupting forces were not entirely unpleasant. They gave a local colour, and added character. Wollongong was ready to be levelled though, certainly. This was what I was trying to get across to the students, that they could turn Wollongong into something very interesting if they wanted to – really do something with the city. It was empty and just sitting there, ready for the taking. No one was paying attention. If something is disused and run down then it’s kind of an open space to take control of. No one—not one of them—took me up on that challenge, with the exception of Nick Adler. Maybe it was because he wasn’t from Wollongong, it was the Newcastle thing, that meant he could see the potential there.

INTERVIEWER

Nick ended up coming up with the funding for your project though – do you feel like he was working more towards your ideals?

TOM GRANT

What do you mean?

INTERVIEWER

That he was working on and directly contributing to your project, rather than doing his own work…

TOM GRANT

Well, sure, but I saw it as a bigger project than just me, but he was still undergrad all over. It was on him like a rash. What could he do on his own? Not much. He could tie himself to me though. He was devoted to what I was trying to achieve. Jump on board! He found me an alternate route to getting the thing off the ground. Nick told me that he had been sitting in his car one Friday night, waiting for his housemate to pick up some Thai take away, and Nick was reading some book or something when this councillor walks past with these two women, one arm around each. What did Nick know? Nick hung around the council chambers a lot, and he got to know some of the guys, so all he needed to do was to look at him. He wound down the car window and waved to this councillor. The guy did not have daughters or nieces, if you know what I mean. It was a Friday night and the streetlights were aimed at him in a suspicious way. Anyway, Nick soon brought in some money for the project.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean that he blackmailed him?

TOM GRANT

I wish it were that dramatic. He found us funding. Private donations were made. No handshakes.

INTERVIEWER

Some of your students, they have said that what you were teaching when Nick disappeared was kind of grim and that you were kind of… grim…

TOM GRANT

It was a dark class from the start. There were a couple of murders just outside of town that year—a woman found in the boot of her car—but that really had nothing to do it. It was simply a case that I was not prepared to take that class, and that influenced both what I was teaching and the way I was going about it. What do people say? “I was not in a good place.” That was happening on a geographic and mental level perhaps. When I get nervous I go real dark. The content I was obsessed with went that way too. I was obsessed with the performance artist Leigh Bowery, who took an outlandish aspect of the Australian character and then blew it up into something very extreme, to the point that you could not see the original detail. I was trying desperately to link Bowery’s work to the murder of the former Wollongong Lord Mayor Frank Arkell – something about the work done to Arkell’s face after the murder—like Mark Valera, his murderer cut him up afterwards—and then to link that to Bowery’s own facial mutilations. And maybe go off into some bigger discussion about Bowery’s use of dress as touching on S&M culture. It turned out there was an academic who had already done this, though he’d gone through Norman Gunston, who of course was Wollongong’s favourite son, which is a million times smarter than what I was attempting. I mean, Bowery grew up in Sunshine in Victoria, which, despite the name, has its own troubles grappling with the grim. Anyway, the connection is not there. This academic had said that the pins left in Arkell’s face by Valera were a strange echo of Gunston’s face, covered in those garish tissue-papered nicks from his poor shaving technique. Genius! This was the kind of reading that I was trying to pass on to the students. I was failing terribly. They just looked at me in horror for most of the lesson. They thought they had signed up for something else entirely. I was so out of it at that time. It’s too easy to become an educator for the wrong reasons. They should do serious health checks on sessional lecturers before bringing them in. I was going all over the place. They weren’t ready to talk about body mutilation.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that was?

TOM GRANT

They were third year students but in no way did they want to stare into the oblivion pit I was outlining. Well, I was trying to tell them that fourth year, which is no year at all in university terms, when they would be out on there own, well that was the oblivion. There was no choice about it. I tried to make it easy for them, to draw simple enough patterns. I was obsessed with Johnny Knoxville, for instance, and I was continuously wondering what would it take to turn Jackass into something more highbrow. This is something a kid from Wollongong could fucking smash. Still, I couldn’t get these things to connect, and so there was a good semester’s worth of fucking around on this stuff and not getting anywhere, and I knew that someone was going to come in and kind of make the leap before I got there. I had a feeling Adler might have been the one to do it. He was doing his own interesting work. Why shouldn’t art benefit from political corruption for a while?

INTERVIEWER

Did Adler know you were unwell during this time?

