Opening Remarks: A Conversation with Tyler Hubby about Tony Conrad and Documentary Filmmaking

The director of "Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present" talks about knowing the multi-disciplinary artist and the making of his new film.
Yusef Sayed

MUBI is exclusively playing Tyler Hubby's Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present (2016) from April 8 - May 8, 2017 in the United Kingdom and United States.

Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present

This month MUBI is screening Tyler Hubby’s documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, which focuses on the life of the musician, filmmaker and teacher who died in April 2016. The release coincides with a series of special memorial events to be held across the U.S., including musical performances. Tyler Hubby spoke to me by Skype about making the film and the many facets of Conrad’s innovative media and community activities, many of which are still being uncovered.

NOTEBOOK: I was in contact with you last when I wrote a piece for the Notebook, just after Tony Conrad passed away. You helped out with an image for it, which was fantastic.

HUBBY: Oh good. Yeah, that was a really strange time. I just reread your piece a few days ago and I realized I didn’t properly read it the first time. I wasn’t properly reading any of those tributes when they were first coming out. It was too overwhelming, I just couldn’t deal with it. I was trying to finish the movie. The other thing, too, was that they kept referencing something that I should have thought to put in the movie, some angle I wish I had. That’s why I had to stop reading everything, it was clouding up my head, it was [makes pained sound]—And he’s dead.

NOTEBOOK: Obviously it was something that could have been unending, this project of your own given how wide-ranging and unceasing Tony Conrad’s work in film, music, teaching and community engagement was.

HUBBY: Yeah, there could be endless pieces about him because there’s so much work that needs to be explored. In the film I went for breadth, not really depth. I was trying to at least create a through-line, through all this work that appears to not have a through-line. I couldn’t go into all kinds of detail that I would have liked to.

NOTEBOOK:  I think that’s why I responded to it strongly, because in that tribute and in the other essay I sent you that I wrote for LOLA the through-line is the same: it’s the political aspect of the work in different manifestations—whether it’s confronting tradition, you know the authority of traditions and things like that, or whether it’s engaging in filmmaking on a community level, or whatnot. All these manifestations of just resisting what’s given to you, or what’s expected. I think you picked up the same thing.

HUBBY: Right. And that other thing of sharing the power. You know, that really egalitarian idea of participation and stuff, is so sweet. And he was always like that too, you know?

NOTEBOOK: And yet don’t you think it’s fascinating that alongside that Tony Conrad seemed to utilize the techniques of authority and control, but in order to do something else with them? Many of the films themselves are interested in manipulation and control, particularly In Line [1986], where he’s trying to control the mind of the viewer; and The Flicker [1966], engaging the medium in a way that would actually physically alter you. Not only is he interested in those ideas of confronting authority and control, but in doing so he built in some of the techniques—to take them somewhere else.

HUBBY: Yeah, I mean that’s why it’s complicated when you’re engaged in an example of something while also critiquing it. You know, it’s complicated, of course: he was complicated.

NOTEBOOK: Your film was two decades in the making. I know that it started in the mid-90s with your involvement with the U.S. record label Table of the Elements—who first reissued Conrad’s masterpiece musical collaboration with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate, in 1993—and documenting the music side of things for that label. How did it move out of that and into a standalone project on Tony Conrad?

HUBBY: It was an evolutionary process. I didn’t know all this about his work when I met him. I met him as this musician who I knew had made The Flicker. And then as the years progressed… I remember he came to Los Angeles in ’98, to play as part of the Out of Actions exhibition at MOCA. He did a concert there which I filmed. And then he did a presentation at the LA Filmforum where he showed all these crazy videos that I didn’t know about. I knew about the 16mm films, but I didn’t know about all this crazy video art stuff from the 80s and 90s. So, he was showing Grading Tips for Teachers [2003], which is one of my favorites. And it was really hard to get a good copy of it until just a few months ago, after the fact, you know. He sent it to me and the file was corrupt and I kept asking him to resend it and it was just one of those things like, ‘Ahh, it’s around here somewhere.’ But finally I was in contact with the two women who actually made it with him and they recently put it online, on Vimeo, and gave me a copy of it.

