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Obituary: Nicholas Zurbrugg

John Conomos

Nicholas Zurbrugg Nicholas Zurbrugg
Nicholas Zurbrugg, academic and poet, born February 1, 1947, died Leicester, England, October 15, 2001.

Nicholas Zurbrugg, who tragically died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 54, made an invaluable contribution to contemporary art and cultural theory, and more specifically, to the study and promotion of the postmodern multimedia avant-garde. Nicholas, as an academic, critic, poet and a tireless promoter of postmodern creativity and thought, was a peerless innovator and contributor to our local cultural and intellectual life.

But Nicholas’s inestimable legacy as a highly energetic and groundbreaking author, conference organiser, curator, editor and artist needs to be measured in substantial global terms. Such were the dazzling and prolific aesthetic, cultural and theoretical interests of his life and oeuvre. He was someone who touched many different people in many different contexts.

Nicholas’s sudden death left many of his friends and peers with the painful realisation that no longer will our lives be graced by his playful pun-encrusted erudition, compassion, lucid and self-questioning intelligence and zany, surreal humour. Nicholas’s horizon-breaking quest to explore the experimental arts in their own terms suggested a courageous and far-reaching capacity to connect fluxus artists with theorists, language poets with sound artists, video artists with filmmakers, performance artists with philosophers.

Born in 1947, and educated at the universities of Neuchatel, East Anglia and St John’s College, Oxford, Nicholas was a brilliant student and a generous and popular teacher who consistently refused to observe the niceties of the modern university. Whilst he was a student in Switzerland, Nicholas was the editor of his own cult journal, Stereo Headphones, which was dedicated to concrete poetry. Between 1978 and 1995 he was an academic of comparative literature at Griffith University, after which he became Professor of English and Cultural Studies at De Montfort University, Leicester, England. There he also became Director of the Centre for Contemporary Arts.

At Oxford, Nicholas did his PhD on Proust and Beckett, which was published as a book in 1988. Among his other numerous publications were The Parameters of Postmodernism (1993), Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact (1997), The ABCs of Robert Lax (co-edited with David Miller, 1988) and Critical Vices: The Myths of Postmodern Theory (1999). Forthcoming are William Burroughs and the Postmodern Avant-Garde and Positively Postmodern: The Multimedia Muse in America: Interviews with Contemporary Avant-Garde.

Despite his popularity as a teacher and colleague, after 17 years at Griffith University and 4 frustrating attempts to become an associate professor, his pioneering achievements were recognised abroad at De Montfort University. There, like here, Nicholas endeavoured through lectures, conferences and exhibitions to unite critical theory with creative practice. He always strove to forge new connections between generations of artists and artforms. In this context, he was unique.

He loved to mix with artists, poets and novelists as he felt a profound affinity with them. No-one, to my knowledge, personally knew so many artists, thinkers and writers central to the unfolding narrative of postmodern techno-creativity. Kathy Acker, Laurie Anderson, JG Ballard, Jean Baudrillard, William Burroughs, John Cage, Henri Chopin, Orlan, Michael Snow, Stelarc, Bill Viola and Paul Virilio were among his friends. Nicholas perfected the interview form as a means of appreciating the complex ideas and forms of the new media arts.

He continuously and equally supported both the more established and recent figures of the new experimental arts: he was always loyal to his creative and theoretical peers and open to exciting new cyber artists like David Blair and filmmakers like Ned Zedd.

Throughout his career, Nicholas was always interested in exploring the deeper meanings embedded in modernism and postmodernism as they relate to the ways artists use new technologies in their work. He exhibited, time and again, much critical valour in championing unfashionable academic and curatorial causes and a pragmatic speculative knowledge of the new media arts that was truly comprehensive in scope and experimental in nature.

In his recent books, especially Critical Vices, Nicholas advocated the compelling necessity to define a new criticism of postmodern technological creativity. He rightly criticised the theorists of the 1970s and 80s who were limited by their inappropriate critical languages, pessimism and non-reflexive critical laziness. Nicholas wisely urged the necessity of returning to the demanding tasks of analysing, observing, interpreting and evaluating the multimedia arts of today in order to appreciate their significance in our lives.

All of us will dearly miss him. He was a very good friend of mine. A brother, a mentor. I will miss his contagious laughter, sparkling intelligence and abundant generosity of spirit. There is not a day that passes that I do not think of him.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 12

© John Conomos; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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