TOM GRANT

I don’t know if I was unwell exactly. I was watching a lot of TV. It put out of my mind this low level anxiety that I was dealing with every day. I would watch the really awful daytime programs and just pretend I was in hospice care. It took away all sense of responsibility. It was better than turning to drugs or alcohol.

INTERVIEWER

Were you trying other ways to get well?

TOM GRANT

The treatment that had been prescribed to me that year was a beach walk every morning for fifteen minutes, followed by an hour-long session of yoga in the afternoon. This was typical health retreat stuff. I skipped the yoga and instead fell asleep on the couch—wishing I was dead—but the beach walks were strangely compulsive and I had nothing but time for them. I could feel my head clearing out along the way. This had been the problem from the start, of course – that the thoughts were going too far. The walks were not a pure solution though. They also presented a problem. I had become quite fond of this single house at the end of the walk, a sleek understated modernist affair. It showed restraint in a suburb not particularly known for it. This was pure working class territory for the main part, but the beach was dominated by retirees moving from Sydney to build their final residences, these final resting places of the rich. They built big. This particular house, however, kept it single-story and I was completely obsessed with it. This presented a problem, of course. I wanted to get into the house to have a look around. But I was in no state to ring doorbells and introduce myself to strangers. The fact was, the walking treatment had been prescribed in the first place because I had broken into a house earlier that summer. I was more surprised than anyone that I had the capacity to both break and enter.

INTERVIEWER

Was this something you mentioned to Nick Adler?

TOM GRANT

Sure, I talked openly to my students about those crimes and the criminal element, and how that influenced my artistic… being or rationale.

INTERVIEWER

How does crime influence someone’s artistic being?

TOM GRANT

I think it comes back to that awareness of your capacity for these things. I can feel my capacity for violence, for instance. And that energy can feed into a work or works. But it’s important not to romanticise that shit. You’re not going to buy dinner with that idea, you’re just going to get kicked out of the restaurant.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been quite open about your mental disorders in the past and how they have informed your work.

TOM GRANT

People say, oh you’re so brave for talking about these things – but what I’m really talking about there is weakness. I was very, very weak. Why should that be celebrated? Why should I be congratulated? Let’s put it this way – I was ill, disastrously so. Disorders, depressions, downers, whatever you want to call them are always a kind of a cop out. I was not too far from becoming one of those Japanese teenage hideaways – a hikikomori, you should really google that when you get home. I just wanted to be in my room by myself all the time. I don’t think that that should be applauded. I shouldn’t have been suffering these things, and I think I’ve been too open about them in the past… far too open.

INTERVIEWER

How so?

TOM GRANT

This is one way I think about it: I do genuinely fear that I taught Nick how to be unwell, or at least demonstrated some of the behaviours of an unwell person that were easy for him to pick up on. And that led him to feel that that was a place that he had to go in order to get to where I was. It is one thing to fuck up your own life, fucking up somebody else’s is a more pure form of agony. I had a young psychologist once who told me that anxiety is very, very contagious. I wasn’t anxious around the time I was hanging out with Nick, but, like you say, I did talk a lot about my anxieties and how they played out in my work. Nick just took to it. He was following me around and asking me questions about what it was like to go through that stuff. It was like he was taking notes on how to perform this suffering.

INTERVIEWER

But the project didn’t ultimately go ahead, like you said.

TOM GRANT

Nick had seen a movie that summer that had this incredible impact on him. He was talking like this character out of the movie all the time. It was a movie about a psychopath or a sociopath or a superhero or something, and he just loved the way this guy talked, so he talked like that guy. He’d absorbed everything from this American piece of crap. This mimicry was everywhere, of course, but it seemed more pronounced in Nick. He had lost himself, and I feared that he was going to lose me in the process. Then his girlfriend came around to my house, and she said Nick was in real trouble with this councillor, that we had to pay the money back. It was horrible, this girl was eighteen or nineteen and she was getting harassed because her boyfriend was getting in over his head. You can’t leave a guy like that in charge of finances for a major public art project! It was no longer worth it for me. I was having real difficulties concentrating, or doing any meaningful work really, and I was letting things build up to a point where I was really worried that I would never get anything done again. That’s a truly horrible feeling. That and when you feel like your work has no worth. It’s best not to drag other people into that.

INTERVIEWER

How did Nick respond to you dropping the project?

TOM GRANT

I think he thought that I had wasted his time and that I had put him at great risk. But I just did not want to continue with that project, because it did seem contingent on working with him. What duty of care was there for me as an unwell person looking after another unwell person? The university was deeply and perversely cheap. They knew about my condition but kept me on, said they would provide support, but hung up the phone on me on multiple occasions when I was pleading for help.