NOTEBOOK: Yeah, I’ve seen it, it’s really great.

HUBBY: I wanted to include that as part of the “Teaching” section in the film, just a little taste of it ‘cause it is fantastic. I mean there’s countless things like that. The first day I ever interviewed Tony, in 1994, he gave me this incredibly long interview. You see, we had this idea that we were going to make a documentary about this Faust tour in the United States, and it wasn’t really panning out that well, and I turned to Jeff Hunt at Table of the Elements and I said we really ought to make a documentary about Tony Conrad. And that sort of became like a joke between us over the years. And then it got less of a joke and more serious. And then these things started to happen, and I started understanding more about his video work. I didn’t even really know about the public access television work until 2010, cause that’s when he started talking to me about it. That was the thing, you know, there was always something around the next corner. He’d be like, ‘Oh, if you like this…’ then he’d show you something else. It started with the music and then I realised, We have a total artist portrait here. And it was very important that I include a pretty lengthy section about his teaching.

NOTEBOOK: Yes, from Antioch College in the 70s through to SUNY Buffalo, he was doing groundbreaking work in media. The history of that department at Buffalo is remarkable too, with Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, Woody and Steina Vasulka…

HUBBY: And because so many of my friends who are artists— working artists—they all teach, you have to. You know, I have very few friends of mine who are working artists who don’t teach. Very few, like two—and they lucked into something or they have access to money or whatnot.

NOTEBOOK: Over the years, what sort of arrangements were made? Because this is over a long period of time. How much time would you estimate was spent with Conrad? And obviously there would be things that you missed out on. Can you tell me some more about the practicalities of this one-to-one involvement?

HUBBY: In the beginning, the shootings were organised around performances and events that I knew about. You know, in 1994 it was all Table of the Elements stuff. In ’96 there was another Table of the Elements event in Chicago that I filmed, which was where they did the Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain performance, with David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke. And then in ’98 he was in Los Angeles, so I was filming that. And then in 2002 the idea was to go out there, to Buffalo. There was gonna be a deluxe reissue, I think, of the Slapping Pythagoras album, where it’d be a CD and DVD double disc thing, and the idea was that the DVD would have seven short films about Tony Conrad, which you could watch in one order, or you could play on random order, which I loved—the idea that it would just shuffle constantly. Cause that was very exciting in the early 2000s, that you could do that with DVD, and we were not stuck on VHS anymore. But it never went to production. I ended up cannibalising that stuff and it was really in 2010 when I said to Jeff Hunt and Tony, “Listen I have all this stuff, let’s really make just a proper feature-length documentary out of this.” And then that’s when I started going twice a year to shoot with Tony in Buffalo and Brooklyn, finally shooting on high definition. All that stuff in the 90s was shot on Hi8 and some of it looks really good still. It’s sort of perfect—it’s appropriately lo-fi.

NOTEBOOK: It would be good to hear you talk about the editing process. I know that a lot of your previous work has been in editing. Not only have you amassed so much footage, but you’re also making a documentary about someone whose work history is vast. What was the way forward in terms of structuring all this material?

HUBBY: Yeah, it’s funny, it seemed like if I was gonna make a film about Tony Conrad it would have to take me two decades, because there’s no way around it. It was really just finding the balance between his work and a documentation of his work. I can exercise control as a filmmaker, but still have him be always in the foreground. I wanted the experience of his work to be in the foreground, which is why I tried to scale back on the talking head interviews as much as possible. I mean, I could have had a lot more people chattering on and on about what this means and what that is…

NOTEBOOK: Of course, but a lot of the film and video material is rarely seen—and some of it I had no knowledge of at all—so it’s wonderful to find so much included to get a feel for it.

HUBBY: I wanted to let the works just breathe, that was, I think, the lesson I was finding. But still have a movie that sort of fit within a conventional running time. Because I could have made it three hours long. But, as much as Tony probably would have liked that, that would not have really served the cause. I realized the idea was not to make a film that was difficult and opaque and frustrating to watch, but actually a film that was really engaging and approachable and fun to watch—because, I thought, for the audience that doesn’t know about Tony Conrad, they need that kind of introduction.

