by André Dao
This article was first published in the Sex issue of The Lifted Brow. Get a copy here.
I literally stumbled across Tom Grant for the first time in the living room of my Flemington share house. We’d had a big party the night before, and I was groping my way to the bathroom when I tripped on something amongst the broken glass and the empty goon bags. Tom was wrapped in our filthy rug, sleeping with his mouth half open. Later, when my housemates and I were half-heartedly cleaning up around him, one of them nudged his prone body and whispered to me, “that’s the boy wonder, Tom Grant.”
There was a lot of buzz about Grant in those days. He seemed to come from nowhere (and in the very parochial Melbourne noise scene, Sydney, or just outside Sydney, might as well have been nowhere); no one knew much about him except some idle gossip about a lacklustre suburban heavy metal band. But wherever he’d come from, and whatever he’d been listening to, the stuff that he started putting out in the mid-to-late noughties had a sleazy, seductive quality that no one else was even thinking about, let alone producing. This was during the laptop backlash when everyone was rejecting the cold, circuitous glitches of their MacBooks and buying old seventies guitar pedals and throwing contact mics onto sheets of glass, cymbals, bodies, anything and everything – and bashing the shit out of the whole set-up like demented, subversive rock gods. Amongst all this was Grant, in his blue work shirts, mysterious, handsome in an intense, young Stalin kind of way – he had these deep, brown eyes that seemed to stare inwards when he performed, oblivious to the audience. And he was quiet. When everyone else was trying to make as much noise as possible, his performances were whisper quiet, a creepy jumble of half-heard voices drifting across a warehouse echo chamber.
After the rug incident, I didn’t actually see Grant perform until nearly a year later, at This is Not Art in Newcastle. This was when Electrofringe was still part of TiNA, when the thin hip sound dudes still mixed with the writing and theatre nerds. Grant played as part of the Saturday night showcase at one of Newcastle’s pub cum bistro cum night club cum pokies joints. His set was punctuated by the tinkle of winnings from the slot machines in the room next door and the faint drawl of rugby commentary from the front bar, but neither seemed to put him off. He rocked back and forth on his heels as he played; later on someone told me that apparently—it was said—that he made the same face of blank concentration during sex. The slow rocking back and forth was accurate too. But that night, the orgasm never arrived – the neurotic interplay of voices speaking, moaning, crying, and screaming neither crescendoed or decrescendoed. No words were intelligible, but when the set finished I felt dirty, complicit in I knew not what. That feeling lingered all weekend, and it wasn’t until I got back to Melbourne, and the routine of life, that I felt clean again.
It was around that time that some of Grant’s influences started coming out. The two that people most talked about were Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger – two German philosophers and some-time Nazis. They’d both had their respective rehabilitations, and were widely read. I recognised then what that complicit feeling had been in Newcastle, a kind of dark stain that had taken weeks to shake off after I’d read Heidegger and Schmitt – especially the latter, who was very much in vogue in law schools in those days.
Power, and especially discourses of power masquerading as philosophy, made me ill at ease. Somehow, even as early as Newcastle, something of Grant’s mania for power had come through in his performance.
Of course, I didn’t know then that Grant was “unwell”, as Sam Twyford-Moore put it in his interview with Grant in this magazine. I don’t know if that changes anything. What responsibility do the diagnosed bear for their actions? Does responsibility increase or decrease when art is involved?
Not that the controversy now surrounding Grant is ultimately an artistic one. As Grant himself acknowledges in that interview the problem was largely pedagogic – had he, as he puts it, taught a student how to be unwell? I never met the student in question, Nick Adler, but it’s not hard to imagine how the seduction was played out. It’s an old story, and of course rumours made their way down from Newcastle and Wollongong (the two coastal cities Grant taught in) to Melbourne. Apparently the sleaziness of his records had a habit of making if off the vinyl and into those infamous pub sessions he held with captive students. We mostly laughed off the stories; I’m not sure whether because of our proclaimed libertarian moralities or a deeper, implicit prudishness – an unwillingness to be the one to own up to a moral judgment. That is, until Adler’s disappearance either made laissez-faire unpalatable or prudery fashionable, depending on your perspective.
What’s most interesting about Grant is how he might have ended up influencing a scene that so vigorously and explicitly rejected him. After all, when Adler disappeared, everyone was talking about all the stuff Grant was teaching his kids – murder and mutilation and how that all related to artistic practice – and how he let a troubled student source the funding for a project, without ever carrying out the proper checks on the money’s source. How else did he expect things to turn out, a lot of people were saying. They also said—rather more quietly—that the sex stuff had gotten a lot darker towards the end; we imagined mud and worse smeared on the walls of his ramshackle house, a basement, and so on. A lot of labels and galleries outright refused his work after that, citing a drop in quality. But if anything his work was better than ever before—better on its own terms at least—and the real fear was guilt by association (not to mention various liabilities, legal and financial).
A look at Blackest Ever Black (aka Bleakest Ever Bleak), arguably the taste-making underground label, is illustrative. Their roster is filled with the sort of harsh, abrasive work that Grant was pioneering. Just about everyone, from dark wave to mod synth jammers, seem to be mining darker veins, yet in most circles, Grant remains persona non grata.
For all the consensus outrage—especially following Grant’s disavowal of responsibility for Adler’s disappearance—I can’t help but wonder about the role we (I) played in Grant’s well-documented mental illnesses. When did abrasive become abusive? We all hated the hypocritical and shallow sexuality broadcast in the mainstream; who of us wasn’t reading Anaïs Nin? Grant’s work sounded like pure id, the depths of a dark, frightening unconscious come up to play, but we assumed that he—the artist—was in control.
That night four years ago in Newcastle, some of us ended up drinking by the sea baths in the balmy early morning heat. Grant was there, but not amongst us. When we all stripped off and spilled laughing into the water, I caught a glimpse of him, still in his blue work shirt, walking back up the hill. I wonder now whether I should have called to him, pulling him back from wherever he was – whether I could have made myself heard above the splashing and across the distance that now separated us.