INTERVIEWER

Nick came to you right before he disappeared, did you feel a similar responsibility? Were you the last person to see him?

TOM GRANT

No, his girlfriend was the last person to see him, but yes he came to me the night of his disappearance. Did I feel a sense of responsibility? He was having trouble of some kind. He had shaved his head, and just seemed to have gone quiet inside. The fast talking kid with the insider knowledge was gone. It was getting quite late in semester and he was getting increasingly anxious about no longer being in the university system. It was a comfort zone for him. This last night, I took the students out for drinks, again a mistake. Always a mistake. They’re all such sissy drinkers. I was getting drunk in a very unprofessional but very expert way and I was going on and on about how I thought there were more interesting things happening in Newcastle than Wollongong – a more direct attempt to remake the city, to make it of use, through the Renew program. I kept going back and forth between wanting to do the project in Newcastle and Wollongong. Newcastle was getting dark. They found Tinkler’s $500k Ferrari burnt out by the side of the highway. Good for them. I’ll tell you what I love about that crime… Tinkler looks exactly like the kind of criminal you would imagine if you closed your eyes and tried to think about the guy who stole Tinkler’s car. Tinkler looks like my memories of bad high school kids. He looks like Kearney Zzyzwicz, that leather and steel-spiked wrist-bracelet wearing playground bully from The Simpsons? It’s the shorn head that gives him a look. I thought I could make some commentary on Tinkler. Nick went off at this idea. He left the pub really upset. I thought that he might be getting on the first train back to Newcastle to make something happen. I don’t know why he was so upset. This was a flip, certainly, on my part. In his mind, I had made a seismic shift where I had displaced the two cities south and north of Sydney. But it was just talk. It was only ever talk. Nick was thin-skinned like that—you could have seen the blood in his veins if you’d held him out in the sunlight—and he bruised too easily. He wanted everyone to take note of those bruises, but the other students didn’t even notice him leave, so we went on drinking. I went home and fell asleep reading some Dave Hickey. It’s good but I fell aslseep reading it, like I do with pretty much any book. I woke a few hours later though to what I thought was the sound of Velcro tearing away from Velcro. Turned out it was Nick ripping open my fly screen window and climbing into my lounge room.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do?

TOM GRANT

I went out into the lounge room. The place was a mess. I never was, you know, someone to ask people to take off their shoes in my house but this was pushing it. He told me what I was doing was not natural. And by natural he meant literally nature. He had brought in armfuls of leaves and mud and twigs from outside and dumped the lot on my rug. He was building a little sculpture to represent his power over me, I guess. I should have been congratulating him for having paid attention in class. He had done the readings on the Frank Arkell murder that I had set, specifically the altars that Mark Valera had designed after the killing part was done.

INTERVIEWER

That sounds terrifying…

TOM GRANT

He was acting out. So what? I had done the same at his age. But maybe he was more serious about it, and in my half sleep I could not recognise just how much trouble he was in. Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I could not get serious that night for whatever reason. Perhaps, at best, I was being careful not to get vocally angry. It came down to this: a small, critical misunderstanding had taken place between us, and I’m still not sure what exactly that was. I asked him if he wanted a drink, and he started telling me about how his father was an alcoholic and that he thought he might have inherited that gene. Talk about a sign! I started laughing at him and, obviously, he did not take that lightly. He said he wanted out of my class and I told him there were only two weeks left anyway, and then I never saw him again.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel at all responsible for Nick’s disappearance?

TOM GRANT

There is one thing I keep thinking about that night. He’d been able to break into the one house that I never could – my own. I was proud of him for that. But did I feel responsible? No, I don’t think so. He’s not all gone. Look, in school we were scared by a story told by a particularly grim-faced teacher about a man who had accidentally locked himself in the back of his freezer truck, and knew that he was going to die from hypothermia if he couldn’t get out. The poor guy spent twelve hours in the truck, before someone found him in the morning, and when they opened the truck’s doors, he was there, frozen to death. But the freezer had not been on when he had been locked in. He’d willed his body temperature to drop. This was supposed to impart to us a message about the power of suggestion of the mind or something and the story has obviously stayed with me – and Nick willed his disappearance, certainly…

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Sam Twyford-Moore is a writer of fiction and nonfiction and will direct the 2014 Emerging Writers’ Festival.

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