NOTEBOOK: Exactly, I agree.

HUBBY: If I’d made something that was just antagonising to watch… Because in some senses, success for Tony was everyone having left by the time your performance is over—He’d say, “Great! We chased them all away!” I thought that would be a great strategy. But in fact, that’s just not really helpful. And I started thinking, Who is this for? And I started thinking about myself when I was a young person and getting really interested in art. I thought I would have loved to have seen a movie like this when I was 16 or 18. I’m not dumbing it down, though—I mean, you gotta be a pretty smart teenager to keep up. But I wanted it really approachable. And then there’s the humor in Tony’s life and in his work that I felt needed to be there. There’s a way you could make something that’s really opaque and stand-offish but that’s not who he was. I mean, you could read the work that way but that’s not who he was. So there was that too, bringing forward the experience and my experience of being around him, capturing the essence of his persona. I didn’t want to make a visual resume or, you know, a tombstone. I wanted it to feel like you’re on this wild ride with this crazy guy for 96 minutes.

NOTEBOOK: I was reading back through an interview with him today and there’s this key word he uses: ‘animator.’ He described himself as an animator, that was something that was clearly important to him. It seems like that’s what you wanted to bring across as well and I’m sure that’s the reaction you’re finding when presenting the film.

HUBBY: Yeah, when we present the film I think people are really surprised that the movie is funny and that they actually found themselves loving abstract experimental art. I would consider that a success because I felt that some of this stuff, which on the surface can look really intimidating, is actually very easy to enjoy if it’s just framed correctly. I realized that the way you manage an expectation really helps. I guess I’ve learned that from being a parent, like I can get my kid into anything if I just set it up right. I got a six-year-old to sit patiently through 2001: A Space Odyssey because for three days I had been explaining how it works, and how it functions, saying ‘It’s different to the kind of movie you’re used to…’ and I got him so interested in wanting to see it that he was just fascinated. But I think that was a big part of it, you just try and frame the work and contextualize the work in a way that’s really approachable and fun.

NOTEBOOK: I think you did. I think film critics have fallen short for too many years in not latching on to Tony Conrad’s work and recognizing how innovative and critical it is. There are several fantastic books about Tony Conrad out there. I’m thinking of Branden W. Joseph’s book, the Yellow Movies and Doing the City exhibition books, the huge Buffalo Heads compendium about the SUNY Buffalo Media Studies Department. There’s so much great writing out there about the work and it can seem inexplicable how he hasn’t filtered through. The name isn’t continually referenced within film writing and experimental film, as I think it ought to be. But there is the inaccessibility of the work.

HUBBY: And it seems really remote. Branden’s book is incredible but you don’t really get a sense of the man. You get a sense of the accomplishment and the historical perspective and why it matters from an art historical perspective, but you don’t get an understanding of just what he’s like. You get a little bit of that just through Buffalo Heads ‘cause there’s so much kooky stuff in Buffalo Heads.

NOTEBOOK: Including his own writing, which isn’t widely known either. He was a remarkable media critic and theorist.

HUBBY: Yeah, his own writing is great, yet sometimes it’s confusing. It can be really difficult. I remember Jim O’Rourke and I were joking about having to read the liner notes to Slapping Pythagoras over and over and over again. We were like, Am I just not understanding this – hold it, start over….  It was so dense, you know?

NOTEBOOK: And there’s a lot of it. But I was also just referring to the fact that the work is not accessible—I don’t mean in terms of it’s difficulty—I mean literally it’s inaccessible.

HUBBY: Right, right, it is that. And I don’t think that there’s a kind of deliberate, enforced scarcity like you could find maybe with La Monte Young [former Conrad musical collaborator]. I think Tony was just doing this work and not really following through on publicizing it. That task was left to other people. But his music history book is due to be published soon. And that’ll also be like a big bomb when that drops. I think that’ll be a chance for everyone to really enjoy his writing, cause the writing has been kind of hidden in strange places. All of these things are complementing each other. And that book will get a level of exposure that’s different.

