Tony Conrad, 1983. Photo by Joe Gibbons.
Tony Conrad, who passed away on April 9 aged 76, was a vital figure in the fields of both filmmaking and music. His work in each is often characterized by its visceral power, its clear-eyed critique of Western art traditions, its interest in social questions and relations of control, its technical virtuosity and wit.
Conrad was an indisputable innovator. His film works, beginning with The Flicker (1966) and continuing through, the Yellow Movies (1973), Film Feedback (1974), the ‘cooked film’ and ‘pickled film’ series, and many others, pushing the medium to its inner and outer limits: exploring the potential of long durations, stroboscopic effects, the physical properties of celluloid, the relation of filmmaker to spectator, the relation of film to other arts and to history. Conrad also created a vast number of video works, reflecting the same incisive energy. Too seldom referred to in contemporary writing about experimental film, Conrad was nevertheless highly regarded among his peers including Jonas Mekas.
Conrad was always an outsider, challenging the commonplaces of the two mediums, ready to “take on an icon or two,” as he described his critical work in response to the influence of Pythagorean mathematics on the numerical relations within Western music. This anti-Pythagorean thrust of Conrad’s musical interests was in fact outlined in detail in an article entitled ‘Inside the Dream Syndicate’ published not in one of the music journals but in Film Culture in 1966 at the time of the release of The Flicker.
In recent years, his musical activities have been regularly mentioned in journalistic writing primarily in connection to his early, significant involvement in New York with the band members who would form the Velvet Underground. But his own Early Minimalism project, which developed out of the long form drone music of the Theater of Eternal Music—in which he worked alongside John Cale, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela beginning in the 1960s—offers a radical alternative to the Western harmonic system that rewards continued examination. His collaboration with German band Faust on Outside the Dream Syndicate has become a key reference point among experimental musicians, a unique combination of violin drone and krautrock rhythm. The record sold virtually no copies following its release in 1973, but has since been reissued three times. Conrad continually performed with many international collaborators. His influence on younger generations of musicians is more evident than any impact on successive filmmakers, and understandable, given the relative availability of this work in comparison to the audiovisual material.
Despite working far from the mainstream for many years, Conrad’s questioning and inventive works eventually came to be supported by artistic curators in the US and Europe. He was given a showcase for both his film and music at Tate Modern in London in 2008, as well as prominent exhibitions in Austria, Germany and beyond in recent years; these solo shows in venues including the Kunsthalle Wien contrasted in scale to the underground meetings in Europe where his earliest work was shown, in film clubs in the 1970s alongside the structuralists and Actionists emerging at the time.
Both before and after Conrad began to oversee his own public art exhibitions he took every opportunity to build into his work a critique of the museum and concert hall as cultural venues. His pickets along with his friend Henry Flynt and others, against a performance by Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1960s and his own protest against his earlier collaborator La Monte Young in 1990 were documented as part of a conscientious opposition to snobbery and power in art. A regular presence at the presentation of his work all his life, Conrad was a humorous and lively personality, clearly interested in the ways his work operated within the public sphere and particularly how it resonated with the younger generations.
Conrad’s live performances of amplified violin music were intensely physical experiences for audiences, typically involving loud, extended drones resulting from the sustained playing of his instrument, tuned to uncommon frequencies and dense with microtones; the sounds produced always shifting in relation to the listener as they moved and Conrad often present as a shadow, his silhouette thrown against a white scrim. The film work, too, has often inspired singular sensations, even distorting the viewer’s conception of time, color, and reality. His first and most well-known film, The Flicker—comprising black and white frames edited according to a rigorous pattern—is said to have caused hallucinations in many audience members.
The Flicker grew out of an experiment with a lenseless 16mm projector in Conrad’s Ludlow Street apartment in New York in 1963, in the company of Jack Smith, notorious for his film Flaming Creatures (1962-63). Intending to create a “library of masking filmstrip patterns that could be used in various ways to produce various flicker effects” for other representational and narrative films, Conrad soon began researching the relationship between the pattern of black and white frames on film, and harmonic relationships in music referring back to the musical ideas of the Theater of Eternal Music. A graduate of mathematics at Harvard, Conrad’s seemingly simple musical ideas were in fact based on complex numerical calculations.
Conrad worked on a series of related works that traversed different mediums, among these the use of television static in The Eye of Count Flickerstein (1966-67; 1975). The relation between audio and visual finds a thrilling union in Articulation of Boolean Algebra for Film Opticals (1975), in which black stripes of varying width printed across the film strip run over into the soundtrack, creating synchronized rhythmic sound of varying pitches.
Persistently interested in dissolving any perceived hierarchical boundaries between the audience and the artist, Conrad spent many years during his long term residency in Buffalo, New York, using the possibilities of cable access television to mount citizen focused political programming such as Studio of the Streets (1991-1993) and Homework Helpline (1994); such work also extended into his many years of university teaching at SUNY Buffalo, where his colleagues included Steina and Woody Vasulka, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton and Peter Weibel.
Another rarity among innovative artists today is the copious critical writing that Conrad leaves behind, some of which is due to be published in a newly edited collection later this year. His essays include a vibrant report on his early experiences of seeing work by the Viennese Actionists, the responsibilities of teaching media and community involvement, and the specific mathematical formulations and philosophical problems behind his work.
Power structures were a common interest for Conrad. This is reflected in the video In Line (1986), which sees the director address the viewer directly and relish his ability to control their thoughts. His little-known war film Beholden to Victory (1980–83) made with Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler, inspired ideas for audience roleplay, dividing audiences into army officers and civilians to examine the effects, and reportedly a specially programmed DVD that would shuffle the scenes randomly, presumably to counteract authoritative control. And in a recent talk to coincide with a gallery show in Vienna, Conrad made passing reference to some criticisms of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, revealing a continued interest in returning to significant art-historical junctures, judging their impact and their potential for reconsideration.
Certain of those writers who have engaged deeply with Conrad’s output have produced more than one fine volume devoted to his work, including Branden W. Joseph’s Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage and The Roh and the Cooked, the exhibition monographs Tony Conrad: Yellow Movies and Doing the City, and the mammoth Buffalo Heads compendium—focusing on the groundbreaking work of the media department of SUNY Buffalo. Anyone looking to get a keener sense of the late artist’s activities across several decades is duly encouraged to seek out these titles.
The Flicker is currently available on DVD, alongside Marie Losier’s short film about Conrad DreaMinimalist (2008), and many examples of Conrad’s musical work have been released by various record labels, most notably Table of the Elements, since the 1990s. Sadly, the majority of the film work is unavailable for home viewing, the medium specificity and even performative aspects of numerous examples often determining that they be presented according to Conrad’s specific conditions and often with the artist in attendance. Those who had the opportunity to see the works presented by Conrad will attest to their conceptual prowess and arresting audiovisual qualities.
In creating endgame works—such as the ever-playing Yellow Movies—that resist subsequent extension and modification by other artists, as well as launching open-ended interventions into social and artistic history using different media, Conrad was continually alert to the ways in which cultural values and styles become entrenched. His work provokes further critical rethinking about accepted modes of film and music practice, the long-term effects of which will be more clearly seen and heard in time. Tyler Hubby’s upcoming documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, the result of many years’ filming with the direct involvement of Conrad, will no doubt reveal even more sides to this fascinating figure.