NOTEBOOK: One of the resources that must have been so beneficial for you to have for the film was the archival photos. So many of the works were performance based and often all we have are these brilliant photographs, such as those of Bowed Film [1974] and 7360 Sukiyaki [1973], where he is ‘projecting’ food at the screen. It reminds me of coming across the work of Chris Burden and Vito Acconci, only having these photos and some text about the works, yet that can have such an impact. You’ve built a lot of those into the film.

HUBBY: Absolutely, one of the things that was made so clear to me when I was an art student and working with people who were doing performative work was: document, document, document. And that was driving me in the beginning, filming all the concerts, thinking, We’ve gotta have documentation of these live, ephemeral events, cause Tony won’t do it. Or if he does, he’ll set up a camcorder in the corner of the room that’s got the worst shot and the worst sound. He was kind of funny like that, he’d be like “Ah that’s perfect.” And I thought no, we should shoot this stuff with multiple cameras and try to find angles that really illustrate the concepts well. Like if you’re gonna have a three-story-tall shadow, let’s get an angle where we can really see it.

And finding all those photographs and scouring Tony’s archives and Jim O’Rourke’s archive and Andrew Lampert’s archive,  it really was just a hodgepodge of trying to get it all together, with stuff even coming in really late. There are two photos that came in the day after he died and I finished the edit the day before he died. So, I opened it back up again because there were a couple of photos that showed up online—one was on Instagram. I asked, “Where did you get this?” Getting stuff from Tony was really tricky. I had a big long list, with very specific dates and places and I’d say, Can I have… and he’d write me back: “This is impossible! You’re asking too much of me.” I hired a former student of his in Buffalo and said, Listen, just take him through, take a little each day. Don’t show him the list, tell him, ‘these are the three things we’re looking for today’.’ And we got a lot that way—but then stuff was always turning up. The archive was not that well organized. I had to piece it together from dozens of different sources. And then there’s all those incredible Frederick Eberstadt photos that are in the Library of Congress. We requested a PDF of all the contact sheets and it was like ninety rolls of film, black and white, all shot in 1966. I ordered as many scans as I could afford, something like $2,000 dollars worth, which is not a lot, it’s like twenty shots. I had to be really picky about what I ordered. I would have loved to have gotten so many more. So, there was that part of the editing too, just having to make those hard decisions. And who’s really going in the movie? Lots of interviews we shot never even got into the final cut. Just really trying to be strict, cutting everything out that we didn’t really need.

NOTEBOOK: I know you flew to Japan specially to interview Jim O’Rourke.

HUBBY: Yeah, I just knew I had to have Jim in. He worked with Tony, he played with Tony, they were very close. And Jim and I met Tony right around the same time and we were the same age. I met Jim in Atlanta that same day I met Tony. And his perspective was really similar to mine. It was one of those production expenses, you know—you have to do it. I think with very few exceptions, most of the people who are interviewed in the film worked directly with Tony and knew him. I didn’t have a lot of third party critical voices. It was really straight to the source.

NOTEBOOK: I think he’s also an outlier just for the fact that it’s still a rare thing, the composer-filmmaker. I did an interview a couple of weeks ago with Phill Niblock and he’s another guy where, again, it’s American minimal music and filmmaking as well. This is an area that is still overlooked among film critics and viewers and it really fascinates me. That thinking that goes into the sound side of things, the interest in how you might structure things in terms of sound, which might then inform visual ideas. I think there’s so much more that needs to be explored there. These guys are exemplary in that respect.

HUBBY: Yeah, it’s even weird to call it ‘film’ at this point. I guess ‘moving image’ is a more appropriate term. Some friends of mine do this, they make minimal music and then do these giant wall-sized projections of very subtle color gradings. I’m thinking of my friend Yann Novak, who’s a Canadian multimedia artist who lives here in Los Angeles. He’s done some incredible installation pieces that are sound and image.

NOTEBOOK: I also like that you seem to be making a point of having musical performances along with the screenings as well.

HUBBY: It’s been really great, like the thing we did here in Los Angeles, when people saw the film and then got to hear Henry Rollins talking about it. He clearly contextualized Tony as kind of an original punk rocker, this guy who was living outside of the dominant society. I mean, that’s something that really spoke to Henry. He watched the movie four times and really dialed into that. And then to see Kim Gordon do this performance to a Tony Oursler video of Niagara Falls—everybody could see how this is all connected.

NOTEBOOK: Of course.

HUBBY: It also just gets people out. You know, everyone just waits for something to be streaming and I say, Nah, you gotta come out. I mean I get it, I watch a lot of stuff online, but if you can try to see this on a big screen with surround sound it makes a difference. And just the fact that, you know, Jim O’Rourke wrote an original composition for the Tokyo premiere and Kim Gordon and Tony Oursler made this piece for this event. It’s so exciting to think that all these artists who knew Tony are creating knew works to pair with the film. It’s flattering, but it’s not about me it’s about Tony. Tony meant so much to so many people. I love it, I just love that there’s these different live events. We’re now working on something for Berlin in December.

NOTEBOOK: If I can just take you back a year or more ago, to when Tony Conrad was still alive, I’m curious to hear a bit more about what you think his concerns about contemporary media were. In later conversations with him, what came through that sticks in your mind regarding the situation today, with media saturation and these tools being in the hands of more people—what were the possibilities and the questions he was interested in?

HUBBY: He was really engaged in this. He loved teaching by Skype, which you might think of as being really lazy, but when you realize the way that he would use it… For instance, he’d have a class up in Buffalo and he’d be down in New York City visiting someone like Tony Oursler at their studio. And so the class would get to be part of the studio visit. And the idea that we can be broadcasting from here to you, I think he really loved that. Some of the other stuff I know he was really excited by was this idea that you could shoot live video on your phone and broadcast it right away, like all this kind of citizen journalism stuff. Because when you see the stuff he was doing with public access television, like Studio of the Streets (1991-1993), he was trying to jumpstart that citizen journalism thing: take the camera, make your own news about your own community. Clearly we’ve seen a lot of that here in the States, with Black Lives Matter and all this self-reporting and filming the police. I think that kind of thing was actually quite exciting to him, that the means of production were available to anybody.

NOTEBOOK: And the way in which he foregrounded it very clearly. I like that scene in the film which I’m sure many people have referred to, which is the Skype teaching session when he brings you into it and so it creates a feedback loop. I think that is an idea that was really central for him. Obviously one of his best works is Film Feedback [1974].

HUBBY: Right.

NOTEBOOK: And so there’s that idea of a formal setup, where the apparatus of film is used to simulate a video loop—and that’s very clever. But I’m thinking in a wider sense as well, of things feeding back, having a two-way conversation.

HUBBY: He talks about that even in the film, he talks about feeding the image of the community back into itself. I think he was really interested in that idea of people making their own videos. Like, you don’t have to watch TV, you can make your own TV. It is kind of crazy to think that now with your phone you can live broadcast something to the world and with just a cell connection. I think he was really interested in that sort of thing.

NOTEBOOK: So where do you see it going now, obviously you’re going to continue with the screenings? By now the film has occupied a lot of your life and it seems like it will keep you engaged for some time, in one way or another.

HUBBY: We’ve been trying to savor these moments as much as we can. And the screenings are just a really nice way to get a concentrated energy. The MUBI run will be really interesting. It may still be a little beneath the radar. But that’s fine, you know. I mean, people will see it, it will help. It all helps. And we’re still looking at a possible physical media release, with commentary tracks and lots of deleted scenes. There’s even talk of repurposing some of the unused audio interview stuff for a museum audio tour, if that goes through next year. We’re sitting on a ton of stuff. I have certain performances in their entirety that it would be nice to master and make available for somebody. And Tony’s got recordings coming out, he’s got a book coming out, so in a way it’s just one of those strange things like his passing and the release of the movie is not putting a period on anything; it actually feels like it’s just the opening remarks, like we’re just getting started. And that’s the way I wanted the film to feel, you know, so that when it ends it’s like a big lift-off, like, Now you go and discover this work on your own.

NOTEBOOK: Yeah, and I think that’s a perfect place to end this.

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